Title: "Gone"
Author: JiM
Date: 3/00
Pairing: XF, M/Sk
Rating: G
Warnings: None
Summary: Someone is going, going, gone....but not alone.
Webpage: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/4859/JiM.html
Feedback: jimpage363@aol.com


* * *
"Gone"
by JiM
* * *

It's bad tonight, the uprushing need to simply get out and GO. Nowhere in particular, just to be GONE. From here, from my life, from who I am at this moment, from who I've been...I'm not suicidal. No, this is a greed for life swelling up, not a hunger for oblivion. I want to be the dearly departed. Not dead, just departed.

And I want someone to miss me when I'm gone.

I've got a large nylon duffel half-packed before I even realize what I'm doing. When I check it, I find I've been pretty thorough -- jeans, heavy socks, flannel shirts, wool sweater, polartec jacket and nylon shell -- looks like I'm heading for the great outdoors. I wonder about that for a while as my hands keep packing. Light dayhiking boots, not the heavy trail boots, no rock-climbing shoes, some old sneakers.

I want to walk away, walk down a dirt road and into a forest and keep walking for days and weeks. I want to be the man I once thought I would be.

I used to get this way in high school. Then I'd borrow my dad's pickup truck and drive for miles and miles in the dark, way out into the desert and just sit and watch the stars slowly spin and pivot overhead and I'd just ache from the wanting inside of me, but I never knew what I wanted. I still don't.

When I got this way in 'Nam, I'd bum a joint or split a fifth with a buddy and we'd sit and watch the stars or the rain or just the sparks from each other's cigarettes and the power of that wanting came from the fact that I could never name it. After I got married, it happened less, or maybe I tamped it down better. I didn't think I could ever explain it to Sharon; now I know that she probably would have understood it better than I do.

I've zipped up the bag, so I guess I'm done packing. I look at my cellphone and my gun, then leave them in the desk drawer. Part of me wants to shake myself, drop the bag, go upstairs and go to bed. A smaller part wants me to make plans and lists and decide a destination. Those parts are swallowed up by the part of me that is grabbing my keys and locking the door behind me and is simply heading down to my car, no plans, no destination, no clue.

Driving is good. It seems to lessen the ache the way it always did when I mistook this for teen angst. The roads out of D.C. are still too crowded at this time of night to get the right balm of speed, but just being in motion helps. The onramp for the interstate is too crowded, so I turn abruptly off and take the road that runs along the trainyards. Miles of freight trains sit in the spring darkness, open doors spilling out the shadows of the places they have been.

There is less traffic here and I open the window and the air rushing in is scented with the sullen smell of the river moving too slowly toward a place it never intended to go. I step on the gas and turn on the radio, but have to turn it off again after scanning past every pre-programmed station. Tonight is not a night for order or planning. Tonight is about being gone.

So I am surprised when I suddenly pull the car in toward the curb and turn the engine off. But I have abandoned myself to this need for the first time in my life and, while I don't trust it, there is no question that I have to follow it. I get out and leave my bag in the car; whatever happens here, I still have to go.

Just like I have to be here, standing outside this apartment, raising my hand, knocking on the door, wondering what I'll say when it opens. But I'm already gone and the part of me that packed and drove says into his surprised face, "Mulder. I'm leaving."

He grins at that, although his eyes are uncertain as they search my face. "But, sir, you just got here."

I smile and my face feels stiff, the muscles unused. He raises one eyebrow and waves me in. It feels like I am moving faster now, though I am standing in the middle of his apartment. "I'm going," and I jerk my chin to show him that I intend to go away, Out There. "Do you want to come along?"

I am not sure which of us is more surprised at that. Always before, it has been the need to be alone, to go meet myself on some dark road, in the woods, in the desert, in the jungle, but always alone. Mulder is certainly the last man I would have consciously chosen for this journey. But this is not about being conscious, really. After all, look where my conscious decisions have gotten me. That's why I didn't stop myself tonight, why I am standing here now, waiting with my hands clenched to hear his reply.

He stares into my eyes for a long time, it seems. "Where?" he asks softly. I shake my head. I don't know. "For how long?" I shrug. After a while, he nods, a slow grin taking root in his eyes and growing down to meet his upcurved lips. "Five minutes," he says, and disappears into his bedroom.

He says nothing when he returns carrying his own duffel bag, a leather jacket tucked through the handles. He stops at his desk and types something into his computer, then shuts it down. He holds up his holstered weapon and his eyes question me, nodding in silent agreement when I shake my head, asking him to leave it behind.

Mulder follows me without the slightest hesitation in his step, closing the door to his apartment with a kind of quiet finality that hums through me. Then we are going, walking side by side down the hall, down the stairs, out into the urgent sweetness of the night. He drops his bag over the seat next to mine, buckles his belt and settles in.

"Let's go."

Later, in the days and weeks that follow, I feel that I will know why I came to him as I was slipping away tonight. But for now, all I can do is get us out on the road, grateful for his silent presence, knowing that I am with the one who would have missed me when I was gone.

* * *

Feedback gratefully accepted at: jimpage363@aol.com

 


 

Title: "Carried Away", #2 in the "Gone" series
Author: JiM
Date: 3/00
Pairing: XF, M/Sk
Rating: G
Warnings: None
Summary: Someone gets carried away.
Webpage: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/4859/JiM.html
Feedback: jimpage363@aol.com


* * *
"Carried Away"
by JiM
* * *

He's quiet; he hasn't really said much since we hit the interstate. But the silence between us isn't strained; it ought to be strange, but it's not. That *is* strange, I think, and grin to myself. Everything about tonight should be strange, I ought to be checking Skinner's blood to see what color it is, maybe checking his pockets for controlled substances. Instead, Walter Skinner showed up at my door a couple of hours ago, told me he was leaving, and then he smiled. It was the freest expression I had ever seen cross his face. I wanted to reach out and touch it, to warm myself with it. Then the reality of what he was saying hit me.

Leaving. A lot of people have left me and I've been OK. Some have left and the world has tilted and rocked. But for the first time since I was a kid, someone was leaving and I wasn't sure who I would be once he left. Then he asked me to come along. No one has done that in far too long. All the departures in my life, but so few have been my own. I don't think that Skinner knows the gift he has given me. In return for that, I give him the strangeness of this night without questions.

We're not on the run, that much I can tell. Otherwise, he would have had me bring my weapon. Hell, there's no one left to care what we do; the Consortium is gone, the aliens are obviously disinclined to move in, and even Krycek has disappeared. I like to think of him furnishing a small hole in some obscure grassy patch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I ignore the stab of pain that mean little pleasure brings me.

But I'm not being entirely fair; there's Scully, I know she cares. I emailed her and told her not to expect me in to work this week. I promised I'd call because I know she's not going to react well to that note I sent.

//Scully - Skinner and I are on a road trip. I won't be in this week. Cover for me? - Mulder P.S. I'll call.//

I grin into the darkness; she's going to be pissed for sure. And curious. After all, Walter Skinner and I are not your usual type of road-tripping buddies. Hell, I'm curious. Why me? But the silence between us doesn't invite that question just now. I have a feeling that I will come to know the answer if I simply wait. So for now, I wait. And watch.

I slouch against the door, half-turned on the seat of Skinner's conservatively stylish Dodge sedan. This model looks sedate but it has a hell of an engine under the hood; we are breezing by the few other cars on this dark ribbon of road. I ignore the obvious metaphors and watch my companion. His hands are light on the wheel and one rests on his thigh. His eyes flick between his mirrors and the road ahead, a conscientious driver, for all the speed he seems to need.

Need. That's the key. He needs this, in some deeply subterranean way. But what is this journey to him? Escape? Quest? Retreat? All three, or none at all? I think that once I know the answer to that, I will know more about Walter S. Skinner than any man alive.

We hit a toll road and I realize that we are not necessarily heading anywhere in specific. Skinner is just driving. There is a sign for Stroudsburg. Pennsylvania, I think, and mentally shrug.

"Are we stopping tonight?"

"Are you tired?" He sounds neither crisp nor tired, although the instrument lights flash weirdly on his glasses.

"No. You want me to drive for a while?"

"No." But he nods a little, to show that he appreciates the offer.

There is a CD sticking out of the player. I gently push it in with one finger. Old Clapton spills out of the speakers, mellow and longing. I watch his head nodding slightly in time to the beat, one finger tapping time on the steering wheel. Lonely music. The lane markers flicker by in time and I have slipped into sleep before the end of the second track.

When I awaken, it is to the pale greenish glare of a highway rest area. We must have just pulled in, Skinner is just taking the keys out of the ignition. He cocks his head at the bathrooms and I nod and clamber out of the car into the cricketing night. The parking lot lights blot out any stars, but the moon is down and the night air has a desperately sweet scent to it, like tears and rum and cherry blossoms. We are the only people here and the noises we make sound alien and remote. Footsteps, breathing, water dripping, lights humming, zippers hissing .. it all reverberates strangely inside my skull. At the sink next to Skinner, I wash my hands then cup the cold water up and press my face into my hands.

I need coffee.

Suddenly, I realize that I need a lot more than that. I need to get a life. I stare into the mirror at myself. No one looks good at 2 am, I know that. But I look so ... I look like a man who needs a hell of a lot more in his life than I've got. I glance into the mirror again and catch Skinner's dark-eyed stare.

I look like he does.

Well, shit. I thought I was just a ride-along for his mid-life crisis, now I find out that we're booked on the same trip.

"Ready to go?" he asks.

"Right behind you."

Walking back to the car, we stop and stare at one another stupidly for a minute. Then he tosses me the keys and crosses to the passenger side door. He folds himself neatly into what had been my seat and is asleep before we hit the highway. It feels good to drive for a while, Skinner asleep beside me, trusting that I will get us wherever we're going. The wing window is open, the spicy cool air pouring onto my face. The road is humming away beneath us, behind us and the night keeps unfurling and it feels so good to finally let myself be carried away on the crest of someone else's quest, only to discover that it's my own.

Finis

Feedback to: jimpage363@aol.com

 


 

Title: "Trees", #3 in the "Gone" series
Author: JiM
Date: 3/00
Pairing: XF, M/Sk
Rating: G
Warnings: None
Summary: It is possible to talk less and still be heard
Thanks: MJ, Leila, Merri-Todd, Karen. Apologies to Mallory/Ethan for taking
names in vain. :-)
Webpage: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/4859/JiM.html
Feedback: jimpage363@aol.com


* * *
"Trees"
by JiM
* * *

It is dawn when I open my eyes to the soft humming that has spidered into my dreams. The road is a grayish mist beyond us, flashes of white and red quickly swallowed up before I can identify them properly. I straighten up and stretch the crick in my neck. Mulder stops humming and half-turns to me. He smiles and hands me the half-full cup in his hand and I gulp down most of his coffee before I realize it.

"Morning."

"How can you tell?" I mumble and finish his coffee, still staring blankly at the gray fuzz beyond the windshield.

"The road's darker than the sky now," he says and I can hear the smile in his voice. Why the hell is he so happy? "We're outside of New Haven," he adds. "Breakfast? There's a Denny's at the next exit."

"Breakfast, yes; Denny's, no."

"You have something against Denny's?" he quirks his eyebrow at me. I notice how dark the ring beneath his eye is, how pale the skin under the morning stubble. I need to let him get some more sleep.

"If I never see another Denny's...some day, I'll tell you about it." My stomach grumbles in uneasy memory. Mulder says nothing, merely nods and keeps driving.

He is uncharacteristically patient with me and this odyssey. So far, he has asked no questions. Perhaps he realizes that I have no answers to give. I can give him nothing but silence and he returns the gift. We have never been talkative men, not with one another. The years jangle with the silences we have locked between us, all the angry, suspicious, hurt, careless, betrayed, betraying times.

But we eat breakfast at a small diner with no words between us and it is as peaceful and cool as the fog that licks at our freshly-shaven faces when we return to the car. It has been years since I last washed up in some roadside bathroom and now I remember one of the many reasons I no longer miss being on the road. Mulder takes it in stride; it is his electric razor we use and I realize he still does this every month or so when he's traveling on a case. Somehow, that strikes me as terribly sad.

The fog, the empty road, the hum of the diner's neon sign, Mulder's smooth jaw as he sits beside me -- they all swirl together and leave me feeling loose and ragged, a frayed net from which unexpected things might slip in a careless moment. The wheel beneath my hands gives me some stability, the road before some spurious sense of direction, the man beside me some tenuous link with a rapidly crumbling past.

After a while, the dawning sun begins to burn away the fog, the gray becoming silver, then thinning to pure morning gold. Mulder still sits beside me, one hand dangling loosely over the leg he has propped up on the dashboard. He is humming again, a soft sound that carries over the engine and the endless pavement noise.

"Mulder?"

He stops humming.

"I think I'm having a nervous breakdown."

The forefinger of the hand draped over his knee begins tapping softly against the denim of his thigh. Finally, he nods and says, "I think you might be right."

Somehow, that calm tone, that carefully considered response short-circuits the crackling, stinging emotion that has begun to choke me. "So, what should I do?" Cowardly of me, to throw it into his lap like that.

"Go with it," he says and I can hear him smile. "You're entitled."

My tongue feels cold and heavy in my mouth, the man I was is drowning in the past, panic is a brassy taste that I cannot swallow away and he is telling me...

"Just drive, Walter. It'll be OK."

I want to turn and stare at him. I want to glare at him until he stammers out the secret that allows him to sound so calm, so sure of himself, of me. Instead, I step on the gas, pushing the needle over eighty. The tires sing a little higher now, soothing me almost as much as Mulder's words. What are we doing here? Last night, it seemed to make more sense, but that careless feeling was burned away with the morning fog.

Then Mulder says quietly, "Let's keep going until we find some mountains that we feel like hiking. I think I'd like to sit somewhere and listen to some trees. You sound like you could use that, too."

His words strike deep and I wonder if they have cut me or will ring and echo inside me for years to come. "Mulder, do you read Frost?"

"'The Road Not Taken'?" He is smiling again, perfectly at ease discussing poetry with a speeding madman. Only Mulder, I think, beginning to know why I brought him with me. Now, if I only knew why he *came* with me, then I would know something worthwhile.

"There's one called 'The Sound of Trees'." He grunts, nodding, waiting for me to go on, so I do.

"Sometimes when I watch trees sway, >From the window or the door, I shall set forth for somewhere, I shall make the reckless choice. Some day when they are in voice And tossing so to scare The white clouds over them on. I shall have less to say, But I shall be gone."

He laughs outright when I finish reciting the final lines of the poem that I first stumbled over in some long-ago despised literature class, seizing on it like silver gleaming from the murk. Then he says only, "So let's be gone."

It is my turn to grunt and nod. Somehow, I have less to say than ever, but Mulder keeps hearing me.

* * *

Feedback: Jimpage363@aol.com

 


 

Title: "Frost", #4 in the "Gone" series
Author: JiM
Date: 4/00
Pairing: XF, M/Sk
Rating: G
Warnings: None
Summary: Mulder finally understands a secret about his life that everyone else has always known.
Thanks: MJ, Leila, Merri-Todd, Karen.
Webpage: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/4859/JiM.html
Feedback: jimpage363@aol.com


"Frost"
by JiM

Skinner is still asleep when I suddenly realize where we are going. He is a neat sleeper, arms folded loosely, head pillowed on the glass beside him. A stranger wouldn't know how terrified this man is as he finds the fractures in his own soul. That knowledge fills with me with a curious tenderness. I want to help him, to ease that fear somehow, to bring him to a place where he can sort through the shards and determine what it is he wants to keep of himself.

He ceded me the car keys at the last rest stop, somewhere in western Massachusetts. I had glanced through the racks of tourist attractions for nearby Vermont and New Hampshire, not really interested in glass factories or wholesale shopping centers. I find myself not particularly worried that we have no clear destination in mind. For once, the journey is enough for me. But every journey is bound to end somewhere and I think I have finally figured it out.

I have turned off the main highway and onto a small state route when he wakes. He sits up and arches his neck to work the kinks out. He stares at the heavily wooded slopes rising above us for a while, then asks, "Where are we?"

"Franconia, New Hampshire."

"What's here?"

"Trees."

He nods, eyes still fixed on the line of mountains that marches away on both sides of the road. There is precious little else on this road -- any restaurants or hotels we pass have a bleakly abandoned air to them. He doesn't ask any more and that tired trust is a balm on some old wounds that I still carry. After all we've been through, all I've done to him, all that's happened to him because of me, he can still give me this.

The Cannon Inn is only another two miles and Skinner is still rubbing his eyes as I park in the gravel lot before the 19th century building. He follows me silently, our shadows bleeding together on the fieldstone path as a raw wind nips at us. It is dim and warm inside; the door bangs shut behind us and a sleepy Golden Retriever wanders over to sniff at each of us as we stand and blink in a large common room. The long oak admission desk directly in front of us is empty.

There is a round granite fireplace in the exact center of the room with a small fire burning cheerfully in it. There are a few battered couches around it and some armchairs. A middle-aged woman uncurls herself from one of the armchairs and crosses to us, smiling.

"Are you gents here for lunch? We don't serve it during the off season, but I could probably slap together a few sandwiches and a pot of coffee. You look like you've been on the road for a while."

It is impossible not to smile back at her. "Sandwiches sound good, ma'am, but we were hoping you had a couple of rooms for us."

"We were?" Skinner mouths at me as she opens the battered leather ledger. I shrug at him.

"Oh dear," she murmurs. "We're not really set up for guests just now. It's the off season, so we're renovating a lot of the rooms, papering and painting and that sort of thing." She looks up at both of us, assessing. "I have a couple of singles open in the west wing, but those narrow beds would be torture for tall men like you." She stares at the book again and makes a pleased chirp. "Ah! I've got one room with a pair of queen-sized beds that we weren't planning to get to until next week. If you don't mind doubling up, I think you'd sleep more comfortably there."

There is no question in my mind that I will sleep better knowing that I can keep an eye on Skinner. I look at him and he shrugs. I guess I'm still driving. In short order, I have handed her my credit card and she is showing us upstairs to a huge sunlit room at the end of a long corridor that creaks as we pace down it in her wake. There are two beds, placed perpendicularly to one another, both covered with hand-stitched cotton quilts. Two large windows look out towards the mountains, gray-brown in the weak spring sun, streaks of deep green pines and firs filling in the hollows, highlighting the bleak beauty of their slopes.

Our hostess takes us back downstairs and into a cheerful back parlor, where she feeds us some thick hand-cut ham sandwiches and coffee. Skinner still doesn't say anything but this isn't like the calm silence of breakfast. He is holding himself together with that same old iron control that's been slipping away from him for months. He feeds his crusts to the dog and I can see his fingers tremble.

"Skinner," I say suddenly and he looks at me. "A breakdown isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes, you're just clearing the debris of the past out of the way, clearing the way for something new."

His jaw clenches and he goes a little paler than before. "And what if there isn't anything new, Mulder?" He stands up and strides out before I can say anything else.

His question hangs like cobwebs in the pale sunlight. I want to go after him and beat the shit out of him for voicing my deepest fear. What if there isn't anything more to me, to my life, than the rusty, tainted, half-empty husks of belief that I've been winnowing through for years? I drop my head and run my hands through my hair. What if neither of us can change?

* * *

When I call Scully, I get more pieces of the puzzle. The halls of the Hoover building are slippery with rumors about Skinner's absence. He walked out yesterday afternoon, leaving an envelope for the Director on his desk. The Director has announced that Skinner is on a six month medical leave of absence, but Scully has seen Skinner's assistant Kimberly crying at her desk. Part of the Bureau thinks that he's got cancer and has gone for chemo; the other half thinks it's alcoholism. No one appears to think that he's suddenly fallen apart and decided that his life is so empty that the open road looks better to him.

"Yeah, I'm OK, Scully. Yeah, he's OK. We both just needed some time away. To think."

And there's nothing else for me to say to her. I don't know why we're here, only that neither one of us will be the same when we leave here.

* * *

I find him out on the porch, staring up at the mountains. His head is thrown back and he is taking deep breaths of the pine-scented air and he looks less likely to vibrate into splinters now. He meets my gaze without flinching; I jerk my head toward the car and he nods, still content to let me choose the road.

It's a short drive; I got directions from the innkeeper before I left. The dirt road we turn up hasn't been graded smooth again after the winter and the ruts and frost heaves jar and rattle us. He doesn't say a word, but I hear him make a short, breathy sound as we pass an old gray mailbox that has the word "Frost" painted on it in solid black letters. The house is nothing special to look at, really. We have passed hundreds of such farmhouses on the way here; plain white, a deep verandah, a solid angled roof. This is a place for work still, not pilgrimages.

It's closed, the sign says that we can return on Memorial Day for a tour of Robert Frost's farm. I am not in the mood to wait and neither is Skinner. We park the car and get out, then duck under the chain and walk up the road. Still following our hostess' directions, I lead him past the weathered barn, to the start of a small trail. At the very edge of the woods, I pause and let him take the lead. I can't read the expression on his face and I hope to hell I haven't screwed this up. But he nods, then steps into the shadow of the trees along the poetry trail and there is nothing to do but follow.

It is quiet and cold under the shadow of those bare trees; they are dormant but not dead. Here and there, wooden plaques are attached to tree trunks and we stop to read the poems written on them. The wind mutters in the tops of the evergreens as if reciting the words we don't speak aloud. Skinner has moved on, his stride sounding hollowly up the trail when I catch sight of a plaque half-hidden by the deep green branches of a fir tree bent down too far with last winter's snow, perhaps.

/We dance round in a ring and suppose
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows/

Earlier, I wanted to hit Skinner for carelessly giving my fears voice; now the blow has been struck. Everything that's happened to me since I was 12 years old has been bleeding toward this moment in time. The moment when I finally realize that there is no answer, there never was one, there never will be. Samantha is dead, so are Scully's sister and Skinner's wife, the aliens are somewhere else, my family are all gone, I am alone and I will never know the reasons for any of it. Some secrets are known only to themselves. Why was I never able to hear anyone say this to me before?

My laughter sounds harsh and a little offkey even to my own ears under these trees and it brings Skinner back to my side with his brows knit. I can only shake my head at him and shove my shaking hands in my pockets. "Let's go, I'm cold."

I follow Skinner back to the car and hand him the keys. He doesn't ask, but he knows that something happened to me, back there under the trees. I'm not sure I even have the words to tell him what I know now, the new wisdom that is condensing in me, something he has known and accepted all along without question. Sometimes there are no answers. But the sun still shines, the wind still blows, the trees will bud someday soon and a friend will come out of the night and ask you to travel a road with him, not knowing where it may lead but knowing, somehow, that you are the one who will go the distance with him.

I thought that we had come here to help Skinner find something new for himself and instead, I have found the one thing that everyone has been shouting at me for years and which I never heard before today.

Every journey is bound to have an end, even those we don't realize we have taken.

 


 

Title: "Mountain", #5 in the "Gone" series
Author: JiM
Series: "Gone", XF slash
Pairing: M/Sk
Date: 6/00
Feedback: jimpage363@aol.com
Thanks: Dawn and Karen and MT and MJ and Amirin - with friends like this, who could fail? And, as always, Mona, who keeps a dynamite page.
Website: Stories 1 - 4 can be found at: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/4859/JiM.html
Note: The "Old Man of the Mountain" can be viewed at: [archivist's note: website address given by author is no longer valid] (bottom of the page)


* * *

"Mountain" by JiM

Something happened to Mulder today, out under those bare spring-gnawed trees. He sits across from me, drinking his coffee in slow measured sips and I can almost see him, feel him ringing like a crystal bowl. One dead man's words, nailed to a tree, have left him silent, pale and gasping, a bruised look to his eyes. The only question is: will the blow, whatever it was, shatter him?

I shake my head. How can I worry about him when I can't even answer the question for myself? I may yet shatter; I can feel the cracks spidering outward, cutting deeply through everything I ever thought I knew. Mulder believes there is something new on the other side but I am not so sure. I have seen men come back from their breakdowns and seen only fractured ruins in their eyes, watched their days carved into portions carefully allotted to pills and therapists. If that's what waits for me, I won't come back from this trip. I'll just keep driving.

But what about Mulder? He wasn't ready for this. I have known, in some way, that this was coming for a long time. I could feel the levies and dams washing away within, could tell my control was flaking away like rust. But I don't think Mulder did. After all, it's such an ordinary kind of terror, this awakening to find oneself rimed with middle age.

It's lonely as hell to discover that you have neither children nor wife nor good friends nor a spectacular career to show for the efforts of an entire adult life. I was full of such promise when I left college... At least Mulder can point to the concerted efforts of an entire shadow conspiracy that he opposed with every breath in his body, several times to the point of death. They were more than reason enough for a man to fail. And he did not, not entirely. But me? No answer. Yes, I opposed them, but not whole-heartedly. I tried to balance between expediencies and I was chewed up and spit out. Now there is nothing left of who I wanted to be. All those nights I sat in the desert and wanted, I think I was wanting to become myself. And now, I don't think it's possible.

We drink our coffee before the round stone fireplace, raised up like an altar to a benign household god. Our hostess comes and goes as silently and kindly as breath. Coffee and brandy and something baroquely soothing plays on hidden speakers while Mulder continues his inner inventory and I watch the flames. The innkeeper's dog leans against my knee and sighs in contentment as I stroke his silky head. Perhaps it is progress; I have made one living being content for one entire minute. It is more than I ever thought of before.

Tomorrow, I think that we will climb the path and go look at the Old Man of the Mountain. The stone profile has been crumbling away for decades and they have spent outrageous amounts of time and money demanding that it remain exactly as it was with wire and spackle and bolts. But they are fools. All things change, even mountains. I need to see that mountain, to watch the facade crumble into gravel and scree and to lay my hand against the rock and know that I will still be myself when everything loose within me has fallen away. I think Mulder does, too.

He hasn't said a word by the time we both head up to bed. We slip around one another quietly as we undress and use the tiny bathroom off our room. Mulder is sitting on the end of his bed when I come out of the bathroom in boxers and a tee shirt. He is staring blindly at the work boot in his hand; the other remains on his foot. When I lay my hand on his shoulder, he starts, then looks up at me. I can do nothing but nod, I am as lost as he. But somehow, that's enough. He nods back, a small smile forming on his lips. Sometimes, it is enough to know that one isn't lost all alone. I fall asleep to the sound of his breathing in the moonlit darkness.

When I open my eyes, it is deep in the night. The moon no longer shines directly in the window, but it throws long silver rhombuses on the rug. Mulder stands in only his shorts, looking out the window. His back is against the window frame so that I see exactly one half of him silvered in the moonlight, the other half too deeply shadowed for me to pick out even his most familiar features without my glasses. He has the window open and icy air pours past him, carrying the scents of granite and trees and time. I can no longer hear him breathing and it is this that finally makes me whisper, "Mulder?"

There is no answer for a long time, then he replies to a conversation that I hadn't realized we were having until this moment. "I just want something...*someone* to hold on to," Mulder says softly, mostly to himself. The words hang in the cold night air and shimmer like quicksilver. He is looking at me now, frosted by the moon and shivering in the cold, standing alone and proud, more than half of him made indistinct in the darkness.

After a long moment, maybe the last moment in a long lifetime of numbing disappointments, I hold up one corner of the quilt. If it isn't quite an invitation, it is an acceptance of something I never before acknowledged, something that is now almost comfortingly inevitable. I move back to give it some room.

Mulder stares blindly toward me, then makes his way over and slides between the warm sheets, settling with a shiver into the space that I have left for him. There is a long silence and we lay without touching, without talking. I can hear him breathing in the silvery darkness again.

"Mulder, is this why I invited you along?" I am staring at the ceiling as if not making eye contact will rob this moment of all its dangerous rhythms.

"I think so...part of it, anyway," Mulder says gently.

"I didn't know." I sound a little desperate, like a man who doesn't know why he just invited someone into his bed.

"I know," Mulder says in that same gentle tone. My right arm is up above my head, my fist clenching, flexing and opening like some kind of destructive night-blooming thing.

Mulder's voice sounds again in the darkness, as comfortingly familiar as a stuffed animal. "It's all right. It's just something new."

It makes me laugh, small choked noises and my lungs are clenching in time with my fist. "Damn straight, it's new."

"You really never knew?"

"I... don't think so... no."

"It'll be all right," Mulder says again.

The sheets whisper beneath me as I turn to face him in the dark. "I'm too old for 'new'," I say, clutching desperately at who I used to be as the rocks begin to slide in earnest.

"What else is there?" Mulder shoots back.

Pills, I think. Therapists and that carved up look in my own eyes. Pills, or Mulder. As if I've made any other choice in the past ten years. I reach out my hand, fumble it towards him. He catches it securely in his own hand and holds on tightly, as if I would fall away, slip beneath the waves, be dragged off if he did not grip me with all his strength.

"So, what happens now?"

"How the hell do I know?" Mulder says with a touch of irritation.

"Hey! I'm the trembling virgin here, dammit. It's not like *I* have a clue."

Mulder's laughter pisses me off for one white-hot moment, then I see that it really is funny. I guess sex always is. We are both still chuckling when he realizes that my hand is shaking again, fingers clutching his a little too tightly. Then Mulder is pulling my hand up to rest on his chest and saying quietly in the dark, "It'll be OK, Walter. Just let it go for tonight."

"But..." I have no idea what I meant to say; I have only the dimmest sense of outrage that I can't just leap off the cliff now and be done with it. I am terrified and must turn and fight my fear and he is telling me to lay beside it and ...

"Sleep would be good," Mulder says, then yawns. Immediately, I remember that I have hauled this man six hundred miles from his home and he hasn't slept in over 24 hours. "It's not that I don't want you, because, trust me, I do. For *years* now," he mumbles. "But I think slow would be good here. At least, I'd kinda like to make love to you when I'm not strung out on caffeine and existential crisis," he says softly, eyes gleaming in the uncertain light.

I can feel myself blinking; he is braver than I am. He has said the words that I can barely think. But I am a fighter and my hand is still in the grip of a comrade. Tonight, I think, we will sleep beside one another. Then tomorrow, or the next day, or sometime very soon, we will make love and he will be my lover. And I will be his.

We are both insane.

But all I do is nod. Mulder smiles again, that very gentle smile that goes with the voice and I think of how cowardly I am, making him carry me through this. Without thought, I am leaning toward him and my dry lips brush his cheek. When I settle back, he blinks slowly at me and his smile is so happy; once again, I have made another living being happy for one instant in time. It is a good feeling to take down into sleep with me, my fingers still tangled up with his, rising and falling on his sleeping chest.

If a mountain can reshape itself, so can I.

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