(c) rac November 2000
Spoilers: Consider everything up through the current 8th season game.
Website: http://enook.net/hl/rac/rac.htm Not there yet, but one day.
Archiving: Yes, with all warnings and notes attached.
Notes: Thanks to cdavis for her pithy comments <g> and to devo for encouragement. And thanks to Sam for waiting for the right version before reading <eg>. Happy <Belated> Birthday, Sam :) Late but at least finished before the end of the year, despite how long it took.
This is an odd one, with a bit of a twist. I saw some stories come down on lists after the season started, and haven't read them, too afraid that I'd be writing the same thing someone else did. LOL! I hope I didn't, but if I did, well, I hope you enjoy this one, too.
Feedback is welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org Let me hear from you, thanks.
Part I. Out of the Depths
The drive south out of Washington took Skinner through beautiful countryside. Despite the chill in the air, he cracked his window an inch, letting in the occasional sharp whiff of wood smoke and the cool, crisp scent of freshly turned earth.
Autumn had a firm grip on the land. The rich and verdant scenery of summer, painted in bright primaries, had given way to a more gilded palette. Nature's last efforts dotted the land in brassy golds, pumpkin oranges and rusty reds amid a backdrop of fading beige, tan and brown. North of the Mason-Dixon, trees were already bare, their leaves littering the ground in decaying layers. But the south held on to life more jealously, unwilling to relinquish too easily to the inevitable.
Maybe that omen boded well. He needed a positive sign.
Thin, weak sunlight disappeared behind a winter-gray haze in the sky. Skinner shivered as the temperature dropped, and he reluctantly closed the window. The car entered the damp, dim, living tunnel of the Great Dismal Swamp. Trees crowded near and overhung the road, blotting out most of the sky, making the car feel colder than ever.
Sunday afternoon traffic moved surprisingly fast on the small, two-lane road as it wound down through the swamp. Traffic rushed along the narrow, swamp-enclosed pavement at a brisk 60mph. Through a tangle of trees, bushes and kudzu vines on his right, Skinner saw the Intercoastal Waterway canal paralleling the road. A double-masted sailboat and two large cabin cruisers chugged south one after the other on the narrow canal, heading for the warmer waters of Florida and the Caribbean.
All the signs of life encouraged him. He'd expected...well, he'd expected something barren and depressing and without life, when he'd been given his instructions. Maybe...
Shaking off speculation, Skinner checked his watch again. That was the hardest part, sticking to the timetable they had given him. Traffic hadn't accommodated his need to stick to schedule. After leaving directly at noon as he'd been ordered, subsequent backups on 95 South had him gunning the Crown Vic to make up time as he zoomed down 64 East toward Hampton Roads. He only stopped once along that tree-lined length of highway, too afraid of falling behind schedule again because of more traffic.
But luck had been with him. The Monitor-Merrimac bridge-tunnel had been free of congestion, and he drove over the wide James River as the sun, now below the high haze, moved down in the western sky. Route 17 heading south toward North Carolina had traffic, but no backups. He was right on schedule as he drove along the canal bank road.
Skinner started watching for a small picnic area off to the right, with a barge full of dredging equipment sitting behind it in the canal. It better show up soon; once the sunlight went, it would be dark as pitch here, making discovery of any landmark damn near impossible.
Twelve minutes later he nearly missed it. With a squeal of tires and kicked-up gravel, he pulled off to the right at the last moment when he saw the small picnic area. He sat for a moment, feeling the accelerated beat of his heart throb throughout his body.
This was it.
Cars continued to zoom by on the road as Skinner cautiously got out of the car, surveying the area around the small pull-off. Two picnic tables, two trash cans and a gravel-dirt parking area made up the area between the road on one side and the canal on the other. Trees, vines and brush covered every area not paved, a jungle of vegetation. A chain-link fence at one edge of the pull-off surrounded a tiny, green metal, box-like building; public works of some sort, either water or electricity. A barge with a tall crane sat silent down on the narrow canal, moored next to a small dirt path. The waters of the canal were as still and shiny as a polished tabletop.
Skinner checked his watch once more: ten after four. The light wouldn't be around for much more than another fifty minutes, if that. He'd better get a move on.
He had tried to prepare for any exigency: the duffel contained water and food, a small medical kit, an electric lantern and extra batteries, and a tightly rolled-up sleeping bag, all ready for duty. A mag-light peeked out of his jacket pocket, and most importantly, his SIG lay heavy and comforting within his shoulder holster. Heavy denims encased his long legs, and waterproof work boots laced up tightly on his feet. He'd packed extra sweats, not sure how chilly the nights got in the swamp...not sure if he'd need to share his clothing with anyone. Not sure of much of anything, but he was willing to be led around on a wild goose chase if there was a chance in hell of something worthwhile at the end of it.
It had been a long, long time, all this time with no word, nothing. The phone call waking him early in the morning had startled him in many ways. After hanging up, he laid in bed watching dawn's gradual light filter through the curtains as his mind raced ahead. Thinking, planning. Running scenarios, speculating.
He felt ready to deal with whatever they threw his way.
With the car's trunk lid closed and locked, he hefted the duffel bag over one shoulder and trudged among the tangle of vines and brush. The bare dirt spoke of many feet trudging regularly to the water's edge, keeping the path clear down the slight incline to the canal. Once there, he walked along the water's edge until he saw around the front corner of the barge. A boat sat moored to the bow of the barge, just as promised. Hesitating, Skinner took one last look around before throwing the duffel into the metal hull.
It was just a small fishing skiff, a metal rowboat with a small, but fairly decent outboard motor attached, a motor that felt warm to Skinner's hand. A gas can sat in the rear corner, and Skinner unscrewed the lid to check on the contents. Full, and from all appearances, it was gasoline. He saw back-up oars and even a Coast Guard regulation life vest tucked away under the front bench. Without fanfare, he untied the mooring line, then stood and braced his leg against a bench, grabbed the starter cord and pulled. The still-primed engine caught immediately, a jarring sound in the silence. Sitting down, Skinner grabbed the tiller and turned the boat up-canal.
He'd missed it when passing it earlier in the car, concentrating hard on finding the picnic pull-off, but the side canal now burst into sudden view as he drew abreast of it. The setting sun reflected on the westward-leading waterway and nearly blinded him. Fumbling in his jacket, he drew out a pair of sunglasses and exchanged them for his regular ones, buttoning them away carefully in his breast pocket.
Feeder Ditch canal flowed off into the west in an exact, straight line, as far west as Skinner could see. Trees and vegetation hung down on either side, framing the shimmering golden water with dark shapes. The sun's glare obscured any detail even if he squinted. Skinner couldn't help but wonder if that had been factored in, one reason why they wanted him motoring down this waterway at precisely this time of day. He was virtually blind to what was in front of him, except the shimmering golden water. All else was obscured in the light.
Slowly, Skinner angled the tiller and headed down the Ditch. A very ordinary sign stuck up out of the water near the north side entrance, announcing 'Lake Drummond Reservoir and Federal Wildlife Reservation' in bright yellow letters. Skinner felt less alone with that evidence of civilization, no matter how illogical his reaction might be. Glancing at his watch, he headed down the canal.
His instructions were to travel down Feeder Ditch until he came to the spillway crossing it. That half an hour seemed like a virtual eternity, with nothing but a diminishing rear view of the embankment behind him by which to gauge his progress. The sun lowered until eventually it fell behind the trees, and Skinner gave a silent sigh of relief to have the glare out of his face as he changed glasses again.
He could now see details in the looming cypress and juniper trees, saw the cypress knees, their knobby root systems sticking up along the edges of the water. A slithering form at the water's edge reminded him that whatever intelligent life form he might run into back here, it wasn't the only threat to his well-being; the swamp harbored three poisonous species of snakes, along with black bears and bobcats. If it were summertime, he would have been dodging swarms of mosquitoes and biting flies; one reason to give thanks for the colder weather.
With the sun down behind the trees, the air quickly chilled off even more. With his free hand, Skinner pulled out a black knitted hat from the duffel and covered up his bare head. The spillway couldn't be much further. After preparing everything for his trip early in the morning, he'd done his preparation on the computer and pulled up detailed maps of the Lake Drummond region from the Bureau's database. This seemed to be just about the only way in or out of the lake region. He wondered just what in the hell was going on back here in this federally owned property.
Finally the spillway appeared up ahead, and Skinner cut back on the throttle; he could hear the sound of rushing water in the dead quiet. Trees and undergrowth thinned, then disappeared to one side of the Ditch, marking a small public campground clearing. Simple and spare, no one was in residence on this late autumn evening. Even the caretaker's cabin looked empty.
Skinner nosed the boat in to the small wooden dock and secured it tightly. Grabbing the duffel with his bedroll, he headed away from the canal's edge toward one of two small, screened huts near the outhouse. His instructions had only said to "wait". No word on how long he should wait, or for what.
But he could guess. He could hope. And after all this time, to feel hope surging through his veins--it felt heady. He worked to keep it under control. As high as his hopes flew, they could easily crash and burn. Disappointment could ache like the very devil, deeper than any physical wound he'd suffered in the past. There had been too much of that in the past, way too much.
Something had to go right sooner or later, and maybe, just maybe, it would go right tonight.
Maybe he'd get Mulder back.
The words echoed in Skinner's head, sounding abnormally loud in the utter silence as he stalked around the small campsite's perimeter, finding nothing of significance. With a grimace, he finally yanked open the screen door to one of the huts, determined to set up a small camp and keep his mind too busy to obsess on unknown possibilities.
Yeah, yank the other one, Skinman.
He unzipped the duffel bag with undue force, spreading it open and rummaging a bit. Out came an electric lantern; he decided to wait until the shadows darkened into night before turning it on. A bottle of water, a couple of Power Bars and an apple for dinner. He'd eaten before leaving, and the anticipation and restlessness humming along his nerves had shrunk his appetite to insignificance.
With three flicks of his wrist, he undid the ties and rolled his sleeping bag out flat. If he ended up staying here any length of time, he'd be glad to have it. With no fire, it was going to get damned cold here tonight. The weather service had predicted a low in the upper 30s for this area, cold enough to give a man a serious chill. For now, though, the bag shielded his butt from splinters on the rough, cold wooden flooring. And if necessary, the heat packs in his duffel would help, also.
Never let it be said Walter Skinner wasn't prepared this time, he thought. One of his jacket pockets held a compass and a Swiss army knife. The snap on his holster gave way and he drew out his SIG, checking the clip and resetting the safety with practiced movements. Everything the well-supplied agent needed in times like these lay ready by his hand.
Now all he had to do was wait, the hard part.
Sipping some water, Skinner pulled out his cell phone from an inside jacket pocket and checked the display. Reception was poor, but amazingly not lost. Better than nothing. With one hand, he held it and pushed the auto-dial buttons, hearing the connection click through various relays.
It rang once, twice, before a gruff voice answered. "Yeah."
"Nothing. And as soon as I lose the light, I'll see even less. Talk to you in six."
"We'll be here."
Skinner ended the call, tucking the phone back inside his jacket pocket. Specific instruction had been given him to not tell the FBI about his excursion, and he hadn't. Those instructions had not told him to avoid telling non-FBI...did Mulder's three friends count? God knows, they did to him. It felt good to know that someone waited with him during this exercise, even if they were 200 miles away. He only hoped they slipped under the radar of whomever-whatever-was running this show.
Leaning against the back wall of the hut, Skinner munched on a Power Bar and the apple. The lighted dial of his watch said it was nearly 5:30. Official sunset for today listed as 5:04 p.m.; there wasn't a shred of light anywhere, and none to be expected since they were coming up to a new moon in three days. Nothing but dark, dark and more dark.
Before settling in, Skinner hefted the small lantern and made his way out of the hut to the outhouse. He hated to use the light; might as well advertise his presence with a bonfire. It would be foolish to court disaster by having a run-in with the local wildlife, though, so he turned the light on with the shield lifted as little as possible. Quickly, he used the spare but adequate facilities and walked back to the screened hut.
Even with the cold temperatures pushing down from Canada, dampness weighted the air. In the middle of summer, Skinner knew the din from insects and birds would be overwhelming. On this November evening, only an occasional bird call or hooting owl pierced the quiet, along with small rustlings heard in the undergrowth around the clearing. A low, constant background sound came from lake water coursing steadily over the spillway, bubbling over into the Ditch.
Skinner felt like he'd been here before, and in a way, he had. Nearly thirty years ago in a completely different climate and on the other side of the world, but he'd been here before. It had been a world of living green, dense and impenetrable, with air so hot and thick, it was hard to breathe. A jungle so wet, he never felt dry. A place teeming with life, where insects and animals were a constant threat. A human enemy so determined and foreign, Skinner's platoon never stood a chance.
Thirty years ago, Skinner had walked into a jungle with his platoon and barely made it out alive; when he had, he'd been alone. A year ago, he entered a forest with another man-and exited alone. Now he found himself alone in another tangled wilderness, with a hesitant hope of redressing some of the past, of reversing his losses. He had lost too many people in the green.
Back in the hut, Skinner unzipped the sleeping bag and covered his legs. He needed to stay awake and alert, and a little chill was good for that. Breathing the winter air, having it cold against his face and neck helped him keep his edge. But cold legs and feet only made it harder to move in a hurry if necessary.
Skinner clicked off the lantern and blinked at the utter darkness, scooting around until his annoyed, half-century-old body decided the position was tolerable. The silence that deepened during his excursion to the bathhouse now gave way as night creatures once more took up their chatter and foraging. He couldn't recall the exact time he'd last stood a night watch, but old habits were hard to forget.
Skinner pulled his hat down around his ears a bit more closely before resting his head back against the wall. It was an odd trick of sight, a damned inconvenience: a pitch black absence of light affecting the mind and inducing vivid mental pictures, memories in living color, as if the mind could not bear to stand an absence of visual data. Technicolor images-jungle green, blood red, smoky hazel, pale flesh-kaleidoscoped through Skinner's mind with waves of emotion right on their heels, fresh like new. Skinner thought all sense of loss, the confusion, grief and guilt had weakened and bled out long ago; yet one more thing in his life he'd miscalculated.
The present had sufficient enemies, no need to resurrect the past in that role. Let it go, he told himself. The past is dead and buried.
Bullshit, the imp on his shoulder countered. Why the hell else would you be here?
Skinner trained blind eyes on the varying shades of darkness surrounding the hut and resigned himself to waiting.
Something startled him, he didn't know what. As he jerked his head upright, Skinner realized that sleep overtook him against all his efforts. He hadn't accounted for his lack of sleep last night combining with the deadly blankness of the swamp, not to mention his memories.
He'd slept like a baby and for God knew how long-his watch said 2:27 am. The swamp still oozed complete darkness, but something had altered, and some preternatural warning system inside him roused him from sleep to an immediate, adrenaline-filled awareness. Stilling, Skinner extended his senses, trying to pinpoint the source of alarm.
The swamp was unnaturally still. The only sound he heard came from bubbling water at the base of the spillway. All animal and insect noises had ceased. They made no sound, as if nothing at all lived here in the depths of this wilderness. Even when Skinner crunched through autumn detritus on his trek to and from the bathhouse, the animal noises hadn't disappeared this completely.
Something was out there, something sufficient enough to have the animals in hiding.
The hair stood up all down his arms and across the back of his neck at that thought-he knew what was out there.
As stealthily as he could, Skinner pushed aside the enveloping sleeping bag and strained to see or hear beyond the confines of the screened hut. The SIG felt heavy and comfortable in his hand, warm from his body. He didn't know if the gun provided nothing more than psychological armor in this situation, but since it was all he had, he wasn't about to put it aside. Three steps on silent feet brought him to the screen door; two more had him standing outside, still listening.
His left hand curled around the hefty mag-light in his coat pocket as he turned a slow 360, waiting. He knew they were here somewhere. They had to be.
Skinner felt the vibrations before he heard or saw anything, like a mild earthquake stuttering up from the souls of his feet through the very ground itself. Instinctively, he looked up. The sky was a mottled field of stars visible intermittently through the semi-bare branches of the trees. Nothing, nothing...his straining eyes caught a mild glow of light in the western sky. The west-the lake.
He couldn't see much in the midst of the trees, but a small pier poked out into the only bare spot around: the canal. Cursing silently, he turned the flashlight on, keeping it trained to the ground as he ran to the canal. The flowing water sounded louder by the pier, not muffled by the trees and undergrowth. Skinner flashed the light over the still-moored boat, then flicked it off.
The dark pressed in around him again, but this time a definite illumination lit up the sky farther west along the Ditch, on the other side of the spillway, out on the lake. He had learned Lake Drummond was huge, with no buildings at all in the land around it. According to the state of Virginia and the federal government, there was nothing out here...or, at least, nothing official.
Skinner cursed again. The only way to get over the spillway was by manual boatlift. It would be a bitch to do in the darkness, Skinner knew, but he had to try. The skiff rocked as he swung long legs over the edge of the pier and slid onto the rear seat using his flashlight. This attempt was insane-pitch black in the middle of a swamp all by himself. But what the hell else could he do? Nothing for it but to maneuver the boat over to the lift and then work it himself-
The blinding white light took Skinner by surprise, pinned him like a butterfly to his seat. The mag light fell out of suddenly nerveless fingers to the bottom of the boat, clattering loudly in the silence. The white light shined so brightly, it seemed like it suffused everything. His eyes fell to his empty hand; it seemed to dance and waver with light particles. Skinner raised his eyes-the very air around him seemed to shimmer with energy. Everything danced and shimmied and undulated-and still he heard no sound except the steady gurgle of water.
Then he heard nothing at all.
\/ /\ \/ /\ \/
Pieces of his mind coalesced out of the light, one thought at a time, until he was whole and aware and cognizant.
Skinner opened his eyes.
Darkness surrounded him, and he lay at an awkward angle in the boat, his neck scrunched to one side. Cautiously, he untangled himself, rubbing the kinks out of his neck as he scanned the darkness. The flashlight...he fumbled around in the bottom of the boat, trying to find where it landed. Shifting weight, the boat rocked slightly as he reached carefully toward the bow-and his hand touched something. Something large. Something...flesh.
He recoiled from it in shock, adrenaline like a tidal wave through his system.
His brain kicked into gear.
Hesitantly, he reached out and encountered the soft, giving feel of naked flesh once more. A body: male, naked-but warm. Alive. Sticky and wet in places...blood. Jesus.
"Mulder?" Skinner's voice quavered and broke on the first syllable. "Mulder?"
Where was that fucking light? "Goddammit," he growled after smacking his hand hard against a bench. His fingers bumped into a metal object...yes. He nearly fumbled it again in his haste to turn it on.
He flicked the switch...and almost wished he hadn't found it.
Bile rose in Skinner's throat at the sight illuminated by the light. Blood red stood out over ghostly white skin and dark hair. Pale skin glistened on one side of his head where the hair had been shaved away, revealing a raw incision. Bones stood out under translucent skin, vein traceries close to the surface where once there had been layers of muscle to give sleek definition. Now, no muscles were evident, only a broken, weakened form.
Ghastly horror welled up and clawed at his throat. This was beyond anything he might have expected, beyond what he'd been prepared for, like something out of a horror story. Skinner gently gathered up Mulder's bloody, rag-doll body in his arms and with shaking hands, felt for a pulse. There-there it was, faint, so faint.
Alive. They returned Mulder like an unwanted, broken toy: He broke, we don't want him. You can have him back.
Skinner sat letting the full horror of it all wash over him. The light had sapped Skinner of his own will to move, his ability to think. What had Mulder undergone? What tortures of the damned had they inflicted on him, and why?
The pale skin under Skinner's hand started to chill, and abruptly Skinner realized Mulder lay naked in freezing temperatures. With a muttered curse, Skinner awkwardly clambered out of the boat. He had to get clothes, maybe the sleeping bag, to cover Mulder up, but good Christ-he couldn't leave him out here in the boat in the dark. He might wake up, thrash around and fall into the water.
Carefully, Skinner knelt down, reached over and gathered Mulder from the boat. It was easier than he anticipated; Mulder weighed next to nothing. With flashlight in hand while cradling Mulder closely, Skinner hurried back to the hut, depositing Mulder on the sleeping bag and flicking on the lantern.
He didn't take the time to clean or examine Mulder's body, but simply took sweats and socks from his duffel and pulled them on Mulder, wincing at every wound he covered. The sight of Mulder's shaven scalp and the raw and angry-looking surgical incision stabbed through Skinner. With angry motions, he yanked the knitted cap from his own bare head and gently pulled it down over Mulder's abused and chilled skin.
Anger heated Skinner now, burning away much of the overwhelming, paralyzing horror. Mulder needed to be in a hospital. He zipped the unconscious man into the sleeping bag so only his bruised and emaciated face showed, then threw things into the duffel and zipped it up. The lantern clipped onto his belt, and he slung the duffel over his right shoulder before hefting up the bulky sleeping bag.
As Skinner walked to the pier, the lantern bumped heavily against his leg, swinging wildly and casting a constantly wavering field of light into the gloom. But he could see, and arranged his human load in the bottom of the boat with extreme care. He flung the duffel into the stern, secured the lantern to a cleat in the bow, untied the boat from the pier and leaned against the outboard as he primed the engine with long pulls of the cord.
The roar of the outboard sounded deafening to ears accustomed to the swamp's stillness. With little wasted motion, Skinner sat and turned the boat back toward the canal bank road. The lantern's glow extended only so far in advance of the boat, making the going slow. With his free hand, Skinner dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out the phone-shit, he hadn't given one thought to calling in. A stab at his watch showed it was 2:53 am, nearly three hours past his call-in time.
He'd lost at least fifteen minutes of time.
The phone hardly rang a complete ring when a growling voice answered. "Yeah."
Skinner throttled back to hear clearly. "I'm okay. Call off the dogs."
"Too late, he left nearly three hours ago. They were foaming at the mouth at having been left out of the loop."
Fuck. "Okay, I'll talk to top dog myself." The silence drew out as Skinner hesitated. "I...I've got him."
An indrawn breath came from the other side. "Tell us."
"I was...he's..." Skinner took a deep breath. "I'll need an emergency medical chopper standing by to intercept us somewhere...uh, tell them to meet me in the clearing along route 17 just north of the swamp. They'll be able to put down there."
"Oh my God..." Frohicke's voice broke. Skinner knew his distress was real. "Is he okay?"
Skinner looked down at the still form in the sleeping bag. His throat tightened up around the words...he didn't have an answer. "Use the priority codes I gave you to call this in. Tell them I should be there in about..." he quickly calculated how long the boat trip had taken him in the daylight and added another 15 minutes because of the dark, "...in about an hour or so. I'll leave the phone turned on if you need to get back to me...otherwise, I'll call after we're at the hospital." Skinner paused, trying to calm the nervous energy twitching through his body. "What the hell hospital is closest here, anyway?"
"Looking it up now..." Skinner could hear the faint sound of a keyboard clicking in the background. "Chesapeake General, closer than the Norfolk hospitals. We're on it now. We'll give the watch dog a call and redirect him to it."
"Okay, thanks. Later." Skinner clicked off the phone and throttled up again.
Leaning down while keeping an eye on the bow, Skinner laid a finger alongside Mulder's carotid. Still hanging on, still a faint pulse.
He thought of Mulder lying in the hospital once before because of those fucking bastards, unable to talk and wasting away. Incapacitating Skinner tonight had been prudent on their part; God knows what he would have done if he'd seen them. Fantasizing about a small, timed, nuclear device planted aboard their ship satisfied Skinner's murderous urge and occupied the rest of their journey down the Ditch.
Forty-five minutes later, they were back to the main canal, with the boat moored once again to the barge. He hefted the duffel up and threw it up to the top of the bank. With Mulder up in his arms, he struggled back up the canal bank trail. At the top, his car sat undisturbed on the gravel lot, and no other cars were on the lot or on the road.
Skinner reclined the front seat and placed Mulder, bag and all, inside. He shoved the duffel into the rear and yanked the driver's door open. Gravel flew as he spun the car around and floored the accelerator. Only one other car heading south passed them as they flew north along route 17, and within ten minutes, the night sky opened up above him as the car shot out of the tunnel of swampland.
The chopper sat waiting, rotors churning and lit up like a carnival ride. With disregard to his car, Skinner pulled off the road straight into the field, plowing to a stop near the helicopter.
Two men and a woman jumped out. "Assistant Director Skinner?"
Skinner nodded as he opened the passenger door. "Yeah. This is Special Agent Mulder. He's...he's unconscious, I don't know the exact nature or extent of his injuries."
The EMT's took one look at the man bundled in the sleeping bag and gathered him up, bag and all, carrying him in their arms over to the chopper. Skinner watched, feeling helpless as they bustled around, getting Mulder settled onto a gurney and setting up an IV while reading his vitals. One man began talking quietly into the radio before the pilot slammed the door, cutting off Skinner's sight.
"Where are you taking him? Tell me how to get there," Skinner stopped the last man.
The pilot turned and looked back. "If you don't mind leaving your car, strap in, there's room. We're lifting off."
Without a qualm, Skinner left his car parked in the open field as he climbed aboard. The chopper rose up and did a small, banking circle in mid-air. Skinner looked off to the west, but no strange lights played over the swamp. Then they zoomed northward and left the swamp behind them.
Part II. Into the Unknown
The sigh and squeak of a body settling into the plastic-cushioned chair next to him roused Skinner to semi-awareness.
"You know, the whole thing is a bit ridiculous."
A rough-edged voice spoke quietly next to him, and Skinner woke to full awareness.
"I know in the past we've discussed how it seemed that, after Mulder disappeared, the torch got passed to you. Then by default, or actually by foul plan, a piece of it got shoved into my hands. But this habit of going hot-dogging off on your own like our bad boy used to do takes carrying the torch a little too far, if you ask me."
Skinner moved slowly, unkinking his body from the pretzeled position he'd slept in for the past couple of hours. He rubbed a hand over his unshaven face. He must look a mess, his clothes smeared with blood and dirt. Skinner finally opened his eyes and looked over to the next chair.
Sharp, amused eyes assessed him. "You know, you didn't have to become Mulder to keep him alive."
The cavalry had arrived. Even after a year, Skinner still felt vaguely disconcerted by how easily he'd learned to depend on this man. "John." Skinner leaned forward, elbows on his knees as he contemplated the other man. "What's the latest?"
John Doggett shifted in his chair, angling himself to face Skinner. "Scully's in with him, going over findings and treatment with the doctors. It's all over my head. He's still unconscious, that much I know." Doggett waited a beat. "Which is better than what you look like. Is this all the sleep you've had?"
Skinner waved it away. "I'm fine."
"Uh-huh." His laser-blue eyes staring, Doggett shifted and began to tick off items from an invisible list. "Mulder's friends arranged to have your car picked up and driven to where we're staying. Don't ask me how, with no keys. I didn't ask. I brought down some of your clothes, I've got a change right here. You can shower in the staff locker room, and when you're done, I've got something for you to eat."
Skinner could feel the tension in his shoulders fall away with each of John's words, and he couldn't stop the slight lifting at the corners of his mouth. John was here; suddenly the load felt lighter.
"Right now, here, have some coffee." Doggett handed over a steaming cup.
The rich aroma opened up Skinner's sinuses, and he breathed it in deeply. Heaven. His mouth was full of the hot, dark roast when Doggett spoke again.
"And, oh, by the way." He rapped the words out like miniature bullets. "If you ever do something like this again, don't worry about those faceless, nameless men...aliens, whatever. I'll personally kick your ass from here to Seattle and back." Doggett stood up and let out a long breath as if he'd held it in for a long time.
"All through?" Skinner asked him, sipping coffee.
Doggett considered. "Yeah. For now. Go take a shower. Out the door and left down the hall, it's the third door on the right, says Employees Only. I'll meet you back here when you're done."
Doggett thrust a small leather satchel into Skinner's free hand and strode over to the door.
Doggett turned around. Skinner noticed his usual buttoned-down look seemed rumpled around the edges, as if he'd been in a hurry: threadbare jeans and an NYPD sweatshirt with his boots, and lines around his eyes.
Doggett shot him a look that said, we'll talk later. "Go shower up." He slapped the doorjamb on his way out of the lounge.
Hospital food might be suspect, but hospital showers are not: endless supplies of water hot enough to nearly cook the skin from his bones, just the way Skinner liked it. The steam hung thick like soup in his stall by the time he finished. His leather satchel revealed clean pants, an oxford cloth shirt and a sweater along with his kit, shoes and fresh underwear. Skinner left the sweater in the bag; he felt as if his bones still glowed red from the heat of the shower.
Doggett looked up from the small round table when Skinner slipped back to the lounge. "Sit. Eat."
Skinner raised his brows and gave Doggett a look, but never hesitated as he pulled out a chair. "Don't tell me you got this in the hospital cafeteria. Smells like homemade sauce." Fragrant steam rose up from the plate of lasagna after John ripped off its foil covering. Skinner gave two seconds thought to the fact it was breakfast time for other people before gratefully digging in.
"Twenty-four hour diner across the street from the hospital that caters to the staff. They serve anything, anytime." Doggett shrugged. "This was their daily special, it looked good." He fiddled with his coffee cup. "I had to send a team in into the swamp," he announced abruptly. "If I don't, well..."
Skinner snorted in disgust. "Yeah, I know. Frohicke give you the details on how to get there?"
John nodded. "Yeah. I assembled a team from the Norfolk office and let them handle it. Ah, screw it, it's only for show, anyway. If I didn't, Kersh would be smiling as he called us in front of the board."
"You'll get used to being a political pariah," Skinner said with regret, seeing the play of emotions on Doggett's face. He wondered if it would eventually turn Doggett sour about the job and make him bitter. "How's Mulder? Can I see him?"
Doggett sat facing the table in a chair turned around backwards, arms draped over the chair's back, his chin resting on his fisted hands. "Yeah, after you eat. They've stitched up some wounds here and there, taken some x-rays, a CAT scan and have him scheduled later today for an MRI. They had to set his left wrist, somehow the bones inside had been...kind of chewed up or something."
Skinner's stomach slowly turned over at Doggett's litany, and he abruptly stopped chewing and put down his fork.
Skinner ignored Doggett, lost in the red tomato sauce on his plate, like so much blood.
"Walter." Doggett's voice shifted, and he reached a hand out to Skinner's where it lay fisted on the table. "Look at me."
Skinner raised grim eyes.
"Snap out of it. As far as Scully and the doctors can tell, he's doing okay. They're not sure yet about what happened inside his head, but there's no other permanent physical injury. Just a lot of messy-looking ones that will heal. You got him back, and Scully's going to do her best to make sure he doesn't suffer while he's here. Okay?" Doggett pointed to the plate. "Now eat, please. Or I'll really be pissed." An ironic smirk curled up an edge of Doggett's mouth.
Skinner took a deep, shaky breath. "John-"
"No," Doggett shook his head. "We'll talk later. Right now, eat, then you see Mulder. Okay?"
Skinner nodded faintly. "Okay."
/\ \/ /\ \/ /\
Mulder nearly disappeared against the sea of white bandages and linens framing him. Under the relentlessly harsh fluorescent lights, Skinner saw more clearly what he'd only seen faintly in the deep of the swamp with his flashlight.
Mulder's skin had almost no color to it. Skinner wondered if his blood had been drained by those alien vampires, along with whatever else they'd subjected him to. His eyelids lay closed like two bruises in a sunken face, veins too obvious on the surface.
Two nurses bustled around, checking machines, twitching IV lines and cleaning up the leftovers from suturing and bandaging efforts. Scully came marching swiftly around the corner, her nose buried in the chart she held.
Skinner reached out and touched her arm to get her attention. "Scully. Thanks for coming."
She looked up. "Sir. I would have been down here earlier if I had been told," she blinked at him reproachfully.
Skinner frowned. "I had specific instructions. I made a judgement call."
Scully frowned back. "Instead of a telephone call, yes. I know."
The two nurses slipped quietly out of the room.
Skinner gave her a stony glare. "I was under the assumption that being an Assistant Director meant I didn't have to ask permission from subordinates."
Doggett interrupted briskly, diffusing the bristling tension Skinner and Scully generated. "Hey, you got the instructions, it was your call to make. Whether or not we think you made a poor one is a whole different subject we won't go into now," Doggett shot Scully a significant look and changed the subject. "Find out anything new?"
Scully was annoyed, but turned to observe Mulder. "A small metal object in his sinus cavity. They wanted to take it out immediately, but I..." she shivered imperceptibly, "I convinced them to wait until Mulder wakes up and gets some of his strength back."
Skinner walked over and looked down at Mulder lying so still and slight under the hospital covers. "Wouldn't it be best, under the circumstances, to perform the removal procedure while he's out of it? When he's not awake and able to relive horrible memories of how...how it might have been inserted in the first place?"
Three pairs of eyes watched Mulder, each person imagining their own version of the horror. Scully stepped closer to the bed. Her arm brushed comfortingly against Skinner as she reached out to smooth back an errant lock of hair poking out from under the bandage covering Mulder's head.
"When we remove it, I'll make sure Mulder's in twilight sleep and not aware of what's happening. But meanwhile, until I know removal won't be damaging," unconsciously, Scully slid fingers up to the back of her neck, "I'd rather not disturb it."
Skinner thought about that, remembered a frail and dying Scully. He grimaced. "So right now it's just a matter of hurry up and wait?"
Scully turned to look at both Skinner and Doggett, nodding. "Yes, I'm afraid so. They're going to move him to a room up on the 3rd floor this afternoon, so at least he'll be out of the trauma unit. It should be private and quiet."
Skinner frowned. "Make sure they put a TV in the room. I'm not sure quiet is the best idea, it could be too...evocative. Mulder never liked quiet, even in his own apartment."
"I'll take care of it," Doggett spoke up. "Scully, how long are we looking at here for recovery? Just give me a rough idea."
"Well," she began slowly, "he's seriously weakened. Undernourished and dehydrated. He's lost a lot of muscle tone along with experiencing invasive brain surgery recently. It's going to take a while for the swelling in his head to go down, and for the other injuries and the low-grade infection in his system to clear up. We're still running his blood work, God knows what we're going to find there. Anomalies have already surfaced."
"Scully," Doggett interrupted, "the bottom line."
"Weeks, at the very least." She shrugged. "I really don't know." The doctor transformed into a helpless friend as sadness suffused her eyes. She stroked Mulder's face. "I wish I did."
Skinner took a deep breath and gathered the edges of his ragged self together. "You're doing your best, Scully." He laid a tentative hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly, wanting to move past their earlier frustration. "Where's Isaac? With your mother?"
Scully nodded, smiling, seizing the change of topic. "Mom's in seventh heaven, says I don't let her play grandma enough."
"Why don't you have her send down a picture of Isaac? A nice, big one," Doggett suggested. "Mulder's going to need all the incentives you can find to help him get past this event."
That idea seemed to rock Scully somehow, and she stared bemusedly at Mulder. "I-Yes. I...I'll call my mom right now." She touched Mulder's hand hesitantly. "I...I tend to forget that Isaac has a biological father. And that's not fair to either father or son, is it?" she asked rhetorically. Straightening her shoulders, she wheeled around and left the room.
The monitors beeped and whirred softly, and the oxygen tank hissed faintly in the corner. Skinner looked at the man in the bed, then turned his head and regarded the one standing next to him. There couldn't be any more difference between them at the moment: one vital, healthy and strong; one weak, sickly and broken.
One needed him, and the other....
"John." Just as in the lounge, Skinner waited until he had Doggett's attention, then he repeated the same message. "Thanks."
Hands on his hips, Doggett gestured toward the bed with his chin, his eyes on Mulder. "He didn't deserve this."
John hadn't betrayed himself with anything obvious, but Skinner knew. "Neither did you," he said quietly and with subtle meaning.
Doggett's narrowed blue gaze swung back to Skinner. "I'm a big boy, Walter. I knew what I was getting into. Wasted opportunities aren't my style."
The words sliced into Skinner's vulnerable underbelly and pain exploded, spreading through him like acid.
It must have shown in his expression; a look of horror passed over Doggett's face. "Ah, damn, Walter. I didn't mean-"
"I know." Skinner's voice cracked. He could feel his nostrils flare as he drew in a deep breath before speaking again. "I know what you meant."
Lowering the side rail, Skinner sat down on the edge of Mulder's bed. "I know what you meant, John," he repeated, "and it's all right. You're right. I, I wasted the opportunity, let it slide by for years instead of taking it. And look what happened." Skinner looked up at Doggett. "You didn't. And I am glad." He smiled faintly. "That's why they pegged you for the Presidential appointment one day. That's why they perceived you as a very real threat. Grass doesn't grow under your feet, and you've got a mind like a razorblade."
Doggett looked disgusted. "A tongue like one, too."
For some reason, the humor of the situation caught Skinner and rusty laughter welled up and out. "This situation has all the makings for a theater of the absurd." At Doggett's continued glower, Skinner chided, "Come on, John. It's okay." With those words, he reached out a hand and brushed the back of his fingers against Doggett's. "If I've learned anything, it's that life is too short, too uncertain. I sure as hell can't control much at work, despite my position, and chances to do what pleases me in life are few and far between." He tangled their fingers together in a light grip. "You please me. Don't go all noble and high-minded on me now. It's a little late for that," Skinner said with dark humor.
Doggett's expression eased. He twisted his hand around until his fingers surrounded Skinner's wrist, thumb stroking lightly against Skinner's pulse point. "I guess that's the truth." Humor crinkled the edges around his eyes. "Our careers are in the toilet, I chase after monsters and little green men, and I've got a thing for my boss."
"Gray, little gray men."
Doggett shrugged and acquiesced. "Whatever." For the first time, Doggett seemed unsettled. "So what's the plan now? You've got Mulder back. It's what you've wanted for over a year."
Skinner felt his pulse speed up and pulled his wrist from Doggett's hand. "Yeah, John. Those alien bastards stole him, of course we wanted him back."
"That's not what I meant and you know it. Don't snow me now, Walter. Let's keep it honest."
Christ, the open vulnerability in John's eyes would haunt him for years. It was the very thing that drew Skinner in to start with, John's simple, expedient way of taking himself and everything around him at face value, including Skinner. No hidden agendas. No dark angst. No self-loathing or unconscious shadows. Not at all stupid, either, just sharp as hell and simply, plainly, straight forward. Unafraid.
That lack of fear reminded him of Mulder. And both men were strong. But sometimes, John's strength scared Skinner, he seemed so strong, so together, while Skinner just felt...weak and needy. What did John get from him?
"Walter, you with me?"
A hand on his arm brought him out of his musings. "Yeah, I'm with you."
"Want me to take a hike?"
"God, no," Skinner burst out irritably. "No, dammit. Don't go putting words in my mouth or thoughts in my head that aren't there."
Doggett's eyebrows went up. "Got it.
"Sorry," Skinner sighed.
"S'okay. Things are a bit...confusing right now." Doggett looked steadily at Skinner. "I knew the score when we started."
"I wish I did," Skinner muttered, disgusted with himself, with his own needs.
"Here's a solution. We nurse Mulder back to health, then we can set up a civilized schedule, you know, for the three of us. So he and I don't end up running into each other in your elevator," Doggett grinned crookedly. At Skinner's horrified expression, he chided, "C'mon, Walter, don't take it so damn seriously. You'd think your damn face muscles were going to crack if you smiled."
Before Skinner could answer, Mulder stirred. "...hey..." The word came out as only a breath of air, but Skinner heard it.
"Mulder." Mulder's eyes were barely open, but Skinner could see the glint of hazel through his lashes. "You're awake." A rush of something powerful coursed through Skinner.
"...Walt...Scully?..." Mulder breathed.
Skinner shifted and took hold of Mulder's hand, letting his fingers curl around comfortingly. "She's here, watching over you with eagle eyes."
"....how...where..." Panic and confusion stood out on Mulder's face.
"Calm down, you're in southern Virginia, Chesapeake General Hospital. I...I got you back down here in the swamp. You're back with us now," Skinner emphasized.
"...no, no more tests, please..." Terror infused each word, and weakly, Mulder began to blindly push Skinner and the blankets away.
Skinner didn't budge, but moved closer, wrapping his arms around Mulder's frail body so he couldn't hurt himself as he thrashed and moaned in fear. "It's okay, buddy, I've got you. There won't be any more tests, no more tests, I promise. They gave you back, we've got you now. Calm down, Fox, or you'll hurt yourself. Jesus, come on, Fox, please, calm down, you're going rip out the IV lines."
Mulder's weak but terrorized thrashing stopped suddenly, and he deflated like a balloon, going limp in Skinner's arms. He started crying, weakly, then gaining in intensity. Skinner felt thin arms lift and Mulder's hands clutched at his shirt, his shoulders, fingers digging in with slight strength.
"...no more, please..." Mulder sobbed.
Skinner wanted to cry himself at that pitiful plea. He wanted to wrap his arms around Mulder and take away every horrible memory in his mind. He'd never felt more helpless. "No more, Mulder, I promise, no more. I've got you now, okay? No more."
He sat and rocked him until the crying lessened. By the time Skinner looked up to find Doggett, he had left.
Scully came hurrying in seconds later. "Agent Doggett said Mulder was awake."
"Yeah, he's terrified." Skinner moved back to let Scully get to Mulder, but Mulder wasn't having it and held onto Skinner's sleeves.
Skinner watched Scully hurry out of the room with one eye. "I'm not going anywhere, Mulder. You're stuck with me whether you like it or not, okay?"
Scully came back in with a syringe, fiddled with the IV line and injected it. "Relax, Mulder," she stroked his face. "Nobody's touching you if I don't authorize it."
Mulder took a breath. "...okay...okay..." His eyes closed and his hands fell limply onto the blanket.
"Dammit, Scully," Skinner said hoarsely, his mouth dry. "What the fuck did they do to him?"
Scully just shook her head.
/\ \/ /\ \/ /\
Twenty-four hours later, Skinner dragged himself across the street and shoved the electronic key into his hotel room for the first time. Mulder had kept waking up from the light sedative they gave him, and if Skinner wasn't there, he panicked. He thought Scully was on the ship with him, abducted also if Skinner wasn't in the room, so Skinner hadn't wandered far from Mulder's side for the past day.
The door slammed behind him and Skinner began dragging off clothes, throwing them over a chair as he walked into the bathroom. The toilet flushed loudly, and he shut the door before falling into the king size bed. He was exhausted, more from watching Mulder's panic than any strenuous exertion. He wanted to sleep for a year.
When the bed dipped, he barely stirred, didn't raise his face from where he'd buried it in the pillow. "Hey," he murmured.
"About time you caught some sleep."
"Yeah, well." Skinner turned his face out of the pillow until he could see Doggett sitting next to him. "How's the investigation coming along?"
Doggett sighed. "I need to take your statement."
"Yeah, I know. At least I didn't see anything that I have to lie about."
Skinner moved a hand from under the pillow and rested it against Doggett's leg, feeling the warmth of his body through his suit pants. "Scarred, traumatized. As bad as anything I saw after 'Nam." Skinner moved his hand onto Doggett's leg, let it rest there.
"He needs you, you know."
"No, listen to me. He really needs you, and you need to be there. You'll be there," Doggett repeated, intent and serious.
Skinner's fingers dug into Doggett's leg. "I'll be there," he agreed. "But-" he stalled, unable to get the words out.
Doggett leaned down, his face looming over Skinner's. "Me? I'll be here for you. So. Are we straight?"
A bark of a laugh escaped Skinner. "I used to be the hardest ass in the Bureau. Around you, I feel like a piece of limp spaghetti."
"Deal with it. You didn't answer me."
Skinner sighed. "Yeah, we're straight. So to speak," he added with a blank expression.
Doggett brought his hand down hard on Skinner's upturned rear end. "Smart ass." The hand stayed, explored, caressed curves and squeezed before he removed it. "And I still think you're the hardest ass in the Bureau," Doggett muttered in Skinner's ear before hopping off the bed. "Gotta drive to Norfolk Office for a meeting. I'll see you later."
Skinner rolled over. "John, come here."
Doggett turned around, took one look at Skinner and came back over. His kiss devoured Skinner's mouth, sucking his tongue and biting gently on his lip before pulling back. "Dammit, later. You sleep, I've got a meeting."
Skinner laughed as Doggett shook his head and walked back through the connecting door, pulling it closed behind him. He pulled the covers back up that slid down past his ass during the previous minute and burrowed back into the pillow.
He didn't have a clue what the future would bring. Just have to take it one day at a time.
And so far, confusing as it all was, today was turning out to be not half bad.
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