"Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."
"Are you listening to me?"
Skinner spared Mulder a glare from behind the driver's wheel. Sure enough, Mulder bestowed another vague, placating smile on him and then went right back to his bundle of papers and maps. He wasn't listening to a word Skinner was saying.
He promised himself he would throw Mulder out of the car if he started humming again. There. Decision made. He was in control, after all. So they were driving down a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere. On one of the rare occasions when they had managed to coordinate their time off. So what. At least Mulder still had his mouth shut. He stopped thinking about it at that point, wanting to end on a victorious note. This, of course, meant no thinking about what they were doing out here. Done.
Feeling easier than he had just a few minutes ago, he was as close to enjoying himself as he expected to be, when Mulder started humming again. Softly to start with, but Skinner knew from experience what he could expect. A small irritant usually in the bigger scheme of things but not today. Not when he was already here doing Mulder's bidding, party to a lost cause.
"Okay. We're pulling over," he said grimly, suiting deed to word.
This got a vague show of interest. Mulder stretched his limbs, cat-like, all taut and trembling tension for a moment. Then collapsed gracefully back into himself and cocked one eye up at Skinner, considering him.
"What's up? Why're we stopping?"
"Because I said so, Mulder."
Mulder looked over from the passenger seat, trying to glimpse Skinner's face over the stack of road maps between them. He had carefully spread out the five most detailed ones and had been pleasantly occupied, tracing routes and deliberating the pros and cons of each choice.
Under the weight of Skinner's expressionless gaze, he said hurriedly, "I was listening to you."
"Then what did I say?"
"What did I say?"
Skinner muttered an oath under his breath, only to hear Mulder chuckle next to him.
"That you heard?"
Mulder gave him the benefit of a proper grin then, charming Skinner into making a wry face back at him before he could stop himself.
"What was I doing?" Mulder asked, his curiosity genuine.
His hands had already gone back to the maps, skimming over them, turning them this way and that. Skinner sighed, irritation competing with bemusement.
"Where do you want me to start? Can't you sit still for one second? Do you have to make that rustling noise with those papers? If you have to hum, do you have to hum the same goddamn song over and over again? And why, for fuck's sake, why do you put empty candy wrappers back into the bag when you know the candy isn't finished?"
He paused for breath, blinking against his spleen and for all the notice Mulder took of him, might as well have been tap-dancing. If not for the slight twist to the expressive mouth, he would have believed it too.
Wisely avoiding the temptation to continue with his litany, he said instead in a much more conversational tone of voice, "It's not too late to find a nice steak place, you know. I'll even drink beer with you. We could spend the evening watching you try to put away as many as me. Then I'll take advantage of you, which you'll like. And as a gold star bonus, I'll listen when you start begging me not to call you Fox. What could be fairer?"
All that got him was a mild look of reproof. "You've done nothing but try to bribe your way out of this all day, Walter. I'll bet it's the most fun you've had in years. Admit it."
Skinner treated Mulder to an incredulous grimace which only contributed to the smile in the other man's eyes. In fact, if his patent lack of enthusiasm for their adventure bothered Mulder at all, he had yet to show it. Sure enough, in the next moment, he was once more banished from Mulder's labyrinthine world of needs and wants. He watched him twist around in his seat and snag the bag of candy which had somehow migrated into the back seat. Putting two into his mouth, he handed another to Skinner and managed to check his hand as it began to put the wrappers back into the bag.
He let them fall at his feet instead and surreptitiously twisted around once more until his joints popped and sighed in relief. Belatedly took in Skinner's involuntary wince and patted his thigh with one hand. Mumbled an indistinct apology around a candy-filled jaw. Leant over, found Skinner's lips and pressed a sticky kiss to them before burying himself back in his maps and papers. Started rustling them all over again, oblivious to Skinner's reproachful gaze.
"Mulder, if you don't mind, could we start the car and get back on the yellow brick road again?"
Mulder only nodded by way of reply, still humming under his breath. "I think we should take the next turn-off, though. I've found a shortcut."
Skinner sighed loudly. Pointedly. Put his hand to the back of his slightly sunburnt neck, his eyes ready to speak volumes if anyone were to catch his gaze. Then meekly set about following Mulder's directions, burying his rising contentment somewhere deep enough to keep Mulder safe from it.
After another twenty minutes of watching bland, featureless landscape go by, he finally gave in to his curiosity and asked, "So you really believe in ghosts?"
Mulder shrugged. "Don't you?"
"Never seen one. The stories I hear don't impress me."
"What?" Mulder put a mocking hand to his heart. "But Walter, I tell you all the stories you hear!"
"That," Skinner said dryly, "is another one of those assumptions that get you into trouble. You think you're my only source? Okay, so you tell me about flesh eating viruses and aliens and all that shit. But ghosts - people stop by my office everyday to tell me about them. Whole different story."
"Ghosts. Aliens. Two different things. I'm writing this down, Walter."
Skinner spared him a coolly disdainful look and then concentrated for a few minutes on weaving in and out of potholes. The road was getting progressively worse and more deserted by the minute. After some time it became clear that Mulder was not going to surface long enough to begin conversation. Skinner did the honors instead.
"So, all those papers. All that noise. What do you know, Mulder?"
Mulder frowned. "They're all so old now. It's hard to get worthwhile information out of them. Most of the reports are little more than eyewitness stories and some of those are totally incoherent."
"But..." Skinner prompted, a little too innocently.
"But," Mulder said, "they all agree on the same thing, which is interesting. They all picked up a hitch hiker, along this stretch of road here. See?"
Mulder traced a small section of the highway on the map with his index finger.
Skinner sharply turned his head at that, ignoring the proffered map and took in Mulder's unblinking, virtuous gaze.
"No Mulder, N-O. Fucking out of the question."
"No fucking? But it's the weekend, Walter. We always fuck on the weekends."
"Mulder," Skinner said deliberately, a muscle jumping in his neck. "Just tell me I don't need to be thinking what I'm thinking."
"You don't need---"
"Well, how did you think we were going to find the ghost?" Mulder asked reasonably.
Skinner rolled down the window and stuck his head out into the hazy sunshine for a moment, letting the gentle, warm breeze caress his neck and flap at his t-shirt. Counted to ten. Then backwards to one.
"This is the plan? This is what we're doing today?"
"What's your plan?"
"I think I'm going to start calling you Fox all the time."
"Walter, that's so vindictive. I never had you pegged for such a jerk. Wow. It's so sexy." Mulder said, openly grinning now, making a momentary show of swooning in his seat.
"I don't think," Skinner said dispassionately, his eyes straying over Mulder's crotch, gratified to see him flush, "I don't think you need me to tell you that sex is the last thing you're going to get if I have to spend my weekend picking up hitch hikers and poking them with a stick to see if they're ghosts. You got that? Is there any part of that you want me to make clearer to you?"
Mulder regrouped, raising a sorrowful eyebrow. "Reneging, Walter? Is this the Marine code of honor I'm seeing in action here? We flipped for weekend plans. I won, fair and square."
Skinner scowled, caught in his own quagmire. He looked at Mulder, his eyes narrowed, knowing their expression was by no means pleasant.
"Do you know what I'm going to do to you, if we don't find your ghost?" he demanded.
Mulder batted his eyelashes in a way that Skinner supposed was designed to be flirtatious. He looked more like he was about to have a fit of some kind. "Don't tell me, Walter. I want it to be a surprise."
"You're an asshole, you know that?" Skinner laughed ruefully, temper dying away as quickly as it had risen.
"Ah, I see Mr Cro-Magnon's back with me again. Always a ple--"
Mulder's words were swallowed up as Skinner took one hand off the wheel and unerringly grasped him by the back of his neck, bringing his head down to Skinner's chest. Mulder made no attempt to escape the makeshift embrace, remaining obligingly still instead. Yet Skinner gripped him hard enough to bruise, unable to curb the possessiveness that flared through him each time he touched the other man. Instead, knowing how much Mulder liked it, he used the rough pad of his thumb to traverse a short path up and down the base of his skull, delivering blunt, massaging caresses as he went.
They stayed that way for a little while until Mulder mumbled indistinctly, "You rock my world too, Walter but in some countries, this is considered false imprisonment. Do you think I'm ready to breathe again? I have more good news."
Skinner released him with a none too gentle shove. "It can't get worse, Mulder. But give it your best shot."
"No, no, this really is going to make things easier. All the eyewitness accounts agree that it's a 'he' we're looking for. So, see, right away we can discount picking up female hitch hikers."
"Oh great," he said in disgust. "That really narrows it down."
"Now what's wrong?" Mulder asked.
"How are we going to - god I can't believe I'm talking about this stuff - how are we going to, you know, uh know?"
"What do you mean - know?" Mulder inquired, puzzled.
"Christ! Forget it."
"Walter, you're blushing."
"Fuck off, Mulder," Skinner snarled, putting a look on his face dangerous enough to drive any number of ghosts underground.
Mulder just grinned and said earnestly, "No, really, you are. What the hell are you doing that for?"
"How should I know?" Skinner snapped back.
Mulder paused and stared at him, clearly baffled. Skinner glared back, not prepared to explain himself.
Then Mulder's mouth began to twitch and he said in a suspiciously solicitous voice, "Do you want to know how we'll know whether it is a ghost or not, Walter? Is that it?"
"It's a reasonable question, Mulder," Skinner said, wondering why the hell he felt like the asshole here.
"Well, that's why I brought a flashlight. See, I figure if we shine it - casually of course - on the guy, and it shines right thr--"
"Mulder," Skinner said deliberately. "One more - just one more crappy line out of you and I'm going to kick your ass."
"Walter, Walter. If you're not going to be part of the solution..."
Skinner said nothing, staring at Mulder instead until the other man grinned and said, "Okay, okay. I'll put you out of your misery. I don't know, all right? From what I read and the research I did, apparently we'll just know."
Skinner opened his mouth and then snapped it shut as Mulder said, "We just will."
"Well, okay. Let's say we find this ghost. Then what?"
"What do you mean?"
Skinner sighed. "Mulder, I'm beginning to wonder if you're completely nuts. It was okay when I thought you were kinda nuts but complete nuts I'm not comfortable with."
Following his own train of thought, Mulder said abruptly, "Oh, you mean, what'll we do with him?"
"Well, we'll take him where he wants to go, won't we?"
"It's odd," Skinner said pensively. "You look normal."
Mulder cast his eyes heavenward. "Look, Walter. Trust me, all right? From everything I've read on our guy, he's a benevolent spirit who just wants a ride."
"And your benchmark for this character reference would be what?"
"Okay." Mulder said with theatrical determination. "You know I don't like to undermine you but you've driven me to it. Everyone in this car who's seen interesting and inexplicable phenomena up close, put your hand up. Oh look, it's just me. So, trust me, Walter. I know the nasty stuff from the good stuff."
"Fuck off, Mulder."
"See, I knew you'd come around."
Skinner glared at him but said no more on the subject, managing to reconcile himself to this sketchy gameplan with the thought that no one would be dumb enough to be walking the roads in such blazing heat anyway.
Suddenly, Mulder sat up straight and said excitedly, "Walter! There's one!"
Like a goddamned retriever, Skinner thought sourly to himself, almost looking to see whether Mulder had one arm raised and pointing in the direction of the shabby man by the side of the road, his thumb outstretched.
"Walter! C'mon, stop the car," Mulder half-whispered.
"What the fuck are you whispering for?"
Mulder had the grace to look sheepish. "Don't know."
"Right," Skinner said, back in AD mode for a split second. "Listen to me Mulder and listen hard. Don't - do you understand me - don't - that means, do NOT - do anything stupid. It's our weekend off. I'm not rescuing you from some disgruntled hobo whom you have the bad luck to piss off. Got it?"
Mulder failed miserably in his efforts to keep a straight face but said with creditable sincerity, "Walter, really, I'll be careful. I'll watch what I say."
"Yeah, yeah. Okay, shut up. Here he comes. Jesus, what am I doing? I'm an AD of the--"
"Hey, hey!! Thanks for stopping, guys. You guys are, like, THE best. I really mean that. I hope the pig's okay with you. Where you headed?"
There was a moment of thunderstruck silence. Then, Skinner, vaguely aware they were both staring at the white, middle-aged man leaning in towards the window like a pair of village idiots, said, "Uh, just a minute."
He turned to Mulder who said doubtfully, "Did he say he had a pig?"
"I think so."
Mulder looked at him. Skinner looked back at Mulder.
Mulder asked, "Well, does he have a pig?"
"Is that really the point?" Skinner asked, irritated.
"No I guess not," Mulder said vaguely.
Skinner closed his eyes against the deliciously uncomplicated desire to simply put his hands around Mulder's neck and throttle him.
"Well, I don't know about you," Mulder finally offered. "But he doesn't seem like a ghost to me."
Skinner threw him an exasperated look. "No shit, Mulder."
He turned back to the man and said, "Sorry but my friend here is...is allergic to pigs."
Mulder made a choking sound next to him and Skinner leant forward slightly to obscure him from the pig man's view.
"Ah shit, man," their would be passenger said in disappointment. "You wouldn't believe how many people been past this way who got the same thing. Sucks. Imagine being allergic to pigs."
He threw Mulder a pitying look.
"Yeah. Uh, looks like real bad luck all round here," Skinner said in a voice that wasn't quite steady. An explosive sound from Mulder that quickly gave way to a coughing fit had the pig man trying to look past Skinner in alarm.
"Is he all right?"
"He's a sickly kind of guy," Skinner said dryly. "In fact, we'd better get moving. He's forgotten his asthma pump at home."
After some exhausting leave-taking and parting with a couple of beers from their cooler, Skinner finally managed to get back on the road. After watching their would-be passenger dwindle to a mere dot in the rearview mirror, he turned wrathfully on Mulder.
"A man with a pig, for god's sake, Mulder."
Mulder's only response for some time was to put his head down between his knees and give way to the repository of laughter he had been storing up all that time. Finally when he managed to taper off into a series of helpless chortles and snickers, he said weakly, "Sorry."
Skinner had started grinning at some point and felt obscurely cheated at being unable to recapture his earlier need to kill Mulder.
"If I knew what was good for me," he said, "I would get that goddamn flashlight, hit you on the back of your thick skull with it and drive us straight to that house by the beach we're staying at. Nothing but sun, sand and sea there."
Mulder grinned, unrepentant. "Good thing I'm in charge here, then."
"Is that what you think?" Skinner asked with a kindly interest.
Mulder opened his mouth to retort, only to have his eyes caught by a figure by the side of the road. Skinner followed his gaze.
"I think we've got another one, Walter."
Even from a carlength away, there was something chilling about the lone figure who stood by the side of the road. It was hard to tell if it was a man or a woman, since the figure was slight in stature. Mulder was sitting very still next to Skinner but Skinner realized it was because he was excited. He, on the other hand, was suddenly horrified by the casual spirit in which they'd decided to embark on this adventure. At the time it had seemed, in a bizarre way, to be just crazy enough to be fun. Mulder had also become worked up enough by the idea to not let it go.
Mostly though, Skinner hadn't for a moment, even in the deepest of his misgivings, imagined they'd actually find Mulder's ghost. Who the hell decided on a ghost-watch, drove to the assigned spot and then, easy as pie, found the damn thing? Only, of course, he had noticed, almost in the back of his head, the rigorous research Mulder had thrown himself into once Skinner had reluctantly agreed to the trip. He had fallen asleep on more than one night when Mulder had stayed up, frowning over old parchments and maps and files. He should have known Mulder's instincts rarely failed him. Now here they were.
One look at Mulder, who was oblivious to his scrutiny, was enough to tell him he hadn't thought any of this through any more than Skinner had. The difference was that Skinner should have known better. Thinking ahead was what he did best. Yet, as he drove up to the figure, he found his brain unable to engage with him at all. Instead he felt the flesh on his arms rear up angrily in protest as the temperature dropped with dizzying rapidity.
More for the need to speak than anything, he said quietly as the figure shambled over to their stationary car, "Mulder, do you feel the change in the air?"
Mulder nodded and said animatedly, "Yeah! Remember, I told you we'd know when we saw it! This is really it. How amazing is this?"
Before Skinner really had a chance to say any more, the figure was upon them. In the next instant, Mulder drew a shaky, shocked breath.
"It's a kid," he said.
Rolling down his window, Skinner used up the only line he had rehearsed.
"Need a lift?"
The boy looked to be about fourteen years old and a half-starved, bedraggled fourteen at that. Skinner had an insane desire to reach for the sandwiches that Mulder had eschewed in favor of the candy but lost the urge very quickly when the boy lifted his eyes to the two men. It was all they could do not to recoil. His eyes were dark pits, with nothing but a small spark in them to save them from appearing sightless. His face was gray and pinched with fatigue and when he moved towards them, both men were conscious of an insidious sort of weariness invading their bones. Without saying anything, the boy got into the car and Skinner, not knowing what to do or say in the face of a suddenly pale and shell shocked Mulder, steered them back onto the road and just drove.
It was strange to look outside the car and see the bright sunshine beating down on ordinary things, giving them their shadows. They passed a set of power lines and Skinner could see the birds perched on top of them, cheeping raucously at the car as it passed by. Ordinary things. Yet inside the car, the three of them sat listless and dispirited, the air heavy and silent. Almost academically, Skinner noted that they couldn't hear the birds. In the backseat, their passenger sat silently, his eyes turned downwards.
Each time Skinner looked into the rearview mirror he found himself immeasurably grateful to see the boy's face wreathed in shadow. He cared nothing for the fact that it was the opposite side of the car that had thus far been in the shade. He truthfully didn't give a fuck about the number or measure of physical laws being broken as long as he didn't have to look into the boy's eyes.
About twenty minutes down the highway, with their ghostly charge still motionless, Skinner felt something change in the atmosphere. Something new had made its way into the car.
Mulder turned then, suddenly able to find words again, and said with an urgency that brought the hairs up on the back of Skinner's hands and neck, "Something bad's going to happen."
"Jesus, Mulder!" he snapped, furious at this mess they were in. "I thought you said it was going to be a benevolent experience. What the fuck is this bad thing?"
Mulder shook his head. "No, no, not to us. Nothing's going to happen to us. He's not going to hurt us."
"Something's going to happen to him?" Skinner asked, frowning, trying to concentrate even as his eyes began their inexorable, terrified slide to the rearview mirror.
"Don't ask me how I know, okay? I just know."
"You're not the only one," Skinner replied grimly and Mulder turned to look in the backseat.
The boy had lifted his head and was staring through the windshield. Then he slowly turned his eyes on the two men. Instantly, Skinner knew what was different. Fear. The boy was terrified.
What he said next made no sense to either of them.
"For god's sake, watch the road. Watch the road."
His voice was hoarse and despairing. They both looked at the road, Skinner nearly slamming on the brakes just from the resignation in the boy's warning. It stretched on, empty and desolate for as far as the eye could see. There was nothing there.
"Pull over," Mulder said desperately. "Pull over. Maybe that'll help."
Some sixth sense told Skinner otherwise but he silently pulled the car over by the side of the road and they both got out. Without needing to talk about it, they got into the backseat. Although terror still overwhelmed them all, making the enclosed space claustrophobic with its stink, it wasn't coming from the boy. Skinner saw the sickly frame shaking uncontrollably and was no longer afraid of the apparition. The boy was breathing in short, harsh gasps, his dark hair plastered to his too pale face. Skinner touched him, gently, trying to soothe him in some way and he whimpered piteously.
Skinner, for his part, was startled to feel his fingers sink into what he noted for the first time was an incongruously heavy overcoat. It was more suited to winter than the summer heat of the day. His hand sank through bone and wasted muscle and came out the other side. It felt unpleasantly cold and strange but didn't hurt. It didn't seem to help the boy either though, so he removed his hand.
Mulder, of course, passed up touch for speech and kept saying, over and over, "Tell us how to help you. We want to help you. What can we do?"
It was to no avail. The boy started crying, small ugly sounds of fear. They sat there, helpless, not knowing what they were waiting for. Slowly but surely the feeling of dread and horror deepened, becoming almost a tangible thing. Skinner saw Mulder take a shallow breath, finding it hard to breathe, and knew it wasn't just his own imagination. The air was getting heavier and it had a rotten smell to it.
He leant over the boy, who had fallen into some kind of fugue state, crying and mumbling unintelligible words, and said softly to Mulder, "I can smell it."
Mulder reached out and grasped Skinner's hand and it wasn't until his warm, firm grip closed over his own, that Skinner realized he was shaking. Suddenly the boy jerked upright, his face straining to shape itself into an expression so torturous that no mere muscle and tissue could support it.
He screamed, the sound ripped raw and bloody from his throat, and cried out, "Watch the road. For god's sake, watch the road."
In the next instant, they heard a sound so deafeningly loud that they both ducked down behind the front seats, acting on instinct. It seemed to go on forever but only ten or fifteen seconds passed in reality. When it stopped, the soft, gurgling sounds coming from the boy seemed just as loud in the eerie silence that fell over them.
Skinner heard Mulder say faintly, "Oh fuck. Oh fuck, Walter."
The boy's clothes were splattered with mud. Big heavy clots of rain-soaked mud. As impossibilities went, it paled in comparison to the dark liquid bubbling out of him. It was blood, the black kind, and it was coming out of every visible orifice. His mouth, his nose, his ears; they all seemed to be nothing more than conduits for it to find its way out of him.
He was choking on it and Mulder said tersely to Skinner, "Help me sit him up."
The boy made a high, keening sound when they put their hands into him and it wasn't difficult to work out why. His bones were smashed up. They could feel sharp shards sticking out at odd angles and Skinner was sure Mulder was as thankful as he was when they were able to release him. They'd managed to sit him up a little but even without the blood, both of them had seen death enough times to recognize it in the boy's clouding eyes.
Mulder looked over the top of the pathetically small head which was resting on his shoulder and said bleakly to Skinner, "That was a car we heard. Going very fast."
"Yeah, it was," Skinner agreed, his skin crawling again in earnest.
It didn't take very long after all. The boy tried to sit up, turned his head a little on Mulder's shoulder; managed to say some name they couldn't quite hear; and so died. Even as they sat there, the body disappeared before their eyes. Not exactly vanished but more as if it had never been there at all. Like a trick played by tired eyes, at the end of a long night. Sound and sensation came streaming back in a nearly unbearable hodgepodge of light and noise. Mulder stumbled out of the car first, Skinner a close second.
Mulder walked around the car to him and demanded, "You all right?"
Skinner nodded and Mulder said curtly, "Get out of the way then. I'm not."
He walked stiffly away from the car to a tree set a little distance in from the road and leant one hand against it, his head hanging down. Skinner could see him shudder from where he was. In a minute, he was done, all efficiency and practised ease. Skinner's heart twisted a little at that, even as he tried to quell his anger at ending up in this situation. He knew, logically, it was the both of them that got themselves into this mess. He knew, also, that the best thing to do was to just write it off as one of those big mistakes that everyone, however grounded, however sane, made, from time to time. Yet a fugitive voice reminded him traitorously that these things only ever happened with Mulder. Being who he was, he couldn't help but file it away for future reference, hating himself as he did it.
Mulder came back to the car, a little pale but walking more easily. Skinner said as gently as he could, "Are you okay?"
Mulder looked at him then, his eyes dark with sorrow. "We have to go back for him."
Skinner stared at him. "What do you mean - go back?"
Mulder said again, "We have to go back for him," neither emphasizing nor softening his words.
Both knew, again without needing to discuss it, that the boy would be waiting exactly where they had first found him. Skinner's heart thudded with anger, visceral and tainted with fear.
"We're not going back."
Mulder blinked at him once, twice, and then said tonelessly, "Okay, I'll walk."
Without waiting to see Skinner's reaction, he started walking back along the side of the road, the set of his shoulders unnaturally straight.
It took Skinner five long, purposeful strides to reach Mulder and a little bit more than that to hustle him back to the car, his fingers pressing deep bruises into his arms. He was using most of his strength to subdue him even though it wasn't strictly necessary. It was clear that Mulder was too distraught to really fight him off. Yet he took no chances, dreading the consequences if Mulder got away from him in his present frame of mind.
As it was, Mulder was struggling so hard that it was impossible not to bruise him further and he was calling Skinner every kind of name he could think of, in a voice that Skinner had to strain to hear. He felt sick at the whole fiasco but every fibre in his being strained towards getting the hell away from this place they were floundering around in. The implications of Mulder's plan bloomed behind his wide open eyes like poisonous flowers, bright and hurtful, and it was all he could do not to knock him out. It would have been far simpler. But it might not be something they would survive.
Somehow he managed to get Mulder into the car and said violently, "Don't move. Don't you fucking move, Mulder."
Shaking a little himself now, he went around to the other side and got in, almost surprised to see Mulder had done as he'd asked.
When he thought he could speak again, he said in a low voice, "I'm going to drive now, to the house we organized to stay at, down by the beach. I'm not going to start until you promise me you're not going to act like an asshole."
Mulder said nothing, his chest still heaving in shallow movements. Skinner turned to look at him then and met the overbright eyes frankly. Mulder flushed under his steady gaze, his face an unhappy tableau of humiliation, frustration and something as close to hate as Mulder had ever directed at him. Skinner looked away first, wondering how they could be so alone together, like this, on such an overpopulated planet.
Finally he heard Mulder say, "I'm not done with this yet."
Skinner didn't look at him. "I asked you to promise not to act like an asshole. We can talk about whatever you like once we get to the damned house. I don't want you trying anything crazy in the meantime. That's all I care about right now."
Mulder laughed. "Here comes the big, bad AD," he sneered. "You've always got that card to play, I guess. Makes you feel good, doesn't it, Walter? Don't worry, I'll behave. Drive on, driver, drive on!"
Skinner closed his eyes for one dismayed, heartsick
moment before turning the key in the ignition. The
drive to the beach house was mercifully silent, Mulder
putting his sunglasses on and Skinner keeping his
eyes on the road.
The front of the beach house was an invitingly shady patio, sprawling out in a cheerful mix of brick-red floor, some wicker chairs and an impossibly wide couch with a panoramic view of the bay. Pleasant as it all was, none of it was particularly on Skinner's mind as they walked up the steps.
Mulder sat down in one of the chairs, his movements sharp and angry. Skinner remained standing, an iron-wrought railing at his back, watching Mulder gravely.
When Mulder finally spoke, it was plain he was making an effort to control his voice. "What did you think you were doing?"
"Stopping you from having to see that poor kid go through his death over and over again."
"It's not your job to guard me!" Mulder said in a low, furious voice. "I'm not a child and I don't need another parent, believe it or not."
"Yes," Skinner replied evenly, trying to keep a check on his own temper. "I know that. I also know you had no intention of stopping to think about what you were going to do, Mulder. Go on. Tell me that's not true, if you can."
Mulder glared at him for an instant before saying sullenly from behind clenched teeth, "I can't tell you that."
Skinner said nothing, turning instead to look out at the fishing boats, the late afternoon sun shimmering over the bay, giving it a fragile, glassy look. Apart from a few kids shouting and playing at the water's edge, there was no one to be seen, the heat probably having driven everyone indoors. It was a hopelessly tranquil scene. In a few minutes, Mulder got up from the chair and joined him. They stood there together silently for a while, looking out over the bay.
"It's an amazing view," he finally said.
"Glad you like it." Skinner smiled after a moment and said, "I wasn't sure if it'd be too quiet for you."
"I'm sorry. You don't know how sorry I am."
Skinner said immediately, "How were you supposed to know? You were just trying to have a little fun."
Mulder shrugged and said shortly, "It wasn't fun though, was it?"
Skinner hesitated a moment before answering. He didn't yet know how to deal with Mulder when he was like this.
Finally he said, "No, it wasn't. But you would have kept on until you found something that satisfied you, Mulder?"
Mulder turned to Skinner at the half-question in his voice, his eyes bright and hard. "You know me too well, Walter. I'm my own worst enemy."
Skinner bit back the retort on the tip of his tongue, saying instead, "You know I didn't mean it that way. Don't be a jerk."
The ugly, mocking light died out of Mulder's eyes, at that. He put out a hand and gripped Skinner just above the elbow, squeezing his arm. "Sorry, I know you didn't mean it like that. I don't know why I said that or anything else either, really. I don't know why I did any of that stuff. I must have been out of my mind to think I was going to do anything good for...for him."
"You're not responsible for every truth you find," Skinner replied, tiredly. "You don't need me to tell you that, Mulder. You never have."
Mulder shook his head at that. "He was just a kid though, you know? And he looked so tired."
"I know," Skinner said grimly.
"I didn't mean the things I said. Not really. Not like that."
"It's no fun, Mulder. I can't talk to you when you get like that. What am I supposed to do? I'm not going to beat it out of you."
Mulder scuffed his shoe viciously against the solid hardwood floor. "I won't do it again. I won't."
Skinner sat down on a step and nodded at the space next to him. "I don't want you to die of convulsions or anything when I tell you this but you will do something like it again. And I'll probably handle it just as badly as I did then. We'll do what we can. Come here and sit down."
Mulder sat down but said in mutinous tones, "You didn't handle it badly. There was no way you could have talked me out of it. I wasn't thinking about anything...sane, at all."
His voice shook a little at the last few words and Skinner passed a very gentle hand over his wrist, careful to avoid the bruises that were beginning to show up. Slipping his hand into Mulder's, he brought the other man's hand up to his mouth and spoke against it, choosing his words carefully. "Let's not argue over it. If there's anything to be gained at the expense of hurting you, I don't need it that bad."
They sat there on the steps for a few minutes more before Mulder spoke again, following his thoughts out loud. "It can't be as bad if he doesn't know that he's repeating the journey each time, can it?"
Skinner curbed the impulse to reach out with his thumb and smooth out the lines at the corners of Mulder's eyes, knowing it would seem unthinkably patronizing.
"Yeah, the thought occurred to me." He looked away from Mulder's suddenly attentive regard.
Whatever, it seemed to do something for Mulder. He didn't know what but accepted it for what it was. They were still too inexperienced at reading each other to know which words gentled and which ones savaged. Learning to appreciate Mulderian logic was a full time job in itself, he thought, nearly smiling then in spite of everything, as he wondered what in hell the picture looked like from Mulder's end. And decided he didn't want to know.
As it was, Mulder was somewhat himself again, and at his suggestion, they unpacked the car and brought inside what few supplies they had decided were necessary for the weekend's getaway. Neither man wanted to look around or linger inside the beach house just yet, both made too claustrophobic by the afternoon's events. By implicit agreement, instead, they checked that the food they'd paid for in advance had been delivered and put away in the refrigerator. Then grabbing a couple of beers, they went back outside again.
They didn't speak of the boy again and Skinner suspected they wouldn't for some time to come. Maybe when they did, it'd be the better for having been left so long. Right then, the beer was the best part of a very long day. Without too much talk between them, they spent the next couple of hours in a lazy, comfortable tangle of legs and arms on the couch which was both wide enough and soft enough to accommodate them. They wore nothing but shorts, their skin saved from sticking to each other by the shade of the patio. Three beers each were enough, in the unrelenting heat, to send them both into a languid siesta from which Mulder was the first to wake.
So it was that Skinner, when he reluctantly struggled upwards through molasses-like layers of sleep to open his eyes, found Mulder to the left of him, already awake and staring pensively at him.
Skinner smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Like being the first one up for a change?"
Mulder said, his throat sounding a little rusty, "I'm glad you're here," and moved a little lower so he could rest his head comfortably on Skinner's chest.
After a moment of confusion, Skinner understood Mulder and replied firmly, "I'm as real as you, Mulder, and this - you and me - this is real too. Don't doubt that."
He felt Mulder's soft hair moving across his skin as he turned his head to place a kiss on Skinner's chest. Then came a row of butterfly-light kisses along the underside of his ribs, sweet and unhurried. Left to himself, Mulder would no doubt go ahead and execute whatever grandly erotic manoeuvres he had in mind. Skinner, on the other hand, wanted to have a conversation, however inconvenient it might be for his suddenly talkative groin. Moving his left hand from the small of Mulder's back, he wrapped a sizeable portion of Mulder's hair around his fist, loving the silken way it slid away from him, and tugged gently.
Mulder stilled at once under him and looked up, concern shadowing his gaze.
"Yeah, fine," Skinner murmured. "But I want to talk. Come back up here."
Mulder's concern turned to unconcealed disgust.
"Jesus, Walter. I'm about to volunteer for blowjob duty. What, you got a solution for world peace? Because if not, I have to tell you, I'm going to lose my will to give."
"Stop talking shit," Skinner said, secretly relieved to hear Mulder sounding more like himself. "And come here. It's important."
Mulder sighed and slid back up Skinner's body until he came to rest in the crook of his shoulder.
"So?" he asked, the impatient query at odds with the domesticated way in which his body fitted itself to Skinner's.
"Relax a little," Skinner suggested, unmaking the fist which governed Mulder's hair, giving it back its sovereignty.
"Tell me what the problem is and I will," Mulder retorted, a note of defensiveness creeping into his voice.
"Mulder, for chrissakes. There's no problem." Skinner exhaled, then swallowed back his irritation. "I just want you to know there's nothing here for you to worry about. Understand? If the weekends aren't perfect, then so be it. If...if something happens, like today, I'll still be here at the end of it, okay? If a fuck up happens that's too much for one of us, then that's just the way the shit goes. None of this depends on a blowjob, however fucking brilliant. Or you never making another mistake. Got it?"
"Got it," Mulder muttered awkwardly. "Look, I think...I mean--"
He stopped then, losing his words, seeming to Skinner so alive with distress as to be only mere seconds away from sending up emergency flares.
Finally he said tensely, "Alright."
Skinner nodded and pulled Mulder up to him, sealing the bargain with a warm kiss and breaking it off as Mulder began to move against him. It drew a strangled protest from Mulder.
Skinner grimaced and said regretfully, "I know, I know. But we have to eat something. If I'm getting a headache, you must be too. We've got lots of time, anyway, don't we? It's only early Saturday evening and we don't have to be back till Monday night?"
"Shit, Walter, the Marines was a while ago," Mulder muttered, even as he swung himself off the couch. "Enough with this rationing mentality, huh?"
He neatly stepped out of range of a lazy attempt to swat his ass. "If you were a bit younger, you'd probably have better reflexes. Now I think all you're good for is that lasagne we saw in the fridge."
Skinner, not in the least bit ruffled, asked, "What will you be doing? Making castles in the sand?"
Mulder's neck turned a startling shade of red and he said hotly, "One time. One fucking time and I don't have to remind you that there was a child involved, Walter. Your fucking nephew, in fact."
Skinner was laughing in earnest by now and held up his hands in mock-surrender. "All right. Okay. Shit, it's not like I'm calling you a terrorist, for chrissakes."
Mulder was already stalking off and called over his shoulder, "I'm going to have a shower and I'm going to use all the water and both towels."
Grinning, Skinner followed him inside. Finding the lasagne, he put it in the oven and after a few bemused minutes, was satisfied he wasn't going to blow the place up. He went back outside and leant against the patio railing, looking out. Dark clouds, streaks of purple and orange threaded through them, were steadily lining the horizon. He watched as the sun began to sink, acquiescent, into the sea. Waiting for Mulder patiently, as he always had, he felt a smile curling his lips, the most natural thing in the world, when he heard him return.
Turning to look critically at him, he thought that the barefoot and spiky-haired man standing before him, precariously holding onto two bottles of beer by their necks, was a big improvement on the one he'd been dealing with in the last few hours. This Mulder gave him one of those crooked grins that he had learnt to crave and pulled him in for a light kiss on the mouth. Definitely an improvement.
Taking a long, icy cold swallow from the bottle Mulder handed to him, Skinner nodded at the beach. "You feel up to stretching your legs a little?"
Mulder looked up at the overcast sky. "We'll probably get caught in a downpour but if you don't care, I don't either."
"We can always start a fire when we get back, if it gets too miserable," Skinner said, adding laconically, "Who knows? We might get lucky and find a love rug waiting in there for us by the fireplace or something even worse. You saw all that '70s decor."
Mulder grinned at that, saying, "Walter, can't you ever think about something other than sex?"
"No," Skinner drawled, his eyes on the first fat raindrops beginning to fall as they walked down towards the waterline where the gulls were swooping and shrieking urgently at each other. "I'm just in it for your ass, Mulder. Don't you know that by now?"
He heard the clear, delighted laughter bubble out of Mulder
before it was torn away by an inopportune gust of wind and as
always, found it worth the wait.