Title: The Edge
Author: JiM
Date: 1/00
Pairing: M/Sk
Rating: G
Summary: Mulder just has to push Skinner to the edge.
Thanks: To Dail and Leila
Note: A writing exercise of M/Sk shmoop to clear the head. This surely beats unpacking.
For Karen and Jim, who took me to Palisade Head and didn’t let me fall.
Feedback: Jimpage363@aol.com


* * *

“The Edge”
by JiM

* * *

“WHAT?!!” Skinner’s arms flailed and he tried to regain his balance.

“You heard me. What’s it going to be, Skinner?” The only thing keeping him from falling was Mulder’s hand gripping his belt.

“What the hell is wrong with you, Agent Mulder? Let go of me,” Skinner growled. His heels hung out over nothing and the water was snickering far, far below, waiting for him to fall.

“I don't really think you want me to do that, Walter,” Mulder gave a mocking tug at Skinner’s midsection, just to remind him that his life hung in the balance. “Yes or no?”

“You’re a bastard, Mulder!” Skinner said furiously, desperately, staring into Mulder’s traitorously cool face.

“You’re the one who brought us here, Skinner. If you had been honest with me, just once...but you couldn’t do that, could you? Coward,” Mulder said, voice jarringly gentle, at odds with his words. “That cowardice is going to kill you if you don’t choose correctly this time.” He shoved a little more and Skinner felt himself arching out over nothingness, death no more than a few degrees away now.

All Skinner could hear was his own hoarse breathing as it echoed along the empty clifftop, obliterating the words that had brought them to this deadly moment.

* * *

There was never any hope that this would be a simple routine visit; Skinner had been fooling himself for far too long on it. Called in to help sort out the Minneapolis office in the wake of a hopelessly incompetent department head, an unusual case had caught his eye. Three hunters up near Ely had come into a bar, claiming to have seen a sasquatch. They had gotten good and drunk on the strength of their yarn, then had promptly disappeared. A bloody scrap of fabric and unknown animal tracks had been found near their abandoned car the next morning. They were registered as Missing Persons three days later, but there had been no leads and the local sheriff had turned it over to the FBI. Who had done fuck-all about it, Skinner thought to himself.

Three people missing for three months and all SAC Jameson had done was to scrawl a note on the jacket that the three were to be considered “Missing -presumed dead”. Jameson was now in Washington being crucified and Skinner had flown in to clean up the mess. He had already had to call in Andrea O’Shea from Accounting to help start to make sense of the financials -- what was one more agent brought on site, after all? He ignored the stern voice in the back of his head telling him that it could see right through him and he placed a call to Washington asking for another specialist. Mulder was on the next flight.

* * *

“You know, you should have called Scully in on this one, too, sir,” Mulder commented, shuffling piles of file jackets.

“Need I remind you that Agent Scully is on vacation?” Skinner said, shooting a glance over the stack in front of him. Somehow, in the last two days, Mulder had started helping him with the file review ordered by Washington. Skinner knew that Mulder could be an effective agent when he chose but he hadn’t expected Mulder’s cheerful competence at organizing the horrific pile of shoddily worked cases.

“So was I.”

“You were in the office when I called, Mulder. On a *Saturday*. You wouldn’t know a vacation if it walked up and bit you on the ass.” Skinner rubbed his eyes tiredly, then actually heard what had come out of his mouth. “Mulder, I...” he said apologetically.

Mulder only shrugged and grinned. “I wasn’t wearing a tie -- does that count?” Then his face grew more serious. “You’ve been at this all day. Let’s break for dinner.”

Skinner frowned, sensing that there was a trap in those words somewhere. But his common sense reasserted itself. He hadn’t eaten lunch and it was after 7:00. The three local agents were terrified to leave the office before he did and so were all still ghosting around, looking wan and hungry. Even O’Shea’s enthusiasm for sorting out problem numbers had waned and her long fingers stumbled over her calculator in the conference room across the hall.

He looked again at Mulder’s earnest face and nodded. “I could take a stack of these back with me, I guess.”

Mulder nodded and stood up, rapidly picking and choosing a stack for himself. “We can tackle these after dinner.”

“Mulder, you don’t have to.”

His most infuriating agent only smiled and shrugged. “What else is there to do in Minneapolis on a Monday night? It’s this or the Playboy channel, sir.” Skinner stared, trying to gauge how serious Mulder was, wondering what his motivations might be, then mentally shrugged. Mulder’s help was more than welcome and frankly, Skinner could use some friendly chatter. The local agents were all waiting for his ax to fall and so were no company at all, despite having made miserable offers of hospitality the first evening. He had grown far too wary to simply sit in the hotel’s bar and enjoy the conversation of strangers.

“Well, if file review will preserve you from a slide into depravity, don’t let me stand in your way, Agent Mulder,” he said dryly, wanting to smile back when Mulder grinned again.

Somehow, in the past two years, they had rebuilt their working relationship. With the fall of Spender and his consortium of betrayal, Mulder had been proved right and Skinner had been, if not exonerated, at least understood and he sensed, forgiven. Mulder smiled more easily now, Skinner found. His sense of humor was less sharp-edged, which gave his fellow agents more of a chance to get to know him. He and Scully still pursued the X-files with enthusiasm and dogged dedication, and he still had his bizarre reputation in the Bureau, but their names were spoken with real respect to temper the disbelief.

Dinner was takeout Chinese in Skinner’s room. Budget-conscious, he had only rented one car and O’Shea wanted to go to the Mall of America. Mindful of the grueling pace O’Shea had set herself over the past weekend, Skinner had handed her the car keys and sent her off with a word of commendation. Which left him and Mulder sitting in shirtsleeves, eating with chopsticks out of cardboard cartons. He half-smiled in nostalgia, remembering the times on the road when he and his partners had done this, sitting in budget hotel rooms, untangling cases over anything cheap, hot and filling. Those work habits had gotten him a divorce, plaqued arteries and an assistant directorship.

Mulder was eating lo mein out of the carton with chopsticks, a skill Skinner had never mastered. He was seated cross-legged on the spare bed the center of a mandala of files, cross-checking and reading the more interesting bits aloud to Skinner. Without warning, Skinner felt guilty; Mulder was going above and beyond here.

“You should have gone with O’Shea,” he said into a sudden silence.

Mulder shook his head and shrugged theatrically. “Oh no. Not me. She was practically salivating when she heard that they served pike-on-a-stick there. I think one bit her as a child and she’s been looking forward to her moment of vengeance ever since. Besides, I hate shopping. I’d rather...,” he broke off abruptly.

“Yes?”

Mulder looked away. “Nothing,” he mumbled.

In the sudden silence, Skinner knew what Mulder had been about to say. The unspoken words rung in the empty air.

/I’d rather stay here with you/

Then Skinner shook his head and clenched his fists at the fact that he was still an idiot after all these years. He said nothing. They finished dinner and another five cases with no more than the briefest comments exchanged.

* * *

A half-step from oblivion on the cliff’s edge above Lake Superior, Skinner remembered that moment and wondered if that silence had led to this moment’s betrayal. Looking into Mulder’s cool gray eyes, he knew that it had.

* * *

The Sasquatch case had actually begun to produce some leads for Mulder on Thursday, just as Skinner had begun to wrap things up at the Minneapolis office. The local agents themselves weren’t incompetent, but they had been at the mercy of an idiot with a Napoleon complex. There were only three unresolved cases outstanding, Mulder’s missing hunter case included, and Skinner had set them to reviewing and resolving them. Somehow, not entirely certain how it had happened, he found himself on the road to Ely, MN with Fox Mulder at the wheel. He thought it might have come about because Mulder had smiled at the wrong moment and Skinner had been unable to deny him anything at that instant.

“One of the others might have been more help to you on this one, Mulder,” he said, staring out at the foggy afternoon as the road played hide-and-seek with Lake Superior through the mist.

“I don’t think so, sir,” Mulder said pleasantly and Skinner had to viciously suppress an urge to ask Mulder to call him by his name. He said nothing more, eyes fixed on the center line as it snaked away beyond the hills.

This hunger, this stupid animal need for something he could never, should never have, still ate at him. Years, he had been able to hold it in check. Why was it now breaking free of its cage? Maybe because he sometimes thought he saw its echo in Mulder’s eyes? He shook his head at his own daydreams.

* * *

“Mulder, don’t do this,” Skinner said hoarsely, conscious that his whole life now depended on Mulder’s grasp. The light wind played in Mulder’s hair as Skinner stared desperately at him.

“It was always going to come to this,” Mulder said. “I always knew, one day, we’d be here or some place like it.”

“You’d be throwing away everything you’ve worked for. Is that what you want?!” Skinner tried hard to reach the man behind what had to be a mad glitter in those calm eyes.

Mulder shook the fist wrapped in Skinner’s belt again, causing Skinner to slip a little more and clutch at Mulder’s wrist with a bruising grip. “Yes,” he said with a sickening kind of finality that settled on Skinner’s shoulders like a lead cloak. “That’s what I want.”

All the empty space behind and beneath Skinner seemed to roar - but in approval or negation, he did not know.

* * *

Friday morning, they were returning south, back along the North Shore. This time, the day was a sparkling clean spring morning, all golden and blue and it was doing a lot to mitigate Skinner’s utter disgust at the way the case had turned out.

“I can’t believe it was all a hoax! If I so much as *see* Jameson, he’s a dead man!” But he wasn’t really angry. His opinion of the hapless department head had sunk to a new low, but somehow, the waste of time didn’t seem to matter as much as it ought to have.

Mulder chuckled from the passenger seat. “You have to admit, it was a pretty clever hoax, for a bunch of good old boys. Right down to using the names of men who had died in hunting accidents twenty years ago.” Mulder shook his head and Skinner thought that Mulder might actually admire the barflies who had come up with the scheme for enhancing the tourist trade and hence, the profits in the bar of which they were part-owners.

“Jameson should have caught that one,” he argued, more from a desire to keep the conversation going than a need to argue or prove himself right. Hell, he’d had years of experience in losing arguments to Mulder. It was almost comforting at this point.

Mulder nodded. “I agree. A couple of phone calls would have cleared it up in no time, maybe two hours of research. Any idiot should have been able to tell that the accounts of the Sasquatch were too hokey to be believable.”

Skinner fought a grin and lost. “Only you, Mulder, would look at the case from that angle. The rest of us would have checked the identifications and records on the missing men first.”

“I did,” Mulder said with asperity, then he shut his mouth quickly.

After a full minute’s silence, Skinner said quietly, “Then you knew those men were already dead *before* we came up here?” Mulder silence answered for him.

“What are we doing here, Agent Mulder?”

Damn Mulder for ruining it. Skinner had actually enjoyed the drive up, last night’s dinner in a totally unremarkable restaurant with adequate entrees and incredible pies, this morning’s interviews with the locals, working with Mulder as if they had been partners for years. They had spent hours talking, hours in easy silence -- Skinner had felt something deep and unnoticed inside begin to ease into the warmth of companionship, the doing of work he was trained to do. Somehow, Mulder had begun calling him ‘Walter’ and he found himself saying ‘Mulder’ in a completely different tone.

“Mulder?” he prodded again. He glanced at the man in the passenger seat and it seemed that Mulder’s profile had lost its easy smile and was now set like concrete.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

Skinner hadn’t had many expectations about what Mulder might say, but that still surprised him. “I’m here. Talk.”

Mulder shook his head. “I think we need to be face to face for this. Pull in there,” he pointed suddenly to the left, toward a scenic overlook sign for Palisade Head. With an impatient grunt, Skinner obeyed.

The road to the overlook turned out to be steep, twisting and no more than one and a half lanes wide. By the time the rental car had struggled to the top, Skinner was grateful that they had met no one coming down. The tiny parking area was deserted. Skinner parked and turned to Mulder for an explanation, but the younger man was out of the car and striding across the pavement toward the edge without a word. With a growl of annoyance, Skinner followed him.

He caught up with Mulder just in time to see him step around the stone safety wall that prevented the unwary from driving straight into Lake Superior. Mulder slithered down a rocky fall with a fine disregard for his shoe leather, then took three steps out onto the reddish rock of the actual cliff face. He stopped there and stood staring out at the deep blue of the lake sparkling in the sunlight as Skinner slipped and cursed his way down after him. Off to the left, the red wedge of rock and trees that made up Shovel Point sloped down to the water far below them. Skinner came to stand beside his wayward agent and felt a shiver of unease when he realized that they stood more than three hundred feet above the water and it would take only one more step ...

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Mulder said conversationally.

“Mulder, did you bring me up here for the view or did you have something to say to me?” The sun was warm on the back of his neck, the breeze whispering around them and Mulder wouldn’t look at him.

“It’s just...what I mean is...” Mulder, seldom at a loss for words, was stuttering.

“Mulder!” Skinner snapped, hoping to startle some sense out of the man.

Mulder raised his head and looked at his boss, eyes dark and troubled. Then he blinked once and the darkness seemed to clear. His eyes became brighter and a frightening kind of calm seemed to bleed into them. He nodded to himself, then he took a step closer to Skinner, almost crowding him toward the edge.

“Mulder...?” What the hell was going on in that beautiful, scarred head?

Mulder’s hand shot out and wrapped around Skinner’s belt in a firm grip. He shoved his boss back half a step until Skinner was teetering wildly on the edge, then said in a firm, uncompromising tone,

“Marry me or I’ll push you off.”

* * *

“Can we talk sensibly about this?” Skinner asked.

“No, I don't think so. I’m well aware that you think I’m crazy. I probably am, for even thinking of this. So what? Give me an answer. Yes or No?”

Skinner tried for a tone of calm reason. “Mulder, we’re both men. We can’t get married.”

Mulder made an annoyed shrug with his shoulder. “You know that’s not the point. Would you like me to spell it out for you? I want you to spend the rest of your life with me. Share a house. Make love. Buy groceries. Worry when the other is sick. Go out to dinner. Argue.”

“We do that now,” Skinner muttered, too off-balance to make any sense.

Mulder grinned. “True. But think how much more fun it would be, when we argued, if we could make up like this,” and he yanked Skinner back from the edge and into his arms. His kiss was determined, focused and very, very deep. He shifted his grip on Skinner’s belt to the back and Walter Skinner found himself kissing Fox Mulder on the edge of a cliff. Even the hot reality of Mulder’s arms and mouth and breath on his face couldn’t stop the snort of laughter that rose crazily in him as he realized that life and metaphor were once again too damned close.

Mulder pulled back, eyes hazy and wide, like a little boy given his heart’s desire on Christmas. He tried to look offended as he said, “What?” but only managed to look vulnerable and too right.

“‘Marry me or I’ll throw you off?!’” Skinner repeated in disbelief. “What the hell kind of proposal is that?!”

Mulder shrugged, a full-body motion against Skinner that made him want to groan. He settled for pulling Mulder closer.

“It worked, didn’t it? Besides, it’s your own fault. If you had just spoken up sooner, I wouldn’t have had to resort to cheap tricks.” He bit Skinner’s chin gently and Skinner lost the thread of the argument for a while in the rush of finally being able to touch and taste what he had denied himself so long.

When Mulder released his mouth again, he said a little breathlessly, “Why were you waiting for me to make the first move? You could have said something.”

Shadows flickered in Mulder’s eyes again and Skinner wanted to wipe them away. “No. I did that once and it ... didn’t work out well.” He grinned suddenly, obliterating the shadows again. “Besides, according to your profile, you like to make the first move. But you almost never do.”

“Which leads to people nearly pushing me off cliffs to get my attention,” Skinner finished for him, as if the conclusion were right and logical. Which, given that it was Mulder, it probably was.

“Did it work?” Mulder asked impishly.

Skinner nodded. “I should be pissed as hell at you. I probably will be. But, yeah, it worked.”

“Then stop complaining.” Mulder slowly released him, stepped back, then led the way back up to the car.

“But...marriage, Mulder? You think we could make it that far?”

Mulder had scrambled up the slope to the viewing area again. He turned and smiled. “Yeah, I do.” Then he reached down a hand and pulled Skinner up with a strong hand around his forearm.

“This is crazy. *You’re* crazy,” Skinner complained, panting a little. He hoped it was from the climb. Mulder kept his grip on Skinner’s arm, locking them together.

“Do I assume this is ‘Yes’, Walter? Because I’d hate to have to push you off.”

Skinner shook his head and squinted in the sunlight as he looked at Mulder. “*I* must be crazy.”

“Say it.”

Skinner set his jaw and stared at Mulder with what he hoped was his best quelling glare. No dice. Mulder wasn’t budging. Skinner felt like he was flailing on the very edge of the cliff again, teetering and rocking, life hanging in the balance. Except for Mulder’s strong grip, holding him steady. Mulder, at once the threat and the solution.

Skinner sighed. “Yes. Happy now?” he growled.

Mulder grinned. “Not yet. But real soon now. Let’s go.”

And Walter Skinner found himself trailing Mulder back across the parking lot and wondering if falling off that cliff would be half as dangerous as this. He already knew it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

<End>

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