The trees in Maine were wiry pines, close and tall. Beneath them, life abounded, some four footed, some feathered but mostly, it had to be admitted, tiny, six legged and biting. Summer was nearing its end. The leaves of the pines stayed green through the year, but the leaves of the maples that grew near the lake were yellowing and the mornings were growing cool, heavy dewed, soft with mists. Beautiful, Skinner thought, but every day the signs grew clearer. It was in the mist on the lake, in the crisp moist air of the mornings, in the way the clouds of tiny biting flies grew more sluggish. Slowly, inevitably, autumn was beginning. Winter would be descending on his personal patch of Maine forest in just a few short weeks.
He'd come here to get away, to leave it all behind. But he was discovering that when you left it all behind what you had left was nothing. And he was doing okay, surviving, as long as he filled his day with work, but not doing good by any stretch of the imagination. And at the beginning it had been beautiful, but after the first, idyllic weeks, the peace and isolation had begun to wear thin. It wasn't what he needed. The trouble was that Walter Skinner had no idea what it was he needed any more.
He hefted his axe, held its handle firm in his left hand, let the smooth wood slide through his right as he raised, swung, brought down. His vest was soaked in sweat and the soft, old plaid shirt he wore loosely over it kept the worst of the bugs away from his arms and shoulders. He wore shorts because the work was too hot to do otherwise, bugs or not. The wood he was cutting was a necessity if he was staying here for the winter. He'd started late. There was a lot of catching up to do.
He heard the car while it was still a way away, and straightened impassively to watch it bump and jolt along the mud track, to watch it pull in beside the battered 4x4 he'd inherited along with the cabin. This was another anonymous bureau car, grey bodywork and tinted windows flecked and spattered with mud. Skinner shook his head wearily. Another psych services agent, courtesy of AD Jana Cassidy, plus accompanying bodyguard in case he really had gone over the edge. Truth to tell he'd almost started to welcome these curt and unfriendly encounters - they were, at least, human contact - although he doubted his visitors shared that opinion. They didn't like the way he kept hold of the axe, which, he supposed, was why he did it.
But there was only one man in the car, someone he'd expected never to see again. Mulder's hair almost looked red in the late afternoon light. He wore a trenchcoat, jeans, a collarless shirt, sunglasses with little round frames and, as far as Skinner could see, no gun. He watched Mulder lock the car with a mixture of feelings he barely understood. He schooled his face into the customary faint frown he always wore to hide his feelings. Mulder had the expressionless look that meant he too was hiding the way he really felt.
Skinner felt himself straighten involuntarily, like a man awaiting a sentence, or an execution. His parting with Mulder had scarcely even been that - in the months that had preceded his departure they'd barely spoken, thanks to Congressional hearings, FBI political infighting and then to a round of cover-ups quite frightening in their scope and audacity. And he'd been part of it because he saw the necessity and Mulder, inevitably, had railed against it because he'd wanted the truth to be known. 'Christ, please don't let him hate me,' Skinner found himself praying silently.
Out loud he said: 'Mulder? What are you doing here?'
'Oh you know,' Mulder said vaguely. 'I was in the neighbourhood.'
Skinner was well aware that there was no neighbourhood, that the inhabitants of the next cabin were a good three miles down the lake, that the nearest grocery store was an hour's drive away. And that only one person knew he was here, of course.
'AD Cassidy sent you,' he said. It was a statement, not a question.
Mulder nodded. 'She wants me to give you a psych evaluation. I think it's on the basis that a disgruntled ex-AD is kind of like a disgruntled postal worker only with enough dirt to put half of senate behind bars. I wrote it on the plane over. Wanna see?'
'You're here to give me a psych consult,' Skinner repeated, almost wonderingly.
Mulder nodded. 'Really I'm only doing it for the irony.'
'You're not the first,' Skinner said, turning back to his woodpile. The shaft of the axe was reassuring in his hands. Solid, uncomplicated. He raised it, swung it down, felt the familiar protests from the calluses on his palms, the muscles in his shoulders.
'She told me about the others,' Mulder was saying, leaning back against the car, taking off the sunglasses, watching him. 'Said you weren't exactly forthcoming.'
Skinner narrowed his eyes, swung the axe again. It buried itself in the log of wood with a satisfying thunk that echoed through the forest, across the lake. 'I didn't feel that I had anything to say to them. Or to her. Anyway, what are you doing, doing Cassidy's dirty work? I heard that you'd resigned.'
Mulder pushed his hands into the pockets of his trenchcoat, nodded. 'I did resign. I went the day after you did. They were talking about transferring me back to VCU. Scully already accepted that post at Quantico. All I had ahead of me was another twenty years of 'Spooky' jokes, working my ass off and having other people take the credit for it. So I left and set myself up as a consultant. I figured if they wanted me to waste my time on background checks they could pay me 500 bucks an hour plus expenses for the privilege.'
Skinner straightened, wiped the sweat from his palms on his shorts, took the axe up again. '$500 an hour? You're not exactly at the bargain basement end of the market.'
Mulder shrugged. 'There's only one Spooky Mulder. Anyway, that's just what I charge the FBI. It's less for the private work. Disappearances, wrongful convictions, lost causes. Plus a few consults from the regional offices. I don't know if you heard about what happened in Sacramento...'
'Yes. Yes I did,' Skinner said. He realised that his knuckles had tightened whitely around the handle of the axe. He forced himself to loosen his grip.
'I'm gradually building up a reputation,' Mulder was saying. 'In a couple of years I might even be breaking even on this consultancy thing. I'm doing okay. I was a lousy agent but I'm not bad at this. I get paid twice as much for about half the work and I get to stay in hotels with cable. The FBI's happier because they can ignore me if they want to, and if you have disciplinary problems with a consultant you just don't pay him. Plus they don't get the bills for the wrecked cars and hospital stays. I think they're about breaking even on the deal...'
He stopped. Skinner had stopped cutting the wood, was walking back to the woodshed, wrapping the head of the axe in an oiled cloth. He turned back to face Mulder.
'If you're staying,' he said. 'You may as well go in and put some coffee on. And I never considered you to be a lousy agent.'
Which left Mulder standing looking after him, lost for words for the first time Skinner could remember.
The cabin had been left to him by Mack McDonald, and Skinner was reminded of him every time he entered it. He'd been here six goddamn months and he still expected to open the door to thick cigar smoke and raucous laughter. Some ghosts died harder than others, it seemed.
They hadn't been that close. He hadn't even known Mack was sick until the letter from the lawyer had arrived and he'd discovered that he'd lost an old war buddy and gained a tumble-down cabin in the middle of nowhere. But Mack had sat next to him on the transport over to Vietnam, had given him his first cigarette, had gotten drunk with him and beaten up with him and rained on with him enough times for them to want to meet up afterwards, to stay in touch. So he'd come here every year, a week in summer, a week in the winter, to meet up with Mack and a group of Mack's other old buddies. And they'd used the time to get drunk and swear and play cards and talk about the good old days, because people who hadn't been there didn't understand. But as the years had gone by the numbers had grown smaller and smaller. The deaths had been car accidents and hunting accidents at first, then heart attacks, cancer. Mack had died of some stupid goddamn complication of diabetes in a hospital in Texas. Now it was just him. And Mulder, of course, who'd blown in from God alone knew where in order to not give him a psych consult in the middle of the woods.
Mulder had made no effort to put the coffee on. Maybe he hadn't wanted to rummage through unfamiliar cupboards. Or quite possibly, Skinner thought, the technicalities were beyond him. This was, after all, a man who he'd seen make instant coffee with hot tap water rather than waiting for a kettle to boil. He moved into the compact kitchen area to begin the process himself.
'I can't believe you have a coffee maker,' Mulder was saying, looking around the neat little cabin with a faint, disbelieving smile.
'I haven't completely cut myself off from civilisation,' Skinner said, measuring the coffee into the filter paper.
'That's not what I heard. When they told me you were living in a cabin in Maine I had this picture of you doing the rugged pioneer thing. Your having a coffee maker kind of spoils it.'
'There are some things I require, Mulder,' Skinner said. He filled the machine with water, flicked the switch, turned back to face his guest. 'Coffee is one of them, hot water is another. There's a solar panel on the roof.'
Mulder had thrown himself onto the faded couch, stretched out. He looked up at Skinner some with amusement. 'And here's me thinking you were the poster boy for Iron John.'
Skinner raised an eyebrow. 'You mean washing in the lake, beating my clothes against a rock, wrestling bear, that kind of thing?'
'I bet you've got the Swiss Army knife with all the blades somewhere,' Mulder mocked gently. 'I bet you were an Eagle Scout.'
'I bet you weren't,' Skinner rejoined, and was rewarded with the first real grin from his guest.
'They said I didn't play well with others. Part one of my failure to achieve Dad's American dream, but what the hell.'
There was a self-mockery in Mulder's words that Skinner had heard too often. His face grew grave. 'I wouldn't be too broken up about it, Mulder. I went that route. Look where I ended up.'
Mulder was silent for a little while. Then; 'You don't sound happy,' he said.
Skinner left the coffee brewing, inspected his cupboards to see what food he had to offer Mulder if he chose to stay. 'You don't approve of what I'm doing,' he stated flatly.
'No,' Mulder disagreed. 'Dammit, Walter, you know that's not true. As far as I'm concerned you can live the rest of your life doing the survivalist thing in Maine or lecturing at Quantico or collecting fossils in New Mexico or.. or cruising the bars on the Castro in San Francisco. You don't need my approval but whatever you choose to do is okay by me. It just doesn't sound as if you're happy with this.'
Skinner leaned back against the counter. 'Why did you come here, Mulder? Really?'
Mulder rubbed his forehead. 'I wanted to see you again. I came into the office one day and you'd just gone. You'd resigned, forfeited your notice. You didn't even drop by the basement to say goodbye. I tried to track you down but even the guys couldn't find you.'
There was hurt in Mulder's voice, carefully disguised, but hurt nonetheless. Skinner was reminded that this was one of the very few in the FBI he'd called friend rather than colleague.
'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I didn't think you'd want to see me. We weren't on the best of terms towards the end.'
Mulder met his eyes. 'That was professional. We both did what we had to do. I have always had the greatest respect and regard for you, Walter. There's nothing you could have said or done that could have changed that.'
'I... thank you. Thank you, Mulder.' He bowed his head, embarrassed, immensely gratified, not sure quite what to say.
'Why did you go?' Mulder asked. He tried to lighten his voice, failed. 'I didn't know... I was afraid maybe it was because of me. Because you were tired of taking my crap.'
Skinner snorted at that. 'I've taken your crap, as you call it, for the past six years. This wasn't about you. You were one of the reasons I stayed as long as I did.'
The coffee was made. Skinner poured them both a mug, brought it over to the table which had hosted a hundred drunken poker games in another life, sat beside Mulder on the sofa.
'The truth is that I reached a point where I didn't feel I could endure what I was doing for another day. So I left.'
'What made you decide?' Mulder asked, inspecting his own coffee, taking a sip. 'What was the trigger?'
And he was getting his psych consult after all, Skinner realised wryly, although it was for Mulder's benefit rather than Jana Cassidy's, which he was actually okay with. It was past time to talk to someone about this. He'd been alone for too long. He knew without asking that none of this would see Cassidy's desk anyway, although, Skinner determined, he was going to insist on reading whatever it was that Mulder had cooked up on his flight in.
He leant back in his seat, took up his coffee, and thought about his next words for a moment.
'You want to know what did it? I looked out of my window, and I saw the trees in the Mall and I thought, it's almost summer. In six months it's going to be autumn and the only leaves I'm going to see turn are the ones in the Mall outside my office window. And I'm going to be sitting at this desk for the next fifteen years, for the next fifteen Septembers, working seven till seven, six days a week, looking at the leaves through my window. And when I finally get out, I'm going to be an old man.'
Mulder shook his head. 'Jesus, Walter. You're going to tell me you think you've wasted your life?'
Skinner smiled humourlessly. 'You think this is just my mid-life crisis. Maybe I should just have bought myself a Porsche.'
Mulder sounded almost angry. 'No. I don't think that at all. You know I don't. Christ, Walt, when I think of everything you've done...'
'But it is done, now. We've done what we had to do. And let's face it, Mulder, we were both finished in the FBI.'
Mulder grinned suddenly, raised his cup of coffee to Skinner. 'To the FBI. Screw the lot of them.'
'If that's the plan for this evening, I'm going to get the hard stuff out.'
'Ooh. You've got expresso too,' Mulder said with deadpan sarcasm and Skinner fought back the all-too-familiar urge to cuff his ex-agent around the back of the head.
'Not exactly, Mulder.'
The bottles were buried under years' worth of junk in the equipment shed behind the cabin, and took some unearthing. They were an assorted lot, wine bottles, whisky bottles, some unidentifiable, one that still bore the worrying legend 'Pepgen Appetizer, Invigorant, Laxative, The American Drug Co., Dayton, O.' He chose one of the whisky bottles, dusted it off, brought it inside. The glasses were new, Skinner's. The chipped and ill-assorted wreckage of half a hundred inebriated evenings hadn't been worth keeping. He poured them both a healthy measure.
Mulder sniffed his glass and made a face. 'So what the hell is this stuff?'
'Home brew. It's distilled from Christ knows what. Potato peelings probably aren't the half of it.'
Mulder grinned suddenly, delightedly. 'You're a secret moonshiner, Skinner?'
'Hardly,' Skinner said dryly. 'But the guy I inherited the cabin from was. There's a still behind the cabin. This is the last batch he made.'
'Who was he? Relative?'
'A friend from Vietnam. There were a group of us who came out here every year. It's just me now.'
'I'm sorry,' Mulder said. He took a healthy mouthful of his drink and coughed as it hit the back of his throat. He looked up at Skinner, eyes streaming. 'Jesus, Walter, are you trying to kill me with this stuff?'
'You've got to treat it with respect,' Skinner told him. He sipped his own glass with caution borne of long experience. Pretty much as bad as he'd remembered. In truth he wouldn't have dreamt of offering this to anyone else. There was a perfectly good bottle of real whisky in the cupboard, vodka somewhere too, beer in the fridge. But he'd heard a legend somewhere, about a tribe that didn't think a man was dead until the last of his crops had been harvested, the last of his bread had been eaten, the last of the beer he'd brewed had been drunk. This was the last of Mack, the last of a younger Skinner. He wondered if Mulder would understand. It was reassuring to know that he probably did.
It was dark outside by the time they'd lowered the level of the bottle by a half. It was autumn after all, and the evenings were closing in. Skinner had built a fire, the first of the year, although the evening wasn't particularly cold. He wondered briefly if Mulder had planned to drive back in the dark or if he'd come here fully intending to stay the night. He had already admitted to himself that he wanted Mulder to stay.
Mulder seemed to be of the same opinion As Skinner refilled his glass he said, 'Guess I'm staying over.'
Skinner nodded grimly. 'If you think you're driving anywhere tonight, Mulder, you can think again.'
'I'm not even sure I could even find my way to the car in that,' Mulder said, inclining his head vaguely in the direction of the door. For the first time that evening, Skinner because aware that it was raining hard outside, that winds were gusting against the outside of the cabin.
'It always sounds worse than it is in here.'
'Is it okay if I stay?' Mulder asked, uncertainly.
Skinner flushed, nodded. He hadn't meant his offhand comment to be taken that way. 'Of course it is. You can stay as long as you want.' And hadn't this place slept six or seven in the old days? Hard to see how, now.
'I've got to get back to DC tomorrow,' Mulder said. 'But tomorrow evening would be okay, I guess. Just a report on a missing persons case to write up.'
'I've got fax and e-mail here if you want to stay longer,' Skinner said, making the offer sound as nonchalant as he could.
Mulder shook his head with some regret. 'I said I'd deliver the report personally first thing Monday morning. It's not good news. I'm ninety-five percent sure the girl's dead and about eighty percent sure I know who killed her, but I need to talk to the local police before I do anything about it.'
Skinner grimaced. One part of the job he was never going to miss was having to tell the parents.
Mulder continued, 'I wish, just once, I could say, Mrs Jones, your daughter's fine, I found her and I'm bringing her home to you.'
Skinner nodded. 'I know, Mulder. I know.'
'When you work for yourself it's harder to walk away from it all when you go home at night. That's the toughest part of it, I guess.'
'Still living in that rathole of an apartment?'
Mulder grinned. 'Wait till you see my rathole of an office.'
'I can hardly wait,' Skinner said dryly.
They sat for a short while in companionable silence. The liquor was starting to make Skinner's ears buzz a little. Mulder's voice was starting to slur, although so far it was barely noticeable.
'There are some things I need to tell you,' Mulder said eventually. He filled his glass again. 'I was going to leave this one until the end, but... I think I'm gay, Walter.'
Walter simply nodded. 'And...?'
Mulder looked at him, apparently completely at a loss for words. And who would have guessed it would be that easy, Skinner thought. 'You knew?' Mulder said eventually, in disbelief.
Skinner looked at him in exasperation. 'Of course I knew. Do you think I got to be an AD without knowing how to read people?'
Skinner felt a smile ghost around his mouth. 'You were expecting some kind of big scene? Never darken my doors again? Come back in four month's time so I can throw you out into the snow?'
'Bastard,' Mulder said, without heat. 'I only worked it out for myself a couple of months back. How the hell could you have known all along?'
'You're a profiler, Mulder. You know the signs. You never had a successful non-platonic relationship with a woman in your life. Then there's your porn habit, a classic outlet for repression. And Christ alone knows everybody knew about your porn habit. Tapes in your office, tapes in your briefcase... You think I don't know a smoke screen when I see it?'
'And you didn't think of mentioning this to me?'
'What the hell was I supposed to say, Mulder? I know I'm your supervisor but I have some insights into your sexuality I'd like to share with you... How could that have not seemed like a pass?'
'Jesus Christ,' Mulder said, shaking his head gloomily. 'I'm supposed to be a profiler. Why the hell doesn't anyone react to this the way I expect?'
'Who else have you told?'
'Scully first, of course.' He winced. 'She went ballistic. Why the hell hadn't I told her something this important before, how could I not have known, yadda yadda yadda. She didn't speak to me for days. She's more or less okay with it now though. Frohike said did this mean he could have my porn collection. Byers said he'd kind of guessed but hadn't wanted to say anything. Langley said could I take him to some bars where lesbians hung out. Mom - let's just say she ran true to form.'
'She didn't take it that well.'
Mulder gave a humourless laugh. 'Yeah, you could say that,' he said. 'I'll spare you the details, suffice it to say in her eyes I no longer bear the dubious distinction of being a son of the Mulders.'
'I'm sorry,' Skinner said, and meant it. He debated briefly whether to touch Mulder, whether it would embarrass him, given his revelation. He settled for briefly gripping Mulder's shoulder.
'It's okay,' Mulder said. 'Forget it.'
'So how did you find out?'
'A couple of years ago this guy kissed me. I guess it's only since I left the FBI I've really had time to sit down and try to work out what it meant.'
'Who was he?' Skinner asked, although he was already sure of the answer.
'Krycek,' Mulder said simply. 'And I thought about how much he got under my skin, how much I wanted to hit him, all the time. I guess I was repressing what I really wanted to do to him. I was repressing a lot of stuff.' He lowered his eyes. 'I... I didn't know if you'd heard about Krycek.'
And again, somehow, Skinner did know, but the knowledge gave him no joy. 'How did he die?'
Mulder gazed into the fire. 'Execution style shooting, in Paris. They found him a couple of days ago. Of course he'd been floating in the river for a while. They identified him by his dental records.'
'He's not dead,' Skinner said, with certainty.
'No,' Mulder agreed, with a faint smile. 'Knowing Krycek, probably not. But he sent me something to give to you.'
It was an envelope, long and white. Mulder held it out to him. 'This and some negatives.'
'You looked at them,' Skinner said. He felt his face burn with more than just the drink.
'Yes. He didn't mark anything on the envelope he sent to me. I didn't realise they were meant to be for you. I only looked at the first one, then I realised what they were.'
'Where are they?' Skinner said, his mouth dry.
'I destroyed them. I was going to keep them, to give them to you to get rid of, but my apartment's not exactly Fort Knox and I didn't know where you were.'
'Jesus Christ,' Skinner muttered. He buried his face in his hands, rubbed hard.
'How long were you lovers?' Mulder asked gently.
Skinner raised his head again. 'A few months. The day after he broke it off the photographs arrived in the mail. Together with my instructions, of course.'
'But it wasn't enough. Was that the reason for the other thing? The nanocytes.'
'Yes. My career didn't matter that much to me by then so he moved it up a notch.'
'And in the end even that wasn't enough to make you betray us.'
'It was enough, Mulder,' Skinner said, with in a voice almost too soft to be heard. 'I betrayed you.'
'No you didn't. You did what you had to do, always. To stay alive, to keep us alive.'
Skinner saw that Mulder was still holding out the envelope. He took it, ripped it open, read the message on the sheet of paper inside, then balled it up and threw it into the fire.
'You don't know what it was like, Mulder. To do the right thing all your life. To have the career, the service record, the wife. And then, suddenly, to fall in love with a man half my age... Jesus, I should have known. What the hell would someone like Krycek have seen in a balding forty-five year old?'
'You should take a look at yourself in a mirror, Skinner,' Mulder said, with the emphasis of the slightly drunk. 'Because you are fucking beautiful.' A brief, appalled pause. 'Christ, did I just say that out loud?'
Skinner nodded, only a little shocked and quite unreasonably flattered. He resisted with some difficulty the urge to ask Mulder to expand on his statement. Instead he inspected his drink. 'I'd take this stuff over sodium pentathol any day,' he muttered.
'Keep pouring,' Mulder said. 'If we drink enough we'll both have forgotten this whole sorry conversation by tomorrow morning.'
Skinner nodded. At the moment, it sounded like a plan.
It grew colder, and they ended up on the floor because it was closer to the fire, sitting side by side, backs against the sofa.
'If anything like Sacramento ever happens again, I am coming down to bust your ass,' Skinner said. 'The FBI pays you for a consult, not to put yourself in the line of fire. They have people for that. You're not one of them any more. Do I make myself understood?'
'Yes *sir*,' Mulder said, with solemn, drunken affection. He raised his glass to Skinner, who knocked his own against it.
'Just you remember that, Mulder, I'm serious.'
'You could come and be my partner. Keep me out of trouble that way,' Mulder said, with that blank expression that Skinner had come to dread.
'Your partner,' Skinner repeated, without expression.
Mulder glanced across at him. 'Scully doesn't want to. She's doing that normal life thing I keep hearing about. She met some guy with kids. Now I'm not even allowed to ring her after 8pm, I've tried but she switches her mobile off and she won't give me her home number. Look, just forget it. It was probably a stupid thing to ask.'
'Then ask me something else,' Skinner said. The booze was making him reckless too.
'Okay. Why didn't you come and say goodbye to me?'
Skinner sighed. 'I don't know. Cowardice, I suppose. Guilt. After everything I did to you. I betrayed you, Mulder. More than once. You know that.'
Mulder shook his head. 'It doesn't matter. You did what you had to do. You were there for us at the end. That's all I care about. That's all that matters.'
'I doubt you'll find that Agent Scully shares your opinion.'
'Do you want to know what I think?,' Mulder said. 'I think you didn't say goodbye because you wanted me to come after you. You ended everything else, but you didn't want to end our friendship.'
Mulder needed this, Skinner realised, and with this came the sudden realisation that he wanted to give Mulder all the things he needed. 'No,' he agreed. 'I don't suppose I did.'
They sat in silence for a while.
'I'm afraid,' Mulder said, looking down at his hands. 'Of what's going to happen now. Everything used to be so simple. There was a road that I spent my life travelling down. Now it's come to its end and I don't know where to go. I don't have a purpose any more. That scares me more than anything else.'
'The thing that frightens me most isn't death,' Skinner said. 'But I'm afraid of dying. I'm afraid of growing old alone.'
'Do not go gently into that good night,' Mulder quoted softly, almost under his breath. 'Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.'
And Skinner knew that that was the moment. He turned and took Mulder's face in his hands, and stroked his cheek with one callused thumb, and then kissed him. And after just a few seconds of shock, Mulder kissed him back. And it felt so right, that his arms came up to encircle Mulder almost of their own volition, that Mulder was shuddering against him, that as he lowered his lips to kiss Mulder's throat, Mulder was whispering his name. And oh God, this was the thing, this was the one thing he'd needed all along, and now he had it he knew, although he hadn't known before. So he kissed Mulder's mouth again, long and slow and deep, and buried his hands in Mulder's hair. And eventually he broke away, because even though kissing Mulder was something he wanted to do forever, at some point oxygen had to come into it too.
'Oh God, I need you, Walter,' Mulder said in a choked little voice. 'I love you so much. I thought I'd lost you, and I love you so much.'
He saw that Mulder was crying and kissed the tears away with a fierce tenderness he hadn't thought himself capable of feeling anymore. He pulled Mulder to him, rocked him gently against his chest, let Mulder cry himself out.
'Ssh. It's all right. I know. It's all right.'
And later he put Mulder to bed, as if Mulder was a child, and then climbed in beside him. He reached out and touched Mulder's shoulder, and found that he was shaking.
'Are you cold?' he asked, but Mulder made no reply that he could hear. So he gathered Mulder to him, his chest against Mulder's back, arm under Mulder's arm, around his body. He heard Mulder make a little choked noise that was half a laugh and half a sob.
'What? What is it?' he said into Mulder's silky hair.
'Please. Fuck me. Do whatever you want to me.'
'Not tonight. Not like this.'
'I need you. I need to belong to you. I always have.'
'You do belong to me. Now shut up and go to sleep.'
'Okay,' Mulder whispered into the pillows. 'But don't let go of me.'
And Skinner didn't.
Skinner stirred comfortably in his sleep, and became aware, by slow degrees, that he was not alone in his bed. Mulder, almost naked, was draped over him now. He became aware of the weight of Mulder's head on his chest, the smell, the softness of his hair. He felt his morning erection slowly, inevitably, swell to fullness against Mulder's thigh.
'Well, lookee who's awake,' Mulder mumbled sleepily, happily against his chest. The storm, it seemed, had passed. It was going to be another beautiful day. Skinner gave a pleased growl.
'Are you talking about me or Little Walt here?'
Sleepy, breathless laugh from Mulder. 'Little Walt? You call that thing Little Walt? Walter, there's nothing little about Little Walt from where I'm standing. Laying. Whatever.'
He pulled Mulder to him, luxuriating in the feel of him, muscled warmth, a smooth, tight ass filling his hands.. 'How about now?'
Mulder squirmed happily against him. 'Still looks like Big, Bad Ol' Walt from here.'
Driven beyond distraction he gathered Mulder up, rolled on top of him and kissed him, hard. The feel of that pliant body, that willing mouth, was intoxicating, addictive. He was gratified to note that Mulder's eyes were unfocussed as he drew away.
'Wow,' Mulder murmured. 'If I'd known you could kiss like that I'd have quit the FBI years ago and done this for a living instead.'
'Now he tells me,' Walter muttered under his breath, but he couldn't suppress the twitch at the corner of his mouth.
Mulder stretched lazily underneath him, gave him a sleepy grin. 'So, you just gonna wave that thing around all day or are you going to do something with it?' he asked.
Skinner considered that. 'That's the worst come-on I think I've ever heard.'
'Did it work, that's the important thing? C'mon, don't keep me in suspense here. What do you want, a 302?'
'That all depends on where you want me to put it,' Skinner said dryly.
'Ah,' Mulder said, nodding sagely. 'This must be the slow class.'
'Brat,' Skinner muttered. He kissed Mulder again, hard. 'I'm going to get a shower.'
Mulder had that unfocussed look again. 'What?'
Five minutes later...
'This has to be the smallest shower in the entire state of Maine.'
'Maybe it would help if you didn't keep dropping the soap.'
'It worked in all those prison movies. With the possible exception of "The Shawshank Redemption". C'mon, Walt. I'll be the new kid on the cell block and you can be big 'ol Bubba.'
'Big 'ol Bubba?' Walter objected.
'Well "Big 'ol Walt"'s already been taken. Although unfortunately only figuratively.'
'I spent all yesterday chopping wood, Mulder. I stink. I need to get clean before we do anything else.'
Mulder nuzzled his armpit in a way that sent an almost painful jolt straight to his groin. 'Smells good to me. Manly. Fuels all my lumberjack fantasies.'
'You have lumberjack fantasies,' Skinner growled. 'Why am I not surprised?'
'You know me too well. Hmm. I think we should talk costumes later.'
'We haven't even had vanilla sex yet and you already want to start getting kinky?'
'Didn't I tell you? For me vanilla sex is kinky.'
'I'm not wearing suspenders for anyone, Mulder.'
'Did I mention suspenders? The shirt, the boots, nothing else...'
'I'll think about it.'
'Out in the woods. On a big pile of leaves.'
'We're going to have to wait another month for big piles of leaves, Mulder.'
'That's okay. I'm easy.'
'So you keep telling me.'
'You know I think my second favourite part of this is that the FBI's paying me $500 an hour consult fees for doing this.'
'This consultancy is going to be run ethically and professionally, Mulder, or I'm not coming in with you at all.'
The look on Mulder's face was wonderful, priceless. 'Do you mean that?'
'Someone has to keep you in one piece, Mulder. I have a vested interest now.'
'Oh. Oh. I... I need to call some people...'
'Why don't you do that, Mulder? Then you can make a start on breakfast.'
There was a pause. 'We are going to have sex at some point today, aren't we?' Mulder complained.
'Oh yes,' Skinner said. 'That I can guarantee.'
His arms were filled briefly with Mulder, warm and wet and soapy, before he was left bereft again and Mulder had gone, leaving a damp trail on the floor. It struck Skinner that seeing Mulder happy was something rare, to be treasured. It was something he was determined would happen far more in the future. And he thought of the words on Krycek's note. 'A present for you, Skinner. Take care of him.' He'd started late. There was a lot of catching up to do.