Title: "Therapy"
Author: JiM
Date: 8/99
Summary: Sometimes, the strangest things help you heal.
Rating: G (can you believe it?)
Note: This story first appeared in "Wounded Heroes". Thanks rac!
My website: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Metro/4859/JiM.html (thanks Mona!)
Thanks: to Dawn and Leila and Karen and MJ and MT and the rest of the gang who allow themselves to be pelted with blocks of text at odd hours.
Feedback: jimpage363@aol.com


* * *
"Therapy"
by JiM
* * *

Scully's call finally found Mulder in Nameless, Saskatchewan. He had been deliberately vague about his itinerary, wanting to simply drift and stop when the mood took him. He had promised to check in with her every week or so and was a few days late, so he wasn't too surprised to hear her voice. She began with no preamble, but it wasn't the scolding he'd expected.

"Skinner's been shot."

He dropped to the bed. "What?! How? Is he still alive?"

He could hear her take a deep breath. "He was directing an operation in the field and a ricochet caught him in the knee. It shattered his patella and there's a lot of damage to his nerves and the tendons in the area. The doctors weren't sure they could save the leg."

"When the hell did this happen?" Mulder knew he sounded defensive; he'd been deliberately avoiding newspapers and only watching cartoons or the worst B-grade movies he could find, cutting himself off. He'd gone off to escape the real world and he'd done it with a vengeance.

"Five days ago. I've been trying to find you since it happened." Scully, on the other hand, had no resentment in her voice. Annoyance, strain, worry, but she forgave him this as she forgave him every other time he'd screwed up over the years.

"Has anyone called his family? Does he *have* any family?"

"He won't let anyone call. I can't even access his files to figure out who I ought to call against his will. I was debating calling the Lone Gunmen."

Mulder found himself grinning. Before she'd hooked up with him, Dana Scully would never have dreamed of sneaking looks into anyone's personnel file. "Let's hold off on that one, Scully. I've used up all my favors with the guys for a while and you don't even want to know what they'd ask for that kind of information."

Her sigh echoed across two thousand miles of phone line. "Yeah, well if he has another night like last night, I'm calling them anyway and I'll do whatever Frohike wants. Skinner spiked a fever of 104* and it's still pretty high. After the whole nanocyte episode, his system can't take infection the way it used to."

"I'm coming."

* * *

She hadn't questioned his return and neither had he. For some time, he had become aware of a low-level hum, a vibration deep within. It came to him that he was a compass needle with no direction pulling him any more than any other -- until Scully said Skinner's name. Then something inside had flickered and bobbed at that, straightening and yearning, until the pull became insistent. So he went, following the same pull out of the wilderness that he had followed into it. Only this time, the pull had a name and a face.

* * *

Two days later, Mulder was standing in the doorway of a hospital room, torn between watching his former boss sleep and keeping and eye on the nurse who was calling security to report a vagrant on the floor. He was wondering if he ought to have showered or shaved when Scully came down the hall. Her relieved smile was all he needed but the hug of welcome felt good, too. They spoke softly, huddled outside Skinner's door.

"You look like a bear," she giggled, tugging at his scraggly beard and pursing her lips at his long straggling hair.

"How is he?"

"Better. He responded well to the antibiotics and the surgeon pieced his knee cap back together. He'll be crippled, but he'll be able to walk on it some. That's something."

Mulder shook his head, bitterly resenting that they had to celebrate news as grim as that. Skinner was a vital, active man; the loss of mobility was going to hit him hard. Scully touched his arm. "They want to release him to a convalescent home in a few days."

"Jesus - what did he say to that?"

A small smile tugged at her lips. "It was the first time I've ever heard him swear."

"Can he convalesce at home?"

Scully shrugged. "He'd need 24 hour nursing care for the first couple of weeks, at least. And a lot of physical therapy. He still won't let us call anyone. The only contact on his emergency form is his wife and she's been gone for three years."

"Why Agent Scully, you hacked into Assistant Director's personnel records? I'm terribly disappointed in you," he grinned and punched her lightly in the shoulder.

"I did not! I brought Kimberly some Godiva chocolates and she had the file on her desk. It just happened to get mixed up in a stack of material that I'd requested from her. I returned it almost as soon as I realized." Scully's beautiful blue eyes were radiant with innocence and Mulder laughed and hugged her again.

"Mulder..." she said, eyes on the sleeping figure in the bed. Ever since Skinner had redeemed himself by backing them against the last of the Consortium, helping them defeat and repel an alien invasion, Dana Scully had become one of Skinner's chief supporters. Mulder, who had never lost faith in their boss, could only applaud and follow where she pointed. Their eyes met for a long, wordless moment and Mulder knew instinctively what she was asking of him.

"Yeah, Scully. I know. I'll do it." He ran a hand through his lank hair and wondered what he was getting himself into now. "This isn't exactly how I pictured my 'retirement', you know."

"You would have gotten bored with the Jack Kerouac routine pretty soon anyway," she said confidently.

"Nah," he said, taking her arm and strolling back to the elevators with her. "I was even thinking of getting a dog."

* * *

The first obstacle in Mulder's new career as a home health aide was, predictably enough, Walter S. Skinner.

"No. Thank you, Agent Mulder, but the answer's No."

Skinner looked like hell, pain and infection leaving him nearly pale green in the harsh lights of the hospital. He spent much of his time asleep and the rest of it refusing painkillers. But his will was still strong and his temper was uncertain enough to make most of his visitors depart in haste. All except for Mulder.

"It's me or the Shady Oaks Convalescent Home, Skinner. I've been out to see the place; it looks like Kevorkian's waiting room."

"There's the VA," Skinner gritted. Mulder didn't even dignify that with a reply. He got up and strode to the door.

"They're discharging you the day after tomorrow. I'll pick you up at 4, OK, Skinner?"

"What the hell happened to "sir"?"

"It went when I turned in my badge. See you in a couple of days. Sir." Mulder grinned and kowtowed out the door, leaving Skinner muttering to himself.

* * *

Thursday afternoon, around 4:30 pm, found Mulder muttering and swearing to himself as he sat in traffic on his way from the hospital. He hadn't gone to see Skinner since making the arrangement on Tuesday morning.

It had been a mistake. Walter Skinner, one of the most stubborn men alive, had checked himself out of the hospital, against doctor's orders, less than an hour after Mulder had left him on Tuesday. Of course, he hadn't bothered to call anyone (Mulder), or asked for a ride home (Mulder) or done anything he was supposed to do, like any sane man would have (Mulder). Scully, who would have been able to cow Skinner back into bed with a single glare, had been called out to the West Coast for a consult. She had left Tuesday afternoon, telling Mulder to keep an eye on Skinner. But he had spent the evening celebrating his return with the Lone Gunmen and the entire following day recovering from it.

By 6 pm, after crossing most of Washington during rush hour and fighting his way onto and off of the Beltway, Mulder had worked up a really good head of steam. He enjoyed pounding on the door of Skinner's condo and glared aggressively at the little old lady across the hall who poked her head out at the racket.

By 6:04 pm, when Skinner hadn't answered the door, Mulder had stopped swearing and started fumbling with his lock picks. He didn't know why he still carried them, except for their sentimental value. They had been his 38th birthday present from Frohike and Langly; Byers had bought him a striped tie. But he hadn't lost his touch and the door's two locks succumbed easily enough.

Skinner's condo was dark except for a bluish flickering from a muted TV and Mulder groped for the light switch on the wall. Flipping the switch flooded the room with bright light, pitiless in its accuracy. Skinner was sleeping on the couch, beside a litter of half-empty mugs and glasses. His injured leg was propped on three pillows and a stained comforter was sliding off him onto the floor. There was a wheelchair pulled close to the sofa and a pair of heavy-duty metal crutches on the floor. The air was stale, faintly bitter, and Mulder's nose wrinkled as he considered the evidence.

In the hospital, Skinner hadn't looked good. Now he looked worse. He was pale, except for the dark smudges beneath his eyes. His unshaven cheeks were nearly gaunt and his skin sallow. His teeth seemed gritted, as if he struggled with his pain even in sleep. Taking a closer look at the dry lips and sunken features, Mulder was betting that Skinner was heading for dehydration, too.

"You stupid, stubborn son of a bitch," he whispered as he took off his coat and hung it on the doorknob, wondering where to start. It was obvious that Skinner had been living down here, unable to climb the stairs to his bedroom. He probably had been barely able to struggle up once or twice a day to feed himself. Crossing to the couch to collect the dirty dishes, Mulder revised his theory -- there were no plates or bowls, only mugs. Skinner hadn't been eating either.

Mulder bent down and started gathering glassware. The sound of a pistol cocking was loud in the still room and Mulder looked up, straight into the barrel of a Sig Sauer. He froze for an instant.

"Nice weapon. That the new model?" Mulder asked as he continued to stack mugs and glasses.

"Mulder. What the hell are you doing here?" Skinner asked, putting the gun aside and letting himself slump back onto the pillow.

"The dishes," was all Mulder would allow himself to say. A sudden irrational fury threatened to gnaw its way out, so he turned and went into the kitchen, feeling those tired dark eyes tunneling holes in his back.

There was half a bottle of some violently pink sports drink in the half-empty refrigerator. Mulder handwashed a glass, filled it and brought it out to Skinner. "Drink this." He was unreasonably pleased when his former boss did as he was told, draining the glass. Skinner's hand shook slightly as he handed the glass back and Mulder's fury was rekindled. "Where're your painkillers?"

"I don't need 'em."

"Yes, you do. They're anti-inflammatories as well as painkillers. Where are they?"

Skinner's eyes flashed, then his lips tightened and his gaze dropped. Mulder would have felt a flare of triumph, if he hadn't been so worried, when Skinner said, "In my jacket pocket."

Mulder retrieved the pill bottle, refilled the glass with the last of the sports drink and brought it all back to Skinner, who glared silently at the two tablets on Mulder's outstretched hand for a full minute. He finally broke, grabbing the pills and tossing them back dry. Mulder held out the glass of electrolyte mixture for another half minute before Skinner took that, too, and drank it thirstily. "Happy now?" he snarled, handing the glass back.

"Ecstatic," Mulder assured him, and took another armful of dirty glasses back into the kitchen.

* * *

After loading the dishwasher, Mulder pawed around in Skinner's cupboards until he found a stash of canned soups. He got no answer when he offered Skinner a choice, so he opened a can of his own favorite, hamburger soup, and set the pot on the stove to warm. Taking a deep breath and a firm grip on his temper, he went back into the living room.

"The soup'll be ready in five minutes." He put a glass of ice water on the coffee table.

Skinner regarded him sullenly from the sofa, arms crossed over his chest, glasses back on his grizzled face. "I'm not hungry."

"So what? You need to eat anyway."

The sullen look was blossoming into a glare. But, oddly enough, Skinner didn't argue. Instead, he snarled, "Where the hell have you been, anyway?"

"Around. Here, there. North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Calgary, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, Vancouver... around."

"You disappeared for nearly a year to bum around Canada and the Midwest?"

Mulder found his hands beginning to creep into his back pockets, shoulders hunching defensively in the face of Skinner's weirdly paternal disapproval. He sat down in an armchair, legs crossed and hands placed defiantly on one knee. "Hey, when Steinbeck did it, he called it 'gathering material'. And I didn't disappear. I called Scully every week. Or so."

"We didn't know how to find you, Mulder."

"So what? I *resigned*, Skinner. All done. You have platoons of eager-beaver junior G-men fresh out of Quantico to investigate every damned X-file in those archives. You don't need me and I don't need to take the shit any more."

"Mulder, that's not true."

"Oh yeah, it is, trust me. There's only one thing the FBI hates more than an agent who screws up on a high-profile case. That's the agent who's right when everyone else has been wrong. The agent who topples a secret government is not beloved, take it from me, Skinner." The bitter taste of success was back in his mouth again.

Mulder remembered the soup and went back into the kitchen to dish it out. He found a cherrywood tray and put the two bowls of soup and a couple of spoons and paper towels on it, then brought it back to the living room. He took his own bowl off the tray, then arranged it in Skinner's lap, ignoring the sour look he got in return. He retreated to the armchair and began to eat, carefully not looking at Skinner; it felt a bit like eating with a wolf. After a time, he heard Skinner sigh and pick up his spoon and he tried not to grin.

After a while, he heard Skinner falter, then saw him put the spoon down. "That's it, Mulder. I'm done." His voice was so low that Mulder believed him immediately and he took the tray away without a single comment. He remembered that feeling well, the conviction that food was the enemy and the inability to swallow anything more.

When he came back, Skinner was slumped back onto his pillows, eyes closed.

"Skinner. What the hell did you think you were doing?" Mulder asked quietly.

"I just wanted to be alone."

"You can't live like this, you know that, don't you? You can't care for yourself right now. You don't look like you have the energy to sit up, let alone get yourself to the bathroom and back."

Skinner nodded tiredly. For some reason, his very weakness angered Mulder and his voice rose.

"Christ, look at you! What if you fell? You're supposed to be getting physical therapy every day and that couch can't be good for you! You won't let us call anyone and you walk out of the hospital determined to do it on your own...the big man, too proud to admit that he needs help..."

"I already did," Skinner's quiet voice interrupted Mulder's tirade.

"Did what?" Mulder snarled.

"Admitted it. I called the Visiting Nurse Association this afternoon. They're sending someone tomorrow morning." He jerked a thumb toward the cell phone sitting on the coffee table.

"Oh." Derailed in mid-rant, Mulder sat down again. "That's good. What about the physical therapy?"

"I have an appointment at the hospital tomorrow afternoon." Skinner wouldn't look at him.

"I'll take you."

"Don't you have to get back to the Yukon?" Skinner asked sourly.

Mulder didn't dignify that with an answer. Instead, he got up and said, "I'm going grocery shopping; give me your house keys."

"What - you don't want to break in again?"

"Skinner..."

"By the door." There was a key rack on the wall and Mulder picked a set off, holding it up for inspection, then pocketing it when Skinner nodded that it was the right one. The way that Skinner wouldn't actually look at him finally caught his attention.

"Do you need anything before I go?"

After a longish silence, he could see Skinner's jaw tighten. "I could use some help getting to the bathroom."

"No problem," Mulder said and put his jacket back on the doorknob.

Maneuvering a 6'2" man into a wheelchair and down a very narrow hallway was more work than Mulder had bargained on. The wheelchair wouldn't fit through the doorway, but Skinner had left a cane hanging on the door. Mulder had to admire the sheer determination of the man, even as the halting, horribly clumsy movements tore at him. This was a man who had been leashed power in motion, graceful and sure, reduced to stumbling and leaning heavily on a cane and the wall. Anger rose in Mulder's throat again, sharp and choking.

He retreated down the hall to give Skinner some privacy and casually poked around until he'd discovered a small laundry room and a fair sized study. He had already formed his plan when he heard the toilet flush and water running in the basin.

Skinner dropped heavily back into the wheelchair and awkwardly arranged his heavily braced left leg on the rest. The slump of his shoulders told Mulder exactly how hard even the simplest tasks were now for Skinner. He actually felt a certain irritated admiration for the man's determination to handle this on his own. When he got Skinner back to the living room, Skinner opted to stay in the chair and asked Mulder to hand him the book that had slipped beneath the sofa.

"Chaucer? You read Middle English for fun?"

"After trying to interpret some of the reports coming out of your department, it's refreshingly straightforward," Skinner said dryly.

"In view of your condition, I'll ignore that," Mulder said loftily, going over to the door. "You want anything special?"

Skinner just shrugged and wouldn't look at him again. So Mulder left.

* * *

The doorbell rang while Mulder was putting away the last of the groceries. Skinner was maintaining an unbreachable silence in the living room, although Mulder noticed that he hadn't turned a page since Mulder's return. But he had politely thanked Mulder for the glass of Gatorade in the virulent watermelon color that he seemed to favor.

His distant politeness lasted only as long as it took the delivery people to set up the adjustable bed in his study and leave. Once the door was closed and locked, Mulder could almost hear the steam building in his former boss.

"When did you arrange this?" Skinner's voice was quiet and his tone might have been mistaken for reasonable by another man, but not by Mulder. He had been on the receiving end of enough of Walter Skinner's tirades to know that a major one was brewing.

"There's a furniture store in the same shopping center as the grocery store. You'll be a hell of a lot more comfortable on that."

"I don't need your help."

Mulder just stared at Skinner with one eyebrow raised, telling him plainly how stupid he thought the comment. "I'm going to go put some sheets on that bed. Then, one of us is going to sleep in it. At this point, I don't much care who."

There was a certain petty pleasure in simply turning on his heel and walking out on Skinner just before he went ballistic. Yet another unforeseen benefit to his resignation; the thought made him smile as he ripped into the package of bedding that he'd bought. He was on his second hospital-mitered corner when he felt eyes on him.

"You're pretty good at that," Skinner said quietly from the wheelchair in the doorway.

"Years of summer camp experience stand me in good stead," Mulder said, picking up a new pillow and shimmying it into a still-stiff pillowcase. He could hear the apology that Skinner couldn't say and wondered how well he would do in Skinner's position.

Not well, he admitted, tossing the pillow to the head of the bed and starting on the next one. The silence grew thorny and he tried to find a way to push through. But when he looked up, something bland on his lips, he saw Skinner looking at the ruin of his own left knee, running his fingertips over his thigh just above the top of the brace. He must have made a sound, because Skinner looked him in the eye.

"There's a lot of nerve damage. I think the term the doctor used was "shredded". The tendons, too. They say it's too early to know but that I can only reasonably expect to regain about fifty percent range of motion in my knee. I'll always have a hell of a limp and will probably need crutches or a cane. No more fieldwork."

Mulder said nothing. After a time, Skinner's gaze dropped back to his own knee again.

"On the good side, you have an iron-clad excuse for not asking Jana Cassidy to dance at the Director's New Years party," Mulder offered hoarsely.

Skinner's chuckle was rusty, half appalled, half true amusement. "Give me a hand and let's try out this bed of yours, Mulder." He wheeled himself slowly into the room.

"If I had a dollar for every time I'd heard those words..." Mulder helped Skinner maneuver the chair as close to the bedside as possible.

"You'd have a buck," Skinner grunted, then heaved himself upright, balancing on his right leg with a hand on the mattress. Mulder slid the chair away and watched carefully as Skinner pivoted, then seated himself. Mulder slipped his arms under Skinner's legs and slowly lifted them, shatteringly aware of the heavy, unresponsive weight of the left one. Skinner used his arms to slide up the bed a little, then lay flat, face flushed with exertion. Once again, he would not meet Mulder's eyes. Mulder handed him the remote control for the bed and said vaguely, "I'll be right back."

He left the room and stood outside, leaning against the wall and listening to the bed's motor purring. That awful, bitter angry taste was back in his mouth. Skinner would never again stride through the bullpen, cutting through like a wolf in the fold. He'd never get to watch Skinner slamming baskets in an FBI pickup game again, never keep a covert watch as the man spent an hour on the rowing machine, legs and back flexing again and again in perfect harmony. Shit.

He shook himself out of his funk and went to tidy up the living room. So Skinner wouldn't be jogging much any more; at least he was still alive. The battered comforter Skinner had been using went right into the washing machine. It could have been so much worse, he thought, remembering Skinner dying in another hospital, years ago now. He grabbed the battered copy of Chaucer from the end table and headed back toward the study. He was five steps into the room before he realized that Walter Skinner was asleep.

Skinner had arranged the bed to elevate his legs and tip his head slightly. Three days growth of beard made him look rough and wild and Mulder was struck suddenly, wondering what Skinner might have been like outside the confines of his well-ordered life in the FBI. He put the book on the bookshelf behind the bed, next to Skinner's glasses. Then he went back into the living room, retrieved Skinner's Sig and put it on the shelf as well.

Mulder found blankets and a hand-stitched quilt in the hall closet; he spread them gently over his former boss. They'd known each other for over ten years, sometimes working together, sometimes not ... and he really had no idea who Walter Skinner was. He knew the strictly disciplined man who shouted when he was frightened on someone else's behalf, who ignored personal insults, who required the best from his agents, who fought lonely private battles that no one else suspected... but Mulder had no idea about who the man who read Chaucer for fun might be.

Governed by a gentle impulse he didn't want to think about, Mulder pulled the covers up higher around Skinner's torso, then tucked them in closer, letting his hand linger on the man's hard-muscled chest for a moment, rubbing gently. "Sleep well." He turned out the light on the desktop and stumbled to the door in the dark.

The quiet voice came out of the darkness behind him. "Mulder -- thanks."

He nodded, not turning around, and left.

* * *

The visiting nurse arrived shortly before 8 am, while Mulder was yawning over a cup of coffee. Skinner was still asleep. The nurse, a petite Irish woman exuded good health and sense and Mulder liked her immediately. She got to work immediately, waking Skinner up and organizing him into a shower before he had a chance to growl or balk. She made ample use of Mulder, having him install a shower chair, fetching and carrying for her, making coffee for all of them. She lectured Skinner on leaving the hospital too early, noted his blood pressure and temperature, checked his incisions, adjusted the positioning of the bed, helped him shave and dress, told Mulder to feed him small meals and often, suggested multivitamins for both of them, chatted about her three cats and four children, settled Skinner in the kitchen, then whirled out the door with a firm promise to see them the next morning.

Mulder and Skinner were left blinking at one another in the sudden silence that descended. Mulder poured himself another mug of coffee and topped Skinner's mug. "You look better this morning. How'd you sleep?"

Skinner grimaced into his coffee. Freshly shaved, dressed in a neat Oxford cloth shirt and fresh jeans, sitting at the table, ruined leg out of sight, he looked nearly normal again. Unless, like Mulder, one knew him well enough to see that he had lost about 15 pounds and still had dark circles under his eyes.

"I slept well, Mulder, thanks." He swallowed, then said manfully, "The bed is a big improvement. Thank you."

"Yeah, well, having now had first-hand experience of that couch, I can believe it."

"Why the hell did you sleep down here? There's a perfectly good bed upstairs."

It was Mulder's turn to stare into his coffee mug. He'd gone exploring and he'd found Skinner's bedroom. It was a terrific bed, no question. A California king, neatly made, firm and welcoming. So why hadn't he slept there? He told himself it was because he wanted to be downstairs where he could hear Skinner if he was needed. But the truth was simpler than that; he couldn't sleep in Skinner's bed, surrounded by Skinner's scent. It was too much and yet fell so short of his most private dreams.

"I like couches," he offered, getting up to organize breakfast. "Besides, I was afraid that I'd get lost in that monster upstairs. Where the hell did you find something that big?"

Skinner's ear tips turned an intriguing deep red. "It was on sale the week after I moved in here. I wanted something that I didn't hang off the end of."

Mulder nodded as he put milk and cereal on the table. "You and three friends wouldn't reach the edge of that thing."

"I've never had occasion to find out, Agent Mulder," Skinner said stiffly.

Mulder handed him a spoon. "It's a shame, wasting that much furniture on a single man. Never putting it to the use for which it was obviously intended."

"I never said it went to waste," Skinner snapped, then shook his head, all the irritation gone. "How do you do that? Five minutes of conversation with you and I can feel my left eye beginning to twitch again."

Mulder smiled cheerfully, then pushed the milk over. "It's a gift I have. Didja miss me?" he asked in his most annoyingly boyish voice.

"Yeah, I think I did," Skinner said, pouring milk into his corn flakes. "It's been damned dull around there without you, Mulder."

Startled, Mulder could only stare, his dripping spoon arrested in mid-air.

"Eat your breakfast," Skinner said firmly, not meeting his gaze.

Mulder grinned and ate his breakfast. He was pleased to see that Skinner finished most of a bowl of cereal and some fruit before giving up. He wondered whether Skinner liked chili, his one true specialty dish. Then he shook his head in wonder.

"What?"

"A week ago, I was thinking about Bigfoot sightings and wondering if the motel had HBO. Now I'm getting all domestic and planning menus and ... never mind," he finished, embarrassed by the intensity of Skinner's gaze.

"Not quite what you expected when you left?"

"Not really, but then, I didn't have too many expectations. I just wanted out."

"And now?" Skinner shifted his injured leg some on the chair then fixed his intense, if slightly fuzzy, stare back on Mulder. "What are your long-term plans, Mulder?"

"You asked me that once before."

"And that answer is no longer true, is it? You didn't stay with the X-Files. So what is it now? What do you want to do with your time?"

"I still don't know. The world can probably take another book on Bigfoot, and I'll enjoy writing it, but after that? Haven't a clue."

"You know, before ... everything, I used to have these visions of meeting you on a street corner some day in the future and you'd be wandering the streets, pushing a shopping cart and wearing a knit cap in July, talking to yourself. I'd be on my way to some job that involved wearing a headset and asking people about fries."

"And what did we say to one another?" Mulder's voice was soft, hypnotic.

"Nothing. We just stared and went our separate ways."

Mulder shook his head, smiling gently, unoffended. "I think my daydreams were much more fun," he said unguardedly.

"Yeah, what were they?"

There was a strange intensity to Skinner's gaze that robbed him of the courage to say anything of consequence. Mulder shook his head, the way he did when surfacing, then said, "Why don't you get some rest before we have to get you to your therapy appointment?" Warning Skinner off his private ground, knowing that he was too close to something he wasn't sure he wanted to share just yet.

Skinner just shrugged, then clambered to his feet, leaning heavily on the aluminum crutches he'd been given. Mulder watchdogged him out to the living room, then retreated to the kitchen again to do the dishes and wonder why Skinner had always been able to get under his guard like that. That, like so much of the rest of his life, was an ongoing mystery for which he expected no answer.

* * *

Physical therapy is painful.

Mulder had enough firsthand experience of his own to draw from, but he'd never realized that watching someone else endure it was a special pain all its own. Mulder admitted defeat within ten minutes. After determining that Skinner would be there for another hour and a half, he escaped, pleading errands. Skinner, breathless from simple extension and flexion tests, merely nodded but the physical therapist looked at him with sympathy, as if she knew.

Outside, Mulder realized there was nowhere he really wanted to go and nothing he much needed. As he unlocked the rental car door, he caught sight of his reflection in the window. Bearded, hair so long he could tie it back into a pony-tail if he wanted...nothing like the driven agent who had exposed a conspiracy that honeycombed the governments of twelve countries. Now, as Skinner had remarked earlier in the car, he looked like a man who was deeply serious about Bigfoot. He shrugged to himself, then slid behind the wheel. Perhaps it was time for something new.

When he returned an hour later, he found Skinner's reaction as embarrassing as it was gratifying. The double-take he'd expected; the smile of pleasure was a lick of warmth that he hadn't felt in a long time. "You look like yourself again."

Mulder rubbed a hand over his newly-bared chin. "It feels weird, like coming out of hibernation."

"Maybe it is," Skinner shrugged. He was sitting on a padded exam table, injured leg stretched out before him, a purring black machine attached to it. He looked tired but no longer in acute pain. "You don't look like someone who's gonna knock over a 7-11 any more."

"Gee, thanks. When are they gonna spring you from the dungeon?"

"As soon as I show you how to correctly attach his CPM," a new voice said dryly from behind him. The physical therapist was a no-nonsense type who demonstrated the Constant Passive Motion machine that she wanted Skinner to use at home to keep the muscles of his leg from stiffening and freezing. Then she disconnected it, put it in its carry-bag and hung it over Mulder's shoulder.

"Of course, if he hadn't left the hospital two days early, we could have fitted him there and then and we wouldn't have to make up as much ground." Before Mulder could shoot a triumphant look at Skinner, the therapist continued. "Nice haircut. Make sure your man doesn't go dancing, OK? Give him a massage if his back starts to tighten up again. Hot packs will help with that, too. See you on Saturday," and she was gone.

"Is it me, or does every health professional we meet seem to be moving at warp speed?" Mulder babbled as his mind busily worried at the therapist's easy assumption, 'your man'. He thought that he liked the sound of it. A lot.

"Oh, she took her time when it was something intensely painful, trust me."

"Hey! A new X-file -- the telescoping nature of time in the Physical Therapy unit of the Prince George's County Hospital." Mulder held the wheelchair out but Skinner shook his head. "I'm supposed to use the crutches unless I'm having a really bad day. Being pummeled by her doesn't count."

"Come on, let's go home." Somehow, without discussion, they both knew that Mulder would be staying.

* * *

"Mulder, do you drive a stick shift?"

"Sure. I learned to drive on one. Why?"

"You might as well turn in your rental car and drive mine. Save some money." Mulder had sold his car when he'd given up his apartment, knowing full well it wouldn't be up to the kind of mileage he intended to rack up. He'd cheerfully spent a fraction of his father's insurance money on rental cars, driving everything from Jeeps to Lamborghinis, depending on his mood.

There was a silence. "Mulder?"

"Sure. That's a good idea. I'll do it this afternoon."

There was no more conversation and when Mulder looked over again, Skinner seemed to be asleep, hands braced loosely on the crutches resting between his legs. Mulder was surprised by a disturbing wash of tenderness and something that felt shockingly like appetite. Skinner had a magnetism about him that had always drawn Mulder, almost in spite of himself. He could feel the pull now, wanting to be closer to the man who sat beside him.

"Why can't my life be simpler than this?" he asked the universe softly and nearly jerked the car across the median when Skinner said, without opening his eyes, "It's just karma, Mulder. Besides, you'd be bored."

"Which would be a refreshing change."

"No," Skinner said confidently. "You just tried that, didn't you? Ten months of it. And here you are, back again."

"I'm not coming back to the X-files. Or the Bureau." Defiantly.

"So what will you do instead? Nurse me through my declining years?" There was a bitter edge in Skinner's voice.

"Maybe. Offer me my own TV and one weekend off a month and we'll see if we can come to an arrangement."

"You got a green card, boy?"

Mulder broke first, laughing aloud. Skinner smiled then, eyes still closed, and said, "I missed this. No one else in the division treats me with the appropriate disrespect for my position."

Abruptly self-conscious, Mulder didn't reply and the rest of the drive was silent.

* * *

Ten months earlier, Mulder had left Washington looking for something normal. He wanted to drive and think and interact with people who had little to hide. Scully had accused him of a quest for "Betty Crocker's America", but she had helped him pack and store those of his belongings worth keeping and get rid of the rest. Giving up his apartment gave him a curious sense of freedom that made him light-headed and giddy.

Scully insisted on retyping his letter of resignation, reducing it from a thirty page combination scorching manifesto and impeachment of the entire Department of Justice to a five line document that cited personal reasons for his resignation and would insure that a hefty pension would still be his when the time came.

Upon reading it, the grim lines beside Skinner's mouth had deepened, then he had turned and congratulated Scully on the brevity of her prose. By then, Mulder was hanging on by a thread; he had snarled at both of them and stormed out, knowing all the while that he would be grateful to Scully some day.

It took about a week of careful consideration of North Dakota highways before he called her and apologized, following his gesture up with Redskins tickets. He found that, as much as he had needed to leave behind the Bureau and the X Files and all that they had come to mean, he couldn't leave her friendship behind. They established a weekly chat time. He told her about the heights and depths of his search for the perfect diner and the myths of Bigfoot he encountered; she shared all the Bureau gossip. She also forwarded his mail and fended off most of the more annoying phone calls. He sent her offbeat presents from the odd corners of the country in which he found himself; wild rice candy, elk hide underwear, a moose call, a sleep pillow made from cedar bark, a lump of fool's gold.

He had never figured out what message to send to Skinner and somehow, he was never able to pick up the telephone and call the man to simply chat. Their relationship was both too tangled and too distant; they knew simultaneously too much and too little about one another to have any points of connection that didn't bring up painful associations. So he had said and done nothing, letting Scully spoonfeed him crumbs of gossip about Skinner's rising star, which secretary or agent had him in her sights this week, his health, his field operations ... his shooting. Mulder suspected that Scully knew more about Mulder's feelings than he himself understood. However, they never spoke of it.

She called him late that afternoon from California. "How's the patient?"

"Impatient." Skinner's approachable mood had lasted until sometime after lunch. Then he had slipped back into taciturn and preoccupied, snarling at the most innocuous comments. In self-defense, Mulder had argued the man back into bed and shoved a book into his hands. He was asleep within ten minutes, not even stirring when Mulder took the book from his slack hands or the glasses from his face. "He left the hospital, against doctor's orders, on Tuesday. He was in a hell of a way when I got here yesterday, but he's got a visiting nurse now and he survived his first physical therapy appointment, so no harm, no foul."

He could hear her shaking her head and the aborted 'tsking' noise. "You two deserve each other."

"Hey! I was a model patient every time, Scully. He's just a grouch."

"The hell you were. Trust me, Mulder, it's karma," she said with peculiar emphasis.

"That's just what he said." They were silent for a moment. Then Mulder took the risk and said, "Is there something you'd like to ask me, Agent Scully?"

"When's the wedding?"

He'd always wondered, if he ever got up the courage to tell her the truth, how she would respond. Now he knew and was so grateful for her loving acceptance that he felt loopy. It didn't even bother him that she had manipulated him into this. He knew he was grinning like an idiot.

"You couldn't have just gotten me a puppy?"

"But it's the older ones that no one adopts, Mulder... they need the most love," she was trying not to giggle.

"He growls without provocation, Scully. What if he bites?"

"The best ones always do," she assured him cheerfully and hung up.

He put the receiver back and was just turning, stupid grin still radiant on his face, when he looked up and saw Skinner propped in the doorway.

After a long level look, Skinner said only, "Grr."

Then he haltingly turned and went back to his study, leaving Mulder to stare after him in shock.

* * *

Skinner was best in the mornings, they discovered. He felt most energetic and upbeat then, in the least amount of pain. It was then that he would sit with Mulder, chatting comfortably, showing flashes of dry humor and a broad range of interests. He began to call in to the office and kept tabs on his departments through his assistant, even arranging for files to be delivered to him for review. His physical therapy appointments were midday, or he would exercise on the days in between appointments, carefully, thoroughly. Afternoons, he seemed to lose both energy and optimism, becoming gloomy and snappish, often retreating behind a book or into sleep. But Mulder often looked up to find Skinner watching him, a distracted, bemused expression on his face.

The next few days were calm, allowing them to fall into a routine of sorts. Mulder would get up at sunrise and start coffee. Then he would go upstairs to Skinner's unused bedroom and gather a selection of clothing, which he would bring downstairs and lay out on the desk in the study, ready for Skinner to choose what he felt like wearing. Skinner was usually awake by then and they would have a cup of coffee together and fortify themselves for Skinner's bracing nurse. She helped Skinner shave and shower, and often as not, clucked over Mulder and his shaving nicks, too. She kept careful tabs on Skinner's injuries and his general health, lecturing him on overdoing and the need to build his appetite.

One morning, Mulder got up before dawn, the sofa having been even more rock-like than usual. He brewed some coffee, then wandered into Skinner's room in the fuzzy gray light of predawn. He stopped at the foot of the bed and watched the other man sleeping. Skinner was neat and quiet in sleep, moving little, breathing regularly.

Mulder had no idea what he was doing here, either in Skinner's life or at the foot of his bed. He only knew that he was happier than he'd been in a very long while. He smiled to himself and sipped his coffee. Happy. Who knew you could be happy just waiting for someone to wake up and smile at you, or growl, or mumble, or just drink the coffee you handed him? It was a mystery. He moved up to stand beside the bed, looking down at the sleeper, then carefully settled on the edge of the mattress.

Mulder sat and watched gray light gradually turn to gold and fill the room, touching Skinner's face so gently, smoothing away the pain lines, the anger lines, the lines of jagged memory. He sat in a kind of thoughtless solemnity, one that could turn to melancholy or joy in an instant. He was content to sit and wait and felt only a deep interest in what would be.

Skinner shifted in his sleep, head rolling slowly across the pillow, into the light. Mulder's hand was reaching out before he knew it. He stopped his fingers a hair away from Skinner's face, so close he could feel the warmth of his skin. He let his hand shape Skinner's cheek in the air, ghosting above the skin, a caress that could not awaken the sleeping man. A firm jaw, nose flattened and broken who knew how many times, seductive and surprisingly full lips, a broad forehead, cleft in the chin, strong brows, Mulder's fingers traced over all of them, never quite touching.

'Please', he thought suddenly but had no idea what he meant.

He turned and left, going into the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee for Skinner and let him prepare for his energetic nurse's daily visit.

* * *

Later that morning, Mulder saw the nurse's lips purse as she noted Skinner's temperature on his chart. When she left to help Skinner shower, he picked it up and began reading through it carefully.

"Mr. Mulder! That is confidential information." The nurse twitched the chart out of his hands but he had seen enough.

"Why is his temperature still elevated? He's been on antibiotics for a couple of weeks now. He finished the last dose yesterday."

The nurse shook her head. "I'm not sure, Mr. Mulder. I gather from his medical history that Mr. Skinner had an unusual infection several years ago that compromised his entire system."

"I was there; it nearly killed him."

"It did, as I recall," Skinner said from the door. He was wrapped in a terry cloth robe, skin ruddy and damp from the shower. The air crackled with memory.

The nurse broke the silence. "Possibly that's why your system isn't bouncing back from this infection quite as rapidly."

Skinner crossed the room awkwardly, making his way to the desk. Mulder clamped down on the impulse to go and take his arm, to help bear the weight. Instead, he asked, "Does he need another course of antibiotics?" He watched Skinner pick through the armful of clothing he had brought down this morning and choose khaki slacks and a navy blue polo shirt to wear.

"Possibly. I'll discuss it with your doctor, Mr. Skinner. If he calls in a prescription..."

"I'll pick it up," Mulder said.

"Mulder. Get out of here and let me get dressed."

Mulder and the nurse exchanged a look, then Mulder shrugged and left. He reminded himself that Skinner was in constant pain and probably suffering from cabin fever. The man is trying to adjust to having been crippled overnight, Mulder lectured himself, absently tidying the living room. Cut him some slack, he nearly said aloud, remember the times he let you go way over the line. Remembering some of those times made Mulder start to grin. He was nearly cheerful when he wished the nurse goodbye and closed the door behind her.

"Mulder. I'm sorry. It's just..." Skinner was standing behind him when he turned, standing tall between his crutches.

Mulder nodded, understanding. Skinner shrugged, then moved slowly to the couch.

"What are you doing here, Mulder?" Skinner sounded oddly hesitant.

The question startled him and Mulder suddenly had an overwhelming urge for another cup of coffee. He went into the kitchen and emptied the pot into his mug, then rinsed the carafe carefully before putting it in the dish rack. Then he fiddled with sugar and milk, which he never took. Skinner cleared his throat, warning him that he had procrastinated enough. He slouched back into the living room, where Skinner sat on the couch, leg stiffly arranged on the coffee table.

"Ok. I'll come clean. I sold my apartment and need a place to crash."

Skinner looked at him over his glasses and Mulder was torn between laughing with delight at the familiar exasperated expression and heading back to the kitchen for something, anything else to add to his now-undrinkable coffee. He tried again.

"I'm working on my last merit badge."

When Skinner added a clenched jaw to the over-the-glasses look, Mulder knew he was lost. "I wanted to," he said simply.

"I don't need pity, Mulder."

"No, you don't. That's not why I'm here."

"So why *are* you here?" Skinner asked again, looking down and scratching a nail over a misweave on the leg of his khakis.

"Because I *want* to be here, Skinner. Which word is giving you trouble?"

Skinner didn't look up and the silence threatened to stretch on, echoing with ten years of words said and unsaid when someone knocked on the door.

"Hell!" Skinner said. "I forgot that Moorhead said he'd be over today with some of the casework I need to review."

Delighted to have escaped what had threatened to become an emotional and messy scene, Mulder opened the door with relief. At least until he actually saw Moorhead standing there. Moorhead's plastic smile faltered when he saw Mulder and he bared his teeth. Mulder was a little cheered by the fact that Moorhead's acne had not cleared up and that he was still short, watery-eyed and his ginger-colored hair was falling out even faster than before.

"*Mr.* Mulder. What a surprise to find you here. Would you tell the A.D. that I'm here?"

"Right this way, sir," Mulder intoned sepulchrally, waving the younger man into the room. His Lurch imitation brought a moue of distaste to his successor's mouth but Skinner's lip twitched before he turned his attention to greeting his subordinate.

Moorhead was one of the Quantico eager beavers Mulder had railed against. Once it had all broken, the young sharks had all scented blood in the water and flocked to the site of Mulder and Scully's explosive successes, all elbowing one another in attempts to be chosen for the hugely expanded X Files department. Moorhead was the worst of the strivers and climbers. He had the soul of a bureaucrat and his imagination only extended as far as presiding over a twenty-foot long oak conference table some day. His reports were dull, his accounting meticulous and his solve rate abysmal, since he usually determined that the cases were hoaxes and unsolvable. Naturally, he had been made department head in the vacuum left when Mulder and Scully had both left the X Files.

* * *

Skinner regretted that single week of vacation he'd taken in the wake of losing both Mulder and Scully. Kersh had appointed Moorhead as acting department head and Skinner was convinced that it had been an act of retributive malice, no more or less, on the part of his colleague. It would be another six months before any of the other agents in the department would be ready to pick up the slack when he kicked Moorhead's sorry ass out of there.

In the meantime, Skinner insisted on reviewing every single damned case file with a fine-tooth comb. He took a certain delight in making Moorhead sit there while he circled, crossed out, wrote comments and question marks in the margins. When he had a headache, Skinner even sunk to correcting Moorhead's grammar. It was low but he hated the calculating disdainful look that Moorhead imperfectly concealed whenever he looked at Skinner. It was the assessing look of a slinking younger wolf waiting for the pack leader to falter. Now he had.

"Mulder, I could really use some coffee," Skinner said, staring at the stack in Moorhead's arms.

"I'll make a fresh pot," Mulder offered politely.

"Decaf for me," Moorhead said. Mulder ignored him.

* * *

When he returned with three mugs on the tray, having successfully mastered the urge to doctor Moorhead's mug with dish soap, the two men were bent over an open file. Moorhead took his mug without looking and Mulder just knew that the man was a lousy tipper. Skinner took his mug and tasted it, smiling slightly when he realized that Mulder had already added the sugar and milk in his preferred amounts. Mulder took the armchair across the room and drank his coffee in silence, pointedly ignored by Moorhead. Skinner was carefully reading the file in his lap and Mulder could see the line between his brows that announced that the A.D. had a hell of a headache and anyone with sense would get out of the blast radius. Mulder chose to ignore the warning signals and Moorhead was too stupid to recognize them. His first volley was unfortunate.

"So, Mulder. Last I heard, you were chasing Bigfoot. Bring back any pictures?"

"Moorhead, I'm disappointed in you, listening to mere rumors. Hasn't working on the X Files taught you anything?"

"Yeah, it's taught me just how many crazy people there are in the world. And most of them seem to have your phone number."

"It's yours now," Mulder said and took a deeply satisfied draught of his coffee.

Skinner's pen scratched a note on the margin of one case file, then he put it in the "Check it again" pile and picked up the next one.

Moorhead tried again. "So - what *are* you doing here?"

Skinner's eyes flicked up to meet Mulder's for a moment, pen suspended in mid-air.

"Drinking coffee," Mulder said.

Before Moorhead could say anything else, Skinner said, "Mulder, take a look at this one, would you? I'm missing something here." He held the file out and Mulder stared at it stupidly for a long moment before getting up and taking it.

"Sir! He's a civilian. Those are classified files!"

Skinner looked over his glasses at Moorhead, then clenched his jaw. Moorhead dropped back into his chair, paling slightly. "Mulder has a higher clearance than you do, Moorhead. In fact, it may be higher than mine."

"It is," Mulder said absently, sitting down, pulling out his reading glasses and opening the file. "It helps to know where the bodies are buried. And what species they aren't."

For the next two hours, he and Skinner cheerfully filleted Moorhead's work between them. Mulder made note of those agents whose work showed some flair and good investigative technique. There was one woman and two men who showed real talent. Mulder put their files to one side, pushing them back toward Skinner. He had finally divined Skinner's real purpose in having him do this simple case review. Skinner was asking for his recommendations as to which agents ought to be doing this work and which ones ought to be eased out right behind Moorhead.

Skinner put down his last file, picked up the stack Mulder had worked through and glanced at the investigating agent's name on each case. He nodded twice, then looked up at Mulder in surprise at the last name. Remembering which one, Mulder nodded firmly. Iconoclastic and abrasive the young agent might be, but she had good instincts and was fiercely committed to her work.

Skinner nodded, conceding. Mulder grinned, almost wishing he could shepherd this one through the field a few times, help her avoid the pitfalls he had had to discover for himself. Let her figure it out on her own, he thought a little callously. She'd done all right so far, as had the other two he'd ear-marked. "Tell Johnson to follow up on the North Dakota lead, but warn her to bring extra boots. And remind her to wear an ankle holster," Mulder suggested.

"Which reminds me," Moorhead said suddenly. "Johnson has lost three cell phones in the past four months. Her partner's even worse; he's cracked up two rental cars in addition to losing his weapon in the field."

Skinner sighed and squeezed the bridge of his nose. "It's deja vu, isn't it, Mulder?"

"I thought you were calling it karma."

"It's a pain in the ass and hell on the budget, that's what it is," Skinner said. "Tell Johnson that she pays for the next phone she loses, she's the only one who drives and that Gifford is the one who needs the ankle holster. That way, at least he'll have *one* weapon left."

Mulder, recognizing the paleness and the lines cutting in beside Skinner's mouth, suddenly stood and began piling up folders. "It's been terrific seeing you again, Moorhead. You must come by again soon." He thrust the pile into the disconcerted younger agent's arms and managed to push him, by dint of personality alone, to the door.

Moorhead fired a weak parting shot as Mulder opened the door for him. "I'll see you next Monday, sir!" squeaked around the edge of the door as Mulder closed it in his face.

When Mulder turned, Skinner was looking at him assessingly, but he said nothing. "I'm hungry. Want some lunch?"

A small smile spun onto Skinner's face. "And a couple of aspirin. He really is an ass, isn't he?"

Mulder nodded, then went into the kitchen to rummage around for sandwich makings. He was staring accusingly into the nearly empty peanut butter jar when Skinner said thoughtfully, "You realize what he thought when he saw you here?"

"What?" Mulder said, wondering where he'd put the jelly. He opened the refrigerator.

"Come on, Mulder. I guarantee, he'll be hanging over the water cooler in half an hour, telling everyone he can buttonhole about finding us shacked up together."

Mulder stood up too quickly and banged his head on the bottom of the freezer compartment. "Jesus!" He staggered out of the kitchen, eyes watering from the blow and rubbing at the coming lump. He stared at Skinner, aghast at the man's calmness. "Shit, I never even thought about that. I'm sorry, Walt. I know you don't need the little weasel panting up your back. I'll clear out this afternoon."

Skinner's laugh surprised him. "Come here and let me see if you've concussed yourself again." Mulder crossed the room warily and knelt beside the couch, letting Skinner gently probe the wounded area. "I don't give a damn what Moorhead tells people about you being here."

"The FBI still isn't all that supportive and politically-correct, Walt. Even the appearance will be enough to taint you." Mulder's voice faded out as Skinner's fingers began massaging little circles all around the bruise. He wanted to be shocked, but a more honest part of himself was beginning to hum with an unfamiliar emotion.

"Mulder, you're not the only one who knows where the bodies are buried."

"You don't care if Moorhead is telling everyone I'm ... we're...I mean...," Mulder's voice faded again as Skinner's strong fingers began working at the everlasting knots of tension at the base of his skull.

"Only if it's not true," Skinner said slowly.

"Oh," Mulder said. Slowly, stiffly, he bent until his forehead was resting against Skinner's unwounded leg. "Let them talk, then." Skinner made no reply, but his other hand came to rest on Mulder's hair and began to stroke it very softly.

They stayed like that for a long time, until well past the time Mulder's knees had begun to complain. Eventually, he rose to his feet and stood, rocking a little, unsure of his balance, either physical or emotional. "So, what do we do now?"

"Lunch?" But the smile Skinner gave him was just as hesitant and unsure as Mulder felt. It cheered him enormously.

* * *

The next week was a revelation to Walter Skinner. Even as he learned how much his wound had crippled him, he was sighting strange new vistas with Mulder. Ever since his roundabout declaration and that strangely sweet and silent half hour, they had never spoken about what was between them. But Mulder stood and sat closer to him now, almost inviting Skinner to touch him. So he did, gently, carefully, as he might approach a half-tamed animal. He sometimes let his fingers brush through Mulder's hair, or lightly ran his hand down Mulder's arm, let his fingers linger in Mulder's as he was helped up or down. Mulder's response to these gentle attentions was unexpected; unsuspected walls were crumbling and Skinner could see them giving way in Mulder's eyes. They talked then, told each other stories and truths, the curious mixture of both that make up everyone's lives, the realities known only from the inside.

Sometimes, Mulder became frightened at himself and withdrew. Sometimes, Skinner pushed him away in his pain and frustration, the anguish of losing so much strength and mobility gnawing at him. But always, it seemed they gained more ground than they lost.

Skinner knew it for sure one rainy night when he was in a tearingly bad mood, snarling and fuming. His painkillers could only blunt the edge of his pain and nothing could take away the despair of never being able to run again, or even take the stairs two at a time. He watched as Mulder's lips became more tightly pressed together with every snarling complaint, every cutting remark. He knew he was consciously pushing at Mulder, trying to force him away, waiting to see what would make the younger man break and run. Finally, Mulder had had it. He threw down his book and stalked out of the room.

He heard Mulder punching the buttons of the phone with vicious strength. Then he heard Mulder's voice rising and falling in jagged rhythms, none of the words distinct. There was a long period of silence, then Mulder's voice again, coming more slowly now, a sound as soothing as the whisper of waves on the sand. Dimly, he heard,

"All right, Scully. I'll try that. But if it doesn't work, I swear to you, I'm getting a dog." Then the sound of the handset being returned to its base.

Mulder came back into the room, but Skinner couldn't look at him, couldn't say what he knew he had to. Mulder walked straight past him, saying nothing. Then, without warning, from behind him, there was the blessing of warm hands working the aching muscles of his shoulders. Mulder's strong hands dug in and found the trembling knots of tension, demanding that they relax. His touch was punishingly effective. Skinner let himself be kneaded and pummeled and massaged until much of the physical ache was gone.

"Mulder, I'm sorry."

"I know."

"I just..."

"I know."

"Don't stop."

"No," Mulder agreed, hands more gentle now. Skinner let his head fall back a little, to be cushioned against Mulder's abdomen as he worked. He closed his eyes, not wanting to see how he'd hurt Mulder.

"I have no idea why you put up with this," he offered ruefully, honestly.

"Well, you always did have trouble seeing the extreme possibilities," Mulder said kindly.

"What 'possibilities' can there possibly be to spending all your time with a cripple?" The bitterness rose suddenly to choke him. The security of his headrest was gone suddenly.

"You are such a stubborn bastard, Walter." Mulder's voice sounded unaccountably warm and affectionate. And close. Skinner opened his eyes just in time to see Mulder closing on him. Then his eyes drifted shut at the gentle touch of Mulder's mouth on his. It was slow and sweet and very, very good.

When Mulder pulled away, his face was flushed and his eyes were shining. "Are you starting to see the possibilities here, Skinner? Or do you need another demonstration?"

When Skinner nodded dumbly, Mulder smiled and settled down next to him, turning Skinner's face toward him with a firm hand. "Pay attention," he instructed and leaned in again.

It had been ten years since Walter Skinner had last necked on a sofa. He was vaguely pleased to note that he hadn't lost either the technique or his touch. What he had forgotten was how damned good it could feel, the solid warmth of someone to hold, strong arms holding onto him; the taste of someone else's mouth, hot and alive beneath his; someone else's breath thundering in his ear, whispering against his throat. Mulder's scent was all around him, a spicy mix of soap and sweat, a hint of leather from his jacket, the sweetness of laundry detergent, the sharp bite of an aroused man, a scent that had been a stranger to him for the past thirty years. Even the ever-present ache in his muscles, the sharp pain of his leg as Mulder's more unguarded movements joggled him, they all became mixed into the swirling pleasure of being alive in Mulder's arms.

His right hand had been squeezing Mulder's shoulder, clenching and releasing with stupid regularity, like a cat kneading in drowsy contentment. He woke up to it, let it slide down Mulder's chest, feeling the warmth and strength quivering beneath the tee shirt Mulder wore. His other hand was curled behind Mulder's head, fingers threaded into the soft brown hair. He flexed the fingers of his right hand against Mulder's abdomen and wanted to smile at the sudden jerk and jump of muscles beneath his fingers. Then he wanted to scream as his wounded leg was jostled.

His gasp against Mulder's mouth was enough. Mulder pulled back suddenly, eyes wide and apologetic. "Shit, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to..."

Skinner smiled, although he could feel how thin it was. "It's OK. I just need to catch my breath."

Mulder nodded, eyes still wide, hazy with worry and desire. His mouth seemed very red, lower lip gleaming and wet. Skinner raised his hand and let his fingers brush down Mulder's beard-shadowed cheek, then down over that full lip, fingertips catching and pulling at the moist silk of them. Mulder's breath was a heated mist on his fingers before they fell away, back into Skinner's lap. They stared at each other, the moment too delicate for words. Then a heartbreakingly familiar grin broke onto Mulder's face and he leaned forward until their foreheads touched.

"What?" Skinner asked softly.

"I was just wondering how well this approach would have worked all those years I was trying to get you to believe in alien invasions and shadowy conspiracies."

Skinner smiled, the pain in leg subsiding to a dull background mutter. "Well, it would have made all those Monday morning meetings a heck of a lot more interesting."

"I'm hurt, Walter," Mulder's trademark pout took on an intriguing new shape, his lips still wet and swollen from Skinner's mouth.

"No, that's me."

Mulder's teasing expression faded and his hand lightly touched the brace, then he got up and left the room. He returned with two tablets and a glass of water. Skinner had stopped arguing over a week ago. He gratefully accepted the painkillers and drank the water. When he put down the glass and turned back to Mulder, he was surprised by gentle fingers moving over his cheek.

"You have beard burn."

Skinner felt the slight sting of the skin under Mulder's fingers. "Next time you want to talk extreme possibilities, shave first. OK, Mulder?"

* * *
The stronger antibiotics worked and Skinner regained strength and energy rapidly. He graduated to using a cane and was allowed to take very short trips out into the larger world again. Most often, they went out to eat, Mulder introducing him to a series of hole-in-the-wall restaurants in every conceivable cuisine available in three states. Mulder stopped just short of force-feeding him four or five times a day. Skinner allowed it because his own underhanded plan of putting some weight back on Mulder's lean frame was progressing almost as well. The younger man had resumed running regularly and Skinner was treated to a daily dose of Mulder wandering through his apartment, fresh from his post-run shower, a towel slung around his lean hips, stray water droplets slipping down his chest.

Mulder actually seemed to have no idea what he looked like, lounging in the doorway, chatting with Skinner as he toweled his hair off. There was no calculation or artifice to his display, rather a half-shy pleasure that he was allowed this domestic intimacy. Remembering the times he had lingered in the gym or showers, shamefully stealing half-minute glimpses of Mulder, Skinner felt he was being repaid for the previous five years of restraint and self-denial. Sex was still an impossibility for him as he slowly recovered, but he was almost able to see the restriction as an odd kind of blessing, letting them ease into being *together* more slowly.

Being together brought strangely unexpected pleasures for Walter Skinner. His half-formed daydreams had never included the quiet pleasure of Mulder's head pillowed on his thigh as they shared pieces of the Washington Post over coffee. It had never occurred to him that he might regularly be made breathless when Mulder kissed him briefly but thoroughly on his way in and out of the apartment. He found that he loved to listen to Mulder's stories now. There was a sense of patient inevitability and Mulder had begun to use half of the closet upstairs.

The afternoon that he awoke tucked around Fox Mulder, wounded leg propped on Mulder's thigh, one arm wrapped around his chest, head tucked comfortingly into the curve of Mulder's neck... that was the afternoon that Walter Skinner finally admitted the most extreme possibility to himself. He said it aloud and felt Mulder's breath stop beneath him. He said it again, just to test the reaction and felt Mulder freeze again. He was silent for so long that Skinner became afraid that he had gone too far, too fast. Then Mulder's breath whispered across his forehead, the words feathering against his skin.

"You're crazy, you know. I love you, too." His arm gathered Skinner closer.

"I'm terrified."

"Yup," Mulder said, agreeing fervently.

"Ok," said Walter Skinner, comforted beyond words.

* * *

<finis>

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