Six months later….
If only I hadn’t drank so much last night….if only I hadn’t agreed to take this meeting so close to my former home…if only I hadn’t let the Gunmen convince me how important it was…if only I’d just ordered crappy expensive room service coffee and stayed behind the locked hotel room door….if only I didn’t have this thing for Starbuck’s Grande Americanos marked with foam…
“You look like shit,” Walter Skinner said, nearly startling me into choking on my coffee. I recovered quickly, though. My survivalist walls were thicker than ever, thanks to this man…well, thanks to him, myself, and a million other elements that made me the neurotic mess I continued to be. If I had thought it was going to be easy once I knew everything in my heart about who I was in the world, well…
I’d been wrong before.
Still, it was a nasty jolt, and even as a part of me was suggesting I had come here, to this city, to this coffee shop completely on purpose for just this meeting, well, the rest of me refused to comment.
“I feel like shit,” I replied coldly. “But thank you for taking time out of your busy day to notice, and point it out. It’s appreciated, as you can imagine. Now get out of here and let me finish my coffee in peace.”
Oh no. We weren’t going there, as Langly might say. He was not going to look at me that way, all sorrowful brown eyes and wide t-shirt covered shoulders. I was not going to melt even the tiniest bit at the use of my first name, nor was I going to give this lying bastard the benefit of any doubt. None. No way. Forget it.
“Don’t, Walter. It’s over. Done. Leave me alone.”
“Fox, I only did what I did because—“
And I definitely wasn’t about to listen to any half-baked excuses. There wasn’t a chance in hell that he was going to get me to think about how much I’d missed him in the last six months. I wasn’t about to let him say those words that had meant so much to me just a short time ago, back before they’d been associated with such a profound feeling of emotional shock, almost like abuse.
“Don’t you say it, Walter Skinner. Don’t you dare!”
Was that really me, sounding about as calm, confident and in control as Scarlet O’Hara the night Atlanta fell? Apparently I wasn’t the only one not convinced because he steamrolled right over my objections.
“—because I loved you. Because I still love you! And because I will always love you.”
God, Walter, how can the knife you last wielded against me months ago still be so sharp?
“You lied to me!”
A couple at the next table turned to look at the sharp increase in volume. Skinner saw them as well, and dropped his own voice to something just above a whisper, while he dropped his ass into the chair across from me.
“I did, and I thought I had pretty good reason to do it at the time. Now, maybe I was wrong—“
“No fuckin’ maybe about it.” I wasn’t about to lower my voice. If I could do nothing else through the sudden tangle of feelings Skinner was wrapping me in just by being in this room, I could at least embarrass him.
“And maybe you feel like you can’t trust me now—“
And interrupt him. Because, God forbid I should start listening to him. Because no matter how many doctors I saw, no matter how many walls I built, no matter how far or how fast I ran, I wasn’t going to cure, or block, or get away from the need he brought into me. Because I wanted to believe. “Jesus, Walter, stop it! Haven’t you done enough?”
“And maybe you’re right.” Finally, I was hearing a tone of defeat. It occurred to me that I might actually survive this, I might actually be able to get him away from me, or me away from him, and carry on as I’d been doing for the last six months. I could already hear an inner voice mocking me, reminding me that my coping mechanisms since I’d walked out of that house were doing anything but helping me cope, but I was determined to ignore it. If I started actually listening to myself, I knew it would only be a short time before I stopped functioning all together. Even on the best days, memories of my time shared with Skinner were always lurking, demanding attention, begging me to let them in, and worse, pleading with me to create new ones. I struggled for a normal tone of voice, knowing that yelling wasn’t helping, and if I whispered he might move closer to hear me, which would surely be my undoing.
“I’m not doing this. Please get out.”
“But you told me you loved me too. Was that a lie, Fox?” He reached out so quickly I had no time to react, and then my hand was wrapped tightly in his. His touch warmed my cold fingers as he tangled them with his own. My breath caught in my throat and it took a moment to get my lungs functioning normally again. I did my best to ignore his accusation, my fear, the curious glances of other patrons and the soft stroke of skin on skin as he held my hand captive.
“Built on so many lies, it would have to be, wouldn’t it?” I wasn’t going to apologize for my snarky tone. It was the least he deserved.
“Guess that lack of trust would have to go both ways then, wouldn’t it?” He wasn’t backing down either.
“Bastard.” Oh, sure, Skinner, alleviate your own guilt by fostering mine. Thanks a bunch, asshole. Like I’m not beating myself up a million times a day for everything and anything I think I can justify as my fault. I’d made as much peace as possible with Scully’s death, but that peace was balanced on a house of cards full of aces like my sister’s abduction and death, jokers like the end of the world and deuces like each day I’d spent accepting kindness and—dammit!—love from this man. It wasn’t going to be long before the whole thing toppled, and I couldn’t kid myself that it wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t a matter of if, but of when…
“I’ll tell you again. If I hurt you, Mulder—scratch that. I did hurt you. And I’m sorrier than you can imagine. Believe me, if I thought there was a way to fix this—to go back—to get a ‘do-over’—“
“You can’t—we can’t. I don’t think I-we can…” Couldn’t he see what he was doing to me? I couldn’t believe he didn’t notice my heart breaking. My chest was caving in and my vision was blurring with unshed tears. How could he not tell? I stumbled over my words, trying to find someway to stop this now, before there could be more pain; I didn’t think I could stand it if it got any worse. And yet, even in the midst of my own anguish, I had to admit that Skinner didn’t look any happier about the situation.
“I know. But know this, if you know nothing else, Mulder. You always had my heart. Long before the accident. Long before all of this. Probably since the day I met you. And you have it now.”
“And I trust you with it…forever.” He stood, finally, releasing my hand so suddenly that it hit the tabletop and I winced as painful feelings rushed back into my fingers.
“Goodbye, Fox.” He was turning and walking away and the reason my fingers were still tingling is because no blood could get to them. He was taking my heart with him, still beating and I’d never felt pain like this. Thinking it was for the best made it hurt worse. And if I didn’t do something now—right fucking now—I was probably going to feel like this for the rest of my life.
It was unacceptable.
I nearly knocked the chair over in my haste to rise, left my coffee untouched, and the barrista had to dance clumsily around me to keep from being flattened.
Walter had just put his hand to the door.
My voice stopped him cold, but he didn’t turn around. I watched his shoulders hunch, thought that I could have happily lived without ever seeing that particular posture on this particular man, and then straightened slightly. His hands curled into fists. I suspected part of him wanted to kill me for fucking with him, while part of him, the part that made those shoulders slump in that completely wrong way, that part of him wanted to do something else. Like maybe live with me. I was terrified that this wasn’t going to work.
I was terrified that it would work. But if he heard the squeak in my voice, he didn’t acknowledge it. Watching him turn was like watching the sun come out from behind a mountain range at dawn. Slow, and even a little scary, but glorious for all that.
“Fox Mulder,” I said, holding out my hand, hoping he didn’t notice how it was shaking so hard it was about to fall off my wrist. “Didn’t we used to work together?”
For a moment I thought my hand was just going to hang there vibrating in midair. But then I saw the look. I recognized it from across a table of crossword puzzles, from a doorway to a hospital room, from beside me in bed. He was figuring it out. And I wasn’t surprised that he knew just what to do.
“Yes. That’s right.” He gave me a business man’s handshake, two quick pumps of the wrist, professional, but not nearly quick enough that I didn’t feel the dampness of his palm, the sudden clench that spoke of things very unprofessional before he released me. I pretended I could read the time on the shaking watch on my trembling wrist.
“I’m late for a meeting, but it might be nice—uh, that is, maybe we could have a drink sometime? You know? Catch up on old times?”
“I-I’d like that.” His eyes were wide and dark behind his glasses, and he kept looking down at our shoes, then back up at me, then down again, like if he looked at me too long I might disappear. I kind of felt that way. I forced a joviality I didn’t really feel into my tone again, and only the slight tic in his jaw gave away the fact that he wasn’t buying it. Accepting it, absolutely, but believing it, no way. But I persevered past it.
“Great. You got a number? I could call you.”
He fumbled with his wallet and then he was thrusting a card into my hands with uncharacteristic force, like he thought I might not be able to hold onto it. Or like the thought I might rip it up and toss it back at him. Instead, I put on a very small smile and said, “Thanks.”
His eyes were locked with mine now, and he looked old and baffled, excited and amused, terrified and guilty. I suspected all those emotions were mirrored on my face, along with a heaping helping of ‘what the hell am I doing?’. It was a long and fragile moment, as if we were facing each other on a tight wire, and one false step was going to be the end of us both—a thousand feet up, no net.
The wire jiggled.
“Take care of yourself, Skinner. Maybe we’ll get together one of these days.” I ran a finger lightly over the business card in my hand, still gazing at him, and we steadied ourselves together. And then I abruptly pushed past Walter and walked out of the restaurant. I could feel his gaze follow me, and I wondered if this was more than I could handle, hoped that it wasn’t, and even if I didn’t know for sure, didn’t really believe that there might be a chance after all, well, I wanted to believe.