Continued from Chapter Thirteen
["The Mastodon Diaries" is rated NC-17 for Violence, Language, and Graphic Sexual Content. Reader discretion is advised.]
Shortly after sunup Gini shouldered her pack and began hiking south, following A-Chi Stream exactly as she had done the previous day. The land was flatter and more open here than to the north. Tall shagbark hickories lined both banks, their broad, woolly leaves fluttered in the morning breeze, filtering the sunrise and casting lively shadows on the water. The air tickled like butterfly wings against her bare legs and arms. It carried the honey-sweet scent of nectar from the profusion of lilies that were growing around the trees’ gnarled trunks. She plucked several blossoms, staining her fingers orange-yellow with pollen. Popping the flowers whole into her mouth, she ate while she walked. The sweet-tasting buds, dripping with dew, appeased her growling belly and made a fine breakfast.
She traveled a considerable distance, listening to the trill of vireos and trying to spot the shy birds, before it struck her that she had not seen a single footprint in the moist, lowland soil since starting out.
Muhl-dar and Day-nuh’s unusual footwear left distinctive, easy-to-spot impressions, yet there were none here. And now that she was looking more closely, she saw no other signs of her friends’ passing either, no crushed vegetation, no broken twigs.
Could they be traveling in the stream itself?
The water ran deep and muddy, channeled between sloped banks rough with greenbriers and supplejacks. Boulders the size of mastodon skulls cluttered the sluggish stream. Walking around them would be cumbersome, impossible in some places. It seemed unlikely anyone would choose to travel there instead of on the bank.
Dread crept up Gini’s spine like a spider in the dark, bringing her to a stop.
Muhl-dar and Day-nuh had not come this way, she realized.
But which way had they gone? And at what point had they decided to turn away from the stream?
Worry tightened her chest as she tried to remember when and where she’d last seen their tracks.
Late yesterday evening, she recalled, on the northern border of the swamp. Muhl-dar’s familiar prints, pressed deeply into the mud, and Day-nuh’s smaller, shallower tracks had led her directly into the murky water. She assumed they would continue across to higher land, where the swamp narrowed once again into a south-flowing brook. After all, who would leave behind a source of fresh water when they carried no waterbag?
And yet, for whatever reason, Muhl-dar and Day-nuh had veered away.
Dismayed, Gini turned around. She would need to backtrack until she picked up their trail again. Focusing her eyes on the ground, she trudged along slowly, paying close attention while searching for the smallest sign of their passing.
Her own tracks remained clearly visible in the loamy soil and she followed them all the way to the shagbark where she’d spent the previous night. Despite her vigilance, she found no evidence of the others.
It was then she remembered hearing wolves howl while she sat in the tree waiting for sleep to claim her. Wolves could have chased Muhl-dar and Day-nuh off their course. Bees started buzzing in her stomach at the idea, and for a moment she thought she might lose her breakfast.
She decided to cross the swamp again, return the way she’d come and locate the tracks she’d seen yesterday. Then she would try to follow Muhl-dar and Day-nuh’s new trail.
Not an accomplished tracker, Gini worried she might miss a shallow print or mistake a deer trail for a human path. Although she had sometimes listened to Dzeh and the other clansmen describe their hunting strategies and cunning as they sat around the hearth, she knew that listening was not doing. Even experienced hunters often returned to camp without meat, having lost the trail of their quarry.
The sun was already halfway up in the sky; Muhl-dar and Day-nuh had a lengthy head start. If Gini failed to find their route soon, she would fall too far behind to ever catch them.
Then what would she do?Legs quaking and heart pounding, she headed into the swamp once more.
* * *
“Which way now?” Scully asked. Dwarfed by a forest of ghostly birches and standing knee-deep in ferns, she waited for Mulder to make up his mind.
He swiveled, a chevron of indecision marring his brow. Finally he speared the air with an outstretched arm. “That way...” -- his finger meandered northwest -- “I think.”
“I was about to say the opposite.” She squinted into the morning sun. “Weren’t we heading west last night?”
“Were we?” He let his arm drop.
“Mulder, I’m thirsty.”
“So am I.”
“We should have stayed with the stream.”
“Scully, it was a swamp.”
She licked dry lips, feeling exhausted and hungry and sick to death of being in the Pleistocene. “At least it was wet.”
“And full of saber-too--” His jaws suddenly clamped shut. He shouldered past her and started hiking downhill. “Fine, we’ll head east.”
She stood her ground for a moment while his words sunk in. “Hey, wait! What were you going to say?” Her voice rattled in her chest as she jogged after him.
“No, you said something about saber-toothed tigers.”
He quickened his pace.
Her ankle throbbed from her unhealed sprain and she immediately began to fall behind.
“Mulder, slow down!”
He took three more long strides before he did as she asked. Coming to a stop, he straightened his shoulders and turned to face her. “I saw cat tracks. Big cat tracks,” he admitted.
“Where?” She caught up to him, breathless and limping.
“In the swamp. Last night.”
“You didn’t think it was worth mentioning at the time?”
“I didn’t see the point.”
“The point--” She struggled to control her temper. Sometimes he could be so infuriating, the way he danced around the truth, thinking he was protecting her by keeping things to himself. Well, she didn’t need his coddling. “The point is we should be honest with each other.”
“That’s interesting, consid--” Again he stopped himself mid-sentence.
“See? You’re doing it right now.”
“Treating me like a child, which I find insulting -- and unjustified -- after all we’ve been through.” Her anger came spilling out. “When will we be equals, Mulder? When will you be comfortable sharing the truth with me? What exactly does it take to earn your trust?”
He stepped closer and loomed over her. When he spoke it was through clenched teeth. “Isn’t that a bit hypocritical? Tell me you aren’t keeping a few secrets of your own.”
There was no denying she censored her thoughts...a lot. Whether she did it more or less often than he did was irrelevant. They were both liars-by-omission.
Ten thousand years from home with no one to depend upon but each other and here they were, still letting the worst of their old habits drive a wedge of misunderstanding between them. For God’s sake, what benefit was there to perpetuating these foolish secrets and half-truths?
She looked up at his bruised face, his swollen eye and split lip. Dried blood clung to his hair; fatigue lined his brow.
It was time for a change.
She steadied her voice and asked, “What do you want to know?”
Her question clearly took him by surprise. He must have been expecting her to continue their argument, not capitulate, and it took him a moment to mentally switch gears.
“Go ahead,” she prompted. “Ask me anything. I promise to answer truthfully.”
Nodding his head, he said, “Okay, I want to know what happened between you and Dzeh.” Suddenly his nod changed to a vehement shake. “No, I don’t. Forget it.”
He spun around and began walking east again, although with less urgency than before.
She hobbled after him, wondering if he really did or didn’t want to hear about Dzeh. And if he did, could she bring herself to tell him? She’d just promised to answer his questions truthfully, whatever he wanted to ask, and she’d meant it. But then she hadn’t expected him to ask about Dzeh.
Neither of them said a word for the next several minutes. They mutely wound their way downhill around stands of prickly vegetation and in between saplings as dense as prison bars. Mulder paused to hold a brier out of her way, face set in angry despair, reminding her of a line from a poem: “Life is a quest and love a quarrel.” Damn Millay...her poetry often left a sting, like a slap. It was no wonder she preferred science to literature. Hard facts were dispassionate and predictable. Love, on the other hand, was too damn personal and confusing.
Did Mulder *really* want to know what happened between her and Dzeh?
She decided to find out. “He didn’t kiss me.”
“I said forget it. I don’t want to know.” His hands curled into fists and his strides lengthened. He dodged a thatch of brambles.
“Then why did you ask?”
Ignoring her question he said, “Just look for the stream, will you?”
They were heading downhill through thickets and shadows. The stream was nowhere in sight.
“It only lasted a few minutes,” she said, returning to the subject of Dzeh. If he wanted the truth, then he’d get it.
He glanced over his shoulder, looking confused. “What?”
“Dzeh...the, uh...thing. The swap.”
Revulsion darkened his eyes. “I don’t care.”
“He didn’t hurt me...or at least he never meant to hurt me. He was gentle.”
“I said I don’t care.”
“I think you do.”
“Scully, please, don’t do this.” He stopped walking to pin her with a sad stare.
“Didn’t you want us to be honest?”
“No, that’s what you wanted.”
She blinked up at him, perplexed. Was he saying he preferred secrets and wounded feelings over the truth?
Too bad, Mulder. Enough of this pretense and deceit. Being honest had to be better than the status quo.
She opened her mouth, prepared to meet his growing ire and tell him every distasteful detail, but he cut her off before she could begin.
“Don’t, Scully. Don’t say something we’ll both regret.” Eyes bright with tears, he looked uncharacteristically frightened.
His show of panic brought her up short and she paused for a moment to examine her motives before risking their relationship. In many ways it would be a relief to confide in him, to liberate her unease. But how would her release help him?
He’d been beaten within an inch of his life only yesterday and it wouldn’t benefit him in any way to suffer the additional torture of listening to her confessions.
“You’re right. I’m being selfish.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, I said it.”
He combed his fingers through his hair, obviously conflicted. It was his turn to capitulate.
“Uh...he really didn’t hurt you?”
He turned to gaze at the forest, presenting a weary profile. His next words sounded thin and forlorn, and she had to strain to hear him when he asked, “What did he do?”
Although his eyes were focused on the tree branches, she knew he was giving her his full attention.
“He treated the whole thing in a very business-like way. It was as if he had a job to do--”
“A job?” Disbelief flared Mulder’s nostrils as his eyes once again met hers. “I doubt he felt that way. How can a man make love to a woman and not feel--” His voice cracked and, Adam’s apple bobbing, he cleared his throat. “Can we please not talk about this?”
His question aroused unwelcome suspicions. Had he felt something for Klizzie? Simple lust? Or worse: attraction, pleasure and gratification? She had experienced none of these. And from the way Dzeh had behaved toward her he hadn’t seemed to either.
“Are you saying you enjoyed yourself with Klizzie?”
“No, I’m not saying that. No.” The urge to argue appeared to leach out of him.
“Then what did you feel?” she asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You were the one who wanted to play true confessions, not me.”
“And you’re the one who touts the truth as some sort of Holy Grail.”
“The *truth*...” He paused to fill his lungs, as if preparing for battle. “The truth is I didn’t want to participate in that repulsive custom in the first place, but you already know that, so why are we having this conversation?”
They were having this conversation because she wanted to hear him say that he loved her, that he found her more attractive than Klizzie, or any woman, that he intended to devote the rest of his life to her.
But then, maybe none of those things were true.
Maybe he had enjoyed being with Klizzie more than he was admitting.
Resentment, alarm, and distrust coursed through her veins, singeing her cheeks and turning her bones rubbery. She realized she was jealous. Crazy insane jealous and she hated the feeling. It was irrational. It made her feel vulnerable and powerless, and she’d already had her fill of feeling powerless.
She decided it might be best to keep some secrets after all...like her suspicions about Mulder and Klizzie.
“Fine, this conversation is over.”Eyes stinging with tears and heart pinched with doubt she elbowed past him. They’d lost their way in more ways than one, it seemed, and now they were stumbling blindly toward nothing at all.
* * *
Dzeh led the search party, wanting to be where the view was unobstructed and odors unsullied by the passage of his companions, where sounds were not muddled by their panting breaths and thudding footfalls. His senses were primed for this hunt and even after a full morning of strenuous travel he remained fully alert.
He slogged through the lowland cedar forest, dodging puddles and bog plants, following the murky course of A-Chi Stream. The sodden ground held tracks: Muhl-dar’s, Day-nuh’s and Gini’s.
Anger burned in his throat at the thought of his sister with the strangers. Muhl-dar had robbed him not once, but twice, first taking the spiritual offering and then kidnapping Gini. Only the lowest sort of villain would accept a man’s hospitality and then steal a helpless girl-child from his hearth.
It sickened Dzeh to consider what despicable acts Muhl-dar might inflict on little Gini. Would he force her to lay with him on his sleeping skins? The girl was too young to be mounted by a mature man; such a mating would be excruciating.
Silently he begged the Spirits to protect his young sister from the evil stranger, to keep her safe until he could rescue her.
Perhaps he was already too late. It was possible Muhl-dar had claimed his sister’s innocence last night, back on the bank where the hunters had first encountered the strangers’ odd tracks. There had been blood beside the prints, and he feared it was Gini’s maiden blood.
Vengeance ignited his temper and he lengthened his strides. There was no doubt Muhl-dar was a fearsome opponent. But he was without his powerful thunderclap weapon -- he had left it in his hut back at the camp -- and he was no storm-conjuring god either; Dzeh had seen his blood run as freely and dark as any man’s when struck by stone. He could be defeated. And Dzeh longed to be the man who choked the last despicable breath from his throat.
“Dzeh! Wait!” Wol-la-chee shouted from behind him.
He turned to find his cousin pacing in a circle, eyes aimed at the ground, while the others stood by and watched.
Pointing a finger, Wol-la-chee squatted and said, “There is something here you should see.”
Dzeh backtracked to kneel beside him.
There at their feet, Muhl-dar and Day-nuh’s prints pocked the muddy soil beside those of a large cat.
“Saber-tooth,” Lin said, identifying the paw prints.
“The strangers traveled west from here,” Wol-la-chee said. “Their tracks head upland, away from the stream.”
“But Gini...?” Dzeh turned to scrutinize the tracks to the south. “Why would they let her go?”
“Maybe the cat surprised them?” Chal suggested.
A saber-tooth cat was a serious threat. It might have hidden in the swamp to ambush its unsuspecting prey, scattering them when it attacked. Had it claimed a victim? Fear stung the back of Dzeh’s throat. A cat would go after the most vulnerable...the smallest...
“Which way now?” asked Wol-la-chee. “Should we follow Gini or go after the strangers?”
Dzeh stood and looked first in one direction and then the other.“We will split up,” he said.
* * *
Gini hunkered down, submerging herself up to her neck in swamp water when she heard the voice of her brother. Trying to make no noise, she peered through the cover of loosestrife to locate him.
She spotted him with three others: Uncle Lin, Wol-la-chee and that awful boy Chal. They were standing only a stone’s throw away, talking in low tones.
They hadn’t noticed her...yet.
While they talked, she concentrated on stilling the shivering in her legs. The black water was frightfully cold. She bit her lower lip to prevent her teeth from chattering and possibly alerting them to her presence. It seemed each breath she took roared like a storm. Couldn’t they hear it? Couldn’t they hear the frantic drumming of her heart?
Lin jabbed the air, pointing west where the ground sloped upward into a dense evergreen forest. Dzeh pointed south and then suddenly turned to face her. She remained motionless, certain he would spot her among the yellow weeds.
But his gaze fell away when he stubbornly shook his head in response to something Lin was suggesting.
“No! *You* look for Gini,” he said, his voice carrying to her. “*I* want Muhl-dar. It is my right!”
Murmurs from Lin and the others were followed by more arguments from Dzeh.
They were splitting up! Oh, no! Dzeh and Lin were heading west after Muhl-dar and Day-nuh. Wol-la-chee and Chal were coming south, presumably for her. Now what would she do?
As Wol-la-chee and the boy waded toward her, she held her breath and sank beneath the water’s surface. She curled over her knees and listened to their splashing steps -- deep, thick sounds echoing through the cold, murky water. The men stirred the mud, blinding her. Their passing caused bog plants to churn around her. She felt the slimy tickle of leaves across her face. Her lungs soon ached for fresh air, but she didn’t dare rise. Not yet...not yet. She had to let them pass her by and get beyond earshot. She knew they were sharp-eared and keen of eye, skilled at spotting their quarry in the densest forest. The slightest noise or movement would alert them. She *must* wait. She prayed to the Spirits to help her hold her breath just a little longer so she might evade detection.
But then what? Which way should she go? If she tried to follow Muhl-dar and Day-nuh, Dzeh and Lin would be ahead of her. But it was pointless to continue south. Wol-la-chee and Chal would soon discover she had backtracked and they were sure to do the same. She couldn’t hide in the swamp forever and she certainly was not going to return to Turkey Lake.
Her chest felt ready to burst. The desire to breathe was nearly overwhelming. Were Wol-la-chee and Chal gone?
Finally, she could wait no longer. She lifted her head, just enough to release her breath and take in a quiet gasp of fresh air.
Slowly, silently, she turned to see if they were out of sight.
Thank the Spirits! They were gone.Quaking from cold and fear, she rose on unsteady legs and headed west, deciding to follow Dzeh and Lin. If nothing else, maybe she would be able to intervene on Muhl-dar and Day-nuh’s behalf when Dzeh caught up with them.
* * *
Begin with a few simple, non-threatening questions, Mulder told himself. Start small, that’s the key.
“Sssssoooo...what’s your favorite color, Scully?” he asked. Four hours of silence had begun to wear on his nerves.
They’d left the wooded hills behind and were now wading through a sea of ripening wheat-like plants, two specks of humanity on a vast, open prairie, seemingly alone in the world and as insignificant as insects. Their passing embossed twin trails, wavering and transient, into the waist-high grass. In the distance, a row of hazy mountain peaks studded the horizon. Overhead, the empty sky looked close enough to touch.
“My favorite color?” Incredulity pinched Scully’s brows. “How is that relevant to anything?”
It wasn’t really, but at least it had prompted her to break her icy silence.
“Uh...I was just realizing how little we really know about each other.”
“You were just realizing that?”
“Well, no...I mean, I’ve thought about it before...of course.” He tried to laugh but it came out sounding unconvincing and a little pathetic. “I mean, we’ve been working together now for, what...five years?” -- five years, three months and twenty-one days -- “and we don’t know some of the most important things about each other.”
“My favorite color is not one of the most important things about me.”
She was still pissed and he was floundering.
“Uh, okay, not important, necessarily, but basic, which is actually quite important by virtue of its very basic-ness...” Basic-ness? Was that a word? Shit, he was sounding like an idiot. He corrected himself. “By virtue of its basic nature. The core of who we are, really, the building blocks to our personality. Things that define our character.”
God, he was babbling, when what he really wanted to do was end their bickering and make up for his abysmal behavior earlier in the day. Scully had sucker-punched him with her questions about Klizzie, and, caught off guard, he hadn’t thought to duck and cover, but had struck back instead. Now he felt ashamed because she hadn’t deserved his ire. Just the opposite. She’d sacrificed herself to Dzeh to save his ass, and he hadn’t reciprocated. He owed her more than an explanation; he owed her an apology.
Too bad he didn’t have the cojones to own up to his miserable cowardice.
“Loden,” she said at last. “My favorite color is loden. What does that say about me?”
Loden? Whose favorite color was loden? And what the hell color was that exactly?
“Um, I’d say it defines you as...as...”
“Your own person?” He plucked a lithe stalk from the field and tickled her ear with its bobbing seed-head. “Ask me my favorite color.”
She batted away his attempt to smooth things over. Again they fell into an uncomfortable silence. Evidently she wasn’t willing to forgive and forget.
His guilt was growing exponentially, threatening to choke him.
He wanted to apologize and tell her the truth, he really did, but he couldn’t figure out a way to do it that wouldn’t end up making her feel even worse.
I’m sorry you gave yourself to a Cro-Magnon, Scully, and, oh by the way, did I mention I didn’t go the distance myself?
It was bad enough he’d negated her sacrifice by getting them kicked out of the tribe over that damn idol. Add to that the fact he’d dodged the mate swap and, no matter how he phrased it, she was going to be hurt.
He didn’t know what to do. He’d really messed up this time. If he lived ten thousand years he wouldn’t forgive himself for allowing that goddamn wife swap. What had he been thinking? How had he let himself be convinced it would work out okay? Jesus Christ, the choice to turn tail and run seemed so obvious now, but at the time...
No, even at the time, he hadn’t felt right about it. He’d hated it. And now he hated himself for letting it happen. He’d allowed another man to make love to Scully. Jesus fucking Christ.
To add insult to injury, now he was refusing her the opportunity to talk out her experience. As a psychologist, he knew how necessary it was for her to express her feelings about what happened. He should be encouraging her to open up, not closing her off.
If only there was some way he could listen to her side without having to tell his.
She walked beside him, shoulders slumped, hands skimming the tops of the wheat plants. Unexpectedly she looked up at him and asked, “Okay...what’s your favorite color?”
Whether she really wanted to know or not was beside the point. She was opening the door of communication and he was grateful. “Uh...yellow.”
She frowned in disbelief. “Yellow?”
“What, you don’t think I have a sunny personality?”
“You want an honest answer?”
He supposed not. Poking his stalk of wheat between his teeth, he chewed while he explained, “Yellow is one of the few colors I seem to see the same as everyone else.” He was constantly confusing red with green. Blue was pretty easy to distinguish, as long as it wasn’t what other people called violet or aqua. He glanced at her and wondered how others saw her red hair or blue eyes. “Then again, how do I *know* I’m seeing color the same way someone else sees it? I mean...isn’t it possible everyone’s perception is unique?”
Her stern expression relaxed as she considered his question. Although his meaning had intentionally gone beyond the subject of colorblindness, he expected her to give him a scientific explanation of rods and cones and visual acuity. Instead she surprised him by saying “I don’t think we can ever truly know another person’s experience.”
Should that stop him from trying?
Start small, he reminded himself.
“Favorite holiday?” he challenged.
It was entirely possible she saw his game for what it was. For the time being, she seemed willing to play along.
“Christmas, when Dad was home and the whole family was together,” she said. “Mom had this beautiful creche that used to belong to my grandmother. She’d set it up beside the tree, while we kids hung the ornaments. Dad watched from his favorite chair. He’d wait until we were finished before he’d stand to inspect our work. If it passed muster, which it always did, he’d place the star on the top of the tree, like some sort of Medal of Honor. He always looked so proud of his family at that moment.”
“It was.” A smile lifted the corners of her mouth.
He wondered what specific memory was causing her contented look. “What are you thinking?” he asked, mirroring her smile.
“Oh, I was just remembering the way Melissa used to get mad at me every Christmas Eve.”
“So there was a flaw in this Norman Rockwell holiday of yours?”
She nodded. “Missy was a peeker.”
“Mm, we’d sneak downstairs after Mom and Dad went to bed and she would shake the presents, try to peek beneath the gift wrap, that sort of thing. I was more restrained.”
“What a surprise.”
“Hey, I’m proud of the fact I could look without touching.”
“No wonder it took you five years to jump my bones.” He dodged a playful slap. “You *never* peeked, Scully? Not once?”
“No, of course not. Did you?”
“Well, yeah...I thought everyone peeked.”
She snatched the stalk from his mouth and, smiling wider, stuck it between her own teeth. He was struck by the intimacy of this gesture and took it as absolution for his hurtful behavior earlier in the day.
“Missy always tried to talk me into giving her hints about the gifts I’d gotten her, promising to tell me what she’d gotten me in return,” she said through clenched teeth. The seed-head bobbled on the end of its long stem as she spoke. “I told her ‘loose lips sink ships,’ which just made her madder. It drove her crazy that I could keep a secret when she--” Her smile suddenly vanished and she grimaced, offering him a penitent shrug.
He wasn’t about to surrender their hard won geniality over the casual mention of secrets. “My favorite holiday was Flag Day.”
“Mulder, Flag Day isn’t a holiday.”
“Tell that to my Great Aunt Emily. She used to babysit me before Sam was born. She’d come over from New Bedford, take me to Menemsha Pond to play on the beach, build sandcastles and stuff. One day this old guy with an artificial leg limped over to us and stuck a miniature American flag in the turret of my castle. He said, ‘Every castle needs a flag, little man. Be sure to guard those stripes with your life. Better soldiers than you and me have died for ’em.’ Then he tipped his hat to Aunt Emily and said, ‘Happy Flag Day, ma’am.’”
“That’s creepy, Mulder. And I’m not quite seeing why this is one of your favorite holiday memories.”
“There’s more.” He plucked a fresh stalk of grass and twirled it absently between his fingers. “I took his words to heart and brought the little flag home with me. Naturally, Mom wanted to know where I’d gotten it. I told her and she had pretty much the same reaction you did.” He tapped the end of her nose with his wheat, making her smile. “She threw the flag away.”
“She threw it away?”
“Yep, she said it probably came off a grave down at Squibnocket Point.”
“She might have been right.”
“Yeah, she might’ve been. Didn’t matter. Aunt Emily took me to get an ice cream cone to make me feel better.”
He tossed the wheat like a spear. It flew only a couple of feet before it nose-dived into the field.
“Mulder, I don’t understand your story.”
“What’s to understand?”
“Well, it’s mildly disturbing and seems to have no point.”
“Does it have to have a point?”
“No, I suppose not. It’s just...I was hoping for some kind of resolution.”
He wanted to say, “life isn’t always that neat and tidy, Scully,” but figured she already knew that. If her cancer and everything else that had happened to her since she’d met him hadn’t driven home the point, then their weeks here in the Pleistocene certainly must have.
“Scully, I don’t want to fight anymore. Can we call a truce?”
“Mulder, we’re not fight--” She stopped herself and removed the grass from between her lips. “I don’t want to fight either.” Then, in an uncharacteristic confession, she admitted, “I feel scared here. And helpless, which I hate. But I shouldn’t take it out on you. I’m sorry.”
He reached for her hand and dovetailed his fingers with hers. She didn’t pull away and it felt so damn nice to be touching her. “I’m sorry, too,” he said.
“In the interest of not antagonizing each other further, how about we come up with a list of subjects never to be mentioned again?”
“Forever?” he asked.
“At least until we return home.”
Would Dzeh be on her list? he wondered. And what about Klizzie?
Apparently she was in no hurry to start her list. The next ten minutes passed without either of them speaking. He was reluctant to present his own list. There were several items on it he preferred to never mention, not even for the sake of claiming them off limits. Some would hurt her; some would hurt him...or at least hurt his relationship with her.
Finally he broke the silence by finishing his earlier story. “Aunt Emily mailed me a new flag every Flag Day until she died last year at the age of eighty-two. She always included a note, which read, ‘Every castle needs a flag, little man.’” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “That might not be the sort of resolution you were looking for, Scully, but I ended up with thirty-three flags. That’s a hell of a lot more than I ever expected.”
She offered him a sad half-smile and returned the pressure to his hand. “Do you still have them?”
“No. After her funeral, I went to Menemsha Beach and built a giant sandcastle with thirty-three turrets. Put a flag in each one.”
She was quiet for a moment, as if trying to work this information into their shared timeline. “I didn’t know your aunt died last year.”
He shrugged. “You’d just gotten out of the hospital. It was a few weeks before we went to Florida to hunt moth men.”
“Oh.” She stopped walking, pulling him up short. Snagging his other hand, she stared up at him with teary eyes. “You’re right, Mulder, we don’t know some of the most important things about each other.”
No, we don’t, Scully. You don’t know how much I hate myself for letting you down, or how angry I am that Dzeh didn’t kiss you because I know he did much worse than that, or how very, very badly I want to tell you I never touched Klizzie. She wasn’t you and you’re the only woman I’ll ever love, with my body or my heart.
Rather than saying any of those things, he wrapped his arms around her and sighed into her hair.“We know each other’s favorite colors. That’s a start.” Closing his eyes, he leaned against her and whispered, “The rest will come.”
* * *
From her vantage point, sitting on the summit of Crouching Cat Mountain, Klizzie stared into the valley where the world appeared unchanged.
It was an illusion, she knew.
Turkey Lake still rested like a blessing in the palm of the valley, reflecting the cloudless midday sky. The sky was the color of pickerelweed, which blossomed in bunches in the shallows by the lake’s eastern shore. Klizzie knew that clusters of frog eggs clung to the reeds there, full of the promise of life.
The air was balmy and scented with clover. Honeybees drifted from flower to flower. The hillside hummed with their collective buzz. An occasional silent butterfly waggled among them, peaceably sharing the Spirits’ bounty.
The village itself appeared tidy and tranquil. Communal hearth fires glinted like sunshine off stone. Domed huts dotted the clearing, familiar, safe and welcoming, although empty now because most of the villagers were at the ball field where Turtle Clan was battling Badger Clan in a game of yea-go. The traditional ceremonies of the Mastodon Feast continued, despite personal concerns about thieving strangers or one missing girl. Yesterday’s events were insignificant when compared to the clans’ spiritual obligations or even their empty bellies.
The ball suddenly struck a goal post, cracking like one of last night’s lightning bolts. The sound echoed against the hillsides and sent a cold Spirit skittering down Klizzie’s spine. A cheer erupted from the onlookers. For the first time in her life, Klizzie felt no kinship with these people. Their gaiety was a spear in her sad heart.
Where was Gini, her Little Chick? she wondered. And Muhl-dar and Day-nuh? And Dzeh? Worry knotted her stomach and tears burned her eyes. She found it difficult to believe the newcomers would hurt Gini; they had shown no unkindness toward anyone in the Clan. Yet people were accusing Muhl-dar of stealing a prayer offering from Tsa-ond Cave. They were saying worse things, too, impossible things, and she refused to believe them. He had treated her only with gentleness and respect two mornings ago when they lay together on the furs, and again yesterday when she went to him, begging for his silence.
She hugged her knees and gazed out over the forested valley to the south, where fir trees bristled, hemmed in by mountain ranges. Somewhere hidden beneath the evergreen boughs, Dzeh and the others were tracking Muhl-dar and Day-nuh, searching for Gini. Klizzie desperately wanted the girl back, but she feared for the newcomers’ lives, and she preferred they escape undiscovered than be caught and killed...even if it meant she would never embrace her Little Chick again.
She scanned the sky for a sign of the owl, but the Spirit had seemingly abandoned her; the heavens lay as empty as her heart.Another cheer sounded from the ball field. Klizzie rose to her feet, intending to return to the village, but when she stood, her world began to spin, her vision blurred and a wave of nausea dropped her to her knees. Crawling on all fours, trembling, she vomited her meager mid-day meal, and waited for her dizziness to subside.
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
May 14, 1998
Tamping down an urge to order his driver to speed up, Colonel Beck sat stone-faced in the passenger seat as the young airman steered their jeep out the front gate. On the main road, they turned west. Beck glanced into the side mirror. Nothing behind them but another hot Utah sunrise and an empty stretch of highway. Up ahead, more open road, although the intruders’ car should be coming into view soon. Captain Linden had reported finding it parked a mile from the breach in the south fence.
How the hell had two trespassers gotten past Security, Beck wondered? Especially during a test. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
General Kaback had been livid when Beck called him. Now the old blowhard was on his way to Hill. Christ, that was all he needed. Kaback would insist on micromanaging the Project even though the damn idiot couldn’t tell a tachyon from a fucking turd.
“Twelve o’clock, sir.” The driver nodded at the dusty windshield, directing his attention to a blue Crown Vic parked a quarter of a mile ahead on the shoulder. Captain Linden was waiting beside it, along with half a dozen security personnel. They squinted in the early morning sun, their elongated shadows looking like gouges in the pavement.
The driver pulled alongside the Ford, and Beck was out the door before the jeep had rolled to a complete stop. Salutes went up all around.
“Report,” Beck ordered as he paced around the car. Utah plates, he noticed. Rental sticker on the rear bumper.
“The vehicle was rented to a Mr. Fox Mulder yesterday afternoon in Salt Lake City, sir,” said the Captain.
The trunk was up. Two overnight bags rested inside, wide open, their contents neatly removed. Shaving kit, sweat pants, men’s dress shoes and slacks, clean shirt, necktie, and underwear were arranged beside a blue-gray duffle. The other bag was a hard-sided case, powder blue. Beside it were assorted women’s clothes, a pair of high heels, toiletries, pajamas, lingerie.
“You run a check on this guy Mulder?” Beck asked.
“Yes, sir. He’s FBI.”
“FB--” Fuck. He had been hoping the intruders were nothing more than a couple of ballsy UFO kooks, attracted by last night’s light show.
“What else?” he snarled.
“Sir, Agent Mulder was a passenger on flight 1204 from Dulles to SLC yesterday afternoon. Seat 19B. Arrival time, 3:32 p.m. local.”
“And the woman?” Beck nodded at the peach-colored bra and panties before he moved around the car to peer into the driver’s side window. What appeared to be sunflower seeds littered the mat below the steering wheel.
“Agent Dana Scully, sir, also a passenger on flight 1204. Seat 19C.”
What the hell were two FBI agents doing out here? And why not come in the front gate instead of sneaking under the fence?
“Sir, should I contact the Bureau, find out if Agents Mulder and Scully are on official assignment?”
Beck’s head snapped up and he pinned Linden with a steely-eyed stare. “No, I want you to locate them. You got that, Captain?”
“Yes, sir!”“Tow the car. Stow it in Hangar 19. And bring Agents Mulder and Scully to me as soon as you find them.” He spun on his heel and returned to his jeep. Kaback would be here in less than five hours. That didn’t leave much time.
* * *
June 27, 7:45 p.m.
“You know what I miss the most? A toothbrush.” Mulder picked his teeth as he walked, trying to dislodge an irritating bit of smoked meat from between two molars with his fingernail. “Or at least some dental floss. What about you?”
Scully limped along beside him. He admired her dogged persistence and tried to ignore the ache in his own legs.
“No contest,” she said. “Toilet paper.”
He nodded with understanding and sympathy.
All around them, as far as the eye could see, gentle hills ribbed the landscape. Furred with grass, the prairie seemed endless, its monotony broken only by domed anthills and an occasional copse of deciduous trees nestled in the shallow valleys. To the east, a sluggish river zigzagged southward, trenching the red earth and reflecting the golden rays of the setting sun. They’d been navigating its countless oxbows all afternoon.
It was possible the river was the same waterway they’d started out on, or it might be another. They had no way to know and he supposed it didn’t matter. Its water tasted sweet and slaked their godawful thirst.
He ran a hand over his bearded jaw and continued his wish list. “Razor.”
“Hoo boy, I’m with you on that, G-Man.” She didn’t return his smile, so he wasn’t certain if her enthusiastic response was aimed at his need to shave or hers. She added, “Clean underwear.”
Clean anything would be welcome. His filthy clothes could probably walk on their own. Smelling their sour tang, he longed to shed them, then clean himself in a steamy, hot shower with a bar of real soap. And after his steamy, hot, soapy, magnificent shower, he would collapse onto his couch to watch some TV, and maybe have a... “Big, fat slice of pepperoni piz--”
“No food!” She gave him a disapproving scowl. The setting sun darkened the creases in her face, making her look fiercer than she probably intended. “We agreed. Rule number six, remember?”
“Right.” According to their new ground rules, twenty-two subjects were now off limits. Any and all modern-day foods fell somewhere between “sex with other people” and “what happens if we never get home.” He selected an acceptable topic. “Shampoo.”
His answer seemed to placate her and her reproachful expression softened. “Bubble bath.”
“A cold beer...and that’s not a food,” he hurried to add.
“It’s edible, isn’t it?” She cocked an accusatory eyebrow.
“It’s a beverage and we have no rule against beverages. Although you’re welcome to negotiate for it, if you like.”
“No thank you. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind a beer myself.” She gazed wistfully across the prairie.
The lengthening shadows of sunset striped the rolling hills with fingers of jet, making the land look like an old-fashioned washboard. Crickets whined in the tall weeds at their feet, while iridescent birds swooped overhead, chasing insects in the near-dusk. The swallows glided in dizzying barrel-rolls through the crisp air. It would’ve been a perfect evening if not for the fact that they were ten thousand years away from home.
“Maybe not a beer, but a nice glass of wine,” Scully said, amending her choice.
They began climbing the next swell of land.
“Red or white?”
“At this point I’m not that picky.” She tilted her head, snapping the bones in her neck. “I miss my favorite robe and slippers.”
“I miss my Knicks T-shirt.” He yearned for all the comforts of home. More than that, he yearned to comfort her, to somehow make up for bringing her here in the first place.
“Sheets, pillows and a bed. I’ll never complain about crappy motels again.”
“A silver lining,” he teased. “It’s good to know our deprivation hasn’t been for nothing.”
She gave him a light jab in the ribs. He grinned and arched away from her poking finger, glad to see her mood improving. A mischievous glint lit her eyes. She aimed two fingers at him.
“Scully...no...,” he warned.
Backing away, he raised his arms to deflect her playful attack. But she was too fast for him and managed to spear him in the stomach. His grunt made her laugh and try again.
Not really wanting to stop her, he retreated backward, stumbling uphill.
“Watch out,” she said, eyes flickering to the slope behind him.
A diversionary tactic, he was certain, but he glanced over his shoulder anyway to see what danger might be lurking there and, sure enough, she took full advantage of his inattention. She launched herself at him, prodding him again in the stomach, the ribs, and one low hit to the groin that made him squeak and double over.
She chuckled at her victory and pressed her advantage, snaking her fingers underneath his jacket to tickle his armpit.
It was good to laugh with her, to fall back into their comfortable camaraderie.
Struggling only in a half-hearted attempt to fend off her attack, he pinned her arm beneath his while grabbing for her other hand, which was insinuating its way beneath the waistband of his pants.
“Scully...don’t...payback’s...a *bitch*-- Ahh!” He yelped and writhed beneath her wiggling fingers.
“But victory is sweet,” she said, flashing teeth and gums.
God, she was beautiful. Cheeks flushed, eyes bright, hair tousled by their mock battle and the relentless breeze. She smelled heady and tart from exertion. Her hands were feverishly hot and everywhere she touched him his skin sizzled.
Her fingers slipped inside his pants.
“Whoa...Scully...” He staggered backward to the crest of the hill, grabbing her wrist to stop her. He didn’t really want to end their fun, but if she continued much lower she’d soon discover that their roughhousing had begun to arouse him.
Suddenly she stopped fighting him and he thought the jig was up, until she gazed past his shoulder and said, “Mulder, look.”
“I’m not falling for that again.”
“No...I’m not joking.” She withdrew her hand from his pants.
The intensity of her expression told him she was serious. He turned to follow her gaze.
There in the next valley, tucked into an oasis of trees by an elbow in the river, was a village.
“Shit.” He dropped to his knees in the weeds, dragging her down with him.
“Mulder, I think it’s abandoned.”
He pulled his binoculars from his coat and held them to his eyes.
A dozen or so roofless huts dotted the riverbank. Their bone supports gleamed golden-yellow in the setting sun. Scorched circles indicated the locations of old hearth fires. Not a wisp of smoke curled skyward.
“See anyone?” she asked.
“No. Looks like an Ice Age ghost town. But maybe they left behind something useful.” He rose to his feet. “Like food.”
Tucking his binoculars away, he loped downhill.
“Or flint for making a fire.” She hobbled after him.
“Or a spear.”
“Or a waterbag.”
It was funny how quickly their wish list had switched from toiletries to survival gear. All a matter of perspective, he decided. A moment ago shampoo seemed a necessity. Compared to food and water, however, even toilet paper became little more than a frivolous luxury.
A few minutes later he neared the skeletal shelters and slowed to a walk, keeping a cautious eye out for any sign of ambush. After the trouble they’d encountered with Dzeh’s tribe he had no desire to fall into the hands of another hostile group.
He needn’t have worried; the camp was deserted.
Splitting up, they swept the area, hunting for anything useful. Much to their disappointment, they soon discovered the village had been stripped bare. The former inhabitants had left behind nothing of value. All that remained were the shelters, semi-circles of stacked mastodon skulls, too heavy to transport.
Collecting and stacking so many large bones clearly represented a significant expenditure of time and energy, indicating the villagers’ commitment to this location. The implication was that they would return to it at some point to reestablish their residence, reusing the bones.
But when? Soon?
From the worn grass and scorched ground, Mulder guessed that occupancy was fairly recent, otherwise vegetation would have overgrown the paths between the huts. Wind and rain had yet to obliterate the campfires’ black circles.
Hands on his hips, he swiveled to inspect the surrounding area. Not a single animal roamed the grassy landscape or waded in the river. Nothing moved in the trees. No doubt the villagers had hunted the area heavily, depleting it of game before moving on to richer territory.
“Find anything?” he called to Scully, who was inspecting a hut about twenty feet away.
“Maybe.” She held up a matted fur blanket. “It’s pretty thin, but it beats sleeping on the bare ground.”
He nodded, wishing she’d found a mastodon roast instead of a skin. Their smoked meat was nearly gone and, without weapons or tools to make weapons, they had no way to replenish their supply. Hunger was only a day or two away.
The lighthearted moment they’d shared back on the hill now seemed remote and unreal. Their situation was grim, more serious than anything they’d ever faced before. Behind them lay certain death, ahead, more danger. Worst of all, there seemed no way to get home.
Tamping down his fears about their future, he crossed the camp to where Scully stood slapping dust from the old fur.
“Thought we might spend the night here,” she said, spreading the blanket on the ground inside the shelter’s bony walls. “No roof, but I don’t think we need to worry about rain.”
It was true, not a cloud marred the evening sky. A few bright stars already winked above the eastern horizon. The chirrup of crickets intensified as twilight approached.
He moved to help her smooth out the folds in the blanket.They would rest for a few hours, and then continue south at sunup. His instincts urged him to not give up hope. Protecting her was paramount. She meant everything to him and he would do whatever it took to bring her home safely.
* * *
Dizzy, nauseous, and lying face down on the ground, Klizzie lifted her aching head and tried to blink the fog from her eyes. When her vision finally cleared she found herself staring at two bare, muscular legs, one of which was hideously deformed by deep, ropey scars. The mutilated leg was missing a toe on the left foot.
Klizzie pushed herself into a sitting position and gaped at her loathsome cousin. She must have fallen asleep, she realized. It had been mid-day when she felt the onset of queasiness and now the sun was setting.
Klesh squatted next to her, blocking the sun’s dying rays.
“You do not look so well, Kliz.”
Her tongue tasted sour and her stomach churned like water at the bottom of a falls. “What are you doing here?”
“Is that a proper way to greet your cousin?” He laughed at her obvious astonishment and displeasure.
Four years hadn’t changed him. Beard matted with snarls, lips curled into a cruel sneer, dun-colored eyes smoldering with animosity...he was as repulsive as ever. It shocked and shamed her to think she had once lain with this man.
“Are you not curious about your brother?” he asked.
Yes, where was Tse-e? Why was Klesh alone? She glanced past him, down the hillside to the village, where the clans had returned from the ball field to cook their suppers. “He did not go there, did he?” she asked, worried about what the Clan might do to him if they discovered him.
Klesh’s sneer turned more hateful. “That would be impossible since he is dead.”
“Killed by those chindis you befriended. The red-haired woman and her mate.”
Day-nuh and Muhl-dar? This could not be true. “You are lying.”
He had always been a liar, eager to get his own way even at the expense of others.
He held up his right arm to show her a strange silvery bracelet, darkened by dried blood, which dangled from his wrist. “Li-chi Tse-Gah’s mate wounded Tse-e, then lashed the two of us together with this unbreakable binding.” He tugged on the bracelet to demonstrate its durability. “Then the chindis left us to be devoured by buzzards. After three torturous days, the Spirits finally took your brother,” -- he lowered his eyes as if out of respect -- “and I cut myself free.”
Cut...? Her stomach bucked again and she swallowed its sting. Tse-e was her only sibling and although he had not always been the kindest brother she lamented the possibility that he might be dead. Especially if his passing had been as agonizing as Klesh described.
Tears flooded her eyes at the seeming injustice of the Spirits’ choices. Why was Tse-e taken and not Klesh?
“That does not explain why you are here,” she said, holding back her tears. She did not want to show weakness by crying in front of him.
“I have come for revenge.”
Her heart sank deeper into a murky pond of despair as she guessed his motives. “You plan to kill Muhl-dar.”
“If that is the chindi’s name, yes.” He reached out to cup her cheek, setting the silvery bracelet rattling. “And you are going to help me.”
She recoiled from his unwelcome caress. “Why would I do that?”
“Because if you do not, I will tell Dzeh your little secret.”
“I have already told him the truth.”
“You told him everything? You told him how much you enjoyed your night on my sleeping skins?”
Shame rolled through her at the memory of Klesh with his face between her thighs, bringing her to her pleasure. She loathed herself for allowing it to happen and believed Dzeh would never love her again if he learned the humiliating details of that awful night.
The sun sank behind the mountain, taking with it the last rays of daylight. Regret swallowed her like a shadow.
“The man named Muhl-dar stole everything from me, Kliz -- my food, my gear, and my best friend. Help me avenge Tse-e’s death. He was your brother and he did not deserve to die at the hands of a vile stranger.”
She pictured her small, nervous brother, wounded by Muhl-dar and then tethered to Klesh, suffering unimaginably as he slowly perished.
Even so, she would not help Klesh. He was not to be trusted.“Muhl-dar has disappeared,” she said, hoping to discourage him. “He left the village two nights ago.”
“Left?” Klesh sat up straighter. “Which way did he go?”
“I do not know,” she lied, but her eyes flickered toward the forest to the south.
He caught her glance. “I will go after him. You must bring me food and supplies from the village.”
“I will not!”
His eyes narrowed, frightening her with their intensity. “Then I will go there myself and tell Dzeh all about our night together.”
“Dzeh is gone, too,” she blurted without thinking. “He is already looking for Muhl--”
Klesh’s scarred face brightened at this news and she regretted letting her panic wrestle the truth from her.
“Did he go alone?”
She hesitated to say, not knowing what he planned to do.
He grabbed her arm and growled, “You might as well tell me, Klizzie, for I will find out soon enough on my own.”
“Let me go!”
She tried to twist free, but he hung on tight and hauled her to her feet.
“Come with me.”
Her lightheadedness returned as soon as she stood upright.
“Where...where are we going?” she stuttered, thinking she might vomit again.
“To the village.”
“No! You cannot. The Clan--”
“Tse-e is dead,” he said, strong-arming her down the slope. “He was your brother and my cousin. The Clan will understand if you take me in so we may grieve together.”
“Dzeh will never allow it.”
“Dzeh is not here to object, is he?”The world tilted beneath her unsteady feet. If not for Klesh’s brutal grip, she would have fallen to her knees. What was happening to her?
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
Computer Lab, Hangar 19
May 14, 1998
“Lisa, take a look at this.” Jason Nichols hunched over his keyboard and tried to make sense of the data on his monitor. The graphic model indicated a spike in gravitational displacement during last night’s test, which meant that either the computer was malfunctioning or something had gone very wrong with the test itself.
Lisa Ianelli abandoned her terminal to cross the lab and stand behind him. She peered over his shoulder at the data and gasped.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“Yes. McGuane’s Transference, completely anomalous. I didn’t expect to see this for another three to five years.”
Lisa studied the evidence. “It’s impossible.”
“Apparently not,” Nichols said, adjusting his glasses. He tapped his keyboard, bringing up the next chart. It confirmed the first. “Not a computer malfunction.”
Lisa leaned closer, almost touching him. Her long, spiraling hair tickled his cheek and he felt drawn to her perfume. God, he loved this woman, despite the risk to his plans.
“Does it mean someone’s come back from the future?” she asked.
He knew she was referring to his future self, who had tried to destroy their work last year. When the old man died in the fire at MIT’s Research Facility, young Nichols was thrown thirty years into the future in his place.
It was there he learned the truth when he witnessed a world without history or hope, where everyone knew everything that would ever happen. It was the same future the old man had warned him about and had tried to stop.
Nichols returned to his own time convinced that he must prevent it, too. Which is why he’d sabotaged last night’s test.
Only...he hadn’t expected this.“If I’m reading the data correctly, I don’t think anyone came back from the future.” He traced the computerized image with his index finger. “I *think* we may have sent someone into the past.”
* * *
June 27, 9:42 p.m.
“I-I’m nervous. Can you believe that?” Mulder asked.
Yes, she could believe it. She’d told him she wanted to make love, but as much as she yearned for him, she was nervous, too, afraid that her body might rebel against this intimate act, a reaction to Dzeh’s recent invasion, not Mulder’s attentions.
She was dressed in her camisole and pants. He wore his jeans, too, but no shirt. Both of them were barefoot. She lay on her back on the fur robe and he knelt beside her. A circle of ancient bones bleached by moonlight surrounded them. No roof covered their heads, only a ceiling of stars and the pregnant moon.
Mulder leaned forward, staggeringly handsome, despite his bruises. His beard had filled in, dense and dark, changing his clean-shaven good looks to something more primitive but equally attractive. The hair on his head had become shaggy, too, during the last several weeks. It curled over his ears and fell into his eyes, making him appear boyish and wild. A loss of weight had defined his muscles, transforming his already lanky body into one more hardscrabble and sinewy. Even injured, he looked strong, durable and unequivocally masculine. Lean and half-naked, he stole her breath and her heart.
She was hoping his touch would help erase the memory of the mate swap and soothe her frazzled nerves. But when he moved over her, she unexpectedly recoiled and gasped.
Her reaction apparently startled him every bit as much as it did her because he backed away. “Sorry. I-- Sorry.”
“No, it’s me. I-I’m sorry.” She reached for him and drew him toward her.
Rather than lie on top of her, he chose to stretch out on the ground beside her, propping himself on one elbow, taking care not to touch her. “Let’s take this slow, okay?”
She nodded, realizing intimacy, even with Mulder, might be more difficult than she had imagined.
He watched her intently. “Would it be all right if I tried kissing you?”
“I--” Would it?
“I’ll keep my hands to myself and you can tell me to stop anytime you feel uncomfortable. I won’t force-- I won’t go any further than you want to go. You’re in control.”
“Then maybe I should kiss you.”
“That works for me.” A smile nudged his right cheek. He made no move toward her. True to his word, he was handing her the reins, allowing her to steer their actions.
She decided to begin by touching his lips with her fingers. Running the pad of her middle finger across his lower lip, she reveled in the feel of his skin...smooth, pliant, warm. His bruised mouth trembled beneath her caress. Then her finger grazed a raw cut and he flinched.
She wanted to kiss the hurt she’d caused and take away his pain, but she wasn’t quite ready to press her lips to his. Not yet.
I’m being ridiculous, she chided herself. This was Mulder. She trusted him. Hell, she loved him! Yet she felt conflicted. She worried that their lovemaking might escalate out of control -- her control -- and the idea set her heart pounding.
As if reading her mind, he rolled onto his back. His arms dropped loosely to his sides, palms down, fists uncurled. His eyes never left hers and his expression seemed to say, “Whatever you want, whenever you’re ready.”
She rose to kneel beside him and tentatively placed her right hand on his bare chest. His heart hammered beneath her palm, making her own pulse quicken. Each beat brought a molten wave of panic. Could she handle this?
Although their time in the Ice Age had roughened her hands, she could still feel every silken hair on Mulder’s downy chest. They tickled the callused pads of her palm, sending minute jolts of pleasure vibrating up the nerves of her arm. Her own skin turned to gooseflesh in response. Her nipples tightened. His gaze flickered briefly to her camisole and the hardened points of her breasts. When his focus returned to her face, his pupils had grown enormous, black and bottomless, filling each iris like a solar eclipse. She blushed and turned away, avoiding his obvious arousal, afraid it would trigger another bout of panic.
She focused on his breastbone, where she traced minute circles with her thumb and forefinger, using almost no pressure. His breath quickened. Would he lose control? Would she? Glancing at his hands, she saw they remained loosely at his sides. There was no threat in his posture. Even so, her uncertainties confounded her and she almost removed her hand from his chest.
This is Mulder, this is Mulder, she repeated to herself. He won’t hurt me.
If he wanted to overpower her, he easily could. She was trained in self-defense, but then so was he, and her skills were no match for his larger size and muscular strength. Even with his recent weight loss, he still outweighed her by sixty or seventy pounds, and his long reach and greater height gave him every advantage. He could readily take her if that’s what he wanted. She needed to trust that he would keep her safe. She had to rely on his self-control, and hope that he wouldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want to do.
In five years, he had never given her a reason to fear him, she reminded herself. Not once.
She watched the quick rise and fall of his chest. It was the only movement he made. He was allowing her to dictate the pace and the scope of their intimacy.
Determined to continue, she slid her hand over his chest, avoiding the worst of his bruises and grazing his flat nipple with her thumb. The contact caused him to jerk with apparent pleasure. He inhaled, a sharp gasp, but, steadfast to his promise, he made no move to touch her. His restraint gave her the confidence to continue her exploration of him.
Slowly, she traced the upward curve of his ribs, hard beneath her palm, to the Linea alba, the shallow indentation of muscle that divided his taut torso from breastbone to pelvis. Fine, dark hair shadowed the depression, growing more dense below his waist. She teased his navel, dipping into it with the tip of her finger. Her touch made his stomach muscles quiver. Goosebumps sprouted across his abdomen when she combed against the grain of his hair with her nails. He grunted with pleasure and the sound of his arousal both excited and frightened her.
She lingered over the Crest of Ilium, stroking his jutting hipbones as she studied his nude torso, his submissive expression, his accommodating posture. He was offering her his trust in return for hers. It was a generous gift, considering how he’d also suffered at the hands of the tribe. Blackened by contusions, crisscrossed with scrapes, his hide bore physical testimony to their cruelty. He had no more reason to trust another human being with his body than did she, and yet here he was, consigning himself to her command.
There was little doubt he was doing it for her sake. He evidently understood how much she needed him to yield right now, and the depth of his understanding brought tears to her eyes. He was surrendering so that she wouldn’t have to, so that she might regain her lost sense of power.
Fortified by his generosity, she unbuttoned the waistband of his pants. Even before drawing down his zipper, she could see the prominent ridge of his engorged penis pressing against the denim of his jeans, looking larger and more menacing than she remembered. Feeling apprehensive, she paused, reproaching herself for her groundless anxiety while leaving his fly half zipped.
Certainly the threatening size of him was only a trick of the moonlight.
His penis isn’t a weapon, she reminded herself; it’s a part of him. There is nothing to fear.
Squaring her shoulders, she unzipped his pants all the way, only to discover he wasn’t wearing any boxers, and for a split-second suspicion engulfed her. Had he been planning all along to make love to her?
Get a hold of yourself, Dana. Mulder was anticipating no such thing. His boxers were still in their travel pack because he’d been too weak to put them on at the ball field. He’d been going without them for the last two days.
Convinced for the time being that his intentions were not dishonorable, she resumed undressing him. She tugged at his pants and he lifted his hips to help her. This was the first deliberate move he’d made since she’d begun her cautious seduction. His motion was so slight, so measured, it didn’t startle her...unlike his erection, which popped free as soon as she pulled his pants low enough. She fixed her eyes on his swollen groin and left his jeans bunched around his thighs.
Her stomach fluttered at the sight of him. Fully engorged, he was magnificent...and intimidating. An image of Dzeh’s erection came unbidden to her mind. She fought a wave of nausea and tried to push the memory away. This was Mulder, not Dzeh. Their motives were nothing alike.
But the memory of Dzeh was not so easy to extinguish. She could still see the way he reclined on the skins, his penis dark purple and pointing straight up as he reached for her hand, drew her down to him--
Stop it! This isn’t Dzeh! This is Mulder.
She glanced at Mulder’s face, double-checking his expression. His hooded eyes were bright with passion, yet his bearded face remained calm. He said nothing as she mentally inventoried his physical attributes, noting the differences between him and Dzeh. Mulder had green eyes, not brown, and a shorter beard, longer nose, fuller lips curled into a half-smile, not set in a determined line the way Dzeh’s had been. His shoulders were narrower, and his chest less hairy. Both men had muscular stomachs, but Mulder was less tan than Dzeh, despite going shirtless for the last few weeks. She regretted the disappearance of the scar on his shoulder; his gunshot wound was incontrovertible evidence of their 20th Century life together.
Her eyes traveled lower to the thatch of dark hair that cushioned his erect penis. Unable to stop herself, she reached out to touch his circumcision scar, extraordinarily grateful for this distinctive difference between the two men. He twitched when she caressed him with the tip of her finger.
He breathed the words “You’re in control...”
Yes, she was, and the knowledge strengthened her enough to take him in her hand, hot, rigid, his skin silky smooth against her roughened palm. He moaned through gritted teeth and she relished the sound; a feeling of privilege ran white-hot beneath her skin. She directed him, not the other way around. The advantage was hers, all hers, and it freed her from the dread and panic and hurt that had been dogging her since her encounter with Dzeh. Her overwrought nerves began to uncoil and she felt herself returning to her physical body. Relief swamped her eyes, causing tears to spiral down her cheeks as she bent over him and took him gratefully into her mouth.
“Sculleee...” His hips rocked. He was obviously trying to minimize his reaction to the pressure of her lips.
Holding him in her mouth, feeling in control, she explored him with the tip of her tongue. He was softly ridged and he tasted salty, earthy, delicious. She inhaled his musky scent and savored his familiar smell. She sucked gently, applying the lightest possible pressure for now. She wanted to make this experience long lasting and wholly different from her brief, awful encounter with Dzeh; she wanted this to be leisurely, tender and loving.
Mulder didn’t thrust upward; he didn’t take hold of her head or hair. He let her lead him toward ecstasy. Only his quiet moans, and the rigidity of his cock, let her know how much he was enjoying her ministrations.
She applied more pressure, sucked harder, swirled her tongue over and around him, bit down gently, and then scraped his flesh carefully with her teeth, stimulating the sensitive knot of tissue just below the glans. He hissed with pleasure, murmured her name.
Still he didn’t touch her.
She released him to blow softly across his wet skin, then lapped him from base to tip before taking him once more into her mouth. She let him slide to the back of her throat and then out, repeating the motion, tightening her lips, setting a steady rhythm.
This was nothing like her experience with Dzeh. This was beautiful and right. Mulder was her partner, her protector, her lover. The future father of her son.
She cupped his scrotum, thinking of his contribution to their child waiting there, half the genetic material that would one day be their little boy. When she gently squeezed, he hissed her name, “Sssscully!”
His voice sounded desperate when he warned, “I’m close.”
She had led him to the brink and now it was her choice where he would go next. She decided to bring him to orgasm in her hand and watch his face as he came.
Removing him from her mouth, she said, “Let it happen.”
He nodded and swallowed. She sat up, curled her fingers around him and began to stroke. Her hand slid easily up and down his saliva-slicked shaft. He inhaled a lungful of air. His fingers dug into the fur beneath him, clutching for a solid hold as his hips rose to meet her thrusts. He bit his lower lip and she could hear his panting breaths as he huffed through flared nostrils. His chest glistened, humid and flushed, so feverishly hot she could feel the warmth radiating off him. Sweat dotted his brow, snagging strands of damp hair.
“Come for me, Mulder.”
At the sound of her voice he threw back his head and grunted. Semen spurted from him, spilling hotly over her hand. She continued to pump until he begged, “Stop, stop. Ahh...too sensitive.” His hands finally came up to cover and still hers, spreading semen on them both. She felt the throb of his racing heart grow fainter as his penis softened beneath her palm.
A mixture of emotions somersaulted through her: pleasure, apprehension, pride, anxiety, excitement, nervousness, passion, uncertainty, devotion. She wanted to sort them out, tuck them into some sort of proper order, but it was impossible and she cringed from the chaos that was squeezing her chest, making it difficult for her to breathe. Conflicted yearnings twisted through her mind on tornado-like winds. She was sure of only one thing -- she loved this man -- and she focused on that thought as she moved her hand away from him.
“Scully...that was...that was great,” he said, gratitude evident in the quaver of his voice. Catching his breath, he sat up and searched for something with which to clean himself.
His jacket was an arm’s length away and he grabbed it and dug into the pocket for his handkerchief.
“Let me.” She took the cloth from him and mopped his groin.
He watched, eyes bright with what she imagined was lust, but hoped was love.
“Your turn,” he said as he pulled up his pants.
At first she thought he meant it was her turn to use the handkerchief on herself. But she was already wiping her hands, so he wasn’t talking about cleaning up.
He was talking about bringing her to orgasm.
“Mulder, I’m not sure I can...I don’t think I’ll be able to...”
“Let me help.”
No...she wasn’t ready for it. Bringing him to orgasm, that was one thing; she could handle that. Coming for him, in front of him, it would take too much--
“Show me what to do, Scully.” He placed his hand in hers, palm up.
“I don’t think--”
“You’re in control,” he reminded her.
Right. She was in control.
So why did she feel so out of control?
“Maybe I should undress first,” she said.
“I won’t argue with that.”
His wide grin made her feel suddenly shy, which was ridiculous considering the fact that she’d just had him in her mouth, watched him climax. But the eager way he was looking at her made her feel vulnerable and exposed.
Grateful for the twilight, she hid her timidity in the shadows and pulled her camisole up over her head. The cooling night made her shiver. She was certain he was looking, although she avoided his gaze, too discomfited to find out. Instead she rose to her feet and, hands trembling, she unfastened and removed her pants. Gathering her courage, she pushed her panties down her legs and stepped out of them.
Mulder whispered “Sweet Jesus...” and the words landed like mist on her skin. Again she was made rough with gooseflesh and tingled from brow to breasts to belly to knees.
A finger of cool, night air grazed her moist inner thighs, shockingly cold and invasive. Its intensity startled her and her body blushed in response. Heat crawled up her torso and spread inside her womb, which felt swollen and heavy with her lust. She had been denying desire for too long and it would not be overlooked now. It pressed her to her knees in front of him, spread her thighs to give him access, took his hand in hers and guided him to her entrance.
His fingers seared her slick folds, branding her with a tentative caress.
“Jesus,” he whispered again, sitting up and moving closer.
She urged him deeper, steering one extended digit in and up, not daring to look at him, avoiding his reactions with downcast eyes. He slipped into her, up to his first knuckle, and second...
No. Stop! She clutched his hand, preventing him from going deeper. It felt too much like before, like the other, like confusion and dread and panic.
“It’s okay, Scully,” he said, obviously aware of her distress. “It’s just you and me here. Whatever happens -- or doesn’t happen -- it’s okay. Just relax and show me what to do.”
Sitting on her knees in front of him, legs spread wide, she tried to relax as he suggested, but it was difficult for her to let go of her recent memory, or her lifelong habit of dodging emotion. Unease tightened her inner walls, making penetration uncomfortable...the way it had been with Dzeh.
Mulder didn’t push more deeply into her, but waited for her to do it for him. “Did he touch you there?”
“Y-yes.” Oh, please, don’t make me remember it, Mulder.
“No. Just his-- Not with his hands.” Please, please.
“Did it feel like this?”
It felt awful, she wanted to scream. It wasn’t you. I hated it. I hated him. “No.” The word leaked from her throat sounding like a distraught child and her whining embarrassed her. She was a grown woman, for God’s sake. Why couldn’t she let go of her hurt?
Mulder edged closer, his hand motionless between her legs. His other hand came around her back and settled at the base of her spine, the place where he often touched her. His light caress was familiar and soothing. “Scully, I’m with you now. Me. No man will *ever* touch you this way again...none but me. I won’t let it happen.”
His promise brought a flood of relief, and like a swift river, it caught her jumbled emotions in its current and carried them off. In her mind’s eye she saw her unease swept away. Fragments of fear bobbed like debris after a storm, eddying out of sight, leaving her breathless but not drowned.
Contentment washed in, displacing her previous discomfort.
She didn’t expect to be made permanently clean by this promise of Mulder’s. No doubt her respite was only temporary. Her memories of Dzeh would return to haunt her, but she now knew she didn’t have to face them alone; Mulder was here.
“You okay?” he asked. He held her tenderly, buoying her, even after the worst of her emotional tempest had passed.
Rather than answer him with words, she moved his hand within her, pushed his finger deeper, trying to fill herself with his promise of devotion. The magnificent pressure unexpectedly swamped her with passion and she gasped. Everything outside of her body vanished. The world became only his touch. Her other senses registered nothing, no sound, no sight, no smell, only him and a ballooning desire to take him more deeply inside her.
“More,” she begged, her voice thin with need.
“You’ll have to let go.”
This time he was referring to her grip on his wrist, not her emotional state. She reluctantly released him and he began to withdraw. Even as he slid out of her, she became desperate to be filled again. She rocked her hips toward him, following his retreat, trying to regain the pleasure he was taking away.
“Nooo,” she pleaded. The emptiness was intolerable.
“You show me.”
Frantically, she grabbed his hand and slid two fingers into herself. Having him inside her was all she craved and she satisfied her longing by pressing her hips downward onto him. She felt replete as she held him there, adjusting to his presence, enjoying the sense of fullness.
She looked down at his large hand guided by her smaller one. He didn’t move. He had relinquished control, relaxing his hand in hers, allowing her to determine the extent of their intimacy. He was undemanding and patient and willing to surrender to whatever she desired.
A primitive need prompted her to initiate a steady rhythm, a push and pull that both soothed and excited her. At her insistence, his fingers glided easily within her, slicked by her passion. Each thrust was utter bliss. Each withdrawal exquisite torment.
He didn’t pinch or grind. No grasping or pressing, rubbing or stroking, and yet the friction of his fingers, steered by her, prodded her closer to her climax.
Picking up the pace, she thrust more urgently. She was nearing the edge, trembling, knowing that he watched her. Pressure swelled in her abdomen; sizzling tendrils of pleasure radiated out from her center.
God, she loved him. Instead of feeling dominated and shamed by this act, she felt self-possessed and liberated. Performing for him was reassuring. Empowering. It felt incredible.She was so close now; release was only a heartbeat or two away. Her frenzied pulse hammered her ears. She gasped. Fire ignited between her thighs.
Panting, she imbedded him deeply within herself and waited for the eruption of her climax...inevitable...unstoppable...there...now!
Ecstasy singed her torso and burned across her thighs. Her eyes closed. She gasped, ablaze, deafened by the roar of her pulse in her ears. She wanted the glorious fire between her legs to go on and on.
Her desperation razed, she released her held breath. Called out his name.
“I’m here,” he murmured, sounding as awed and grateful as she felt.
She lunged for him, releasing his hand, wrapping her arms around him, clutching him, trying to breathe, quiet her rapid heart, regain her balance.
His fingers slid from her. He drew her tightly to his chest, returning her heartfelt embrace.
“You’re beautiful,” he said. “So beautiful.”
She felt beautiful. And cherished. And safe.
I love this man, she repeated to herself. He is all I want or need. My perfect other, my hero, protector of my body, spirit and heart.
“Lay beside me,” he said, releasing her and reclining on the fur robe. When she was nestled beside him, he placed an arm around her and asked, “Can I...? Is this okay?”
It shamed her to see how she’d made him wary of touching her and yet, she was so grateful for his understanding, his tenderness, for helping her begin to overcome her fears.
“Hmm?” He stroked her hair, comforting her.
“I know this is on our list of things we said we wouldn’t talk about, but I... I think I need to talk about what happened to me.”
“Tell me,” he encouraged.
“I’m sure.” He seemed truly ready to listen. Not resigned, but strong and sympathetic.
“Dzeh didn’t kiss me.”
“So you said.”
She suddenly realized she hadn’t kissed Mulder, not once since the day of the awful exchange. She’d been letting her anxiety -- and her jealousy -- keep him at arm’s length.
“Mulder, I want to kiss you. Right now.”
His hand stopped its leisurely caress. Without hesitation, he drew her to him and kissed her deeply, passionately on the lips.
She felt her apprehensions dissipate as he pressed his mouth to hers. Cradled in his arms she realized there would be other opportunities to talk about Dzeh and Klizzie and any other confusing, unpredictable fears that plagued her. Mulder would be with her tomorrow and the next day and long after that. She’d seen their future in her visions and now she felt their connection in her heart. There was no need to hide her emotions from him anymore. Peace of mind descended on her and she relaxed for the first time in weeks.
When he released her lips, she drew back to smile at him.
“Loden is a shade of green, Mulder,” she said. “It’s the color of your eyes when we make love.”It was the color of his eyes at that very moment.
Continued in Chapter Fifteen...
Special thanks to mimic117 for beta of Chapter 14.
smut scene is dedicated to xdks (Happy b-day, hon!!).
Happy Holidays, Mastos!
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.