The Opening Line
by m. butterfly
walfox@yahoo.com
Rating: PG for course language, m/m lite
Category: M/Sk
Series: None (stand-alone)
Spoilers: Avatar (slight)
Archive: Yes
Comments: walfox@yahoo.com
Author's web site: http://Skinner.Mulder.com
Summary: Yer typical out-of-town-conference romance--but without the connecting hotel rooms.
Author's notes: see end of story
Dedication: For my dear friends Blue Mohairbear, cdavis, Danni, Diana Williams, dot, Kiyoko, rac, Rosalita, Sergeeva, Wombat, and Xanthe. And, as always, for Elizabeth, who's the best beta and friend there is.
Disclaimer: The characters of Fox Mulder, Walter Skinner, Sharon Skinner and Dana Scully are the property of Chris Carter, Ten-Thirteen Productions and Fox Broadcasting. The rest of the characters belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended, and no profit (except spiritual, perhaps) is being made.


The Opening Line
by m. butterfly

Walter Skinner stood on the sidewalk in front of the Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental Hotel and squinted. The late October afternoon was sunny and balmy. Much more pleasant than Washington had been when he'd left home on Monday. Digging through pockets for his sunglasses with one hand and shielding his eyes with the other, he did a slow 360. God, what a commanding view Nob Hill offered! He'd been in San Francisco the whole week, yet this was the first time he'd had the opportunity to really appreciate where he was. But now that the international law enforcement conference was over, he almost felt lost, unsure of what to do with himself.

The Golden Gate City was not familiar to him, although he'd often thought about making a visit. For some reason, Sharon had never shown any interest and, because she'd been the one who'd always planned their infrequent vacations, they'd never gone. Since their split, he rarely took full weekends off. In fact, his life outside of work had basically dried up.

And that's why he was adrift now. He had nearly two free days on his hands and didn't know how to spend them. Damn the Bureau and its fucking cost-cutting measures! Airfares were lower whenever a trip included a Saturday night stay, so here he was. Even with the two extra nights at the Mark Hopkins, it was cheaper to have the FBI personnel attending the conference come home on Sunday rather than Friday. Skinner had to laugh to himself. *At* himself. Anyone else in his shoes would have been grateful.

Even Mulder, who was probably sailing out to Alcatraz at this very moment.

Ah, Special Agent Fox Mulder. During lunch--the last official function of the week--Skinner had toyed with the idea of asking his unconventional Department Head if he wanted to do something afterward. They'd been together a great deal during these past five days, as the conference agenda was unusually heavy. But Mulder was nowhere to be seen by the time coffee was served, so Skinner changed into casual clothes and decided to venture out on his own.

But where to go?

If he followed California Street north, he'd eventually get to Fisherman's Wharf. He could even take a cable car there. Be a real tourist. Maybe run into Mulder on his way back from Alcatraz, eager to point out to someone the historical discrepancies he'd discovered in the official tour of the former prison.

Jesus. Skinner had been thinking far too much about Fox Mulder lately.

Nope. North was out. Fishermen's Wharf was too much of a cliche for him today, as was a cable car ride. Besides, he felt like doing some major walking after a week of sitting around on his ass.

So, armed with a small map he'd picked up from the front desk and his excellent sense of direction, FBI Assistant Director Walter S. Skinner faced south and began the steep descent toward Market Street and parts unknown.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Things were getting pretty seedy the further west he walked, and Skinner had had enough by the time he reached Van Ness. Someone at lunch--a local AD--had been boasting the merits of Japantown, which was northwest of Van Ness, so Skinner turned right off Market and headed in that direction. What the hell.

But within minutes he found himself in a place that made him forget all about Japantown. It wasn't Nob Hill, but it certainly was charming. There were street signs for the Opera House and Davies Symphony, so he figured he'd stumbled into one of the city's artistic districts. On a whim, Skinner took the next left onto Hayes Street, which was lined with restaurants, shops and galleries. The term "funky" sprang to mind, and he actually cracked a smile.

He wasn't hungry but *had* worked up a thirst, so stopped for an iced tea at a sidewalk cafe before resuming his journey. Shortly after crossing Octavia Street, his eye was drawn to a large window filled with striking canvasses.

Turned out that the gallery he wound up wandering into was the Bucheon, which prided itself for featuring new work by emerging and mid-career artists not currently showing in San Francisco. Skinner had learned a thing or two about art from his ex-wife, and honestly enjoyed strolling through galleries and museums.

Today, several artists were showing at the Bucheon, one of them a painter from Toronto named Steve Walker. It didn't take Skinner long to figure out that the subject of Walker's work was the lives and times of gay men, but the paintings were too tasteful for Skinner to consider them homoerotic. In fact, they were more romantic than sexy.

Well, most of them.

There was one large canvas depicting two nude men, although all you could see were body parts. No faces. One man was reclining on a bed while the other pulled at a sheet covering his lover, unveiling him for a private showing. Looking at it made Skinner feel lonely--lonelier than he'd felt in a long time--and yet he couldn't tear his eyes away. He was so engrossed that he didn't realize someone was standing right beside him until the other man spoke.

"Nice, huh?"

"Uh-huh," Skinner answered, still riveted.

"It's my favourite exhibit too, Sir."

Oh, god. It couldn't be.

"Mulder! Where the hell did you come from?"

"If you're referring to my parentage," Mulder deadpanned, "I'm afraid I can't give you a definitive answer. Otherwise, I was standing over there--" He indicated the doorway to another exhibit. "--when I saw you come in."

At least Mulder hadn't followed him from the hotel, although Skinner wasn't sure if that would've really bothered him or not.

"How'd you find out about this place?" Mulder continued when it was obvious the cat still had Skinner's tongue.

"Uh, I didn't. I just sort of, you know, ran into it. What about you?"

Mulder turned back to the painting. "I was here in '93 when it opened."

Well, that explained--nothing.

"I never pegged you as an art lover, Agent Mulder."

Skinner watched, fascinated, as the corner of Mulder's mouth crept upward. "Depends on the art, Sir."

"I see." He didn't, though. All he knew was that Mulder rivalled any objet d'art in the room. He was wearing white sneakers, snug jeans and a plain white t-shirt, topped off by a buttery black leather jacket that positively screamed, "Touch me." The few strands of grey in his dark, shiny hair, which were caught by the gallery's lights, failed if their goal was to make him appear his true age. Skinner had to force himself to stop staring at the man. The man who reported to him. Jesus, he was acting like an idiot. So unprofessional. So delusional. So--

"Sir? Walter?" Mulder was touching his arm now. "Do you want to go somewhere for a drink? There's a nice, quiet bar just down the street, at the corner of Hayes and Laguna."

He really *did* know the neighbourhood.

"All right." Skinner hoped he sounded calmer than he felt.

What the hell was he doing?

But, more importantly, what the hell was Mulder doing?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Skinner just couldn't help it. He was still mulling over Mulder's motives when they arrived, on foot, outside a French restaurant in the trendy Cow Hollow district.

"Uh, don't you think we're a little underdressed?"

"Not at all. San Francisco is a very casual place. The exact opposite of DC. Besides," Mulder said, showing off perfect white teeth, "you look great. C'mon."

As he was led by the elbow into the restaurant, Skinner shook his head and snorted. He looked "great?" In Eddie Bauer khakis, a button-down chambray shirt and tweed jacket? Maybe that beer Mulder'd had earlier was stronger than it appeared. As for Skinner, the slight buzz from the two scotches he'd drunk hadn't worn off during the long, ambling walk from Hayes Street. Either that or he was high on something else entirely.

Damned if he wasn't enjoying himself, enjoying Mulder's company, and wishing the day would never end. It was like doing the town with his own personal tour guide. It was like taking a vacation with a friend. It was like being out on a--

"Walter? Hello? I said, did you want to start with a drink?"

Skinner'd been caught daydreaming--again--and counted on the dim lighting to obscure the embarrassment he just knew was advertised all over his face. "Uh, no thanks." He'd had enough alcohol, apparently. "Just water for now, but I wouldn't mind some wine with dinner."

"Sounds good. Hey, you don't mind if I call you Walter, do you? Or do you prefer Walt?"

"Walter's fine." He tilted his head at his companion. "And what should I call you?"

"My friends call me Mulder."

"What do your lovers call you?"

Oh, Christ. Did he really say that? Out loud?

Mulder buried his nose in his menu. "I don't remember."

"I'm--I'm sorry."

"*You're* sorry," Mulder muttered.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Everything was excellent: the food, the wine, the service, the atmosphere, and, after an awkward start, the conversation.

And Mulder. Mulder was--engaging. Sure, he was his usual cynical, suspicious self, but tonight he projected warmth and humour and a touch of silliness. There was no sign of the bitingly sarcastic, bitter agent Skinner had done battle with on so many previous occasions. And what a difference smiling and laughing made to Mulder's appearance! It wasn't just the clothes that made him look 10 years younger. Skinner idly wondered if being in a good mood and dressing down was having the same effect on him.

They were trying to settle the check--playfully arguing over it, actually--when they became acutely aware of the people seated closest to them. The four men in their thirties, who had yet to order any food, were wearing expensive suits and drinking expensive liquor. Too much of it.

"Goddamnit," a husky blond sneered. "They've got their own fucking *district*, for Christ's sake. Why do they have to come up here and make us normal people sick?"

"Beats me," said a leaner blond. "God knows it's bad enough having to work with them."

Skinner tensed, then leaned closer to Mulder. "Hey," he said softly. "Are they talking about us?"

Mulder also lowered his voice. "Yeah. I think so."

"Do they think we're deaf too? Somebody should teach them some manners." He started to get up from the small table.

But Mulder snagged Skinner's sleeve, which held him in place just as effectively as any bear trap. "You'd be wasting your breath. Let's just ignore them and leave, okay?"

Skinner relented reluctantly, put his corporate credit card atop the check, and signalled the waiter. "We're almost finished here anyway."

"Good boy." Mulder smiled and patted his arm.

"Would you look at that?" one of the rednecks slurred, loud enough for their neighbours to hear. "Damned faggots are all over each other."

If it weren't for his unspoken promise to Mulder keep his mouth shut and his temper in check, Skinner would've taken the four stooges outside and used them as punching bags.

"Walter," Mulder said, scooting in even closer, "these assholes are soft. Beating the shit out of them would be so, I dunno, unsatisfying. I think it would be much more fun to do something that would spoil their appetites. Don't you?"

Skinner gazed at his colleague with undisguised admiration. "I knew there was a reason I've kept you around all these years."

"Hey, Walter," Mulder said at normal volume as he picked up Skinner's hand, stroking the back of it with his thumb. "What would you like to do now?"

"I wouldn't mind walking off some of this food. Unless there's something else you'd rather do..."

When the waiter came by to collect the payment, Skinner didn't chicken out. In fact, he upped the ante by gently brushing the hair off Mulder's forehead.

"Maybe we should just take a cab back to the hotel," Mulder all but purred. "Work off our dinner some other way."

As expected, groans and exaggerated gagging noises filled the air, which obviously puzzled the waiter upon his return for Skinner's signature.

"Ready, babe?" Skinner asked while pocketing his wallet. It was a struggle to keep a straight face.

Mulder was already on his feet, shrugging into his jacket and grinning. "Just a sec." He walked right up to Skinner and adjusted his collar. "There. Perfect. Let's go."

Skinner wasn't really surprised when Mulder took his hand and led him out of the restaurant with a froofy little wave and an ear-to-ear grin for the scowling men at the next table.

What did amaze him, though, was how disappointed he felt when Mulder let go of him once they'd reached the sidewalk. He shoved his suddenly cold hands in his pockets and asked Mulder what he really wanted to do.

"It's only 8:20," Mulder noted, "and Fisherman's Wharf isn't all that far from here. We could go and check it out, see what's up. If you ask me, it looks better at night anyway."

"I wouldn't mind seeing it. And I meant what I said about needing to take a walk."

The waterfront was doing a brisk business, and the two men spent nearly two hours there. Mulder picked up a couple of inane souvenirs for Scully, and something inside Skinner ached that he had no one special back home to buy something for. And that he'd been a fool earlier to think... God. All he wanted to do was return to his room, bang his head against the first available wall, and try to get some rest.

"Mulder," he said, "I'm going to take a cab to the hotel. You're welcome to join me if you want."

"Thanks. I think I've had enough hills for one night." He looked at Skinner with atypical seriousness. "Are you all right?"

"It's been a long day. Just a bit tired, I guess."

They were quiet--even Mulder--during the cab ride to Nob Hill. But Mulder broke their mutual introspection while they waited for the elevator.

"Walter. It's Friday night in San Francisco, and I--I don't feel like turning in just yet. Have a drink with me at the Top of the Mark."

At Skinner's questioning eyebrow, Mulder quickly explained that the bar located on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins provided an intoxicating view. "C'mon," he urged gently. "I'll buy."

It was so hard to say "no" to Fox Mulder. Especially when he proposed doing something Skinner approved of, for a change. "Sure. Why not?"

They emerged from the elevator to find the bar filling up, but their timing was perfect: a couple was just leaving a window table. Mulder was right about the view, of course. It was spectacular.

The atmosphere was further enhanced by a live band whose singer sounded remarkably like Sinatra. For a while, Skinner and Mulder just sipped their drinks and watched the couples moving about the dance floor.

"Do you dance?" Mulder asked when the set ended.

"Used to. When I was married."

"Were you any good?"

Skinner shrugged. "Competent, maybe. What about you?"

"Did a lot of it at Oxford, but it's been a while for me, too."

"Do you miss it?"

"I miss a lot of things."

"So do I." There were also things Skinner wanted to say to Mulder. And he knew he'd say them if he had just one more drink, so he started to put some money on the table. But Mulder wouldn't let him.

"You can pick up the tab tomorrow night," Mulder said while squaring things away with their server. "Unless you have plans."

Skinner followed Mulder out of the bar. "Uh, no. No plans."

The elevator arrived almost immediately. Skinner got on first and pushed the buttons for their respective floors. When the car stopped at his floor, he shook Mulder's hand. "Good night," he said, and got off without waiting to hear his agent's reply.

Oh, boy.

If that wasn't one of the more bizarre performances of his repertoire, he didn't know what was. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt less of an FBI Assistant Director and more of a--

Of a what?

The first thing he did when he got to his room was splash cold water on his face in a valiant attempt to shock himself back to reality. He was just drying off when he heard a knock on his door. Who the hell would be bothering him at this time of night? A look through the peephole sent his heart rate soaring.

Mulder. Minus the leather jacket.

With a slightly unsteady hand, Skinner opened the door. There was a gleam in Mulder's eyes that told him the man hadn't come down to borrow a cup of sugar. Praying that he was reading the signs correctly, Skinner reached out and pulled Mulder into the room. He didn't say a word. He didn't think. He just reacted and crushed Mulder up against the closed door, pinned him there with his hands and his body and his mouth. He moaned with delirious joy to be groped and pressed and kissed back. Mulder tasted like toothpaste and smelled faintly of fine cigar smoke and felt absolutely, incredibly, unnaturally wonderful.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Hey." Shaking off sleep, Skinner placed a warm hand against Mulder's equally warm bare shoulder. "Where you going?"

Mulder remained perched on the edge of the bed, his back to Skinner. "Do you want me to stay?" he asked quietly.

"Do you snore?"

A slight pause as the hand slid down to his waist. "I don't know. Do you?"

"Only when I lie on my back, apparently."

"Well, then." Mulder grabbed Skinner's hand and wrapped it around his chest as he lay down on his side, tugging his bedmate into position against his back. "This'll take care of that."

"Looks like it." God knew he was worn out now, but waking up in the morning in this position would definitely be advantageous. "Go to sleep."

"'Kay. G'night."

"Good night."

But it had been a great night. Among the greatest, in fact.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"We have several options." His lap barely covered by the sheet, Mulder leaned against the headboard, licking strawberry jam off his fingers and slowly driving Skinner insane. Again.

"Oh?"

"Well, two." He held up one freshly licked finger. "One, we can spend the rest of the day in bed, ordering room service whenever we run out of energy. Two, we can see the sights, eat out, maybe go dancing in the Castro."

Skinner was sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed, his robe loose around him, his empty plate balanced on his knees. "What would you rather do?"

"I've seen more of the city than you have, so I wouldn't mind staying right here." He picked up his last crisp strip of bacon and sucked it into his mouth suggestively. "But I'm leaving it up to you. It's your choice."

"It depends."

"On what?"

Skinner gulped back the rest of his orange juice, as if vitamin C was good for fighting cowardice as well as colds. He looked Mulder dead in the eye. "On whether you're going to leave your, uh, well, *heart* in San Francisco."

"Only if you decide to stay here, Walter."

In a flash, all plates and utensils were pushed aside, and Mulder was all over Skinner, easing the robe off his broad shoulders. "Look. If you're willing, I'd like to keep seeing you when we get home. Which means we'll have plenty of Saturdays to do nothing but fool around in bed." He kissed his way down Skinner's neck. "But we've only got one day left in this awesome place, so if you want to play tourist, that's fine by me."

Skinner groaned as Mulder's mouth attacked his left nipple. "Can we play tourist a bit later, Fox?"

"I was hoping you'd say that."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The following October, Mulder bought Skinner a Steve Walker print.

It stills hangs on the wall behind their bed.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The End
November 27, 2001

Author's notes: The Bucheon Gallery and Steve Walker are both real, although I have no idea whether Mr. Walker's gorgeous paintings have ever been exhibited there. I was inspired to write this story when I came across some Steve Walker prints and notecards during a recent trip to San Francisco. To see the man's work, do yourself a favour and go to http://www.questart.com/menu.html.


Archived: December 29, 2001