Title: "One of Sprites and Goblins"
Author: MJ (mjr91@aol.com)
Fandom: XF (M/Sk)
Rating: PG-13 (a couple of words your toddler should avoid saying)
Archive: DitB, Allslash; others please ask
Spoilers: Seasons 8, what there's been of 9, only to the extent I could do anything with them - CC sure couldn't!
Summary: Where's Mulder?
Note: First in a short series. Thanks to JiM for beta and for writing the parallel series.
Disclaimer: I hereby disclaim Seasons 8 and 9 of "The X-Files" except for introducing us to Agent Doggett. Although I borrowed Krycek's death, you know that was a horrible lie. I disclaim CC's ultimate failure of continuity and his absolute failure or refusal to explain anything when his back's against the wall. I disclaim Mulder's alleged permanent departure from the series. I am, in short, not responsible for any of these lunacies. The boys have come to me and to JiM to be saved from the last two seasons' pseudo-canon. They're ours now. And Scully's here too because she's tired of everyone forgetting that she was sterile so Mulder couldn't have gotten her pregnant by sleeping with her. The truth is over here, folks.
Rationale for this whole adventure with JiM: This is the result of JiM & me decrying the current season of XF and demanding a return to good, solid XF slash values. M/Sk cabinfic seemed the best way, so we agreed on several basic plot points and each retired to our own caves to pound on rocks until these "winter" pieces sprang forth.
The common elements agreed upon were: Minnesota, winter, M/Sk first-time, a cabin, Mulder writing, the non-Mulder paternity of Scully's child and a happy ending.

"One of Sprites and Goblins"
by MJ
First in "The Winter's Tale" series

...Pray you, sit by us, and tell's a tale.
Merry or sad shal't be?
As merry as you will.
A sad tale's best for winter: I have one Of sprites and goblins.
       -- The Winter's Tale, Wm. Shakespeare

The Northwest Airlink had come in late from Minneapolis; the four-wheel drive sport-utility was waiting for him at the Hibbing airport. It was early winter in the Iron Range; a snowmobile might have been just as effective given the weather. On the other hand, a sport-ute meant that he was inside a heated vehicle. With a good four hours of driving ahead, heat was welcome.

Dana Scully had told him, repeatedly, that she had no idea of Mulder's whereabouts. It was no surprise that Doggett had none. Monica Reyes had had "impressions." Whether the agent was or wasn't really psychic meant nothing - if she had given him a fix, he could have searched a location or had it searched, and she would have been right or wrong. But vague "impressions" left nothing to confirm or deny.

Skinner had given up hope of finding Mulder six months ago - four months before, sick of the Bureau and disgusted with his life, he'd thrown his resignation letter on Deputy Director Kersh's desk. He didn't care how much the bastard gloated - good for him. There was nothing Kersh could do to him by then other than process the paperwork. Too much had come to light.

Too much that showed that the man the Bureau had spent so long trying to baffle and then to silence had been right. And that had been shown to people who weren't intimidated by the Bureau and who had the power to make the information public. The number of quiet calls for Congressional investigation were beyond even the highest-level conspirators' power to silence. No way to cover the matter up further without blackmailing or assassinating far too many senators and reporters not to be noticed.

He'd recommended Dana Scully as his replacement as Assistant Director. There had been no quarrel with him for once. His agents had been given the recognition they deserved, finally. Fox Mulder, however, had been nowhere present to see his reputation in the Bureau restored. It was highly probable that he didn't care.

However, even as he'd cleared out his desk to make way for the new occupant of his office, she'd sat across from him with only one request for her promotion. "Sir, now that the X-Files division has been vindicated, I'd like to have Agent Mulder back to head the division. I believe that he could supervise Agents Doggett and Reyes quite effectively. As I recall, he and Doggett work well together."

Skinner looked across at her with pained eyes, recalling the last work that he, Mulder, and Doggett had performed together, picturing the now-missing body of Alex Krycek an the floor of the FBI garage. He winced. "Assistant Director, there's nothing more I'd like to see than Agent Mulder returned to his position on the X-Files. I believe that at the present time, that recommendation might be entertained with the consideration it deserves. But if no one knows where he is, and he can't be located, I can't see that your request would do the slightest bit of good. As I recall, you've said that no one has any idea of his whereabouts."

"I beg your pardon, Sir. I never said that. I've only said that he had just gone, and that I didn't know where he was. I didn't say that nobody knows where he is."

"Then you do know someone who knows?"

"I'm not at liberty to answer that, Sir. I only know that I'm not to tell you that they have his whereabouts. I was told that if you come to them yourself, they'll tell you."

"Who, Agent Scully?" Skinner realized that he was as anxious to know Mulder's whereabouts as Scully was to see him in his former position.

"As I said, Sir, I can't tell you. However, although you apparently have not asked them, you really should have thought of them when you thought of Mulder."

As he loaded his bags into the Suzuki now, praying that his parka would continue to keep out the cold Minnesota wind until he was ready to drive, Skinner realized once again how stupid he'd been not to see it in the first place. When Mulder had first disappeared, he'd attempted to trace Mulder himself, unsuccessfully, for several months. Then, finding the search unproductive and feeling slightly ridiculous - what was he doing with such a burning need to find anyone, when he needed no one, and clearly no one needed him - he'd dropped it and attempted to get back to his work. But nothing had been the same, and he'd grown sick of it all. When Scully had thrown the news in his face, he'd cursed himself for a fool. Anyone who knew Mulder knew that there were three men who would always know exactly where Mulder was. Three lunatics Skinner always swore to have nothing to do with, but who had been more valuable than he could put into words. And who would do anything for Fox Mulder. Why, he didn't know. That made them a lot like him.

He'd scrambled through papers until he found an old number for John Byers. After his growled, "All right, where's Mulder?" the first words out of Byers' mouth had been, "Hi, Director Skinner; I can't believe it took you this long to call us. He's been waiting for you."

Only Scully's plea, and that kind of line - why had Mulder been waiting for him, anyway? - could have sent Walter Skinner to the middle of the Mesabi just after Thanksgiving, with half a foot of snow on the ground and more to come.

* * *

A stop for coffee at a McDonald's in International Falls. This was the place that the TV news weathermen always singled out as the coldest place in the United States. It felt like Frostbite Falls, all right, going the distance between the car and the door. A check of Byers' directions showed him that he'd been driving practically along the Canadian border, and he had about an hour and a half more of a straight shoot just below the border. Why couldn't Mulder have chosen to hide someplace warmer? Someplace comfortable? Why was he up where nature tried to murder you a couple of times a season? Surely one could seclude oneself in more comfort on a remote Hawaiian island, or along a beach in Puerto Rico. Why, for heaven's sakes, Baudette, Minnesota? The area was good for hunting and fishing, and for suffering from winter and from giant mosquitoes. Well, maybe that was it; you'd have to be desperate to want to come up there after someone at this time of year.

That gave Skinner pause. Why was he desperate? Surely it would have been easier to have the Gunmen initiate contact by e-mail, or to have Scully call him with the job offer. Why the hell was he here, getting ready to come after a man who'd wanted to disappear and had come to a place that was certain to keep most normal humans who didn't fish as far away as possible?

He had to be crazy. And he had another hour and a half to go in this weather to find out what kind of reception his craziness was going to receive from Mulder.

* * *

Near what Skinner took to be the final turn off of state highway 11, it occurred to him that he'd never booked a room. This wasn't exactly the most motel-saturated area, and the few places he'd passed, like the Walleye Inn, seemed to have their share of pickups with gun racks and cars with "I'd rather be fishing" bumper stickers, occupying them already. He prayed silently for a friendly reception from Mulder, since there was no way to head back to Hibbing or to Duluth for a flight before morning. Why the hell was Mulder, as Byers had said, waiting for him?

Okay, a left onto the one-lane road, the Gunmen had said, and another left onto the first gravel road... and then... all right, there was the curve... and that was an ice patch, shit. How much further? A right turn by the stand of birch trees - Minnesota was sure this was a road? It looked more like a badly carved-out driveway. It certainly hadn't been plowed; he steered himself into the ruts left by a four-wheeler or two. Wait, about thirty feet ahead, on the right - there was a black-coated mailbox, red flag down, name on the side in reflective letters - "Helstrom." A good Scandinavian name, that. He wondered if Mulder had chosen it for cover, or if it were the name of the previous occupant.

Skinner eased the sport-utility around the corner from the mailbox and into a snowy drive between bare birches and snow-laden firs. There were several yards of nothing but trees, then a clearing, and - lord - a small frozen lake. On the other side of the water, if he followed the tire tracks, was a cabin. A cabin, a couple of outbuildings of some sort, a pickup truck, a Polaris four-wheeler, and a satellite dish. Smoke curled out of the chimney - "looks like fucking Currier and Ives," he groused under his breath. He couldn't imagine Fox Mulder in the midst of this much rural tranquility - or so far removed from at least the basic comforts of civilization apart from satellite television.

He crept around the lake in low gear, hoping that the snow wasn't covering a ditch. All he needed was to turn the damn thing on its side. He was closer now, closer - and that was a dog barking. A Jack Russell bounded off of the porch and into the yard, kicking up small flying clods of snow in its wake and pausing a few times to roll itself thoroughly in the drift. As Skinner pulled in near the pickup, the dog bounded to the driver's door and yapped cheerily. "At least you're not an attack dog, unless you want to welcome people to death," Skinner greeted it as the dog bounced in the snow and attempted to levitate itself through tail-wagging.

When he looked up from greeting the dog, a tall, heavily-wrapped figure was standing beside the vehicle's door. "Hi, Sir. I see you've made friends with Mollie."

Skinner peered closely at his host; under the scarf there appeared to be a grin. "So I have, Mulder. It's good to see you. And it's not 'Sir' anymore, unless your Gunmen friends didn't tell you I've left the Bureau. Call me Walt."

The hood and scarf-wrapped head bobbed in agreement. "Whatever you say, Si - uh, Walt. Hey, c'mon in. Let me get your bags." He opened the back of the SUV and retrieved Skinner's luggage as Skinner attempted to maneuver his feet around the dog. "Hey, Mollie, show Walt here the way to the house, huh?" Mollie barked again and wagged her tail in the general direction of the cabin, trotting ahead of the two men as they made their way through the snow towards the front door.

The entrance into the cabin was a revelation to Skinner. He had always pictured Fox Mulder as an ascetic. Mulder's move to the wilds of Minnesota had only reinforced his belief, and had nearly convinced him that Mulder had returned to nature. The cabin's interior dispelled that mystique instantly. This was not the Mission furniture and beige walls of Mulder's apartment on Hegal Place; this was not even Skinner's spartan but comfortable condominium. This... was impressive. A vaulted living room led to an open kitchen area, and to doors on the side; a bedroom, he supposed, and a den. Solid wood floors were covered by thick area rugs, and track lighting surrounded the main room and its enormous fireplace. A wide-screen television, stereo equipment, and assorted electronics that Skinner couldn't quite identify surrounded the room. The kitchen boasted a Viking stove, with a large kettle simmering on it, and a professional chef's refrigerator. Mulder grinned at Skinner's astonishment. "Like it?"

"Mulder, I've been in the White House a few times. The White House isn't this well-equipped."

Mulder shucked his scarf and parka and helped Skinner out of his own winter gear. "Hey, you haven't even seen my computer setup. That's in the study. Where I write."

"You're writing? What? The Gunmen are short on material?"

"No." Mulder laughed. It was a rich, full laugh, one that Skinner had never heard from him before. It felt good to hear Mulder laugh like that. The man had been given so little chance to do that before. "I couldn't afford this place on my FBI salary. I've had it for a few years; I paid for it with my book advances."

Skinner was nonplussed. "What book advances?"

Mulder led him to a row of books on the built-in shelving around the fireplace. "For these."

A row of young adult paperback short story collections and novels by T.J. Helstrom. The "Shrieks and Shivers" series. He had adolescent nephews; he'd heard all about the books. Teenagers with a taste for gore, but not too much, and with a nasty sense of humor, were addicted to fare like "My Brother, the Vampire Umpire" and "Werewolf Dentist." All by an unknown blood-and-bad jokes author, T.J. Helstrom. Kids graduated from "Goosebumps" to "Shrieks and Shivers" if their literary tastes hadn't changed by high school.

"Mulder - you're T.J. Helstrom?"

Mulder gave a slight bow. "One and the same. The X-Files gave me a hell of a lot of material."

"I bet." Skinner rested a hand on the leather couch, partly to claim space and partly to steady himself; he was more tired than he had thought he would be.

"Oh, sit down. You must be exhausted. Here." Mulder fished a beer out of a small refrigerator. "I have chili on the stove any time you want to eat." Skinner looked up at him. "The Gunmen sent me your travel schedule. I was expecting you some time this afternoon or this evening. So the guest room's made up, and I cooked, and there's tons of beer. I've got brandy, too, if you need to warm up. Which reminds me." He turned around, bent over, and threw a log on the fire. He had stripped to a gray sweater and jeans, and had traded the LL Bean ducks for a pair of moccasins. Skinner hadn't seen Mulder look this relaxed in years, which reminded Skinner of just how exhausted he was himself. It wasn't just from the drive, it was everything. How long had he been carrying the weight of the whole world on his shoulders? Mulder looked good - damned good. Retirement agreed with the man. Skinner could only hope that it would do the same for him.

Mulder uncapped his own beer and settled into a chair near the couch. "I can see how you are, Walt. I know you're tired. You've got to be beat. First things first, though -- how are Scully and her baby?"

Skinner swallowed a mouthful of the bitter gold and stared at his former associate. "You really don't keep in touch with her?"

Mulder shook his head. "She must have told you we're not in contact. Neither of us thought it was safe. I get occasional reports through the Gunmen. She goes through them if she needs me."

"I'm surprised," Skinner confessed, then downing more of the beer. "I'd think you'd keep closer tabs on your son."

Mulder spluttered a mouthful of his drink. "My what?" He laughed again. "Oh, God, Walt, you mean you really thought..." Another laugh. "My God, everyone must think that. No, sorry. He's a sweetheart but he's not mine. Scully asked me to be a sperm donor for her a few years back, but it didn't work. This one - not mine. I can't take credit."

Now Skinner was bewildered. "I thought you and Scully..."

Mulder set his beer down., leaning over to speak to Skinner in earnest. "Walt, I love Scully. I'd die for her. No secret. I love her - but not the way everyone seems to think. I mean, I know there were rumors; I'm not stupid... but Scully..." He sighed deeply. "Scully's like my own sister. I wish she were. She's what I'd hope Samantha would have been if she'd lived."

"You two... you never..."

Mulder cocked his head. "You really don't know?"

"Don't know what?"

"Walt... I'm gay. I thought you knew that. Or at least that you had a reasonable suspicion."

Skinner's head was beginning to swim. "All right, I admit I wondered a few times, but I thought you and Scully... and you were married to Diana Fowley..."

Mulder chuckled sardonically. "Now, there was my last great effort at trying to prove to myself that I wasn't gay. All Diana did was prove that I was. She never got over it, and she never quite believed she couldn't save me from myself." He took another swig of his Heineken and looked at Skinner closely. "I guess I surprised you... are you okay?"

Skinner set down his bottle on a hewn wood table beside the couch. "I don't know... I thought it was the news, but I'm so tired..." His head ached. The beer wasn't helping it, either.

Mulder moved to Skinner's side and felt his forehead. "You've got a fever. You're going to bed. Now. I can bring your dinner to bed when you wake up, but you need aspirin and a rest." He helped Skinner to his feet and slid an arm under Skinner's shoulder for support. "This way."

"Which room?" Skinner muttered, trying to steer himself towards one door or another.

"I'd rather put you in my bedroom, so I can check on you, unless you're afraid for your virtue?"

"I can take care of myself," Skinner grumbled. He wondered for a second whether he was referring to his feeling ill or to defending his virtue.

"Not right now you can't. I'm putting you in bed and starting a pot of tea. Did you get a flu shot this year?"

"No." Skinner leaned more heavily on Mulder.

"Shit. Asian flu's all over the place. Mollie, move." Mulder nosed his canine friend out of his path with the toe of his moccasin. She jumped up and ran to the bedroom door. "She likes to sleep on the bed. Hope you don't mind. She doesn't smell doggy or anything. And she's better than a heating pad." He pushed the door open and guided Skinner into the room. It was dominated by a king-size bed covered with a down comforter and a quilt. "Sit." Skinner eased himself onto the bed; Mollie plopped her posterior onto the rug. "I wasn't talking to you, Mollie. You can get on the bed in a minute."

Skinner toed off his shoes and pulled his henley and t-shirt off in one move, then crawled under the down comforter. "Thanks, Mulder." He felt a bounce as Mollie's weight landed on the covers beside him.

"No problem." Mulder drew the blinds. "You rest. Let me start that tea."

Skinner awoke groggily half an hour later to find a pot of tea, a cup, and a bottle of aspirin on the bedside table, a dog snoring at his side, and Mulder across the room, headphones on, curled up peacefully in the armchair with a laptop's screen glowing as he typed. "Mummies," Mulder was mumbling to himself. "The kids love mummies."

Oddly, this felt more like home to Skinner than his Crystal City condo did.

It must have been the dog. It couldn't have been anything else.

* * * * *

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Archived: November 25, 2001