SUMMARY: A celebration of the past, present and future. The final story in the Red Valerian series.
PAIRINGS: Mulder/Scully, Skinner/other, allusions to Scully/Skinner.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, never will be mine, always will belong to CC and 1013
DATE POSTED: December 1998
WORD COUNT: 4,203
The string quartet strikes up the familiar strains of Ode to Joy as he turns his head to watch his bride. Slowly, she makes the journey down the white carpet, carrying a simple arrangement of lilies. He admires the ease in which she travels, with a queenly posture that makes her seem much taller than she truly is. She looks straight ahead with serious eyes and a hint of a smile about her lips.
The bride walks alone down the aisle. Her father has been gone for several years and she wanted no other. "I'm not a blushing twenty year-old," she told him when they first sat down to make wedding plans. "One of my brothers could walk me, but I prefer to do it alone. I want to come to you alone, an independent woman."
She reaches him and his heart pounds underneath the silk of his tuxedo. Gracefully, she hands her bouquet to her sole attendant and takes his hand in hers. Eternity, he thinks, his heart filling with awe. This is eternity.
They turn to face one another. Her eyes have never seemed quite as blue as they do now, standing in the Virginia countryside under the warm late afternoon sun.
The judge begins. "Dearly beloved," she intones. "Today we are gathered here for the happiest of purposes, to join this man and this woman in the everlasting bond of matrimony."
She squeezes his hand and he squeezes back.
After the vows have been said, the kiss cheered, the rice flung and the receiving line gotten through, Skinner finds a moment to slip away from the crowd. The band is setting up under the tent and waiters pass trays of canapes and champagne, while caterers begin to light the chafing dishes at the buffet tables. With his glass of Piper-Heidsieck in hand, he wanders behind a hedge in the garden of the Burton Inn. It's late October but still quite warm down in horse country and Skinner longs to loosen his tie.
He hears a rustling of grass and leaves and looking up, he is startled to see Dana Scully walking towards him with a determined step. Skinner smiles to see the woman he hasn't seen in almost two years, since he left the Bureau to head the President's Task Force on Domestic Terrorism.
Time has been kind to Scully. She hardly appears to have aged a day since the night, four years ago, when they became lovers. Her hair is still as glossy and red as ever and her face remains unlined, remarkable for a woman who as endured as much as she.
Scully's face blooms into a smile as she approaches him and she stands on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, her skin still smelling, as ever, of almonds.
She takes his hand. "Congratulations."
"Thank you," he replies, smiling. "I never thought this day would come."
"You deserve the best," she says with a grave nod of her head.
He chuckles. "Today I feel like a lucky man."
"You are lucky. I haven't had a chance to talk with Caroline yet, but she seems like a lovely woman."
Skinner lifts her left hand to his, noticing that it is still bare of rings. "How about you?" he asks. "No ring yet, I see."
Tipping her head back, Scully emits a low, throaty laugh, the laugh he only used to hear from her in bed. "Mulder and me, married? That'll be the day."
He lets her hand go. "But, are you happy?"
The smile on her face speaks for her more than her words. "The happiest..."
"I'm glad." And he is, that's the wonderful part.
He reaches into the inside pocket of his dinner jacket and brings out a small package, wrapped in white paper. "I have something for you, Scully."
Her eyebrow raises, a gesture so familiar to his eyes. "Skinner, the custom is that on your wedding day, I give you a present. We got you a coffee maker, by the way. The kind with a timer."
For a moment he wonders if it is a mistake to give this to her, if she will misunderstand his motives. No, he thinks, you have to give it to her, it is the final step toward closure. "This is something I got for you a long time ago and never gave you. Today seems like the right day for it."
Scully takes the present and turns it about it in her fingers. "Can I open it now?"
He shakes his head. "No, it's for later. It's just something to remember me by."
She shuts her eyes and opens them again. "Skinner," she says, voice wavering, "I never got to tell you how sorry I was, how sorry I am."
Bending down, he kisses the top of her head. "Scully, it was a long time ago, you don't need to apologize. I'm happy and you're happy. If I were Buddhist, I'd call it karma. It all turned out the way it was meant to turn out."
Or perhaps we could call it fate, he thinks.
"Thank you," she simply says.
Scully slips her arm through his. "Come on, let's find Caroline and Mulder. Dinner is about to be served and you have a beautiful cake to cut."
Arm-in-arm, they companionably walk back to the wedding party.
In the ladies room of the inn, Caroline holds still as Leah fixes the white headband that holds her dark, curly hair off her face. It amazes her that at fourteen, Leah is nearly her height.
"Perfect, Mom," Leah pronounces and stands back to admire her work.
"You're better than my hairdresser, honey."
Leah pulls out a tube of lipstick and applies deep pink to her pursed lips at the long mirror. God, her baby, putting on lipstick with expertise. Despite the fact that it's her wedding day, Caroline suddenly feels old.
Turning around, Leah says, "Hey Mom, do you know what Grandma just said?"
Caroline bends down and removes one of her white satin pumps. She never had the time to break them in and her feet ache. "What's that?"
Her daughter smirks. "She told me now that you're married to Walter I have to call him Dad."
"Last time I checked, your Dad was alive and well and living in Wilmington, Delaware."
"Yeah, that's pretty much what I told her."
Caroline sinks into one of the chairs to take off the other shoe and reminds herself to have another little talk with her mother. The door opens and a small woman with dark red hair walks in, wearing a pale green sheath dress. Caroline pauses in mid-massage of her aching instep. She knows who the woman is.
The redhead smiles hesitantly and approaches her. "Hello," she says in a light tone, "we never got a chance to properly meet. I'm an old...friend...of Walter's. My name is Dana Scully."
The first mention of Dana Scully came on their third or fourth date as she and Walter went for a Sunday afternoon walk through Rock Creek Park. Caroline talked a bit about her divorce, the year before, from Tom and he spoke of his own divorce. He talked of Sharon, his ex-wife, in easy and measured tones and she was glad, glad he seemed to be past the pain of his failed marriage. His baggage was light, she thought.
They stopped to rest on a wooden park bench and passed a bottle of water back and forth. Then he mentioned, in a transparently light tone of voice, that he had ended another relationship a few months before. "She left me for someone else," he said, fiddling with the cap on the bottle of Evian.
Caroline noticed he wasn't looking at her. She patted his large hand. "I'm sorry to hear that."
He lifted his head. "Well," he sighed, "it was a mistake from the beginning. She was once of the agents under my charge, still is, as a matter of fact. It was incredibly stupid for me to get involved with her in the first place."
She tried to smile in reassurance. "These things happen all the time. After all, Tom was one of my professors in grad school. How are things now with her at work?"
Walter shrugged. "It's been strained but we're trying to be mature about it." He turned his head to look at her and she recognized the pain in his eyes. "You see, the man she left me for is her partner."
"Oh my..." Her mouth opened. "I never realized the FBI was so full of romantic intrigue."
"You have no idea, Caroline." He laughed and squeezed her hand.
Walter stood and tugged her to her feet. "Come on, let's walk back. We have a movie to catch."
She managed to put the conversation at the park out of her mind until a week later, when he invited her to his place for dinner.
After a dinner of risotto and wine, he led her on a tour of his place. Walter's apartment was spacious and modern, with large picture windows offering a spectacular view of the city. It was neat and clean but sparsely furnished in the manner she had come to expect from newly divorced men in their forties.
The one room that looked truly lived-in was his study. One wall was covered in shelves of obviously much-used and well-loved books. The other walls held diplomas and commendations and one of Walter shaking hands with President Clinton and another of him with Janet Reno. Interspersed with these were framed lithographs of early Washington D.C. The large wood desk was scattered with papers and files and held several silver-framed photographs.
She lifted a photo of a dark-haired boy with glasses and a missing front tooth, sitting with a slightly older girl who wore a large taffeta bow in her curly hair. "That's my sister Cathy," he said, smiling. "She lives in Chicago with her husband and three kids."
He pointed out pictures of his parents, his nephews and one silly picture of a shirtless Walter and another man, proudly holding up a large Blue Marlin. The last photograph was of Walter and a group of people in evening dress sitting at a round table, all of them holding flutes of champagne.
"Where was this taken?" she asked, bringing the frame in for closer inspection.
She could feel his back stiffen next to her. "One of my agents, Darlene Simons, was married last March. These are some of the agents who work under me and I, at the reception."
Caroline scanned the faces of the seven people sitting at the table. It was far too easy to pick out which woman was his former lover. Walter was sitting next to her, smiling, and even though he wasn't touching the woman, his face was turned to her. His lover was a small woman with bobbed auburn hair in loose waves, wearing a simple maroon dress that flattered her autumn coloring. Of course she'd have to be young and beautiful, she thought with uncharacteristic jealousy.
She tapped the woman's face with her fingernail. "That's her, isn't it?"
He grimaced and nodded. "Yes. Her name is Dana Scully. The man to her left is her partner, Fox Mulder."
Turning her eyes to the man in the photo, she found him handsome, despite a large nose and small chin. About ten years younger than Walter, she mused, a much more appropriate age match for Dana. She noticed that while Walter was looking at Dana in the photo, Dana and Fox had their faces turned to each other and seemed to be grinning over a private joke. The picture seemed to sum the whole situation up better than any words could. Caroline set the frame back down into its place on the desk.
She smiled up at Walter. "Why don't you show me the rest of the place?"
He kissed her cheek and led her out of the study.
Weeks passed and Caroline found herself happy. After the disaster that was the final years of her marriage and a few aborted relationships, she had found someone with whom she felt simpatico. They were both tremendously busy people, but tried to find the time to be together. Walter was a good listener and the teller of fascinating stories from his years with the Bureau. He loved opera almost as much as she, which was how they had met in the first place. She found him to be knowledgeable about the things she held most dear-art, literature, history and politics. God, he could even cook.
Walter was the kind of man who called when he said he would, showed up on time and sent flowers with embarrassing frequency. For a woman whose last birthday present from her husband was an ironing board, this was heady stuff indeed. After a time he met her daughter and she was delighted to see him treat Leah with a grave respect, rather than the cloying sincerity she'd spotted from the other men she'd dated in the past year. Privately, Leah made a few bald comments but seemed to like him more than anyone else Caroline had seen.
And, in time, she discovered Walter to be a sensitive and skilled lover, a man who truly delighted in exploring a woman's body. Caroline felt more content than she had in nearly a decade. Co-workers and friends kept asking why she seemed to be glowing. Her mother clucked about setting a date for the wedding. Caroline told her to calm down, but inwardly she smiled.
Still, as weeks turned into months and winter hit the city, she started feeling strangely dissatisfied. As wonderful and caring as Walter was, he rarely talked of personal things, what was
close to his heart. Caroline tried prying with a few pointed questions, but was met with a wall of silence and a deft changing of the subject. I'm not needy, she thought as he slept next to her. I have a full life, but at this point don't I have a right to expect more? Men, she moodily thought, always so afraid to open up.
There were more than a few times when she caught him staring off into the distance and she somehow knew he was thinking of the other woman.
It will pass, she thought. Caroline tried not to dwell on it.
Then, one late night in his bedroom, as they were making love, she felt it. Oh, it was good as always, he was thrusting into her and she was crying out from the sheer pleasure of it, but suddenly it all felt different. His rhythm was one she had never felt from him before and the way he touched her was somehow softer, yet more possessive. Walter wasn't making love with her, his eyes were shut and he was with Dana. He touched her cheek and she knew it wasn't her cheek he felt underneath his fingers, it was the cheek of the other woman. She shut her eyes, the pleasure rapidly fleeing her body. Caroline just knew.
After he fell asleep, Caroline pulled on the bathrobe she now kept at his place and went into the kitchen. With shaking hands she fixed a cup of tea and sat at the kitchen table. He didn't love her, he still loved the ghost of the woman who had left him six months before. Tears welled in her eyes and she wiped them away with the sleeve of her bathrobe, feeling like a fool.
She heard his footsteps, padding down the hallway towards her. Walter sleepily smiled at her, wearing only his pajama bottoms. He put on his glasses. "What are you doing up?"
Caroline looked up at him, trying to keep her voice even. "I can't be your substitute, Walter."
He sat down and blinked at her behind his lenses. "What are you talking about?"
She sighed. "You still love her. Don't deny it, I know you do." She sipped her tea, wishing she were back home in her own bed, not having this confrontation with her new lover. "I care a lot about you," she continued. "I think I could love you, but not with her ghost hovering around us."
Burying his face in his hand, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Caroline. I'm trying."
"I know you are." She stroked the roughness of his cheek and managed to smile. "I know you are, but I can't be with you like this if you're still obsessing over someone else. She's not real, you know."
Surprised, he looked up. "What do you mean she's not real?"
"What I mean is that she's your past now and you have to admit that to yourself." Tears ran down her face and he wordlessly handed her a tissue. "Dana is with someone else and she's probably happy, as harsh as that sounds. You deserve some happiness, too, but you're not going to find it by hanging on to the memories of the past."
"I know, and for what it's worth, I'm sorry."
It ached, it burned to know that all of this time he had been pining for Dana while he was with her.
Caroline rose. "I need to go home now."
His eyes were dark with sorrow. "Don't go."
She shook her head. "No, I have to. You need time and you need to deal with this alone. I can't help you with this, I only confuse the issue."
Walter stood and took her in his arms, arms that had only represented strength and caring to her before this night. "Is it over, then?"
"That's up to you. I want to be with you, but I want to be yours alone."
She kissed his cheek, dressed and left him sitting at the kitchen table, his face again in his hands.
You did the right thing, she told herself as the tears threatened to blur her vision of the highway. But if it was the right thing to do, why did it have to hurt so fucking much?
The following weekend Caroline drove Leah and a gaggle of girlfriends to the mall to swoon over the latest Leonardo Di Caprio movie. After she let the girls out at the entrance, she decided to do a little shopping rather than return home to grade finals.
Walking through Nordstroms, she found they were having a shoe sale and her face lit up with glee. Perfect, just perfect. When a woman's heart is bruised, shopping for shoes is the only short-term remedy, she thought.
Better Shoes was bustling with bargain hunters, but Caroline immediately found a pair of strappy Joan and David sandals that called out to her with a siren's song. She managed to find the last remaining seat and after an interminable wait a salesman went to fetch her a pair of size eights.
Caroline fingered the black leather of the sandals, trying not to think of where she might have worn the shoes with Walter. Give it up, she told herself, you're not some besotted teenager. You're forty-two, a full professor at Georgetown and there are indeed other fish in the sea.
"Those are nice," came a feminine voice to her left.
"Aren't they? And only sixty dollars..." She turned her head and her smile froze in place. Oh my God, what a sick joke, what a horrible coincidence on the one day she wanted to cheer herself up.
Caroline's neighbor to the left was, without a doubt, Dana Scully. She was casually dressed in jeans and a black v-necked pullover but there was no mistaking the bright auburn hair, the small Roman nose and the line of her jaw.
The other woman smiled. "I wonder if I should snap up a pair of those, too." She pointed to the pair of conservative navy pumps on her lap. "I never buy shoes for fun, just for work."
That was the galling thing, Caroline thought. Dana Scully wasn't the evil harpy of her imagination, who heedlessly crushed Walter's heart with a twist of her stiletto heel. She was simply another pretty young woman taking advantage of a shoe sale.
The salesman returned, box in hand, and slipped the shoes on Caroline's feet. She stood and took an experimental walk on the carpet, trying not to stare at Dana. Damn, she's young, she thought, what was Walter doing with a woman so young?
"Wonderful," said the redhead. "I wish I were as tall as you. I'd never carry those off."
Caroline turned and smiled at her. She's as insecure as I am, she thought, not a sex-goddess with bewitching powers.
"I'll take them," she said to the salesman.
As she stood at the counter, paying for the new shoes, she glanced back at her unknowing nemesis. A tall man walked up to Dana and handed her a Starbucks cup. The plot thickens, Caroline thought, now we have the fourth party in this love triangle. Or is it a love square? She put her Visa card back in her wallet and walked out of the shoe department without a backwards glance.
Winter warmed into spring and Caroline stopped checking to see if Walter had called. She was too busy preparing to present at a seminar in Toronto and shuttling Leah to Girl Scouts and ballet class. She went out a few times with a sweet orthodontist and found him insufferably dull. As the leaves bloomed on the trees, she methodically cleaned out her closets and sent the rejects to a women's shelter.
Keeping busy helped her not dwell on things.
One night, after Leah had gone to bed, Caroline sat at her desk in the living room, preparing her lecture for Monday. The doorbell rang and she looked up from her computer, startled.
No, it couldn't be. Things like that didn't happen in her world.
Caroline opened the front door and there he was, impossibly tall and imposing in his trench coat.
Walter smiled with uncharacteristic shyness and she opened the door wider.
She decided that perhaps happy endings were possible after all.
Caroline smiles at the woman standing in front of her, wondering if she'll remember their brief encounter three years before. She rises and kisses Dana's cheek. "It's so nice to meet you," she says. "I've heard so much about you I feel as if we've already met."
Under the white tent, Skinner dances with his new wife to "Unchained Melody". Sappy, he thinks, but that's just fine. Tonight he can be as sappy as he likes. It's his wedding night and he's allowed the indulgence.
Caroline smiles and rests her curly head on his shoulder and he pulls her closer, feeling her heart beating under the silk of her dress. He is having a hard time believing she belongs to him now, and he to her.
From the corner of his eye he spots Mulder and Scully dancing. He catches the flash of the sapphire and diamond earrings on Scully and hears her laughter. Tonight Scully's laughter only brings him gladness, gladness that he knew her and loved her.
Scully is a part of him, as is Sharon, but they are his past, adding richness and resonance to his life. His co-workers, friends and family are the present, surrounding him with their love. He kisses the top of his wife's head and moves with her to the music.
Caroline is the future.
Thanks for Alanna and Gwen for beta reading.