Title: Terra Firma VII. Riptide
Author: Malibu Sunset
E-mail: malibusunset88@gmail.com
Category: MSR/Married/Family Fic/Angst
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: They're not mine, but they have more fun with me than they do with Chris.

Summary: This story is a sequel to the Terra Firma series. It takes place years after part 6 of Terra Firma ended, and it assumes a basic familiarity with the series.

Important author's notes: If you read Riptide as a stand alone story, here is what you need to know: the Terra Firma series is an alternative universe where seasons 9 and 10 never happened. Mulder and Scully are married and raising William and a second child, Claire. The family lives in the suburbs of Washington, DC where Mulder is a science fiction novelist and Scully is a doctor. Most of the setting for Riptide, however, is Martha's Vineyard where Mulder and Scully own a lighthouse that has been refurbished into a summer home. In this story, William is 16 and Claire is 13.

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to gladlybeyondanyxperience, my long-time beta and friend. Much, much more than a beta, she's my ideas generator, my researcher, my encourager, and when needed, my ass kicker. Also, big hugs to the NRs (you know who you are) for being such an incredible group of strong women and the best fandom friends in the world.

I'll shut up now because you're here to read a story. Here you go!


Chapter 1

June, 2017


Scully eased her car down the narrow paved access road just as the last of the burning sun disappeared behind the bluffs. The remaining sky blanketed the water in a wash of lingering pink and orange. She reached to turn the volume on the car stereo down, her senses unable to process both the audio and the visual after such a long drive on little more than six hours of sleep. The beauty of it was never lost on her, even after fourteen years. That first glimpse of the horizon took her breath away.

Usually they shared the driving, switching off at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike that had a diner with a giant dancing chicken on the roof. When the kids were little, it became the landmark by which they measured the trip from home to the Vineyard. "How much further to the dancing chicken, Mommy?"

On this Sunday in late June, she had sped past the dancing chicken exit without looking, consuming stagnant coffee from a thermos and a cold sandwich purchased at a 7 Eleven.

She had never made the trip alone before.

By the time Scully parked the car and cut the ignition, the weariness and exhaustion had settled into her bones and the thought of dragging her bags up the short hill to the lighthouse seemed daunting. She tipped her head back against the headrest for a moment and glanced down at her cell phone on the passenger seat. It had stopped buzzing hours ago when he'd finally figured out she wasn't going to answer him. There would be several messages and texts. The angry part of her wanted to go to bed without even letting him know she was alive, but that would be unfair.

She sighed and picked up the phone. Six missed calls, all from him. The hospital knew better than to bother her on a Sunday. Bypassing the three voice mails he'd left, which she did not have the energy to listen to, she opened his one text message, received just over an hour ago. "Let me know you're ok at least. Please."

He had obviously meant it in the broadest definition of the term. She was breathing in and out. She was not stranded on the side of the interstate. She was not currently entertaining thoughts of physically harming herself or anyone else. She was not in any imminent danger. Beyond that, 'okay' was not something she was.

Biting her bottom lip and fighting the same swell of tears that had threatened her for four-hundred miles, she hit reply. "I am safe if that is what you're asking. I know you want to talk, but I can't do it right now, Mulder." She considered typing 'Good night' or 'I love you' or even 'I'll talk to you tomorrow,' but she couldn't. She opted for "Feed the dog."

The weeds growing up around the brick path were the only indication that the lighthouse hadn't seen occupancy in nearly a year. The white clapboard exterior had weathered the time remarkably well, but the red painted door showed signs of distress from the salt-soaked air and humidity. It would need a fresh coat before the summer was over, which seemed like a good job for William. A surly sixteen-year-old now, it was getting harder and harder to rouse the boy from his bedroom anytime before noon during the summer. She wondered how he was adjusting to the 8 am role call at camp since they had dropped him off the day before yesterday. Although, if there was one thing that could get Will out of bed in the morning, it was basketball. The promise of playing sun up to sun down for the next month was exactly Will's idea of a perfect summer.

The air inside the lighthouse was still and musty, but nothing that a night with open windows wouldn't remedy. Scully kicked off her sandals, dropped her bag in the small foyer, and went about cranking open the windows that surrounded nearly all sides of the first floor. A refreshing cross breeze immediately shifted the air, cooling the rooms.

Twenty minutes later, the appliances had been plugged in, the water turned back on, and the furniture uncovered. A quick survey of the kitchen yielded about a dozen items, including tea bags, canned goods, miscellaneous baking supplies, and a few boxes of stale crackers which she immediately pitched into the trash. Her first order of business tomorrow morning would be a trip into town for groceries. She sat down to make a list.

The plastic tip of the pen tapped against the table as she thought. It was odd compiling a list of food just for her. She was accustomed to shopping for four people. A sharp rap at the door interrupted her thoughts and she set aside the incomplete list.

Tugging the door open a crack, she found Todd Reardon, their close friend and neighbor, standing there with windblown hair, a bit greyer than last year. "Hey you," he said with a welcoming smile. "What a surprise. Elizabeth said she thought she saw lights on down here. We weren't expecting you guys until later in the summer."

Scully swung the door open and ushered her friend inside. "It was...a bit spontaneous," she fibbed. In truth, it had been planned for weeks, but she had wanted to surprise Mulder for their anniversary and she knew that he and Todd exchanged emails frequently. Of course, her surprise hadn't turned out anything like she'd planned.

"I wish I'd known you were coming, I would have gotten your boat cleaned up." Todd's eyes scanned behind her, casually. "Where's that good-for-nothing husband of yours anyway? He hasn't returned my calls in months."

Scully forced her most convincing smile, eyes glancing off his. "It's just me right now. He, um, got held up at home for a few days."

"No kids either?"

"William is at basketball camp for a month and Claire is spending several weeks in California with my brother and his family. They'll both be here in a month."

Todd eyed the duffel bag Scully had dropped in the middle of the tile floor. "You know you're always welcome to stay down at the house with us. We'd love to have you. It feels like the place is so big now that the girls are both gone."

Scully smiled warmly at the mention of Tatum and Mallory. Over the years, they'd become almost like daughters to her and Mulder. They had attended Tate's wedding on the Vineyard just last summer and she was already expecting her first baby. Mally had just finished her first year of medical school. It seemed like only yesterday the girls were building sandcastles on the beach with William still in diapers. Where had the years gone?

"Thank you," Scully replied, sincerely, in response to Todd's invitation. "But I'll be fine. I have a couple of research articles I'm working on and I'm hoping a few days alone by the sea might be just the inspiration I need."

"Well, I'm sure Mulder will be here before you know it. He never could stay away from this place for long," Todd chided, then raised his brows. "Or you, for that matter."

Her stomach tightened and Scully hoped that her body language didn't give her away. The last thing she wanted to do right now was rehash her marital problems with Mulder's oldest friend. Todd, however, seemed oblivious to her discomfort. "How is the next book coming, by the way?" he asked.

Grateful for the change in direction, Scully's face brightened. She had been doing it so long she could field questions about Mulder's work in her sleep. "It's coming along well, I think. He's hoping to finish by the end of the year."

"That's good news. He's not going to spend the whole time he's here on his laptop, is he?" Todd chuckled. "Because I just bought two new surf boards and without the girls here, I'm going to need some help breaking them in."

Scully quirked her mouth at him. "You do remember what happened the last time you two tried surfing, don't you?"

"Pssh," Todd, waived his hand, dismissively. "We just need more practice, that's all."

"He spent the next day in bed, icing his lower back. As his doctor, I have to advise against it. Why don't you two take up fishing? Or something a little less likely to require an emergency room visit."

"Because we're fifty-year-old men who have the pathetic need to assert our masculinity by acting half our age."

Scully crossed her arms and flashed a smug, knowing smile. "I didn't say it."

Todd laughed amiably as he turned to go. "How about stopping over for a beer after you get settled in?"

"Thanks, but I'm pretty bushed," she answered honestly. "I'm not used to making the drive alone. Another night, though, I promise."

"I'll hold you to it."

Scully opened the door, stepping out under the muted sky right behind Todd. She walked toward the edge of the bluff, the balmy breeze sweeping her hair off her shoulders. "What a clear night," she observed, holding the edges of her unbuttoned shirt closed over her tank.

Todd smiled. "The tide is low. It's a beautiful night for a swim."

"I think I might," she said as she closed her eyes and filled her lungs with salt air.

"It never gets old, doesn't it?"

"No." She shook her head in agreement, "It never does."

Her eyes opened again at the feel of Todd's hand touching her elbow gently. "Just be careful," he said. "You know where we are if you need anything. I'm glad you're here."

The two friends embraced. Scully watched the back of Todd's denim jacket as he made his way down the hill, then she went back inside the lighthouse to unpack her things and change into her swimsuit.


***

The frothy sea water was cool on her toes as she stood at the edge. Such a strange feeling to be here alone, she thought. It was where they had exchanged their wedding vows, where they honeymooned. Where they brought their children every summer for the past fourteen years. So many memories involved time spent on this very shore.

And now what?

Like the sand shifting beneath her feet, she had no idea where they stood anymore. Before yesterday, she wouldn't have said that. He had seemed distracted for months, withdrawn and often irritable. All of those things could have been attributed to the consuming nature of his work. It wasn't uncommon behavior for him as he neared the completion of a book. She was used to it. But this time it seemed different.

Although unable to put a finger to it, she had noticed an intensity about him, almost bordering on hostility. She wasn't used to it, even when he was under stress. Patiently, she made excuses for him to the kids and didn't push when he insisted nothing was wrong.

When they made love, she felt the distance between them. His body was present but his mind was elsewhere.

She waded into the water until she was waist deep and then stood there, feeling her body sway with the ebb and flow of the tide. The northern Atlantic in late June was still cold and she shivered, goose bumps forming on her arms and legs. Diving under, she swam until her lungs burned before resurfacing. The current was forgiving tonight and she flipped onto her back and floated, gazing up at the stars.


***

Yesterday

It had been planned for weeks, but the only ones who knew she was taking Mulder to the Vineyard for their anniversary were William and Claire. Mulder thought they were attending a medical conference in Boston for the week. She convinced him that he could just as easily write from their hotel room while she attended the conference during the day and since both kids would be away from home, then why not? She told him that in the evenings, they'd eat fresh seafood and take in a concert or two, spend time enjoying the city, just the two of them. She knew that once they got to the lighthouse, he'd relax and enjoy himself. Now that the kids were sixteen and thirteen, it was no longer necessary to make babysitting arrangements. They could finally take some time to themselves. Besides, it had been a strange year and she felt like the time alone together, would do both of them good.

Mulder's last two books hadn't been nearly as successful as he'd hoped, selling noticeably fewer copies and garnering mixed reviews. He had appeared to take it in stride, but she sensed it bothered him more than he let on. He started talking about taking some time off and "rethinking some things." She had no idea what that might mean and Mulder was evasive when asked.

Random House was still backing him, but there had been a string of concerned emails between Mulder and his editor, whereby she suggested he might want to consider the changing needs of the buying market instead of his personal interests. The message was clear: this was a business above all else and the books needed to sell. The trouble was, Mulder wrote for himself. That was always the way it had been. The fact that the books he wrote appealed to others enough for them to spend money on them was a sheer stroke of luck. He had never had to think about the marketing potential of his work and Scully just couldn't imagine that changing. He would quit before he would compromise what he considered the integrity of his writing. She admired his principles, but at the same time she understood how the world worked. Everything was for sale and no one was irreplaceable. If she insisted on only researching medical topics that were of personal interest to her, despite her reputation, she'd quickly be out of a job.

They were comfortable financially. Investments and property included, they would actually be considered by some to be moderately wealthy. If he wanted to take time off, he could without it altering their lifestyle. There were times, especially lately, when she thought it might not be such a bad idea.

Scully had been careful to mark their plans for the upcoming trip on the calendar, and to mention it to him several times in the days leading up to their departure. She asked neighbors to take their dog and she made all the arrangements for the kids. She even bought him some new clothes and left them stacked on top of his dresser. The night before they were scheduled to leave, the clothes remained untouched, tags still attached.

It was close to midnight when she climbed out of a hot bath and into her pajamas. Her bag was mostly packed, save for last minute toiletry items and she heaved it off her side of the bed and onto the floor so she could turn down the bedding. She sifted through her closet again, rethinking some of her wardrobe choices. There were some things that they kept at the lighthouse – shorts, tee shirts, a swimsuit or two each – just the basics. Of course, it was fully equipped with towels, linens, and all their kitchen necessities.

Their trips to the Vineyard were almost always family ones. They went for a few weeks each August, come Hell or high water. Even in the earlier days when she had much less flexibility at the hospital than she has now, she did whatever she could to safeguard that time, even if it meant taking work with her. With kids in tow, they didn't typically eat out a whole lot while they were there, and certainly not at any establishments that required much in the way of a dress code. Summers on the Vineyard were notoriously casual anyway, catering to city-dwellers who chose the location for its laid-back atmosphere.

But this time, with just the two of them, she hoped the trip might be different. Quiet dinners out, followed by long walks on the beach sounded like pure bliss. When the kids were small, she and Mulder used to sneak down to the beach once in a while after everyone was asleep. They'd make love wrapped in blankets by the sand dunes to the sound of waves crashing. In the past couple of years, the privacy on their little section of beach front had waned significantly as their children's social lives picked up. It was a rare night when there weren't kids hanging around until all hours of the evening, listening to music by bonfires. With no teenagers anywhere in sight this coming week, there were distinct possibilities.

She sifted through her closet and pulled out a sundress she couldn't remember the last time she'd worn – one that was cut low in the back and bared a bit more skin than usual for her. Not to mention that the halter did her modest bustline a favor.

Before climbing into bed, she crept downstairs and paused outside his closed office door. He never used to shut it, but a quick look inside the other day explained why. It was a verifiable disaster, even more so than usual. Stacks of files teetered on every possible horizontal surface. Out of curiosity, she'd taken a cursory glance and discovered that most all of them were files from their days on the X Files. Typically stored in boxes in the attic, he had begun migrating them down, little by little, over the past few months. It must have something to do with the research for his current book, so she kept her comments about the mess to herself.

All was quiet on the other side of the office door. After a brief hesitation, she knocked.

"Come in." He sounded tired. She didn't remember him coming to bed last night and when she awoke this morning, he was already out for a run. How anyone survived on so little sleep she'd never understand. Soon after they got married it seemed to improve, but she'd noticed his hours of slumber waning over the past few years. Her own sleep habits had changed as well. She never used to be a night owl, but frequently found herself up past midnight now.

"Hi," she said, with a cautious smile.

"What's up, Doc?" Without looking up at her, he continued flipping pages, his glasses perched studiously on the end of his nose.

"Not much. Aren't you hungry? You didn't eat the dinner I left out for you, Mulder."

He glanced up at her, puzzled. "I didn't?"

"No." It was homemade lasagna, one of his favorites. He had been gone when she got home from work, so she ate alone. He still wasn't back when she returned from walking the dog, so she wrapped his portion up with a note on it and then went upstairs to work on her grant proposal. The lasagna hadn't moved from the shelf in the fridge.

"I guess I forgot," he replied, half-heartedly.

"I can heat it up for you now if you want."

"Uh..." His face was buried in the files again. "I had a late lunch. I'll just eat it tomorrow."

"We're leaving tomorrow morning," she pointed out. "For the conference, remember?"

He glanced up at her again, a hint of impatience in his expression. "That's tomorrow." It was unclear if it was a statement or a question.

She wanted to sit down, but the couch in his office was buried under stacks of files, clothing, and books. She began pushing things aside.

"Those are in order," he said, a bit critically.

Biting her lip, she felt a sting behind her eyes. "I thought we could try and get on the road early," she said. "Maybe get there in time to go out to dinner." It was their anniversary the next day, but he hadn't mentioned it. She'd be damned if she was going to remind him. He was lousy with dates and there had been a few times when he'd rushed out to a jewelry store on the actual day, but he'd never completely forgotten it.

Mulder's mouth moved silently as he read something in front of him. She noticed that he was two days past needing a shave and wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday. She could have been talking to a house plant. She tried a different approach. "I talked to Will this afternoon."

"Yeah?" He read something while he answered her.

"The camp coaches divided up the teams yesterday and his teammates voted him captain," she said. "He was pleasantly surprised."

"He's a good player."

"He said he sent you an email."

Back to silence.

"Mulder?"

Brief eye contact. "Yeah?"

"William said he sent you an email. He hasn't heard back from you."

Mulder looked down at his hands, brows furrowed. "I um, haven't checked email recently."

Scully closed her eyes and counted to ten. "Are you alright, Mulder?" Her voice was flat, barely above a whisper.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just-I'm just a little busy right now."

With a weary sigh, Scully got up. She shuffled a couple of steps closer to him and stood there with her arms crossed over her silk pajama top, watching him read. "It's after midnight," she said finally. "I'm going to bed. You should think about packing. If you're not too busy." The last few words were delivered with a distinct sharpness to her voice that was completely lost on him.

She had almost closed the office door behind her when she heard him mutter, "Night, Scully."

***


With a snap of the wrists, a clean white sheet billowed over the queen-sized mattress. Following her late night swim and then a quick shower, Scully was ready to fall into bed. She wore an oversized tee shirt and underwear, her hair still wet.

Her cell phone sat on the nightstand, silent. Apparently, he was honoring her request for space. She wasn't sure if she felt relieved or even more saddened. She never thought in her wildest dreams that she'd be spending this night, of all nights, without him. They'd never spent an anniversary apart.

The bed made, she sat on the edge with her bare legs crossed, thinking about the three voice mail messages from him she hadn't had the courage to listen to yet. After several minutes, she picked up the phone and dialed another number.

Claire answered on the second ring. "Hi, Mom."

"Hi Honey. You weren't in bed, were you?"

"Uhhh, it's not even seven here, Mom."

She chuffed silently at herself. "Right, I forgot."

"Why are you calling tonight? I thought you guys would be out to dinner or something."

Scully tried to manufacture a smile in her voice as she answered. "You know what? Can you believe I'm here by myself? Daddy got stuck at home."

"What! On your anniversary? You're kidding me. But you had this planned for weeks."

"Well, it couldn't be helped. There was some research that couldn't wait, I guess, but I'm sure he'll be here as soon as he can."

"You must be pissed."

Scully opted to let the language go. "I'm fine. Don't you worry about me. More importantly, how are you? What's Uncle Bill and Aunt Tara's new house like?"

"It's nice. Bigger than the last one, but not as big as ours. And the yard is dinky, but they have a pool."

"How is everybody? Are you and Katie getting along?"

"Yeah, pretty much. We've been spending a lot of time at the beach. It's crazy, though, Uncle Bill won't let us walk anywhere, not even to the mall. Matt just got a car, so he drives us places."

Scully smiled at that. "Uncle Bill let him get his own car? Wonders never cease." Her big brother had retired from the navy a year ago and had started a woodworking business. He had mellowed with age, but still reminded her more and more of her father with each passing year.

"Yeah, can you believe it? It's kind of a heap, but it runs."

"Is Matt still shy?"

"I guess," replied Claire. "He's cool, though. He works a lot, but he gives Katie and me rides to the mall when we ask. Hey, so um...do you think you could send me a little more money?"

Scully frowned. "What happened to the money you took with you?"

"I still have some."

"What's 'some', Claire?"

"I don't know," her daughter replied, meekly. "I haven't counted it, like, today or anything."

"What have you been spending it on?"

"I don't know," Claire repeated. "Just stuff. I mean, I bought a few things at the mall the other day."

"Claire, that money was supposed to last you the entire trip. It's only been a week."

"It's not ALL gone, and I promise I'll pay you back."

"With what exactly? You spend every penny of your allowance."

"I have money in the bank."

"That's your college money. You're not shopping with it!"

"Fine. I'll just...whatever, wear what I've got, I guess."

"What is the matter with the clothes you took with you?" Scully asked.

Claire sighed. "People just dress differently here. You wouldn't understand."

"I lived there for the first nineteen years of my life, Claire."

"Yeah, but that was like, forever ago. I've seen your high school yearbooks, Mom. People should have been arrested for wearing that stuff."

"It wasn't *that* bad," she argued. Was it? "And where did you see my yearbooks?"

"At Grandma's. And by the way, who was Marcus? He wrote, like, three pages of stuff to you in your yearbook."

"You know what," Scully said, ignoring the question, "I'll send a check to Aunt Tara. If there's something you want to spend money on, you'll have to clear it with her."

Claire huffed quietly on the other end.

"Take it or leave it, Claire."

"Take it," her daughter replied.

"Your report card came in the mail yesterday."

"I suppose you opened it."

"Of course I opened it. I opened Will's too."

"Let me guess, Boy Wonder managed to get a perfect score on all his finals."

Scully smiled at the competitive tone. Both of her children were gifted academically, but the rivalry never ended. "I won't share your brother's grades with you. That's up to him."

Claire sighed. "I'm not worried about Science, English, Social Studies, or Spanish. Those were easy. I think I might've bombed math, though."

"Guess again."

"Mommmm! Just tell me, I'm dying."

"Ninety-three."

"Really?"

Scully could hear the relieved smile in her daughter's voice. "Yes, really. Congratulations."

"Was that my lowest test score?" Claire asked.

"Yup."

"You know, Chelsea's parents give her fifty bucks for every A she gets."

"Fifty dollars!" Scully exclaimed.

"I'd settle for thirty, though," Claire cut in, eagerly.

"We've been through this before, Claire. We don't pay you for grades."

"Can't blame a girl for trying."

This child. She could argue the paint off the walls. She was every bit her father's daughter.

"Did Daddy see it?"

"Absolutely. He's very proud of you."

"Do you think he's home right now? I want to call him."

Scully's breath hitched a little, but she didn't think Claire heard anything out-of-the-ordinary in her voice. "Umm, I think-"

"Oh, you know what," Claire interrupted, "Katie just popped in to say we're going to the movies, so I have to go. I'll call him tomorrow."

"Okay, Honey. Have a good time. I love you and say 'hi' to everyone for me."

"I will. I love you too, Mom. Bye."

After the call disconnected, Scully immediately dialed William's cell phone, but reached his voice mail. Camp rules maintained that the boys keep their cell phones in their rooms. "Hey, it's Will, you know what to do after the beep."

"Will, it's Mom. Just calling to check in and see how you're doing. It's..." she checked the clock on the nightstand, "after ten. What are you doing out? I thought you guys had a ten o'clock curfew." She sighed. "Anyway, if everything's fine, you don't need to call me back. I'll talk to you soon. Love you."

Slipping into the bed, she turned off the lamp and settled onto her back with a weary sigh. Eyes wide open, she stared into the pitch black and listened to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. Several frustrated minutes later, she heaved the covers off and sat up again, clicking the light on and reaching for her phone. "Dammit," she chastised herself as she dialed her own voice mail. She had promised herself she wouldn't listen to his messages. Not tonight, dammit.

Just the sound of his voice made her bite down on her lip harshly and close her eyes. "Scully, can you please just come back here so we can talk about this?" There was an audible sigh and a pause. The time of the message indicated that it was left right after his third attempt to reach her by phone – just twenty minutes after she slammed the door and drove off. She hadn't even reached the highway by then. "Scully, I-I didn't mean all those things. You have to know that. Can we just talk about this?"

Now he wants to talk. Now. Not the three dozen other times she'd asked him what was wrong over the past several months.

His second message was ten minutes after the first, his tone calmer. "Don't go like this, Scully. I'm sorry. Just...can you call me? Please?"

Her eyes swam and the back of her throat burned. His last message was almost thirty minutes later, during which time he had tried phoning her half a dozen more times. "I don't know if you're still in the District. I don't know where you are." A deflated sigh. "Obviously you're not going to answer my calls. I guess I don't know what else to say, except I'm sorry. If I could take it back, I would. I know this isn't what you want to hear right now-"

Pleasedon'tsayitpleasedon'tsayitpleasedon'tsayitpleasedon'tsayitplease

"-but I love you."

A choked sob escaped her and she held a hand to her mouth as the message ended without a goodbye.

Moments later, she still had the phone pressed to her ear, eyes closed. Love wasn't the problem. Love had never been the problem between them. That's what made this so hard. When love isn't enough, where do you go from there?


***

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Despite her troubled thoughts the night before, Scully slept. It was just past nine when she awoke the next morning. She couldn't remember when the last time was she'd slept past eight, even on a Sunday, let alone managed to get an astonishing ten hours of sleep. She could only attribute it to an emotionally devastating day, combined with the long drive.

A quick look at her phone told her that she hadn't missed any calls. How long would it take him to figure out she wasn't at a medical conference in Boston? Once he did, it wouldn't take much of a leap to realize she'd probably gone to the lighthouse. She hoped that he would have the good sense not to just show up there. The anger and hurt she'd felt yesterday was still fresh and she wasn't ready to see him. She had no idea what she'd even say to him at this point and no matter how she tried, she couldn't see a clear path out of this mess.

Despite her night's sleep, emotional weariness felt like a weight upon her. She fought the urge to climb back into the bed and just stay there. Other than on very rare occasions, she'd never been one to opt for sleeping pills, but if she'd had some with her, she might've been tempted.

There was no coffee to be found in the lighthouse until she bought some, so Scully carried a mug of hot tea and ascended the long, circular staircase that extended all the way up the center of the lighthouse to the top. The deadbolt on the heavy, wind-resistant door turned with a resentful creak, a byproduct of eleven months of vacancy. It always took the house a few days to become accustomed to occupancy again each summer, and the years between repairs were accumulating rapidly.

It wouldn't hurt to do some renovations and general maintenance soon – oil the locks, replace some window screens, reinforce the shutters. The windows were in need of their annual cleaning too, she observed. Sea air was rough on home exteriors, leaving a visible residue on surfaces and eating away the paint. Some projects she could manage herself. Others, like window washing, were better left to the experts for safety reasons. No ordinary ladder would reach the upper levels of the lighthouse and anyone with an ounce of sanity wouldn't attempt it. She made a mental note to call the window cleaning service they used last year and get on their schedule. It was typically done well before their vacation each August, but this June visit had been unplanned.

Scully dragged a wicker chair onto the upper deck and settled into it with her bare feet on the iron railing, gazing out over the endless horizon. It was a collage of blues as far as the eye could see, the water blending seamlessly with the cloudless morning sky. She tightened her white terry robe around her, fending off a gust of wind. Although it was always cooler at the top of the lighthouse, she recognized the markings of a warm day ahead. The breeze was already balmy and the sun was a few hours past its rise. By the time it reached the apex of the sky at mid-day, the temperature would likely be above eighty degrees. A rainy day would have been welcome, she thought ruefully – the perfect excuse to stay in bed and sulk.

An hour later, she stepped from a hot shower and threw on a swimsuit, layering shorts and a tee shirt over it. She was combing through wet hair when her cell phone chirped. Holding her breath, she glanced at the screen, nearly certain she'd see a familiar number displayed, but she didn't recognize it. The area code told her it was local.

Puzzled, she answered. "Hello."

"Hi, I'm um, looking for Dana Scully?" It was a man's voice.

"Speaking."

"This is Peter Firestone. I left a message about a week ago. The piece you ordered is finished and I wanted to arrange for delivery."

Right. That. She had nearly forgotten.

He must've heard the hesitation in her voice. "If this isn't a good time, I could-"

"No, no," she interrupted. "It's fine. I apologize for not returning your call, Mr. Firestone. It completely slipped my mind."

"It's no problem," he said, pleasantly. "If I remember correctly, you had a date in mind when you wanted it completed, that's all. I hope I didn't miss it."

She closed her eyes for a few seconds. It was yesterday. The date had been yesterday, actually. Their anniversary. But, of course, that no longer really mattered. "You can bring it by this afternoon, if you'd like," she offered. "I should be either in the lighthouse or on the beach. Will you need cash, or-"

"A check is fine," he said. "Whatever is convenient for you. I'll stop by this afternoon then."

"Thank you, Mr. Firestone."

Just when she thought she might be able to try and forget her problems for an afternoon.


***

By noon, she had returned to the lighthouse with several bags of groceries and despite a lagging appetite, had forced herself to eat a light lunch. Whenever she was emotionally stressed, her appetite was the first to go. Her mother, who had never stopped worrying ever since the cancer, had been telling her for years she was too thin. But Scully knew the numbers and the scale didn't lie. She was in the healthy weight range for her height. Despite a lackadaisical approach to exercise, she never had to work too hard to maintain her weight. She feared that might change as she got older, but so far, if anything, she'd struggled to keep weight on. Claire, at thirteen, but with an even dose of the Mulder genes, had recently equaled her mother in height. They were able to share clothing, but likely not for long.

After lunch, she made her way down to the beach, armed with a bucket of sudsy water and a large sponge. About seven years ago, they had purchased a small power boat, mostly on a whim. It was just large enough for the four of them, although it usually ended up being just her and the kids using it. Mulder's tolerance for boating had improved marginally over the years, to the point where he could manage a few hours at sea, but it wasn't his favorite pasttime. Last year, at William's urging, they also invested in a couple of windsurfers. A refurbished barn on the south side of Todd and Elizabeth's property provided ample winter storage.

When Scully arrived on the beach, she saw that Todd had already arranged to have their boat transferred out of storage for the summer. She walked the length of the dock to the hoist and boarded the resting sea vessel. It rocked and swayed gently, water sloshing against the hull. A quick survey of the boat revealed that it hadn't suffered much from winter storage, but it could use a decent scrub down. Scully kicked her flip flops into a corner, clipped her hair up and went to work.


Days Earlier

The Sunday morning of their departure dawned like a gift, filmy rays of early morning light seeping through the blinds onto the clean hardwood floor. Scully stretched and rolled over to his empty side of the bed. The sheets had been untucked from the bottom of the mattress, a clear indication that he actually had come to bed at some point last night after she fell asleep. The clock read 7:29 and she slid the alarm button off in the nick of time.

His running shoes were missing from their usual spot in the corner between the wall and his dresser. His pajama pants lay in a heap of flannel nowhere near the hamper and she sighed, toeing them to her hand before folding them neatly and placing them atop the dresser next to the stack of new clothes, still undisturbed.

Honestly. How much effort would it have taken to skip the morning run and pack his shit instead? She had hoped to get on the road by ten after a decent breakfast, but not at this rate. She made the bed and placed her open, full suitcase on top before slipping into the shower.

She was dressed with hair and makeup done, emptying the dishwasher and waiting on the coffee when the door off the garage opened. Mulder tossed the newspaper onto the counter next to her. "Morning," he said. The dog's tongue lolled as he lumbered to his water dish.

"Mulder, it's getting too hard for him to keep up with you when you run. Maybe you should start leaving him at home."

"Nonsense. He loves to go."

Scully watched Bailey finish his long drink before collapsing onto his side over the kitchen tiles. "I know he loves to go, but it takes him a lot longer to recover now."

Mulder scattered the newspaper until he located the sports section. He filled a mug of the fresh coffee and headed toward the hall in the direction of his office.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" she asked, shutting the silverware drawer abruptly.

He turned to regard her blankly.

"It's after nine, Mulder. You haven't showered or packed."

Mulder took his time setting his coffee mug on the kitchen table. "You're right, I haven't."

She knew before he said another word. "You aren't going, are you?"

When his eyes met hers, there was no apology in them. He seemed coolly aloof. "You're right, I'm not."

With a forced calmness, she folded her arms tightly across her chest and drew a very deep breath. It did nothing to diminish her escalating anger. "When were you planning to tell me, Mulder?" Her voice trembled. "When I was sitting in the car with my suitcase loaded?"

"Scully, I-"

"I don't understand. You've known about this trip for how long now? Three weeks, maybe longer?" Her voice rose and the emotion crept in. "We've been planning this since last month and you couldn't be bothered to-"

"You've been planning it," he retorted. "I never said I wanted to go. In fact, I assumed you would have figured out by now that I did not."

Her breath caught and she shifted her weight, fighting tears, not quite believing he was really pulling this shit on her. "We talked about it. It's been on the calendar." She felt the words stumbling from her mouth and she hated the way she sounded. Like she was trying to justify her actions. The anger sparked again. "I mentioned it I don't know how many times. If you objected, you had multiple opportunities to express that without waiting until an hour before we were planning to leave."

He shrugged tiredly, as if this entire exchange was too much effort. "What can I tell you? It wasn't my idea and you didn't seem too interested in my opinion."

Scully shook her head in disbelief and seethed, unable to make sense of the man standing in front of her. He was capable of being insensitive on occasion, but never like this. "Are you even going to give me a reason? Or are you going to walk into your office and shut me out, like you've done every day for the past six months?"

"I haven't been shutting you out, Scully."

"Like hell you haven't! You've been shutting me out, the kids...it's like you're not even the same person anymore and I can't..." She tipped her head back to focus her eyes somewhere above him, but everything swam in front of her. "I thought maybe you were just preoccupied with your writing for a while, but it felt different than usual. I've asked you what's wrong and you keep telling me it's nothing."

His expression was one of weariness and irritation. "All this because I won't go to a medical conference with you?"

"It's not just about the trip, Mulder! It's about me having to make excuses to the kids for why you aren't eating dinner with us, or lying to my mother about you being out of town when you won't go to a birthday party, or telling myself it doesn't mean anything that you come to bed after I'm asleep and get up before I'm awake." She swallowed and looked at him. "When you come to bed at all."

"I've just got a lot on my plate right now."

There was a long pause before she spoke again, this time in a quieter voice. "I can't remember the last time we actually had a conversation, Mulder."

"We talk all the time," he said, dismissively.

"No, Mulder, we don't. We say things to each other...on the phone, in the driveway as I'm leaving... in the bathroom, passing in the hallway. But we don't talk. Not really."

She looked away, feeling her grip slipping. "We don't even make love anymore." She nearly choked on the admission.

He stared at her for a moment in confusion, frowning. "That's not true. We were just...last week...we-"

"No," she said softly, damp eyes meeting his again. "That's not what I meant." Her memory flashed to his hand on her breast through her pajama top as she fought her way out of sleep's abyss. "We had sex. You...came to bed after I had already been asleep," she said quietly, "and we had sex."

His frown deepened and he recoiled slightly. "Jesus. You make it sound like I forced you."

"Of course not," she said, shaking her head sadly. Just the fact that he had initiated sex was a welcome surprise. Fourteen years of marriage and they had always been fairly regular about it. In fact, for two people who were not prone to verbal expressions of love, it was one of the ways in which they were completely vulnerable with one another. It was quite possible that she had said those three little words to him more often in their bed than anywhere else. But like the rest of their marriage, their lovemaking had changed as well in recent months. "You didn't even kiss me," she said, feeling the bitter taste of humiliation on her tongue.

"That's not true," he replied defensively.

"Yes. It is."

"I'm...sorry," he said in exasperated bewilderment, as if to say "if it's that big a deal." Which of course, it wouldn't have been under normal circumstances. Over the years, they'd probably had sex before without kissing. In the grand scheme of things, it meant nothing. But in this case it had been a big deal. She had lay under him, watching him move into her diligently, wondering if he was actually going to kiss her. If he was ever going to again. And when he finally rolled away from her, seeking slumber, she stayed on her back for a long time, blinking into the darkness and listening to him breathe.

They stood there now, several feet apart, but there could have been a canyon between them. She allowed herself to be discomfited by the silence, clinging to the hope that he would offer her something more. An explanation, an emotional revelation, an appeal. Anything to help her understand why they'd been living together like virtual strangers for six months.

When he didn't, she pushed past him and up the stairs with her hand pressed to her mouth.

"Scully, wait a minute." He followed her.

Her neatly packed suitcase with the lingerie on top made her feel pathetic. She stalked into the bathroom and began grabbing toiletries. Mulder blocked the archway between the two rooms, both hands on the door frame. "I don't know what you want me to say, Scully."

"I don't want you to say anything, Mulder," she replied with an icy calmness. Thrusting open a vanity drawer, she tossed makeup into a blue paisley zippered case. The cord to her hair straightener dangled over her arm as she tried to carry everything to the bedroom. He stood in her way on purpose.

"Can I get by please?" She looked down at the floor, hating the tremor in her voice.

He removed one arm from the door frame and she slipped past him quickly, pitching things into her bag.

"You're still going?" he asked evenly.

"Yes."

He shifted on his feet and watched her. She couldn't locate the cord to her laptop and tossed things out of the nightstand and two dresser drawers before remembering she'd left it downstairs.

"Maybe some time apart is a good idea," he said hesitantly and she froze, looking up at him.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He swallowed. "I-just what I said. A little space isn't always a bad thing."

A knot began to form in her stomach. "I actually thought maybe the opposite might be true," she admitted, unable to quite meet his eyes. "I thought a week alone together might have been the answer. I can see now I was wrong." She began shoving junk back into the nightstand drawer roughly, biting on her bottom lip.

Mulder expelled his breath in a frustrated huff. "You're taking it the wrong way-"

She spun on him and the drawer slammed shut. "How should I take that? I planned a week for us to go away together and you've made it perfectly clear you're not interested. If there's another way to take that, then please tell me." Her words left in a hiss and she shook her head at him. "I don't know what it is that you want anymore, Mulder. From me...from us."

She stopped talking and just looked at him, apprehensive, readying herself to ask what she had been unwilling to even consider until now. "Do you want to separate?" she nearly whispered, her tone cool and detached, almost business-like. "Is that it? Do you want a divorce?"

His response was gradual. He appeared bewildered for several seconds, his mouth open slightly. He'd been caught off-guard, but given his behavior she couldn't figure how.

"What are you talking about?" he asked with a look of puzzled irritation, taking up a defensive cross-armed posture. "I haven't the slightest idea what to even say to that."

She fixed him with a cool stare. "You could just answer the question. Do you want a divorce?"

"Jesus." He shook his head at her, his jaw tight. "No, I don't want a divorce."

In for a penny, in for a pound. She squared her shoulders. "Is there someone else? Are you having an affair, Mulder?"

The eyes regarding her widened more, then narrowed. He looked stung, maybe offended. "You're really asking me that."

"Yes, I am," she said evenly, steeling herself.

She'd never fired that question at him before. Not at any time during their marriage. There'd never been a reason to question his fidelity. Looking at his email messages and checking his phone weren't even things she would have considered doing. Not until all this started months ago. Since April she'd thoroughly searched his phone twice, hating herself for it both times and finding nothing. She refused to live like that; it was beneath her.

"I'm not having an affair," he said resentfully, and she released a held breath, not feeling the relief she thought she would. "It's nothing like that."

"Then what?" she pleaded softly. "What is going on, Mulder? Because I don't know what else to say or do. I'm at the end of my rope here. Whatever it is, please...."

They exchanged eye contact for a long, constricting moment before he sighed and shook his head. "I didn't want to talk about this right now."

She tensed. He had nearly convinced her it was nothing. She watched in apprehension as he sat down on the bed. Slowly, he started talking. "Last winter, I was sorting through some boxes in the attic... mostly things that had been my mother's and I came across Samantha's diary." He spoke without looking at her, his eyes fixed across the room. "I read through it all in one sitting. It took all day. There were things that I...I don't think I ever noticed before." Voice distant, he seemed buried in his thoughts.

Scully blinked at him for several seconds before drawing a deep breath. "Like... what?" she whispered cautiously. "What did you notice, Mulder?" She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer. She couldn't believe she was really having this conversation with him.

He was quiet and thoughtful, unhurried in his reply. "She dreamt about me, Scully. She wrote about it. She dreamt I came for her."

No, this whole discussion is a dream, she thought. A bad one. "Mulder-"

"I know what you're going to say, Scully. You're going to say it's over, that it's been over for years, but you're wrong." He finally met her eyes. "I just stopped looking."

She was dumbstruck. "For your sister?"

"For the truth...for the men who did this to her...for everything we worked so hard and sacrificed so much for, Scully. I-I just...stopped looking. I gave up."

She was incredulous. "You stopped looking? No, Mulder. *We* stopped looking because there was nothing left to find. I don't understand where you're going with this, I really don't, but this is crazy. You must realize that. "

"Maybe you're right as far as Samantha is concerned, but you and I both know it didn't end there. My sister's abduction was part of something much, much bigger. Just because we stopped fighting for the truth doesn't mean that it isn't still out there."

Her eyes moved back and forth between his and she felt a distant, but not forgotten fear awaken somewhere deep inside her. "So what if it is?" she said, her voice rising sharply. "It's not our fight anymore, Mulder. We paid our dues – in blood, in loss – my God, Mulder...do you even hear yourself?"

"I knew you wouldn't understand. That's why I didn't tell you."

"You're right! You're goddamned right I don't understand! Is this some kind of..." her hand sliced through the air in frustration, "I don't know, mid-life crisis or something? Is that what this is? Because please tell me you're not seriously considering losing yourself in this again. I honestly don't think I could take it, Mulder. I thought we were past this. This isn't our life anymore."

"It's not your life," he replied firmly, standing up from the bed. "It never really was."

Oh my God. She gaped at him, unable to believe what she was hearing. Her eyes flashed anger. "Goddamn you, Mulder. After everything we went through. Everything we lost. You can't honestly be standing there telling me you think I don't care, that the work we did wasn't just as important to me as it was to you."

"I think it was at one time, yes. But you moved on a long time ago, Scully."

She lowered her voice a little and studied him, completely bewildered. "And you...haven't? Is that what you're saying to me?"

"I'm saying I think about it. I've never stopped thinking about it," he admitted. "Not really."

She struggled to process his words. They cut her to the quick. "Do you regret the choices you made, Mulder?"

He wouldn't look at her. "Regret? I'm not sure I ever really made them. The decision to get out of the car was yours, Scully, not mine."

The anger and hurt churned inside of her. It was all she could do to keep from hitting him. "Fifteen years ago, in that hospital room, I gave you a choice, Mulder. I was willing to raise William on my own without a goddamned thing from you, not even your name," she spat. "And you said no. You asked to be a part of his life and a part of mine. I believed you, Mulder. I believed that was what you wanted."

"I don't regret my son, Scully. You know I love him."

"So then what? What are you saying? All the rest of it has been a lie? You asked me to marry you, Mulder. I *never* pushed to get married. Then after my miscarriage, we BOTH agreed to try again. You insisted you wanted another child."

"I did. Scully, it isn't like I've been unhappy all these years." He ran a hand through his still thick hair, greying at the temples. "I love my family. But yes, it was always there somewhere...what if I'd never stopped looking for the truth, what if I'd never given up? How might things be different now?"

Breathe. In and out. Just breathe. This had to be a bad dream. The worst fucking one she'd ever had.

"You think...you gave up?" she asked, trepidly. "In order to be with us...with your family? You were giving up?"

"I don't mean it like that." He took a step toward her and she reacted by backing up two paces.

"It sounds like you do. I don't see how else you could mean it."

He had no answer for her, so they stood there facing one another in the bedroom they'd shared for fifteen years.

Finally, she spoke, the bitter taste of sorrow and indignation on her tongue. "You know, Mulder, I used to wonder when or if this would happen. In the early years of our marriage, when the kids were small and I was working long hours. You were writing and taking care of the kids a lot. And there was always a fear inside me that you'd wake up one day and say, 'I can't do this anymore.' And you'd just...go. Pick up your quest again, chasing phantoms in the dark, and I'd be left to raise two children on my own." She sniffed, willing herself not to lose it because the last thing she was willing to give him right now was her tears. "But you didn't," she continued. "You hung in there. Year after year after year. Through birthdays and Christmases and vacations and first days of school. Through homework and fevers and nightmares. All of it, Mulder, you've been there. And little by little over the years, I started to forget about being afraid. I let myself believe that we could have this, that we could be happy. That we could live like normal people. That we might grow old together." She bit down on her bottom lip and shook her head, eyes falling. "I can see now that I was a fool to hope it might last forever."

"That's not true. I'm still here, aren't I?"

Sorrowful and heavy, she raised her eyes to his. "No," she said plainly. "You're not."

Blinking back at her, he looked exasperated. "I don't even know what you expect me to say then. Do you want me to lie and say that our past doesn't matter to me anymore? That I don't think about it? That it doesn't bother me that I gave up, just like that? That I failed? That I don't wonder what might've happened if-if...things had been different? Because it would be a lie, Scully."

She did her best to bite back the sick feeling in her stomach. "Things meaning if I hadn't gotten pregnant." She leaned back against the edge of the dresser, needing to anchor herself, not entirely certain her legs would hold her up much longer. "That's what you're getting at, isn't it?"

"No..." he shook his head, then sighed heavily. "Maybe...I don't know. Everything changed then and it wasn't what I... I never planned on...."

"I GAVE YOU A CHOICE!"

"You knew I couldn't walk away!" he shouted back at her. "What did you honestly expect I would do? That was no choice!"

She recoiled as if slapped and just stared back at him for a long minute, her mouth open. Something cut loose deep inside her.

"You selfish son-of-a-bitch," she hissed, her voice a low tremor. "You have NO idea what it was like. Looking for you, desperately clinging to hope. Knowing every night when I went to bed, sick and exhausted from the pregnancy, that the chances of finding you alive were getting dimmer and dimmer. I slept with a shirt you had worn, Mulder," she admitted, her voice catching, "because it was the only smell I could tolerate without getting sick." She swallowed convulsively, the memories metastasizing like the cancer that once threatened her life. The early months of her pregnancy without him marked the only time she can ever remember feeling more afraid and helpless than when she was terminally ill.

"And then...to find you lying in that desert....battered and cold, nearly unrecognizable," she continued. "I wouldn't let you go, did you know that? I rocked your lifeless body in my arms for so long that they had to pull me-" She pressed her hand to her mouth, feeling the hot trail of a tear track down her cheek. "Skinner and Agent Doggett... they had to pull me away from you. I don't remember it. They took me home and I-I have no memory of any of it. My mother stayed with me for a week. She...they were all afraid I'd hurt myself," she admitted softly.

Mulder appeared stricken. "Scully-" He took a step forward, but she put her hand up in front of her defensively.

"No! You need to listen to me, Mulder. You need to hear this, dammit. You don't get to stand there and tell me you wish I'd never gotten pregnant without knowing what you're really saying." She paused to catch her breath before continuing and he waited. "Don't think for a minute that the thought never crossed my mind – that I never considered terminating the pregnancy. Believe me, I considered all of my options," she admitted grimly. "And not just once."

The truth was, she had come close to it on several occasions. It was something no one but her doctor knew, not even Mulder. His stunned expression was to be expected. He never would have thought her capable of it, given her strong desire to bear a child, as well as her Catholic upbringing. But desperation and heartbreak force people to make painful choices.

"But believe it or not, Mulder, it was you who stopped me from doing it."

He looked at her, confused, and she managed a tearful half-smile, remembering. "It was something you said to me once, just days before your abduction. We were lying on a bed together in a hotel room in Bellefleur, Oregon. I had come to your door, feeling ill – I was pregnant then, in fact, but of course we didn't know it - and you said to me...you told me to let it go. This neverending quest of ours. You said there had to be an end for me, that I had sacrificed enough and it was time for me to live my life."

Mulder shook his head slowly, his forehead creased in confusion, grasping at the memories that had slipped into the deep crevices of his mind. She knew he didn't remember. He had returned from the dead all those years ago with pockets of missing time, memories lost or fragmented, mostly from the months immediately preceding his abduction. His reluctance to talk about his abduction made it difficult for her to help him recover the lost time. After a while, she had stopped pushing him, allowing the memories to scatter and float away like pollen in the wind. She believed they would make new memories, and they had.

"It wasn't easy," she continued, "but I took your advice. I had two choices, Mulder. I could give up on living or I could go on, without you. By continuing the pregnancy, I was choosing to live. It was what I thought you would have wanted me to do. To go on...to have our child and raise him." She leveled a look at him. "Because make no mistake about it, Mulder. After I buried you, that child growing inside me was the only thing that kept me alive. He was the only reason I was still there when you came back. I am as certain of that truth as you are of yours." She shook her head at him. "So when you say things might've been different had we not conceived a child together," her voice caught and her eyes swamped. She looked away. "Well, you're damn right. They would have been very different."

Mulder stood there, stunned, watching her zip her bag. "Jesus," he whispered finally, "I didn't know."

He reached for her and the feel of his hand on her arm made her gasp and pull away, the anger and hurt raw . "Don't," she choked out, refusing his eyes. "Just...don't."

He withdrew his hand. "Scully-"

"You don't get to rewrite history to suit you, Mulder. I'm sorry, but it doesn't work that way. I look at our son every day and I thank God for him. He saved my life and I believe he saved yours." She carried her bag out the door of the bedroom and down the stairs with Mulder at her heels.

"So you're just going to walk out now?" he pressed as he watched her retrieve her purse and keys from the kitchen counter. "Look Scully, I'm sorry for what I said. You know I didn't mean it that way."

She yanked the cord to her laptop from the wall and shoved it into the side pocket of her duffel. The dog, who had been sleeping on the cool ceramic tiles, lifted his head to regard her curiously before resuming his slumber. They were supposed to drop him off at their neighbor's on their way out of town.

"You're just going to leave for Boston like this?" He hovered over her and she felt an overwhelming urge to get out of there. All the emotional and mental anguish of the past six months, the second-guessing, the uncertainty, the struggle to stay positive in front of the kids. Walking on eggshells around him, fighting for his attention and losing day after day, making excuses for his behavior, lying to herself. She was done. She was ten seconds away from breaking down completely – every single emotion she had denied herself for half a year descending on her like a full force gale. And she wouldn't allow him to be there for it.

The cordless phone on the table in the foyer began to ring, startling her and she froze with her purse hitched onto her shoulder and her bag in her hand. He stood next to her, also inert. They listened to it ring six times before the answering machine picked up, her recorded voice crisp and polished. "You've reached the Mulder residence. Please leave a message." A loud dial tone followed the beep. No one important ever called their landline now that they all had cell phones. Why they still paid the bill every month was a mystery.

He followed her to the door. "Scully..."

She stopped with her hand on the door knob and turned back halfway, eyes downcast. "Not that this means anything to you," she said stiffly, "but happy anniversary."

The door closed between them and she choked on an escaped sob. Hold it in just a few more minutes. She could do it. Get the keys in the ignition and get the hell out of the driveway.

Half a mile from the house, she pulled onto the shoulder of the road, cursing and rummaging frantically through the car for tissues. Her face was a mess. Her vision swam. An elderly man walking an Irish Setter peered at her through the car window with concern, and she feared for a moment that he might knock to ask her why she was crying on the side of the road. It took her a full ten minutes to pull herself together. She wiped the smudged mascara from beneath her eyes and drove.


***

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

The front of Scully's tee shirt was soaked through and she had damp tendrils of hair sticking to her neck and face from a combination of sea spray and perspiration. It actually felt pretty damn good – the exertion, copious amounts of fresh air, working in her bare feet, the humid breeze on her wet back as she scrubbed down the deck. It was exactly the distraction she needed. She had been right in predicting a hot day and nothing appealed more at the moment than a nice, refreshing swim.

The surfaces of the small boat gleamed and she dumped the remains of the bucket over the side before stepping onto the dock to admire her work. The windsurfers were next, but she'd tackle those tomorrow.

Scully was standing on the beach, considering stripping down to her swimsuit when she noticed a vehicle sitting at the top of the bluff, next to her own. It was a black Jeep Wrangler with the convertible top down. This must be the artist – what was his name – Firestone? She had contacted him several months ago to commission a painting for Mulder as an anniversary gift. She was going to have it shipped to their home, but then decided they'd visit for the week instead. It had seemed like a brilliant idea at the time – something unique to surprise Mulder with. After fourteen years, they'd exhausted the list of gift-giving possibilities. Now she wasn't sure what she'd do with the painting. Hang it somewhere, obviously.

The man offered a friendly wave and Scully returned it, making her way up the jagged, rocky steps from the beach to the bluff. She reassessed his age as she got closer - older than he had appeared from a distance. Probably mid- forties. From the beach, she could have mistaken him for one of the college kids that invaded the Vineyard each summer, Bohemian, suntanned, and spending the summer putting a dent in the trust fund. It was the length of his hair, a mass of light brown, unruly waves that fell nearly to his chin, accompanied by a close cropping of facial hair. He wore a pair of paint-stained cargo shorts, a weathered tee shirt the color of faded eggplant, huarache sandals and aviator sunglasses that he removed and tucked into the visor of the Jeep as she approached. He took a final drag from his cigarette and then reached inside the vehicle to extinguish it.

"Hello," she said with polite reserve. "I hope you haven't been waiting long?"

His smile was relaxed as he extended a hand. "Not long at all. Pete Firestone."

"Dana Scully." They shook firmly.

"You're a tough person to get a hold of." He chuckled. "I couldn't remember the date you mentioned needing this. I hope I didn't miss it."

"No," she replied after a brief hesitation. "You're right on time."

"I've got it pretty well covered up in the back," he said, popping the tailgate. "The paint's been dry for about a week, so we should be okay." The back of the Jeep was a melee of sheets, canvases, and discarded clothing. "Sorry about the mess." He stood there with his weight shifted to the side and one hand on the roll bar, pondering the inside of his vehicle. "Let's see...I can, uh, show it to you out here, if you want. I've got an easel I can set up. Or if you want me to carry it inside for you..."

"You can bring it inside," she said, concluding that he looked fairly harmless. "I need to write you a check anyway."

Scully brushed the sand off her legs and bare feet while Pete walked the large, paper-covered frame toward the lighthouse door. She'd forgotten her sandals inside the boat and her feet looked pale and small in the grass.

"Beautiful day," he observed. "It was supposed to storm."

"Was it?" she asked in a politely indifferent voice. "I hadn't heard." There wasn't a cloud to be seen.

"This your place?" he asked, working the painting through the slightly narrow doorway.

"Yes," she replied, starting to close the door behind them before thinking better of it and leaving it ajar. "It's a summer home."

He stopped just inside the foyer, his eyes traveling the expansive interior. "It's incredible. You don't see too many of these old lighthouses around here in such pristine condition."

"It's been renovated extensively, but it could still use a little work."

The main floor was quite impressive. Mulder had spared no expense during the initial renovations years ago, and they had been diligent about the upkeep. Last year, they replaced all the worn furniture with new leather pieces and had the hardwoods refinished. "I've never been inside one before," he admitted. "It's bigger than I would have thought."

Scully ushered him into the open living room that occupied the center of the first floor. "We started out with just four rooms and a bath. The third bedroom and extra bath were added later."

"You did the work yourselves?" he asked, admiring the wrought iron railing and polished wood that spun seventy-seven steps up to the lookout.

She swallowed her laugh. "No. We would have liked to," she lied, "but we're just not here enough to finish the work." That part was true. But the main reason was because Mulder and carpentry were a risky combination. He had built shelves in the garage right after they moved into their home that turned out all right, but she still wouldn't put anything heavy on them.

"Where do you live?"

"Outside the District of Columbia."

His head bobbed. "Never been. I've heard it's nice."

Her smile was courteous. "We like it."

"Are you from the Vineyard originally?"

His inquisitive demeanor intrigued her, but oddly, she was not put off. There was a sincerity and lack of pretention about Peter Firestone that she rather liked. "My husband is. He purchased the lighthouse fourteen years ago."

"On days like this one," he said with an amiable smile, "I can think of worse places to be."

She returned his smile. "I'd have to agree."

He glanced down at the covered artwork leaning against his leg. "Where would you like me to uh..."

"Oh, um..." She looked around the living room. "Anywhere, I guess. I'll just go grab my checkbook." She disappeared to the kitchen.

"I noticed the surf boards," he called out to her as she rummaged inside her purse. "Do you surf much?" She heard paper tearing from the other room.

"Sometimes," she exaggerated. "More windsurfing than board surfing. My kids would live on them if they could." Carrying her checkbook, she turned the corner into the living room and her eyes widened. "Oh my...God." Her approach slowed.

He had opted to display the painting propped against the back of the chair next to the fireplace. His hand steadied the corner of the frame as he peeled the remaining brown paper from the bottom. "I'm not sure about the frame, but I can easily swap it out if it's not what you had in mind. I know you said natural wood, but I took a chance on the distressed finish instead. I don't think it competes for your attention quite as much."

Scully knelt close, her eyes traveling every inch of the painting. He had captured the lighthouse and its setting in astonishing detail, far surpassing her expectations. Her facial expression must've been difficult to read because she heard a throat being cleared after a long moment. "What...do you think?" he asked carefully.

She stood. "I think, Mr. Firestone, that you are underpaid."

"Pete," he said with a modest chuckle. "I'm glad you like it."

"That would be an understatement," she said, shaking her head, her attention diverted back to the painting. "It's remarkable."

"Thank you. You mentioned it's a gift?"

Scully nodded. "Yes." A gift without a recipient, she thought. "For my husband."

"Well," he said," gathering the discarded paper into a pile. "I hope he likes it."

She balanced her checkbook on her thigh as she sat on the edge of the sofa, writing. "It's been a pleasure doing business." She stood and handed him the check. "I'll be sure to recommend you."

"Thank you. I do appreciate that." He folded the piece of paper without looking at it and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

Hesitating at the door, he scratched the rough stubble of his chin. "Listen, I wondered," he began, "would you mind if I spent some time down on the beach painting? I'm sort of in-between projects and I'd like to work on a few landscapes. You've got a unique setting here. I promise I won't get in your way; you won't even know I'm here."

Scully rocked back on her heels thoughtfully, crossing her arms. "Well, it's very nice of you to ask, Mr. Firestone, but it's a public beach. You don't need my permission."

He smiled with a hint of confidence that was subtle, not arrogant. "I know. I'd prefer to have it anyway." His head tilted to one side. "And I'd appreciate being able to park here, if it won't be a problem. The closest public parking is a quarter mile down the beach – It's a haul with my equipment."

She considered his request briefly before nodding once. "I don't see a problem with that." There was something about this man that was unsettling to her, in a curious but not at all unpleasant way. If her sister had been alive in her mid-forties, this is the type of guy she would have sought like a moth to a flame. He had a free-spirited, just- passing- through charm about him that was appealing.

"So I guess I'll see ya around then," he said, with a head bob.

"Yes." Her chin tilted forward, smiling with just a hint bit of attitude. "You will."


***

Scully knocked on the Reardon's back door at seven-thirty carrying a bottle of wine. She assumed her jeans and casual top would be appropriate. The message hadn't indicated that dinner might include anyone but the three of them. She was surprised, then, when another familiar face answered the door.

"Mally?" she exclaimed. "When did you get here?"

Mallory laughed and stretched her arms around Scully's neck, leading her inside. "This afternoon. I wasn't planning to come home until later in the summer, but all my roommates have left for the summer and I figured why sit in an empty apartment when I could be here?"

"It's so good to see you," Scully said affectionately, brushing the girl's hair from her shoulders. "Your hair's gotten so long since last summer."

"I'm thinking of cutting it all off. It's in a ponytail or a braid all the time anyway. Nobody warned me how little I'd care about my appearance when I'm awake for thirty-six hours straight."

Scully smiled. "If we told all the war stories before you went to med school, we'd have no doctors."

Mallory laughed and draped one arm around Scully's shoulders as they walked toward the kitchen. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm cut out for it."

Scully gave her the sympathetic, but firm look of one who had been through the battle and had managed to come out on the other side. "I've never had a doubt."

"Well look who decided to surprise us a month early!" exclaimed Elizabeth, rounding the corner of the kitchen in her wheelchair.

Scully bent to give her a warm hug. "I'm sorry I didn't stop by sooner. I spent the day settling in and getting the boat cleaned up."

"How long are you staying for? And when is Mulder planning to join you?"

"I'm not really sure yet. And hopefully soon," Scully managed to reply without faltering. The kitchen smelled heavenly and she drew a deep breath. "What smells so good?"

Elizabeth rolled her eyes with a wide smile. "Well, Mallory is home, so I'll give you one guess."

"Cookies!" exclaimed Scully with a devious smile. She eyed Mally's narrow waist. "Although by the looks of her, she must have that recipe for the calorie-free cookies I've been searching for my whole life."

Mallory shook her head. "That's another thing I don't have any time for anymore – baking. Or eating, for that matter. Or sleeping. Breathing..."

"Or guys?" joked Todd, walking into the room and heading for the refrigerator.

"What's a 'guy'?" asked Mallory.

Without asking, Todd handed Scully a beer.

She took it, trying to remember the last time she'd had one. She drank wine at home, typically, if she drank at all. Todd reached with the bottle opener to pop the cap off for her and Scully took a long swallow, the carbonation tickling her nose.

"I'll take one of those," said Mally.

"You're not old enough to drink," teased her father, dryly.

"I'm twenty-three, Dad."

"Like I said." But he handed her an uncapped bottle.

Scully missed this. Family banter. Good-natured teasing. Everyone standing around the kitchen waiting for dinner - getting in the way and snacking on all the bread before they even sat down at the table. Mulder coming up behind her while she tossed a salad and placing his hands on her hips. Nuzzling the spot beneath her ear until she pinched his elbow and fed him a cherry tomato to keep his mouth busy.

She missed him. The loss had settled over her like a black and silent night, heavy and profound.

***


"Tate said it's a good thing it's not a girl or JT wants to name her after his grandmother," said Mallory, handing Scully another chocolate chip cookie. It was her third. She really shouldn't. She bit into it.

"What was his grandmother's name?"

"Melba."

Scully laughed and a few crumbs sprayed onto her lap. She brushed them off. "Like toast?"

"Exactly." Mally grinned. "I think it's sort of cute. Then if they have another, they can name it Rye."

"Or Pumpernickel," supplied Scully.

"Ciabatta."

"Baguette."

"I don't think they're planning to have that many kids," said Mally, licking chocolate off her thumb. "At least I hope not."

"Have they chosen a boy's name yet?"

Mally nodded. "Benjamin Todd. JT's dad is Ben, so it's both fathers together."

Scully's mouth quirked into a silent 'aw.' If they ever had a grandson, she wondered if there'd be that awkward moment when anyone considered the name Fox. With the strange names people pick these days, who knows. It might actually be considered chic. "Benjamin is a nice name," she said with finality. "I like it."

"Like what?" asked Todd, walking out onto the deck to join them, his own small plate of cookies balanced so he could hold the door for Elizabeth.

"The name Benjamin Todd," said Mally.

Her father sniffed, petulantly. "Todd Benjamin would've been better, but it's still a fine name."

Scully smiled at him, seeing through the false indignity to recognize he was nearly bursting with pride.

"Whatever you say, Grandpa," said Elizabeth, smirking down into her glass of white wine.

Scully snickered and Todd crooked a finger at her. "You just wait. It happens faster than you think."

She supposed it did. The years were already speeding past her, each summer coming faster than the last. She often found herself starting conversations with "Just the other day" only to realize it had really happened months ago. William would graduate high school in two years and leave for college. It wouldn't be long before it would just be her and Mulder floating around like ions in that big house. Just the two of them, right where it all started. She sighed, thoughtfully, and her eyes fell to her lap.

"You okay?" asked Elizabeth, gently. "You've been quiet tonight."

It took Scully a minute to realize she was talking to her.

She looked up and managed a tired smile. "Yeah. I'm fine."

The conversation lagged after that and Scully found herself longing for the solitude of the lighthouse. She excused herself before eleven, thanked her friends for dinner, and promised to visit again soon.

The lighthouse was chilly when she locked the heavy wooden door behind her. She'd left all the windows open and the warmth and humidity of the day had been replaced by cooler, brisk night air. She closed windows and blinds before stripping out of her clothes and sifting through the dresser for something comfortable to sleep in. Anticipating that she'd have alone time with Mulder this week, her priority when choosing sleepwear hadn't been comfort. Her travel bag still sat on the floor beside the bed, two slip-style nighties folded inside, one brand new.

She searched the dresser to find a thermal henley and paired it with drawstring lounge pants. Something hard and flat tumbled from the drawer and onto the floor, just missing her bare toes. She reached down and picked it up, knowing immediately what it was, surprised she had forgotten all about it.

The cover was a simple burgundy with hard edges and no lettering. The spine cracked as she opened it, some of the pages sticking together from sitting tucked under a stack of clothing, undisturbed. Her last entry had been two summers ago. In the beginning, she had been diligent about writing in the journal each day of their vacation, knowing that someday, many years from now when the memories had faded, she would take great pleasure in reliving the small moments of their lives, the things that never made it into photographs and home movies. As the kids grew, her entries dwindled to just a few each summer until it had completely slipped her mind last year and the journal sat untouched.

As an adult, Scully had never been much of a journal keeper, having learned the hard way that her secrets weren't safe on paper. When she was in the ninth grade, her brother Bill found her diary hidden beneath a loose floor board in the attic. In it, she had admitted to a crush on one of his friends, a boy named Phillip with soft brown eyes and a charming overbite who called her Kid. Bill used the information to blackmail her every chance he got, for nearly an entire year. It was twenty more before she risked penning her feelings again, this time while withering in a hospital bed, stricken with terminal cancer at thirty-three. And Mulder had been the intruder that time. But by then, her secrets, like everything else about her, already belonged to him.

Placing the journal on the bed, she padded to the kitchen and back again minutes later with a hot mug of tea, extinguishing lights as she went until all that glowed was the small jar lamp on the night table. She settled with her back against the cool down pillows and started at the beginning.



Journal Entry

August 22, 2002

William is 15 months


We arrived at the lighthouse yesterday, nearly two months after we exchanged our vows in this very same place. I didn't think Mulder was serious about returning with William at the end of the summer, but I came home Friday to find our suitcases packed. As it turned out, having the Assistant Director of the FBI as your close personal friend comes in handy when negotiating last-minute vacation time. Mulder knew I had two weeks off from work before I did.

It was a long first night. William slept so much in the car on the drive here that at half past midnight, he was still bright-eyed with little interest in becoming acquainted with his new crib. Mulder, whose nocturnal tendencies I appreciate now more than ever, took the graveyard shift.

Before the sun came up this morning, I found William asleep in his crib, Mulder still clothed on top of the twin bed next to it. Apparently this visit to the lighthouse will be much different than the last. Two months ago, a scarcity of sleep also meant a scarcity of clothing. I wonder whose bright idea it was not to put a door between our room and the baby's.

Today will be William's first time on a beach.


Journal Entry

August 23, 2002

William is 15 months

It is just past five in the afternoon and the sun has shifted East behind the dunes. The shade is a welcome change just as I am considering William's sixth reapplication of sunscreen. The child won't leave the beach. After the naptime fiasco, I am convinced all three of us might be spending the night down here.

He is a child of the sea - that has now been established. Every time I look at my son, I see a remnant of my father in him and I grieve the loss. Ahab would have been an amazing grandfather. The kind with stories to tell and candy in his pocket.

Unclothed, William weaves a barefooted path across the rippled sand, scattering tiny footprints. Moments later, the tide wipes them clean. Mulder sits beside me on the blanket eating a ripened peach, eyes following our son's intoxicated stagger with amusement. I feel sleepy like I always do after too many hours in the sun and I want to lick the drop of peach juice off Mulder's chin. I want to get him alone. I weigh the odds of William falling asleep early tonight.


Journal Entry

August 25, 2002

William is 15 months


William spent three hours with the Reardons at their insistence and Mulder took me out to dinner tonight. We found a quiet place right on the water with some of the best sea scallops I've ever eaten. It was nice to wear a dress and know it would likely survive the entire meal unstained. Equally pleasant to have a plate of food entirely to myself for a change, even if I only managed to eat half of it.

After putting William to bed, we made the crucial discovery that the range on a halfway decent baby monitor will extend from the lighthouse to the beach. We split a bottle of Cabernet and a slice of cheesecake and then Mulder used a stick to trace our initials in the sand, a giant heart around them. Sometimes I can't believe we're really here. Not just the lighthouse, but anywhere together.


***


Scully's cell phone chirped and she jumped, startled from the pages of the journal. William's name appeared on the screen and the edges of her mouth immediately relaxed into a gentle smile. She answered on the second ring. "Hi, Honey."

"Did I wake you?" said the masculine voice on the other end.

"No, I was up. How are you? How's camp?"

"It's fine. I, um, I got this weird text from Claire. She said you were on the Vineyard alone. What happened? I tried Dad, but his messages are full."

"It's nothing-everything's...I'm fine," she lied. "Dad had some work that couldn't wait and so I came up by myself. He'll just meet me here later, that's all."

"But you had it all planned." His tone was a mixture of concern and confusion. She'd been careful these past months not to let on to the kids that anything was wrong, but William was old enough to notice a difference.

"Sometimes things come up," she said, steadily. "He has a book deadline approaching and he must've gotten behind. It's nothing for you to worry about."

William paused and she could practically see the skepticism on his face through the phone. He was exceptionally intuitive for his age and the two of them had always shared an unusual connection. Sometimes Scully felt like he could nearly read her mind. Part of her wanted to attribute their closeness to those first seven months of her pregnancy when it was just the two of them. Devastated by Mulder's death, it was exactly as she'd told him. She had literally struggled to survive. She had fought with herself just to get out of bed in the morning - unable to go on, yet equally unable to give up because of the precious life inside of her. If it hadn't been for William, she would have allowed the darkness to swallow her. Although it made no rational sense, she couldn't help but believe that her experience somehow strengthened the bond between mother and child in an almost supernatural way.

"So tell me about camp," she prompted, trying to lighten the conversation. "Are there any other boys from your school there?"

"It's good so far. We have a smaller team than last year, which is okay because we each get more court time. There are a few guys I recognize from school, but nobody I really know."

"How are the dorms? Are you getting enough to eat?"

Will chuckled. "Yes, Mom. Aside from crummy air conditioning, the room is fine. And I'm so hungry by the time I get to dinner, I'd eat anything. I'd eat Dad's cooking."

"Really?" She smiled and made a face.

"But no, the food is decent. And trust me, I'm getting your money's worth."

She believed that. Since hitting puberty, William's appetite had outpaced Mulder's by a long shot. Not to mention he'd jumped two shoe sizes in a year. Scully glanced at the bedside clock. "Isn't it past lights out?" She could hear voices in the background, laughing and a few hoots, some music. "I guess it's safe to say that rule isn't enforced."

"As long as we're in our rooms by eleven, nobody says anything. We just hang out and listen to music and youtube stuff," he said.

Scully's brows arched. "Like what?" A bunch of teenaged boys unsupervised on the internet. She could only imagine. She knew William knew better, but he was still fifteen. She also knew that he'd recently developed more than just a passing interest in the opposite sex.

"Nothing bad. Just dumb stuff. Pranks and stuff."

"Okay," she said, reluctantly.

"It's fine, Mom."

"I know. Just use your head, okay?"

"You worry too much," he chuffed.

"So I've been told. It's in the job description."

She heard someone call his name in the background.

"Hey, I gotta go, Mom, but I'll call you in a couple of days." And then, hesitantly, "You're sure everything is okay?"

"I'm sure," she replied. "You worry too much," she chided.

He laughed. "Good night, Mom."

"Good night. I love you."

"Love you too."


***

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Unlike the day before, Scully awoke very early the next morning. Too early, even for her liking, but after another twenty minutes of lying there, she accepted the fact that she was destined to start her day before the birds. The sun was still just a promise over the horizon when she made her way down to the beach in her running clothes.

She pushed herself harder than she probably should considering it had been weeks since her last run. It was one of those things she always had to force herself to do, but once her heart got pumping and she felt the welcome strain in her muscles, she found it copacetic. Mulder needed it like a drug. It cleared his head and centered him. She could always tell when his exercise regimen was off because his libido picked up the slack in an almost obsessive way, until she'd eventually call time out. All that energy had to go somewhere.

Scully had never considered herself overly athletic, although she could hold her own. She attributed that more to her competitive nature than to giftedness. Even as a child, she had refused to allow her siblings to best her without a fight, whether it was running, climbing trees, swimming, or arm wrestling. Second to youngest in birth order and the smallest of four, she worked for it. Her favorite saying had always been "I can do it myself," and she meant it.

Years later, as a petite female in a male-dominated profession, her determination and stamina served her well. That, combined with a genius IQ, and a pair of three-inch heels.

Both William and Claire had inherited a healthy dose of her tenacity, combined with Mulder's natural athleticism. From the time he was in preschool, Will was dribbling a basketball up and down their paved driveway, sitting on top of Mulder's shoulders to sink shots. Claire had mastered the crawl and was swimming the length of their in-ground pool before she started first grade.

Genes were a funny thing. Who would have thought that two people as unusual and complicated and flawed as she and Mulder could create such wonderfully amazing human beings?

The sun had crested by the time she arrived back on the isolated stretch of beach in front of the lighthouse. She had forgotten all about Peter Firestone's request yesterday, but there he was, making his way down the steps from the bluff, carting two large canvas bags. He dropped them near a pile of other items, including an easel and a small stool, already set up. He waved at her and she returned the gesture.

"Good morning," he said, unpacking.

"Good morning. You get started early."

"Sunrise and sunset," he replied. "The best light of the day. Wasn't sure if you'd mind me showing up this early."

Scully bent to stretch her calf muscles and shook her head. "I don't mind."

He glanced at her attire. "Looks like you got a jump on the day yourself."

"I rarely have the extra time in the morning," she admitted. "It's a nice change."

He nodded in agreement. "So how did your husband like the painting?"

She only faltered for a second. "Oh, he um, he won't be here for a few days. But I'm sure he'll love it."

If her hesitation registered with him, he didn't let on. "Well, like I said, if you decide you want a different frame, it's no problem."

"Thank you. But I think you called it right. The distressed is the best choice."

He looked pleased. "Yeah, I thought so."

A tall thermos sat lodged in the sand next to him and Peter reached for it, taking a drink. The familiar aroma of coffee reached Scully and she inhaled deeply. That was next, she decided. Caffeine, then a shower. Her laptop and a pile of work awaited her as well. She hadn't so much as touched any of it since arriving and there was a message in her voice mail from a colleague regarding research data that she hadn't analyzed. Apparently, she could try and temporarily escape certain facets of her life, but her work was not one of them.

She started toward the lighthouse. "You have a good morning, Mr. Firestone."

"You as well," he said, raising his thermos toward her. "And call me Pete."

She was nearly to the stone steps when he called out to her again. "Oh, hey...and by the way, if my Jeep's in your way, just go ahead and move it. The keys are in it."

Scully nodded.

"Just be careful not to mess it up," he joked with a chuckle.

She recalled what the inside of his vehicle had looked like. "I'll...be careful," she replied with a side smile.

He laughed again.


***

The morning flew by in a rush of overdue research, email, and strong coffee. Despite a temperamental wifi connection, she managed to attend a video conference as well. By the expressions on some of her subordinates' faces, her casual summer attire was apparently more fascinating than the research findings. As if she lived in black dress slacks and a white lab coat. One particularly capricious intern, a young gentleman who seemed to take her office hours as his personal invitation, boldly asked her where she was calling from. He strained his neck to see beyond her computer monitor. "I'm on vacation, Patrick," she had answered tightly. She had pairs of shoes older than Patrick.

It was early afternoon when she finally put aside the work, applied a generous dose of 50 SPF, and made her way back down to the beach. She wanted to finish cleaning up the two windsurfers and perhaps even take the boat down to the marina for a tank of gas.

The sun wasn't at all bright like it had been the day before. A substantial but non-threatening cloud cover gave the sky a pearly haze. A stiff breeze was stirring the water into white caps. She loved the ocean like this. It seemed almost human. Expressive, moody, opinionated.

Scully hadn't checked the marine forecast since yesterday, but a small craft warning wouldn't be out of the question. The trip to the marina would have to wait.

The beach was unoccupied, but not empty. The collection of art paraphernalia was in the same place it was when she'd left the beach earlier that morning, but there was no sign of the artist. An easel with a drape over it withstood the breeze, the edge of the sheet snapping lightly.

Scully approached.

He was a neat worker. Apparently, the condition of his vehicle was not indicative of his work style. The canvas bags he had carried from the bluff that morning remained orderly, unzipped, but packed, leaning against his work stool. Curious, Scully lifted the thin corner of the sheet to sneak a peek.

"Wind seems to be dying down some," a voice behind her chimed. "You should have seen it earlier, though. I thought my sketches were going to take off on me."

She startled, her hand dropping the sheet guiltily.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to sneak up on you," he said. There was a small paper bag in his one hand, a Coke in the other.

"You didn't," she fibbed. "I was just...I.." She knew she was blushing.

"It's okay." He looked vaguely amused by her embarrassment, and not the last bit annoyed by her intrusion. "You can look," he offered, tugging the sheet off and letting it fall like a crumpled ghost onto the sand. "There's not much to see yet."

It was a sketch in pastels, but much of the paper was still empty, untouched. She had expected a painting instead. Her eyes fixed on the partial image and she tilted her head, working her bottom lip thoughtfully. The color was extraordinary, although she couldn't say exactly why. It wasn't just the shading, but the texture as well. She felt like she wanted to climb right into the sketch and explore. It reminded her of a children's storybook, mythical and dreamlike. "I...don't know what it is," she admitted softly, still transfixed. She felt self-conscious as soon as the words left her mouth and her eyes dropped from the sketch. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply it isn't wonderful. It is."

Pete chuckled amiably and picked up a colored pencil. "It's a work in progress." With the broad tip of the pencil, he sketched over a violet color with a light shading of teal, then gently smudged it with the pad of his stained thumb. "This part over here is the dunes...and then over here is the edge of the bluff. But it needs more depth."

She watched him work. His hands moved with a skilled precision and flow that left no question about his proficiency. It was a demonstration of someone who knew their craft. She was surprised to realize that it reminded her of the countless times she'd observed the work of a skilled surgeon.

"Grey," she blurted, without any forethought. Then more hesitantly, "Maybe grey?" She pointed with a finger. "Over here, along the edge."

He looked at her. "Yeah? I was trying to mix for the right shade of brown, but it looked muddy." He plucked a gunmetal colored pencil from the case and filled in the picture at the corner, then stopped and took two steps back from the easel to assess. "Women," he said simply, with a shake of his head.

"Excuse me?"

Pete quirked a smile at her. "Women have an eye for color that men don't. Generally speaking anyway."

"I don't know about that," she said, looking down and slipping her foot out of her flip flop. She had sand between her toes and it felt gritty.

Placing the pencil down again, he picked up the white bag he had returned with moments ago and rummaged inside, withdrawing a partially wrapped, thick sandwich. He took a bite and made a pleasant sound, closing his eyes for a moment. "God. They should patent this thing." Mouth still full, he shoved the food toward her. "Try this."

Surprised at his forwardness, she shook her head, politely. "Oh, no thanks. I, uh, ate lunch already."

"It's a lobster BLT from this place called Manny's in Edgartown. It's so good it'll make your toes curl. Sure you don't want to try a bite?"

Someone she'd met just yesterday was offering to let her take a bite of his food. She'd known Mulder for a year before they'd shared food without forks. It had been ham and swiss on rye and she'd been inappropriately distracted by his mouth. It wasn't the first time she'd known there was an attraction. "I'm sure, but thank you. I'll have to remember when I'm down that way again."

He nodded his approval. "It's worth a special trip."

Scully stood there watching him eat and dig through his supplies. He ate fast, like he was afraid the sandwich might blow away in the wind. She could smell the lobster and the bacon. Her small salad from an hour ago paled in comparison. Edgartown was an hour round-trip. That must be one good sandwich.

"So, do you paint?" he asked.

"Me? No," she said, a little too emphatically.

"Sketch?"

She shook her head. "No, no. I'm...not an artist."

"You have a good eye. That's why I ask." He balanced the last of the sandwich between his teeth for a moment while he fought with the zipper on one of the canvas bags. They were tattered, a faded olive drab color like they'd come from an Army surplus store.

"I appreciate art," she admitted. "I always have. But that's the extent of it."

"So what's your creative outlet then?" He didn't look at her when he asked, too wrapped up in contemplating shades of blue against the sketch. His chin length, wavy hair looked damp from humidity and the salty breeze. "You sing? Play an instrument?"

She chuffed at the idea. "No. Definitely not." She thought about it for a moment. Did she do anything creative? No one ever asked her these types of questions. "I...don't know. I'm not very good at those things."

"Don't have to be good at it. It can still be good for you."

She frowned, thinking about that.

"Art, any form of it, is expression," he said. "It doesn't have to mean anything to anybody but you."

"I guess I never thought of it that way," she confessed. Scully liked to be good at things. She'd never saw much point in pursuing the things she didn't excel at when there were plenty she did. "Is this what you do?" she asked. "As a profession?"

He smiled out of the corner of his mouth. "Does that surprise you?"

"No, I didn't mean it that way," she replied, apologetically. "I can testify to the quality of your work. I just didn't know if perhaps you were an art professor or something like that."

He shook his head and talked while chewing. "Nope. This is pretty much it. I work on private commission, and I display my work at several studios on the Vineyard and in the Boston area. Would you mind doing me a favor and grabbing that second easel, by your feet?"

"Oh." Scully looked down. "Um, sure." It was heavy, but not unmanageable. "Where would you like it?"

"Right there is fine." Pete pointed to the spot next to him. Once it was set up, he clipped a blank piece of sketch paper onto it. "You'll need a place to sit," he said, glancing past her toward the boat house and the dock.

"What do you mean?"

"I just figured if we're going to talk, you might as well sketch. And if you're going to sketch, you'll need a place to sit."

Scully shook her head and put her hand up. "Oh, I-no thanks, I really can't. I've got some things I need to get done. But thank you for the offer." Had she somehow implied that she wanted to draw?

Pete shrugged, nonchalantly. "Okay." He left the second easel where it was and continued sketching.

She waited for her feet to move, but suddenly she didn't really feel like doing much of anything. The air was dense and muggy, even with the cloud cover. It sapped her energy and made her feel like finding a patch of shade and reading a book instead, or taking a nap. "How do you know what you want to draw?" she asked.

"Well," he sighed, stroking his stubbled chin while he considered the question. "I guess, for me, it depends on what I've got available to me on any given day. In the case of a landscape, for example," he gestured toward the water, "the choice can be obvious. But other times, I start with a feeling and choose a subject that expresses it. I suppose you could say my art reflects my mood."

"It must be very therapeutic."

Pete nodded slowly, his expression more serious than before. "It is," he agreed. "Very much so."

"I have no idea what I would draw."

He looked at her intensely. His eyes traveled her face. "What are you feeling?"

Daunted, her mouth opened and she frowned at him. He seemed to be waiting her out, expectantly. "I-don't think that's.." She left her sentence incomplete, but the none of your business was on the tip of her tongue.

Inhaling deeply, he nodded. "It's okay if you don't know. Sometimes that's the hardest part – figuring it out."

"I didn't say I didn't know," she clipped.

"Okay." He shrugged.

"It's personal."

"Most feelings are."

Scully stood with her arms crossed, feeling awkward while Pete sketched. Where did he get off telling her she didn't know what she felt? He didn't even know her. The inquisitive nature she'd found refreshing about him yesterday was fast becoming irritating.

"I have work to do," she announced, picking up the bucket full of cleaning supplies she'd dragged to the beach with her. "Good luck with your sketch, Mr. Firestone."

"Pete," he said to her back as she walked away. "Good luck with your work, Ms. Scully."

If he was waiting for her to invite him to address her by her first name, it would be a long wait.


***

Scully cooked herself a real dinner that night. Scallops and vegetable stir fry over risotto, paired with a spicy chilled Gewurztraminer. The research proposal due next week sat while she ate and watched three episodes of Sex and the City on a satellite channel showing all re-runs. Unlike every other female her age, she'd never actually seen it before and wondered what all the fuss was about. Single women didn't really live like this anyway. Did they? Stupid question. She'd overheard enough conversations among her twenty and thirty-something colleagues to know that her sexual exploits at the same age had been far below average.

Where had she been when everyone else was having casual sex? Oh right. Sleeping alone in musty motel rooms and getting the shit kicked out of her on a regular basis. It seemed ridiculous to her now that she and Mulder hadn't just said the hell with it and started sleeping together earlier. It wasn't as if they had been fit for any kind of ongoing relationship with anyone else. All those nights she had listened to him flip channels through the thin motel wall. They could have been alleviating a hell of a lot of stress in much better ways.

She considered herself fairly progressive in terms of her values and it wasn't like she was offended by the idea of sex outside of a committed relationship. Her choices had been much more a result of circumstance than anything else.

Three glasses of wine disappeared while Scully contemplated the alternative realities of her past sex life. Or lack thereof.

She climbed into bed early and took out her journal again.


Journal Entry

August 17, 2003

William is 2


I'm ovulating and we're officially trying to get pregnant. I've been pregnant twice before, neither planned. It's amazing how much romance is lost when you're coordinating sex with both a menstrual calendar and a toddler's nap schedule. The Reardons have been a tremendous help. The girls are thrilled to play with William whenever we let them, which is often. And Todd and Liz have kept him at their house through dinner twice now. I think they assumed Mulder and I could use some time alone after the miscarriage, and of course they're right, but they probably aren't imagining us making a beeline for the bedroom the second they have William out the door.

I think Mulder is nervous I'll change my mind about wanting another baby. "You're sure, right?" seems to be his favorite thing to say as I'm stripping off my bra and panties. But I am sure. I want another baby, a sibling for William. I want to be pregnant just once where my biggest concern is being able to bend over and tie my shoes, not being chased by aliens or whether the child growing inside me is normal or some kind of monstrosity. I want to be pregnant and have Mulder there to share the experience. I want him to hear the heartbeat, to see the ultrasound, to be in the room holding my hand when his child takes his first breath.

No, I won't change my mind. In fact, now I fear I might want it too much and the disappointment will be too great to bear if we don't conceive. I know Mulder worries about that too – not just about my disappointment, but his own. I know he never planned to be a father to begin with. But one look at his son changed all that. I see how he is with William and I think what a shame it would have been if he'd never had the chance to experience that kind of life-changing love.

Mulder just put William down for his afternoon nap. By the look on his face as he watches me write, he's calculating exactly how much time we have and hoping I'm almost done. Technically, I think I ovulated yesterday, which makes sex today rather a moot point, but Mulder already has his shirt off and I don't have the heart to disappoint him. Besides, a little insurance can't hurt.


***

Her cell phone rang at a quarter to midnight, just as she was tucking the journal away. She stared at the screen for five rings before answering. She thought seriously about not. But who was she kidding, she always took his calls.

"Hello, Mulder," she said, softly.

"Hey, Scully." He sounded so far away. "Were you asleep?"

"No."

"Is this okay?"

Scully sniffed. "Yes. It's okay."

"I know you asked me not to call, but I needed to hear your voice."

She drew a quick, uneven breath. "It's okay," she repeated.

"Are you ...all right?" she asked.

Mulder chuffed. "Define all right."

She didn't try. "Where are you?"

"I'm home," he answered simply. "Will called. He told me where you were. Obviously, he assumed I knew. Why didn't you say something, Scully? About the plans to go to the lighthouse?"

"It was supposed to be a surprise," she said, weakly.

"Well...I think it's safe to say it was." Another careful silence.

"You didn't tell him that we... that we're..." We're what? Fighting? Arguing? Having problems? It happened so infrequently for them that she lacks a suitable definition. Not that they don't argue. But it's usually about trivial things or a difference of opinion, reminiscent of their professional partnership. Verbal sparring, bantering, competitive one-upsmanship. Rarely does it involve real anger and it almost always resolves itself within a day, or simply gets categorized as 'things we agree to disagree on.' Sometimes he just takes her to bed and that works too.

This time is different, though. She'd never walked out before.

"I told him I had work to do," Mulder replied. "I figured that's what you said."

"It is."

"But I'm not sure he bought it. He asked when I was going to the Vineyard."

"What did you tell him?" she asked, curious.

"I said we were working that out. He's not stupid."

Scully sighed. "No, he isn't." If she knew her son, he had suspected for months that something wasn't quite right between his parents.

"He's very protective of you, Scully."

"He's protective of both of us."

"Not like he is of you. And that's okay; that's the way it should be."

They were both silent for a long moment and Scully tried to remember when the last time was that they had trouble filling a phone conversation. Not counting the last six months, of course.

He used to leave her messages during the day when she was at the hospital, even though he knew he wouldn't reach her. They were silly, random things he would have said to her when they used to work together every day. "Scully, ever heard of ghost sickness? It's a Native American belief centered around the idea that the spirit of the restless dead, called a Chindi, can induce physical illness among the living. You should look it up." She'd smile and save the messages until her mailbox was too full and she was forced to delete some.

It had been awhile now since her messages had been full.

"When are you coming home?" he asked quietly, drawing her back to the present.

Scully closed her eyes and tried to keep the tremor out of her reply. "I don't know, Mulder. Those things that we said to each other...I have to admit, I don't know where that leaves us." She choked on the last two words and then she heard him say her name softly on the other end, a strangled breath, a plea, an apology. His respiration was breathy and staggered and it made her heart twist inside her chest.

The air between them stretched and expanded, broken only by the muffled sounds of sniffling and hitched breathing.

After time, they both quieted.

"You still there?" he asked with a huff, almost a nervous laugh.

"Yeah," she said, "I'm still here."

He cleared his throat. "So I've been doing some thinking." She heard shifting on the other end, like he was moving around. The sound of leather creaking, familiar and distant in her memory. His couch. He was on his old leather couch in his office. She wondered if he'd slept there since she left.

"Hang on a sec, Scully." He blew his nose and then came back to the phone. "So I was thinking about what you said...about how I had no idea what it was like for you when I was missing."

Oh God, she was going to start crying again.

"And I think you're right," he confessed. "I didn't know how bad it was. I mean, I had an idea...maybe...the Gunmen said some things here and there and Skinner, but...I don't think I ever really *knew* knew."

"You never wanted to talk about it."

"Yes, but we should have. It wasn't fair to you."

"I was just thankful you were alive," she admitted, with the still-fresh awe in her voice even after all these years. People don't come back from the dead. People don't, but Mulder did. Some gifts weren't meant to be understood. Mulder in her life had always been one of them.

"And with the baby coming," she continued, "it was just-it was a lot for you. I guess I thought there would be time later."

He chuffed quietly. "Yeah, now we know how that works. After the babies come, there's never time." She heard the wistful smile in his voice.

He was right. At the time of his abduction, things had just been getting started between them, strange as that seemed. Seven years together. As best friends, they knew everything there was to know. As lovers, they were just beginning to discover the wonder of each other. He had made love to her just four rare, wonderful times before he disappeared. There should have been more. So much more.

And then William came and they were a family, new and passionate and eager to create a future together.

Her new job at the hospital, his writing career, moving to a new house, getting married, caring for William, her miscarriage and then finally Claire. Their perfect baby girl, their second miracle. Beautiful honey gold skin and dark hair, inquisitive, bright eyes.

And it seemed okay to forget. Forget all the terrible things that had happened because it was over, in the past. She had everything she wanted.

"Scully, I'm going to ask you to do something for me."

Her mouth went dry. She didn't want to ask what it was. Maybe she couldn't do it.

"What?" she asked. "What is it?"

"I need you to wait for me, Scully."

Confused, she frowned and stumbled with her words. "I'm not sure I...I don't understand. Wait for you to do what?"

"To go back. I need to go back, Scully. To the time before my abduction, to everything that we found out right before I disappeared, to what we discovered about my sister. I've read the files, I know I was there, but my memories...it's like-it's like I'm watching a movie of someone else's life. For whatever reason – maybe because of what happened to me during my abduction – everything is all mixed up in my head."

"But...go back to where? To what, Mulder? It's been too long. There's nothing left to go back to." The exasperation she felt was evident in her tone. She thought they were done with all that. The last fifteen years had been good for them; she knew she hadn't imagined it all. He had been okay, happy even. Had it all been a lie?

She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes, trying to steady herself. "I don't know what you mean by 'go back'. Are you talking about hypnotherapy?"

"Not exactly, no. Although I'm hoping the effect might be somewhat the same. I'm talking about Sacramento, about April Air Force base, about where we found the diary. And I'm talking about Bellefleur, where it all started. Where it all ended. I need to go back there."

She shook her head and swallowed hard, the familiar taste of fear clinging to the back of her throat. "No, Mulder." She couldn't do this. She couldn't worry that he'd go and accidentally hitch a ride off the planet and out of her life again. She couldn't think about unspeakable, terrible things being done to him against his will. She couldn't look at her children's faces and tell them their father was gone.

Goddamn him.

She would only bury him one more time in her life and that was it. And she intended to have a lot more fucking grey hair before then. And some grandchildren.

Goddamn him. She wouldn't wait. If that was what he was asking, then the answer was no.

"Stop and think about what you're saying, Mulder." Her voice shook. "Everything is different now. You have children to think about. You can't just-"

"Whoa, whoa," he interrupted. "Nobody's doing anything crazy here. I'm talking about a few weeks maybe, that's all."

Scully closed her eyes and pressed the phone hard to her ear, drawing fitful breaths.

"Shhh, calm down," he said, his voice low and even, touching the places in her that only he could find. "I'm coming back, Scully."

"That's what you said last time."

He chuffed quietly. "Well, I kept my word, didn't I? Came back a little banged up, but I made it."

"Don't joke about this, Mulder. I'm telling you I can't do this."

"Three weeks, Scully. I'll be at the lighthouse before the kids get there. Give me three weeks."

She bit down on her lip and didn't respond, counted to ten in her head, almost hung up on him.

"Scully, I don't want to hurt you anymore, but I don't know how to stop. This is something I have to do."

She sighed, tried to get a hold of herself, thought about all the times she waited for him. How it had been nice for the last fifteen years to know where he was and that he'd be there when she needed him.

"Wait for you..." she said, finally, contemplatively. Bitterly.

"Yes."

She sat there on the edge of the bed for yet another expanse of time, smoothing the sheet under her palm, thinking, breathing. Cursing everything.

"What if...it doesn't work, Mulder?" she asked. "What if you come back and we're still in the same place? What then?"

He sighed deeply. "Then...I guess we go to plan B."

"Which is?"

"Which is...thaaat you find yourself a hot thirty-year-old stud with a decent vocabulary and no head issues who doesn't mind eating all that healthy crap you like to cook."

"Mulder..." She clicked her tongue.

"And I'll get myself one of those log cabins that's off-the-grid, raise some chickens and goats, grow a beard, and become a peaceful version of the Unibomber."

"That's not funny."

"Come on, Scully, we always knew that between the two of us, I was the Boo Radley."

"I'm serious, Mulder."

"So am I. You could totally get a thirty-year-old guy, Scully. Have you looked at you lately?" He wolf whistled quietly. "I married well."

Scully sighed, wearily. Twenty-three years of being patient while he used humor to relieve tension. Not this time. Not about this. "I'm scared, Mulder."

"So am I," he admitted softly. "But this isn't going to go away until I deal with it. I'll make us both miserable if I don't."

"What makes you so sure that going back there – to all those places again – will help? There are other options, Mulder – treatments that can help people reclaim memories, there are doctors and therapists who successfully treat people with PTSD. There are-there are medications that can help with anxiety and depression."

"Scully, I'll take the drugs if they'll help, but I need to deal with this my way too. I want to have a life...hopefully with you. But right now I can't do that, not when this is all I think about. I know I don't have much to offer you in the way of promises. I wish I could say that everything will be alright, but I've never lied to you and I won't now."

"Stop it," she said with a hitch to her voice. "You're scaring me."

"I'm not happy, Scully. Every day that goes by I feel like I'm losing my grip a little more and I need to figure out how to get back on solid ground. I don't want to live the rest of my life thinking about the past. I won't do that to you, Scully, I refuse to. I'm not going to make you sit there and watch me sink."

She was crying again. "Don't I get a vote?"

He answered by saying her name like a plea, a supplication, like it was all that anchored him. "Scully..." She would always be the one holding the other end of the rope.

Taking deep, cleansing breaths, she slowly pulled herself together. "When will you leave?"

"Tomorrow. Your mother's taking the dog."

"You called her?"

"I told her I had a last minute work thing and then I would be meeting you on the Vineyard. She said to take as long as we needed."

Scully sniffed and wiped the remaining wetness from her cheeks. "She feeds Bailey too many table scraps. He gets fat there."

"He's almost seventy in people years. I think we should cut him some slack."

"You feed him too much too. That's why he follows you everywhere."

He chuckled. "You're still mad I stole your dog."

"He was my idea, Mulder. You didn't even want him at first," she grumbled.

"Yes, I did. Don't listen to Mom, Bailey." Scully heard shuffling and panting that she assumed was not Mulder. "Speaking of food, what's this stuff in the blue bag, Scully?"

"The vet prescribed it for his urinary tract problems. I think it's helping."

"Yeah ok, have you noticed the cloud of stench following him around? Don't even think of blaming that on me."

"It's a possible side effect. It should get better in a few weeks."

"Well that should be fun for your mom."

Scully simpered quietly on the other end of the phone, feeling the dull ache of homesickness. All the routine conversations, the meaningless exchanges that she never paid much attention to. The soundtrack of her life for the past decade and a half.

Mom, I need a ride to basketball practice. Dad called to say he'll be late, but he's bringing pizza. Can I go to the movies with friends? Which movie? Which friends? I need twenty bucks. What happened to your allowance? We're out of cereal and milk. Who took the last brownie? Claire, you forgot to empty the dishwasher. Mom, do you know where my game jersey is? Will, stop leaving your bike in the driveway. Did somebody walk the dog yet? I can't find my library books. We're out of laundry detergent. Can I sleep over at Sarah's? Not on a school night. Stop snacking, we're eating dinner in an hour. Don't forget to mow the lawn. Come to bed, Scully. I'm almost done. Come to bed. Who tracked mud into the kitchen? Did anyone feed the dog? Come to bed, Woman. No video games before homework, Will. Leftover pizza is not breakfast food. Get off the phone, Claire. Do I have to carry you to bed, Scully? Shhhh, be quiet, Mulder, they'll hear you.

"Scully?"

"Yeah?"

"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have to."

She wanted to say that no, he didn't have to. He had responsibilities. Two kids to put through college, a book to write, a garage that needed repainting. These were things he had to do, not run off to the west coast chasing ghosts.

"I'll call you from the road," he added, quietly. "And you can reach me on my cell phone. I don't know where I'll be staying."

"Be careful, Mulder. I can't believe I'm agreeing to this."

"I'll be careful."

"You have children to think about."

There was a long pause as she heard him thinking about her omission. "Yes. I know," he said, earnestly.

She took a deep, cleansing breath. "So then I guess I'll...just talk to you...sometime."

"I'll call you."

"Okay."

The silence between them sparked with everything left unsaid. She felt profoundly exhausted, weary with emotion. "Good night, Mulder."

"Good night, Scully."

She held the silent phone until her hand went numb.

Lying in the big, hollow bed, she curled up and shook, unable to find warmth despite the sticky night breeze stirring the blinds. The small lighthouse felt lonesome and empty.



***

The next three mornings, Scully woke early and ran on the beach, each day a little further than the last. She enjoyed the strain on her body, the satisfaction that came from pushing herself physically. She also savored that fleeting hour before sunrise when everything felt new and unspoiled and full of possibility.

Her mornings at home were typically anything but relaxing and she rarely left herself time to exercise. The kids walked to school, but there were still lunches to be packed, permission slips to be signed, missing cleats and uniforms to be found. If she got on the Beltway any time after 7:30, her commute to the hospital would be doubled, so she was often abrupt on her way out the door and then felt badly about it later. She'd leave Post-it notes for Mulder on their bathroom mirror with instructions to remember to get the car serviced or call the electrician or pick up Claire from a swim meet.

There weren't many on the beach at such an early hour. Hardcore runners, dog walkers, a few meditators or yoga enthusiasts. The sand was like a smooth, blank canvas touching the horizon. She jogged around tangles of kelp, seashells, and occasionally litter.

Each morning, she'd return to the beachfront by the lighthouse to find Peter Firestone carting his canvas bags down from the bluff, his long caramel hair twisting in the salty breeze. He drank his coffee, smiled at her and politely inquired about her well-being. He was clearly a morning person. She was not by choice and always found herself invariably annoyed by and a little envious of those who were.

She couldn't help but notice that he always set up two easels, but only used one. She had to assume the other was for her. It struck her as a quiet invitation, like an extra place setting at the table. He didn't bother her or intrude upon her space or force her to engage in pointless small talk. When she hauled the windsurfers up onto the beach, he asked her just once if she needed a hand and then accepted her polite decline without pushing. He never knocked on the lighthouse door to ask for a glass of water or to use the bathroom.

He was unimposing and quietly courteous. He wore variations of the same style each day – cargo shorts with paint splatters, sandals, faded denim or cotton shirts with sleeves rolled to the elbows. He listened to music on a small, battered portable CD player. Stuff like Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Creedence Clearwater. She didn't mind. And when he smoked, which he seemed to try and do when she wasn't around, he extinguished the cigarettes into a small tin instead of leaving the butts in the sand. She appreciated the courtesy.

Scully spent mornings after her runs working in the lighthouse. Once in a while, if the breeze wasn't too strong, she'd settle on the lookout deck, cuddled into a sweater with her glasses on and laptop balanced on her knees.

She spoke to the children nearly every day, just to check in, and she got the same inquiries each time. "Have you talked to Dad? Where is he? When will he be at the lighthouse?" And every time, she gave the same answers. "Yes, of course. He's working away from home. I'm not sure, but as soon as he can."

There had been one text from Mulder, the night following their phone call. "In CA. Remember that dive bar we went to the night of the movie premiere? Still open. You let me kiss you there and I spilled beer on your jacket. Your lip gloss tasted like cotton candy."

"I remember," she texted back. "Be careful."


***

Scully awoke to rain one morning, exactly a week after she had arrived. The gunmetal grey sky loomed over the ocean, casting ominous shadows and tossing heavy sheets of water against the lighthouse. She rushed about in bare feet and thin pajamas, battening down the window latches and dragging furniture in from the lookout deck, getting thoroughly drenched in the process.

By the time she warmed herself with a shower and hot coffee, the entire event had passed and a hint of sun peeked through the lingering cloud cover. Scully found a message on her cell phone from Elizabeth asking if she would like to join her and Mallory for mass. Since she was already clean and caffeinated, Scully accepted the invitation.

St. Andrews in Chilmark was quaint and beautiful with cathedral ceilings, polished wooden pews, and ornately-detailed stained glass windows. It wasn't her first visit, but it had of course been nearly a year since she'd last attended mass there, so she was surprised when Father Matthews recognized her immediately. "So nice to see you again, Dana. And how is your family?"

She smiled politely and took the elderly priest's hand carefully in her own. "Just fine, thank you. It's good to be here."

They chose a pew toward the back where Elizabeth could remain in her wheelchair.

"I thought Daddy was coming with us," said Mally.

"He got called in on some kind of work crisis," replied Liz.

Scully wondered what kind of emergencies family court judges dealt with. One of the benefits of working her way up to department head was that she was almost never on-call anymore, unless she happened to be covering someone else's vacation and even then, she was the last one to get stuck with it.

When the hymns were finished, she sat down, crossing one knee over the other and resting her hands primly in her lap. She was dressed in beige slacks, a summer blouse, and pumps, which she happened to find in the lighthouse closet from when they attended Tatum's rehearsal dinner last August. Her only other choice had been a sundress, but she couldn't recall how conservatively the congregation dressed at St. Andrews and she didn't want to look out of place. Looking around, she saw plenty of summer dresses and she wished that she had worn something cooler. There was no air conditioning in the old church and her silk blouse was beginning to stick to her back.

Across the aisle and one pew back, he was smiling at her when she looked and then looked again, just to be sure it was him. She had a temporary and fleeting moment of displacement that happens when you see someone out of context. He wasn't wearing the paint splattered clothing, although the sandals looked the same, paired with a collared shirt and khakis. When he lifted his hand to her, she realized with embarrassment that she was staring. She waved back and then redirected her attention to Father Matthews, who was somewhere in the middle of Ephesians.

Later, on the way to lunch with Mally driving and Scully in the back seat, Elizabeth handed back a stick of cinnamon gum. "Was he a friend of yours? That guy at church who said hi to you as we were leaving? I've seen him there before."

Scully tucked the red foil wrapper into her purse and chewed. "No. Just a local artist I hired to paint something. I don't know him personally."

"What's his name?"

"It's um, Peter Firestone."

Elizabeth looked back over her left shoulder. "I've heard of him."

"I think he displays his work locally, in restaurants and such," Scully said. "He might've mentioned that."

"I think he was in the paper recently, something about some mural he painted for one of the schools."

"Oh yeah!" Mally glanced back at Scully through the rearview mirror as she drove. "It's that one outside Roslyn Park Elementary. It took something like six months to finish. I only know about it because I have a friend who did her student teaching there. The mural is amazing. It covers the whole side of the building. You should drive by it sometime. Where are we going for lunch anyway? I'm starved."

***

Back at the Reardon's house that afternoon, Scully and Elizabeth drank lemonade on wicker furniture and lingered in the laziness of a summer Sunday. Ceiling fans cooled the screen porch just enough to keep it nearly comfortable in short sleeves, but if the early warmth was any indication of what July and August had in store, they might regret the lack of air conditioning in the old lighthouse. There had only been a few summers when they'd wished for it, but the potential cost of cooling a two century old structure with a hundred foot ceilings would be daunting.

"I wish you would stay and eat dinner with us," said Elizabeth. "It'll be just Todd and me."

"What about Mally?"

"She has a date."

"It's not a date," Mallory called from the kitchen.

"What do you call it then?" asked Elizabeth with a side smile.

Mallory walked in carrying a Histology textbook and chewing a strand of red licorice. She settled into a Papasan chair and twisted her long hair up into a clip. "He's just a guy I used to know from high school. We're going to a movie."

"Why isn't that a date?" asked her mother.

"Because it's not."

Liz rolled her eyes and Scully smiled.

"Apparently I don't understand how these things work anymore," said Liz.

"I'm not sure I do either," admitted Scully.

"William isn't dating yet, is he?"

Scully shook her head. "No. But I don't think we're far off. He's interested, although he tries to hide it."

"Well I can't speak from experience when it comes to boys, but I have to say it seems like it happens overnight. One day they can't stand the opposite sex, the next they're madly in love and filling a journal with song lyrics."

Mally glanced up from her notetaking. "Clearly, you are talking about Tate. I never did that."

Elizabeth smiled. "Maybe not the song lyrics, but you turned down a week at horseback riding camp with your friends to work at the Dairy Queen with that Manson kid."

"What?" Mally laughed.

"You know, the blonde one with the skateboard. He had the twin sisters in Tatum's grade."

Mallory frowned. "You mean Liam?" She laughed again. "Mansfield, Mom. His last name was Mansfield, not Manson. Manson's a serial killer."

"Well whatever it was, you were pretty smitten."

Mally shook her head. "God, I'd forgotten about that. What a jerk."

"Anyway," Elizabeth said to Scully, "it happens fast. They turn into walking talking balls of hormones before you know it."

"We're already there," admitted Scully with a defeated sigh. "I can't keep up with the outgrown clothes. Food disappears faster than I can buy it. As for the other interest, I will admit that William's group of friends seems to have mysteriously morphed into something co-ed. I suddenly have an influx of young ladies shooting hoops in my driveway after school."

"Yeah, look out," replied Liz. "It's a short jump to worrying about who's in your house when you're gone, and staying up past midnight to flash the porch lights because they've been sitting in a dark car too long."

Scully wrinkled her brows. "I thought it was just my father who did that."

Elizabeth chuckled and shook her head. "Some things never change."

"Except now you can track your kids on their cell phones," interjected Mally casually, yellow highlighter squeaking as it moved across the glossy pages of the textbook.

Scully and Elizabeth looked at each other.

Mally raised her head. "You guys didn't know that?" She huffed and smiled. "Wow."


Scully stayed for dinner after all. Her other option had been to return to the lighthouse and eat alone, probably while staring at her laptop or something unimaginative on the television. She surprised herself by wanting to be in the company of others. It felt safe, although from what she wasn't sure. From her thoughts, from her memories, from wondering where he was and if there'd be something left for him to come home to.

In fourteen years of marriage, they'd certainly been apart for a week before. He lived the life of a published writer, traveling for new book signings, publisher meetings, guest lectures. Scully had never minded. She enjoyed time to herself. As a couple, they were not the type to have to spend every waking moment together to feel connected. In their oneness, they were still able to respect and cultivate one another's individuality.

But during their moments apart there had always been a reunion to anticipate. A time when she knew she'd be with him again and everything would make sense.

She missed his voice, his smell, the way parts of him crept to her side of the bed if she got up in the middle of the night. He was so known to her now that she could feel him even when he wasn't there, like a phantom limb or a static charge. Her life before him seemed distant and dreamlike, as if everything in it had simply been to prepare her to receive him.

She felt like she was drifting, being carried along on some unknown current, directionless and uncertain. Willing to swim, but with no idea which way to go to save herself, to save both of them.


Todd grilled steaks and they ate baked potatoes and crisp garden salad and drank cabernet. At a quarter to seven, Mallory passed through the dining room on her way out. She had showered and changed into dark wash jeans, a pretty blue tank top, and wedge heeled sandals. Her long hair was glossy and straight and she wore makeup – mascara, eyeliner and lip gloss, neatly applied. The familiar tom boy Dana knew was nowhere to be found.

"Has anyone seen my phone?" Mally asked, digging through the pockets of a faded denim jacket.

Todd's eyes followed his daughter around the room. "Look at you."

"She has a date," supplied Elizabeth.

"It's not a date, Mom."

"It looks like a date," said Todd, arching his brows skeptically.

"Well, it's not. I'm going to the movies."

"Who's the lucky guy?" Todd asked.

Mallory slid her jaw to the side and gave her father a barely tolerant look. "Just someone I went to high school with. We ran into each other at the coffee shop the other day. It's nothing," Mally insisted. "I barely have time to brush my teeth during the semester, let alone date anyone."

"So she says." Todd narrowed his eyes teasingly.

"Believe me, Daddy, when there's someone you should know about, you'll know about him." Mally looked toward Dana for solidarity. "Tell him, please. You remember what it was like."

Scully smiled gently. "The first two years are tough." She had had a boyfriend when she started med school – a lingering connection from undergrad. They didn't live together, but it may have been heading in that direction. Four month into her first year of medical school, he broke up with her on her answering machine because that had become their primary means of communication by then.

"Does Mr. Nobody have a name?" asked Todd.

"Holden," replied Mally, lifting up the recovered cell phone victoriously. She pinched a small red potato from her mother's plate and popped it into her mouth.

Todd scrunched his nose. "What the hell kind of name is that? Is that his first name or his last name?"

"Honey..." Liz tossed her husband a subtle admonition.

"Don't wait up," Mallory said. She wore an impish smile as she pressed a kiss to her father's cheek.

"We most certainly will, young lady."

Liz rolled her eyes and shook her head at her husband. "Have a good time, Mally."

"Not too good," Todd called after his daughter.

"Twenty-three, Daddy. I'm twenty-three."

The door off the kitchen clicked shut and the hum of the electric garage door opener sounded.

"Honestly, Todd..." said Elizabeth, bland amusement in her tone.

"She knows I'm messing with her. Seriously, though, what kind of name is Holden? It's almost as bad as Fox." He side-smiled at Scully and waited for her witty comeback.

It took her several beats to realize he was referring to Mulder. Sometimes on occasion, when she was filling out paperwork for things – insurance, school contact forms, joint income taxes – she had to legitimately stop and think for a minute to remember that Mulder wasn't just Mulder. He had a first name.

Todd touched her wine glass with the tines of his fork. "You there, camper?"

She forced a temperate smile. "I'm fine, just thinking. Where has the time gone? It feels like just yesterday that I was pregnant with Claire and now Tate is having her own baby."

"Tell me about it," said Liz. "I keep telling myself she's too young, but I was younger when I had her."

Todd drained his wine from the glass and pushed his chair back, gathering his plate and silverware. "Well, I hate to bail out on the 'we're so old' party, but unfortunately I have work to finish tonight."

Elizabeth regarded him sadly. "On a Sunday night?"

"I have a big adoption hearing in the morning, honey. I'm sorry." He lifted the bottle of cabernet and poured the remaining liquid equally into the two women's glasses. "You ladies enjoy yourselves."

"I made chocolate mousse for dessert," said Liz, temptingly.

He kissed her hair affectionately. "I'll have mine in my office."

The dining room fell silent after Todd left and it was Liz who finally spoke. "Forgive me for prying," she said hesitantly, "but you've just seemed really, I don't know, troubled since you got here a week ago. Are you sure you're okay?"

Dana drew a deep breath, her eyes glancing off her friend's. "Yeah, I'm okay."

Liz's patient expression was overwhelmingly kind. "We've known each other a long time now."

Lifting her wine glass, Dana nodded. She knew Elizabeth was trying to gently tell her she wasn't fooled by the platitudes.

"I'm okay," Scully repeated. "Things are just a little complicated right now."

Elizabeth's pale fingers smoothed her cloth napkin thoughtfully. "Since he isn't here with you, I assume you mean between you and Mulder."

Scully arched her brows in response.

"I suspected as much," said Liz. Her tone was gentle.

Dana huffed out a self-conscious laugh and looked away. "Is it that obvious?"

"No, I don't think so. Not to the casual observer. I don't think Todd suspects anything out of the ordinary."

"Mulder's not coming," Dana said bluntly. "Not soon anyway."

Liz nodded. She didn't appear the least bit judgmental, which helped deflect the awkwardness of the conversation. "Are you...separated, or..."

"No." Scully sighed, wearily. "We aren't separated. I don't really know what we are at the moment. I wouldn't really use the word 'together' either."

Elizabeth's delicate hand reached across the table to cover hers and Dana emitted some kind of half sigh, half laugh. She appreciated the compassion and concern, but it still made her uncomfortable.

"Do you want to talk about it?" asked Liz.

Dana shook her head no, sniffled and pulled her hand away slowly, trying not to appear ungracious. "I don't really know what I'd say at this point," she replied, honestly. "It's all a bit new. I don't want to seem unappreciative, but I'm still trying to process it all."

Liz nodded. "I understand."

"Please don't misinterpret me. I know you mean well and I love both you and Todd. But for as long as you've known me, you've known Mulder much longer. And I wouldn't want to say anything to influence that relationship. We'll work it out, one way or another." She tried to sound more confident than she felt.

"Oh honey," said Elizabeth with a sigh, "trust me, I know he's no saint. I love him like a brother, but I can't imagine it's easy living with him."

"It isn't," agreed Scully, "but I'm no picnic either."

"None of us are. Marriage is fucking hard. They say the first year is the hardest, but I don't know about that. In the beginning, we solved everything by taking our clothes off."

Dana huffed out a laugh and smiled, closing her eyes. She appreciated the truth in the statement. The bedroom had always been the great equalizer for them. Regardless of what complicated their lives at any given time, they could make love and it felt right. That deeper connection between them was always solid and secure. Lately it had felt different though, like some invisible wall separated them and she had no idea how it got there or which way to go to get around it.

"It's not the first year, it's the next twenty-nine that are harder than hell," said Elizabeth, sympathetically.

"Has it really been that long for you guys?"

Liz smiled. "Thirty years this September. Tatum was six months old when we got married. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change a day of it." Her eyes suddenly darkened and she looked down at the chair she was sitting in. "Well, maybe one day."

A car accident twenty years ago had claimed the life of their unborn son and put Elizabeth in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Dana felt suddenly selfish for being so preoccupied with her problems.

"Todd is my soul mate. I can't imagine my life without him. He's the first person I want to see when I wake up in the morning and the last one I want to see when I close my eyes at night. But that doesn't mean being married to him is easy or that we haven't struggled to make things work between us. I still go through moments when I believe he'd be better off without me, when it's all I can do to keep from pushing him away. 'In sickness and in health' – you never really think too much about what those words really mean when you say them. He was thirty-three when this happened."

"Todd loves you, Elizabeth."

She nodded, her eyes filling as she glanced away. "I know he does. I don't doubt that for a second. And he'd say in a heartbeat that it's all been worth it." She laughed bitterly and wiped her eyes. "I said he was my soul mate; I didn't say he wasn't an idiot."

Dana sighed. "I'm sorry...I have no reason to complain-"

"Oh no! God no, I didn't mean to trivialize your problems at all. That wasn't why I said all that." She smiled at Dana warmly and then laughed. "Honestly, I don't know what my point was, other than that marriage is a challenge and anyone who stays together ought to be given a medal of honor and a Nobel prize and a lifetime supply of chocolate or something."

"Wine," Dana countered, raising her glass to her lips.

Elizabeth laughed freely. "Yes! Free alcohol. Maybe that's why it's so hard – we don't drink enough." Suddenly, her face brightened. "We almost forgot about the mousse!" She pushed her chair back from the table and wheeled toward the kitchen.

Dana stood and began stacking the dishes.

"Leave all that," Elizabeth's voice instructed loudly from the kitchen. "We need emergency chocolate, STAT!"

***

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Six Months Ago

At eight o'clock on New Year's Eve, William darted past his mother, who was sitting at the kitchen table drinking hot tea and answering emails. He was wearing basketball shorts and a hooded, pullover sweatshirt, a Nike duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

Scully removed her glasses and looked at him. "William, you'll freeze. It's January."

"Tomorrow." He grinned. "It isn't January til tomorrow."

She pursed her lips at him, but her eyes smiled.

There seemed to be an inverse relationship between age and core body temperature. At anything above fifty degrees, William wore shorts and tee shirts around the house, sometimes out. He slept in the same.

"We're going to play laser tag, Mom. I've got jeans for later. Can you pick me up tomorrow morning at Nate's house?"

"I thought you were sleeping home tonight."

Will held the refrigerator door open with his hip and piled food onto his arm. "We're all crashing at Nate's house instead because you and Dad are going out. Unless you don't care if a bunch of us hang out here without anyone home." He gave his mother a devilish smile that said he knew the rules, but wouldn't pass up the chance to challenge them anyway.

He began assembling a sandwich with every kind of meat and cheese item he could locate. They had just eaten dinner two hours ago. Scully thought maybe she should have him tested for a tapeworm.

"Come on, Mom, be a sport. We're only talking about a couple of kegs. We'll make sure nobody parks on the neighbor's lawn."

"You're funny, wise guy. Are Mr. and Mrs. Fronczak going to be home the whole night?"

"Yup."

Scully scrutinized her son.

"They're going to be home, Mom, I promise! You can check."

She nodded to indicate she believed him. She still might check.

"Where did Claire go?" Will asked.

"She's at a sleepover at Emma's."

"Cool. Do we have any more mustard?"

"In the pantry."

He found the mustard. Along with a six pack of Coke, a bag of chips, some pretzels, and two boxes of microwave popcorn. Scully watched with brows elevated as Will packed it all into his duffel bag.

"You sure that's going to be enough?" she asked, flippantly.

"You're right. I better take the tortilla chips and salsa too."

An hour later, Scully was dressed in a midnight blue cocktail dress with her hair swept up into a loose chignon. She carried her pumps by the heels and knocked at Mulder's partially closed office door before walking in. He sat in front of the computer with his glasses on, frowning at the white screen. His desktop was a wasteland of used coffee mugs and opened bags of sunflower seeds. It was stuffy in the room, smelling faintly of aged wood and a little bit of wet dog.

"Last chance," she said, hopefully. "I'm headed out."

He looked up at her with tired eyes. "Party time, huh?"

She nodded. "I told Trish I'd bring a shrimp tray. I already bought it, so..."

Mulder crossed his arms and leaned back in his creaky office chair, taking her in. "You look nice," he said, his eyes soft. He hadn't shaved in several days, but she didn't really mind the look. He was one of the few men she'd known who could manage clean-cut and rugged equally well.

Scully's hand went to the back of her hair, self-consciously. She'd been blessed with a thick head of hair from her mother's side, but the red was all Scully genes. These days, she spent time and money maintaining the color. It seemed unfair that Mulder's salt and pepper locks made him look distinguished in a sexy professor kind of way, while the silver that crept into her roots just made her feel old.

"Thanks," she said. "You sure you don't want to go for an hour? We don't have to stay until midnight."

They went to Tom and Trish's New Year's Eve party every year. It was a tradition. Mulder told her yesterday that he'd be staying home this year, citing work obligations, but she had hoped he'd change his mind before it was time to go. He just sent in a dozen chapters of the new book to his publisher a few weeks ago, and typically he had a lighter schedule immediately following a deadline. But he'd spent every day since Christmas sequestered in his office, even missing meals. She wouldn't have minded all that much, except that he knew she always took the week between Christmas and New Year's off from the hospital and the expectation was that they might spend some time together.

"I'm going to stick around here," he said simply, offering no further explanation.

She lowered her eyes and nodded, trying not to reveal her disappointment. There had been times in their marriage when her work obligations had come first and he'd been understanding, taking on a greater percentage of the family responsibilities while she put in long hours. They had always made a point of allowing one another the space and freedom to pursue career goals. She wasn't happy to be attending the party alone tonight, but she certainly wouldn't guilt him into going.

Her hand was closed around the door knob when he said her name. She turned back, hopeful.

"Happy New Year, Scully."

She smiled at him, a little sadly. "Happy New Year, Mulder."

At 11:47, Scully slipped from the noise of the living room, where guests were crowded around an open bar and a long table full of picked-over catering trays, up the back staircase to the bath off Trish and Tom's bedroom. There was less of a chance anyone would knock and disturb her and if they did, she could always claim that the hall bath had been occupied. With any luck, she could stay there past the stroke of midnight and avoid the sympathetic looks, or worse yet, an offer from Trish's uncle Len to kiss her. He'd already joked about it several times and she couldn't imagine a more disturbing way to begin the new year.

She set her small beaded handbag on top of the vanity and leaned over the sink to dab at her smudged eyeliner. She should have just left an hour ago when it would have been acceptable to go home early. Now, at ten minutes before midnight, it would just look like she was embarrassed to be alone when the ball dropped, which was the unfortunate truth.

Mulder was an ass for staying home on New Year's Eve.

Ass. She felt like texting him exactly that. "You're an ass."

Her cell phone vibrated inside her purse and she ignored it, assuming it was Claire again. They had been sparring via text all evening about Claire flying to New York for a weekend in February with a school friend and the friend's mother. Despite the cost of airfare, Scully might've considered it, except that she'd met the mother. And the thought of the woman supervising two pre-teens for forty-eight hours in Manhattan was enough to give Scully a case of the hives.

"The answer is no, Claire," she mumbled aloud to no one. She adjusted herself in her strapless bra. Who made these god-awful contraptions anyway? The stiff, padded cups were barely a step up from Kevlar on the comfort scale.

Her phone buzzed a second time and she sighed, plucking it from the inside pocket of her bag. It wasn't Claire.

"Come outside," read the text.

Scully shifted her jaw tightly and parted the mini blinds covering the small bathroom window. The slant of the roof obstructed her view and she couldn't see the driveway. What the hell was he up to now?

She did not enjoy being stood up, especially on a major holiday. Especially one that held romantic implications. Being married was supposed to cover that.

Scully reapplied a coat of mulberry lipstick while wearing an indignant frown and then slipped down the stairs to the foyer and out the door. Her heels clicked on the brick walkway as she circled the side of the house to the driveway. She realized too late that she'd left her coat inside and it was thirty degrees out.

Scuffing to a stop, she saw him, parked at the end of the blacktop driveway, leaning casually against the hood of his car in jeans and a down jacket. He lifted his hand to her in a reluctant wave and she sighed and shook her head, making her way to him. She walked slowly, placing each pointy-toed black pump in front of the other, her hips swishing in the cocktail dress like she really couldn't be bothered.

"How's the party?" he asked.

"It's fine," she replied, in a reserved tone. "Everyone asked about you."

He nodded, his eyes shining wet in the moonlight. "What did you tell them?"

"That you left me for someone younger," she ribbed.

Mulder smiled, but she knew he sensed she was displeased. "Was she cute?"

"He, actually. And yes, he was quite the catch."

Mulder chuckled and lifted his eyebrows in appreciation of her wit, and to admit that he deserved that.

She studied his three-day-old stubble, his uncombed hair. "So what are you doing here, Mulder? I thought you were too busy tonight."

"I wanted to kiss you at midnight."

She hated when he did this – knew exactly what to say to her. What was worse was that his charm was accidental. He didn't even try. To be angry with him when he was like this was like punishing a puppy for getting into the garbage.

"Well, you're a little late," she said, insipidly.

Mulder glanced at his watch. "I've still got a minute and a half."

"No, I mean I made a promise to Trish's Uncle Len, that I'd kiss him." Her mouth twitched as she tried not to give up a smile. "Of course, he needs to put his teeth back in first."

He laughed and she did the same. Hers was sadder.

His arm hooked her waist and pulled her against him. "Uncle Len will have to get his own hot babe in a sexy dress." He was warm all around her and she sighed, her breath creating fog between them. The countdown started inside the house in a chorus of tipsy voices. The noisemakers began going off at 3 and Scully never even heard 1. She didn't care because it was a new year and Mulder was kissing her and she was still mad at him, but slowly feeling better about it.

It was a long kiss with both of their eyes closed, the kind they usually saved for the bedroom or once in a while, when they had the house to themselves.

When she pulled back finally, a deep shiver traveled her spine. Mulder removed his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. Auld Lang Syne played distantly and they swayed a little and looked at each other with some kind of wonder.

"We have the house to ourselves, Scully."

"Is that supposed to be a come on?"

He smiled sheepishly and brushed the hair from her shoulder with cold fingers. She wasn't about to forget that he'd shown up for the last five minutes of a major holiday. He'd have to try harder than that to get her undressed.

His fingers traced the line of the zipper on the back of her gown. Maybe not a lot harder.

Scully swiped at the lipstick smudge on his mouth and he pressed a kiss to her thumb. "I have to get my coat," she said.

"Leave your car. We'll pick it up tomorrow."

They were going home and going to bed, but not to sleep. He knew it and she knew it.

An hour later, the mattress dipped as he slid from the bed and covered her naked body with a sheet.

"I'm going downstairs for a while," he whispered, planting a soft kiss to her bare shoulder. "You sleep."

She couldn't imagine what needed to be done after 1 am on New Year's Day, but she was too sleepy to argue. He told her he loved her and left her in the middle of the bed, blue cocktail dress in a shimmer on the floor.


Scully returned from her morning run Monday carrying a piece of driftwood she'd found. Thrashing and bobbing in the surf, it had come to rest directly in her path. She stepped over it once before doubling back to claim it. The wood was smooth to the touch, each twist and crevice telling the story of a complicated and mysterious journey. She carried it back to the lighthouse with her and set it on top of an end table in the living room while she showered and dressed.

There were forty-something unread emails in her work account from the weekend, but she left them unopened and made her way down to the beach, two thermoses of coffee in her hands and the driftwood pinned under her arm.

"Good morning," she said. Pete looked up at her quickly like she may have startled him.

"Good morning to you."

She handed him one of the thermoses.

"Thanks," he said, lifting it in appreciation. "I was just thinking about going out for a refill."

"You know you can always knock at the lighthouse. I'm usually up early and I rarely drink a whole pot of coffee myself."

Pete smiled and brought the hot mug to his mouth. She stood there sipping from her own, eyes lingering over the water. The waves were the calmest they'd been since her arrival, the sky a robin's egg blue. Unlike the mugginess of the past weekend, the air felt much drier, indicating seasonably warm and sunny afternoons were in store. The morning was still cool, though, and Scully zipped the front of her hooded sweatshirt against the ocean breeze.

"What do you have there?" asked Pete, eyeing the item perched under her arm.

She shifted it to her hand and rotated it, thoughtfully. "Driftwood. I found it on my run this morning."

"You don't see much of it around here. I don't know why. Maybe it gets picked up by tourists. There's an artist in West Tisbury who makes sculptures from driftwood. He has a gallery there. You should check it out sometime."

"Maybe I will," she agreed. "I thought I might sketch this one."

Pete nodded with a scant smile. "I have an extra stool in the back of the Jeep. I'll go grab it."

"No need," she said kindly, dropping the wood onto the sand by the easels and starting toward the water. "There are folding chairs in the boat house."

Five minutes later, she was seated next to him, facing a sheet of blank sketch paper. He dragged one of the canvas bags closer and unzipped it. "Take your pick. I've got pretty much everything there – pencils, graphite, pastels...I didn't bring acrylics with me, but I can grab them after lunch if you'd prefer."

"I'll just use whatever you're using." Although not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, she had managed to take a beginning drawing course her freshman year in college in order to fulfill the fine arts requirement. Most of it had been forgotten, but she thought the best approach would be to jump in and hope some of the basics would come back to her.

She stared at the page for a couple of minutes, listening to the swish of Pete's sketching, before putting her own pencil to paper. With fine, loose strokes, she began to lightly sketch the outline of the wood, keeping it simple. "The truth is, aside from a mostly forgotten course in undergrad and some games of Pictionary, I have no idea what I'm doing. So prepare to be impressed."

He chuckled. "Well look at it this way - what else would you be doing if you weren't doing this?"

"I'd be answering work emails and writing a two-hundred page grant proposal."

Pete whistled lightly. "Then I think we have a winner."

Her smile stretched.

"You've already mastered a crucial skill of any beginning artist," he said.

"What's that?"

"Procrastination. Art is all about playing hooky from real life. Plus you get to use words like cockling and decoupage."

Scully's brows lifted. She liked his sense of humor. "I guess every profession has its perks."

Time passed and the sun crept higher in the sky. They talked as they worked – about nothing of substance. About safe things, the things you talk about with new acquaintances, like food, weather, music, hobbies and interests, and life on the Vineyard.

Besides painting and sketching, his favorite pastimes were reading, hiking, listening to music, and doing small projects around his house - a Cape-style fixer upper he'd purchased after his divorce. Scully didn't ask about the divorce, but it answered another question. She did ask if he had kids and he shook his head with what she could have interpreted as regret, but she didn't press him. A private person herself, she didn't make a habit of prying into other people's business, especially strangers.

Pete revealed that he liked spicy foods and he used to be a vegetarian. His favorite time on the Vineyard was mid-September, right after the summer tourists left, until early November. He was French Canadian, born and raised in Quebec, so the harsh winters didn't bother him.

"Your first language is French?" she asked.

"Oui."

"A Frenchman with a last name of Firestone," she mused, her pencil drifting more confidently across the page now. She had stopped noticing if he was watching her.

"My father's ancestry is English; my mother is French. Her maiden name was Girard."

"Brothers and sisters?"

"Three brothers and a sister. I'm smack dab in the middle – the Jan Brady of the bunch."

Scully snuffled a laugh. "Middle child syndrome."

"Something like that." His sketching hand slowed. "Actually now that you mention it, very much like that. I think my art was how I attempted to distinguish myself from the herd."

"Did it work?"

"Sort of," he said. "My father owned his own business for forty years installing kitchens. My three brothers have taken over the business now. I was the son who deflected. So yeah, I guess you could say I distinguished myself. Every time I'm home for a visit, my dad asks 'How is that drawing thing working out for you?'"

Scully glanced over at his easel with a slight smile. "Pretty well, I'd say."

"I moved down to the States fifteen years ago. I think they're still waiting for me to move back."

"No desire to?"

"I don't know. Never say never, I guess. This is home for now. What about you? What's your story?"

She arched her brows, but didn't stop working. "What's my story?"

"You said you weren't from the Vineyard and you live in D.C. now. Is that where you grew up?"

Dana shook her head. "West coast, actually. I was a navy kid – one of four, third from the top. I moved east after my freshman year of college and stayed here."

"Is your family still out west?"

"My brothers are in California - both in the navy. Well, my younger brother is; my older brother recently retired. My mother lives about ten miles from us, in Maryland. My father passed away a long time ago and my mom's remarried now."

"Were you raised Catholic?"

For a second, she thought about asking how he knew, but then remembered their brief encounter at St. Andrews. Not to mention the fact that her gold cross was visible above the neckline of her tank top.

"I was," she replied. "What about you?"

Her faith was never her "go to" topic of conversation, especially with strangers, but he had been the one to bring it up.

Pete nodded. "Although I've spent most of my adult life away from the church. It's only been in the last year or so that I've started attending regularly again."

She thought about asking why the rededication, but didn't. If he wanted to tell her, he would. "St. Andrews seems like a nice community church," she offered instead.

"I like it. I don't really know many people yet, but that's more my fault. I pretty much keep to myself." He frowned at her drawing, his brows knit. "Beginning art class, my ass. I think you're putting me on."

She smiled. "Not at all. Studio Art for Beginner's, UC Berkeley, Fall 1982."

"Well, you obviously got an A."

"I got an A," she admitted.

"You're pretty good. Certainly for someone who's had no formal training."

Huffing quietly, she accused him of sparing her feelings.

"I don't hand out compliments for free," he said. "The shading needs some work and there are easy techniques I can show you to make it look a bit more realistic, but it definitely has potential. It's starting to look like...driftwood."

"Good," she said with a self-satisfied nod. She placed her pencil down, stood and unzipped her hooded sweatshirt. The temperature had climbed since morning and she would be warm enough now in a tank top and shorts, even with the breeze coming off the water.

Pete dug through his pencil case and placed one on the tray of her easel. "Try that."

"It's red," she said, picking it up.

"It won't look red. If you layer the shading, it'll look mahogany and you'll get more depth."

She went back to work with the new color, soon pleased to see that he was right. After some time, she exchanged the darker color for a rose shade and Pete nodded his approval. She was truly enjoying the process of creating - taking risks, feeling her way to a result. In some ways, art and medicine were quite similar. Science only went so far; a good doctor knew when to rely on instinct.

"So 1982....freshman year of college..." he said, a capriciousness to his tone. "That would make you..."

"If you say it, I'll hurt you."

He laughed. "I would have guessed about ten years younger."

"Right," she chuffed with a dubious smirk.

"At least. I highly doubt I'm the first person to tell you that."

He wasn't. It was still nice when it happened. She'd like to take full credit, but the fact of the matter was most of it was just good genes and damn luck.

"Thank you," she replied, rather properly.

"You're welcome. You can ask how old I am if it would make you feel better."

"I don't think it would, but thank you."

"You look like you'd be good at math. Are you good at math?"

"I'm very good at math," she replied honestly.

"You're the same age as my oldest brother. My parents were devout Catholics, so I don't know how they managed it, but there are exactly three years between each of us."

Without much hesitation, she said, "You're 46."

He pointed a finger at her in a cocked gun motion to indicate she was right on the money. Math wizardry or not, she had estimated he was in his mid-forties. Long hair and beach bum look aside, the fine lines etched around his eyes indicated a life lived. He was a handsome man and he looked good for his age, but he didn't look 35 either.

Dragging the zipper open on a supply bag, he reached inside and pulled out a crinkled pack of cigarettes. He offered her one, but she shook her head.

"Do you mind if I..."

"No, go ahead," she said.

He cupped his hand against the breeze to secure a light, then took a long drag. "I'm going to quit," he announced with his exhale.

Scully smiled tolerantly and persisted with her shading. "That's good. Tomorrow?"

"Possibly."

"I've heard those things will kill you."

He chuckled and took another drag. "That's what they say."


By mid-afternoon, Scully had spent an indulgent six hours on the beach. It felt cathartic and she'd needed the break – from her work responsibilities, from the heaviness of her thoughts, from the simple effort it took to keep herself from breaking down emotionally over the past week. She had needed to lose herself in something, which was exactly what she'd done. And she planned to do it again. Her sketch was progressing, but it was far from complete and she disliked leaving anything unfinished.

"I've got to go," she said finally, tucking the supplies she'd borrowed back into the cases. "Procrastination certainly has its attraction, but the work is still there and I'm going to have some disgruntled colleagues on my hands if I don't get something accomplished today."

"You did get something accomplished."

She smiled. "True as that may be, I've got a grant proposal that isn't going to write itself."

"Tomorrow, then," he said. "I've got a couple of tools at home that will help with blending your edges. I'll bring them."

Normally she'd be put off by anyone making assumptions about her time. Doctor Scully kept her own calendar; even her assistant knew better than to book appointments for her. But for some reason, the casual way in which he'd done it didn't bother her.

"I'll see you tomorrow," she agreed. Perhaps her edges could use some blending.


***

Journal Entry

August 10, 2004

William is 3, Claire is 2 months


Mulder brought ten chapters with him to edit during the next three weeks of our vacation. I told him he was crazy. We have a toddler and a newborn. He doesn't even have an office in the lighthouse. I don't know how he expects to get anything done.

Claire is going through a phase where she literally doesn't sleep from 4 pm until after midnight every day. I'm a doctor and I've read everything published on infant sleep patterns and solutions, but as the clock creeps slowly toward the witching hour each afternoon, I feel like I'm going to throw up. Calling it colic doesn't help. I still don't know what the hell to do, and by the third hour of non-stop crying (most days just Claire, but sometimes both of us), there is the temptation to just get in the car, pick a direction, and drive. Go somewhere, anywhere, run away from home. What kind of mother can't soothe her own child?

She rejects my breast and her tiny wrinkled body goes rigid with anger, her crimson face contorting into a gnarled miniature version of The Grinch.

Whenever I tell Mulder I can't do this, he strips off his tee shirt and scoops her from the hammock of my arms.

Skin to skin contact is a proven method of calming a colicky baby. Breastfeeding often helps, but there are times when, for no discernable reason, Claire prefers the desert of Mulder's warm chest to my leaking breast. I try not to take it personally. I know what it's like to curl parasitically against his skin and forget all my troubles. I share my husband with another woman. She isn't nearly as good a conversationalist as I am, yet she still has Mulder's undivided attention. Truth be told though, I can't remember the last time Mulder and I carried on a conversation that didn't start with "Where's the diaper cream?" or "Is the poop supposed to look like that?"

Earlier this evening, as I was soaking in a hot bath, Mulder walked in, empty handed.

I made bland jokes about him missing something. I asked him if he'd lost weight.

He told me about eleven pounds of pissed off spawn that had finally, mercifully cried herself to sleep. And before midnight, which was a small miracle, but I tried not to get excited. I'm too cynical to hope for a pattern at eight weeks when all the baby books claim twelve is the magic number. Most babies outgrow colic by three months. I wonder if I'll still have all my hair by then and anything resembling sanity. I wonder if it's possible to lapse into catatonia from sleep deprivation.

When Mulder's hand brushed my thigh and then climbed higher, I opened one tired eye and pled with him silently. I knew what he wanted. I'd probably want it too if I could remember what it's like to sleep more than three hours at a stretch. I'm committed to breastfeeding, but dammit, my mother bottle fed all four of us and insists we were sleeping through the night at six weeks. I'm tempted beyond belief.

Since my doctor gave us the green light to have sex again two weeks ago, Mulder and I have managed to get it on exactly once. Whenever I remove my clothing for any reason, I can tell he's hoping it might be for him.

It's okay, he told me softly, squeezing my knee cap. He kissed the top of my head and placed a clean, fluffy blue towel on the bath mat for me. Before he left the room, he teased me about being careful not to fall asleep in the tub or he'd have to give me mouth-to-mouth. His brows danced at me and I managed a tired laugh before sinking lower into the bubbles.


***

"Driftwood," Pete said simply. It was an observation, not a question. They'd said very little since she joined him on the beach with her morning coffee an hour ago.

He offered her a second croissant and she shook her head. She shouldn't have had the first one after eating an English muffin earlier, but she was running every day now so she'd forgive herself the indulgence. It had been years since she'd had time to maintain a daily exercise regimen and she could already feel the changes. Her calves were tighter and she needed to belt her shorts now to keep them from riding too low on her hips. Weight always came off her waistline first. The damn thighs were the last to go.

When Pete said croissant, she couldn't help but smile. "Say it again," she dared. He did. Then she made him say joie de vivre, liaison, connoisseur, and décolletage in perfect French and she declared him a show off.

They sketched silently for a long time, exchanging tools and minimal eye contact. She appreciated that when he showed her a technique, he did it just once and then didn't interfere with her experimentation. If he did offer a comment or suggestion, she knew it was carefully considered and worthy of her attention. At times, she was so engrossed in the creative process that she nearly forgot she wasn't alone, only becoming aware once again of his presence when he'd clear his throat or hum quietly.

At mid-day, she went to the lighthouse to eat her lunch. She watched him drive off fast down the bluff toward the main highway, the battered Jeep kicking up a cloud of road dust in its wake. Work obligations and an impromptu phone meeting swallowed her afternoon and by the time she thought about returning to the beach, he'd left for the day. She found her piece of driftwood on the step outside the lighthouse door with a piece of paper ripped from a spiral notebook and a message written in very neat, careful lettering. "On a job tomorrow. Back later in the week. Pete." It was written with a purple sketch pencil and tucked under the driftwood, right where she would find it. He hadn't knocked.


Scully immersed herself in her work, something she knew how to do well, and she didn't think about much else. Not sketching, nor the paintwork and odd repairs to be done around the lighthouse. Not the messages on her voice mail from her mother pretending she wasn't worried, nor the tight ball of anxiety that formed in the pit of her own stomach when she didn't hear from Mulder. She ran hard at dawn and then worked intensely the rest of the day, breaking for meals and sometimes not even then. Regular text messages exchanged with William and Claire assured her that her children were not only fine, but enjoying their summers. Her words to them were always the same, "I love you. I miss you. Everything is fine here."

When the sun was long past setting and her head rested on the pillow, her thoughts always went to Mulder. She wanted to know where he was, that he was safe, if he'd found what he was looking for. She wondered if he was awake and thinking about her somewhere under a Western sky. She thought about how much she missed feeling his body spooning hers as they slept, his hand covering her hip, his nose pressed to her hair.

She was a vivid dreamer, had been since childhood. This fascinated Mulder, who dreamt very little and always seemed to linger on the edge of sleep's abyss. They used to lie in bed in the morning and talk about her dreams. Psychologist Mulder would prop himself up on bent elbows, a shock of unruly hair standing on end, and listen with rapt attention to the details.

"Then what happened after you drove all the way to Maine in the Volkswagon, Scully?"

"I don't know. Nothing, I guess."

"But why Maine? Did you always want to go there?"

"I've been there," she said. "Remember? That case."

"Oh right. Do you think it had something to do with that?"

"I don't think so. I haven't thought about that in years."

"And why a Volkswagon, Scully? Why not your car?"

"I don't know, Mulder. My first car was a Volkswagon, so maybe that's why."

"Hm, that's interesting. Do you remember driving to any specific location in Maine?"

"I think I was at a fair or maybe a carnival."

"Did you get out and walk around?"

"No, I think I stayed in the car."

"Then why did you go?"

"It was a dream, Mulder. I'm not sure I had a reason."

"There's always a reason, Scully."

"Maybe I wanted to ride the roller coaster."

"How did you know you were in Maine?"

"I saw a road sign."

"It said Maine?"

"It said I was 50 miles from Maine."

"So then you could have been in New Hampshire."

"How would that matter?"

"Because, Scully. Maybe there's a reason you wanted to go to New Hampshire, but you can't remember what it is. Have you ever been there?"

"As a kid, but I don't remember much. I had an uncle who lived there. We went once. I think I was about ten."

"Did anything weird happen while you were there?"

"Charlie got bit by a raccoon, but that's about it."

"New Hampshire is the home of the world's largest meatball, Scully."

"I'm pretty sure that's not why I went."

"Then again, maybe you weren't in New Hampshire. Maybe you were in Maine."

"Maybe. I need to get ready for work, Mulder."

"Okay. If you think of any other details, though,-"

"I'll let you know, Mulder."

"Write them down, Scully."

"I'll write them down."


It had been a long time since they'd lingered in bed and talked about her dreams.


Scully visited the local hardware store and purchased sanding paper, primer, two brushes, and a can of acrylic paint in Vesuvius Red. She had been cooped up inside the lighthouse for two days and the peeling paint on the front door was as good a reason as any to venture back out into the world. She'd never done any exterior painting before, but how hard could it be? She'd painted various rooms in their home and although the results were far from professional. She could manage and more importantly, she needed something mindless and physical to distract her from piles of endless research.

Her cell phone vibrated against her hip at a little past eleven in the morning, just as she'd finished sanding the old paint off the weathered door. The caller ID indicated it was Mallory. Scully smiled, realizing it had been several days since she'd last seen her.

"Hi, Mally."

"Hi, Aunt Dana." Although she wasn't technically related to Tatum or Mallory, both girls had addressed her that way for years. Likewise, William and Claire affectionately referred to Elizabeth and Todd as Aunt Liz and Uncle Todd.

"I hope I'm not catching you at a bad time," the girl continued.

Scully brushed the paint dust from her frayed denim shorts. "Not at all. What's up?"

"I went into the city yesterday to get some library research done on a summer project and I stayed overnight at a friend's place. I was on my way back home when I started having car trouble."

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, but I don't think my old Civic is going to make it back to the Vineyard today and I can't reach anyone else for a ride. I really hate to ask, but-"

"I'm on my way. Where are you?" Scully stacked the painting materials neatly against the stone steps of the lighthouse.

"Well, that's just it. I'm still about an hour away."

"Are you some place safe?"

"Yeah, I'm at a service station outside of Plymouth."

"Text me the address and I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Thanks, Aunt Dana. I owe you big time."

"Nonsense. Find somewhere to get a cup of coffee and I'll see you in an hour."

Minutes later, Scully had changed into a casual summer skirt and top. She headed down the access road to the highway.


***

She found Mally with her nose buried in a book, nursing an ice coffee inside a Dunkin Donuts off Route 3.

"Did they tell you what's wrong with your car yet?" asked Dana.

"No, but I finally reached Dad and he said it sounded like it could be a fuel pump. Whatever it is, I can't afford it."

With a sympathetic chuckle, Scully helped Mallory carry her overnight bag and stack of textbooks to the car. "Did you have lunch yet?"

"I had a chocolate donut this morning," said Mally.

Scully smiled. "Come on, let's find something decent to eat."

They stumbled upon a gourmet pizza joint and shared a Mediterranean with thin crust and extra feta. Mallory finished her first slice and helped herself to a second, dipping the crust in olive oil. "How many pizzas do you think you ate in med school?" she asked.

"Too many. In the FBI too. It's quite possible that Mulder and I have eaten pizza in all fifty states. It's a miracle I didn't turn into the Goodyear Blimp working there."

"It's so weird thinking of you guys as FBI agents. I mean, carrying guns and chasing down bad guys and stuff."

"Actually, chasing after bad guys would have been an improvement. The things we chased gave all new meaning to 'things that go bump in the night.'"

Mallory looked at her curiously for a long moment. "So you're saying all that was real? The things he writes about in his books? Did you guys really see that stuff?"

Scully sighed and chose her words carefully. "I can't promise you that my interpretation of what we saw was the same as Mulder's each and every time. In fact, I think I can say with confidence that quite the opposite was true. However, I can promise that many of the things I saw defied explanation – at least any scientific one that I'm aware of. Even now, I look back and can't believe we survived all that we did."

Mallory nodded thoughtfully. "Knowing both of you like I do, I have to admit, you seem like such an unlikely pair. Did you fall in love with each other right away?"

An audible laugh escaped Scully and she pressed her napkin to her mouth for a moment. "No," she replied, shaking her head and smiling, wistfully. "No, I wouldn't necessarily say that."

"You weren't attracted to him?"

Scully looked at her, surprised at the blunt question. "I wouldn't say that either. There was attraction there. It just took a while for either of us to act on it."

"When we were kids, my sister had the biggest crush on him. Boy was Tate ever jealous when you showed up on the Vineyard with a ring on your finger. I think she was about...."

"Sixteen," finished Scully. "I remember."

" It wasn't like it was the first time we'd heard your name mentioned, though. In fact, you were pretty much all he talked about. 'My partner, Scully this and my partner, Scully that.' You'd think we would've figured it out. Looking back, I'm pretty sure Mom and Dad knew he was in love with you, but Tate and I were clueless."

"Really?" Scully couldn't hide the sharp interest in her tone. "I mean, the part about him bringing my name up a lot..."

Mally smiled at her. "That surprises you?"

A subtle blush crept onto Scully's face. "We weren't exactly up-front with each other about how we felt," she admitted quietly. "Not for a long, long time. In fact, it was something of a taboo subject."

"Because you worked together?"

"That was a big part of it, yes. But...we'd become best friends. I think we both feared losing that if it didn't work out."

Mallory arched her brows, conspiratorially. "So which one of you was the brave one? Who made the first move?"

"He did," Scully replied, her cheeks still warm.

"Was it crazy? Did you rip each other's clothes off?" Mally giggled, girlishly, and Scully sputtered on a swallow of water.

"I'm sorry!" Mallory blurted, sinking lower in her seat. "Scratch that. Unless...you feel like answering it..." She played innocently with a crumpled straw wrapper.

Scully sighed and held back a smile, avoiding eye contact with the girl with the messy ponytail seated across from her – the one who was less than half Scully's age and like a daughter to her. It felt strange to be having this conversation and Scully wondered if she might someday have the same one with Claire. "Not to disappoint your imagination, but no, it wasn't exactly like that. One New Year's Eve, seven years into our partnership, he just...kissed me. It was all rather gentlemanly and sweet."

"Seven YEARS?" Mallory's eyes grew wide. "Seven years for a first kiss and you didn't want to rip his clothes off?"

"Well I didn't say *that.*" With a shift of her jaw, Scully cast her eyes downward. "And no, to answer your first question, it didn't take me seven years to know I was in love with Mulder. It just took me seven years to let myself be. I fought it for a long time."

"Was it strange in the beginning? After you'd been friends for so long to suddenly know how to be more? Were you afraid?"

Scully drew a deep breath, remembering. "Terrified. But at the same time, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. I'd never felt for anyone what I felt for Mulder...what I still do."

She allowed herself to follow her thoughts for a few moments – remembering those early days when they were first learning to be lovers. The intensity of desire, the hesitation before the leap – like closing your eyes and falling backwards. Wondering not if, but when, and what it would be like and how she could have ever lived a day of her life before she knew him.

When Scully finally found her way back to the present, she saw that Mally seemed to be lost in her own thoughts as well. "Why do I get the feeling we might be talking about more than just Mulder and me?"

Mallory looked up quickly. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, could it have something to do with a certain guy who's taken you on three non-dates since last Sunday?"

Mally's cheeks darkened. "Someone's been talking to my mother."

"Guilty," Scully admitted. "I stopped at the house this morning and she just happened to mention it."

"I'll bet she did."

The corners of Scully's mouth twitched a little. "I won't pry. If you're happy, that's all that matters."

Mallory sighed. "I don't know what I am, to tell you the truth. I like Holden...a lot. But I'm starting my second year of medical school and I don't have time for a relationship. He says he understands and we don't need to figure it all out now, but I can't help thinking I'm crazy if I let this get serious."

"What exactly would constitute serious?"

After several beats, Mallory said quietly, "I haven't slept with him, if that's what you're asking."

Scully's brows arched. She wasn't asking. Or maybe she was.

"Would that make it serious?" Dana pressed. It was hard to tell these days.

"For me, it would." Mallory's eyes focused downward and her fingers absently rolled the corners of a cloth napkin. "I've never..." A nervous huff escaped her and she crossed her arms over herself, protectively.

Scully waited, silently inviting the younger woman to continue.

"I'm twenty-three and I haven't yet," continued Mallory, her tone slightly defensive.

"And that bothers you?" Scully asked.

Mally shrugged. "Maybe. I mean, it's not like I intended to wait this long, but it was just never the right time, you know? Or the right person. But now...I feel like any guy I'm with is going to probably assume I have, so do I tell him or not?"

"Are we...talking about Holden?"

Another shrug, then a partial nod. "The truth is, last Sunday wasn't the first time we'd been out. The part about knowing him from high school was true. But he goes to grad school across town from me. We ran into each other at a lacrosse game a couple of months ago and we've been spending time together ever since." Mallory's mouth stretched into a placid smile. "He's funny and interesting and smart in a quirky, but brilliant sort of way, and ...I think he gets me. I don't think anyone's ever really gotten me before. But he does."

Dana mirrored her smile. "He sounds amazing."

"He is. But again, I can't afford to lose my focus on school."

"Have you so far?"

"Well, no, but..."

"Then maybe you should give yourself a little credit. Just because it isn't easy to balance a relationship and medical school at the same time doesn't mean it can't be done. And if anyone can make it work, you can. I've never known a more determined, focused woman in all my life, Mallory Reardon. From the first time you shook my hand when you were eight years old and introduced yourself, I knew you were a force to be reckoned with. Any guy who can catch your attention and manage to keep it must be pretty special. And as far as the rest of it goes, I wouldn't overthink it too much. You'll know what to say and when."

Mally sighed, but maintained her smile. "Me overthink something? Never!" They both chuckled. "But listen," Mally continued, "please don't mention any of this to my Mom and Dad, if you don't mind. I haven't exactly dated many guys, so they tend to make a big deal out of it and that's the last thing I want right now."

Dana made a silent zipping of the lips gesture with her thumb and forefinger.

"Daddy would have a background check done on Holden by dinnertime, I guarantee it," said Mally.

Scully's brow arched. "Don't tempt me. I've still got connections."

Mallory rolled her eyes, but laughed. "Thank you for listening."

"Of course. Anytime, you know that."

Scully picked up the tab for lunch and Mallory thanked her, gratefully. They hopped back on the highway, heading south and Mally tipped her seat back and closed her eyes. A few minutes later, she opened one of them again. "Seven YEARS? Really? No wonder you and Mulder never left the lighthouse on your honeymoon."

Dana glanced at her in surprise. "You remember that?"

"Oh yeah. Mom and Dad threatened to ground me for a year if I so much as knocked on the lighthouse door that week. I couldn't imagine what you could be doing in there for four days. I left cookies outside the door."

"Your cookies were the best."

"They still are. If this doctor thing doesn't pan out, at least I can fall back on that."

"You're going to be an amazing doctor, Mal. Have you thought about a specialization yet?"

Mallory nodded. "Possibly cardiology, although neurology interests me as well. I don't really have to decide for another year or so. I'm hoping I'll know by then."

"I have some very good contacts in both. I can put you in touch, if you'd like."

"Really? You'd do that? That would be great."

"Of course."

"It seems like most of the doctors aren't willing to give students the time of day."

Scully drove, thinking back to her days of knocking on office doors, leaving unanswered voice mail messages, chasing down white coats for signatures. All of that changed when she became Daniel Waterston's research assistant. Christ. Had she really slept her way up the ladder? No. No, she didn't go to bed with him until much later – more than a year after they met. Still, it wasn't something she was proud of. In her fresh, narrow, twenty-five- year- old view of the world, his marriage vows had been his responsibility, not hers. She had been such a child then.

Glancing over at Mallory asleep in the passenger seat, Dana saw a younger version of herself. Thankfully a wiser, more careful version. This one would be okay, she thought. She tipped the sun visor down, adjusted the air conditioning, and headed for the Island.

***

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Four Months Ago

A brisk early March wind caught the hemline of her skirt. Loose hair circled her face as Scully struggled with the heavy glass doors of the convention center. She literally felt herself being sucked inside like Dorothy, hitching a ride on a funnel cloud.

Thrillers and Chillers: The Minds Behind Literary Science Fiction was the name of the event, sponsored by several publishing houses, Mulder's included. There had been a discussion panel at four, but she'd missed it, unable to make her escape from the hospital in time. Last night, he'd insisted it was unnecessary for her to come at all – that it was just another publicity event , one of many included in his list of contractual obligations. Despite back-to- back meetings on her afternoon schedule, she promised to try and make the reception.

His job required very little of her, but the same could be said about her position at the hospital. She tolerated his travel, which had become much less burdensome now that the children were older. In exchange, once upon a moon or so, Mulder cleaned himself up, donned a suit and tie, and escorted her to a banquet or dinner where he made appropriate small talk with her colleagues. She was the first to admit that he could be ridiculously charming when he applied himself.

After checking her coat, Scully took the elevator to the mezzanine level. She made a brief detour to the restroom first to refresh her makeup, which hadn't been touched since she'd rushed out of the house that morning. Glancing at herself in the mirror above the sinks, she straightened her A-line skirt, which now bore the creases from sitting in traffic for the last forty minutes. The cream blouse and black skirt struck her as unimaginative, but it was the best she could do without stopping home to change. As a last minute adjustment, she opened the top button of her blouse.

It was no surprise that she knew not a soul at event. No one, except her husband, whom she couldn't seem to lay eyes on through the mosh pit of literary creatures blocking her five foot three view. Tweed and turtlenecks, wrinkled chambray and worn leather. Women in pea coats with French braids, carrying messenger bags, all looking disturbingly young and intense.

Her eyes traveled the room until she spotted the spiky brush of Mulder's hair and the familiar slope of his shoulder as he leaned in to converse with a striking, silver-haired woman in an expensive burgundy suit. It was Pamela, his editor. Scully had met her just twice in New York when she had accompanied Mulder on book signing trips. She had found the older woman to be courteous, but cool and reserved - the sort of person who was unaccustomed to being told no. Mulder mentioned once that she had a reputation for making the interns cry. At the same time, she was fiercely protective of her writers. If you had Pamela in your corner, nobody touched you.

Scully made her way purposively toward Mulder, but as soon as she got within ten feet of him, a young woman with shoulder length, strawberry blonde hair stepped directly into her path. With a tight smile, the woman held up a hand in front of her, palm facing out. "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but Fox won't be signing any autographs this afternoon."

Taken aback, Scully came to an abrupt halt. "Excuse me?" Tilting her head curiously, she narrowed her eyes not unkindly at the woman standing between her and her husband.

"I'm sorry, the book signing portion of the event was before the panel," explained the young woman, in a dismissive tone. "This reception is for invited guests only."

She didn't sound sorry.

Before Scully could decide how to respond, Mulder stepped forward, having apparently overheard the exchange. He touched the woman's elbow to get her attention. "It's okay, Charlie. This is my wife, Doctor Dana Scully."

Scully's eyes stopped on Mulder's hand, still resting under the young woman's elbow.

"Scully, this is Charlie, one of our interns," said Mulder.

She only half registered the introduction, along with the woman's completely baffled look. It seemed to take Charlie a long, slow moment to find her voice again.

"Oh my goodness, I'm... so sorry. I-I didn't realize..." Charlie swallowed and then flashed a split second look at Mulder before pushing a shaky hand out in front of her. "Charlotte O'Keefe. If I'd known you were coming, I wouldn't have made such a foolish mistake," she said, quietly. "Please forgive me, Doctor Scully."

Scully took the hand offered and shook it politely, noticing that the young woman seemed to be doing everything she could to avoid direct eye contact.

"I mentioned Scully would be here," said Mulder, who had now repositioned himself to stand by his wife.

"No," replied Charlie through pink-cheeks, her voice clipped. "You didn't."

At that moment, another woman's voice echoed from behind them. "Doctor Scully, so wonderful of you to come. It's been a long time," said Pamela, moving gracefully into their awkward little circle. She took Scully's hand in her own and shook it firmly.

"Yes, it has. It's good to see you again too, Pamela."

"If you'll pardon me, I need to borrow Charlotte for a bit, but I do hope you'll stop me for a chat before you leave. I'd love to hear about the children."

Scully doubted that, but she smiled and nodded as Pamela led Charlotte away. When it was just the two of them, Mulder bent awkwardly to plant a quick kiss on her cheek. "Glad you made it. How was traffic?"

"It was fine," she said tightly, refusing his eyes.

"Sorry about the misunderstanding with Charlie. You know the interns – they get a little overzealous sometimes. She's just nervous because Pamela's here."

His touch at the small of her back made her stiffen slightly. "So that's Charlie," Scully said. "The Charlie you've been working with the last couple of months. Charlie is Charlotte."

The same one who phones you at the dinner table and in the car, texts you six times in a row while you're in the shower. The one who met you at the airport in New York last month when you went for four days of meetings.

"Yeah...that's her," Mulder replied, his tone cautious. He tilted his head and studied her face. His hand slipped from Scully's lower back and sank into the pocket of his dress pants. Two decades with her had rendered him pretty accurate at reading her body language. "What's wrong, Scully?"

"Did I say something was wrong?" she asked coolly.

"Not in so many words, but the chill coming off you just lowered the temperature in the room ten degrees."

"I'm just trying to understand why your intern would be surprised that your wife showed up to a publishing function ten miles from your house."

Mulder shrugged. "I don't think she was surprised; she was just doing her job. The interns run interference with fans all the time."

"No, Mulder. This was after you introduced me as your wife. By the look on her face, I was the last person she expected to show up tonight. And she didn't seem too pleased about it either."

"So...what are you implying? You think something's going on between Charlie and me?" His tone was accusative, like she had insulted him. She hadn't imagined what just happened; even Pamela picked up on the awkwardness.

Scully arched her eyebrows at him. "I didn't say I thought something was going on between the two of you. But I think *she* believes there might be."

"Why the hell would she think that?"

"That's what I'm asking you."

Mulder shook his head. "Don't you think you're exaggerating a little? It was a misunderstanding, that's all."

She frowned at him and crossed her arms over her thin blouse, regretting the darker makeup, the unbuttoned blouse. She felt foolish, like she was trying too hard. The wife showing up unexpectedly.

"Mulder, have you even mentioned your family to her?"

An exasperated sigh seeped out of him. "I don't know...we don't talk about that stuff. She knows I'm married; I wear a ring." His left hand made a frustrated pass through the air before settling on his hip. "I mean, yeah we've shared a few dinners out, but that's business for Christ's sake. She's my intern."

Right. Scully had known that kind of business once too. She had been an impressionable young resident when a handsome cardiologist had taken her under his wing. She'd been dazzled by his intelligence, flattered by his interest in her. They'd been having an emotional affair for more than six months before she ever took her clothes off for him. It was the sort of indiscretion that crept in quietly like the changing of the seasons.

Mulder wasn't Daniel, though. Although he may not have led Charlie on purposely, the fact remained that they had been working very closely together for months, sharing phone conversations that often lasted well into the early hours of the morning. She couldn't count how many times he'd excused himself to take a call from Charlie, "the new kid at work." Scully hadn't thought much of it. Interns came and went and Mulder had always been generous with his time when many of the other seasoned writers couldn't be bothered.

"Mulder, you've spent more time talking to Charlie lately than to me. It seems like every time I turn around, you're either on your phone with her or returning a call. Ring or not, she obviously thinks we aren't together."

"You're blowing this way out of proportion, Scully. After all these years, you should be past the jealousy stuff."

Tipping back on her heels, Scully glared at him, not quite sure she'd heard him right. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"You know what it means. You-you... do this sometimes. Whenever you think there's some kind of perceived interest in me, you get all bent out of shape."

Okay, now she was pissed. "So let me get this straight. You spend 6 hours a day communicating with your twenty-five-year-old intern-"

"She's twenty-nine."

Scully nodded slowly, casting her eyes away from him. "You know how old she is."

"She told me. She told me a lot of things about herself because she's trying to get into the publishing business," Mulder said, flippantly. "It doesn't mean I'm sleeping with her."

Scully's voice shook when she spoke this time. "I didn't say that I thought you were. If I did, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. All I said was that she thinks there is at least some degree of romantic potential there. And why wouldn't she? You return her calls any time of the day and night, you spend hours talking to her, and apparently, for the past three months you've forgotten to mention the existence of a wife and two children. For all she knows, you're separated. But no, this is all my fault because *I'm* the one with the jealousy problem. Well, you know what? Your schedule for the rest of the evening just opened up, so why don't you go find Charlie and invite her to dinner. I'm going home."

She started to walk away, swallowing the hot sting of tears at the back of her throat. Apparently, she'd said all that louder than she intended because the two men conversing to their left had stopped to give them inquisitive looks.

"Scully, wait a minute." Mulder tried to hold onto her elbow, but she shrugged free and wove her way through the crowd. He followed her to the elevator, calling her name, and watched as the doors closed between them.

Hours later, lying in the cool darkness, she felt him sit on the edge of their bed with his back to her. She didn't have to tell him she was still awake. He would know.

It was several long moments before he spoke. "Sometimes I don't see things. Or...maybe I don't want to."

Scully remained silent, taking calm, measured breaths in the dark. She wasn't sure if that was supposed to be an apology.

"Nothing ever happened between Charlie and me," he continued, his face angled now so she could see his profile, backlit by a trapezoid of moonlight that had crept through the bedroom blinds. "I wasn't even thinking about that actually. That she might think I wanted...whatever."

"The jealousy comment was unfair," she whispered.

"I know." He nodded solemnly. "Especially since it turned out you were right after all. She uh, apparently thought you and I weren't living together."

That was no surprise, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow. Someone else had been astute enough to recognize the space between them.

"Sometimes it feels that way." Scully's throat closed on the last syllable.

Mulder sighed and rolled over to face her, lying on top of the covers with his clothes still on. "Things are just, I don't know, strange lately."

"I've noticed. I wish you'd talk to me."

"I'm okay. I mean, I don't really know what to say. I've just got a lot on my plate."

She couldn't ever remember a time when they couldn't think of something to talk about.

"Charlie's being reassigned to another writer," he said, "at her request. After you left, she basically told me to go fuck myself."

Scully lifted her brows as if to say that was probably a reasonable suggestion, given the circumstances.

"Well, not in those words exactly," he clarified, "but the sentiment was pretty clear. She asked that I pass along the message to you that she, and I quote, 'does not mess around with married men and is very sorry for the unfortunate misunderstanding,' end quote."

"She sounds like a smart girl," said Scully.

"She is. I offered to give her a good reference. I highly doubt she'll call me."

Mulder toed his shoes off, then wiggled out of his pants and shirt and slipped beneath the covers. "So other than being humiliated at your husband's work reception, how was your day?"

Normally she might appreciate the humor, but she was still too pissed off, not to mention mentally and emotionally exhausted. She'd been almost asleep when he came in. Still, it was probably the most they'd spoken all week, so she fought to keep her eyes open.

"It was okay," she said. "Meetings mostly. And one of the first-years barfed over a Y-incision."

"How embarrassing. Not that unusual though, right?"

"No, I mean literally *over* the Y-incision." A pale, mousy girl named Sheila who, not to brag, but Scully knew was not cut out for pathology from Day One. You either had the stomach for it, or you didn't. It wasn't uncommon for even practiced surgeons to run for the sink when confronted with a maggot-infested body cavity.

Mulder looked both grossed out and morbidly intrigued. "Awesome."

"Not really, no."

"That had to be a bitch to clean up."

"I wouldn't know. I made one of the residents finish the autopsy."

"Well, you're a mean boss," he quipped.

"No, I've just paid my dues." Scully yawned. "It's somebody else's turn."

They were both silent for a stretch and she found herself drifting, feeling the numbness of sleep fill the edges of her consciousness.

"You've got some time coming, right?" he whispered. "Maybe we should do something."

Her eyes opened again. "What do you mean?"

"Vacation time. I could probably swing a few days."

Scully hesitated. This was unexpected. "Um, I don't know...the kids have spring break in a few weeks, but Will's already signed up for the basketball clinic. I suppose I could see if we can get our deposit-"

"No, I meant just us. A long weekend or something."

They hadn't so much as gone out to a movie together in months. "Um sure," she stammered, "we could do something. What were you thinking?"

"I don't know really. It was just a thought."

"Well, pick a weekend and let me know. I'll see if I can take a Friday and a Monday off."

"Okay," he said, tiredly. "We can think about it."

Three weeks went by and he didn't mention it again. The kids' spring break came and went. The weather gradually warmed, but Mulder spent all of his time in his office with the door closed. The lawn grew wild and William took over the mowing because Scully was convinced the neighbors were going to start complaining.

She got tired of knocking on Mulder's office door, so she stopped bothering. She left notes on the bathroom mirror instead, text messages on his phone, leftovers in the fridge.

He showed up for Will's games, picked Claire up at swim meets and insisted he was fine when asked, which was frequently for a while, then less often as time went on.

Now and then, they had sex. But even that had changed. It wasn't just the infrequency that Scully hated to admit to herself, it was other things too. Like the fact that when it did happen, it was usually her idea – the result of either issuing him a blunt invitation, or rolling naked onto his side of the bed and inserting a knee between his. For years, he had been the agreed-upon initiator. Not that she didn't love sex with him, but more that the idea of it usually occurred to him first. His libido tended to be outperform hers, so he was the one reaching for her in the dark or invading her morning shower.

Even more unsettling, however, was the space between them when they did make love. The sense of intimacy that had always been present suddenly was absent. It was as if the emotional and the physical had somehow become disconnected. He did all the things he usually did to please her, but his mind and soul were elsewhere. Her orgasms became rare, but perhaps worse, he gave no indication that he'd really noticed that fact.

Much like their marriage, sex had become a matter of simply going through the motions.


***


The late day sun was burning bright orange by the time Scully dropped Mallory off at home and made her way back up to the bluff. She had perhaps ninety minutes of decent daylight left – not enough to finish the paint job on the front door. Her stomach was still full from lunch, but a warm bath and herbal tea sounded heavenly. No doubt she'd have plenty of emails needing her attention as well. She was technically still working, albeit remotely. The hospital had generously agreed to let her do her grant proposal work from the Vineyard since the new class of student didn't begin until the end of August. Summer was slow in terms of teaching obligations; the doctors with rank took advantage of the time for research and writing, long vacations to recharge themselves.

Turning the corner on the old stone path that lead to the front door of the lighthouse, Scully stopped short and stared. Her car keys slipped from her hand and she bent, feeling around in the grass without looking down. "What in the world..." she whispered to herself.

When she had left to pick up Mally six hours earlier, the door was scraped and sanded clean of chipped paint. It was now a rich, glossy brick red. Vesuvius Red, to be exact. The paint cans, brushes, and tools had been stacked neatly by the steps. There was no note pinned beneath a rock this time, but she didn't have to think hard to figure out who the good Samaritan had been.

An hour later, damp from her bath and sitting in front of her laptop, Scully retrieved her cell phone and dialed the number saved in her recent contacts. After five rings, the call went to voice mail. "You've reached Peter Firestone. Please leave a detailed message with your contact information and I will return your call. Thank you."

"Hi, this is Dana Scully." She hesitated a few beats. It was only the third time she'd ever heard his voice on the phone and it sounded so different to her. Clean shaven, conservatively dressed, business-like came to mind. Not the paint splattered shorts and sandals, the long hair and cropped beard, not the intellectual beach bum with the dry, witty sense of humor.

"Thank you...for painting my door. It's certainly a much better job than I would've done, so.... thank you. Really." She felt like she was stammering. "Anyway, maybe I'll see you tomorrow. Good night then."

There were three pages of unread emails, but her mind wasn't on them. She systematically deleted almost a third without opening them and forwarded another third to her assistant. The remaining two dozen she flagged for herself. How had people managed before email? Or text messaging? Her children thought nothing of texting her while in the same house, generally in a string of barely decipherable acronyms that made her fear the extinction of the English language.

Speaking of texts, her phone vibrated on the table and she glanced down, then smiled. It was from Mally. "Thx for today. I owe you."

Scully smirked and typed in "np" followed by a smiley face. She could do this; she wasn't *that* old.

Earlier, when they'd arrived back on the Vineyard, they drove by the school where Mallory pointed out the painted mural she'd mentioned a week ago. "It's that guy you know from church," Mally said. Scully slowed to a stop in front of the brick building, deserted and quiet for the summer.

Roslyn Park Elementary School – A Great Place to Begin, the sign read. Indeed, she imagined it was. The courtyard surrounding the cheerful, one-story school was lined with mature trees, green and lush, leaves whispering in the breeze. "Do you mind if I take a closer look?" she'd asked.

Mallory snoozed in the car with the windows down while Scully crossed the grass on foot to stand in front of the mural. It was remarkable in size and scope, easily thirty feet wide by fifteen high. The art work was bright and colorful, depicting a storybook-like collage of various fantasy scenes, ranging from outer space to the jungle to a mythical forest. Children in all shapes, sizes, and colors – dozens of them – decorated the enormous painting. In bold, black scrawl, a signature could be found in the right bottom corner. It matched the one Scully had on the painting of the lighthouse she'd purchased.

In the opposite corner, however, was something else that had caught her eye. It was a dedication, written in what must be his handwriting. "In loving memory of Max Firestone, who believed in magic."

Max Firestone.

In loving memory.

Scully returned to the car and started the engine, then sat there silently until Mallory stirred in the passenger seat and asked what was the matter.

"Who was Max Firestone?" Scully responded.

"Who?" asked Mally, drowsily.

"The mural is dedicated in memory of Max Firestone. Do you know who he was?"

"No, I don't. But Mom and Dad might remember. Daddy knows pretty much every family around here."


Sitting now in front of her laptop, listening to the steady drumming of the surf through the open windows, Scully launched her browser and typed "Peter Firestone, Martha's Vineyard."

The first link that appeared was his professional web site, the one she had been directed to by the Chamber of Commerce when she'd called months ago looking for local artists. The site was simple, but informative, showing examples of Pete's art work, including client references. There was also a brief, cursory bio that Scully was already familiar with. Canadian born...studied at Ontario College of Art and Design...inspired by Boudin, Cezanne, Winslow Homer...resident of Martha's Vineyard for the past fifteen years, enjoys painting the natural beauty of the Island. Consultation by appointment.

Nothing overtly personal. No mention of family.

She changed the wording in the Google search field to read "Peter Firestone and Max Firestone" and pressed the enter key.

The computer re-sorted the links. The one at the top of the list this time was for an obituary dated three years ago. It read, "Max Theodore Firestone, August 12, 2012." Scully swallowed the acid in her stomach, her hand trembling on the touch pad of her Macintosh as she clicked on the link.

Max Theodore Firestone, 7, of Oak Bluffs passed away suddenly on Sunday. He is survived by his parents, Peter and Olivia (Mann) Firestone; his maternal grandparents, Howard and Catherine Mann of Stoneham, Massachusetts; paternal grandparents, George and Camille Firestone of Quebec; many aunts, uncles, and cousins. A memorial mass will be held at St. Andrews on Thursday, August 16 at noon. Private burial.

There was a black and white photo and Scully stared at it, transfixed. A boy with wavy hair, long lashes, an innocent, gap-toothed grin. He had a carefree spark in his eyes that Scully recognized immediately.

The sudden chirping of her phone startled her and she jumped, nearly pushing her mug of tea off the table. She minimized the window on her laptop, as if she'd been caught reading something she shouldn't. A quick glance at the screen on her phone told it was Claire, calling from California. She breathed deeply and answered the call, getting up from the table to head for the cushiony, overstuffed sofa.

"Hi, Honey."

"Hey, Mom. Just calling to check in. What's going on?"

Scully curled her legs beneath her on the sofa. "Oh you know, the usual. Mostly working. How about you? Are you having fun?"

"I guess."

On a scale of one to ten for enthusiasm, that sounded like maybe a four.

"What's wrong?" she asked her daughter. "Is everything all right?"

"I'm fine. Why?"

"You just sound a little down, that's all."

"I'm okay. Maybe I miss home a little. It probably sounds stupid."

"Not at all."

"I love it here," added Claire. "Sometimes I just, I don't know, I miss you guys."

Her daughter's admission brought a smile to Scully's face. "I miss you too, Honey. It's okay if you don't want to stay until August, you know. We can change your ticket and you can come to the Vineyard earlier. I can't promise it will be much fun while I'm grant writing, but I'm sure you'll find things to do. Mally is home for the summer."

"I'll be okay. I want to stay here and I'm having fun. I guess I just wanted to hear your voice."

Scully closed her eyes briefly and soaked in the moment. Her daughter, both her children actually, seemed to be racing toward independence faster than she could fathom. She always knew the years would go fast. She didn't think they'd go quite this fast.

"What about the sleepover with Katie's friends? Isn't that coming up soon?"

"Yeah, It's this Friday," said Claire, flatly.

"You don't sound very excited."

"I am. It's just that..." Claire sighed.

"Just what?"

"This is going to sound stupid, but..." Another sigh. "Katie got her period."

"Oh?" Oh.

Scully thought for a moment. "You mean...for the first time?"

"Yeah."

"And I'm sure it's going to come up at the sleepover," her daughter continued. "I mean, of course it's going to."

Seventh grade slumber parties. Mad Libs, Truth or Dare, gossip, and period talk. Some things never change. "And you're worried you'll be the only one there who hasn't started," Scully said, knowingly.

"Like I said, I know it sounds stupid. I shouldn't care."

Scully smiled. "Oh honey..."

"Mom, what if I don't get it for, like, another whole year? What if I'm in high school and I still haven't gotten it? I'm probably some freak of nature and I'll be like twenty or something."

"You're not and you won't be," her mother said in a comforting tone. "I think I can assure you with medical confidence that you won't be twenty and still not menstruating-"

"No one says 'menstruating'," Claire groaned.

"Well I do, and don't interrupt. As I was saying, there is not a thing abnormal about you, Claire, other than your inability to keep your room clean for more than an hour at a time."

Claire giggled on the other end of the phone and Scully was relieved to hear her daughter's mood lift.

"I'll bet you won't be the only one at the sleepover who hasn't gotten her period, but even if you are, nobody there knows you, except Katie. Who says that it's anyone's business but yours?"

"At my age, apparently it's everyone's business," replied Claire, dismally. "It's all anyone wants to talk about, with the exception of who likes who, but since I don't know any of the boys here, nobody's going to ask me that."

"All I'm saying is you don't have to lie about your personal experiences in order to be included in the discussions. There's nothing wrong with keeping some things to yourself. Nobody will be the wiser."

"You think so?"

"I always tell my residents that how they present themselves is almost as important as what they know. You know all the facts, Claire. Trust me – there's nothing that Katie magically knows now that you don't. Just be confident, have fun, and join in the conversations."

Scully smiled warmly and continued. "You know, you happen have something a lot of people don't."

"What?" Claire asked, hesitantly.

"Well, the word charisma comes to mind, but that's not quite right. It's more like a gravitational pull that draws people to you. It's personality, for lack of a better word. You were born with it, Claire Bear."

"I must get that from you."

"Me?" Scully chuckled. "I doubt that very much. I was incredibly awkward at your age."

"I remember Daddy saying once that there's so much beauty in you that the whole wide world can't help but stop and notice."

Scully's breath hitched as her daughter's words hit her unexpectedly. Her throat grew tight and she swallowed hard. Several beats passed.

"Mom?"

"Yeah, I'm here."

"Thank you," said Claire. "For making me feel better."

Scully sniffled and shook herself out of her fog. "Anytime, Baby. Is everything else okay there? Are you and Katie are getting along?"

"Yeah, we are. We like to do different things sometimes, but we work it out. Oh, that reminds me, you'll never guess what I did the other day!"

"Should I be afraid to ask?" Of her two children, Claire was by far the least predictable.

"I drove a car!"

"What are you talking about? Claire-"

"Calm down," Claire said with a laugh. "It's totally okay. Uncle Bill took us – just Katie and me."

"He let you drive?!?" She was going to kill her brother. He'd obviously lost his mind. It sounded like something Charlie would pull, not Bill.

"Not on the road," Claire explained. "It was in a parking lot by the fairgrounds. Uncle Bill takes Katie all the time. He's so cool!"

That deserved the double eyebrows. "Really."

"Oh yeah! Uncle Bill said he taught you to drive. Is that true?"

Scully smiled. "Yes, it's true."

Growing up not particularly cool had never been much of a hardship. Dana had come to the realization early on that she didn't share the same interests as most girls her age. She would have rather read a book than go to the mall. But she always had friends and took comfort in knowing that, although her popularity paled in comparison to Charlie's or Melissa's, she was still cooler than Bill. It seemed the gap may be tightening.

"I'm glad you're having fun," Scully assured her daughter. "Just be careful."

" I am, Mom. You'll be relieved to know that I haven't spent all the money you sent...yet." Claire giggled.

"Wonders never cease."

"See, I do listen to you sometimes."

"I know you do."

"Hang on, Mom, I think Uncle Bill wants to say hi."

The phone passed noisily to her brother.

"Hey, Sis," Bill greeted her, a smile in his voice. "I think you're going to have a little Mario Andretti on your hands. She's got a lead foot, just like her mother."

Scully took the good-natured teasing with a smile. "My daughter thinks you're cool. How do you explain that?"

"I am cool," he replied, matter-of-factly.

"I'll alert the press. Retirement must agree with you."

"I'm enjoying it more than I thought I would," he admitted.

"How does your wife feel about having you underfoot all the time?"

"She loves it."

A laugh that Dana recognized as Tara's could be overheard in the background.

"You do," said Bill's muffled voice, off to the side. "You know you do, Honey."

After all the joking and pleasantries were finished, Scully bid good night to Bill and Tara and then to her daughter. She did one more hour of online research for her grant before climbing between the cool cotton sheets and cracking open the journal. She began to read.


***

Journal Entry

August 24, 2007

William is 6, Claire is 3


Tomorrow we leave for home. We've had three weeks at the lighthouse this year, and they've been good ones. On Monday, Mulder flies to Atlanta for a speaking engagement and I will welcome an entire new class of eager med school students. In two weeks, William begins first grade.

We are spending today on the beach. Mulder has William on a surf board for the first time and I am doing my best not to be an overprotective mother. He's been swimming on his own in our pool for a while, but the ocean is an entirely different story.

Mulder holds his arms on either side as Will attempts to stand up on the shifting board. He says things to him I can't hear and Will nods. At six-years-old, his father knows everything and William listens with a look of awe in his eyes reserved only for Mulder. Well, Mulder, Shrek, and anyone in a Santa Claus suit. I love watching this bond between them. Sometimes I stumble upon them together – playing chess, working in the yard, watching a basketball game on TV – and I just stand there spellbound, a silent observer. These are the moments my son will remember years from now.

Claire naps on the beach blanket next to me, curled on her tummy like a clamshell in a yellow Onesie, ruffle on her bottom.

Mulder glances my way and catches me watching him and Will. His eyes hold mine for an endless moment before he mouths "I love you." I smile and say it back, right before his attention is diverted once again to our son.

Next to me, Claire stirs and mumbles "Mommy", still half asleep. She sits up and pushes her long hair from her eyes, taking a minute to remember where she is. Then, with a baby sigh, she snuggles into me again and proclaims herself very, very, very, very hungry. I kiss the top of her damp, tangled hair and suggest we climb to the lighthouse and make lunch for everyone. Claire approves of this idea.

When I stand, Claire lifts her pudgy arms to me. I tell her she is a big girl now and too heavy to be carried everywhere. She pouts just long enough for me to slip her flip flops on her feet. Toddling after me, she launches a persuasive argument for cookies with lunch. I told her we'll see, but with those Mulder eyes blinking back at me, I don't stand a chance.


The bedside lamp was still burning when Scully was startled from sleep. She sat up quickly and the journal slid off her lap onto the floor with a thud. She must've dozed off while reading. Hours ago, if the numbers on the alarm clock are accurate. 2:16 am.

Her cell phone trilled on the nightstand and she realized that's what had awakened her.

"Hello," she said, shifting her back higher on the pillows. Her voice was hoarse with sleep.

A pause first, then "I'm sorry, I just realized what time it is there, Scully. I-I wasn't thinking."

"It's okay. Where are you? Are you all right?"

"I'm at a motel north of Pasadena, off route 118."

"Pasadena," she said, frowning. "What are you doing there?" He sounded so far away to her. She struggled to hear him over a poor connection.

"I've been here for a few days. I'm seeing a doctor, someone Colleen Azar recommended. Colleen said to say hello to you, by the way."

"Colleen? I haven't spoken to her in years. How did you get in touch with her?"

Mulder laughed quietly. "The White Pages, courtesy of Larry, Curly, and Moe. Anyway, she gave me the name of someone out here who she thinks might be able to help me."

"Who? What kind of doctor, Mulder?"

"I don't know exactly what his degree is, but he claims to specialize in treating alien abductees using experimental therapy."

Oh God. "Mulder-"

"Relax, Scully." Mulder chuckled. "He's a clinical psychologist, Board certified and everything. His name is Doctor Eppling – Keith, I think."

Fumbling for a pen, Scully jotted the name down on a notepad by the bed. "How many appointments have you had?"

"Just one. I go back tomorrow."

"Are you sure you're okay, Mulder?"

"Yeah." He said it casually, in that Mulder way that told her nothing. It could have been his response to 'Did you remember to take out the trash?' or 'Is the house on fire?' Same tone.

"I'm just...processing," he added. "Figuring some things out."

Her frown deepened. He sounded lost, for lack of a better word. "Mulder, I'm not so sure you shouldn't just come home. There are excellent doctors right in Washington and I'm sure I can find-"

"No. I need to be here. Believe it or not, I think in some small way, I am making progress. Truthfully, this trip was long overdue."

She sighed and closed her eyes. "I worry about you."

"Just like old times then." He chuckled.

"Mulder, please-"

"I know," he said, serious now. "And I'm sorry for that, Scully. I'm sorry for a lot of things."

Scully bit down on her lower lip and choked on a sob.

"How...are you?" he asked, with a forced brightness in his tone. "Is everything okay there?"

"I'm fine. Just working and getting some things done around the lighthouse. I spoke with the hospital about staying on here for the rest of the summer."

"Yeah?"

"It won't be a problem. I can get my research and grant writing done remotely, and God knows I've never taken a sabbatical in fourteen years. Besides, the only person who outranks me and and could possibly veto the decision is Jack Hirsh and he's in Florence for the summer."

"So par-tay. For your residents anyway."

"Not if they know what's good for them."

A lull ensued. She turned the lamp off and sank lower beneath the covers.

"I should let you sleep," he said, a hopeful question in his tone.

"It's okay. I'm glad you called; I was starting to wonder if you would." She hadn't wanted to admit that, but there it was.

"I wasn't sure how often I should call. I know you need some space. You're about all I've thought about, though."

So much for not admitting things. Jesus.

"You...me...us...everything that's brought us here," he added, vaguely.

Scully drew shallow breaths. "Have you come to any conclusions?"

"Some. Maybe."

The air around her seemed unnaturally still as she waited for him to elaborate, unsure if she was really prepared to hear what he had to say.

It felt like forever before he spoke again.

"Did you know that I thought you'd used a donor?"

"What?" she asked, entirely confused. Had she missed something? "What are you talking about?"

"Another sperm donor. When I came back and you were pregnant. I thought you'd used another donor."

Her head spun. "Mulder, I-" She sighed, trying to capture the trajectory of the conversation. "I was ...eight months along," she said, incredulously. "I figured you...knew. You must've done the math."

"When I left, you were unable to conceive, Scully. What was I supposed to think?" His tone was gentle, not accusative. "I assumed you were carrying somebody else's baby."

Where in the world had this come from? "You thought the minute you went missing, I ran down to the sperm bank and chose an anonymous donor," she said, dryly.

"I wasn't exactly thinking too clearly. I'd been dead and buried for three months."

"Mulder, the day after I got released from the hospital, I was on a plane with Agent Doggett and AD Skinner to go look for you. Even if I hadn't been pregnant, I certainly was in no shape to consider another round of IVF."

"The thought actually crossed my mind that maybe you asked one of them to father your baby."

"You are kidding, right?" she said tightly.

"Like I said, I'd been dead."

Yeah, she got that. The sympathy was wearing thin, especially when he implied, even for a second, that she had been anything but consumed by loss.

"Are you trying to upset me, Mulder, because-"

"No," he interrupted her, gently. "No, I'm not trying to upset you. I'm just trying to sort it out...in my head."

"It was not a good time," she said, a tinge of resentment in her voice, "for any of us. Looking back, truthfully I can't imagine how I even put one foot in front of the other. All I could think about was finding you alive."

"Did you know, Scully? Did you know you were pregnant before I left?"

She was stunned into silence for a moment. "Of course not, Mulder. My God... I would have told you."

"I hope so," he said, plainly. "I do, because I-I would have wanted to know."

"Would it have made a difference? Would you have still gone?" she asked, with a plain bitterness she didn't realize she still felt.

A lengthy pause. Then, "I can't answer that. I know that's not what you want to hear, Scully, but I honestly don't know."

She closed her eyes again and nodded to herself, brushing away the dampness on her cheeks.

"But not because I didn't love you, Scully. There was never a question about that."

What about now? Is there a question now, she thought?

Her forehead rested in her hands. "I don't know what to say. I don't know how we got to this. I thought all of that was in the past."

"It should be," he admitted. "I'm trying to make it be. That's why I'm here. In this truck stop motel room, three thousand miles from home instead of there with you. It's not by choice, Scully, but I think I'm out of options."

The line grew quiet and they sat, absorbing the weight of everything. Scully thought about him sitting alone, fully dressed, slouched atop a slippery cheap motel bedspread in a room identical to thousands they'd slept in over the years. He'd have the television on, muted, with the lights off. There'd be a half empty glass of water sweating on the night table next to him, an open bag of sunflower seeds, perhaps a dog-eared paperback novel, face down wherever he'd left off. In days gone by, he might've listened at the connecting door between them for evidence that she was still awake.

"What's on the TV?" she asked with a sniffle.

He chuckled softly. "Star Trek reruns."

"Original series?"

"Voyager. You thought I had porn on, didn't you?"

"Now why would I think that?"

"You can even get good porn in hotels anymore. Everything's internet now."

"What a tragedy."

"It's the end of an era."

"Although, I'd probably have to debate the validity of the term 'good porn,'" she argued.

"Like what-you expect a plot?"

She breathed out a sleepy half laugh that ended in a yawn.

"I'll let you get some sleep," he said.

"Okay." She slithered further down into the warm bed and yawned again. "I'm glad you called."

"I'm glad that you're glad I called."

"Mulder?"

"Hmm?"

"Will you do me a favor and try and take care of yourself? Eat real food, get some sleep. Be careful..."

"I will try," he replied, dutifully. "I realize I'm not thirty anymore."

Scully wrinkled her forehead, eyes closed. "Please tell me that isn't what all this is about."

"What all what's about?"

"Some elaborate version of a mid-life crisis." The thought had entered her mind repeatedly over the past six months. She had expected, perhaps, an overpriced sports car. Or that maybe he'd take up guitar and join a garage band or decide on a whim to go rock climbing or sky diving. God, even a meaningless fling, as gut-wrenching as it would be. But this? She had no idea how to navigate what he was going through. Leave it to Mulder to have the only mid-life crisis that defied all precedent.

"No, it isn't," he said. "At least I don't think so anyway, although I suppose age factors into it on some level. Things left undone...roads not taken, that sort of thing. But no, I don't think my problem would be solved if I ran out, bought a Harley and got a tattoo."

Hey, there's one she should've thought of. Never underestimate the power of body ink to pull you out of a funk.

"You'd look really sexy on the back of a motorcycle, though," he added glibly. "It's the leather."

She knew he was secretly turned on by her tattoo, but it wasn't something they talked about. He made no attempt to hide the way he watched it when she moved about their bedroom, unclothed. Sometimes, he'd press the heat of his mouth to it or trace the outline of the red ink with the eager tip of his tongue, holding her hips steady so she wouldn't squirm. His tongue anywhere on her body was a gift. She craved it.

More than once, she'd considered having the tattoo removed. But the willful, thorny part of her wanted him to remember what she was capable of.

"Good night, Scully," he said, interrupting her reverie. She had begun to drift back into the cocoon of sleep.

"Mmm'sorry," she hummed. "Sleepy."

"It's late there. Get some rest and I'll call you in a few days."

"Be careful." Given his track record, it bore repeating.

Scully was already stumbling toward sleep before the screen on her phone went dark.

***

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

It was well past noon by the time she returned to the lighthouse, having spent the morning shopping and running errands. She had every intention of working through the afternoon, but as she eased her car down the access road, radio on, the salty breeze drifting through the car windows, she couldn't imagine spending a perfect day like this inside. The temperature was above normal for July, but dew points remained low, giving the air a dry, pleasant feeling. She wrestled bags of groceries into the lighthouse and hummed as she stocked the pantry and fridge.

The sun was beating down on the sand when she descended the stone steps to the waterfront. Pete looked up from his sketching, pleased to see her. "Hi," he said, lifting his sunglasses to the top of his head. "How are you?"

She smiled. "I'm fine. How are you? How did your other job go?"

"Great. It was portrait of my neighbors, the Murphys. Their children bought it as a 60th anniversary gift for them."

"What a wonderful idea. Sixty years – wow."

Pete nodded. "They were married right here on the Vineyard. Supposedly, it's considered good luck to get married here."

Scully drew a deep breath and looked out over the water. "Well, it certainly sounds like it was for them."

She felt eyes on her.

"Thank you again for the paint job on the front door," she said, finally. "It looks great."

"You're very welcome. I like the color you picked – it suits the place."

Scully slipped off her sandals and dug her feet into the hot sand, feeling it sift between her toes. "I'd like to pay you for your time, Pete."

He scoffed. "No," he said, resolutely. "Consider it a gift for letting me set up shop here. A non-negotiable one."

She nodded her acceptance of his terms and repeated her thanks.

"I have your drawing," he said, "if you want to work on it. And I brought along a few tools you might find handy."

"I'd like that," she agreed. "I thought I would take the windsurfer out first. Maybe later?"

Pete nodded, pushing his shades back down over his eyes. "I'll be here."


Scully's hair dried in the breeze as she sketched. They were both a little light on the conversation today, which suited her just fine.

She found herself thinking about Pete's son, wanting to ask what happened, but she couldn't bring herself to. It was her worst fear – something happening to one of her children. She supposed that was true for most parents. She couldn't imagine surviving it and yet, here he was. Knowing what she did now, it explained some things. Like why, from the very first time they'd met, she had sensed a certain depth about him. A quiet loneliness. An acceptance. Those who've experienced profound loss tend to see the world differently. Scully had learned this both as a physician and in her own life.

"I never asked you what you do," he said, out of the blue, rousing her from her thoughts.

She looked at him curiously.

"Your job," he clarified. "Whatever mysterious wizardry keeps you inside on beautiful days like this."

"I'm a medical doctor. I work in a teaching hospital, but I spend most of the summer on research."

Pete nodded once, satisfied. "That fits." He continued his sketch, making no attempt to elaborate on his comment.

Scully's curiosity got the better of her. "It does? Why does that fit?"

He drew a deep, thoughtful breath and then blew it out through puffed cheeks. "I'm not sure exactly. Your attention to detail maybe...carefulness, perfectionism, a thirst for knowledge. You prefer order in your world and you take comfort in science, that which you can nail down with facts. At the same time, you reluctantly accept that not everything can be explained with science. That's where your faith takes over. There's an intensity about you. You like things a certain way. You have high expectations, mostly of yourself, but also of others. You appreciate quality and beauty. You respect and cherish life. Like I said, it fits."

She stared at him, unsure how to respond to what was probably the most accurate description of her character she'd ever heard. "Wow. I uh..."

Pete chuckled at her. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I'm...observant, curious about everything. I think it's the artist in me. I don't mean anything by it. I hope I didn't offend you."

"No," she said a little too quickly. "No."

"Sometimes I forget that most people don't see the world the way I do," he admitted quietly.

Scully nodded in acceptance and they returned to their respective drawings.

The day wore on, both of them lost in creativity, slowing to share brief conversations about anything and nothing. The social part of his brain seemed to work much like the artistic side, in short bursts of color and energy, a question or comment, a peculiar observation spoken without much forethought or reserve. He was outspoken without being uncivil. There was no pretension in him, no disguise. She found it easy to be in his company. She didn't have to be or say anything. Nothing was expected of her. She could be in the moment.

The western sky turned pink as evening closed in. Scully regretted having to break for the day. She helped Pete carry the canvas bags to the Jeep, noticing that the inside of the vehicle looked remarkably different than the first time she'd seen it. "You cleaned."

He smiled. "I was trying to make a good first impression recently. You'll probably never see it this neat again."

"Did you manage to? Make a good first impression?"

He shifted his weight onto one leg, hand on his hip thoughtfully. "That is a very good question. I...don't know."

She nodded with a closed-lipped smile. When she looked down, she realized her feet were still bare and she must've forgotten her sandals on the beach. Her toes looked like tiny pink shells in the white sand.

"The thing is," he began, "I've concluded that after fourteen years of not dating, I may have forgotten a few things. Either that, or they changed the rules on me, which would be just my luck."

Scully huffed out a soft breath, still smiling, playing in the sand with her toes. "I'm pretty sure I never understood the rules in the first place."

"I was married for eleven years. We were together for three before that, so I'm a little out of practice."

"Was it your first date since the divorce?" The second she asked, she blushed in embarrassment. "I'm sorry, that's none of my business."

"It's okay. I brought it up. And no, not the first, but pretty close. I don't think it went very well."

Scully offered a sympathetic look. "I can't imagine dating again."

"I don't recommend it. Maybe there's manual out there I need to get, or an instructional app of some kind." He opened the driver's side door and tossed a smaller satchel onto the passenger seat. "Let me ask you this: if a woman says you remind her of her brother, that's probably not a good sign, is it?"

She cracked a wide smile and suppressed a laugh. "Probably not."

"Yeah, didn't think so." Pete sighed. "Maybe I'll get a dog instead."

Arms crossed casually, Scully stifled a laugh and looked down at her feet. "Dog or girlfriend, that's a tough call."

"I know. I'm just looking for someone to eat dinner with once in a while. I figure, I could accomplish that with a spaniel or a retriever of some kind."

"Well, you probably wouldn't have to worry about offending your dog with a messy car."

"They don't call them man's best friend for nothing."

The both stood there smiling for several beats, until the awkwardness edged in. Scully was the first to move, turning toward the lighthouse before stopping.

Without any forethought, she asked, "Would you like to come in for a beer? I stopped at this Japanese restaurant on the way home from the market today because I had a craving for sushi. Somehow I got talked into this platter that I'm never going to eat. I don't know if you like sushi, but-"

"Plum Garden? The place next to the fitness center with the red and yellow awnings? Is that the place?"

"I...think so?"

"They have great sushi."

She hesitated. "So...do you..."

"Do I want to eat good sushi, drink beer and enjoy witty conversation with you, or would I rather go home, microwave a frozen pizza and watch my DVR? That's a tough choice." He narrowed his eyes.

Scully's jaw shifted, holding back a sarcastic smile. "Who said anything about witty conversation? I agreed to feed you."

"Well, all right." He shut the car door. "I suppose I can catch up on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills tomorrow night."

She eyed him warily as they walked toward the lighthouse.

***

Five Months Ago

She was reading in bed. Trying to anyway, but it seemed that Mulder had other ideas. The hand under her pajama top tickled her stomach.

"One more page," she giggled, trying to concentrate.

The hand crept higher to her breast.

Where had this come from? An hour ago, she'd stopped in his office on her way to bed and found him completely absorbed in something. His kiss good night had been quick and distracted. In any case, she was surprised when he waltzed into the bedroom just minutes ago, stripped and slid to her side of the bed. Now she was the one getting distracted.

She certainly didn't mind, though. He'd been spending so much time in his office lately that she felt like she needed to make an appointment to see him. Not quite, but almost.

She assumed his recent hermitage could be attributed to a looming deadline. It happened once in a while. He'd enter some kind of writer's black hole for days at a time, a week at the most, surfacing only for caffeine or food, a shower only when he couldn't stand to be shut in the same room with himself anymore. It eventually ended and things always returned to normal. She didn't ever remember it going on for quite this long, though. He'd been preoccupied since Christmas. That was two months ago.

Scully put the book down and turned out the light. He already had her pajama top unbuttoned and was tugging on her bottoms. "Are we in a hurry?" she asked, mildly amused.

"No hurry. I just want you," he muttered, while feasting on her breast.

She lifted her hips obediently. He slid her pants off without removing his mouth from her boob, which was a pretty neat trick. Arching under him, she combed through his hair with her fingertips and made a pleased humming sound. This was nice. Very nice. His mouth migrated from her nipple to her stomach, then her inner thighs. Nice became fucking incredible.

Whatever had sparked his interest in sex within the last hour, she wasn't about to question it. Not when he was doing what he was doing and it had been way too long since he'd last done it.

His hands cupped her bottom while he went down on her, eagerly. His enthusiasm was admirable. If she were handing out grades, she'd give him an A+ and she was a tough grader.

One thing that could always be said about Mulder was that he never scrimped on oral sex. When he did it, he put effort into it. There was no such thing as rushing. She never felt like he was anxious to get on to the main event. On the contrary, sometimes he teased and taunted her so long she'd be nearly out of her mind by the time he got serious about bringing her to orgasm.

Sweet Jesus, this was one of those times.

His name rolled off her tongue in a series of breathless pants as she lifted her hips off the bed and tried frantically to achieve more solid contact with his mouth. "Pleeease, Mulder."

He must've been feeling generous because he slid two fingers inside her and curled them forward while he focused his entire mouth on her swollen, hungry clitoris. The balloon of tension inside her shattered and she cried out, pinning his head between her trembling thighs.

Climbing her body, he kissed her deeply and then entered her. She wrapped her legs around his hips and they rocked and pitched, bodies pressed tightly together. Mulder watched her face as he positioned and repositioned his lower half, looking for the right connection between them. She knew what he was trying to do. If he could fit himself against her in just the right way, he could make her come like this. It was unlikely after she'd already reached orgasm, though. She considered reminding him of that fact, but figured what the hell, why not?

He worked himself against her intently, urging her with his eyes. He had one of her arms raised over her head, pinned to the mattress. His fingers were laced with hers, flexing and gripping with each thrust.

She lost herself once again, pulses of pleasure rippling through her. Not quite as strong as the first, but powerful enough to force her eyes closed. Mulder, whom she knew from experience had been holding back, released himself with a groan.

When they'd both managed to catch their breath again, he dragged his mouth to hers. He was still on top, but had shifted his weight to the side of her. His hand caressed her bare hip tenderly as he kissed her.

"What brought this on?" she asked.

He gave a half shrug and continued pecking at the slope of her neck. "I need a reason for wanting to make love to my wife?"

"Of course not, it just hasn't seemed like you've been all that interested lately."

He kissed the tip of her nose and looked down at her. His eyes were apologetic. "Just a little preoccupied, I guess."

"Book stuff?"

He seemed to hesitate slightly before nodding.

"When's your deadline?"

"Nothing solid yet. I'm just trying to stay on top of things."

Her finger grazed the rough side of his cheek and she smiled sleepily. "I miss this...when we haven't been together for a while."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry." She nipped at his ear lobe. "Just remember you're a wanted man."

"You could put me in handcuffs."

The corners of her mouth twitched. "That could be arranged."

Mulder inhaled deeply and lifted himself off of her, rolling onto his back. "Unfortunately, I have a little more work to get through tonight."

"Mulder, it's after midnight." She'd wanted to fall asleep with him next to her.

"I won't be much longer." He pressed a kiss to her shoulder and got out of bed. "Oh, that reminds me. You know that dinner at your mom's Friday? I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to miss it. Pamela wants to go over the new book edits. We scheduled a phone meeting for Friday at seven."

"Mulder, it's Robert's birthday dinner. Couldn't the phone meeting wait until Monday?"

He shook his head, tugging on his boxer shorts. "Pamela's on a tight schedule this week and she leaves for vacation on Sunday."

"That woman takes vacations?"

"Hardly ever. I think this is her third one in fifteen years. I'm afraid if we don't get the edits put through, she might postpone her trip. And if she postpones her trip, the interns will probably commit some kind of mass suicide. I can't be responsible for another Jonestown, Scully."

She sighed.

"Give my best to your mom, okay?"

"Sure," she said, sullenly.

He bent to kiss her cheek. "Good night. I'll be back up as soon as I can."

"Good night, Mulder."

Scully rolled over to face his empty side of the bed. It took her a long time to fall back to sleep as she lay there, blinking into the dark, feeling unsettled instead of content like she usually did after they made love. Why did she have the vague feeling that she'd just been played?


They sat on the lookout deck, half-empty plates balanced on their laps and beers sweating on a table between them. The sunset was sublime.

"I have never had better sushi," Dana proclaimed, licking her thumb.

"I told you."

"The food on this island," she said dreamily. "It's a wonder people here don't weigh three hundred pounds."

"And you haven't even tried the lobster BLT from Manny's I told you about. Sometime I'll take you there."

Scully paused several beats before her next swallow of beer.

Pete continued to eat, uninhibited, like it was his last meal.

Setting her plate aside, she slouched in the wicker chair. Her belly was comfortably full and the second beer made her feel warm and relaxed. "Tell me about your date."

He scrunched his nose, chewing. "It might not be appropriate dinner conversation."

"Really?"

"No," he amended, with a chuckle. "I'm kidding, it was fine."

"Fine?"

"I don't think I made a colossal ass out of myself or anything. But like I said, I'm out of practice, so I could be deluding myself."

She smiled, encouraging him to continue.

"It was a blind date," he admitted. "A friend set us up."

"You're brave."

He shrugged. "Apparently, that's how it works a lot these days, especially with internet dating, which I find very intimidating."

"I don't blame you."

"Not that picking people up in bars was ever all that brilliant."

"True." Or tattoo parlors, she doesn't add.

"Anyway, she was nice. We met for dinner – that's another thing now – you don't pick a woman up at her place anymore, you meet at the restaurant."

"So you cleaned your car out for nothing."

"It needed it. Anyway, I suggested a restaurant and we met and...ate dinner."

He munched on a tempura roll and she realized it might be the end of the story.

"It sounds...great," she said, flatly.

"The whole thing was what I'd call pleasant," he said. "Not fun, not particularly interesting, just pleasant. It certainly wasn't bad. I didn't have the urge to fake an emergency phone call in order to leave. But at the same time, I had lunch with my insurance agent last week and it was equally fine."

"Ouch."

"Exactly. She was nice, polite, and attractive. There just wasn't a spark there. The conversation seemed to go okay, except for the brother comment...so by the end of dinner, I just assumed she wasn't interested which was okay because, like I said, it didn't feel like a good fit to me either."

Pete set his empty plate aside and took a swallow of beer before continuing. "So I tried to pick up the tab and we went through the whole 'let's split it...no, I'll get it...no, that's okay' thing, which if you ask me, was unnecessary because I asked her out. I should pick up the bill, right? Anyway, I walked her to her car and I expected there would be a polite handshake and an exchange that would go something like, 'this has been fun, great to meet you, have a nice life'. But instead she hugged me. That was a little surprising, but I thought okay, she's a hugger. Some people are. And then...well, and then, it got weird."

Scully's brows lifted. "Define weird."

"She invited me to her place."

"For... coffee?"

Pete narrowed his eyes. "I don't think so. There was a mention of a hot tub, so potentially more than coffee."

Scully smiled and looked out over the water, feet propped on the wrought iron railing. "Hot tubs can be very unsanitary."

Pete's head bobbed. "Yes, they can be. It's a good thing I didn't go then." He drained his beer.

Scully stood. "I'm going to get another beer. Do you want one?"

"Yeah, sure," he said, following her inside.

In the kitchen, she rinsed plates and wiped down the counters while he talked to her from the living room, his voice carrying through the openness of the lighthouse.

"This is your family?" He must've been looking at the framed photos on the bookshelves.

"Yes," she called back. She didn't know to which photo he referred, but they were all of the kids. She always knew she'd be a mother who took too many pictures of her children. Whenever there was an event or a memorable moment, she was the default photographer. Mulder never remembered until it was over. He resisted living his life behind a lens. Baby books, journals, old shoeboxes full of refrigerator art and school report cards. Just like her own mother had, Scully kept it all.

"Your kids look like you."

Scully popped open two Magic Hats and turned the corner from the kitchen. "Claire is all Mulder. If I hadn't given birth to her, I'd never believe she was mine."

"What's your son's name?"

"William. We call him Will. He's sixteen."

"Basketball player?" Pete had moved on to the end table next to the sofa where there was a posed five by seven of Will in his school jersey, holding a ball.

"He lives and breathes it," she replied. "He's at basketball camp now."

Pete smiled. "I take it he got his height from his father."

"They both did. I'm the shortest one in the family." She handed Pete the beer and they both sat down, her on a corner of the sofa, him in a cushiony chair.

"Is your husband a doctor too? That's how you met?"

Scully drew a deep breath and let it out. "No. He's a writer now, but we met working for the FBI."

Pete lowered his drink. "Now there's one I haven't heard before."

Her smile was a little wistful. "It was a long time ago. We were partners for eight years."

"That is a very cool story." He managed to look thoroughly impressed. "You were a Fed."

She nodded slowly. "I was."

"What was that like?"

"Not as glamorous as you might think."

"I'll bet you were a tough agent."

"I held my own," she said.

"Why did you leave?"

"Family mostly. It certainly wasn't an eight to five job. And I think I'd always had in the back of my mind that someday I wanted to return to medicine." She looked up at him. "What about you? Have you always been an artist?"

"Yes. A starving one at times, but yes, always an artist."

"That's hard to imagine – the starving part. Your work is remarkable and you've made quite a name for yourself."

"It's always hard getting started; I was no exception. My wife was a school teacher. We lived on her salary and the money I made painting houses in the beginning."

She looked down at her hands, picking at the label on the bottle of beer. Wife. Ex wife. She wanted to ask about things that were none of her business. For whatever reason, she sensed he was waiting for the question before she asked it.

"So how long have you been divorced?"

He drank again before answering her. "Two years, almost three. Well, separated for two years, the divorce wasn't final until last Christmas."

She nodded. A lot of people her age were divorced. Several close colleagues, parents of her children's friends, about half of those she'd kept in touch with from high school and college. It happened.

"Olivia's house is about 30 minutes from here," he offered. "We still talk, even meet up for dinner once in a while. I helped her move into her new place, built bookshelves in her bedroom for her. Her parents invited me for Thanksgiving last year. I...don't really know what being divorced is supposed to be like. But I don't think it's like this."

"Did you go? To Thanksgiving?"

He nodded. "I did. We drove there together and sat next to each other at dinner. Liv made the pies like she always did. The apple with the criss-cross crust on top." His fingers demonstrated, drawing invisible lines across his knee. "When I took her home, I spent the night. I don't think that's supposed to happen either when you're divorced."

Scully looked down. "I'm not sure there is a right or a wrong way to be divorced."

"I don't think she's seeing anyone. Obviously, I'm not either. It's like we know how to be friends, but anything beyond that..." Pete shook his head.

Scully sat there quietly, unsure what to say. The room had grown dark while they talked and he was nothing more than a silhouette now, backlit by the window. She stretched over the sofa and twisted the end table lamp on.

"Can I ask you a question?" he said.

"Sure," she replied, cautiously.

"And let me assure you that this is none of my business."

She swallowed her beer and waited.

"Why are you here alone?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"It's been a couple of weeks. Still no family, just you."

Scully curled her legs beneath her, suddenly wishing to make herself smaller. "As I told you, my son is at basketball camp. Claire is visiting my brother and his family in California. They'll both arrive on the Vineyard next month." Her eyes skimmed his. "And my husband is working, but he'll be coming later as well."

"Okay," he said quietly, his tone inviting more from her if she wanted to give it. She did not.

After a considerable lull, Scully stood and announced she had forgotten to close the lookout deck. The evening breeze had picked up and the first floor blinds slapped against the window casings. Pete offered to help, but she had already started up the spiral staircase.

"I'll just be a minute," she insisted. Glass clinked as he carried empty bottles to the kitchen, followed by the sound of running water.

She fought with the stubborn latch on the French doors, catching the flesh below her thumb in the process and cursing.

"Dana?"

"I'm fine." The pinch hadn't broken the skin. She shook her hand instinctively.

Pete appeared at the top of the stairs a moment later. He examined the door. "The latch is stripped. It's just a standard four inch slide bolt. Shouldn't be a problem to replace."

"Just one more thing to get done around here," she said, frowning at the door.

"I'm not too shabby at this sort of thing," Pete said. "If you want to make a list, I can get some of it done for you."

"Thank you, but you don't need to do that."

The bolt squeaked and protested as he fought with it before finally succeeding in getting it latched. "I wouldn't offer if I didn't want to. I grew up in a family of carpenters." He gave her a side smile. "Gotta keep my skills fresh."

"Are you suggesting I can't fix my own house?" Her tone was congenial.

"Are you always this stubborn?"

"Yes." Well, it was the truth.


Journal Entry

August 9, 2009

William is 8, Claire is 5


It's early. Everyone is still asleep and I wonder if they'll stay that way long enough for me sit with my coffee and write. I'm sitting on the observation deck. I love this time to myself –just after sunrise when the day is still new and hasn't yet decided what it will become. The gulls are calling to each other and circling the shore, looking for breakfast.

There's something on the beach, a scrap of blue material, forgotten from last night's late excursion. It all started with a few glasses of wine and a movie rental, me lying between Mulder's outstretched legs on the couch, the kids asleep in their beds. When Mulder can't concentrate on a movie, he applies himself to the task of removing my bra beneath my shirt. Give Mulder something to do with his hands and he's happy. And when we're on the couch together with a blanket over us, there's plenty for him to do with his hands.

Last night I stopped the movie halfway through because it was one I actually wanted to see, and by the time my bra was off, even my concentration had dwindled. I suggested the bedroom. Mulder released the button on my shorts. "The bedroom is so....safe," he'd said. We grabbed two beach towels and headed down to the waterfront instead.

Despite my weak protests, Mulder coaxed me into the surf. He lost his footing and we both went down, laughing and getting drenched in the process. When he kissed me, I tasted the saltwater on his tongue. Mulder pulled my tee shirt off over my head and I wrapped my legs around him like seaweed.

Afterward, naked and shivering, we swaddled ourselves in dry towels and grabbed our wet, discarded clothing. Laughing and scurrying up to the lighthouse, we slipped into bed and hugged each other for warmth. When the sun rose the next morning, my forgotten shirt on the beach and some sand between the bedsheets was the only proof of our rendezvous.


***

Days passed. Scully lost track of them, each one much like the one before.

She ran as the sun came up, worked until lunchtime, hit the beach in the afternoons. If she felt like sketching, that's what she did. Other times she took the boat or one of the windsurfers out and let the salt breeze bleach her hair and the sun bronze her skin. She ate plenty but still lost a few pounds, not because she was trying to. She was the fittest she'd been since the FBI, since before kids. Her arms took on more definition, her calves hardened from running, her abdominal muscles tightened. She went barefoot, let the freckles multiply, and skipped the hairdryer most days. Pete worked in the shade to Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Costello, Cat Stevens, the Grateful Dead. When he breaked to smoke, he took walks along the beach.

Things in the lighthouse got repaired, little by little. Hinges, handles, screens, leaks, a creaky stair. She slipped cash into his canvas art sack, but always found it again - hiding in the pocket of her windbreaker or pushed under the lighthouse door.

The days got hotter and the summer tourists invaded with their Frisbees and their reggae music and their beach volleyball. Scully cleaned up litter and empty liquor bottles by the sand dunes during her morning jog and ignored whatever nonsense happened on the beach after dark. Teenagers and college kids. Drinking, surfing, dancing, making out. Probably more. They weren't her kids to worry about. Someday soon enough. Not yet, though.

There were late night phone calls from the West coast, hours after she'd already fallen asleep. She'd clamor for the phone in the pitch black. He'd apologize for waking her, but she would keep him on the line anyway, hungry for his voice. She'd close her eyes and imagine him lying next to her instead of three thousand miles away. He sounded distant and not just geographically.

He talked about the past like it was last week and asked her questions about things that happened fifteen years ago. Memories she'd tucked away in the farthest corners of her mind where they wouldn't hurt her anymore. She had to dust them off and let them out again. There was so much they'd never talked about before. When he came back from the dead, not all his memories came with him. It was easier and less painful for them to move forward and create new ones, so that's what they did. She should have known you can't bury the past. Sooner or later it claws its way back to the surface.

She wanted him back. She had spent nearly half her life wanting him in some way. In the beginning to trust her, to listen to her, to wait for her, to challenge her. Then later to give himself to her, to love her, to build a life with her.

She wanted what they had a year ago before all this started. He told her he wanted that too, but somewhere along the way, he'd taken a wrong turn and he couldn't find his map. She was supposed to laugh when he said things like that, but she cried instead – in staggered breaths and choking silences until he whispered over the phone to her, "Hey, hey, it's okay, it's going to be all right," like he actually believed it.

It was a promise he may not be able to keep and they both knew it.


Two Months Ago

"Sorry I'm late, everybody. Happy Mother's Day." Mulder kissed his mother-in-law's cheek first, then Scully's. Robert stood and shook Mulder's hand.

"Where were you, Dad?" William asked.

"Oh, just got caught up in work and lost track of time."

He was an hour and a half late to the restaurant. They were nearly finished with their entrees. Scully could feel him watching her, but she refused to meet his eyes.

"Dana tells us you're working on a new book," said Maggie. "Anything you can share with us yet?"

Mulder smiled politely. "Oh you know, the usual. Lights in the sky, things that go bump on the night."

The waiter stopped at the table and asked if Mulder cared to order anything.

He looked around the table at the near-empty dinner plates. "You know what? I think I'm going to save my appetite for dessert. But I'll take a Coke." The waiter nodded and disappeared.

"What do you think, Claire Bear?" Mulder said, bumping his shoulder against hers. "Brownie sundae or peanut butter pie?"

Claire slid her plate closer to her father. There was one slice of pizza left on it. "You can have it, Daddy. I'm full."

No one seemed to have a lot to say when they got back to the house. Scully slipped out of her heels and left them by the door. William fed the dog.

"Hey guys, should we let Mom open her gifts?" Mulder asked.

Will looked at him. Scully knew their son had noticed the recent changes in his father. He didn't talk about it, but she saw it in his eyes and the way he'd become overly protective of her, always asking if she was all right.

"She opened her presents already," said Claire, softly. "At dinner."

"Oh," said Mulder, after a moment. He cleared his throat and forced a smile. "Well, I think there's still one she hasn't opened." His eyes moved to the kitchen table where a small wrapped gift sat.

"Go ahead Scully, open it," he urged.

She crossed slowly to the table and picked up the package. It was wrapped in foil paper with a thin pink ribbon. Carefully, she removed the paper and lifted the lid on the box. Inside was a pair of earrings – white gold, teardrop style with a delicate aquamarine stone. "They're beautiful," she said, quietly.

"I liked the color," said Mulder. "I thought it would bring out your eyes."

"Thank you."

"Can I see them, Mom?" Claire asked.

"Sure." Scully handed her the box.

William said nothing.

Claire excused herself to take a shower and Will said he had homework to finish. Minutes later, Mulder and Scully were standing alone in the kitchen.

"If they're not your taste," he said quietly, eyeing the jewelry box in her hand, "they can be exchanged."

"They're beautiful," she repeated.

Mulder shifted his feet and looked off to the side. "I'm sorry about dinner. I really did lose track of time."

She nodded, stoically. She was too tired to bring up the dozen or more other instances in recent months when he'd lost track of time. The excuse was beginning to lose its novelty.

He walked over to her and touched her hand gently. She wrapped her fingers around his, but couldn't meet his eyes. After a swallow, she whispered, "Will you come up to bed?"

"Soon. I have a few more things to finish."

Scully just nodded and then stood there as he kissed her cheek and wished her a Happy Mother's Day. She was still seated at the table when she heard the click of his office door.


***

"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."

Scully squinted to see Pete without her glasses in the late day haze. He looked up at her from several stories below, his aviators reflecting the sun.

"I thought you left for the day," she said, stretching. She'd been curled into the same chair with her laptop for hours.

"I did. I came back."

She eyed the flat box balanced on his forearm. "What did you bring?"

"Pizza. You look like you could use a break."

"Door's open, come on up. Grab some drinks from the fridge."

A few minutes later she heard footsteps climbing and the clink of glasses. Pete had paper plates and napkins stacked on top of the pizza box, an unopened bottle of red wine tucked under an arm and two glasses in one hand, stems pinched between fingers.

"Jesus," she laughed. "You're an accident waiting to happen."

"I get that a lot."

She rescued the wine glasses from him and slid the small deck table closer. The pizza smelled fabulous. Lunch had been an apple and half a turkey wrap nearly six hours ago.

"I didn't know what you liked," he said, lifting the top of the box. "One half is mushrooms and peppers, the other pepperoni and olives."

"This is great. Thank you." Scully slid a slice of the mushroom and peppers onto a plate.

She didn't recognize the bottle of wine as one of hers. He must've brought that too. "I don't have a bottle opener up here," she said, apologetically, starting to stand. "I'll go grab one."

"Sit," he instructed. He dug into the pocket of his cargo shorts for his key chain, which had a small bottle opener attached. "Be prepared, that's my motto."

"That's the Boy Scout motto."

"Oh. It's a good motto."

She held the glasses while he poured. Tilting her head, she read the label. It was French wine, unsurprisingly.

"Merci," she said, when he presented her with a glass. She swirled the red-purple liquid before taking a sip.

Pete launched into several impressive sentences in French and then looked at her, expectantly.

Her brow lifted at him. "You might have just asked me if I know how to tango. I have no idea what you said."

He laughed. "I asked if you like the wine."

"It's delicious."

"So I take it you don't speak French."

"I can say 'please', 'thank you', 'yes' and 'no', and 'May I please have the dressing on the side?' That's my entire repertoire."

"May I please have the dressing on the side?" He chuckled. "How did you get that?"

"It was in a Seinfeld episode." She grinned sheepishly. "I always order my salad that way, so I thought it might come in handy."

"Ah. But the real question is can you tango?"

"No," she replied sadly. "I cannot."

"You can't speak French. You can't tango. What can you do?"

She thought, chewing her pizza crust. "I can make a Y-incision and remove all your vital organs from your body. I can weigh and measure them, then put them all back exactly where they came from and sew you back up."

Pete stopped eating and regarded her with awe. "That fucking rocks."

"It kind of does," she agreed.


***


In the restless moments before dawn she dreamt of Mulder. They were in their bed at home and he had awakened before her, even before the sun. Spooned to her back, he was overheated and twitchy beneath the covers. The roughened skin of his fingers snagged on silk as he slid a hand up the front of her pajama top to find the curve of one breast. In the fog between sleep and wakefulness, she arched and sighed into her pillow. His hair on her cheek, his breath in her ear, the velvety head of his penis sliding up and down along the crack of her buttocks. Hand lower now, tickling her stomach, slipping into her panties, making everything tingle and spark.

The damn alarm sounded and Scully groaned, her eyes fluttering open. Daylight bathed the room and she squinted, disoriented. Where the hell-

The lighthouse. Morning.

When her eyes focused enough to read the numbers on the clock, she realized how late it was. Almost ten. Jesus.

The annoyance that had interrupted her dream had, in fact, been the ringing of her phone and not her alarm clock. She must've forgotten to set it. She never slept this late. Never, ever, ever.

Sitting up, she grabbed the phone. "Hello."

"Dana? It's Elizabeth. Did I-did I wake you?"

"Um, I...it's okay," she rasped, rubbing her eyes. "I overslept."

"I'm sorry, it isn't important. You can call me back when you're up and around."

"No, it's fine. Really. I didn't mean to sleep so late. I've got to get into the shower; I have a conference call at eleven."

"Well, I won't keep you. I just wanted to invite you to my house Friday for a ladies night."

"Oh, umm-" Scully hemmed.

"Before you say no, let me explain."

"Okay." She had been about to politely say no. Even under the best of circumstances, when she wasn't hiding out at the lighthouse and licking her wounds, the idea of socializing with strangers wasn't particularly appealing. She was certainly capable, but it took effort – something she didn't have a lot to give at the moment.

"I have a group of friends," said Liz, "and we get together once a month. It's not a big deal really, we just rotate houses for dinner. I thought...maybe you could use the break. I know you'd really like this group."

Scully hesitated but agreed to stop by. If nothing more, it would keep her from sitting in front of her computer all evening.

"Seven o'clock Friday then," said Liz, delighted. "Oh, and by the way, it happens to be game night. Everyone brings a small gift as a prize."

She'd known this was a bad idea. "Such as?"

"Nothing extravagant. Chocolate, wine, a gift certificate for a manicure, whatever. It can be something silly too. Use your imagination."

Yup, definitely a bad idea. Say you've changed your mind. Say you forgot you had other plans.

"Okay," she said.


***

"Red, do you think?" Pete tilted the canvas so she could see it. "Or perhaps something softer?" He was working on a pastel of the boathouse. They'd spent the morning setting it up, arranging surfboards and sails, moving chairs and easels to where the light was better and their backs were against the sun.

Scully lowered her sunglasses. "Not red red. Maybe something weathered, with a hint of brown. Russet or cinnamon."

"That's what I was thinking."

"Ginger," she suggested.

"Like your hair color."

"Who says I color my hair?" Scully had gone back to her book, a mindless beach read she'd picked up at a used bookstore in town. The last three days had been nonstop work for her as she pushed to meet a deadline on a research proposal. She was treating herself to a day off.

"Whether you do or whether you don't, it's a nice color," Pete replied, diplomatically.

She inserted a bookmark into her paperback and stretched onto the blanket beneath her, listening to the lap of water just feet away. "I could fall asleep right here."

"Go ahead. I won't let you burn."

It was tempting. Even in the shade, she knew better. She'd just close her eyes and rest a little, soak up some vitamin D. Pete hummed to the radio as he sketched, absent-mindedly singing a few bars. "....you'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs...I look around me and I see it isn't so....some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs...what's wrong with that...I'd like to know....cuz here I go agaaaaaiiiin..."

Her mouth stretched into a smile, eyes closed. Self-conscious of her own singing voice, Scully was envious of those carefree enough to sing in front of others. Pete had a pleasant voice and she mentioned it.

"You know those songs that take you back to a specific time or event in your life?" he asked.

She nodded, but he wasn't looking at her to notice. He continued anyway.

"Mrs. Harmon's third grade class. Every Friday someone got to bring in a record for the class to listen to. When it was my turn, I brought in this one. I was madly in love with Cybil Laroche and thought I could woo her with song."

"Did it work?"

"It did not. The following week Howie Durand brought in Dancing Queen and she sat with him on the bus ride home."

After several minutes of thought, Scully said, "More Than a Feeling by Boston. I was fourteen at Jenny Culver's pool party and we snuck Southern Comfort from her parents' liquor cabinet. Straight out of the bottle – it was awful. I only took a few swallows, but it was enough to keep me from drinking again until my senior year."

Pete chuckled appreciatively. "So were you homecoming queen in high school? Class president? Captain of the cheerleading squad?"

She barked out a laugh. "Try science club and the debate team."

"I'll bet you were Valedictorian."

He turned to look at her when she didn't reply. Her silent smile gave her away.

"Busted, Nerd Girl." He grinned. "Do you remember anything from your graduation speech?"

"Oh God..." She narrowed her eyes and searched her brain before sitting up straight and saying, "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined."

Pete's pencil stopped abruptly. He looked at her. "I like that."

"Henry David Thoreau. I'm surprised I even remember that much."

He went back to sketching. "So what about you? Have you lived the life you imagined?"

The question took her by surprise. Her eyes glanced off his before settling on the horizon. She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "In some ways, yes, I think so."

"And in others?"

"I'm not sure I ever could have imagined some of the things I've seen and done in my life," she said, truthfully.

"Then that's the best kind of life, isn't it?"

"I don't know, is it? Sometimes I wonder if we ever really choose what we want or if life chooses for us."

"That's a bit fatalistic."

"I just mean that the number of times in which my life followed a different path than what I planned is staggering."

Pete studied her. "Regrets?"

"Maybe," she admitted, then sighed. "Not about the big things, no. But there's always something, isn't there?"

"Yes," he agreed, softly. "There's always something."

"I used to think I knew what was best for myself..."

"Don't you?"

She shrugged and looked down at her hands curled in her lap. "If my life had followed the path I'd set for myself at eighteen or even twenty-five, God, what I would have missed."

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you find you get what you need?"

The edges of her mouth lifted. "That's a bit of brilliance right there."

Pete slid down off the chair and sat Indian style in the sand. "This is getting deep. We're going to need provisions." His hand rummaged through a satchel before emerging with a small bag of peanut M andMs. He ripped it open, poured half into a clean thermos cup and handed it to her.

"I think," he pondered, "that now we're getting into the age-old debate of free will, which is always an intriguing one, especially among Catholics."

She eyebrowed him.

"Or not so dutiful," he amended. "Do we have free will to determine our own destiny, or is everything already planned out for us by God or a higher power?" he continued. "And if we can't choose, then why do we bother worrying about decisions? Why do we try to do the right thing? We might just as well say 'the hell with it.'" He tossed an orange M andM up into the air and caught it in his mouth.

"Maybe we do have the ability to choose," she countered. " But God already knows which choice we'll make."

"Supposing that's true, then the course of politics has already been determined. Why should I bother voting?"

"Because you will anyway. The fact that you'll vote and who you'll vote for is already decided. And if you decide not to vote at all, then that was part of the plan as well." Scully dumped her M andMs onto her blanket and began sorting them by color as she talked. "The universe fools you into believing you have a choice. For instance, will I eat the green ones first or the yellow ones?" Her hand hovered over each color before moving to the next.

Pete eyed the piles. "I don't know, but I'm worried about you."

Scully laughed and popped a brown piece of candy in her mouth.

"I think there are support groups for this sort of thing," he said. "M andM sorters anonymous."

"I've always done this, ever since I was a kid. It goes brown, then orange, then yellow, green, red, and finally blue. The blue ones didn't exist until a couple of decades ago. I was forced to adjust."

"What would happen if you ate them out of order? Or, God forbid, a red and a yellow together?"

"I wouldn't know," she said. "I've never done it."

"There's no time like the present. I dare you. Two colors together. No better yet – one of each color!"

Her eyes narrowed. "That's six PEANUT M andMs, you do realize that. In one bite."

"It would be anarchy." Pete's sandals were off and he was busy covering his feet with wet sand, packing and smoothing it with his hands. "So what do you say? Do you accept my dare? Or not?" He mimicked the sound of a chicken clucking.

Scully considered it for a moment. "I will accept this M andM challenge of yours, but I have terms of my own."

"Okaaay," he said, warily." And those would be..."

"Quit smoking for a day."

Pete wrinkled his nose. "A day, meaning..."

"Twenty-four hours. Until tomorrow at – what time is it?"

"I don't know."

"From now until tomorrow at I don't know. No cigarettes."

"And you think that's worth six peanut M andMs. You get to eat chocolate and I get to go through nicotine withdrawal."

"I'm doing you a favor," she argued. "You keep saying you're going to quit anyway."

With an exaggerated sigh, Pete reached into the pocket of his shirt. A red and white cellophane package sailed onto her blanket. "I'll have you know that's almost a full pack. I bought it on the way here this morning."

"What about in your truck? Do you have more?" She was using her mom voice on him, but he was polite enough not to point that out.

"Nope. You're welcome to look if you want."

"Stash at home?" she asked, suspiciously.

"No, ma'am." He shook his head. "That's all there is, right there."

Scully narrowed her eyes at him.

They were tacky and warm from sitting in the sun, but she carefully placed one of each color onto the palm of her hand. "If the ground shakes, run for cover."

"Bottoms up," he encouraged, with a lift of is chin.

Tossing the candy back, she chewed, trying not to laugh as Pete made faces at her. Peanut M andMs were not very big, unless you try to eat six at once. Then they fill out your cheeks like a chipmunk and get stuck in your teeth.

It took two swallows to get them all down.

Pete clapped his hands when she gave him the thumbs up. Thankfully, he didn't require her to open her mouth and prove they were gone. She undoubtedly had a Technicolor tongue.

"Well done," he said, approvingly. "Now was that so bad?"

Her hand was a swirl of orange, yellow, and green and she waded into the surf to rinse it off.

"I can't believe you talked me into giving up smokes for that."

"It's a day. You'll survive."

She followed Pete to his truck hours later, carting a folding chair and a beach blanket full of sand. She had that groggy, slightly disconnected feeling that came from spending all day in the sun. Plus she was starving.

A yawn escaped her.

"Tough day, all that beach bumming," he chided.

"How can I be sure you won't cheat and buy a pack of cigarettes on the way home?"

Pete was preoccupied with hunting through the pockets of his cargo shorts for car keys. "Well, unless you want to follow me around until tomorrow, I guess you'll have to take my word for it." He pulled a green Bic lighter from his pocket and tossed it to her. "Guess I won't be needing that."

"I used to be a trained investigator," she pointed out, toying with the lighter. She flicked and held the metal until the flame made her thumb hot. "I'll know if you cheat."

He was studying her and smiling when she looked up. "I imagine you would." His gaze lingered an extra beat before he got behind the wheel of the Wrangler.

Scully pocketed the lighter and started toward the lighthouse. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow."


***

Journal Entry

August 16, 2012

William is 11, Claire is 8


Tonight was bonfire night. It's something I remember doing as a kid - building a fire on the beach, toasting marshmallows, telling stories, falling asleep under the stars, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags. Then there was the pranking, boys versus girls. Charlie and Bill put disgusting things in our sleeping bags. Missy and I retaliated by hiding all their clothes when they went swimming. Ahab would tell us to knock it off, but was secretly amused by our antics. None of us ever got in trouble for them.

I made the executive decision tonight to keep the pranking part of the Scully family tradition to myself. Sometime around age twenty, itchy skin, mortal embarrassment, and accidental contact with anything dead, rotting, or with eight legs wasn't funny anymore. I wasn't sure Mulder felt the same and didn't want to find out.

Mulder, the resident Indian Guide (eyeroll), taught us all how to toast the perfect marshmallow for about the sixteenth time. Claire and I were nonplussed. We just wanted to smash it between two graham crackers with a slab of chocolate and repeat the process about six more times. It didn't have to be pretty.

When it was time to go to sleep, Mulder whispered in my ear about zipping our sleeping bags together, which I prudishly ignored. Nevertheless, once the kids were asleep my hand found its way into his sleeping bag. We managed to get past second base with four layers of clothing between us.


***


The day was edging towards noon when there was a soft knock on the lighthouse door. Scully was curled into the corner cushions of the sofa, a stack of photo albums next to her and her journal on her lap. A mug of half gone coffee had grown cold on the end table. The bed was still unmade and she hadn't showered, her hair tossed into a sloppy ponytail. It took effort to get off the couch. She was cramped from sitting too long and her head was achy and full. In the past sixteen hours, she'd slept and cried in alternating bouts that had left her deflated and numb.

Pausing in front of the hall mirror, she poked at her puffy, red eyes. "Who is it?"

"It's Pete."

She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. "Uh, hang on."

The table where she worked was a heap of papers and folders. She sifted through until she found what she was looking for. God, the place was a mess. Maybe not a mess by some standards, but inexcusable by hers. Last night's dinner dishes were still on the table next to her computer – knife and fork clotted to a ceramic plate with salad dressing.

Cracking the front door and squinting into the sun, Scully handed him his pack of cigarettes. "Sorry. Here you go," she mumbled, avoiding eye contact.

"Oh, uh..." Pete hesitated before taking them from her. "That wasn't what I um...I mean, I just needed...I'm sorry, it's not important. I didn't mean to bother you."

He was back down the front steps before she stopped him. "Wait, Pete. What did you need?"

"I was going to ask if I could use your bathroom, but I just realized it's almost lunchtime anyway. I'll head out and grab a sandwich."

"You can come in," she said lethargically, swinging the door wide. She shuffled back into the lighthouse.

Pete stood just inside the entryway looking terribly uncomfortable. She ignored him, busying herself with futile attempts at tidying up. He was polite enough not to point out how bad she looked.

"You know where it is," she said after a minute, pointing.

He hesitated, then disappeared around a corner, traipsing silently in sandy bare feet.

She carried dishes and trash to the kitchen, putting away photo albums and her journal. Erasing all evidence of her pity party.

By the time he reappeared, she'd pulled her hair out of the ponytail and slipped on a baggy sweatshirt on over her pajama top and shorts. The air inside the lighthouse was stale and smelled like last night's dinner. With any luck, the closed window blinds hid the fact that she'd just been on a twelve hour crying binge.

"Are you okay?" he asked quietly.

Or maybe not.

"I'm fine," she said blandly, avoiding eye contact. She folded the cotton throw that belonged on the back of a chair.

He watched her.

"Because if you need anything, I'm going into town. I could pick something up for you. Lunch or... whatever you need."

"No, thank you. I'm fine."

She didn't want to be impolite, but she really just needed him to leave now. He didn't seem to be taking the hint, though, because he continued to stand there, one foot in her living room and one foot in her entryway like he couldn't decide which way to go.

She was just about to announce her intention to go take a shower when he took two steps closer and said, "You didn't give it to him."

Scully's eyes darted to Pete's and she frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"The painting," he clarified. "The gift for your husband. You didn't give it to him."

"You went into my bedroom?" she asked, accusingly.

"I passed by. It was sitting out, propped on the floor against the wall." His tone was even and unapologetic. "You said it was for your anniversary. So I'm just wondering why June has come and gone and he's not here."

"Pete," she warned, her posture tensing.

"Yeah I know, you don't want to talk about it."

"That's right."

"You don't want to talk about that or why half the time you look like you're fighting back tears. Why you've been here alone for a month and whenever I bring up your family, you change the subject."

"None of that is any of your business," she said, sharply.

"Yes, you're right. It isn't my business. I'm just trying to be a friend."

"I never asked you to." She made eye contact and held it, her expression icy cold. "I would like you to leave now, please."

After a long moment, he looked away. "Okay." Pete made his way to the door and opened it, then paused with his hand on the knob. "I'm sorry I bothered you."

The door clicked shut behind him and she stood there for another minute, staring stony-eyed, feeling detached from herself. Then she walked into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

Head lowered and eyes closed, she stood bent under the punishing stream of water and thought again about Mulder's email. It had been waiting for her late last night when she checked. So many hours, so many days, so much time she'd spent missing him over the years and it never got any easier. The sheer depth of her love for him was terrifying, exceeded only by the possibility that she could lose him.

She'd read his message so many times she almost knew it by heart.


Scully,

Late last night, unable to sleep, I went for a walk. I wandered the side streets, jogged through neighborhoods where the houses were dark and the street lamps hummed. I found a small park with a baseball diamond, just like the one where I used to play as a kid. I walked the dirt path around the bases, I don't know how many times, and I thought about the night I taught you to hit a baseball. I won't ask if you remember it. I know you do.

There's something about that night I never told you. Do you know I had planned to kiss you that night? It was the perfect plan too. Outside, under the stars, standing over home plate. It may not sound like the most romantic thing in the world, but to a guy who grew up loving baseball almost as much as girls, it would have been the perfect moment.

I'm sure I don't need to remind you that it didn't quite happen that way. I chickened out. Got cold feet, lost my nerve, weaseled out. We went for ice cream afterward and before I knew it, the evening was over and I was headed home, sans kiss and feeling pretty pathetic.

I drove by your apartment later that night to see if your lights were still on. I was going to knock on your door and just do it. I was going to kiss you, finally. I was going to lay a kiss on you that left you dizzy, fighting for breath, weak in the knees. The kind of kiss I'd thought about giving you probably a million times before that night.

We both know that never happened either. It took me almost another year to work up the nerve to try again. I'll bet you never knew kissing you could be so intimidating.

There are moments still, all these years later, when we kiss and I think to myself, "Mulder, you are the luckiest son of a bitch on the face of the earth." Scully, no matter what happens, no matter where we go from here, you're the closest to heaven I'll ever get. You're better than baseball.

All my love forever,

Mulder

***

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

The morning after she'd asked Pete to leave the lighthouse, Scully waited on the beach, wondering if he'd show up. They hadn't spoken since their confrontation and she half expected he wouldn't come back. She took the boat out at ten and by the time she returned an hour later, he was in his usual spot, working.

She eased the boat carefully onto the hoist and cut the engine. The clink of the dock wheel as she cranked the boat up drew his attention. He lifted his hand to her in a friendly gesture. Surprised, she waved back and then made her way across the beach.

"Hi," she said cautiously.

Pete lifted a bag to her. "Bagels. I'm sorry, I don't have anything to put on them, but they're fresh."

"Thank you," she replied, politely. "I ate already." She noticed that he'd set up the extra easel and chair for her, like usual, and her sketch was propped up, waiting. Scully hesitated before sliding out of her flip flops and claiming the seat. There were new pencils in the case and she sifted through them.

"There are some different colors there," he said, "but I've got the old ones in the Jeep if you'd rather."

She closed the top on the case without taking one. "Pete, about yesterday-"

"Don't worry about it," he stopped her, his tone gentle, but with a great deal more courtesy than usual. His hand kept drawing. "It wasn't my place. If anything, I owe you an apology."

"No." She frowned. "You were being kind. I shouldn't have reacted the way I did and I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "I've been squatting on your beach every day for almost a month. You have the right to some space. Even I don't want myself around that much."

A sad almost-smile teased the corners of her mouth. "You're welcome here, Pete. I mean that."

His head bobbed and he cleared his throat. "Thank you."

Time stretched and they worked silently, like they often did. It wasn't uncomfortable, but there was more space between them than usual. He was being careful. Several times, she nearly started to say something before stopping herself. It shouldn't be this hard to let somebody be a friend.

"You know what I read the other day?" he said musingly, after a long stretch of silence. "There's such a thing as a cupcake vending machine. Can you imagine?"

Scully put her pencil down and turned to face him. "I drove up here on my anniversary by myself after a fight with my husband. It wasn't just any fight." She swallowed and fought back the emotion. "It was the kind of fight that leaves you shaking and lightheaded, sobbing and feeling disconnected from yourself. Unable to believe that either of you could've possibly said the things you said. The kind that leaves you wondering how or if you'll ever find your way back." She paused a second time, letting her breath slow. "So I'm here...and he's in California, or I don't know, maybe he's in Oregon. Sooner or later he'll show up here and we'll have to figure things out and I'll admit that I'm scared. Terrified, actually. When you and I met that first day and you said to draw how I felt. Well, this..." She gestured to the nearly completed sketch in front of her, "...this is how I feel. I feel like driftwood. I feel like I'm floating any direction, wondering where the hell I'll end up when this is all over. I feel lost." Her voice caught on the last word and it came out as barely a whisper.

Something heavy loosened its grip on her. She felt like she could finally take a deep breath and feel it all the way down to her core. She sat back in her chair and stared out over the water. Pete was still and quiet, but she felt him there and his presence was unpredictably calming.

Neither of them spoke for a very long time.

Finally, she looked over at him. "A cupcake machine? Really?"

He just smiled.

***

On warm, humid summer afternoons, storms can roll in off the coast in a matter of minutes. They can have beach lovers running for cover in a matter of minutes.

Pete glanced up and squinted. "What do you think?" The pillowy clouds were dark and shifting quickly.

Scully nodded. "Yeah, it doesn't look good."

Together, they packed up supplies and tore down easels. The last bag was being zipped shut when fat raindrops began to fall. "Shit!" Pete said, laughing and hauling things onto his shoulders.

Scully grabbed her sandals and the last bag and started to run toward the stairs. There were 52 steps leading from the beach to the bluff. Even if you were hustling, it was a climb.

The rain escalated quickly and by the time they had everything in the Jeep, their backs were soaked and Pete's hair was plastered to his face. She laughed at him as he shook his head like a dog. Water flew in all directions.

"Aaaaaaaahh!" he hollered, laughing and turning his face toward the sky.

Scully's tee shirt was stuck to her and she was immediately grateful to be wearing her swimsuit top underneath. Rivulets of water poured into her eyes, soaking her lashes and making the world blur.

Pete did a goofy little tribal rain dance that made her grin like a fool and shake her head at him. "You are really weird," she yelled, through the pounding of the rain.

"Yes, I know."

"Come inside and dry off," she offered.

"Nah, I'm good." He dug around in his pocket for keys.

She knew he felt reluctant about coming in after yesterday's confrontation. "Pete! Come on. I've got plenty of towels. You're going to soak your car seats if you get in like that."

"Well, when you put it that way. I wouldn't want to ruin my nice ride," he joked, following her.

He stood dripping on her tiles while she disappeared down the hall, returning soonwith a stack of towels that she handed off to him. He tossed one over his head and rubbed vigorously. Scully retreated to her bedroom to change her clothes.

Moments later, she found him tinkering with one of the windows in the living room. "You've got a bum seal here," he proclaimed, pressing his fingers along the bottom of the window casing. "There's moisture coming in. I've got some caulk in the Jeep. I'll take care of it for you."

The rain pelted the window glass in sheets. "Not now you won't," she said. "You'll get drenched all over again. I only have so many clean towels, you know." She smiled and handed him a faded black tee shirt she'd pulled from William's closet. "I can probably dig up an extra pair of shorts around here that would fit you."

"That's okay, this is great." He patted his cargo shorts with his hands. They were olive drab, weathered, with frayed pockets. "The shorts are just damp." One hand came out of his back pocket holding an iPhone. "Although I should probably take this out. I swear my phone must have nine lives." He fingered the home button and the screen came to life, showing apparently no water damage, but two missed messages.

"I need to return a call," he said, apologetically.

"Of course. Would you like some hot tea or a cup of coffee?"

"Coffee would be great. Thanks." He sloughed his wet shirt off over his head and hung it on a door knob. A tattoo on his right arm caught her attention. It was high up on his bicep. He often wore shirtsleeves that covered it, so she'd never noticed before. It was three letters, all in black ink, written in some kind of Old English font. Three letters that spelled one word: MAX.

Glancing away quickly, she went around the corner into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.

She didn't exactly try to listen in on his conversation, but it was hard not to. The lighthouse was small and when the windows were closed, sound carried. "Hey, it's me. What's up?....You're kidding, again?....Is that the same place you had problems with before?....No, it's okay. I'm finished for the day. Just having a cup of coffee and waiting out the storm.....I'll stop by and take a look on my way home....Okay, no problem. I'll see you in a little while."

Scully waited until his call was over before walking back into the living room. "Coffee's on. Do you want something to eat, or...do you have to take off?"

"I've got time for a cup of coffee. That was Liv. Her roof is leaking again. I'm going to stop and take a look on my way home." He shrugged sheepishly. "Of course it's nowhere close to being on my way home, but..."

"You can fix a roof?" she asked, impressed.

"I can patch it. She'll have to get a roofer in before winter."

"Doors, windows, roofs...is there anything you can't fix?"

"My marriage." There was a sweetly sad smile on his face as he said it. "Sorry. That's probably too much information."

"It's okay," she replied, with sincerity.

They sat at the table across from each other, drinking hot coffee and listening to the sound of distant thunder. "It doesn't look like this one's going to blow over anytime soon," he said.

Her mind wasn't on the storm. She watched him lift his mug to his mouth, the bottom half of the ink on his arm visible.

He noticed her looking and the silence grew heavy between them. "Max was my son. He died three years ago."

"I'm sorry," she said softly.

"But you already knew that."

Her mouth opened in surprise.

"The other week, when you were in the kitchen, I touched the mouse pad on your computer," he admitted. "You had the obituary page up."

"Why didn't you say something?" Her cheeks burned.

He shrugged. "I don't usually make a habit of snooping around other people's computers. I should have asked first."

"It's okay. I um, saw the mural at the school last week. I was curious about the dedication, so I did a search. I would have asked you, but I figured you would bring it up if you wanted to."

She watched him trace the subtle grain on the wooden table with his fingernail. "Pete, you don't have to talk about it if you don't-"

"I do," he jumped in. "I like to talk about him. He's the best thing , um..." He cleared his throat and frowned. He was speaking of his son in the present tense. Scully's heart ached.

"He was perfect," Pete said, quietly.

She sat across from him and breathed. Finally she asked, "What happened?"

"It was a drowning accident. Three years ago this August. We'd spent all day at the beach. Everybody was tired and hungry, so we were going to hit this hot dog place on the way home. I left to carry some things to the car while Olivia packed up. Max stayed behind with her."

Scully's eyes drifted shut and she swallowed, feeling the sting in the back of her throat.

Pete's voice grew hoarse and distant. "I was gone maybe fifteen minutes. When I got back, I couldn't see him. It was crowded, there were kids everywhere. We looked forever." Pete's hand trembled. "He was wearing one of those surf shirts...a rash guard or whatever they're called. It was red. We should've been able to see him." He shook his head.

"Pete," she whispered, but he talked over her, carried by the momentum of the memory.

"Everyone held hands and we made one of those human chains. We walked back and forth through the water. Olivia couldn't stop crying. I kept saying to her 'You told me you had him.'"

Pete set the empty coffee mug down carefully and rubbed his knees. "The months following the funeral were surreal. Somehow I functioned, but I don't know how. I isolated myself, emotionally. Liv was beside herself with grief...with guilt. I told her I didn't blame her, but I did and she knew it. She blamed herself. Neither of us knew how to comfort each other. It went on for a year and then one day, I came home and she was just...gone. She went to stay with her parents. I should have gone after her, but I didn't. I don't know why. It was an accident. It could have just as easily been me with him that day. And it's easy to say that you forgive, but... you can't ever take back the things you say in those moments. I said really terrible, hurtful things to her. Awful things. We went to counseling for a while. Liv moved back in for a few months, but..." Pete shook his head and went silent and they sat like that for a long time. Evening drifted in and cast its shadows.

By the time Pete said goodbye, the rain had eased to nothing more than a mist. "Guess I'll go tackle that roof leak," he said, like he was heading off to war. Scully wondered what Olivia looked like. Pretty in a simple, natural way, she guessed. Delicate, but strong. Pete wasn't an overly large guy. Maybe five foot nine or ten, medium build, fit but not particularly athletic. She would be small perhaps, and graceful.

"Be careful," said Scully, because she didn't know what else to say.

Pete opened the door and looked up at the clearing sky. "Catch you later, Driftwood."


***

Scully knocked on Elizabeth's door at ten past seven. She touched her hair nervously, hoping she hadn't overshot the dress code. Liz had said casual, but Martha's Vineyard was a vacation community in the summer and the definition of casual attire could range from ankle length sundresses to cut-off shorts. Scully had opted for dark wash jeans and a simple black top, adding earrings and a bracelet at the last minute.

In her hands were a bottle of wine for the party and a small gold and red gift bag filled with chocolates and coffees she'd picked up at a gourmet store in the village. Hopefully it met the prize criteria for whatever games they'd be playing. Just the thought made her uneasy.

The door flew open and Mallory stood there, munching on an apple. "Hey!"

Dana smiled and stepped inside. "I didn't know you were going to be here."

"I'm not. I'm just waiting for Holden. We're going to a concert in the park."

"You don't want to stay and play games?" Scully asked, a tease in her tone.

Mallory laughed at the pleading expression on Dana's face. "I would, but we have tickets. You'll have a good time, don't worry. This group is cool. You're just lucky Mom didn't invite you to her craft club." Mally rolled her eyes. "Snoooze fest..."

"Craft club?" Scully asked, dubiously.

"Yeah, it's like scrapbooking and pottery painting and...stuff, I guess. Every once in a while some new candy dish or vase appears around here." Mallory looked down as her cell phone vibrated in her hand. She grinned. "It's Holden. He says it'll be chilly later tonight, so don't forget to bring a sweater." She sighed. "Isn't that cute? He doesn't want me to get cold."

"So I take it things are going well."

Mally nodded. "I'm meeting his brother and sister-in-law tonight. They're visiting from Ohio. I'm nervous as hell. Do I look okay?"

"You look lovely," Dana replied, honestly. "They'll adore you."

"I woke up with this huge zit on my chin. I tried to cover it up with Mom's concealer. Can you see it?"

"No."

Mallory pointed to something microscopic. "Right there."

"I don't see it." She really didn't.

"I'm not wearing too much makeup, am I? I'm terrible with makeup. Tate is so much better than I am. I have no idea what I'm doing. Is the eyeliner too much? I could take it off."

"Mallory." Dana put a hand on her shoulder. "You look beautiful, you really do. Breathe."

Mally nodded and inhaled deeply. "Okay. I'm okay."

"Does he drive a black Toyota?"

"Shit, yes." Mally tucked her cell phone into a small purse and checked herself in the hall mirror one last time.

Entirely amused, Scully watched a handsome, sandy-haired man, about twenty-five, in neat shorts and a button-down shirt get out of the car and start toward the house. "Cute," Scully observed.

"I'm in love," Mallory said, matter-of-factly, and Dana's head snapped up, surprised. "God, this wasn't supposed to happen this summer. I've got three more years of med school. I'm so screwed." She pushed the screen door open and walked out.

Holden beamed when he caught sight of Mallory. His arm went around her waist and he leaned to plant a sweet kiss on her cheek. Scully watched the car pull out of the driveway before turning to follow the sound of laughter at the back of the house.

Elizabeth and five other women were gathered in the sun room, wine glasses in hand. "There you are!" said Liz. Dana drew a deep breath, smiled cheerfully, and joined the group.


***

Elizabeth's friends were great, just like she promised they would be and the whole evening left Dana wishing she had more women like this in her life. Oh, she had Trish and a few other neighbors whom she went to dinner with once in a while, but certainly not often. There were one or two colleagues she enjoyed talking to and had considered inviting to partake in some kind of social outing, but the problem was, other than kids sporting events and activities, she really didn't have much of a social life.

There were the obligatory hospital functions. Mulder accompanied her without complaint, generally a good sport about such things with the exception of the past six months. Since Christmas he had, little by little, finessed his way out of almost anything that required him to leave his office. Ever the supportive wife, she made excuses for him. He was busy with a deadline. He wasn't feeling well. He was out of town at a speaking engagement. He was being an asshole.

The worst times were when, in an attempt to spare her feelings or avoid an argument, he would promise to try and make it. She'd glance at her watch for the first hour and smile reassuringly. "I'm sure he's just running late. Traffic is terrible this time of day." Her mother would keep dinner warm in the oven and suggest Dana try and call Mulder, which she would lie and say of course she had and there'd been no answer, but the truth was she never bothered to call. She knew what he'd say if she did. He wasn't going to make it.

At first there were reasons. After a while he stopped bothering with the reasons. Soon after that, she stopped asking him to go.

Whatever had been going on with him, which she now knows was much more serious than she ever suspected, had affected her more than she admitted. His depression and withdrawal evoked a similar response in her. She found herself avoiding nearly all social activities that weren't mandatory. She went to work and she came home. She showed up at basketball games and swim meets and school concerts. If she was feeling particularly ambitious or she just couldn't stand being in a quiet house anymore, she went for a walk or got her nails done. And when she encountered other people during these infrequent outings, she still managed to isolate herself as much as one can while still surrounded by people.

It occurred to her now, as she sat around a table playing a marvelously vulgar card game with a group of women her own age, that she was having a wonderful time. A long overdue and much deserved one.

She plucked a card from her hand and placed it face down in the middle of the table and then took a drink. "There should be a law against this game." She giggled into her wine glass.

Jayne, a physical therapist with a witty sense of humor, clicked her tongue. "I have the naughtiest hand right now." She flicked a card into the pile.

"It can't be worse than mine," argued Miranda. "I'm not even sure I know what all of these things are."

"Like what?" asked Robin, leaning over. Miranda pointed. Robin smiled and whispered something in her ear.

Miranda's jaw dropped and she turned beet red. "How could anyone even *do* that? You'd have to be really flexible."

Robin nodded, earnestly. "I saw it in a movie once."

"Oh God," Miranda muttered.

Elizabeth tapped the table with her knuckle. "Is everyone in?"

"Wait, wait," said Susan, slapping a card face down and sliding it to Liz. "Is there any more ginger ale?"

"In the fridge," replied Liz.

Susan got up. "Who needs something?"

"Beer please," requested Jayne.

"I could go for something chocolate," said Laura, smiling up at Susan like an eager child.

Dana liked Laura a lot. A forty-eight year old attorney with a welcoming nature, she had pulled Scully into conversation and made her feel comfortable from the moment she got there. Laura had been raised a Navy kid and came from a large family, so they found plenty to talk about. Laura had also been overly gracious when, after she had mentioned that she and Susan were partners, Dana asked her which law firm they worked for. As it turned out, they were a different kind of partners. That drew a round of laughter. "Happens all the time," Susan had said, good-naturedly.

They were on their fourth game and the drinks were flowing freely. Scully felt warm and pleasantly buzzed. She smiled and laughed a lot. It felt good for a change.

Susan made two trips back to the table with drinks and dessert. Suddenly there was a large tray of fudge brownies and one with miniature cheesecakes on the table. Everyone reached over one another to take what they wanted.

"Mallory made the desserts," proclaimed Elizabeth, proudly.

Hums of pleasure went around the table.

"This is the best cheesecake I've ever eaten," said Miranda. She had raspberry sauce on her cheek and Jayne swiped it off for her, like a good friend.

Laura licked chocolate frosting off her fingers. "Please assure us that when she becomes a doctor, she won't stop baking for us."

"No way," said Liz. "It's in the contract."

"The contract?" asked Susan.

"The one stating that since I gave birth to her, she owes me."

"Oh *that* contract," said Robin, cynically. "Is that the same one that promises they won't spend all your money or keep you up all night worrying?"

"Or move back in when they graduate college and can't find a job?" added Miranda.

"Nicholas?" Susan asked.

Miranda sighed and nodded. "Now he's thinking of going to law school. I'm not sure who he thinks is going to pay for it."

"If he applies to B.U., I'd be happy to put in a good word for him," offered Laura. "I still know some faculty."

"That would be great," said Miranda. "I suppose it wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. It beats playing XBOX and surfing, which is what he's been doing since he got home. Not to mention Tom and I thought we might finally have the house to ourselves now that Abby's going in the fall. It seems like as soon as you get the last one out of the nest, the first one comes back."

"Gee, whatever would you need privacy for?" teased Robin.

Miranda tucked the last bite of cheesecake into her mouth and chewed while she talked. "We've had kids in the house for twenty-two years. I've forgotten what it's like to do it anywhere except the bedroom."

Scully coughed. She kept chewing her brownie.

"Overrated," argued Susan.

"Agreed," said Jayne. "Except if you have a fireplace and a nice cushy rug in front of it, then the living room is nice. Everywhere else is too hard, too cold, or just far more appealing in the movies."

"Shower," blurted Dana before she realized she'd said it.

There were several nods of endorsement.

"Oh yes," agreed Laura. "I'd put that in the same category as the bedroom. Sort of a given."

"True."

"That's right."

"Yeah."

Laura flicked a card on the table and stood, swaying slightly on her feet. "I really have to pee. Don't read the cards yet."


There were five of them left and they sat on the deck under a cloudless night sky. Robin and Miranda had ridden together and Robin had early morning plans, so they left before the others. According to the group, Miranda, who hardly ever drank, had finished off about six glasses of merlot. Flushed and loose-limbed, she gave Dana a very enthusiastic hug and exclaimed "I'm soooo glad you came." Laura helped her into her coat.

"Come on, party girl," teased Robin. "Bedtime." She steered Miranda out the door.

"Do you guys think Tom will be upset that we got his wife drunk?" Laura asked.

Jayne snickered. "Did you see the book she won as a prize? I doubt Tom will have any complaints."

"Hot Sex: 200 Things To Try Tonight," said Liz with a delighted smile.

"Who brought that?"

"Robin did," answered Jayne. "I wonder if she read it first. I would have."

A lively discussion about who ended up with which prize ensued. There was a mix of items ranging from the tasteful (earrings, a candle, a pedicure) to the naughty (flavored lubricant, handcuffs).

"I know who got those," Elizabeth sing-songed. She was referring to the pair of pink fur-trimmed cuffs that sat by Scully's purse.

"Let me guess – those were your idea," Dana accused her friend.

"I would love to take credit, but I think you have Jayne to thank."

Jayne, who was stretched out on a chaise lounge stargazing, lifted her head. "Guilty."

"Thank you," said Dana, "for that very creative gift."

"You're welcome. But I hear your hubby's not here yet, so I guess you'll have to save them."

Dana tried to think of a reply that would redirect the conversation. She was saved when the door to the kitchen slid open and Todd popped his head out. "Good evening, Ladies."

A chorus of voices greeted him.

"Look who's here," he said, smiling at Dana. "Finally – someone I can trust. This is like some secret estrogen society. My own wife won't even tell me what goes on." He bent to kiss Elizabeth.

"She's one of us now," said Jayne, ominously.

"We only talked about you a little tonight, Todd," teased Susan.

"Yes," added Laura, "and don't worry – they have a pill for that now."

"Very funny," said Todd. "If you're not careful, I'll break out my lesbian jokes."

"Are they any better than your old ones?" asked Susan. "You need some new material."

Todd's attention was already diverted. "Hey, is that cheesecake?"

Liz pinched his elbow playfully. "Mally made it. There's plenty left in the fridge – help yourself."

"Speaking of the baby of the family, is she home yet?" Todd glanced at his watch.

"No," Elizabeth answered. "She went to a concert in the park with Holden. I'm assuming they'll be late."

Todd made a sour face. "That bum again? Is he still hanging around?"

"The bum has a name. It's Holden," chastised his wife. "He happens to be a sweetheart and your daughter is crazy about him, so you'd better get used to it."

Todd sighed in resignation. "Does young Holden even have a job?"

"He's in graduate school, just like she is."

"Oh great, so they'll be poor together."

"How soon we forget," said Liz, "We didn't have two nickels to rub together at that age."

"What is Holden going to school for?" asked Todd.

"I'm not sure, but you can ask him yourself next week. I've invited him to dinner."

Todd pouted some more.

Elizabeth patted his hand affectionately. "And I'm expecting you to be on your best behavior."

"I'll consider it while I eat my cheesecake." He skulked off toward the kitchen. "Good night, ladies. Have fun. Make sure all the strippers are out by morning."

"They cancelled. Are you offering?" chided Susan.

"Are you paying?" he called back.

"God, don't get him started," Elizabeth groaned. "He probably would."


Before Jayne left there was another round of hugs. Scully hadn't hugged this many strangers in one day in her life. Although they didn't feel like strangers anymore.

"Who's hosting next month?" someone asked.

"We're going out," said Laura. "It's karaoke night."

"And Mexican," added Susan.

Jayne pointed a finger at Dana. "You're coming."

Scully smiled. "I'll try."

"She'll be there," said Liz.

"Trust me, no one wants to hear me sing," replied Dana.

"We all suck, except Miranda. After a few drinks, you won't care," said Susan.

Soon after, Laura and Susan offered to give Dana a ride back to the lighthouse on their way home. It was a short ten minute walk, but the night breeze had picked up and the temperature had dropped. Not expecting to stay as late as she did, Scully hadn't bothered to bring a jacket.

Susan, who had had one glass of wine hours before, drove Laura's car. Laura transferred an entire array of sports equipment and clothing to the trunk before proclaiming the back seat ready for occupation. "Alec has more stuff than either of us combined I think," she said, laughing.

"Alec is our son," offered Laura. "He just turned nine." She produced a photo on her cell phone, a smiling, freckled boy with dimples and brown eyes.

"Do you have kids?" Laura asked.

Dana produced her own phone, flipping through photos until she found a recent one. "William and Claire." She handed the phone forward.

Laura held it so Susan could see too. "How old?"

"Sixteen and thirteen."

Phones were shuffled back to their owners.

"So are you wondering?" Susan asked. She smiled in the rearview mirror.

"Wondering?"

"Which one of us is Alec's biological mother. It's okay if you are. People wonder."

Dana was momentarily caught off guard. "No, um, I was actually thinking about how I like the name Alec."

"That was my pick," said Susan, pleased.

"I originally wanted Ian," said Laura. "But he's definitely an Alec."

Dana smiled and looked out the window at the tall shadowy trees as they wound their way toward the bluff. "I might have wondered a little," she admitted.

Both Laura and Susan chuckled.

"I am," Laura said, matter-of-factly.

"How did you decide?" Dana asked. "If you don't mind me asking."

Laura shook her head. "Not at all. We started out with a full genetic work-up for both of us – just to see if there were any concerns on either side."

"And there weren't," Susan jumped in.

"Yes, thankfully. So then it was sort of a combination of factors that decided it."

"At the time, I was having some back pain," explained Susan. "It's gotten better since, but it was a concern."

"That was a factor," agreed Laura.

"Plus Laura just really wanted to do it. More than I did."

Laura smiled. "Oh, I did. I really wanted to."

"So then we considered donor options," said Susan. "That was endlessly complicated."

Dana listened with interest.

"But we ultimately decided we'd rather not use a stranger," Laura continued. "And we had a few friends we considered, but in the end, Susan's brother, Brian, offered and we were thrilled. It was the closest thing to Susan's DNA, so it was really perfect." She gave a contented sigh and smiled.

"It sounds like it," said Dana with sincerity. "That's a wonderful story."

"And Alec knows Brian is his biological father," added Susan. "We've never kept it a secret."

Laura nodded. "We wanted him to know as soon as he could understand. And Alec and Brian are close, but Alec just thinks of him as his Uncle Brian."

Susan suppressed a laugh. Laura asked her what she was laughing at and Susan shook her head, but spoke anyway. "Now we've got her wondering if you slept with my brother."

"Susan!" Laura exclaimed, but she couldn't help but laugh as well. "I'm sorry," she said, grinning at Dana. "We aren't usually this obnoxious when we meet new people."

"Yes, we are," teased Susan. "But only when we're comfortable with someone."

"It's okay," said Dana, also laughing.

"I didn't sleep with her brother. In case you were wondering."

"I wasn't." Dana looked down, still grinning.

"Yes, you were," said Susan.

Laura swatted her arm.

"Well, I would be if I were her," Susan admitted with a shrug.

"Just for the record, however, I would have," Laura said, matter-of-factly. "It would've been cheaper than in vitro."

Susan groaned. "That would've been too weird."

Laura grinned at her partner. "Yes, heaven forbid we should live unconventional lives."

"Brian is married with kids of his own," Laura further explained. "His wife was great about it, but well, ya know...Anyway, enough about that. Did you have fun tonight?"

"I did," replied Dana. "I had a lot of fun."

"Elizabeth, Robin, Miranda, and Jayne – we're like sisters," said Laura. "We've been meeting for monthly dinners for years."

Susan nodded. "Five years probably. Like sisters." She pointed at the lighthouse. "Right here?"

"Yes," said Dana. The lighthouse loomed on top of the bluff. The SUV climbed the short hill, tires crunching gravel. "Would you like to come inside?" It was late, but it seemed polite to ask. People were often curious what the inside of a lighthouse looked like.

"Oh thank you," Laura said with sincerity. "Maybe another time. We have a babysitter and we're not usually this late."

"She's probably wondering where we are," added Susan.

Dana gathered her purse. "Thank you for the ride. It's been just great meeting you both." She really meant it.

"Don't forget about next month," said Susan. "I can't remember which Saturday, but Liz has the date."

"I'll be sure to ask her," Dana promised.

More goodbyes were exchanged before Scully made her way around the stone path to the lighthouse door, keys in hand. She'd forgotten to leave the outside light on and being more than a bit tipsy, she was clumsy navigating the lock.

Once inside, she slid out of her wedge heels and wove her way to the bedroom. She managed to accomplish her bathroom routine without disaster, although the room seemed intent on spinning slowly. Two Ibuprofen and a tall glass of water later, she flopped onto the top of the large bed in just her bra and panties, uninspired by the thought of locating pajamas. The cool cotton duvet felt heavenly against her back.

She reached for the pillow next to her and dragged it over her face, inhaling deeply. The sheets were freshly washed and it had been a year since he'd been in that bed. She missed his scent.

Scully found herself thinking about the day they got married. How they'd spent their wedding night in that very same room. The gentle and slow way he'd removed her dress, easing the zipper down her back millimeter by millimeter as she panted against his shoulder. They'd been living together for a year by then, but she was crazy with desire for him that night, unable to imagine how he could be so composed. Only his trembling fingers gave him away. "We did it," she had said, and they smiled at each other like two mischievous teenagers.

God, she missed him.

She missed talking with him and reading in bed with him and listening to him tell her something unusual about his day - something only Mulder, with his passion for the eccentric, would notice.

She missed all of that.

But she also missed him in such a profoundly physical way that every inch of her flesh, every cell in her body ached in longing.

She missed his hand at the small of her back, his hair tickling her cheek, his breath on the hollow of her throat, the tender way he brushed the hair from her eyes. She missed his mouth covering hers, his warm feet rubbing her cold ones, his hands steadying her hips, his palms covering her breasts. She missed when he slid his arm beneath her pillow and kissed her awake. She missed his fingers tangling in her hair, his knee gently pushing hers apart, the drum of his heartbeat in the dark. She missed his tongue everywhere. She missed the space he took up, the air he breathed, the mere proximity of him.

She felt incomplete. Hollow. Unfinished.

And at the moment, surprisingly aroused.

She groaned in frustration and reached for her phone.

He answered on the third ring.

"Hi," she purred.

A lengthy pause. "Are you okay, Scully? It's after two in the morning there."

She glanced at the clock. Glowing digits floated in the blackness. "Yeah. I was, um,..." She sighed and rolled onto her side. "I was thinking about you."

"Mmmm."

She could almost hear a nervous uncertainty in his voice. He had no idea how to take that. She never phoned him at 2:30 am, drunk and horny.

Not drunk really.

She lifted her head off the bed a few inches and then put it back down. Okay, drunk.

Definitely horny. Her fingertips grazed her bare stomach, up over the satin cups of her bra, back down to her stomach, then lower. She stopped when she realized what she was doing.

"I'm sorry, Mulder, did I wake you?"

"No, I was watching TV. You sure you're all right?"

"Yes. I went to a party – well not a party really, more of a get-together – at Elizabeth's. I met some of her friends."

"That sounds nice. Did you have a good time?"

"Oh yes!" She realized that she'd said it quite loudly. She overcorrected by making a conscious effort to speak more softly, but her next words came out more like a whisper. "I had a lot of fun. They invited me to come again."

"That's great." She could hear his smile without having to see it. They could both count on one hand the number of times she'd had this much to drink in the past decade. Mulder had been there every single time. If anyone could recognize the evidence of inebriation in her voice, he could.

"Did you have a little bit to drink tonight, Scully?"

"A little bit."

"Where are you now?"

"The lighthouse. On the bed. I'm waiting for the room to stop moving so I can go to sleep."

She heard Mulder chuckle. "You should drink some water and take Motrin."

She snorted derisively. "I know *that.*" Jeez, she went to college. Plus, she was a doctor. She burped quietly. The doctor part was never particularly helpful though, she'd found, as it pertained to sobering up. "I took Ibuproffffenn," she slurred. That was a really hard word.

"That's good, Scully."

"I met some nice friends of Elizabeth's."

"Yes, you mentioned that."

She had? Did she mention the games? And the furry handcuffs? Damn – where were those anyway?

"What were their names?" Mulder asked.

"What?"

"The friends you met."

"Oh. Well, let's see. There was Miranda and Robin, Jayne and Susan and Laura." Scully recounted silently, trying to picture the faces around the game table. "Yeah, that's right. There were five of them. And Elizabeth and me."

"All women then."

"Well, yeah." She smiled to herself. Had he been concerned?

"You should have more women friends," he said.

"Why do you say that?" She should, definitely. But she wondered why he thought so and the alcohol had also made her a bit argumentative.

"I just think it would be good if you had other women to talk to, do things with, ya know? You do a lot of things for the kids and for..." he paused, "...for me, and I just think you deserve to focus on yourself sometimes."

Scully sniffled quietly. "Maybe you're right."

"I'm glad you had fun. You might be regretting you had *quite* that much fun in the morning, but..."

Scully released a dreamy sigh and stretched across the bed. Her foot caressed the smooth duvet. "But I'm feeling pretty good right now."

There was a hesitation on his end before he said, "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah." The rasp in her voice was symptomatic of the late hour and the alcohol. Likely the arousal as well. It did that to her. She knew Mulder would pick up on it if he was listening closely.

"Why don't you tell me how you feel," he said, softly.

Oh yeah. He knew.

Nervously, she let out a quick laugh. "Oh God." She threw an arm over her face for a second and giggled into it. What was she doing?

He waited patiently. She could hear him breathing.

Inhaling sharply, she grabbed a pillow and tucked it beneath her head. "Okay, um...I feel really relaxed. But restless. Sleepy too, but I don't feel like sleeping."

"No? What do you feel like doing, Scully?"

Another breathy laugh escaped her. "Well I'm here by myself, so I'd say the options are limited."

There was shuffling on the other end. She imagined him getting comfortable. If he was watching TV, then he was probably also lying in bed. He usually did that shirtless. She exhaled slowly through her mouth.

"Are you at your hotel?" she asked.

"Mmm hmm."

"I probably shouldn't ask what you're watching on TV." There was no sound coming from the background. He'd likely muted it.

"A movie."

"Oh, I'm sure." Her tone was taunting, playful. She knew he watched porn sometimes, especially when he traveled. He didn't lie about it and it didn't bother her. She didn't think his pornography use amounted to any more than the average man his age. If anything, his interest in it had waned over the years. It was a non-issue for them. "What's the plot of this one? Hot tub repair man shows up in a muscle shirt and tight jeans, fixes the hot tub and they all test it together?"

"Oh, so you've seen this one."

"Seen one, seen 'em all."

"I think I'd rather talk about you," he said, his voice smooth as silk.

"What about me?"

"You were telling me how you're feeling."

She laughed a deep, throaty, provocative laugh. "Twenty-two years, Mulder. My guess is you have a pretty good idea."

"I wouldn't want to presume." He was teasing her as well, although perhaps more cautiously.

"I miss you," she said, plainly. "And I want you here in bed with me instead of twenty-six states away." She sighed. "I'm sorry – I obviously shouldn't have had that last glass of wine. I'm feeling...edgy."

"That wasn't the word I was thinking of, but edgy works."

"Am I amusing you?"

"Truthfully? Yes. But you're also turning me on."

"I am?"

"Is that a serious question? You always turn me on, Scully. Don't you know that by now?"

Did she? Did she know that?

"Do me a favor," he said, quietly. "Tell me again that you want me in your bed."

Inhaling sharply, the warmth of her palm drifted low, caressing her abdomen, slipping down to her mons. "I want you in my bed, Mulder." She ground out his name in a deep rasp she hardly recognized as her own.

A couple of seconds passed and then she heard him mumble "Jesus" under his breath.

"I'm not very good at this," she said with a self-deprecating, girlish laugh. Her cheeks were on fire and she silently cursed the damn alcohol for hijacking every last one of her inhibitions.

"You sound sexy as fuck right now, Scully."

She snorted quietly. "I sound ridiculous."

"I'll be the judge of that," he said, his voice heady and low.

Dammit. She clenched her eyes shut at the image of him in her head – bottom lip pouting, eyelids heavy, just the hint of five o'clock shadow. She wanted to lean over him and bite that lip, pin his hips between her thighs and grind against him.

"This is the part where you tell me what you're wearing."

She smiled. "What makes you think I'm wearing anything?"

"Fuuuuuuuuck...."

"Just teasing. I am. Listen carefully and maybe you can guess." She laid the phone on the bed. With a bend of the elbow, she reached around and pinched the clasp open on her bra, then wiggled free from it. "Oh God, that feels much better."

"Bra?"

"Past tense," she confirmed.

"Such a harmless little scrap of material and yet, women feel such deep-seated hostility toward them."

"You try wearing an underwire for sixteen hours straight and tell me how you feel about them."

"Are you inviting me to wear your underwear, Scully?"

"I'm afraid to joke about that. You probably would."

"It looks much better on you."

Scully stretched and yawned.

"Guess what," she mumbled. "I think I'm finally getting sleepy."

"Really?" He sounded disappointed. "You're sure there isn't something else we could do to help you relax some more? Anything?"

She laughed softly and rolled onto her side. "You're not tired?"

"I was getting there when you called. Now I'm awake and thinking about things. Like you lying naked in bed, all alone."

"My panties are still on."

"Not in my head they're not."

It had been so long since they'd done this – verbal sparring, bantering, tossing innuendo back and forth. She never realized that she could miss it this much.

She was fighting to stay awake now. Her limbs felt heavy and lifeless, like she couldn't lift them if she wanted to. "I hate to say this, but I'm going to fall asleep on you, Mulder."

"It's okay, Scully. You sleep well and I'll talk to you soon."

"Good night, Mulder."

Seconds later, she followed up with "I love you," but he'd already hung up, which was probably just as well. Still moderately intoxicated and very sleepy, she was at risk for saying a whole lot more than that.

It was so strange. In some ways, it felt like they were right back at the beginning. There was a carefulness between them that hadn't been there in years. Since before William. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, though. Perhaps they'd gotten lazy over the years, had taken each other for granted. It happened to people.

In the beginning, when things were so new between them, they walked around in a near constant state of amazement. That they would be allowed to have each other. So many things had been taken away from both of them.

She recalled a morning, sometime in their seventh year as partners, when she had awakened before he did, when the new day's light was nothing more than a film casting shadows over the piles of books and clothing in his bedroom. Instead of dressing quickly and slipping out before his alarm, she watched him sleep. Watched the even rise and fall of his bare chest, the twitch of his eyelids, the heaviness of his beautiful limbs, and committed it all to memory just in case. Because with their luck, you never knew when the universe would pull the rug out from under them and they'd be flailing in the dark, reaching desperately for each other.

She just never imagined it could happen to them fifteen years later.

***

Chapter 9

Chapter 9


Journal Entry

August 21, 2014

William is 13, Claire is 10


Every once in a while, Mulder watches the cooking channel and decides he's going to impress us all. When that happens, it's best to move out of the way. Locating the take-out menus just in case isn't a bad idea either. Today was one of those days.

Mulder took over the kitchen and I tried to ignore the crash of pans and intermittent cursing while I folded laundry in the next room.

Next to me, William flipped through old photo albums. When he came across a picture of Mulder and me on our wedding day - standing at the top of the bluff, blue skies and water in the background – he stopped.

It wasn't the first time he'd seen photos of that day. There was a framed one on the corner of my bedroom dresser.

He has always known. We never kept it a secret from William that he was a year old when we married.

The conversation today went something like this:

"So did I just...happen? I mean, I know I didn't just *happen*. But obviously I wasn't planned."

I stopped what I was doing and set the laundry basket aside. "You didn't just happen, William. You were wanted. Very much." I ruffled his hair like I used to when he was a little boy. This time he didn't pull away from me.

"But I wasn't planned."

I took a deep breath and chose my words carefully. "I think... that every child who is born is planned. Perhaps not always by his or her parents. It doesn't mean they weren't meant to be."

Will nodded. I'm not sure if he agreed or just respected my belief. My children are aware of my faith. They've been to church with me. Mulder and I agreed early on to expose them, to be honest about what we both believe spiritually, even if it's not always the same. Someday they'll make their own choices and we'll love and respect them no matter what those choices happen to be.

"You were a gift," I told him, resolutely. "And planned or not, you came exactly when I needed you."

Mulder hollered from the kitchen. Dinner was apparently ready. I pretended I couldn't smell anything burning.

I thought about William's question. As a physician, it wasn't the first time I'd been asked. My answer is always the same and it's always honest. "I believe that a miracle is anything that can't be explained by science or nature. I see people healed all the time and sometimes I can't explain why. So yes, I do, Will. I believe in miracles."

He nodded, thoughtfully. "I think I might too."

I squeezed his shoulder affectionately. "How about you go outside and find your sister while I assess the dinner situation."

William looked wary. "What is he making this time?"

"I'm not sure. Something with halibut, I think."

"Mom. You remember the baked cod disaster from last summer."

I did remember. I had to throw the pan away.

"Let's keep an open mind. It could be great."

Will laughed and headed for the door. "Now *that* would be a miracle."

***

"How was your weekend?"

When she didn't answer right away, Pete looked at her. "What?"

"I'm formulating my answer," she said.

"That good?"

"I'm not sure I'd say good. It was strange."

"Strange is good sometimes."

"To put it simply, I drunk dialed."

Pete grinned widely. "Let me guess -- California?"

"Good guess."

"How did that go?"

She considered the question while hunting for the proper orange pencil – something between a sunset and a pumpkin. "I should have just gone to bed, but I didn't do that. And now I feel a bit ridiculous, to say the least."

Pete studied her attentively and sipped his coffee.

Finally, she set her pencil down and sighed. "I threw myself at him, in a matter of speaking. As much as one can do such a thing over the phone."

Pete laughed loudly.

"I'm failing to see the humor," she said, dryly.

"I'm sorry, but it is pretty funny."

"I feel incredibly foolish now."

"Why?"

"Because of the way things are between us right now. I'm afraid I might've given him the wrong impression," she admitted.

"What impression would that be? That you still want him?"

She shifted her jaw and side-eyed him, the whisper of a smile on her lips. "I'm saying I think it would be careless of me to lead him to believe everything is fine, as if the last seven months never happened."

Pete nodded and was quiet for a moment. His expression turned sympathetic and the teasing smile faded. "Okay, so I am probably the least qualified person to offer relationship advice. However, two things. First, I hardly think he minded-"

She scoffed.

"No, wait a minute," he said with a chuckle. "What I mean is he's probably been wondering what you're thinking and how you're feeling, just like you've been wondering the same about him. You expressed vulnerability by calling him. And even though you feel ridiculous now, I'm sure he sees it differently. If you haven't figured it out by now, the male ego is very, very large. It's enormous, in fact. Planet-sized."

Scully cracked a smile and shook her head at him.

Pete went on. "In fact, it's SO big that scientists are still searching for something in our galaxy to compare it to. And about the only thing we like better than stroking our ego is when someone else does it for us, which is what you did. You called him up out of the blue, said a whole bunch of hot and sexy things to him, and made him feel pretty damn good about himself. I guarantee he loved every minute of it."

Maintaining composure, she offered a slight nod. "I guess I might buy that. What's your second thing?"

"My second thing is that if he has a brain at all and you married him, so I'm sure he must, then he knows that one phone call doesn't automatically fix everything. And this is coming from a guy who fell into bed with his ex-wife long after the divorce papers were signed. Emotions run deep, ya know?" He raised one dramatic eyebrow at her. "Shit is complicated."

She looked at him, appreciative of his heartfelt attempt to make her feel better. "How did you get to be so smart?"

Narrowing his eyes, he leaned closer and stared intently. "That which you seek, inside you will find."

"Aristotle?" she asked.

"Yoda."

Scully grinned.

"Come on Driftwood," he said, standing to stretch, languidly. "It's lunchtime."

He tossed jeans, a sweatshirt, sneakers, a tennis racket, jumper cables and a small cooler into the back of the Jeep so there was room for her sit down. "We could take my car," she offered, looking at the empty Coke bottles and crumpled fast food bag on the floor of the passenger side.

"Not a problem." He shoved everything in and slammed the hatch shut. "Hop in."

Scully latched her seatbelt.

"Do you want me to put the top on?" he asked.

"No thanks," she said casually, gathering her hair into a long sleek ponytail and securing it with an elastic band.

"Tacos?"

She nodded. "Sounds good to me."

Bob Marley pumped loudly through the speakers and she rested her arm on top of the door, tapping along with the bass.

Pete popped open the ashtray and made a curious whistling noise to draw her attention. She noticed the tray was full of spare change instead of cigarette ashes. She arched her brows at him. "Does that mean what I think it means?"

"I said I'd quit for a day and I did. So then I thought, 'Why don't I go for two days?' That went okay, so I decided to quit for three, and so on and so forth."

"How many has it been?"

"Seven, going for eight," he said.

She smiled at him. "That's great, Pete."

"Yeah well." He picked up a small plastic container and shook it. "I'm eating my fucking weight in Tic Tacs."

They ate lunch at a tiny Mexican café, hidden in an alley behind the grocery store. It was about the size of the kitchen at the lighthouse. There was no air conditioning and no menus. You told Mama Lucia what you wanted and she made it. There were three sauces to choose from – hot, hotter, and hottest. If you were really confused, there were some photos on the wall you could point to.

Apparently, Pete was a frequent customer. "You like I make chalupa?" asked Mama Lucia.

"Two taco plates today, Senora, por favor," Pete requested.

"Y chili relenos?"

Pete shook his head. "Just tacos."

"You think I running the Taco Bell or someting?" Lucia winked at him.

"Be nice, Mama. I brought a friend with me."

"She pretty, your friend." Mama Lucia stood maybe four foot eleven. She was possibly the only person under twelve that had to look up in order to make eye contact with Scully.

Mama Lucia grinned up at Scully. "*You* like I make chalupa?"

"Sure, I'll try one," she agreed graciously, returning the smile.

Mama wagged a finger at Pete. "She smart one too. I make best chalupa. And I make you taco plate." She shrugged. "I make chili releno too, if you want."

Scully laughed and raised a hand. "That's okay. One chalupa plate and one taco plate, please."

"This is the best Mexican food in the state," Pete told Scully.

"Theee BEST!" declared Mama Lucia, proudly. "You scram now so I can cook." She made a shooing motion with her hand. "Go outside, sit. I have Harvey bring to you."

Harvey, who Pete later explained was Lucia's husband, was as tall as Lucia was wide. He wore denim overalls and a wide-brimmed hat while he attended to the lunchtime customers.

There were four long picnic tables with red and white checkered table cloths. They found two open seats next to a family of four, at the end of a table. They sat facing one another.

"How did you find this place?" Scully asked. "It's great."

Pete hesitated before answering. "This was Max's favorite place to eat. We came every Monday after Little League."

She nodded, not sure what else to say, knowing it was perfectly okay not to say anything.

Pete's eyes smiled wistfully. "I still never miss a Monday."


The week passed and she didn't see Pete. He'd mentioned working another job and that was probably a good thing because her own work had been piling up and she wanted to get ahead as much as possible before the kids arrived.

It was a hot week with days reaching into the low nineties, although thankfully, the humidity was bearable. With windows open and ceiling fans to circulate the ocean breeze, Scully managed not to melt. She ran before the sun came up, worked inside during the hottest part of the day, and went for a swim or took the windsurfer out at sunset.

There had been no contact with Mulder since their middle-of-the-night phone call. She was anxious about his arrival on the Vineyard. It had been over a month since they'd last seen one other, and at least for her, the wounds from their parting lingered. Neither could take back the things they'd said. She kept seeing his face as he had stood there in their bedroom watching her pack, the dull fix of his eyes as he stared past her and told her that everything - all of it - had been her choice. The babies, the marriage, the house in the suburbs, the normal life. He'd been giving her what she wanted.

If they got past this, if they somehow managed to rebuild, would she be able to forget that look? Would she believe him when he said he was happy?


Her cell phone was ringing when she pushed through the door of the lighthouse, tracking sand with her bare feet. She left the door open behind her and followed the sound to the bedroom.

"Hello?" she said, breathlessly.

"Hi Mom!"

She smiled at William's voice. "Hi! It's actually you."

He laughed. "It's me. At least I think so." They had been exchanging messages for a couple of days, always missing each other.

"You're a hard guy to reach. They must be keeping you busy."

"You wouldn't believe it," he said with another laugh. "You know how I always say 'There's no such thing as too much basketball?' Well, there just might be. I eat, I sleep, and I play ball."

"Just the way you like it," she teased.

"When I get to the lighthouse, don't get concerned if I sleep for three days straight."

"Noted." Scully pushed a beach towel around on the floor with her foot, mopping up the wet tiles. "You're getting here a few days before your sister, so you'll have some peace and quiet."

"Is Dad there yet? I haven't talked to him since last week."

"Not yet. I'm expecting him soon." The truth was, she didn't know when to expect Mulder. He'd promised to arrive before the kids, but no date had been discussed. Knowing Mulder, she would probably wake some morning to find him eating his way through the leftovers in the refrigerator.

"So besides basketball, what have you been up to?" she asked, trying to bring the conversation back to William. "You have free time on the weekends, right?"

"Some, yeah. We practice Saturdays, but only until noon. We have Saturday night and all day Sunday free. Sometimes we walk into town and see a movie or hang out at the mall. The pool is open on weekends, so we can swim and stuff. I miss the beach, though. I can't wait to get there."

"It's been really hot here. Is it hot there too?"

"Yeah. The dorms smell pretty bad at the end of the day." He laughed. "You'd freak, Mom. You hate it when I leave dirty gym clothes lying around our house, but you should see this place."

She smiled. "I think I'll pass, thank you."

"Our room's not too bad. Noah's pretty neat. He even makes his bed."

"So you guys are getting along?" She had met Will's roommate, Noah, just for a few minutes at camp drop off. Two teenagers and four parents all crammed into a small dorm room to say good bye. They'd made the hugs short and sweet.

"We get along," said Will. "I mean, we hang out sometimes and stuff, but he's got a girlfriend and they're always Skyping; it's sort of annoying. I usually go across the hall and play XBOX with some other guys."

"Somebody brought an XBOX there?"

Will chuckled. "Yeah. This guy, Vincent. He's from New Jersey. His dad, like, owns some Fortune 500 company or whatever. He's going straight from summer camp to boarding school. It doesn't sound like his parents want him around much. I think I'd hate that – never seeing you guys."

"I'd hate that too. I really miss you, Kiddo, smelly clothes and all."

He huffed out a laugh. "I miss you too. I even miss Claire a little, but don't tell her I said that."

She smiled. "Your secret's safe with me."

"I guess we're going to dinner now, so I have to go."

Scully glanced at her watch. "It's not even five o'clock."

"Yeah. Football camp arrived last week. We have to beat them to the dining hall before they take all the good food."

"Okay," she laughed. "I love you. I'll see you in a couple of weeks."

"Love you too. Bye, Mom."

Scully was still smiling as she listened to the rest of her messages. Two more – both left while she had gone for her swim. One from her mother, whom she hadn't spoken to in over a week, and the second from Pete.

"Hi, it's Pete. Pete Firestone."

That part made her smile. The fact that he found it necessary to leave his last name.

"This is going to sound strange and you should in no way feel obligated to accept this invitation, but remember the neighbors who invited me to their 60th anniversary party? Well, it's this weekend and I wasn't really planning to go, but the daughter cornered me in the driveway the other day and asked if I was going and without thinking, I said yes, so now I sort of have to. And I won't know anyone there, so I wondered if maybe you might like to go too? It's an afternoon picnic sort of thing, so you wouldn't really have to dress up and we wouldn't have to stay very long. But if you're busy, I understand. So, you know, call me whenever and let me know what you think. Or leave a message. Or text me. Or send a carrier pigeon. Okay, then. Um...I guess I'll see ya later. This is Pete."

She shook her head and smiled at his convoluted message. Unfortunately, she understood what it was like to go to a social event and not have anyone to talk to. Although she couldn't imagine Pete, of all people, feeling uncomfortable about striking up conversation with strangers.

She left him a message that she'd be happy to go.


***

Pete showed up ten minutes early to pick her up.

Scully wore a sundress – daffodil yellow with white wedge-heeled sandals. She must've had a funny expression on her face when she opened the door because Pete asked her what was wrong and she said it was nothing and walked through the lighthouse looking for where she'd put her purse.

"I look stupid, don't I?" he said.

"No." She shook her head. "You do not look stupid. You look very nice." She felt a bit like she was talking to a child. He scuffed at the floor with his shoe. It was a simple brown leather shoe, casual-but-not-too-casual. It looked new. He had on a collared shirt and stone-colored chinos that were only slightly wrinkled. His hair was combed neatly, but he'd drawn the line at shaving his scruff off.

"We don't have to go," he said. "I doubt anybody would even notice. I've got a change of clothes in the car. There's plenty of daylight left; we could just hit the beach and draw for a while instead."

Nudging him out the door, she closed it behind her. "I put on a dress, Pete. I'm going to a party." She walked toward the Jeep and he followed her.


The Murphys were married when Ida was eighteen and Chester was twenty. They stayed married through the birth of five children, fourteen grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. Three states, five houses, fourteen cars, four job losses, six promotions, two hurricanes, one flood, thirty-seven snowstorms, five surgeries, one hip replacement, and one bout with cancer. That was what sixty years looked like.

Scully could almost, almost imagine it. If her father were alive today, her parents would be celebrating fifty-six years this coming October. It was possible. And it was pretty phenomenal.

The same person to go to bed with each night; the same person to wake up to each morning. Someone to listen to your problems, to laugh at your jokes, to tell you the truth even when it hurt. To hold you in the dark, to protect you from the world, to sacrifice for you. Someone who cared more about your happiness than they did about their own.

Love was the magical superpower that gave you the strength to do all of those things – the listening and the laughing and the holding and the sacrificing. When she looked at Ida and Chester Murphy, sitting in the shade and holding hands, like the whole world could come crashing down around them and they'd still have each other, anything seemed possible.

***

Scully knelt down and scratched behind the ears of a very old yellow Labrador Retriever. Children ran everywhere and there seemed to be what looked suspiciously like a water balloon fight starting near the back fence. Pete showed up next to her, carrying two plates of raspberry cheesecake. "Who's this guy?"

She looked and squinted into the sun. "I don't know, but he's very sweet." The dog thumped his tail.

Pete handed her a plate. She settled herself into the grass, cross-legged, and removed her sandals.

"There are chairs, you know." He said with a smile.

"I know. The grass feels nice."

"Are you too hot? Do you want to go?"

She shook her head. "No. I'm having a good time."

Pete sat down next to her. "I lost you for a while."

"I got pulled into a game of croquet on the front lawn with the dentist-"

"Greg."

"Yes, and his wife-"

"Marcia...Jan...Cindy.... I don't know."

Scully laughed. "And their kids and the other sister. The one with the toddler."

"I'm not sure. I counted at least eighteen toddlers here. They're like Gremlins – they multiply when you get them wet."

"It was the lady with the pink flamingo dress."

"I think that's Patricia. She's the youngest Murphy sister."

Sinking her mouth over a forkful of cheesecake, Scully sighed blissfully. The cheese was fluffy and smooth and the raspberries were actual fresh fruit, not just sauce. Her taste buds hummed. "There are so many of them. People. Kids and grandkids. I can't keep track."

Everyone had been very friendly. She'd been introduced simply as Pete's friend, Dana, and no one seemed to require anything more, which was nice. There were easily a hundred people in attendance – family, friends, neighbors. She and Pete blended in with the scenery.

"My family is this big," Pete observed. "When we're all together."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Almost." He appeared to be counting in his head while he ate. "It seems that way at Christmas time. We've outgrown my parents' living room. What about your family?"

"Hmm, let's see." The plastic fork dangled from her fingers as she thought. "My older brother has three – two boys and a girl, and my younger brother has two boys, and then there's my two. So seven grandchildren. But then my mom has remarried and Robert has two kids and four grandkids too, so Christmas is sort of a blended ordeal now."

"When did your mom remarry?"

"I guess it was...eight years ago? William was eight and he's sixteen now."

"Was it strange for you? Your mom with someone else?"

She nodded, being truthful. "It was at first. My mom and dad were very close. They met and married young. And the whole time I was growing up they were crazy about each other. My father was away at sea a lot and it was hard on my mom. My favorite memories were when he would come home after being away and everything would be...perfect." She tilted her head, letting herself be carried on the memory. "Well, not perfect, but really good. Oh, they fought sometimes, like everybody, but mostly they were just in love." Her gaze drifted to the Murphys and she watched them enjoy their dessert. Chester was smiling at his wife, like she'd just said the most inspiring thing he'd ever heard. It made Scully both happy and a little sad at the same time.

"My mom is a very strong woman," she continued. "Maybe the strongest I know. She picked up the pieces after my dad died, but I know she was lonely. And years later, she met Robert and no matter how much I disliked the idea of her with someone else, I couldn't deny that he was good to her and he made her happy. I'm glad she has someone. I feel like I don't have to worry about her."

"Everyone should have someone to grow old with," Pete said.

She looked at him. "That's true."

"If only it were that simple."

They sat without talking and finished their desserts.


The sun had set by the time they reached the bluff and the twilight sky was a swirl of periwinkle, orange, and cobalt. "Look at that," he said, inspired. "I've never lived anywhere that has better sunsets."

"Southern California is pretty magnificent."

He switched the engine of the Jeep off. "I've never been. I figured it was all smog, surfers, and celebrities."

"Oh it is. But the sunsets are nice too."

He laughed. "So you're a California girl. You strike me as more East coast stock for some reason."

"I think I'm both. I've lived East longer than I've lived West now. I'm fine with either, as long as I'm near water. Mulder prefers the East."

"I'll bet you can speak Valley."

She grinned. "Like, Bananarama was, like the most righteous band ever, Dude. Like totally tubular, I'm sure."

"No way."

"Way."

Pete chuckled. "Did you have big hair?"

"I never had big hair."

He arched a skeptical brow.

"Okay maybe it was a little big."

"Did you have one of those spiral perms?"

She frowned at him. "How do you know what a spiral perm is? That's privileged information."

"My sister got one," he said. "It was awful. She looked like a poodle."

"I can beat that. We couldn't afford the salon, so my mother gave me a home perm."

"OH!" He covered his eyes.

"Just once."

"I'm sorry," he said, sympathetically.

"I'm over it by now."

Pete hopped out of the car and stretched. "I think I'll hang out on the beach for a while. Wanna come?"

"Actually, I have some work waiting for me. And I thought I might try and get to bed early."

"You should really cut back on the partying," he chided.

She fished her keys from her purse. "Thank you for a nice afternoon, Pete."

"I should be thanking you. If you weren't there, I would've been stuck playing badminton with all the kids."

"You did anyway."

"Oh right." He gave a lopsided grin. "But seriously, thanks. It was a bitchin' day."

"Don't forget gnarly."

"Maybe I'll move to Malibu and open up a surf shop."

"Pretty expensive there."

"I'll marry a rich Hollywood widow."

She had already started toward the lighthouse, strolling in bare feet with the straps of her sandals dangling from her fingertips. She lifted them in a haphazard wave. "Night, Pete."

"Take it easy, Driftwood."

Inside the lighthouse, she checked her email and sipped at a mineral water, curled into a comfy chair. Even with the windows open, the air was stuffy. It had begun to cool down outside and Scully regretted her decision to skip the beach in favor of staring at her laptop. She fanned herself with a manila folder.

After twenty minutes of minimal progress on her grant proposal, she sighed and gave up, powering down the MacBook. It was only 9:30. She flipped through the channels on the TV aimlessly, finding nothing to hold her attention.

Deciding that a walk on the beach might cool her off, she headed barefoot out the door and let the glimmer of moonlight on the water lead her down the wooden stairs.

Pete's Jeep had still been parked next to her sedan, but she assumed he'd gone walking past the dunes toward the more populated areas of beach front. There was no one else around as far as she could see. She wandered out onto the long dock. Her cotton dress billowed around her bare legs and the salty breeze twisted through her hair, dampening it.

Rounding the edge of the boathouse, she nearly tripped right over Pete. He was sitting on the end of the dock, smoking.

"Oh Jesus!" she exclaimed. "I didn't even see you there."

Pete jumped as well, then apologized. "I'm sorry. I didn't think anybody was down here."

"It was hot in the lighthouse."

Pete stood up. "Sorry," he said again. "I didn't mean to startle you." He continued to hold a cigarette pinched between two fingers next to his leg.

"You don't have to go, Pete. It's fine. I didn't mean to sound annoyed; you just caught me off-guard."

He didn't meet her eyes, apparently embarrassed that she had stumbled upon him smoking. "It's not a big deal," she said, with an understanding expression. It took most people several attempts to finally quit smoking.

Then she smelled it. Vaguely sweet, earthy, familiar in a déj vu sort of way. Unmistakable.

It hadn't been a cigarette he'd been smoking after all.

Huffing out a quiet laugh, Scully looked down at her bare feet and smiled. "I'm not offended, if that's what you think."

"Okay," he said, uneasily.

After half a minute of standing there looking uncomfortable, Pete apologized again and turned to go.

"Hang on," she said, with a sigh.

Pete turned back and looked at her, curiously.

She eyed his hand.


Sitting by the ocean always had a way of making her feel so small. But it was especially powerful at night when everything turned black and she felt swallowed up by water and sky.

Pete nudged her elbow. Without looking, she reached for the joint, taking it between her thumb and two fingers. She brought it to her lips. Her lungs had stopped burning after the first few hits and now it felt a little bit like her head had become detached and was floating somewhere above the rest of her body.

"Wow," she said, as a whisper.

He chuckled next to her. "You just said that."

"I think...I am high."

"I would have to agree."

"God, I forgot what this felt like. You have no idea how long it's been."

"How long has it been, Dana Scully?"

She thought. And thought. "Twenty-three years maybe? Longer?"

He nodded, seemingly unsurprised. Did that make her a square, as Missy used to say? Then she wondered about Mulder. He was no boy scout, but she didn't think he'd smoked anything in years. What would he think about her getting high on the beach? What did she think about getting high on the beach? At the moment she thought it was a pretty good idea.

"I don't want you to think this is my usual Saturday night," Pete said.

She was amused. "So what is your usual Saturday night?"

The red tip of the joint pulsed brighter as Pete took a drag. "Let me paint the picture for you," he said, trying to hold a breath. She took the joint from him and considered very briefly that maybe she shouldn't take another hit, but then did anyway.

"It goes something like this," he said. "Open freezer, remove frozen pizza, close freezer. Remove pizza from packaging. Cook according to directions. Consume pizza on couch while watching ESPN or Netflix. Fall asleep before it's over."

Scully's shoulders shook from laughing and she lost the breath she'd been holding. She coughed and expelled small puffs of air. Her eyes watered. "Jesus." She laughed again. "That's very sad."

"Sometimes it's better. Sometimes I get take out."

"I know you have friends," she insisted. "You must go out."

"Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. Have friends and go out. On occasion. But a lot of my friends are married and they have better things to do than hang out with 'ol Pete on Saturday nights. And the single ones are about as much fun as I am. We get together and do things like patch the dry wall in my kitchen or change the spark plugs on the Wrangler."

"Sounds fun."

"It's not bad."

"So what are you saying – you've sworn off dating?"

Pete shrugged. "I don't know, not exactly. But I'm not really looking either. The blind dates, the online chat rooms, all that stuff – I guess I'm old, but it just seems a little too...calculated. Whatever happened to 'I saw her across a crowded room and our eyes met'?"

"You're waiting for Cupid's arrow to randomly strike you down?"

They passed the joint back and forth again.

"Not randomly. I think the universe ......God or whoever, is smarter than I am. I just need to get the hell out of the way. When it's supposed to happen, it'll happen. Besides, I'm not very good at directing my own romantic destiny."

"Divorce happens to a lot of people."

"True." Pete nodded. "But I was actually thinking of something that happened a few weeks ago."

"You had another blind date?"

He made a face and shook his head.

"It wasn't blind?" she ventured.

"I'm not sure it was a date."

Scully blinked at him, trying to force her eyes open wider, but they refused to cooperate. "I'm too high to keep guessing. Tell me the story," she demanded.

"Okay. Remember that Friday when I took off right after lunch?"

"You were going to visit friends for the weekend in New York."

"Right. Well, while I was there, I ran into someone I used to date in college. It was like a three month thing during our junior year, nothing major. Anyway, she's divorced, etc., etc. She was out with friends, I was out with friends, we ran into each other, had a few drinks, started talking, had some more drinks, and you can probably fill in the rest of the story."

"You had a one night stand."

"I dislike that term. Is it technically a one night stand if we were together a long, long time ago?"

"Hmmmm, good point." She pondered. "It seems that perhaps, when the 'stands' are separated by a couple of decades, then it might be."

"Well, the thing is, I never do that sort of thing."

A laugh escaped her and she turned it into a cough.

Pete smiled. "Okay, okay, I realize every guy says that, which doesn't help my case, but I am serious. I've had maybe three in my entire life. Maybe." He frowned for a second, thinking. "Okay, no more than four. All before I was married, which was a long time ago. My point being that I'm not really up-to-date on the latest one night stand etiquette, so I guess I've been wondering if my response to the situation makes me an insensitive jerk."

"Why? What happened?"

"It was nice. Everything was nice. We had breakfast together Sunday morning and before I left, we exchanged cell phone numbers. I didn't think much of it."

Dana smiled. "Aaand now she won't stop texting you."

"Like a dozen times a day! Sometimes more."

"What does she say?"

"Everything! I get to hear about her cat's trip to the vet, the Power Point presentation she did at work, the sale at Macy's, her root canal, the last book she read, her three favorite ice cream flavors, her opinion on gun control, her theories on global warming – everything!" He shook his head in amazement. "I think I know more about her than I know about my own siblings."

Scully laughed quietly. "Well, I suppose you could look at it this way: you must've really impressed her."

Pete smiled sheepishly. "I guess. Or something." He sighed. "I mean, she lives in New York and I live here. When I went back to her apartment with her, I didn't really think we were starting a long distance relationship. Does that make me an ass?"

"Because you slept with her once and you're not interested in anything more?"

"Well, when you say it like that, I do sound like an ass."

"No. You're not an ass. She either misinterpreted things or she's one of those people who likes to tell her life story to anyone who will listen. Either way, it's not your fault."

"That's a relief. I was beginning to think 'Jeez Pete, the first time you have sex since your ex-wife and you manage to totally botch it up.'"

Scully grew quiet for a minute and picked at a loose string on the hem of her dress. He offered her the last of the joint and she passed. He stubbed it out.

"I just shared too much, didn't I?"

Shaking her head, she looked down with a close-lipped smile. "It's fine. Really."

"Yeah, I suppose it is." He sighed. "Moving on is complicated."

"Because of Olivia?"

"I used to think so," he admitted. "We still care about each other; we always will. But no, I think after a profound loss, your way of looking at everything changes and it takes a while to figure out how you fit into the grand scheme again. And then eventually, if you're patient, the world reveals itself to you again in new ways. Some people reinvent themselves because they want to. Others do it because they don't have a choice. I'm no longer the same person I was three years ago. And I guess I just want to figure out exactly where I am before I go looking for someone else."

They sat quietly for a time, listening to the waves lap at the dock, watching the shimmer of moonlight on the water. She thought about what Pete said – about the losses she had suffered in her life and how they changed her. She thought about what it meant to survive.

Pete was the one to break the silence. "Lately, I've been thinking about learning something new. I feel like I don't ever want to stop learning."

"Like what?"

"Well," he said, thoughtfully, "I've narrowed it down to either cooking or playing an instrument. I figure I can't really go wrong with either. I mean, it would be nice not to eat frozen dinners anymore. At the same time, I love music, so an instrument might be just the thing. I was thinking maybe the guitar or bongo drums."

Scully snickered. "The bongo drums?"

"Who doesn't love the bongo drums? Show me somebody who doesn't love the bongo drums."

"You must be right because I can't think of anyone."

"And the acoustic guitar is sort of a no brainer. If you're a beach bum like me, people kind of expect it. I feel like I'm a disappointment."

"You could learn to do both – cook and play an instrument. If you throw in the art as well, that pretty much makes you a Renaissance man."

Pete grinned. "Maybe I should write poetry too. Women would flock."

"Mmm I don't know," she said. "That might be pushing it. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. If you spread yourself too thin, you run the risk of being mediocre."

"True. I could ditch the cooking and stick to music, art, and poetry."

"God, no. Women love men who cook. Trade the poetry."

"Yeah?"

"Oh definitely."

"See, this is helpful. You could be my dating coach."

She laughed loudly. "Now that's funny."

"What?" he asked.

Her laugh must've been contagious because Pete followed, chuckling quietly. "What's so funny about that?"

"The idea that I might be able to offer anyone useful dating advice."

"Oh come on, Driftwood. Don't tell me you didn't have them tripping over their badges down in Washington."

She arched her brows and tried not to smile, but she was really stoned and everything seemed either fabulously entertaining or incredibly deep at the moment. "An intriguing thought, but I'm sorry to disappoint you."

"You're telling me you never got asked out by other feds," he said, dubiously. "Now I know you're full of shit."

"Romantic relationships among agents is strongly discouraged, if not prohibited, depending on your rank and assignment. I certainly wasn't going to lose my job over it."

"No, of course not. You just married another agent, that's all," he teased.

"He left the FBI before we got married."

"Ah. So then nothing happened while you were still partners."

"Of course not." Her mouth twitched. "That would've been wrong."

"Inexcusable."

She sat with her legs stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankles. Her arms were braced behind her and she let her head fall back, admiring the speckled sky. She thought of Mulder and wondered if he was looking at the same stars right now.

"Was it love at first sight?" Pete asked.

"No. Not in the way you're probably thinking, but there was something there. We were so different and yet, the same in a lot of ways. I thought I knew everything back then, but I was so young. I'm pretty certain I drove him crazy."

Pete listened quietly.

"Eventually the work took over and we found common ground," she said.

"But the attraction?"

"It was always there," she admitted. "We refused to indulge it. There were more important things to focus on, so we maintained our professional distance for a long time."

"That must've been hard."

"Yes. It was sometimes." She stared at the water, remembering it all. Long drives, heated arguments, cheap motels, pancakes at 3 a.m. "We spent nearly all of our time together. In some ways I think we existed in a world of our own."

"Who fell in love first?"

His question made her smile. "I've wondered that myself. He insists that he did, but I'm still not sure. I think he just realized it first. On some level, I think I fell in love with him from the moment we met." She felt the blush spread over her cheeks. "It sounds silly."

"Not at all," Pete said softly. "I find it fascinating that you were together that much and he never even kissed you."

Feeling his eyes on her, she turned her head.

Pete blinked, his lids heavy. His gaze traveled her face slowly. "He must've had an incredible amount of self-control. More than I would have had." He stared at her mouth.

Just as he started to lean forward, she tensed and her eyes widened. She pulled back quickly.

"Pete."

Just his name, spoken as a warning. All the time they'd spent together, she hadn't felt even the slightest bit uncomfortable around him. Until now.

He shifted next to her and cursed under his breath. When she finally did risk eye contact, he looked as surprised and uncomfortable as she felt. "I'm sorry. That was...." He frowned and shook his head, perplexed. "Honestly, I have no idea what the hell that was."

Taken aback, she didn't respond for several moments. When she finally did, her tone was gentle. "Pete... this last month...if I've said or done anything to lead you on, I apologize."

"Jesus, no. No, of course not. Look, I'm umm...I'm just going to go."

"Pete, hang on-"

He stood and she did the same. "You shouldn't drive," she urged. If he felt anything like she did, the last place he needed to be was behind the wheel of a car.

"I'm not." He already had his cell phone in his hand. "I'll call a cab."

"That's not necessary," she insisted. "At this hour, it will take forever to get a taxi out here. You can stay in the lighthouse."

He shook his head. "I can crash in the Jeep. It wouldn't be the first time."

"Don't be ridiculous. You're not sleeping in a car when I have two extra bedrooms and a couch."

He looked at her, then blinked slowly and sighed in resignation. He thumbed a button on his phone, ending the call. Half a minute passed in which they both stood there looking at each other. Then, he pocketed the phone. "Just for a few hours," he conceded.

"Look Dana, I'm sorry," he said, quietly. "I have no idea where that came from. I don't know if it was the pot, or the conversation, or if I was overcome with a sudden case of split personality disorder. In any case, I feel like a jerk."

She closed her eyes for a second and huffed out a quiet, sympathetic laugh. "It's okay."

"No. It really isn't."

"It was one awkward moment. Let's just forget about it."

"I hope you don't think that all this past month I've been wanting to—what I mean is, I haven't been coming here every day thinking that you would....that we..." With a frustrated sigh, he shook his head. "I really like being your friend," he said, simply. "That's been my only intention. And I hope I haven't just ruined that."

The corners of her mouth lifted a little. "I think we'll be okay."

"That's good," he said, relief evident in his voice.

"Come on," she said, starting toward the lighthouse. "Let's get you set up for the night."

He followed her, still talking. "Because I have to be honest, your drawing skills still need a lot of work. You suck, to be frank. You've got a lot to learn. I mean, I suppose I can teach you, but it won't be easy. You're going to have to man up, Agent..."

Her head shook slowly back and forth as she suppressed a smile. Just this past week she had completed her sketch. He'd insisted it was one of the best efforts by a beginner he'd ever seen. It sat propped on her dresser until she decided where or if she wished to hang it. She was pleased with the result, but truthfully, it had always been about the process.

Pete chattered his way along as he followed her across the beach, up the stairs to the bluff and into the lighthouse. She half listened to him in amusement. He found the candy dish with the chocolate covered mints on the end table and was on his third one when she returned from the linen closet with a spare pillow and blanket.

"So I don't know, Driftwood." He sniffed. "We'll have to see how it goes now that we know you're attracted to me. It could make things awkward."

She overhanded the blanket, hitting him in the head with a soft whump. He kept chewing and blinked at her. "Do you have anything else to eat? Not sure about you, but I've got the

munchies."

***

Pete was gone by the time she awoke the next morning. The blanket and pillow he'd borrowed were folded neatly and two-thirds of the mints in the candy dish were gone, which made her smile. And there was fresh coffee in the pot.

She received a text from him Monday. "Doing stuff. See u tomorrow." He'd embellished his message with six different versions of smiley faces and a flower that looked suspiciously like a marijuana plant.

On Tuesday, she took her laptop down to the beach and hammered out eight pages of the dullest notes in the history of pathological research grants, which was saying a lot. Pete finished one sketch and started another, bobbing his head along to Don Henley. When she phoned one of her residents to reprimand him about poorly reported data, Pete eavesdropped, squinting at her as if she had fangs and a pair of red glowing eyes.

"You're scary when you're in doctor boss mode."

Scully sat cross-legged on a blanket and typed without looking up. "They won't learn unless they're corrected. I'm tough, but fair."

"You don't care if they like you?"

"I care if they become good doctors. If that happens, they will like me."

"Well, you scare me. I'll be sure to pay attention to how I report my values on the nonparametric chi-square test, I can tell you that."

"Good." She smirked and reached for the open bag of corn chips between them.

Pete suggested a drive to Edgartown for lunch on Wednesday to get lobster BLTs from Manny's. She'd been hearing about this sandwich for over a month, so although she had work to get done, she had to go and see what the big deal was. She wasn't disappointed. How was it possible that she'd been coming to the Vineyard for the last fourteen years and had never eaten a Manny's lobster BLT?

It was almost three by the time they got back to the lighthouse. Pete steered the Jeep up the lane that led to the bluff. He was in the middle of telling her a funny story about taking his nephews camping when he noticed the expression on her face. He stopped talking. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she said, staring at the black sedan parked in the driveway next to hers.

"Who's that?" asked Pete, curiously. A tall man in jeans and sunglasses was unloading a large duffel bag from the trunk of his car.

"That's Mulder."

***

Chapter 10

Chapter 10

He'd thought about calling to let her know when he'd arrive. They'd left it vague, mostly because Mulder himself wasn't sure. There were airline schedules to deal with and driving time that needed to be somehow balanced with Mulder's state of mind on any given day. His plan was to fly back home first, tie up a few loose ends with his publisher, check on the house, sort the mail, pay the bills, pick the dog up from his mother-in-law's, and eventually drive to the Vineyard. The process could take anywhere from two days to two weeks and time management had never been Mulder's forte.

A couple of days after he last spoke to Scully, he got a message on his phone from Todd that was blunt, albeit curiously evasive. "Hey man. Look, uh...I don't need to know the whole story. Obviously it's not my business, but if you were thinking about showing up on the island anytime soon, now might be a good time. I'm not saying you have anything to worry about, but you got a wolf sniffing around the den, if you know what I'm saying. So anyway...uh, call me if you want. Otherwise, just...get here, okay?"

Mulder did call him. A couple of times, but no luck and he didn't want to exchange more cryptic messages. The whole situation was starting to take on Mission Impossible qualities. A month of intensive therapy and Mulder wasn't exactly up to deciphering clues, so he packed his shit and caught a red eye to Washington instead. A few days after that, he was speeding his way up 95 with a bag full of clean laundry in the trunk and a flatulent dog in the back seat.

He had some time on the way to think about Todd's message, which Mulder ultimately concluded made no sense. Every once in a while a realtor from the area would hear about the lighthouse and stop to prowl around the property, looking to purchase it for a bargain and flip it. The structure was one of the oldest lighthouses on the Vineyard and the only one that had been completely renovated into living space. Despite being told repeatedly that the property was not for sale, some realtors, especially those new to the Island, had a hard time taking no for an answer. That must be what Todd was referring to, although years of watching Scully put people in their place made Mulder wonder what possible scenario would require his intervention.



The guy didn't look like a realtor. And Scully didn't look annoyed or like she was trying to get rid of him. In fact, she looked...different. Like Scully, but different.

They stood there just looking at each other for a long time.

Finally, slowly, the corners of his mouth lifted. "Hey Scully."

She looked like she might cry, but managed to return his smile. "Hi Mulder." He had wanted her to smile at him. He hadn't known just how much until she did and his heart took a leap into his throat.

He closed the distance between them slowly and took it as a good sign when she stepped into his hug. God, she felt good. Smelled good too. Mulder turned his face into her hair and filled his lungs with her. "Hi," he murmured again with his eyes closed, arms tightening around her.

Scully pulled back first with a sniffle and quickly wiped the corners of her eyes. Mulder diverted his attention to the man standing several paces away. He had his hands in the pockets of his shorts and his eyes cast out over the water, like he was trying to blend into the scenery.

Scully cleared her throat. "Mulder, this is Peter Firestone. Pete's a local artist. He's been using the beach as a setting backdrop this summer and he was kind enough to give me a few beginner lessons."

"I wouldn't say 'beginner'. Your wife has an artistic eye." Pete smiled generously and stepped forward to offer his hand to Mulder. The two men shook. "You have a beautiful setting here," Pete continued. "I appreciate you letting me use it."

Mulder had little idea what to say. He'd never known Scully to have a strong personal interest in art, but even after fifteen years of marriage, she kept him guessing. "Art lessons," he said, arching an inquisitive smile at her. Blue eyes met and held his again with a boldness Mulder hadn't seen in some time. Or perhaps he'd stopped looking for it.

Obviously, they had some catching up to do.

Just then, Bailey bounded back up the steps from the beach where he'd been celebrating his emancipation from the car. Tail swishing excitedly, he went straight for Scully. "Hey you!" she cooed, grinning. Dropping to a squat, she wrapped her arms around the dog, stroking him.

"Who's this?" asked Pete with a smile.

"This is Bailey," Scully replied.

"Hi Bailey." The stranger held out a fist, palm down, and Bailey sniffed welcomingly. "I didn't know you had a dog."

"He's been at my mother's for the past month, no doubt being spoiled."

"You could say that," Mulder agreed. "I don't know what she fed him. I had to make the trip with the car windows rolled down." He wrinkled his nose.

Scully scratched Bailey's ears. "I left Mom two big bags of food for him."

Mulder opened the trunk of his car. "Did they look like this?"

Scully looked inside. "There's a whole unopened bag left. What in the world did he eat this whole time?"

"Whatever it was, he's not saying."

Bailey wagged and farted.


It had been a year since Mulder had been inside the lighthouse. The place looked brighter now. Crisp and new. He looked for the differences, though nothing stood out to him. It was the same furniture, arranged the same way. The same beige and white comforter on their bed. The same framed photographs on the dressers. She kept it tidy, as always.

A silk robe hung on a brass hook behind the door and Mulder lifted it, feeling the cool, slippery material between his fingers. It smelled like her. Like her shampoo and the lotion she smoothed onto her legs after the shower.

His dresser drawers were already filled with summer clothes that fit him. It hadn't been necessary for him to bring more from home, but he had. Just the new items she'd bought him back when she planned their anniversary trip. The things he never bothered to try on or thank her for. He put them carefully into the drawers, pushing the old things aside.

Scully had been staying here all by herself for a month. It was a strange thought. He looked at the neatly made bed and wondered if she slept in the middle when he wasn't here or on just one side. It felt almost like he was intruding into her personal space, like how he used to feel in her Georgetown apartment when he'd follow her into her bedroom because they were mid-conversation, or at least he was. She'd let him linger long enough to watch her slip out of her suit jacket, remove her earrings, and if he was lucky, release several buttons on her blouse before she'd stop and wait for him to leave the room. One of the first things he'd done after they started living together, and he worked up the nerve, was to ask her to undress in front of him. Fifteen years later and he still liked to watch. Especially when she knew he was watching.

He finished his unpacking and went to the kitchen to rustle up something caffeinated. The windows on the East side of the lighthouse faced the part of the bluff where the cars were parked and when the breeze was just right, voices carried. Mulder heard Scully say something he couldn't quite make out, followed by a response from that guy. Listening in on private conversations wasn't something Mulder made a habit of doing. Unless the conversation was between his wife and someone Mulder never knew existed until an hour ago, but who seemed to have a VIP pass with Scully. The guy wore tattered clothes and hippie jewelry. He looked like he hadn't seen a hair brush in a while.

Mulder stood in the shadowed archway to the kitchen and watched as Pete finished stacking easels into the back of the Jeep. When he strained to listen, it was surprisingly easy to hear. "Hey, so I've got this other job I'm going to check out. I'll probably be back out here early next week, but you know where to reach me if you need to."

"Pete, you don't need to do that. It's okay for your to work on the beach."

"Yeah, I know. I just think you guys should, you know, have some time. Besides, I can't peace out on your beach all summer, right? Somebody's got to pay my bills."

Scully was barefoot with her hands tucked into the back pockets of her shorts. "You're not going to just disappear on me, right?"

"Nah," said the hippie. "I'm like a stray cat. If you feed me, I keep showing up."

Pete's hand went to Scully's and Mulder's stomach muscles tightened. He watched the other man give her hand a reassuring squeeze before getting into his Jeep.

"Stay out of trouble," she said.

"No promises." The hippie grinned from behind a pair of aviator sunglasses. "Catch you later, Driftwood."

The Jeep rolled down the bluff toward the main road and Scully turned and walked up the stone path. Mulder was busy making coffee when the front door opened.


***

Mulder stood at the edge of the bluff at sunset and watched the last sliver of blood orange disappear. The dog lay stretched out at his feet, breathing hard, fur coat damp from chasing frisbees into the surf. "You're no spring chicken anymore, Pal." Bailey responded with a lethargic tail thump. "Suppose that could be said for both of us."

"Nonsense," the voice behind him disagreed. Scully handed Mulder a glass of wine. "Fifty is the new twenty."

He eyed her skeptically.

"Fine," she countered. "The new thirty then."

Her hair was a shade lighter, her skin darker. The freckles blended across the bridge of her nose. He couldn't get over how good she looked. Strong, youthful, naturally beautiful. Not that she hadn't been all of those things before. But take her out of her suit and makeup and she looked like some castaway native. A true island girl. How did that old song go? 'Your eyes could steal the sailor from the sea.'

"What?" she asked, self-conscious of his stare.

"Nothing, you just...look different."

"Good different or bad different?"

He swept the hair from her cheek gently. "Good different." He wanted to touch her more, to pull her into another embrace like the one they'd shared hours ago when he'd first arrived. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted more. It felt like it had been forever since they'd held each other.

Mulder didn't do any of those things. She'd been receptive to him ever since he'd gotten there - his presence next to her as she made dinner, a brush of their hands at the table, a lingering touch to her lower back. She seemed genuinely glad to have him there, but he wouldn't make the mistake of thinking that they could pick up where they'd left off almost eight months ago. It would take time. The distance between them hadn't happened overnight and truth be told, he knew he still had work to do on himself if he wanted to keep it from happening again. And he did. He really did. The month apart had been necessary, but not easy for him. He'd taken for granted how much he needed her.

"You've lost weight," she observed.

He nodded. "You too." She had a tendency toward too thin in his opinion. Usually he preferred her with an extra ten pounds, but this looked good on her. She was more fit than slim. Somehow she'd managed to keep the curves he loved so much.

"I've been running in the mornings," she said. "It clears my head."

"I've been telling you that for years." Mulder smiled. "Of course, I tend to have a lot more in my head to clear than you do."

Scully tucked her hand in the front of his waistband and tugged a little, experimentally. "You're going to need new clothes. Don't they have food in California?"

She was being polite. He'd only dropped maybe ten pounds or so and he could afford it. Mulder had spent the first four and a half decades of his life eating whatever he wanted and not worrying about it. Sometime after forty-five it began to catch up to him and he had to actually start paying attention. His pants had fit him well enough a month ago. Now they just fit better.

"Dinner was good," he said politely. "Thank you." They were still at small talk, which included thanking her for cooking his meals.

"It was the least I could do considering you haven't been eating for the last month."

She'd always had a tendency toward mothering him when he went off the rails. It dated back to their early days. It was a good thing he'd thought to get a haircut yesterday and shave off the beard he'd let grow in. Understandably, he'd spent more time on his therapy than on his hygiene over the last month. He was a little surprised himself when he took a good look in the mirror the other day. If the way his clothes fit concerned her, she certainly wouldn't have appreciated his refugee chic look. Lucky for them both, he cleaned up well.

Mulder took a swallow of his wine and tipped his chin toward the lighthouse. "You painted the door. It looks good."

"I scraped and sanded the old one. Pete did the painting, which explains why it looks so good."

It took Mulder a minute before he spoke again. "He did the other repairs around the house? The weather stripping on the windows, the door latch upstairs..."

Scully nodded. "There were a lot of little things to be done and it would've been expensive to hire it all out. I think I was a little overwhelmed."

Mulder watched her profile as she looked out over the water, sipping her drink. "I'm sorry you had to deal with all that," he said finally. He meant more than the house.

Her hand went to his. "I know. It's okay. You were where you needed to be."

He nodded slowly and thoughtfully, savoring the familiar warmth of her touch. "I'm here now," he said softly.

Scully's breath hitched and her face crumpled a little. Turning into his arms, she rested her cheek against his cotton shirt.



It was almost midnight when Mulder suggested they stop talking and go to bed. For the past two hours, they'd sat on opposite ends of the couch and he'd told her about his trip - about the places he'd been and the long lost memories that had found their way back into his consciousness, like dreams at first, murky and dark. Then like fragments of a story. Fossils of his past to be discovered and dusted off, categorized and sorted.

He told her in great detail about his therapy sessions and she listened attentively, her eyes sharp. The questions she asked were clinical and precise and he answered as many as he could. She asked to speak with his doctor by phone, if he'd give her permission to do so and he said he already had. He'd anticipated it, of course. Psychiatry was the one area of medicine where Mulder could typically go head to head with her. But he was a bit rusty and not entirely current, especially when it came to pharmacology. Truth be told, she could probably outshrink him these days.

He could tell that she was fighting to stay awake, despite the fact that she was doing more yawning than talking. "Bed," he declared, taking her wine glass out of her hand. They'd polished off a bottle and started on a second. He felt just the hint of a buzz, which meant Scully was definitely feeling it.

Mulder carried everything to the kitchen, loaded and started the dishwasher, then locked up. The door to the bathroom was closed when he got to the back of the house. He stripped and changed into a clean tee shirt and boxers and then waited patiently for his turn in the bathroom. Before, he would have just walked in. They would have brushed their teeth side by side. He would've stood at the toilet and maintained his aim without breaking conversation. But that was before. Now he waited his turn.

Something was propped against the wall in their bedroom, over in a corner by the closet. Mulder picked it up. It was a painting in a weathered-looking wooden frame. It had been mostly hidden by the closet door, which was why he probably missed it earlier when he was unpacking.

Scully walked up behind him and touched his shoulder. "That was supposed to be your anniversary gift."

"How did you...where..."

"Pete did it. I hired him back in April. I'd planned to give it to you on our weekend trip here."

Mulder blew the air out of his lungs and continued staring at the painting. It was, hands down, one of the most remarkable landscapes he'd ever seen. The lighthouse and the bluff were captured perfectly, the colors so vivid that he felt like he could walk right into the painting. "I don't know what to say." He didn't. "It's amazing, Scully."

She nodded in agreement and they both stood there quietly for a moment, taking in the painting. Scully slipped past him to her side of the bed, talking as she pulled the covers down, stacking pillows neatly on a wicker chair in the corner. "Pete's commission fee was very reasonable. In fact, I would have easily paid double for something of that quality in the District. I thought it was a fair request when he asked to use the beachfront to paint."

Carefully, Mulder returned his anniversary gift to where he'd found it and vowed to find the perfect wall space for it tomorrow. He was now looking at another piece of art work, something much smaller and unframed. It sat propped up on the top of Scully's dresser and although it was not of the same professional quality as the other, it was nevertheless interesting to him, especially given the initials sketched in the bottom right corner.

"Art lessons," he asked, and looked at her curiously. "I never knew you could draw, Scully."

She scoffed. "I wouldn't call it much. It was...something to take my mind off things, I guess."

Driftwood. Scully had drawn a picture of driftwood.

Pete had called her that.

Mulder swallowed the lump that had been growing ever since he'd arrived. "He seems like a nice guy. Pete."

He felt Scully at his side now, her arm resting gently against his. She was still and quiet. "Mulder, whatever you might be thinking-"

"I don't know what I'm thinking," he interrupted. His tone wasn't unkind, but he was being honest. He just didn't know what to think. Other than that he hadn't expected this.

Mulder could feel her watching him, but instead of giving her his eyes, he focused on her sketch. It really was quite good. Better than anything artistic he'd ever done.

"Todd called me," he said, matter-of-factly. "He suggested that I might want to hurry up and get here."

Scully hesitated a few beats. "I see. So you're...you're here now because you don't trust me?" She sounded more hurt than angry.

"No. I'm here because I should be. Because it's time —past time, actually. And I do trust you." He glanced down at his hands. "I trust you to tell me the truth. You always have."

With her finger and thumb, she tilted his chin up. "That's right, I have."

He looked into the soft pools of her eyes and held her gaze for a long time. "I'm glad you had someone to talk to," he admitted, finally. He meant it. He'd put her through hell for the past seven months. The full realization of just what it must've been like living with him lately was something that had occupied his thoughts during their time apart. The idea that she'd stuck by him was nothing short of incredible. But then again, this was Scully they were talking about. He was pretty sure he could live an entire life loving her and still never fully realize what he had.

"This month has been really difficult, Mulder. Missing you...thinking about how we left things. The uncertainty and the worry - about you and about us. Pete's been a friend to me and I'm grateful for that. But you needn't be concerned. Not about that anyway." After a long thoughtful moment, Mulder nodded.

Scully gave his hand a reassuring squeeze and then climbed between the sheets on her side of the bed. Mulder stood and looked at her until she asked him what was wrong, which seemed like a rather ironic question, all things considered.

"Where should I...should I sleep here?" he asked.

"Where else would you sleep?"

"I didn't know if...I mean, I could sleep in Will's room if you want."

"No," she said, softly. "No."

He turned off the lamp and got into bed, shifting onto his back. Lying still, his eyes blinked into the darkness. Minutes passed and the only sound in the lighthouse was the gentle flapping of the window blinds as the night breeze stirred them. Mulder wondered if she'd fallen asleep. "Scully?"

"Mmmm?"

"I've really missed you."

He heard her shift, rolling over to face him. She touched the back of her hand to his arm. "I missed you too."

"The thing is, I'm still figuring all this out. The therapy helped and I'm going to continue with it after we get back home. But I feel like, you know, I want to promise you that everything's going to be okay. That I've got my shit together and you don't have to worry anymore. But the truth is, I can't promise you that."

Scully made a sound like a muffled cry and moved into his arms.

He pressed his mouth to the top of her silky head. "I'm sorry for what I've put you through. I know I've said it already, but I'll keep saying it."

"Just don't shut me out again. Please, Mulder. Whatever's going on..."

"I know. I'll try. I just...sometimes I get lost inside my head."

She laughed, but it was a sad laugh. The laugh of someone who'd just struggled to the top of a mountain, only to find yet another mountain looming on the horizon. "Tell me something I don't know." Her hand squeezed his arm. "You can let me in there, you know. Inside your head."

"It can be a pretty scary place."

"I don't frighten easily. If I did, we would've part ways a long time ago."

"When I made you spend Christmas Eve in a haunted house?"

"Oh way before that." Her chin was propped on his chest and her hair tickled his arm. "Probably after that fluke thing. At least by the elephant autopsy."

"When I first met you, I gave you a month tops, but you stuck around. Why did you stick around, Scully?"

Her voice went a bit lower when she answered him. "Why do you think?"

Mulder smiled in the dark. "My captivating personality and witty sense of humor?"

"Something like that."

His smile faded and his tone grew more serious. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me, Scully. I hope you know that. I don't want to be the guy who throws that all away because he can't see past himself."

"Then don't," she said quietly.

"I wish it were that simple."

"Nothing is simple, Mulder. Nothing worth having anyway."

He tugged gently on her arms and she slid up so they were face to face. He caressed her cheek with his fingers and she turned her mouth to kiss his hand, then his chin, then his lips. It was a tender kiss, patient and lingering. He tightened his arms around her into a full embrace. They took their time, stealing breath from one another.

Mulder became aware, eventually, after minutes and minutes of this polite kissing, of just how much of Scully was lying on top of him. At first it was just a general appreciation of her warmth, of how much he loved feeling the steady rise and fall of her body as she inhaled and exhaled. It didn't take long, however, for this awareness to narrow its focus to more specific body parts. Ones he'd missed while they were apart. Ones he'd thought about at times when he was alone. While he thought about these parts, his hands went on an exploratory mission to map them.

Scully's breathing quickened now in response and she slid a leg over his, nestling the entire lower half of her into the pocket of his groin.

The kissing continued. Their mouths were varying degrees of open, their tongues bold. She teased, flicking in and out of his mouth, provoking him. Everything from Mulder's waist down became instantly twitchy and inflamed. His hands found her bottom. He cupped her and pressed her into him firmly while at the same time, pumping his hips.

With a sharp intake of air, Scully's mouth slid off his. He groaned in protest and kept a tight grip on her behind, holding her flush against him. His hips slowed their grind. "What?"

"I don't know," she panted. "It feels..."

"Amazing," he finished for her.

"No. I mean yes, but...I don't think I can do this."

Mulder swallowed hard. His head spun. "Oh." He was aware that he sounded like someone had kicked his puppy.

"I'm sorry, Mulder."

"It's okay," he panted. "Did I do something?" Well, that was a loaded question. Of course he'd done something. He'd put her through hell for seven months. "I mean now," he amended. "Did I do something to make you uncomfortable?"

"No, it's me. I'm ...having a hard time relaxing and letting go. I'm just overwhelmed, I think."

She was still lying on top of him and it was making it hard for him to concentrate on what she was saying. Mulder brushed a tender kiss to her forehead and then gently coaxed her off, keeping her as close as possible, but minimizing her contact with his lower half.

"Scully, I think we can safely say that whatever you're feeling right now is justified. I hadn't been planning to...I mean, I didn't even know if you'd want me to sleep in here." His hand rubbed her lower back beneath the hem of her pajama top, making every effort not to wander too far north or south. "I'm sorry if I pushed. It wasn't intentional."

"I think I just need more time." She clutched handfuls of his cotton shirt. "I need to convince myself you're here and you aren't going anywhere."

"Not without you," he whispered.

She shuddered against him and Mulder closed his eyes. He held her until they both succumbed to sleep.


***

Chapter 11

Chapter 11

Something woke Mulder before he was ready. It was his phone. He groped for it without opening his eyes.

"Hello."

Silence for a second, then "Dad?"

"Yeah," he croaked, then cleared his throat. He tried to sit up a little, but something was weighing him down. A slumbering Scully, the silk of her hair fanned out on his shoulder. "It's me, Will."

"Hi. I uhh...I thought I dialed Mom. Where are you?"

"I'm at the lighthouse. I must've grabbed her phone by accident."

Scully was blinking up at him now through sleep-fogged eyes. "Who?" she mouthed.

"It's Will," he whispered, partially covering the mouthpiece.

"When did you get there?" Will asked. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, everything's fine. I drove up from home yesterday afternoon. Do you want to talk to Mom? She's right here."

"Um, yeah, sure. I'm sorry I called so early. Mom's usually up now and I have to be at practice at 8:00, so..."

"No, it's okay. She's awake now, hang on. Hey, by the way, how's your tournament going?"

"Well, we've only had one game so far, but we won. They were one of the easier teams, though - mostly tenth graders. Tomorrow we play a team of seniors."

"I'm sure you'll do great," said Mulder.

"I don't know about that, but thanks for the vote of confidence."

"So we'll see you when? A week and a half, right?"

"Yeah, that's why I'm calling actually. I lost the flight information Mom gave me. I thought it was in my phone, but I can't find it."

"Okay, I'll give you to her. Have a good time and I'll see you soon."

"Thanks, Dad. See ya the weekend after next."

Mulder gave Scully her phone and shuffled off to the bathroom. It was 7:35 and by the looks of the cloud cover outside their bedroom windows, they might be occupying themselves indoors today. The irony. No kids anywhere in sight and they were stuck inside. And yet, based on last night, his physical contact with Scully would be getting a PG rating until further notice. Not that he didn't think her hesitation was justified. He watched Scully roll out of the bed and walk toward the kitchen in the scrap of fabric she called pajamas. It was going to be a long goddamned day.


He was right, it was long. But not as long as the next day, or the day after that. It rained for three days.

They stood in front of windows and analyzed the clouds. Which way they were moving. Whether they were platinum grey or gunmetal grey, and if it was a shade darker or lighter than yesterday and if that meant anything. For all their combined years of education, they both knew shockingly little about meteorology.

When the wind was blowing from the west, they could open the french doors on the upper level and it didn't rain in. They sat in the wicker chairs and drank coffee. They pecked away on their laptops, glasses on, silently mouthing words to themselves. They deleted entire paragraphs and started over. They paused their progress now and then to joke about building arks and gathering animals, to refill coffee mugs, to just stare at each other.

The rain stressed the dog out. The slightest distant rumble of thunder sent Bailey whining and panting into a closet or under a table. At home, when there was a storm, his favorite refuge was the tub in the kids' bathroom where there was a shower curtain to hide behind. Something about not being seen made the dog feel safer. At the lighthouse, however, both showers had glass doors. This distressed Bailey and he paced the tile floors, emitting high-pitched whines.

Mulder stroked the dog and told him everything would be alright. Bailey trembled and panted. "How long can he do this, Scully?"

"Apparently, a long time."

"Do you have anything you can give him?" Scully never went anywhere without her medical bag. She didn't carry much in the way of pharmaceuticals, but she had samples of some basic painkillers and mild sedatives. There was a combination lock on the bag - a necessity after William went into the bag once to get bandages for a skinned knee. Scully flipped out. William cried. Scully apologized. The lock went on the bag an hour later and to this day, anything stronger than cough drops go in "Mom's bag." Mulder has to ask for Ibuprofen when he needs it.

"It's not that easy, Mulder. Sedatives for humans aren't always safe for animals and if they are, I wouldn't know how to translate the dosage." It was after 6pm and the vet's office was closed. There was a 24-hour animal hospital about twenty miles away, but this hardly qualified as an emergency. They'd only ever called once, when Bailey got into the Fourth of July s'mores stash and ate eleven Hershey bars. After ten minutes of nerve wracking telephone silence while the emergency technician did the math based on Bailey's weight, they were told he'd be fine, but they needed to do a better job keeping him away from chocolate. Mulder promised to discuss it with the dog. Maybe it would go better than the discussion about not getting on the new furniture or chewing the XBOX controller.

Scully spent some time on her laptop before presenting their shaking and whining dog with a pill wrapped in deli meat. "What is that?" Mulder asked.

"Benadryl."

"I don't think he's allergic to ragweed, Scully."

She coaxed Bailey's head toward the food. "It'll help him sleep through some of the storm. He needs to take two capsules."

"Two? Jesus. Two Bernadryl would knock me out until next week."

"Dogs metabolize antihistamines faster than humans. One won't make a difference on a dog his size. Here Bailey." Scully made a smooching sound and scratched under Bailey's chin. "Come on, Boy, look. It's turkey, your favorite."

"Bologna is his favorite."

"All I have is turkey."

"He'll eat turkey." He ate most anything not nailed down.

Bailey sniffed the meat and took an experimental lick. "That's it, Pal. It's good stuff," Mulder said. Bailey agreed and ate the turkey-wrapped pill. The second dose went down even faster, which was good because as soon as he'd finished it, there was a crack of thunder and the dog scampered in the direction of Will's bed.

Scully sighed. "According to the forecast, this is supposed to let up by tomorrow."

"Let's hope so." Mulder walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge. "What do you want to do for dinner?"

He'd barely gotten the words out when the room went dark and the smoke detectors beeped. Everything in the lighthouse fell silent.

"Great," Scully groaned. "That's just great."

"Looks like it'll be dinner by candlelight."


Mulder built a fire. They curled into the couch cushions and ate their way through the perishables for dinner. Cheese and fruit and half a box of ice cream sandwiches. Scully licked the ice cream that oozed from the edges of the cookie part and it made Mulder lose track of the conversation.

"....used to get homesick too when I was a kid. What about you?" Scully looked at him.

"What?"

Her chewing slowed a little. "I was talking about Claire getting homesick and saying that it used to happen to me all the time when I was a kid."

"Mmm, yeah, I don't think I did."

Scully watched him for a minute, until she appeared convinced he was more or less in the moment again. She'd been doing a lot of that since he'd gotten there. Watching him. Whatever benchmarks she had in her mind that determined whether or not he was going to be okay, it was pretty clear that she was still gathering evidence.

Sometimes she'd just look at him and he'd say, "I'm okay," even though she hadn't asked. Of course his "okay" was to be taken in the most general of ways. He wasn't a hundred percent certain he'd be okay. But was anyone?

"Maybe we should live here," he said, impulsively.

She frowned at him, her eyeglasses low on her nose and her ponytail shifted slightly to one side. "What do you mean?"

"Live here. Mi casa es su casa...home sweet home...there's no place like home....take me home, country road...."

"You mean all the time? Sell the other house?"

"Not right now. I meant down the line. When the kids are gone. Why not?"

Scully removed her glasses.

"I'm happy here," Mulder continued. "I think you are too."

"You aren't happy anywhere else?"

"That's not what I meant."

She got up and walked into the kitchen and he followed her. The fat jar candle flickering on the counter cast spiky shadows on the painted walls. The scent was warm apple pie. It made everything smell like Thanksgiving.

"Scully, I didn't mean it that way," he repeated.

She shook open a new garbage bag and began tossing items from the refrigerator into it. He watched her. When the package of leftover roast beef went in, he fished it out. "This stuff isn't all bad yet. This looks fine." He sniffed it cautiously, then made a face and threw it back in the bag.

"Do I make you happy, Mulder?"

Startled by the question, he swallowed. "Yes," he answered reactively. His eyes held hers. "You make me...the only kind of happy I think I've ever known."

The moment seemed to slow and expand as he watched her blink, standing there with a pot of strawberry yogurt in her hand. Finally, Scully nodded and tossed it into the garbage bag with a soft thunk. "If we live here, we're getting a generator."


***

The monsoon eventually ceased. Life everywhere emerged from behind closed doors, pale skinned and blinking into a hazy sun like vampires. The power came back on after eighteen hours, which meant they'd lost pretty much everything in the fridge but pickles. Scully went on a major restocking trip to the store while Mulder took the opportunity to stop over and visit Todd and Elizabeth for the first time since he'd arrived.

Liz met him at the the door wearing a welcoming smile. "When did you get here?"

"A few days ago," Mulder answered, bending to give her a warm hug. "I would've stopped by sooner, but I was afraid I'd get swept down a drain pipe."

"I don't think I've ever seen that much rain in such a short time," said Liz. "They were saying on TV that if it didn't stop soon, parts of the island would need to evacuate. Just unbelievable."

"What's unbelievable?" asked Todd, walking into the house from the back porch. When he caught sight of Muder, his face broke into a grin. "Look what the cat dragged in." The two friends exchanged back-slapping hugs.

"You just missed Mallory," said Elizabeth. "She left a couple days ago to visit friends in New York, but she'll be back in another week."

"I heard there's a boyfriend now," Mulder replied, with a narrowing of the eyes. "Do we like him?"

"No," said Todd, sullenly.

"Yes," Liz replied at the same time. She swatted her husband's arm gently. "Holden is perfectly nice."

"Holden?" Mulder's forehead wrinkled. "What kind of name is Holden?"

"That's what I said," replied Todd.

"Does he play polo and wear sweaters with a family crest embroidered on them?" Mulder snickered.

"You two," Liz said, with a shake of the head. "All I can say is you'd better get used to him because Mally is smitten."

Todd grimaced. "Like...he might last past the summer smitten?"

"Like, we'll be setting an extra place at Thanksgiving smitten."

"You can't be serious. She's going back to school at the end of August."

Liz smiled at her husband patiently. "So will he. They attend school across town from one another. I'm thinking if they want to see each other, they will."

"She's just a kid."

"She's twenty-three," countered Liz. "Should I remind you how old I was when Tatum was born?"

Todd's face paled. "Shit, I need a beer." He extracted two Heinekens from the fridge and handed one to Mulder. "Girls," he said, pointing a finger. "You just wait, Pal."

Liz stretched to hug Mulder. "I'm going to leave you two to catch up. I'm glad you're here."

Mulder leaned down. "Me too."

Todd motioned toward the back deck and Mulder followed. They settled into chairs facing the water and drank beer quietly for several minutes until Todd broke the silence. "How's Dana?"

"She's okay. She's fine."

Todd nodded. "We haven't seen much of her. Liz and I keep inviting her over, but..."

"I think she just needed some time alone," Mulder said quietly. "This was good for her...being here."

"Is that what you really believe or is that what you're telling yourself?"

"Look, Todd—"

"I know you. We go back what —almost forty years? What is going on, Man? I know how you feel about her and I can tell she isn't happy."

"It's complicated."

"No shit, Sherlock. But complicated or not, your life was a mess before she came along and she changed all that. She's the best thing that's ever happened to you." He pointed a stern finger at Mulder. "I know you know that, so don't try and bullshit me."

Mulder arched his brows and nodded, contritely. He took another long swallow of his beer.

Todd waited for the explanation that didn't come. Then he sighed. "I'm afraid to ask."

"Ask what?"

"What you did."

"What makes you think I did something?"

"Because you're running away. Your wife needs you and you're running away. That tells me you fucked up." He took a drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"I didn't cheat on her, if that's what you're wondering."

"I might've been," admitted Todd. "But then I figured you weren't that stupid. Stupid, but not that stupid."

"Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

Mulder hesitated. "So uhh...thanks for keeping an eye on things."

"If by 'keeping an eye on things' you mean spying on your wife, that wasn't my intent. I've just been worried, that's all."

Mulder nodded. He peeled the label off his beer and rolled the thin paper between his thumb and forefinger. "He's an artist. She hired him to paint the lighthouse as an anniversary gift, but I never got it because we had a huge fight before she could give it to me. She came up here by herself to get away from me."

"Ouch."

"They're friends. He's been giving her art lessons."

Todd sniffed and nodded. "That's cool."

Mulder's head bobbed in agreement, knowing neither one of them thought it was that cool.

"So then, everything's going to be all right."

"Yeah, sure," Mulder replied weakly. "Everything will be fine."

The two men drank in silence.

After several long minutes Mulder said, "It might take some time."

Todd drew in a deep breath and stared out over the horizon, the blue of the water fading into the skyline. "Well, there's plenty of that around here."


***


It was mid-afternoon before Mulder returned to the lighthouse. Scully still wasn't back from shopping and there was next to nothing edible left in the house. Mulder opened a can of tuna fish, drained it, and emptied the contents into a bowl. There was no bread to be found, but an unopened jar of mayonnaise had survived the power outage and Mulder thought he'd struck gold. He spooned a dollop into his bowl, mixed it with the tuna, and ate it by the spoonful. It was the best tuna fish sandwich without the sandwich he'd ever had.

Lunch finished, he changed into swim trunks and headed down to the beach for a swim. The dog trailed him, tail swishing, relaxed and carefree. One would never know Bailey had been cowering under furniture for the last three days.

The water level was high from all the rain and a good amount of seaweed and debris had washed up onto the beach. A large wooden plank, most likely from a rowboat or dock, had become wedged against the boat house, held in place by heavy sand. The high tides had undoubtedly brought it in. Mulder grabbed a long metal shovel and went to work, trying to pry the plank loose.

He'd been working at it for about ten minutes without much progress when he heard a man's voice behind him. "Can I give you a hand with that?"

Startled, Mulder turned to see Pete making his way across the beach toward him. He was barefoot, wearing paint spattered cargo shorts, sunglasses, and a faded red tee shirt, which he sloughed off as he walked. Pete wadded the shirt and tossed it in the direction of a chair and easel Mulder hadn't noticed sitting there before now. Had the guy just arrived? How long had he been watching Mulder struggle with the thick plank?

"Thanks, but I got it," Mulder said, barely glancing in Pete's direction. He leaned all his weight on the edge of the shovel, but the plank didn't budge. Mulder leaned harder.

"Try the other edge."

Idiot, thought Mulder. "The other edge is buried in the sand. It's not going anywhere."

"It looks like the sand is only a few inches deep there," Pete pointed out, politely. "You should be able to wedge the lip of the shovel underneath and gain some leverage."

Mulder scoffed under his breath and shook his head. "Maybe before the rain. Not now. This sand is almost a foot deep." He continued heaving his weight onto the shovel, ignoring Pete standing there. Why couldn't he just leave him alone and go back to painting or whatever the hell it was he did. Giving art lessons to pretty women whose husbands weren't around.

Without warning, Mulder's hand slipped down the handle of the shovel and over a section of rough wood. Instant pain shot through his hand, in the fleshy part between his thumb and forefinger. "Shit!" He pulled his hand away and dropped the shovel. A long splinter of wood stuck out of his hand at a forty-five degree angle. "Shit," he mumbled again, wishing for fuck's sake he didn't have an audience.

Pete stepped closer. "Hang on." He pulled a Swiss Army knife from the pocket of his shorts and offered it to Mulder. "I've got some bandages in the Jeep."

Mulder ignored the offer and bent at the waist to wash his hand in the saltwater, wincing at the sting. The water running off his hand turned pink. "It's nothing."

"It doesn't look like nothing." Pete offered the knife again. Mulder sighed and took it, reluctantly. He snapped open the blade and rinsed it in the saltwater before starting to work on the splinter. It only took a minute to clean the visible bits of wood from his hand and what he couldn't get now, he'd take care of later. He mumbled a thanks and gave the knife back to Pete.

"You might want to have Dana take a look at that."

Mulder ignored him. His hand was smarting like crazy. "It's just a splinter; I think I can handle it." The blood dripped down his hand and onto his swim trunks.

"I'll grab those bandages." Pete started toward the truck.

"I said I've got it," Mulder responded sharply.

Pete offered a 'suit yourself' shrug and said, "I was just about to head into town and grab lunch. Do you want anything? Sandwich...slice of pizza..."

Taken aback, Mulder took several seconds to respond. "No thanks. I ate already."

An awkward silence grew between the two men before Mulder loped off toward the lighthouse, mumbling something about treating his wound.


***

Mulder heard the car door, followed by voices as he was tidying up the one-handed mess he made with a bottle of iodine and some Band-aids. Scully walked through the front door of the lighthouse with Pete following close behind, laden with plastic grocery bags.

"Hi," she said, upon seeing him seated at the table, his elbow propped up. "What happened to you?" She immediately crossed the room and leaned over him, taking his poorly bandaged hand in hers.

"It's nothing. Just a splinter." Mulder's eyes were on Pete as he disappeared into the kitchen with the groceries. Make yourself at home, Pal.

"A splinter from what?"

"A shovel. I think I got it all."

Ignoring that, she began unwrapping the wound.

Mulder winced and tried to pull his hand back but she held it firmly.

"Hold still, Mulder."

Scully fished her glasses from her purse and slipped them on before giving his hand a careful visual examination. "It looks like you did all right cleaning it."

"Gee, thanks Doc." He sucked in air quickly as Scully flexed his hand more to get a better look.

"Does it still hurt?"

"Nope," he lied.

Pete strolled out from the kitchen. "I put the frozen food away, Dana. I'll grab the rest of the bags from the trunk of your car."

"Thanks, Pete."

"Thought you were going to lunch," Mulder said, irritably, but Pete was already out of ear shot. "OW!" he complained loudly to Scully.

"If you don't hold still, I'm going to tie you to the chair."

The corners of Mulder's mouth quirked. "Promise?"

Although she didn't dignify his comment with a response, he detected a faint smile as she continued to clean out his wound. It felt a whole lot like old times.


***


For the next few days, Pete came and went like clockwork. Mulder could almost set his watch by it. He was there by the time Mulder got back from his morning run and he was gone by late afternoon, leaving behind nothing more than the disturbed sand where his chair and easel had sat, and a general sense of unease as far as Mulder was concerned.

Other than polite nods or the rare "Hey" or "'Morning," Pete and Mulder avoided the depths of meaningful conversation. The guy had the whole beach. Why did he have to set up a hundred feet from their boat house? It didn't take long for Mulder to see that whatever was between this stranger and Scully wasn't physical, but it wasn't nothing either. It was evident in their interactions — there was an ease between them that Scully didn't have with just anyone. Clearly, she trusted this man and felt some sort of connection to him. It wasn't jealousy that Mulder felt. It was more like regret. Regret that it used to be this easy between he and Scully and it wasn't anymore. Regret that he hadn't made her smile like that in a long time. Regret that he'd let the past steal the present from him yet again.


***

Mulder's first week back on the Vineyard drew to a close. The kids would arrive in a few days and he wondered what that would be like — having all of them together again for the first time in months. He couldn't wait to see Will and Claire, but couldn't help wishing he had more time alone with just Scully before they were thrown back into their lives.

They were just really starting to make progress at bridging the gap between them and mending the damage of the past several months. They were together almost constantly. She sought him out when they weren't and while this might've felt stifling to the old Mulder (they had never really been the sort of couple who did everything together), he now found it comforting. Just the idea of having Scully nearby made him feel grounded in a way he hadn't really felt in a long time.

Todd and Elizabeth came to the lighthouse one night for dinner and stayed late to play cards. The laughter flowed as easily as the wine. It felt just like old times. Mulder was reminded of summers when the kids were little. They'd tuck them in after baths, the children barely able to keep their eyes open after long days on the beach. Baby monitor tucked under his arm, he and Scully would climb the tall winding staircase up the center of the lighthouse to the lookout where Todd and Elizabeth would be waiting for them. The two couples would stay up late talking and laughing, impressing Scully with stories of youth the Vineyard.

It felt good to get back to that and Mulder missed that feeling of connection that came from being surrounded by people he trusted and who accepted him.

The night Todd and Liz visited was a cool one. After they left, Mulder built a fire and he and Scully settled onto a pile of oversized floor pillows by the hearth, Mulder's back propped against the couch and Scully fitting snugly into the space between his outstretched legs.

They were mostly quiet, floating on a pillowy cloud of several glasses of wine. Mulder's fingers climbed the tender skin on Scully's bare arms, raising goose flesh in their wake. She shivered and laughed quietly and he kissed the top of her head.

When his mouth caressed the tiny shell of her ear, she turned in his arms and kissed him, not a chaste kiss, but a humid, breathy one. Mulder tongued her bottom lip, tasting the richness of merlot. Her mouth opened to accept him and there was no hesitation on his part. He was careful with her, but his longing for her got the better of him and before he knew it, Mulder was pressing himself against Scully, his hand beneath the hem of her shirt to caress the smooth slope of her lower back before drifting down to squeeze her bottom.

Her lips slid off his, but she didn't pull away.

"Stop?" he asked, his eyes still drunk on the rosy plumpness of her mouth.

"No," she whispered, then shook her head, eyes closed. "I don't know, maybe."

Mulder nodded. He kissed her hair, her cheek, her eyelid. "It's okay. Let's go to bed. The rest..." he shrugged. "You'll let me know when. There's no hurry."

Her sleepy eyes drifted down to where his lower half was pressed against her. "Part of you disagrees."

Mulder answered with a half smile. "He's outvoted. He'll get over it." Leaning back on his hands, Mulder stood and helped Scully up onto the couch. "Why don't you relax for a few minutes. I'll lock up and put things away in the kitchen."

Not more than five minutes later, he returned to the living room to find Scully fast asleep, a woven afghan pulled over her legs. Not wanting to wake her, he covered her with a warmer blanket and turned out the lights before heading to the bedroom.


***

Chapter 12

Chapter 12

It was just before noon and Mulder was returning from a long walk on the beach. He did his best thinking while in motion. Something about the effort involved in the activity—it kept him from overthinking. Kept the irrationalities and paranoia away. Bailey followed at his heels, tongue lolling, grateful to be walking instead of running for a change. The dog was no more willing to acquiesce to age than his master was.

Pete's easel was set up in the usual spot, but he was nowhere to be found. The missing Jeep suggested that perhaps he'd gone to get lunch. Mulder wandered close enough to see the canvas that was propped on the easel and his brows lifted. It was a watercolor of the beachfront at sunset and like all the other projects of his Mulder had seen, it was exceptional. Mulder's eye for art was far from trained, but he knew something decent when he saw it.

By his foot rested a long, olive drab canvas duffle with various art supplies spilling from it, as well as several sketch books. Mulder picked one of the books up and casually flipped through it. He wasn't looking for anything in particular, but what he found made his stomach drop. A charcoal drawing toward the back of the book. Mulder stared at it without blinking.

The halcyon eyes, the drape of the hair, the familiar slant of the mouth.

A burning took up residence in the back of Mulder's throat. He scanned pages, looking for more, but found only scenery and still life drawings, some portraits of strangers. He was staring at the sketch when a voice startled him.

"I always forget how crazy this place is in the summer. I just waited in a thirty minute line for a couple of hot dogs." Pete's easygoing smile faded a little when he saw what Mulder held in his hands. He stood very still on the sand for several beats, then bent to retrieve a pencil case. "Don't get the wrong idea."

Mulder's voice was tight and flat when he responded. "Did she let you do this?"

Pete meticulously lined up colored pencils on the edge of his easel. "If you mean did I ask her permission to sketch her profile, then no. I didn't. She was working on the upper deck and the lighting was just right. She was beautiful. So I drew her. I'm inspired to draw a lot of things in the moment. You're welcome to have it, if you'd like."

Mulder thought about ripping the page from the book. He thought about turning and catching Pete with a left hook to the jaw. Instead he closed the book and dropped it on top of the canvas bag where he'd found it. "Look," he began, his voice struggling to stay even, "I think it would be better if you found somewhere else to do your work."

Without waiting for a reply or even glancing at the other man, Mulder turned and walked up the beach toward the lighthouse.


***

The day before William was scheduled to arrive, Scully cleaned the lighthouse from top to bottom and stocked the kitchen with enough food to get them through an apocalypse.

"Scully, we're never going to eat all this stuff."

She passed him a stack of tuna fish cans to go in the pantry. "Will's been at basketball camp for over a month."

"I'm sure they fed him."

"Damn, I meant to get more cereal."

Mulder eyed his wife, then the top shelf of the pantry where the cereal lived. "How about this: if he manages to go plow the six boxes we have now, we'll get more."

This time he got a sheepish smile. "I'll be fine once they both get here."

"I know you will." His smile was patient. Mulder placed the cans he was holding into the cupboard, then got up and walked to Scully. His arms slipped around her waist and he pulled her head to his chest. "We all will."


***

If it was possible for a fifteen-year-old to grow several inches in a month, then William had done just that. He was almost as tall as Mulder now and there was no question that before the growing was done, his son would have a couple of inches on him. Obviously, Scully's genes had all manifested themselves in complexion and personality.

As soon as Will caught sight of his parents, his face broke into a gimpy grin and he raised a hand, weaving through the airport crowd. When he hugged his mother, Scully's feet just about lifted right off the ground.

"How was the flight?" Mulder asked, grasping Will's hand and pulling him into another hug.

"It was okay. I slept through it."

"Are you hungry?" Scully asked. She visually inspected her son for any signs of malnutrition.

"Starved."

Scully gave a vindicated smile and the three of them made their way toward airport parking.

Dinner was a seafood place on the water, a family favorite. William ate and talked in equal amounts. He shared animated stories from camp involving the names of a dozen kids Mulder would never remember, but whom Scully seemed to catalog into some kind of spreadsheet in her brain.

"Matt was the kid you roomed with last year, wasn't he?" she asked. "The one from Rhode Island."

"Yeah."

"His parents seemed very nice."

"They'd like me to come visit over Christmas break," said Will. "Do you think I can?"

Scully chewed and glanced at Mulder. "Let's talk more about that after the school year starts. We'd want you home for Christmas."

Will nodded. "Well yeah. I meant like, after Christmas. I'll have two weeks off from school."

Mulder cleared his throat. "I, uh, thought we might spend Christmas break here this year for a change."

Both William and Scully looked at him, surprised. Scully spoke first. "We've never been here in the winter." She said it like he'd just suggested they spend the holiday in Madagascar.

"It's only New England," Mulder replied with a smile. "People do survive winters here. I'm living proof."

"What would we, like, do?" Will asked.

Mulder shrugged. "Ski, sled, snowshoe, ice skate...curl up by a fire and read a book. I'm sure we'd find things to do. The Vineyard's beautiful that time of year, and a lot less crowded. You'd like it."

William forked fish into his mouth, skeptical.

Later as they prepared for bed, Mulder watched Scully's profile as she brushed her teeth. There were a few fine lines etched onto her face around her eyes and mouth that hadn't always been then, otherwise she was the same stubborn girl he'd argued with in an Oregon rainstorm over twenty years ago. He'd had a hunch then that she was going to be a pain in the ass.

He passed close to her as she leaned to spit toothpaste, pausing briefly to put his hands on her hips. She stood up abruptly and looked at him in the mirror.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"I think he looks good. Taller."

"I meant about spending Christmas here this year."

"Oh." She tapped her wet toothbrush on the edge of the sink, slipped from his hands and went to use the toilet. "Where did that idea come from?"

"I don't know. It's just an idea. I figured it would be something different and maybe that's what we need. But if you don't want to-"

"I didn't say I didn't want to. I think it's a good idea, actually."

"You do?"

She wiped and flushed, stood and pulled her panties up. They disappeared beneath her blue cotton night shirt. "I don't know how much time off I can get at Christmas. We have a whole class of new interns starting in January, but I'm sure somebody else can handle the preliminaries." She was still talking, trailing off as she walked into the bedroom. As an afterthought, her head peeked back around the corner. "Are you coming to bed?"

"Yeah."

"Good," she answered, lingering with the eye contact a beat longer than usual.

Contemplating a very quick shower, Mulder stripped to his boxer shorts, but then decided not to take a chance on Scully nodding off before he had the chance to see where this might be going. He was carrying the carcass of clothing to the hamper in the bedroom when his cell phone began dancing across the dresser. He picked it up and read the text.

"Stooges marathon on TV. I made popcorn. You in?"

"Who is it?" asked Scully. She stacked pillows neatly onto a chair by the bed.

"It's Will. He wants to know if I want to watch TV."

"You should go."

Mulder looked at her regretfully. Her thighs were the color of latte, creamy and tanned from weeks of sun. He wanted to press his face between them until she writhed on the bed, repeating his name.

"Your son wants to spend time with you, Mulder. Go."

With a smile and a sigh, he pulled his jeans back on.


***

Scully cooked breakfast the next morning. Thick french toast with real maple syrup and fresh berries, scrambled eggs, and orange juice. She used to do that on Sundays when the kids were little, but they'd gotten out of the habit of eating weekend breakfasts together. Everyone was too busy to take the time. It struck Mulder as imperative suddenly —the idea that they should eat together more often, even if he had to cook things himself, even if it was just pizza or sandwiches.

Growing up, there had rarely been family meals in the Mulder household, except for holidays and then, it was an exercise in hypocrisy. Pretending they were the poster family for the American upper-middle class. The other three-hundred and sixty-something days of the year, he and Samantha ate off of TV trays in the living room. Sometimes his mother would actually wait for his father and they'd eat together late, after he and Sam had gone to bed. There would be sounds from the kitchen, muffled talking, the clink of glassware. Then eventually escalating voices and less careful scraping of silverware against plates until Mulder had to sneak next door to close Samantha's bedroom door so the shouting wouldn't wake her. He learned to fall asleep with a pillow over his head.

The rest of the morning was spent by the water. Scully worked on her laptop in the shade, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses giving her an Audrey Hepburn flair. She sipped ice coffee with sun-kissed legs stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankles. Mulder thought she was the most beautiful thing on the beach and he didn't care if he stared.

"You should come for a swim," he said. "The water's warm." He dripped on her chaise lounge. He nudged sand onto her bare foot, covering it. She did her best to ignore him.

"A little later," she replied. "I'm not hot enough yet." Her attention remained on whatever she was feverishly typing.

But you are hot enough, Mulder thought. He could see down the front of her swimsuit top and it made him hard.

"Mulder, you're getting my chair all wet."

"Sorry." He backed up a little and attempted to refocus his attention on something other than fucking his wife, which wasn't easy.

"Have you seen Pete lately?" Scully asked, lowering her sunglasses.

Fuck. That worked. Boner shrinking. Mulder stared back blankly. "What?"

"I asked if you'd seen Pete. He hasn't been here since the middle of last week, which is odd."

Mulder cleared his throat and looked out over the water where Will was paddling a surf board around lazily. "No. Maybe he's on a job somewhere else."

"Maybe."

"Maybe he's just finished working on the beach."

That made her look up from her laptop, a tiny wrinkle between her brows. "Why? Did he tell you that?"

"Like I said, I haven't seen him. But I can't imagine he's planning to work down here forever."

He avoided her eyes.


They were invited to a barbecue at Todd and Elizabeth's house that included another family, neighbors who'd recently relocated from the West coast. They had a teenaged daughter a year older than Will and Mulder watched as his son transformed from awkward adolescent to smooth-talking Casanova right before his very eyes.

The sunset burned shades of crimson and harvest gold. Having just about reached his daily limit for small talk, Mulder stole away from the dinner party to a quiet spot on the sand. The breeze carried voices from the upper deck and he heard Scully's laugh, floating above all the others, distinct and familiar, like a song he never tired of hearing. He was struck by just how little he'd heard it lately and by how tragic that was. He wanted to give her a reason to laugh like that every day.

Uncounted minutes later, the object of his affection appeared at his side and Mulder looked up at her from his seated spot, unsurprised that she'd come looking for him. She always did and if he was damn lucky, she always would.

"Hey," she said.

"Hey."

Scully handed him a blue ceramic plate with some kind of fluffy cake on it. "Didn't want you to miss dessert."

He patted the sand next to him. "Pull up a chair, Doc."

Her sandals joined his and she lowered herself to sit cross-legged. Balancing her own plate of cake on her knee, she tied her long hair back into a brown elastic she'd been wearing around her wrist. The strays caught the breeze and circled her face.

"Where's the man-cub?" he asked.

"He went for a walk on the beach with Paige."

Mulder hiked an eyebrow at her. "By themselves?"

"I assume so. Why?"

"Nothing." He forked in a mouthful of cake and chewed, feeling the weight of her eyes resting on him.

"You don't think...." Scully huffed out a breath like a half-laugh. "He's sixteen."

"Mmm hmm. Pretty sure I took walks with girls on this very same beach when I was sixteen. Did a few other things too."

"Yeah, but... I-I talked to her about colleges and pre-med. She seems like a really sweet girl." Spoken like a star member of the Debate Team.

"I'm sure she is," Mulder agreed. "And Will is a very nice boy. A nice sixteen-year-old boy whose interest in the opposite sex has gone from occasional glances to practically tripping over himself lately."

Scully put her fork down. "Well, great. What do you think we should do?"

"About the fact that he's a normal teenager? I'm thinking not a whole lot."

"I mean, should we...should you...talk to him?"

"Pretty sure we had that talk quite a while ago and what we didn't cover, he's likely learned through osmosis by now." Mulder grinned. "You know... the internet...basketball camp...his friends...your brother, Charlie."

Scully raised her arguing finger. "Charlie only let him watch the first ten minutes of Risky Business. Nothing happens in the first ten minutes."

"Yeah, but they watched all of American Pie together."

"What?"

"Will didn't tell you that?"

"No, he did not. Dammit, Charlie," Scully whispered under her breath.

Mulder chuckled.

"In any case," she continued. "What I meant was maybe you should talk to him about, you know, not... getting carried away." A sudden ill look came over her face. "You don't think he's already...I mean, that he might have..."

"Had sex?"

"Oh God." Scully closed her eyes and tilted her head back onto her shoulders.

"I doubt it. He hasn't even had a serious girlfriend yet."

"I'm not ready for this," she groaned.

Mulder put his hand on Scully's knee. "Well, lucky for you, I don't think he is either."

"Will you please talk to him?"

He nodded. "I will talk to him."

"Just let him know he can come to us. That we were his age once and we know it's hard, but that it's important to wait until he's mature enough to handle the responsibility that comes with being sexually active. That just because his friends might be doing something doesn't mean he has to. That there's no reason to rush into anything. He's so young and he has his whole life ahead of him. That we just want what's best for him and he can always talk to us."

Mulder smiled patiently. "Is there anything else? Should I be writing this down?"

Sighing, Scully ran her fingers through her hair. "How in the world did my parents go through this four times?"

"You were Catholic. They just told you to wait until you were married, problem solved."

Scully snorted quietly. "Sure. That works."

"Scully... are you trying to tell me you weren't a virgin when I married you?"

"What was your first clue? The thirteen-month-old living with us?"

Mulder laced his fingers with hers. Somewhere along the way, the thirteen-month-old became a sixteen-year-old."

"They're back," Scully said, tilting her chin toward the far side of the beach. William and Paige sat at the edge of the surf, drawing pictures in the sand with sticks, the tops of their heads close as they leaned in together laughing and talking.

"Interesting," Mulder said thoughtfully. "I always figured him for a brunette."

"But you'll talk to him?"

He placed a kiss to the back of her hand. "I will talk to him."


***

The other side of the bed was empty when Mulder rolled out of it the next morning. It was late, after ten. He relieved himself and brushed his teeth, then made his way to the kitchen, hoping Scully had left him some coffee in the pot. What he found instead was Scully herself, seated at the table still in her pajamas, chin propped on the heel of her hand as she stared glassily out the salt-stained window panes. She didn't move when he appeared next to her.

"Morning," he said, cautiously.

No response. Not even a turn of the head.

"You okay, Scully?" He rested a hand on her shoulder. She shifted from beneath it and stood, sniffling. She was avoiding eye contact, which always spelled trouble.

Several beats of silence took over the space between them and expanded to fit. Standing motionless in his bare feet and rumpled pajama pants, Mulder thought about how many times they'd done this —shut each other out. Retreated to their safe corners. Neither of them could be accused of oversharing when it came to their feelings, least of all Scully.

"Where's Will?" he asked, an edge of concern to his tone. But she would have woken him if it had been something with their son.

"Still sleeping, I imagine." Her voice was quiet, the tone flat.

"Okay," he said calmly. "Are you going to tell me what's wrong?"

She leaned back against the sink in her pajamas, cradling her coffee mug and finally raised her eyes to his. The blue was distant, the color of slate. Mulder pulled a kitchen chair out from the table with a scraping sound and sat down. He waited for her.

"I don't think you have any idea how lonely it felt, Mulder...being here by myself this past month. We've always come as a family. Everything in this house is a reminder of something. The fence outside that you and Will painted two summers ago. Claire's collection of seashells on the mantle. The lamp in the entryway they broke and then glued back together without telling us. There's not an inch of this place that doesn't have a memory attached to it." Her voice cracked and trailed off as she turned to look out the window. "The bluff where we got married. It's all here, Mulder."

"I know," he answered, softly. "That's one of the reasons why I love it here so much. The other house is special too and it has its own set of memories, but this place....this place is—"

"Magic," she whispered.

"Yes," he agreed.

She fell silent again. Sensing there was more and not knowing exactly what else he should say, Mulder waited.

After a few moments, Scully crossed to the opposite end of the kitchen counter and reached for the coffee pot. She refilled her mug, draining the carafe. If Mulder had wanted a cup of coffee for himself, he'd missed the opportunity. Wisely, he swallowed his complaints.

"I called Pete this morning," she said finally. "He said that you asked him not to come back."

With a long sigh, Mulder's eyes closed and then opened again. He ran his hand through his disheveled hair. "That wasn't exactly what I said."

"Really? What did you say to him? Exactly." Her tone was clipped and Mulder could already tell he was fucked on this. "Because," she continued, "he's under the impression he is no longer welcome here."

"I just suggested that he find another place to work. Claire arrives Monday and I thought we should have some space to ourselves as a family."

"And what does Pete have to do with any of that?"

"He shouldn't be here, Scully. There's miles of beach front for him to work; he doesn't need to be using ours." His voice had risen considerably. "It's time for Pete to pack up and move on, find somewhere else to do his thing."

The frown aimed at him was enough to let Mulder know he'd struck a nerve.

"Pack up and move on?" she hissed. "First of all, we don't own the beach, Mulder. It's public property. Pete, or anyone else for that matter, can come and go as much as they damn well please as long as they're not breaking any laws."

"I didn't say that we owned the beach. We're the only ones down here, though, which is a privilege that you've enjoyed just as much as I have over the years. He doesn't belong here."

Her frown deepened. "He doesn't belong here? What the hell gives you the right to make that determination?"

"What gives me the right? It's my lighthouse, you're my wife, and this is our time together. I think that gives me the right."

"You're something else, you know that, Mulder?" She shook her head at him, her jaw shifted to the side indignantly. "I'm not your property and the last time I checked, YOU didn't own the lighthouse, WE owned the lighthouse." She paused with her arms crossed and her eyes wide and expectant, like she was actually waiting for an answer. Wisely, Mulder didn't offer one, so she continued. "Pete is my friend and I enjoy having him around. He had the decency to ask to use the beach when he didn't even need my permission. He comes and goes quietly and he does his work without bothering anyone, so as far as I'm concerned, he is welcome and there is nothing here to discuss."

"Well, he bothers me." The truth escaped his mouth before Mulder could catch it.

Scully stared back at him, unblinking. Finally, she shook her head and looked away. "I'm not going to do this with you. I'm not." Turning her back to him, she rinsed her coffee mug in the sink noisily.

Sometimes when Mulder started, he couldn't stop. His tenaciousness could be a gift. This was not one of those times. "Did you know that he did a sketch of you?"

Scully narrowed her eyes at him. "What are you talking about, Mulder?"

"He drew you. You were sitting outside on the lookout deck, working, and he made a sketch of you."

If Mulder wasn't mistaken, her expression registered surprise and maybe something softer, something he definitely didn't like. "He showed it to you?"

"Yes," he lied. "Did you know about it, Scully?"

After a moment, he heard her murmur "no." Slowly, her eyes returned to his. "But I don't see why it matters. Pete is an artist. He sketches and he paints; that's what he does."

"I knew you'd say that." Mulder's voice rose a little more, even though he tried to temper it. "I knew you'd defend him."

"Defend him from what? There is nothing to defend here and you are making an issue where there isn't one. Is that why you asked him not to come back? Because he drew a picture of me?" The volume of her voice matched his now as they stood facing each other with resistant postures and wary expressions. By anyone's definition, they were arguing.

Mulder was formulating his response when Will appeared in the doorway to the kitchen shirtless in a pair of striped pajama pants. His sandy hair was matted on one side. He rubbed his eyes. "What's going on? Is everything okay?"

Scully's eyes lingered on Mulder's for a few seconds before passing Will a weak and unconvincing half smile. "Good morning, honey, did you sleep well?" She didn't wait for his answer. "There's fruit and yogurt in the fridge, cereal in the cupboard, or I can make you something. Would you like some pancakes or scrambled eggs?"

William's eyes danced from his mother to his father and then back again, trying to interpret the situation. "Cereal's fine," he replied cautiously. "If I'm interrupting something, I can—"

"Of course not," his mother replied with false cheerfulness. She already had a bowl and spoon set up on the table.

Without a word, Mulder turned and walked out of the kitchen.


***


The afternoon passed. Mulder and William cleaned out the boathouse and patched a couple of leaky spots on the shingled roof. They baked themselves in the sun and swam when they got hot enough. Scully stayed inside.

At sunset he climbed the stairs to join her at the top of the lighthouse. She stood at the railing on the lookout deck and gazed out over the glassy surface of the water, a black cardigan pulled snugly around her. When the sun went down, the temperature dropped about twenty degrees and the night air could chill even the most hardy of New Englanders.

Mulder stood next to her, his foot propped on the lower run of the railing, elbows leaning on the smooth iron. "The inside of the boathouse looks good. We even fixed up the roof. You should go take a look."

"We should replace both roofs soon," she said, "don't you think?"

Mulder nodded. "In the next couple of years. That would be one of the advantages of living here year-round someday. We'd only have one residence to maintain."

"What would it take to winter-proof it?" she asked.

He looked over his shoulder at the clapboard siding, weathered to a dull, grayish-white. "Technically, it's winter-proofed already, but it would cost an arm and a leg to heat all season. It needs better insulation, thermal windows, maybe a wood-burning stove on the first floor so the furnace doesn't have to work so hard. We could close off the upstairs by putting ceilings in and still keep the original staircase leading to the top. If we did that, it would make sense to add a second floor with a couple of extra bedrooms, maybe an office."

It would be expensive, but they could afford it, especially if they sold the house in Washington.

Scully looked at him. "You've really thought about this."

His eyes smiled. "I've thought about lots of things, Scully. The existence of werewolves and extraterrestrials, genetic testing on human hybrids, what's lurking in the city's water supply, whether Scarlett Johansson's breasts are real or fake...lots of things."

"Fake."

"Frohike disagrees."

"Because he would know," she scoffed.

"He does keep careful track of those things."

"Since neither of you will ever know for certain, does it matter?"

"Nobody really knows what's in the water supply either, Scully, but you'd probably agree that matters."

"The public water supply is tested regularly. It's safe to drink," she argued.

"Paranoia is not your strong suit, Scully. Lucky for you, I come equipped with enough to cover both of us."

They fell silent for several minutes.

"I called Pete," she said, matter-of-factly. As if it was the next logical segue in the conversation. Werewolves, Scarlett Johansson's boobs, shit in the water, phoning Pete.

Mulder refused to miss a beat. "Yeah? How's he doing?"

Scully ignored his question. "I asked him to come back. I told him he's welcome here anytime."

"What if I disagree?" Something uncoiled itself in the pit of his stomach. Mulder's hand flexed on the cold metal of the railing.

"Pete is my friend and I care about him. I won't have him treated unkindly after all he's done for me."

Turning to face his wife, Mulder's eyes narrowed and he fixed her with a hardened look. Against his better judgment he said, "And what would that be? What is it exactly that he's done for you?"

"We've already had this discussion, Mulder. I told you. It's been a very difficult month for me and Pete was a friend when I needed one."

"He was a stranger."

"I don't expect you to understand."

"That's good because I don't. I don't understand how this strange man, whom you just met a month ago, is suddenly your best friend and you can't live without him."

Scully's jaw tightened. "You're putting words in my mouth. Not to mention acting like a petulant child."

"I came here expecting us to have time alone together," he said, his tone harsh, a burning sensation in his core. He should have stopped there. "I didn't think I'd have to fight for your attention."

Her eyes swung immediately to his and he saw fire in them. "Fight for MY attention. That's rich, Mulder, coming from you. Just what do you think I've been doing for months and months now? I've been fighting for your attention...and losing. You can't just come here after everything that's happened and think that we can pick right up where we left off eight months ago. It doesn't work that way."

"I know that, Scully. I don't expect to just move on like nothing's happened. I know its going to take work and I'm prepared to do that. I just need you in this with me."

He saw the hurt flash across her face as her gaze fell from his. "When have I ever not been in it with you?" Her voice was hushed, nearly swallowed by the current of air. "In everything. From the very beginning...I've been there. It has always been about you, Mulder. When was the last time you thought about what I needed?"

Mulder opened his mouth, but struggled to find the words. "Scully, I—" He shook his head, dumbfounded.

She swept by him in tears, her sandals echoing on the spiral staircase as she descended. Mulder sat down and rested his head in his hands.

Scully's car was gone thirty minutes later when Mulder finally went downstairs.

The screen door slammed shut as William came barreling inside, barefoot and tanned, wearing swim trunks and a sun-faded tee shirt.

He stopped short upon seeing his father. "What did you do to her now?" he asked.

The sharp tone caught Mulder off guard. William's sandy hair was longer than he usually wore it, a mop of tousled waves, curling around the edges of his ears. His shoulders had grown broader and he filled out his tee shirt. The boyish features were slowly but surely disappearing. His son looked like a man.

Before Mulder could offer an answer, William took a step closer and repeated himself. "Mom was crying when she left. What the fuck did you do to her?"

Mulder could count on one hand the number of times he'd heard William use that word, and never out of anger towards him. "Calm down, Will."

"Tell me what you did to her! I want to know!"

"You should watch your tone, Son." Mulder kept the volume of his voice in check, knowing that this wasn't William's way. Out of his two children, Claire was the one who ran hot and cold, not Will.

"I don't want to calm down," William sputtered. His voice cracked a little. "I don't want to calm down and I don't want to watch my tone. I'm tired of you hurting her like this. You need to stop. If you can't stop, then you need to-to just...leave." He squared his shoulders and maintained direct eye contact with his father. "If you don't want to be here...if you don't want to be with us...then just go."

"William." Milder took a step forward and Will took a step back.

"I do want to be here," Mulder said.

"Then where have you been for the last month? Why has she been here alone all this time? Where the hell were you?"

"Son, it's complicated. Your mother and I are working some things out. It's nothing you need to worry about."

"That's bullshit and you know it."

"William, that's enough of that." Mulder's voice was firm now.

"Yeah, it is," Will replied, with a huff. "It is enough. Enough of her having to make excuses for you. Enough of watching you disappoint her. Enough of her getting hurt. She doesn't deserve that."

"You're right, she doesn't."

"The world doesn't revolve around you, you know. You and your stupid bullshit theories."

Mulder let that one go, but holy fuck the kid was going for the jugular.

"I know you think you're all grown up, Will, and partly that's true. But in some ways you're still a kid and you don't know everything. Your mother and I have been together a long time. We've been through a lot together. We'll make it through this too."

"How do you know that?" William looked at his father with piercing blue eyes — eyes Mulder knew well. "How do you know that she hasn't finally had enough?"

Stunned, Mulder struggled for a response, but failed. He stood there, staring at his son. After several moments of silence, William turned and stalked angrily out the lighthouse door.



***


The lighthouse was not a very big place. Not when everyone was intent on avoiding everyone else.

Scully didn't make dinner. For that matter, Mulder didn't see her eat. He was standing in front of an open refrigerator door when she entered the kitchen, clanked some dishes around in the sink, then walked out again.

William kept the door to his bedroom shut. Something with a steady, irritating beat thrummed loudly on the other side of it.

At a quarter to eight, he had his socked feet up on the wooden coffee table, half watching an old Seinfeld episode, when Scully crossed the room to retrieve her purse. "I'm going out for a while," she said, without looking at him. Mulder corrected his slouch a little.

By "out" she obviously meant out. She had makeup on, jeans, sandals with a heel, and a cream-colored, sleeveless blouse. Her hair had been straightened.

His eyes followed her out the door of the lighthouse. "Okay," he replied, quietly to no one.



***


Mulder woke up on the couch at 1:30 a.m. Scully still wasn't home. He considered calling her cell phone, then decided against it. He didn't want to seem like he was checking up on her. She'd call if she needed him. He confirmed that there had been no messages left on his phone. Then he got up and peed before going to bed again. He left the light on for her.

The shifting of the bed stirred him from slumber some time later. He felt the warmth of her next to him.

"What time is it?" he mumbled.

"Late," she whispered. "Or early, I guess. Go back to sleep."

He blinked into the darkness. After several minutes, "Are you all right, Scully?"

"Define 'all right'."

"You've been drinking," he said, unaccusingly.

Scully was a lightweight, literally and figuratively. If the stories he'd heard from her friend, Ellen, were to be believed, she'd held her own back in the day. These days, not so much. If Scully had two glasses of wine with dinner, that was something. In the past month, she'd overindulged at least twice that he knew of. He didn't think she needed to start working the steps yet, but this definitely wasn't normal behavior for her.

"I'm fine," she said.

"You drove home?"

"No, of course not."

Okaaaay. Mulder rolled toward the nightstand and squinted at the blurry, green numbers on the clock. Three something. The second number was also round. Maybe another 3. "How did you get home?"

"I took a cab. Go to sleep, Mulder. We'll talk in the morning."

It was morning, but he didn't point that out. Within seconds her breathing turned heavy and rhythmic.

He hated to admit to himself that it really bugged him he had no idea where she'd been or who she'd been with. Mulder closed his eyes again.


***


She slept until after ten in her bra and underwear, hair a splash on the white pillow, lips slightly parted. She had morning breath. "Morning after" morning breath, but he didn't give a shit. You got past that stuff after a couple of decades of loving someone. He'd loved her with stretch marks, bedhead, stomach flu, and PMS. She could still make his heart do the flippy thing with nothing more than a look. If he ever lost her, there'd never be anyone else.

He brought her hot coffee and a buttered English muffin on a tray and sat down at the edge of the bed. His hand brushed her hair from her temple.

Eyes fluttering open, she inhaled quickly and looked first at him, then around the room.

"Hi," he said. "I didn't mean to wake you." But he had meant to.

With her arms, Scully pushed herself up against the pillows and pulled the sheet across her chest so just her beige bra straps were visible. "It's okay. Is it late?"

"Just after ten."

"Where's Will?"

Mulder shrugged with a resigned half smile. "It doesn't appear that I am on that frequency at the moment."

She questioned him with sleepy eyes.

"He heard our fight yesterday. I am officially persona non grata."

Scully sighed. "Was he upset?"

"You might say that. We discussed the error of my ways. He weighed in with an opinion, which was essentially that I should go fuck myself."

"He didn't really say that."

"Not in those words, no. There were other words, though. He held nothing back."

"I'll talk to him," she said.

Mulder's hand brushed her knee. It felt small beneath the sheet. "Not necessary. I probably had it coming."

She didn't argue that point, bless her. He passed her the mug of coffee and she took it carefully, raising it to her lips. "Thank you."

"There's a toasted English muffin too. I even scraped off the burnt parts."

She made a face that told him everything he needed to know about her appetite at the moment.

"Maybe we'll work up to solid food."

"I wasn't with Pete," she replied, quietly. "I know that's probably what you're thinking."

Mulder's eyes glanced off hers. Does Frohike like porn? Of course it had crossed his mind. Several hundred times. "I...figured you just needed some space."

"I met Elizabeth and her friends at a place called The Cove. It was karaoke night."

He masked his relief.

Scully couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. That was a well-known fact. "You sang, Scully?" How many drinks did that take?

"I would not call it singing, per se."

"Did Elizabeth get a video of that, by any chance?"

Scully massaged her temples. "If she did, I'll kill her."


***

Chapter 13

Chapter 13

Pete resurfaced the following week and wisely, Mulder didn't make a federal case about it. He kept a cordial distance from Mulder, which was probably just as well. Mulder reluctantly admitted to himself that he may have overreacted the last time he saw Pete. All things considered, if Mulder had his way, he'd prefer to never see the guy again. But it wasn't worth hurting Scully over. Whatever it was that drew Scully to this man, it didn't seem to be romantic in nature.

Mulder observed from a safe distance and tried not to interfere. Most mornings Scully took a mug of hot coffee and her laptop down to the beach and set up camp on a chaise lounge next to Pete, talking and working. Once, she sat at an easel with a sketchpad in front of her, but Mulder couldn't see what she drew. He kept busy with his writing in the lighthouse and practiced being open-minded about his wife's new platonic, opposite sex friendship.

Scully must've talked to William at some point because mid-week, when Mulder was heading to the beach for a run, Will caught up to him and kept pace. They ran together for about three miles without either of them saying a word. Mulder felt the olive branch being extended. It was the adolescent equivalent of an apology, one Mulder wasn't sure was necessary.

After their run, he and William sat on the beach, watching the morning sun climb the horizon, cycling through a kaleidoscope of colors. It was just one more expression of beauty in his life that he'd taken for granted. Will had his eyes closed, his head tipped back and resting on his shoulders, the breeze drying beads of sweat on his brow.

"I love her like crazy," Mulder said, without looking at his son. "You do know that, right?"

Will's eyes opened and his head swiveled toward his father, but he didn't say anything.

"I love her more now than I did when I married her."

"Does she know that?" Will asked.

"I've told her."

"Then you should show her."

A slow smile spread over Mulder's face. "Suddenly the expert."

William sniffed nonchalantly. "You can't just talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk."

"Did your coach impart that piece of wisdom on you?"

"No," Will said, "You did."

Surprised, Mulder looked at his son.

"When I wanted to try out for varsity as a freshman. You said playing varsity was about more than shooting baskets; it was about character and sportsmanship, about who I was off the court as much as on it. Walk the walk, don't just talk the talk. Those were your words."

"Huh." Mulder bobbed his head, thoughtfully. "Your old man's pretty smart."

"Let's not get carried away," Will said with a smart-ass tone that reminded Mulder all the world of the boy's mother.


***

The next afternoon, Claire's plane arrived in Boston. All three of them made the drive to the airport. Mulder got the first hug from his daughter, Scully the second. William got a "What's up?" and a sporting punch to the upper arm. The good-natured teasing was familiar and well-intended. It felt to Mulder, for the first time in months, as if everyone was exactly where they should be.

Will took his sister's carry-on bag from her. "I'll have you know I am missing a whole afternoon of surfing to come and meet your plane."

"Yes, we all know you're on the fast track to the Triple Crown," Claire replied dryly.

The two siblings walked ahead of their parents, William towering over his little sister. Claire bumped into him on purpose. Her flip flops made a slapping sound against her heels. "What's the deal with the hair?" she asked teasingly.

Will shrugged. A tinge of pink crept onto his cheeks. "Nothing." It was longer than he usually wore it and Mulder was surprised Scully hadn't brought it up by now. That, and the frayed hemp bracelet on his wrist. It matched the one Paige wore.

Mulder grilled steaks for dinner at the lighthouse and all four of them sat around the table long after the food was gone, finding no shortage of stories to tell. It was the first time they'd been together as a family in months and Mulder wanted to soak up every last bit of it. He could look at his children sitting across the table from him and still see them as they were a decade ago. Time was a clever and unforgiving thief, but it couldn't steal that which he'd committed to memory.

He felt nostalgic and remorseful at the same time. Most of all, he felt grateful.

"Dad?"

Mulder blinked repeatedly, returning to the moment. His eyes focused on Claire, who was wearing a curiously bemused smile. "Earth to Daddy," she said.

"Hmmm?"

"You were spacing out."

"No, I wasn't," he replied. "I'm here." Mulder made eye contact with Scully. Her smile was soft and forgiving, as if she could read his every thought, which she probably could.

"I'm right here," he repeated.


In the early hours of the morning, long after everyone had gone to bed, Mulder awoke with a start. His heart was drumming in his chest and his tee shirt was soaked with perspiration. He sat up straight and swung his legs off the side of the bed.

Scully stirred next to him. "Mulder? What's the matter?"

"Nothing," he whispered. "I'm all right."

Her hand went to his lower back. "You're sweating," She propped herself up on one elbow. "Did you have a nightmare?"

"I don't know," he answered truthfully. "I don't remember." He took several deep breaths and felt his respiration begin to slow. "I'm okay, Scully. Go back to sleep." He took her hand in his and gently squeezed before releasing it.

Bending, he felt around on the floor for his shorts. The curtains above the bed stirred with the breeze, humid and thick across his back. It was a sticky night and he felt overheated and restless.

The clock on the nightstand read 2:17.

"It's warm in here," he said. "I'm going to go for a walk on the beach and cool off. Go back to sleep."

Scully shifted onto her back and propped herself up on both elbows to watch him getting dressed. "You're sure you're all right? Do you want me to go with you?"

"I'm okay," he whispered. One corner of his mouth lifted slightly. "I promise not to hitch a ride on any unidentified flying objects."

"That's not funny, Mulder."

He leaned across the pillows to kiss her. "I won't be long."

A dim light bled into the hallway from Claire's bedroom and Mulder pushed the door open and peeked inside. He smiled at the sight of his slumbering daughter. She was sitting up in bed with her back against pillows, an open book face-down on her outstretched legs. Her long hair, the same color as his own, had been twisted up off her neck in a knot and he marveled at how beautiful she was. Everyone insisted she looked like him, but peaceful and still like this, her face in profile, she was every bit as gorgeous as her mother. Her coloring was his, but she had Scully's perfectly shaped nose and high cheekbones.

Mulder silently approached his daughter's bedside. He carefully removed the book from her lap and placed the bookmark inside. Then he tucked the sheet around her, extinguished the bedside lamp, and quietly left the room. It had been years since he's tucked her in. If she were awake, she wouldn't allow it. Fierce in her independence, much like someone else he knows.

Outside it was warm and humid, but a subtle breeze made the air feel much cooler than inside the lighthouse. Mulder's bare feet made deep impressions in the sand as he trekked toward the shore. Without a second thought, he stripped off his shorts, boxers, and tee shirt and waded naked into the surf.

The water felt almost as warm as the air and Mulder immediately dove under the waves and then resurfaced, further out but still within toe-touching depth. A gibbous moon cast a shimmer over the water allowing him a panoramic view of the shoreline stretching in both directions. There was not a soul on the beach. He felt like floating on his back, but decided that might be just a little more exposure than he was willing to risk without swim trunks on, even if he thought he was alone.

He was unsure how long he'd been treading water when he spotted her silhouette standing at the top of the stairs on the bluff. A halo of moonlight illuminated her like some heavenly nymph as she descended the wooden staircase to the beach. She was wrapped in an old woven, Mexican style blanket she'd gotten at a craft show when William was just a toddler. Over the years the red had faded to a dusty salmon, but it was still everyone's favorite beach blanket. Scully tracked over the sand in her small bare feet. Her long hair was tucked inside the blanket.

She called to him, but the waves swallowed her words. Mulder began to side stroke back to the shore. He suspected she was probably there to remind him of the inadvisability of swimming alone at night. The kids knew better, but Mulder had long been guilty of breaking that rule. The solace of the night called to him like a siren. He wasn't a stranger to insomnia and often spent time on the beach in the wee hours of the morning while the rest of the Island slumbered.

Scully arced one brow at him as Mulder emerged from the water in his birthday suit. "One of these days you're going to get arrested for indecent exposure," she said with a sardonic smile.

"You'd bail me out."

"Don't I always?" To Mulder's surprise, she opened the blanket and folded him in with her.

"I'm all wet," he warned. They stood facing each other while the the damp impression of him bled through her thin pajama top.

"I won't melt," she said. Her eyes dipped down between the two of them. She pressed closer and spoke to him in a suggestive tone. "Or maybe I will."

Mulder sucked in air and his body released a small tremble.

"Cold?"

"No," he said, swallowing. "Pretty sure that's not it."

Their breath mingled. Wet sand swallowed both their feet. Velvety fingertips traced circles against his bare thigh, raising the hair.

Mulder grew hard as a rock.

"What's, um,..." inhale.... "up, Scully?" exhale.

His cock stood vertical against his stomach. "No need to answer that," he admitted.

He wove his hands along her spine gently massaging. "Mmm, that feels really good," she hummed, tilting her head in supplication. Wisps of russet hair fell against her cheek, hiding her eyes. Mulder kept massaging. Scully's hand kept fondling.

You know what else would feel really good, he thought. He was afraid to say it, though. Afraid to startle her from whatever heavenly thing she was doing to his balls. She was like a skittish animal lately, frightened by sudden movements. This was the most she'd touched him since he'd arrived on the island.

"Should we...go up to bed?" he said finally, unable to disguise the hopefulness in his voice.

Her eyes were the color of spilled ink. They peered up at him from beneath an umbrella of long lashes. She stared at him, their eyes conversing silently. It was the most unguarded he'd seen her in months. He was the one standing there naked and yet, he felt as if she was stripped bare before him. He raised a tender hand to cup her cheek. "Let's go up," he repeated.

Scully offered an uncommitted nod, holding his gaze. Neither of them made a move toward the lighthouse.

He wasn't sure which of them initiated the kiss, but Mulder had his hands buried in her hair before either of them could catch a breath. Her tongue pushed into his mouth and slid against his, making his head spin.

Taut nipples teased his chest hair. The thin, ivory camisole that served as her pajama top had become virtually see-through thanks to his wet body. Mulder covered one of her breasts with his palm and thumbed her nipple. He'd been fully prepared for her to stop him, to take him by the hand and lead him, and his painfully hard erection, up to the lighthouse and into bed where he would listen for her to fall asleep before masturbating quietly.

But none of that happened. Instead, Scully arched her back, bit at his bottom lip, and pressed her hips forward, pinning his cock between them. His mouth slid off hers and Mulder felt himself teeter on his feet, disoriented with a lust and a hope and a hunger for her that bordered on desperate. He had no intention of rushing her, understood her need to wait, but Jesus Christ Almighty, Mulder didn't know if he had one more false start in him.

She stroked his length with the palm of her hand, warm and buttery soft against his cool skin. "Tell me yes and mean it," he whispered in her ear. "Tell me you want this, Scully. Tell me you want me."

Her response was spoken in a humid rush of air against his cheek. "I want this," she whispered, her words mingling with his breath. "Say it again," he pleaded and she did. There was not a split second of hesitation in her voice, not a hint of uncertainty. "Please, Mulder....please Baby." The word jarred him, forced the air from his chest in a rush. They didn't do that often - resort to pet names. They were Mulder and Scully. That's what they called each other, what they'd always called each other, from the moment she'd invaded his basement office with her baby face and her Einstein theories, before she wore fuck-me shoes and thigh high stockings. Honey, baby, and all the rest — they were either said in jest or exactly the opposite -- naked, forehead to forehead, behind closed doors and with an intensity that could melt the sun.

There was no mistaking what was in her eyes now. As if Mulder needed more proof, she took his free hand in hers and guided it between them, down the front of her pajama pants and into the silk of her folds. She was so wet and hot that Mulder's knees nearly buckled beneath him. The neurons in his brain fired a dozen thoughts simultaneously.

Time to go up to the lighthouse. Time to get your naked self off the beach, Mulder. Time to get her hand off your cock and carry her to bed while you can still walk. Time to get your fingers out of her right now. Okay...now. Oh my fucking GOD, he had never wanted anything this badly in his life. Correction, he had never wanted anyone so badly in his life. It was her. It was always her. It would always be her.

"Scully, I need to be inside you," he said plainly, surprised at both his boldness and his ability to still manipulate words. He was a panting, salivating knot of testosterone.

"Mmmmmmm hmmmm." Her hips bucked gently and rhythmically like the tide at his feet.

"Scully..."

Her face was turned to the side, pressed to his pectoral muscle. Her hips moved in counter rhythm with his hand as he fingered her.

"Scully," he repeated, with urgency.

It was then that the universe took over for him, and like some act of nature or God or the Big Bang Theory, Mulder gave up the urge to think for himself. A million perfect things happened at once.

Slowly, Scully stopped moving against him. She lifted her eyes to his and he saw that they were lucid and calm. He felt her take his hand in hers. With just a look, she invited him to follow her and he did. Back toward the shadowy dunes at the base of the cliff, to where the moonlight lost them. She led him and he followed.

They wrapped themselves in the blanket and made a bed on the sand, his arm cradling her beneath him. He kissed her as she undressed and thought about how perfect she was. Her full mouth, her round breasts, the striking luster of her hair, the curve of her hips, the delicate pinch of her waist. There was not an inch of her that he didn't find beautiful, just as beautiful now as the day he'd first met her. Probably more so. Scully's was a beauty that sharpened with age, the kind that left people wondering what her secret was. She could've chosen anyone to love, but she'd chosen him. She loved him with a devotion and a loyalty and a fierce compassion that far surpassed any love Mulder had ever known. She was the definition of love for him. She was everything he'd ever want.

"What's the matter?" she asked. A tiny wrinkle had formed between her brows and she looked genuinely concerned. Mulder didn't know how long he'd been staring at her intently, lost in his infatuation. She had mistaken it for hesitation on his part, which couldn't be further from the truth.

"Nothing," he said, stroking her cheek with the back of his hand and smiling down at her. "There is absolutely nothing wrong." He was overcome with emotion and his eyes began to fill. He cupped her face and kissed her deeply. When the kiss finally broke, both of their faces were damp.

"Show me how this should go, Scully," he whispered to her cheek. "Show me."

Without hesitation, she reached between them and guided him in. Mulder pushed until his body was flush with hers and then released a long, cleansing breath. This act of taking him inside her felt symbolic to him, like the turning of a lock, the fitting of a missing piece. It was completion for him. For all his searching and seeking and struggling, the answer was her. Just her.

"I love you, Scully." It was simple, hardly adequate. But it was the truest of truths for him.

She dotted his moist eyelids with kisses and whispered the same thing back to him. He was still and quiet for several long moments, his eyes closed, feeling spellbound.

After a while, she began to rock beneath him, a reminder that they had been in the middle of something when he'd decided to go all sentimental on her. Impressively, his emotions were the only thing that had gone soft on him. Mulder pulled out and then pushed back in and Scully lifted her legs to circle them around his waist.

How many times had they made love? Hundreds? Thousands? There was probably a mathematical calculation to help him estimate that, but it wasn't important. All that mattered was that their bodies seemed to instinctively know each other. A magnetic pull, a familiarity that went beyond either of them.

Mulder had to concentrate to keep himself from finishing too soon. It had been too long and nothing he could do for himself came close to what it felt like to be joined with her. Face flushed, her respiration quickened. She was getting there, but not soon enough. Improvisation would be necessary. Without words, Mulder tightened his grip around her bottom and rolled slowly over onto his back, taking her with him. He remained inside her, a little trick that had taken some practice to master, but they'd been doing it flawlessly for years. Scully took over, beginning a slow, hard grind against him. He cupped her ass and gently lifted and lowered her to meet his upward thrusts. They kissed and panted, her breasts grazing his pectorals.

She was very close. He could tell by her breathing and pace. He'd been hovering on the brink for minutes, waiting for her. "Cum with me," he whispered. "Tell me when."

They locked eyes and she rocked and pitched, her hands buried his hair. Seconds later she cried out. Mulder doubled his thrusts and let go in the middle of her contractions. Her orgasm seemed to go on forever, their bodies entangled in a full embrace.

After, they remained locked together, breathing in tandem, Scully draped over him like a curtain. The surf drummed against the shore. Mulder pulled the blanket higher, tucking the corners around her shoulders. He liked the feel of her covering him. Even with her full weight, she was small and light, pocket-sized.

"I'm too tired to get up," she murmured, rolling off him. He spooned up behind her and slipped one calf between her legs.

"Who said anything about getting up?"

"Sunrise is two hours away," she said. "Do you really want our children to find us naked on the beach?"

"When was the last time either of them got up with the sun?"

"Good point."

Mulder kissed the tiny shell of her ear and pressed his palm gently against her stomach. "Just a little snooze, Scully."


***

They dressed beneath the blanket and snuck into the lighthouse just past sunrise. Five minutes before or after and they would've been fine, but it just so happened that William was on a return trip from the bathroom. They nearly collided in the hallway outside his bedroom.

"Hey," Will said, his drowsy eyes making a pass over his mother, then his father. "Why are you guys up?"

Scully, quick on her feet, came to the rescue. "Early morning swim," she blurted, eyes shifting away.

"In pajamas?" Will frowned.

They both floundered like two teenagers past curfew.

Will turned with a subtle eye roll and shuffled toward his room. "Never mind, I don't want to know."

Mulder stifled his laugh as they closed their bedroom door behind them. "Early morning swim. Great answer, Scully."

She clicked her tongue at him, cheeks pink. "What would you have said?"

"I don't know, how about watching the sunrise? Something people might actually do in their pajamas."

They undressed and slipped into bed nude. Scully slid to the middle and Mulder opened an arm for her. She settled with her head on his chest. "Do you think he knows?" she asked.

"That we fuck? Yes, I think he might suspect." Mulder rolled her beneath him and nuzzled the tip of her breast. The box springs creaked loudly. He stopped and raised his head. "When did that start?"

"I don't know."

"We're going shopping for a new bed today, Scully, because that's going to be a problem."


She let him make love to her again in the shower later that morning. Three times in twelve hours and Mulder was feeling pretty pleased with himself. "I am man," he grunted in his best caveman voice. He washed her hair for her and used the lather to shape it into silly looking points on top of her head. She was complacent while he dolloped the tips of her breasts.

"You look like an ice cream Sundae, Scully."

"Good enough to eat?" she asked with a vixen smile.

"You naughty, naughty girl."

When they finally made it out of their bedroom that day, it was lunchtime. William and Claire were in the kitchen making sandwiches. It was going to be a hot day and the air in the lighthouse was already muggy. Both kids wore swimsuits.

Claire licked peanut butter off a bread knife, eyeing her parents curiously. "I wondered if you guys were going to sleep all day."

Will flipped through a Sports Illustrated while munching on a sandwich stuffed with enough turkey to feed three people. "All that early morning swimming must be tiring," he said, without lifting his eyes from the magazine.

Scully sputtered while swigging from a bottled water.

"What are everyone's plans for the day?" Mulder asked.

"Beach," replied Claire. She fought with Will to get her hand into the bag of potato chips. "Quit eating them all."

"Paige is coming over," said Will, ignoring his sister. "We're going windsurfing."

"Life jackets," said Scully.

Will was busy texting on his phone, a goofy, boyish smile on his face.

"William."

He looked up at his mother. "Huh?"

"Make sure you're both wearing life jackets."

"Yeah, I know. No worries, Paige is an awesome swimmer."

"Even so," said his mother.

Claire rolled her eyes. "Paige is an awesome swimmer," she parroted in a high-pitched voice. "Paige can play the guitar...Paige is a gymnast..."

"Shut up," Will said, his face turning bright red.

"Is there anything your girlfriend can't do?" his sister teased.

"Claire," said Scully. Her stern voice was juxtaposed with the hint of a smile.

"She's not my girlfriend," Will mumbled. "Not officially."

Claire got up and carried her dishes to the sink. "Some girl is actually interested in my brother. The question is how?"

"Claire," repeated Scully, "That's enough."

"Hey now," Mulder said, "the Mulder men have a way with the ladies. Must be our animal magnetism or something."

Scully, bemused, leaned her hip against the kitchen counter, munching a Granny Smith apple. "Or...something."

"Whatever it was, it worked on you." Mulder pinched her hip playfully. He loved it when she skipped the hairdryer and makeup. It was freckle anarchy on the bridge of her nose.

"You wore me down," she said.

"You threw yourself at me one New Year's Eve."

"You kissed me. There were witnesses."

Mulder reached past her for the peanut butter. "Poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to..."

"I'd love to continue with this touching family moment," said Claire, "but the sun is high, Mulders. The waves are calling my name." She raised her arms to twist her hair into a bun on top of her head. As she did so, her tee shirt lifted to reveal bikini bottoms and something that glinted, catching Mulder's attention.

"What's that on your stomach?" he asked, squinting.

"What's what?" Claire looked down at her tummy, blankly.

Mulder pointed. "That thing... right..." It was small and shiny, turquoise blue. A tiny stud right next to her belly button. "It looks like a navel piercing."

Scully moved with lightning speed. In a split second, she was at her daughter's side, lifting the tee shirt to inspect. "Claire Margaret, what in the world did you—"

"Relax, everybody, jeez!" said Claire, with a laugh. "It's fake. They're stick-ons. Katie and I bought them at the mall."

Scully exhaled, shaking her head.

"I'm waiting until I'm sixteen for the real thing," said Claire.

Her mother shot her two raised eyebrows and the 'you're pushing it' look.

"Just kidding..." Claire sing-songed, padding out of the kitchen. "Hey, does anyone know where the striped beach blanket is? It's not in the hall closet."

Scully stumbled over her response. "I uh...think it got accidentally left on the beach overnight. Why don't you take the yellow one."

Nobody liked the yellow one. It was scratchy.

"Here it is, in the foyer," Claire called out. "Ew gross, it's full of sand."


They bought a new bed. A pillow top mattress and box spring set with a cherry, sleigh frame. Scully fell in love with it and Mulder didn't have the heart to remind her that footboards were inconvenient with his six foot stance. Being married to a dickhead for the past nine months had probably earned her the right to any bed she wanted. If he behaved himself, she'd continue letting him sleep in it with her. He could curl up a little and keep his gripes to himself. The important thing was that the box springs were squeak-free. They tested it energetically that night. And the next morning, just to be sure.

Following their long-overdue coupling on the beach, he and Scully spent about four days making up for lost time. They made up for it in the bathroom (both the shower and the tub). They made up for it during lazy afternoon naps in their overheated bedroom, sprawling naked beneath the ceiling fan. They made up for it in the early morning hours while the kids slept. They made up for it one more time on the beach, one time on the living room couch, and almost once in the kitchen when Mulder got a little carried away helping Scully baste chicken. They were interrupted by William looking for Gatorade in the fridge. Scully's swimsuit top was untied, but she managed to scurry into the laundry room just in time.

They highly suspected that their son was onto them. William gave them looks at dinner and whenever they passed in the hallway. Mulder got the impression his son felt a mixture of both relief that his parents were getting along in the extreme sense of the term, and thorough disgust at the same thought.

At one point, Mulder overheard a conversation between his children in which Claire informed her brother that she was quite certain their parents had showered together that morning (she'd been right).

"You don't know the half of it," William had replied.

***

Chapter 14

Chapter 14

The internet was an amazing tool. With it, one could pay bills, shop, order dinner, play games, take courses online, book a vacation, learn a new language, and watch videos on how to do just about anything. It was a virtual smorgasbord of information on anything. And anyone.

Mulder was admittedly more than a little curious about the man whom Scully had spent part of the summer with. It wasn't jealousy exactly. There didn't appear to be any kind of romantic basis to their relationship. And yet, something about Pete had drawn Scully in and that was not an easy feat. She chose her friends wisely and didn't surround herself with many casual acquaintances. There had to be something special about the artist, other than his art.

Mulder spent the better part of an afternoon while Scully grocery shopped googling everything he could find on Peter Firestone. It didn't take long for him to stumble across the obituary for Max Firestone.

He was stunned and yet, it made sense - the gravitational pull between this man and Scully. Nothing brought people together like shared experiences. In this case, the experience of loss. Scully was no stranger to grief. Losing her father and her sister. Losing Mulder (albeit temporarily) while pregnant might've been the biggest blow of all. He was just now starting to understand all that she'd suffered during those months he'd been dead.

Yes, profound loss was something Scully understood well and to Mulder's knowledge, not a topic she spoke about with others. The availability of someone who could empathize and yet, existed outside of her inner circle, knew nothing about her, would not view her forevermore through the filter of emotional trauma. More so, Pete happened along at the exact time when Scully had felt isolated and disconnected from Mulder. It was the perfect recipe.


The females went shopping. Scully and Claire, Elizabeth and Mallory. Tate would be arriving Sunday, with the hubby Mulder was still undecided about and a belly full of baby due in a few weeks. It was Elizabeth's first grandchild and she was determined to spoil him. Mulder pictured the four ladies scouring every baby boutique between the Vineyard and Boston, fawning over baby blue this and that. Blankets and bibs and tiny shoes that would never be walked in.

Mulder and William went to the park to shoot hoops. After an hour of playing, Mulder's sleeveless shirt was stuck to his back like plastic. The temperature was well over eighty degrees and the basketball court was unshaded. William played shirtless and Mulder couldn't help but notice that his son had gained a lot of muscular definition in just the past six months. His shoulders had broadened and his chest and biceps were filling out. Gone was the wiry adolescent look he'd carried for so long.

Reaching into a backpack, Mulder retrieved two sweating bottles of Poland Spring and tossed one to Will. The boy cracked the cap off and sucked down half the liquid in three long swallows.

"Getting hungry?" Mulder asked.

Will nodded and swept his damp brow with the tee shirt hanging from his waist.

"Pizza?"

"Sounds good," Will answered. He drained the rest of the water bottle and then dribbled the ball a few more times before making a clean three-point shot. He tossed the ball to his father. Mulder went for an overhand hook from the side, but miscalculated. The ball hit the rim and bounced off.

Will chuckled and ran after the ball.

"Smartass," Mulder mumbled.

They made their way to the car. "Good game, old man," Will teased.

"Watch who you're calling an old man. I can still take you on a bad day."

His son smiled, knowing this was true. That gap was tightening, however, as was the height differential. It would only be a matter of time before Mulder would be at a disadvantage.

"Hey," Mulder said.

Will looked up just in time to catch the set of car keys.

"Yeah?" Will grinned.

"Watch your speed and no funny stuff."

Mulder headed for the passenger side.

William had gotten his learner's permit in May when he turned sixteen. Since then, Mulder had only been driving with him a handful of times. They had some catching up to do.

Smartly, the first thing Will did upon getting behind the wheel of the car was fasten his seat belt. Mulder followed suit. William started the engine and shifted the vehicle into drive.

"Look twice before pulling out," Mulder instructed. "You've got a blind corner."

William did as he was told before maneuvering carefully onto the road. "You're not going to be a backseat driver like Mom, are you?"

Mulder smiled. "You and Mom have gone out driving a lot, have you?"

"Sort of. Before I went away to basketball camp. She would let me drive us to get ice cream, but then we weren't allowed to eat it in her car." Both Mulder and William chuckled at that.

The back seat of Mulder's sedan was a mudslide of books, unopened mail, folders, clothing, food wrappers, and empty water bottles. Scully had an ice scraper and an umbrella. The inside of her Audi looked like she just drove it off the dealer lot. Mulder's car smelled like Taco Bell and Bailey, and he rather liked that combination.

Mulder quietly observed his son's driving skills. William seemed to have good control over the vehicle and a sense of confidence behind the wheel. His braking patterns were smooth and he was conscientious about checking his side and rear view mirrors before changing lanes. He took care to signal well in advance of turns. Mulder considered whether now might be a good time to have that man-to-man with Will that he'd promised Scully. He cleared his throat. "So does Paige drive?"

"Yeah, she has her permit. Her parents are making her wait until after she turns seventeen next month to get her license."

Seventeen next month was what Mulder heard. Paige was almost a year older than Will.

"You two seem to get along well," Mulder said.

William's face brightened. "I like her a lot. But, ya know," he shrugged, "it's not serious or anything. We're leaving at the end of the summer, so...."

Not serious. What constituted serious at sixteen? Mulder felt woefully out of touch with adolescent courtship rituals.

"Is there anyone back home?" he asked his son. There were always girls hanging around the house. Will's friends seemed to travel in packs, groups of guys and girls together. Obvious pairing off was a rarity and Mulder never really had a handle on who went with whom. There seemed to be a reluctance to self-identify as couples.

"You mean like, a girl?" Will asked.

"Well, yeah," Mulder replied, looking over at his son. Then a possibility occurred to him that hadn't before. "I guess I thought....I mean, not that it matters, of course...you should know that your Mom and I .... we support whatever you—"

"Dad—" Will interrupted with a laugh. "I like girls. If that's what you're getting at."

"Oh," Mulder replied, simply. "Okay."

"But if you want to know if I have a girlfriend at home, the answer is no. Not really anyway. Most of the girls I know are just friends. But if that changes, I'll let you know."

"Okay," Mulder said again. Then after a hesitation, "Because I want you to feel like you can come and talk to me about...stuff, okay?"

"Like what?" Will glanced over at his dad. When he saw Mulder's uncomfortable expression, he laughed again. "Aren't we a little late for the birds and the bees talk? I'm pretty sure we covered that when I was about nine or ten."

Mulder gave him a half smile. "Let's call this the sequel."

"Ahhh," Will nodded. "Right. The 'Be careful, be smart, don't do anything until I'm ready' conversation."

Mulder glanced at his son, a little surprised. "In a nutshell, yeah." He cleared his throat. "Am I, uh, late to the party?"

William smiled, a bit sheepishly and shook his head. "No, you're not late."

"I just figured with all the time you and Paige have been spending together that maybe, ya know, the subject came up."

"It did. Kinda."

"And?"

Will shrugged shyly, his cheeks turning pink. "I think maybe if we had more time, ya know? I don't want to do... that and then not see her again. That doesn't seem right."

Mulder was a bit dumbfounded by the maturity level of his sixteen-year-old son. "You're right, it doesn't," he agreed.

William turned the corner into the small parking lot of the pizza place and shifted into park. "Is it wrong, though..." he asked, hesitantly, "that I really want to sometimes?"

Mulder shook his head, smiling at his son. "No, it's not. It's not wrong at all. At your age, I'd be surprised if you didn't."

Will stared down awkwardly at his size 12 high top sneakers.

"But can you just do your old man a favor?" asked Mulder. "If the 'want to' looks like it might be moving in the direction of 'going to,' can you give me a little advance warning? There are things you should probably have before that happens."

Will looked at his Dad blankly for a second before catching on. His blush deepened. "Oh. Yeah, okay."

Mulder held out his hand for the car keys. "Come on, let's get some pizza. I'm starved."


Back at the lighthouse, Mulder attacked the laundry while William went to meet Paige on the beach. Mulder felt pretty good about his conversation with Will earlier that day. It wasn't quite as uncomfortable as Mulder had expected, given the fact that he didn't really have much of an example to draw upon. His own father, although he'd meant well, had pulled Mulder aside on his seventeenth birthday, handed him a dented box of Trojans, and said, "Have fun, Boy. Don't be stupid." Mulder hadn't. Not reproductively anyway.

He stacked towels neatly in the linen closet and then started on the clothing, beginning with Scully's. Shrimp sized fitted tees and shorts, everything with even size numbers on the tags and a letter P. Mostly 4s. A few 2s. The year after Claire was born, there'd been some 6s, but she cut the tags out. As if he cared what size she was. He liked the curves on her.

Mulder tucked the satiny bra cups into their matching halves, taking care not to snag the smooth material on his rough hands. He imagined her putting them on (and taking them off).

When he pulled out the top drawer of Scully's dresser, it caught on something and Mulder had to reach inside and clear the way with his hand. Whatever it was, it was flat and smooth. It felt like leather or cowhide. He pulled the drawer out further and closed his hand around a book of some kind. Curious, he slid the mystery item out and examined it, fanning the pages slowly. The writing in it was Scully's – a journal with multiple entries, dates at the top.

The right thing to do, of course, would have been to put the journal back where he'd found it and close the dresser drawer. He debated that thought for all of about thirty seconds before Mulder kicked his shoes off and stretched out on the bed, journal in hand. He started at the beginning.

***

He must've nodded off while reading because the next thing he was aware of was Scully standing at the edge of their bed, folding the remains of the laundry basket.

"Hi," Mulder said, pulling himself up against the pillows. "I guess I fell asleep. When did you get home?"

She finished tucking Mulder's favorite grey sweatpants into the last drawer of his dresser. "About a half an hour ago."

Her journal was lying next to him and Mulder knew she would've noticed it. "I um, stumbled over it," he explained, sheepishly. "I should've asked first, Scully. I'm sorry."

She looked at him, puzzled. "I thought you knew about my journal. It was no secret."

He slid closer to the edge of the bed and reached for her. "C'mere."

She did as he asked and curled herself onto the mattress next to him, allowing him to spoon up behind her. Her cheek rested in the crease of his elbow and he could feel the tickle of her lashes when she blinked. He brushed hair from her temple and placed a kiss there.

"I had no idea," he confessed. "And I don't know what to say, Scully. Reading your entries...remembering all those things... I can't believe you did this for us. For me."

"Truthfully, I'd forgotten about it until a month ago when I found it buried under a bunch of things in my drawer."

They lay quietly, tucked together on the bed. Her bare feet were cold and she burrowed them beneath his, candy pink toenails snuggling into the fleshy part of his instep.

"You know," he said, approaching tentatively, "there are plenty of empty pages left." He nuzzled the space behind her ear. "It seems like...maybe there's still more to be written."

Scully rolled onto her back and looked up at him, her face soft and open. "You're the writer, Mulder."

"Is that a nice way of saying 'unemployed'?"

A contented smile rested on her lips. Bottomless blue eyes traveled his face. "You should finish it," she said, resolutely. "I think you should tell our story."

"I've never been much of a journal writer. Too much self-examination. We ghost writers find reality much scarier than fantasy. Especially if reality is what's up here." He pointed to his forehead with an index finger and grinned at her.

Scully huffed out a short, breathy laugh, before her expression sobered. "I'm not afraid," she said, softly. "I already know what's up there and I'm not afraid."

Mulder swallowed. His hand went to the side of her face, the back of his fingers grazing her cheek. He kissed her sweetly. The buttons of her summer blouse puckered, providing him a glimpse of ivory lace. One palm slipped under the shirt, over the flatness of her belly and rested there.

They lingered in bed awhile longer, until they heard sounds in the rest of the lighthouse – voices, footsteps, the clink of dishes in the kitchen, laughter from the TV. Later that night when Mulder went to empty his pockets onto the top of his dresser, he noticed the journal. It had been placed there purposely. An invitation. Unassuming, unclaimed, unfinished.


Pete had stopped coming quite so often. It was a gradual, peaceful decline, but present nonetheless. Mulder braced himself for a possible accusation from Scully that he'd somehow interfered, had been unwelcoming to her friend, had spoken harshly to him. But none of that transpired and Scully appeared to react to Pete's altered patterns with a quiet acceptance, as if one season was ending and another beginning, which was in fact the case. It was the third week of August. Schools in the Northeast would start their classes again right after Labor Day. Many families that regularly summered on the Vineyard had already packed up and gone. Others weren't far behind, including them. They agreed they'd stay as long as possible this year, right up until the weekend before school started.

Mulder ran in the morning most days. Scully did as well, but she preferred to run earlier. Her days were busier than Mulder's, in the traditional sense of the word. It was just her way, as if she had a constantly revolving mental checklist, even on her days off. Maybe it was a throwback from growing up in a military household.

Some mornings she would take her coffee down to the beach after her run and sit with Pete, if he was there. When she came back up to the lighthouse, she didn't offer Mulder any information about her time with Pete and Mulder didn't ask. They had reached a silent agreement. Mulder accepted that Pete was her friend...just her friend. And whatever space he filled in her life wasn't a space for Mulder to occupy, with or without Pete.


One evening, not long before they were planning to leave the lighthouse and return to their home in Washington, Mulder went for a drive. The address he was looking for wasn't hard to find. It was a quiet side street just two turns off the main highway and about six miles from the lighthouse. The house itself was modest, but well-maintained – a small cape with clapboard siding and a detached garage. It had a stone pathway that led from the single lane, paved driveway to the front door. There was no door bell, so Mulder knocked.

Pete came to the door in jeans and bare feet, wiping his hands on a kitchen towel. The look on his face upon seeing Mulder was that of surprise at first, then concern. He swung the wooden front door open, then held the screen open with his foot.

"Hey. Is everything all right? Is Dana okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," Mulder said quickly. "She's fine, it's nothing like that."

Pete hesitated a few seconds before saying, "Do you...want to come in? I was just, uh, making some dinner-"

"Thanks, but I can't stay," Mulder said, which wasn't entirely true, but it felt like the thing to say. "I wanted to talk to you, if you have a minute."

"Sure, yeah." Pete stepped outside, letting the screen door slam shut behind him. He sat down on one of the steps, knees apart and rested his elbows on them. Mulder noticed that the shirt Pete was wearing didn't have any paint on it for a change.

Before he could change his mind and regret coming, Mulder began to speak. "First of all, Scully....I mean, Dana, doesn't know that I'm here. She didn't ask me to do this or anything. I-I wanted to come by and say that, um...I think I owe you an apology...for how I treated you when I first got here. You were decent to me and I wasn't very friendly in return." Mulder huffed out a short laugh. "Actually, I was kind of a jerk. I'm sorry about that."

Pete looked surprised. After a minute, he nodded and looked down, nudging one of the loose stones on the walkway with his foot. "It's all right," he said. "I get it. I might've done the same thing had I been in your shoes. Another guy hanging out with your wife while you're not around..." Pete cleared his throat, thoughtfully. "The thing you should know, though, is that... Dana...she's yours."

Mulder looked at Pete curiously.

"I don't mean it like, because she's your wife," Pete continued. "I mean, besides that. More than that. In every possible way that one person's soul can belong to another's, she's...yours." He made direct eye contact with Mulder. "You've got nothing to worry about, man. Not about where her loyalties lie. The way she feels about you...it's the real deal."

Mulder swallowed a lump in his throat, feeling suddenly very humble and at a loss for words. "We, uh...we've been through a lot together," he managed finally. "There's...a lot there."

"I understand," said Pete. And Mulder believed that he actually did.

Silence stretched between them, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Mulder thought about telling Pete that he knew about what had happened to his son, but he didn't. Somehow, that was between Pete and Scully and it just seemed right that it should stay that way.

"We're leaving the Vineyard soon," Mulder said, finally. "You should come by. She'll want to see you before we go."

Pete nodded. "I will. I'd been planning to. I have some news of my own to tell her."

Mulder quirked his head in question.

"I took a job up north. It's a one-year teaching position at a university in Ontario." Pete shrugged. "I could use a change of scenery and I've got family up that way, so..."

Mulder glanced around the property. "Will you sell your place?"

"No. Not yet anyway. I've made arrangements to rent it and I'll see how that goes. So far the job is just for a year." He stood up. "I'd like to tell Dana, if that's okay."

Mulder nodded. "I won't say anything."

"I'll come by next week then," said Pete. He extended a hand and Mulder shook it firmly.

The two men exchanged goodbyes and just before Mulder turned to walk to his car, he stopped. "Hey," he said.

Pete turned around, his hand on the front door of his house.

"Thanks," said Mulder, "for being there for her this summer."

Pete smiled and shrugged nonchalantly. "That's what friends do."


When Mulder looked at Todd and Elizabeth's daughters, he still saw them as girls – Tate at sixteen with a sullen smile and a rebellious glint in her eyes. Long-legged and lanky in cut-off shorts and Converse. Mallory at nine, precocious and outspoken with a gap-toothed grin, pigtails and glasses. They'd spent hours on the beach, making the perfect sandcastles. Mally showed him how to bite the ends off licorice and use it as a straw.

That first summer following the car accident that paralyzed Elizabeth, Todd's attention had been focused on his wife. Mulder spent that summer on the vineyard hanging out with the girls. He never thought of himself as father material back then. He was big on playing, light on discipline. He liked being Uncle Mulder where stretching the rules was part of the job description, where sugar indulgence and later bedtimes were expected.

The years had flown by and both girls were adults now, one about to become a mother herself. William at sixteen and Claire just three years younger, would be there soon enough. Just a few years ago, Mulder couldn't have imagined his children having their own children, but time was a thief, cunning and quick. He didn't intend to miss the moments he had coming to him – not one more.

The summer waxed on. In another week, they would leave the Vineyard and return to their suburban two-story colonial. The kids would start a new school year and Scully would fall back into her hospital routine, a fresh crew of bright-eyed, idealistic interns under her wing, ready to cure cancer and conquer the world. Mulder would spend the first month shuffling around an empty house in the mornings with his chipped coffee mug, reading the newspaper out loud to the dog. Eventually, he'd sit down at his computer and type again.

For now, though, he was determined to suck the marrow out of the last few drops of summer.


Tate went into labor four days after arriving on the Vineyard and weeks before her due date. No one had been expecting it, least of all the mom herself, whose water broke the morning of her baby shower. Hours before guests were scheduled to arrive, Tate paced a hospital room and swore at the father-to-be while Mallory and Scully called all the invitees to spread the word that the shower had been postponed.

Shortly before midnight, Mulder and Scully received a call from Todd, informing them that Benjamin had made his arrival, all fingers and toes accounted for. Mom and baby were doing well. Mulder could hear both the excitement and the underlying emotion in his friend's voice and he imagined what that must be like – watching your own baby bring another baby into the world. Even looking at William today, nearly an adult himself, the image of his son as an infant was etched permanently in Mulder's mind. A tiny, brand new human being, a miracle of chromosomes and DNA, warm and pink and soft in his arms. That overwhelming humility and gratitude he'd felt in that moment, for being allowed to have something so perfect, and the deeply-felt conviction that he'd do anything it took, would give his own life, to protect the child and his mother.

Had he done that? Had he fulfilled that promise he'd made when William was born? Scully was right when she'd said that it had been Mulder's choice. She had never asked for his provision, had never expected a thing, not even to give their son the Mulder name. She had been fully prepared to go it alone. It had been Mulder's choice to be involved in their lives.

And he had been involved. Like Scully had said, over the years, he'd been there for everything. Fifteen years of marriage and two babies. Birthdays, holidays, first steps, vacations, school plays. Helping with homework, cleaning scraped knees, coaching Little League, trick or treating, all of it. It had never felt like a burden to him. It had felt like...a life. There was no regret, not then and not now.

This past year, he'd lost his way a little, that's all. It wasn't an unprecedented event and there were reasons for it that he now understood better. It was hard and sometimes painful to deal with his emotions, but he took his medication and touched base with his therapist weekly and he found that the fog was slowly starting to recede.

He could sense the shift in his patterns of thinking, in his attitude, in his general outlook on life. Physically, there had been improvements as well. He was running again regularly, sleeping soundly at night, and thanks to Scully, eating much better. It was a process of recovery that would take time. Like everything in life, change didn't happen overnight.

One of the hardest things for him had been forgiving and trusting himself. He didn't like to hurt Scully and he knew that he had done so, not for the first time either. He wanted to assure her that it wouldn't happen again, but he couldn't promise that – not to her, nor to himself. The brain was a complex organ and Mulders was perhaps more complex than most. It was capable of leading him astray and it didn't necessarily need his permission to do so.

Days after Tatum's baby boy entered the world, Mulder was privileged to watch Scully cradle a newborn in her arms for the first time since Claire was born. He observed the interaction silently from the other side of the room, feeling something swell up inside him.

Scully held the swaddled baby snugly against her chest and caressed his fragile, peachy soft head. She was swaying that slow, rhythmic, soothing sway women instinctually do while baby-holding. The contented smile on her face was the same one he'd seen her wear hundreds of times while mothering her own babies. His babies. In that moment, he remembered what she'd said about her pregnancy with William, about being grief stricken and numb from despair over Mulder's death. How she'd chosen to survive because she was carrying their child. How the mass of cells multiplying and growing in her womb was what kept her alive during that time when she might've otherwise given up. Scully, who of all people, had always been a fighter.

It hit Mulder in that moment, what it must've been like for her during those months without him. Not just without him, but believing him to be dead. He could not imagine, had never really tried to, just what that must've felt like. It was enough to render him silent and thoughtful for the rest of the day, his consciousness distracted by absorbing the enormity of what he had, and what he could have lost.

Later that night in bed, he thought she was asleep until he heard her quiet voice next to him. "What is it, Mulder?"

He rolled over and gathered her small frame, curling himself around her.

"You've been quiet all day. What's wrong?" she repeated.

Mulder kissed her temple and rested his cheek against hers. "Nothing's wrong. Seeing you holding Ben earlier...I don't know..."

A tense pause and then..."Mulder, please don't tell me that after all this time you wish we'd.....you're not thinking we should have had...another..."

He chuckled silently at her tone, picturing the panic-stricken look on her face. She had jumped to the wrong conclusion about his thought process, but he'd play along just because she was too damn cute whenever she told him he was crazy.

"I don't know, Scully, maybe it's not too late to reconsider," he prompted.

"Mulder, what in the world..." she sputtered. "You've been sterile since right after Claire was born!" She swung herself up to a sitting position next to him in bed. "Even if it were a simple procedure to reverse, which it most definitely is not, a pregnancy at my age would be very high risk. Not to mention the fact that our children are teenagers. William is leaving for college in two years, the last thing I want to be doing right now is-is-is changing diapers. The answer is no. Definitely not." Her voice had risen in pitch considerably.

Mulder knew it was evil of him to be enjoying this quite so much, but he couldn't help himself sometimes.

"I don't even know how you could be thinking such a thing," she went on, exasperated. "My God, even adoption....it's enormously expensive and the waiting list can take years. At our age, it's unlikely we'd be approved anyway and have you really considered how our lives would change? I'm sorry, but no. You're crazy, Mulder."

An audible, guilty laugh slipped out of him when she finally said it.

"Why are you laughing?" she asked, irritably.

"Because I had you going." He chuckled again.

A pillow hit him in the head. "Mulder, that was not nice!"

"Admit it, I had you going, Scully."

"I admit nothing."

She sighed and pinched his elbow lightly, then laughed in spite of herself.

"C'mere," he said, tugging her gently on top of him. She settled between his legs with her head on his chest. "If we'd started earlier, you never know, Scully. We might've had a van full. We could've been a reality TV show."

They fell into silence and he held her in the dark for a long time. His fingers traced the curve of her breast beneath her camisole.

"What I meant to say earlier," he started again, choosing his words carefully, "was that watching you hold Ben like that...it reminded me of how I felt once upon a time when I watched you do the same with Teresa Hoese's baby, and then later with our own. You were meant to have that, Scully – to be a mother. I understand now what you meant about William saving your life, about saving mine too. Our son may not have been planned, but he was no accident. Rest assured that from the minute I walked into that hospital room the day after our son was born, I had no doubt what I wanted. I wanted to be his father in every sense of the word." He paused for a minute, sorting his thoughts. Scully was attentive and silent, completely still against him, except for two velvety fingertips that traced invisible lines on his stomach.

"I also knew that I had to be with you no matter what, Scully," he continued. "There was never a question in my mind, never a choice to make. Even if William hadn't come along, I was deeply in love with you. If I could go back to that day in the hospital, sixteen years ago, I wouldn't do a thing differently. I'd choose you every day of this life and the next." He huffed out a breathy laugh, feeling a bit sheepish about his words, after the fact. "That sounded less canned in my head."

He barely got the last word out before she was cupping his cheek in the darkness, kissing his mouth, dampening his face with wet eyelashes. Mulder drew a shaky breath and sank into the kiss.


The transition from summer to fall had a peculiar personality all its own. It was a time of endings and beginnings, when the rhythms of the natural world shifted, inviting in a mood of reflective melancholy. The nights grew longer and cooler with a chill that lingered into the morning. Mulder found that he didn't mind the shift, even welcomed it.

He was climbing the stairs from the beach to the bluff late one morning when he spotted a familiar Jeep in their driveway. Scully was standing next to the open driver's side window, talking to Pete. She held her long hair back with one hand. Strands of copper escaped and caught the breeze, dancing around her face.

Mulder wore wet swim trunks and a beach towel draped around his shoulders. He returned Pete's waive and approached the vehicle slowly, not wanting to interrupt. Mulder hadn't seen Pete since that brief meeting at his house, and although the air had been cleared between them, Mulder couldn't help but feel a certain awkwardness about the relationship dynamics. By the amiable look on Pete's face, however, and the relaxed way Scully slouched against the Jeep and smiled at Mulder, it was obvious that he was being welcomed into their conversation.

"How's the water?" asked Pete.

"Not bad," replied Mulder. "A little choppy."

Scully reached for Mulder's hand and laced her fingers with his (which he liked a lot) and then shivered when he dripped on her. "You should be careful. You were out pretty far," she said, like she always did when he swam past the sand bar. He smiled down at her and nodded, like he always did.

"We were talking about going for a drive and grabbing some lunch," she said.

"You wanna join us?" offered Pete.

"Thanks, but I think I'll grab a hot shower and get some writing done. Where are the kids?"

"Claire went to the mall with Mallory," said Scully. "And the last time I checked, Will was still asleep."

"It's almost noon. That 6:30 alarm in a couple of weeks will be an adjustment," observed Mulder.

Scully stretched on her tiptoes to give him a peck on the mouth. "I'll be back in a little while."

"Take your time. When Boy Wonder gets up, he's going to help me change the spark plugs on the boat."

Her eyebrows took a jump. "Should I be worried about that?"

"Nah," Mulder said, with a smirk. "I watched the You Tube video. Piece of cake."

"Like the lawnmower," she said, teasingly.

"Hey now. That lawnmower was old. It had issues."

Scully gave Mulder's hand a quick squeeze, then headed for the passenger side of the Jeep. Mulder watched them pull out of the driveway before whistling for the dog. Bailey climbed the last couple of wooden steps to the bluff, panting. His golden brush of a tail swished back and forth as he lumbered slowly after his master. Just a few years ago, Bailey might've grabbed one of the tennis balls resting in the grass and dropped it at Mulder's feet, expectantly. These days, he walked past them.

Inside the lighthouse, the dog headed for his water dish in the corner of the kitchen and lapped up half of the contents. Sated, he parked himself next to the table where Mulder sat reading the sports section. Mulder took a bite of a sesame bagel. Bailey watched with interest.

"You know the cream cheese doesn't agree with you, Pal." Mulder tore off a piece the size of his thumb and fed it to the dog. "Don't tell your mother." He scratched the top of the dog's head and Bailey thumped his tail gratefully.


Mulder was just finishing up on the boat when he heard the approach of footsteps on the dock. Scully climbed aboard and slid out of her sandals. She was carrying a brown paper bag.

"What's up, Doc?"

She thrust the bag toward him. "I brought you lunch."

"Something green and leafy, no doubt." He peered inside and sniffed. It smelled like bacon.

"Guess again," she said, sitting herself down and propping up two tanned legs on the side of the boat.

Mulder unwrapped the white butcher paper. "Scully, is this mayo I see?"

"It's a lobster BLT. Try it and then thank me."

Hesitantly, Mulder took a bite and chewed, then arched both brows. "Wow."

"I know."

"Where'd you find this slice of heaven?"

"A place called Manny's in Edgartown."

"Edgartown? I haven't been out that way in years. Is that where you went for lunch?" She'd been gone several hours.

"Yes," she said simply.

Mulder ate his way through the entire sandwich and then licked the mayo off his fingers. It was scandalously good.

Scully lounged back on the padded bench of the boat. Her eyes were obscured behind sunglasses. "Pete's moving," she said, casually. "For at least a year anyway."

"Oh?"

"He took a teaching position. He leaves tomorrow."

Mulder nodded. "That sounds like a good opportunity."

"It will be."

They fell quiet. The slosh of water against the hull, the rocking of the boat, and his full tummy made Mulder sleepy.

"Did you get the spark plugs changed?" she asked.

"Yes, Ma'am. It only took us twice as long as the video said it would. In fact, you just missed Will. He went to Paige's for the rest of the afternoon."

Scully turned her head toward him lazily. "Claire won't be home until later. She and Mally are seeing a movie."

Mulder caught the intonation and blinked languidly at her. "Are you coming on to me, Scully?"

"What do you think?"

There was a one inch strip of cream-colored skin between the bottom of her shirt and the waistband of her shorts. Mulder couldn't peel his eyes off it. "I think it's approximately two-hundred and twelve steps from the boat to the lighthouse and we can be there in a minute and a half. Another ten seconds to get undressed. Give or take."

Scully sat up straight and took a long, calculating look around. "Oh I don't know, that sounds like an awful long way to walk."

She stood and stretched. With a hip sway, she crossed the boat to where he sat and slid down to her knees in front of him. Mulder swallowed hard and let his legs fall open further. When she lowered his zipper and bent forward, he held her hair back and watched.


The morning of their departure came and Mulder awoke before his family. He lingered in bed for a while feeling the warm curve of Scully's back against his side. She stirred when he rolled to spoon her, but slumbered on.

They had packed most of their things last night – the few personal items they'd each brought from home. Most of the clothing at the lighthouse stayed there. Closing up the house for the season was a process they had years of practice with. Food was emptied from the refrigerator, linens were stripped and washed, windows closed and secured. When they arrived back in Washington, the process would happen in reverse. It would take some time for everyone, including the dog, to become reacquainted with home. After marking his place in the yard, Bailey would spend the first twenty minutes inside the large house canvassing every room, nose to the floor. There might be a casserole and a salad in the fridge if Scully had thought to tell her mother when they'd be coming home.

Mulder was ready. A month earlier, he would not have said the same thing, but today he was ready. He knew that Scully was nervous about returning home, about him falling into the same patterns, and truthfully, he couldn't tell her not to be. There were no guarantees. He would follow his prescribed treatment plan; he would do everything he needed to do to keep his head above water, but there were never any guarantees. Not about this or anything else in life, for that matter. As a physician, she accepted this reality, but as his wife, she wanted absolutes.

He tried to give that reassurance to her whenever possible. They spoke openly about his thoughts and feelings and she listened without trying to doctor him, something Mulder knew was incredibly difficult for her. It was what he needed, though. One thing he'd learned through this whole experience was that his head wasn't such a scary place after all. He could go poking around in there and not get lost. He could even take her with him.

When it became apparent that he wasn't going to fall back to sleep, Mulder stole quietly from the bed and slipped into yesterday's shorts and a tee shirt. As he was walking out of the bedroom, something on the top of the dresser caught his eye and he stopped. It was Scully's journal, still waiting there, untouched, since the day he'd read it. After a brief hesitation, Mulder picked up the thin, leather bound book and, after stopping off in the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee, carried the journal up the narrow winding staircase to the lookout.

The morning was overcast. Shards of muted sunlight penetrated the clouds and the breeze stirred the seawater into frothy whitecaps. The shift in the weather seemed appropriate for their day of departure.

It was never easy leaving this place he loved, where so much of his life had been spent, where he had married Scully and watched his children grow. He had a life back home to return to, though. It was a good life, some would even say a great life. It was the life he'd chosen, and while a part of him would always wonder, just a little bit, about the many roads not taken, he didn't for one minute regret where was or how he'd gotten there.

In this moment, meditating on everything he had...on everything he had left to do, to think, to be...Mulder felt energized, inspired, alive and full. Most of all, he felt grateful.

He opened up the journal and began to write.



The End


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