Seven Year Itch

by Rose Campion

Seven Year Itch
(a post-series X-files/Queer as Folk crossover)

Warnings- kind of schmoopy. An "after it's all over" story.
Spoilers- none that I can think of
Disclaimer- I know, I know, write about my own damn characters, 'cause these ones belong to someone else. I can't help myself. I just want them to be happy. Make money from this? Ha, ha, good one!
Archive- Yeah, wherever. Just keep my name attached.

Fox Mulder thrashed around the bedroom, slamming the last drawer back shut again, the contents stirred to chaos, but at least neatly concealed. As he stood up, still furious, he got a glance at himself in the dresser mirror. When did my hair get so gray? He wondered at the sight of the generous streaks of silver through the brown. He was not without his vanity and the sight of the gray when his internal memory of himself had brown hair and no wrinkles only added to his ire. 'And when did the scope of my life get so small?' was his next thought as he struggled not to trip over anything in the small bedroom of the large Victorian house. King size bed, two dressers, no room for anything else, including people. There had been talk of ripping out the wall between this room and the alcove-like fifth bedroom, but nothing had been done about it in the six years they'd owned the house.

Mulder settled on a substitute sweater, pulling on the dark green turtleneck, though he didn't quite give up hope yet. He stumbled out of the bedroom which had been built for people who averaged nearly a foot shorter than him and slept in beds half the size and into the long hallway. Bare wall board covered the walls and ceiling. Not yet taped, screw heads still visible along with the occasional work boot tread imprinted on the light gray paper. A number of paint chips had been taped up to the wall, with a dark gold color circled, their paint choice, but never utilized. He snagged an elbow on a screw that had popped out and had to pause to free himself. The wallboard had been hung when they'd had to gut the original plaster after it had started falling down in big chunks, after the roof had leaked. They were in the middle of suing the roofer now who in turn was in the middle of trying to place a lien on the house, unsucessfully so far. Two of the rooms on this level were still stripped down to the studs. The whole upstairs always smelled faintly of plaster dust, and under that, a trace of staleness from the mildew that they'd never been able to get rid of one hundred percent. Eau de old house. As Mulder passed through the hall he banged his progress with staccato fists on the unfinished wallboard, the annoyance of the unfinished work the icing on his cake of indignation.

He headed down the stairs at a rapid clip. At least something in the house was finished, completely, and in good condition. The cherry wood trim, balusters, bannisters, spindles, risers and treads had all been lovingly and perfectly restored. Hand sanded until they were silk. Polished until they gleamed softly, even in the dim light of an early winter morning filtered through a stained glass window. But Fox Mulder was on the warpath and not in the mood for incidentals like bannisters. "Walter!" He called out angrily even before he hit the ground floor. "Walter! Have you seen my black sweater? The v-neck one?"

Old reliable himself made an appearance, strolling casually from the kitchen, drying his hands on a damp dishtowel that he proceded to sling over his shoulder. The black, v-neck cashmere sweater in question was tightly stretched over shoulders that were wider than Fox Mulder's would ever be. The sleeves were pushed up over muscular forearms, but still damp from dishwater. If Mulder had been angry before, he raged now and slapped his hand hard against the cherry casing on the archway that separated the grand front hallway from the double parlor. The hallway was one of the few rooms in the house that was completely finished, from the converted gaslight chandelier they'd found in the basement to the blue grasscloth wallpaper, to the refinished quartersawn red oak floors. It was a serene place, a quiet transition from the outside world to their little private world. Normally, Mulder loved this space. The place where he dropped his briefcase and pretensions and came home. To the one person who knew him better than anyone else in the world. Who had seen Mulder's every flaw and wart and still wanted him. The one person who knew how many men Mulder had killed and where the bodies were buried. Old reliable. The mountain. The one Mulder loved. Walter. None of that mattered just at this moment.

"Why the hell are you wearing my best sweater to do the dishes?"

"I really didn't think you'd mind." Walter said, his voice low, soothing. Always the peacemaker, always the one to sidetrack an argument before it got started. Never mind that Walter did it because once he got angry, it was well and truly furious and both of them were well and truly sorry. Despite Mulder's easy shifts to the snappish side of things, it was Walter's temper that was to be feared. Thank God it never showed itself but rarely. "It's not your best sweater. It has holes now."

Walter demonstrated, pulling the sweater off, revealing a bare chest. The old Victorian was always just this side of fridgid. Despite insulating as much of it as they could, it still cost a small fortune to heat through the wretched gray cold Indiana winters, so they kept the temperature low as they could stand. Walter shivered and almost, for a minute, Mulder relented and wanted to tell him to put the sweater back on. Almost. But not quite. Walter demonstrated one of the small holes near the waistband with a finger through it.

Perhaps intended to diffuse, the gesture was fuel. "Just give me the goddamn sweater, Walter. I was looking for it. I was going to wear it today."

Walter offered the sweater wordlessly, shrugging patiently as if to say, no skin off my nose if you want to head out in public in a threadbare sweater that should probably be relegated to the chores around the house pile at the very least though the rag pile would be a better place for it. Always calm, always reliable, Walter was stringently avoiding a fight. Mulder didn't yet take the sweater. "I truly didn't think you'd mind, Mulder."

"Didn't think I'd mind? It's my favorite sweater. I don't think it's unreasonable that a man should be able to go to the place where he last put away his favorite sweater and find it there." Part of Mulder listened in detatched horror to himself continue to rant. Since when had his life become so small? So small that he was reduced to arguing with the same man he used to rail at about international conspiracies, shadow governments, dangers to the truth and freedom so great that they could hardly be spoken of- about a sweater. An nine year old sweater at that. No, scratch that. You needed two to argue. He was just going off on Walter in a way that part of him recognized far exceeded any true foul about the sweater. No real harm had been done. Yet, he continued. "It's mine. One of the few things around here that is truly, solely mine. And you always stretch out the shoulders and forearms when you wear it. It's too late now. I can't wear it today anyway. I'll have to wash it again before I can. It's mine! Got that? Mine! Someday I'll come find you wearing it covered with sawdust from the workshop and then I swear to God, I will shoot you. Just keep those big mitts of yours off of it."

What neither of them said and both of them knew was that it was Mulder's last gift from Scully. They didn't really talk about Scully anymore, or all the rest of it.

"Mulder, don't let's get started." Walter was not exactly pleading but he was trying to keep this civilized. "You're running late as it is. We can have this discussion when you get home."

"This is not a discussion, damn it! It's me telling you to keep your damn hands off my sweater. What is there to discuss about that?"

Walter looked at the sweater still in his hands. Years together had muted the alpha male in each of them, especially Walter, who wasn't too proud to offer peace instead of mutual headbutting. He approached Mulder cautiously with the sweater out, a sort of peace offering. When Mulder didn't take it, he draped it over Mulder's left shoulder. "I won't touch it again. I truly didn't think you'd mind. I'm sorry."

Apology offered but not accepted. This was about far more than the sweater, Mulder realized, otherwise, the patient contrition from the other man would have ended it. And Walter truly was sorry, that much could be easily read in his expression, even hidden as it was by the wirerims he still wore, finally bifocals now, the kind with visible lines. Mulder's ire was not so easily satisfied with the admission of fault. Before he could stop himself, he found another raw subject to pick at, another argument to bring to front and center. "I don't suppose you were planning to work on the house this weekend, were you?"

"Gayle and Doti were hoping I could start on their cabinet installation this weekend."

Wrong answer, Walter! Mulder thought to himself. "Well, damn. At least do something about that popped screw in the hallway. I'm sick of ruining clothes on it." Mulder held up the elbow he had snagged. The small hole was going to get bigger, it was already starting to unravel. "I don't see why complete strangers get dibs when our house has been a construction site for months. That was the deal, Walter. You wanted this dump. I pay for it and you take care of it. Well, the mortage and the rest of the bills are current, but I can't see that you're keeping up your end of the bargain."

Even in his state, Mulder knew just how low that was. Rubbing it in Walter's face that he was the one with the bigger income. Walter had left the Bureau with no pension, little savings, stripped of all desire to do anything at all like he'd been doing and only some equity in the Crystal City condo. The Bureau had completely used Walter up, forced him to resign, ground him up, spit him out and sent him on his way without even a handshake. Little wonder he refused to work for anyone besides himself anymore and only on his own terms. Little wonder he spent more of the summer months fishing or gardening than working and most of the time Mulder didn't say a word. It almost shut Mulder up, knowing that he'd crossed an important line. Almost.

Walter didn't snap back, but that didn't mean that the temper hadn't been roused. Still under control, though his eyes flashed dangerously. His jaw clenched, something that happened less and less these days. Though it had been clenched so constantly while they were both at the Bureau that back then Mulder hadn't even known that the man who had once been his boss could smile. Yes, the clenching jaw meant the temper might make an appearance, but Walter was keeping it on a short leash at the moment. What Walter did was to scoop Mulder's garment bag off the quartersawn oak floor at the base of the fluted cherry newel post, where it had been waiting patiently. Walter handed it to Mulder in a way that suggested he'd better take it. Mulder did but opened his mouth to speak, the start of another rant. Hands freed of the garment bag, Walter gently put a finger to Mulder's mouth and said, "Hush. You're going away for several days and I don't want our parting words to be angry ones. We'll discuss this when you get home. I'll miss you, Mulder."

"I don't think I'll miss you." Mulder snapped, even as he inwardly winced. "I think I'm glad to be spending some time where we're not tripping all over each other. I don't know why you like this house. I nearly killed myself tripping over everything in the bedroom this morning."

Walter's only answer was to put his hands on Mulder's shoulders and physically turn him towards the door. "Goodbye. I'll miss you." He said grimly. It was obviously getting very hard for him to keep the temper on lead. "Did you want a ride to campus?"

"No." Mulder took the hint and marched out the door, still clutching the garment bag, cashmere sweater draped over his shoulder. He nearly left without his jacket realizing that though it was the end of March, Indiana seemed determined that it was still winter. Snow flurries skirled on the wind, with promises of perhaps actual snow in the chill. He turned around for the jacket, wondering if he could sneak into the house without capturing Walter's attention again. He was met at the front door by Walter holding out his jacket. Mulder took it silently, noting that Walter had wrapped gun and holster in it, then turned away. He dropped his luggage onto the porch floorboards and began the complicated work of putting on the shoulder holster without making it look like he was arming himself. Rule number one of a concealed carry-never let anyone know you're carrying. He mananged to slip the jacket on at the same time as the holster, hoping he wasn't too obvious about it. He was no longer a fibbie, but he never went anywhere further than the mailbox without a weapon. He had enemies out there still and while none of them had yet invaded the haven of this small midwestern town, that was a chance he wasn't going to take. By handing him the weapon, Walter was communicating two things wordlessly. First and most obvious- take care of yourself out there. Secondly- get yourself together, man. How could you be so out of it to forget something so basic?

Finally together, Mulder headed back for the porch steps. The screen door opened on its squeaky hinges again and Walter was handing him an overstuffed beige cloth briefcase. Mulder turned away without a word and started for the steps again. He heard Walter say, softly but quite audibly, "I love you."

Mulder shrugged, not finding it in him at this moment to understand why this could be, much less respond in kind. He walked down the porch steps and turned down the path to the side of the house. Under the portecochere was an iron railing that had been sunk into the concrete of the driveway. Locked securely to this with the best kryptonite lock that money could buy was an ancient, battered threespeed, dark green Raleigh, bought at a garage sale. The lock cost three times as much as the bike. Fox William Mulder, one time scourge of the FBI motor pool, wrecker of rental cars, was reduced to this.

No, this was his choice. He could easily own a car, if he wanted. Walter's truck complete with rusty chasis and locked boxes for tools was parked just up the driveway. He lived far enough away from campus that walking became an annoyance, but not far enough to justify another car. There was really very little in his world that couldn't be reached by bicycle. At least anything that he wanted to see. Still, he sometimes wondered what his former colleagues at the Bureau would say if they could see it. He was not without the memory of his vanity. He'd been sleek and well-dressed, and looked not a little hot, he'd thought, in his black trench coat as he would drive up to a crime scene, even if only in a low end Ford sedan. He was keenly aware that it was not exactly dignified to show up somewhere, slightly sweaty, on a bicycle nearly as old as he was. What would his ex colleagues call him now? Spoke-y Mulder? Wheelie Mulder?

But he'd never once heard of a bicycle bomb. You could take the boy out of the paranoia, but you couldn't take the paranoia out of the boy. Mulder wondered if Walter knew exactly how often he was under the truck's hood and body, looking for tampering. Of course, he still swept the house for bugs any time a stranger was in the place. Nine years gone from the FBI, but still paranoid, though he hadn't found a bug yet.

Mulder carefully bungee corded his bags to the rack, pulling out the folding baskets to full extension for stability, taking the time to stuff the cashmere sweater into one of the bag's outer pockets. The colorful cords were not quite long enough and protested at he snapped their hooks in place, but they held. Then he grabbed one of the flourescent colored strips of cloth he had wrapped around the handlebars and used it to wrap his jeans leg out of the way of the bike chain that would grasp at any bit of cloth near it. The chain guard was long gone when he'd bought the bike. On with the brain bucket, a stunt helmet like the boys riding their little bmx trick bikes wore. More dork potential than a streamlined race helmet, but also far more protection. After all he'd survived, all he'd gone through, he wasn't going to die of a brain injury from a simple cycling accident, not if he could help it.

A moment, then, to unlock the bike, stow the lock and he was on his way, pushing off with one lanky leg then throwing it over the cushy sprung seat. He easily fell into the rhythm of pedalling, forgetting for a while his ill temper, the harsh words he'd spoken to Walter, his irritation at having to take this trip in the first place. All forgotten to the regular movement of his legs, up and down, round the pedals, again and again.

All too soon, the trip to campus was over. He turned down a long driveway lined with oaks that had been tall and big enough around that a man couldn't put his arms around them since before he was born. Beyond the trees, he would see the serene campus, brick buildings tucked in among the perfectly kept grass and tall trees. In the summer, the trees plunged the campus into blessed shade, but even now their bare brances were essential architecture that held the very soul of the college in place. How had he come to this campus, to be an ineluctable part of it? He wondered this often as he made this very trip up this driveway.

Nine years ago, his life was nothing like this. The only similarity was that he'd been carrying a gun back then too. It had all happened so fast. He'd gone from a nightmare of abduction and torture, death even, back to the ruins of a life, disgraced and dismissed from the Bureau that had been his life. He'd had to fight, not just for his own sanity and existance, but for the world's, against terrors that even now couldn't be spoken of, except perhaps with Walter. If he were to pull any random person off this campus, they would know nothing of the war he had fought and won at great cost, nor of the coverup that swept away any traces of the alien invasion that had been diverted. He'd been reinstated, eventually, but boxed away, doing wiretapping again and slowly losing what was left of his mind, bleeding in a way that no one but he saw. Somehow, in the shuffle that followed, Scully had ended up as ASAC in Philedelphia, no longer needing him, blossoming even without him, her career looking brighter and brighter the further she drifted from him. Words were inadequate to describe the pain when he realized that she and her child were best left alone. He'd started looking for an out, and had nearly decided that the best one would be from his service weapon. The world had been spared. The battlefield that had been razed and scorched to sterility had been his heart and mind and he had found he couldn't stand to live there much longer.

Then his out came. A call. From a small midwestern liberal arts college. They had decided to start a criminal justice program, with a focus on interdisciplinary studies, including psychology. Would he be interested in interviewing? They knew he'd never taught before but they were a non-traditional college and they were specifically looking for professionals who had been in the field, made a difference in it. He had come highly recommended from an unmentioned higher up in the bureau and they'd been impressed by his writings on criminal profiling. They'd heard about his degrees from Oxford, that had impressed them. It was a tenure track position. Mulder had been on a plane as quick as it could be arranged.

The minute he'd stepped from the rental car into a cracked asphalt parking lot surrounded by ancient trees, he'd known. This was where he would be. This would be his peace. Beyond the chittering of some squirrels and the distant sounds of students, the campus was immersed in quiet, apart from the world. He'd known even before he'd spoken the first words to the committee of interviewers that he would be teaching here. Later he would say that the Spirit had spoken to him, but at the time it was a sensation almost as eerie as any supernatural phenomenon he'd come across during his years investigating the x files. He just knew. He knew his future. It was one that he would survive.

The college was religiously affiliated, with the Society of Friends. Of course Mulder knew about Quakers. He was from the east coast, Massachusetts. But he'd never been to one of their Meetings, the mostly silent Sunday worship services unique to their sect. His series of interviews had stretched over the weekend. Did he want to attend a meeting, he was asked, gently. It wouldn't reflect badly on him if he didn't, they told him. But perhaps he should, to understand better the kind of place he was coming to. Eager to do anything, anything at all to secure a position here, Mulder had agreed. Though he gone out of obligation, when he'd settled onto the simple wooden bench in the high, white room with no altar, it was here that his healing had started. The only ostentation of any kind in the Meetinghouse was a concert grand piano, pushed for now to the side. The walls were thick. Overhead plain wooden beams were exposed. On three sides of the room the windowsills were deep, as was the silence. On the forth side an entrance to a small fellowship hall, though they just called it a meeting room.

That was what he hadn't expected. The silence. Perhaps thirty people sat scattered on the benches that were arranged on all four walls, the center of the room empty. For a long time, no one spoke, nor made any sound. Then a soft sigh from a woman, and a few words of hope for peace were spoken. Even with his eidetic memory, he couldn't remember what had been said, except that the tears slid painlessly down his face at them, without any wrenching sobs to drive them out for once, and he felt a prescence as palpable as any person walking into the room, comfort greater than any he had known before filling him. The interviewer sitting next to him, the dean of students, had handed him a tissue from her purse with no comment. And while it hadn't been alright, not yet, he was stronger when he walked from that room. From that moment, he had started to knit together again. Not that it wasn't hard. Not that he didn't struggle. Not that there weren't times when panic gripped him so hard he couldn't breathe and he thought he would die. But he knew after that Meeting that he was no longer in danger of eating his gun, ever.

It had been a warm, late spring when he inteviewed, a hot summer when the call finally came, and a warm August when he finally found himself in front of thirty or so eighteen year olds, hanging onto his every word. He taught Intro to Criminal Justice, a section of a Humanities class that every student had to take and every professor was expected to teach, and an intro to psych class. And when he wasn't teaching, he was busy gluing his soul together again. Nine years later, he was still here, still teaching. A fixture of the college just as much as the trees and the brick classroom buildings. The war torn landscape of his heart and mind had mostly been replaced by the quietude of the trees and campus. The straw of hope he grasped at had become his separate peace, his refuge. He still went to meeting every Sunday morning. Sometimes, Walter even went with him, though more often, Walter went to the nearby Catholic church, finding his own brush with the Spirit there. Mulder understood. Walter liked ritual, procedures, and found the silence disconcerting. Mulder didn't often feel the presence of Spirit as viscerally as he did that first time, but the memory of that first time had been enough to keep him coming back.

He locked his Raleigh to the nearest convenient rack, among the gaggle of student bikes and walked to the one story building that held the motor pool office. His group was waiting outside already, shivering in the cold and probably crabby at him for making them wait. Six talented students and his department head. Actually, the only other person in his department. It was a small campus, with only perhaps eleven hundred students at any one time. Every department was small. They were going to a conference for criminal justice student organization. His department head and he were going along mostly as chaperones, though they would both be presenters. They were headed to Pittsburgh. It was the first time Mulder had been more than an hour or so from home since he made the final trip here from DC, his pitiful collection of possesions limited to a few boxes shipped to his new address and what he could bring on the plane.

Garment bag over his shoulder he hiked quickly into the building to sign out the van that would take them. The forms to take thirty thousand dollars of college property out of state were nothing compared to getting a simple low end Ford from the Bureau. He pushed through them in record time and as he was getting the keys, he assured the woman behind the window that he would take good care of the vehicle. Never mind that it had been three months since he'd been behind the wheel of a vehicle that wasn't propelled by its human occupant. Once there had been a time when a car had been another natural extension of himself, just as much as his weapon. As he caught himself staring at the big vehicle he'd been given the keys to with trepidation, he wondered, when did I get so, agoraphobic wasn't quite the right word, but near to it. Once he had roamed the entire country, even the world, in search for the Truth. The Truth had nearly destroyed him. He was happy to remain here and dispense small truths to the eager minds reaching for it. Since coming to teach at this college he hadn't been further than a hour or so away. He'd been to Indianapolis a few times. Dayton all the time, of course. But never even as far away as Cincinnati.

He found himself at that edgey place where he knew that in a minute, his chest might start to hurt and his breath would be hard to catch. He recognized himself slipping away to a distant place within. Verge of a panic attack, he knew, long familiar with that place. Once, when he first came here, he'd suffered silently through a lot of them. They'd started once he'd gotten to this safe place. He'd started decompressing from the trauma. And he'd learned to cope, learned to get over them. Learned that when he had to retreat, he found a quiet, peaceful place inside him, not the isolated, distant place that only led to more panic. He breathed deeply, calmly now. Exercises he'd taught himself to get through this, though he hadn't needed them much lately.

Cowboy up, Mulder, he told himself. You aren't going anywhere but a mid-range hotel in Pittsburgh. There aren't any black lunged bastards or Alex Kryceks or alien bounty hunters there, just a few thousand young faces who hadn't yet had their souls scorched or even touched by nightmares probably. He walked to the van and his ducklings followed Mama Professor Duck over to meet him, dragging backpacks and assorted bags with them.

Mama Duck was Lyddie Schmidt-Daviess, once a public defender with a brilliant, burned out career behind her. She would not be driving. She was immensely pregnant, though supposedly only six months along. Then the ducklings. Cassie, skin dark as chocolate, wisecracking and with eyes too wise for her twenty years, was in the program for pre-law. Sarah, a staunchly quiet redhead who reminded him a little of Scully already knew she'd be applying to the FBI academy at Quantico, once she got some experience behind her. Despite his not so subtle discouragement. Those two stood out as the stars to him and both of them would be presenting papers. But blond and very openly gay David, straggling behind to kiss his boyfriend goodbye was so brave to even contemplate being a cop, yet that was his dream. And quiet Lucy, with hazel eyes that took in everything, leaving nothing missed, was crossdisciplined in psychology and a natural profiler, Mulder was sure, though he didn't encourage her, knowing the vast gulf of pain there. Holly and Thomas, both more interested in the justice part of the major than the criminal, were pre-law and both destined to be public defenders, Mulder was sure.

As they loaded bags into the back, each of them murmurred something along the lines of "Hey, Fox." or "Good morning, Fox." Yes, the students too. Ironic that he'd hated it for so long. Everyone here used it to him. Only Walter still called him Mulder. A long standing tradition at the college, everyone used their first names to each other. The youngest student could call the President by his first name- Dick. Mulder could have resisted it possibly, insisted everyone call him Mulder, but he needed this job, no, not just the job, but this life. It was necessary for him to be a full part of the campus, to fill the gaping hole where his heart had been with this life. And if being called Fox was part of that, so be it. Besides, the way they said Fox here was nothing like it had been used before- like a weapon in the mouth of his parents. And it went uncommented on here. And when Walter called him Mulder, it made it special, their special nickname. Neither of them were given to sappy endearments or mush like honey, sweetie or darling.

It was still relatively early morning, the sun just acquainted again with the sky for only a few hours and the cold subdued everyone. They climbed silently into the plush seats of the van. Most of them brought out mp3 players and headphones and settled into musical isolation, some with school books, some without as if they were just going to catch up on sleep. Lucy, no surprise, got out a pulp true-crime book and flipped open to about the middle of it. Holly got out needles and yarn and started to knit. Lyddie sipped coffee from a generic white styrofoam cup. Even now there was no Starbucks here. That was fine. It was good to live in the middle of nowhere.

Mulder backed the van out of its space and out the driveway, then out to the road to the highway, the route memorized. A few minutes out from the campus, Lyddie spoke, "I know you probably memorized the whole map, but did you bring one just in case?"

"Of course. I'm a good boy scout. Be prepared."

"You brought your cell, no doubt. And am I right in thinking you won't be taking off your jacket, no matter how warm the van gets?"

"You would be correct in that assumption." he responded softly. She was asking if he was armed today. Lyddie wasn't an ex-cop herself, but she knew cops. She was the only one around here who came even close to understanding why he still needed to carry, she was probably the only one in the van to whom it occurred to ask. If it were widely known, well, Mulder didn't think too much about that. It wouldn't exactly be popular at this liberal college. Only Walter knew and understood the real, full reasons Mulder had and not coincidentally carried a gun himself. Mulder wondered if Lyddie knew that he was armed constantly and sometimes wanted to say to her, unless you see me at home, or perhaps at the basketball court, I have a gun on me somewhere. That more than anything had been why he'd kept all his suits, used them as his teaching drag. Always an excuse to keep on the jacket that way. In the heat of the summer, when the jacket had to come off, there was still the ankle holster.

She didn't say anything else until after they'd hit the Ohio state line. "You allright? You seem kind of tense." She glanced at his hands and he stole a look down. They were white. He relaxed his death grip on the steering wheel.

Lyddie wasn't Scully. She didn't hold his soul. She wasn't his touchstone, his measure, his compass star. But she was caring and warm. She was his friend as well as colleague and boss. Sometimes it was good to have someone who cared for you in an uncomplicated way, who didn't carry your life in their hands. Someone who if they died, it wouldn't be death to you, just saddness. Lyddie was just his friend. He told her, "I had a fight with Walter as I was walking out the door."

"You picked a fight with Walter before you stormed out the door," She corrected. She knew him, knew them.

"If not me, then who? Someone has to." He tried to be flippant but failed. He decided to go for simple honesty. "I didn't exactly storm out. He kind of kicked me out before I could say much more. Christ. I don't know why I do it sometimes, Lyddie."

"Bad one, eh? You didn't use the D word, did you?" Lyddie was on her way to divorce. Her ex-husband, the man whose baby she carried, was already settled down in Indianapolis with some young thing who he'd already gotten pregnant.

"Out of the question. We're not married. We can't get divorced."

"Well then, whatever word you use to describe the breakup of a domestic partnership."

"Still out of the question." Some things were just unthinkable. Giving up Walter would be like giving up oxygen. Sometimes it scared him how much he needed that man. That was the only reason he could think of for how much he pushed him away at times. Fear. "But it was bad. I said things that were worse. For a man to say to another man."

"What did you say?"

"I as much as accused him of sponging off me." He took a quick glance in the rear view mirror to see if any of the ducklings were paying attention to them. Four headphones were on four heads. Holly and Thomas were in the furthest back bench, immersed in conversation with each other. Only then did he venture to say, "I might as well have ripped the balls off of him. And he just sent me out the door with a pat on the head and an I love you. He'd probably have kissed me if I let him. Why do I do it, Lyddie? I know better. God I know better. What possible motives could I have for treating him so badly?"

"Well, I've never known a psychologist who could figure out how their own mind works. But I know this. He'll forgive you."

"Maybe." Maybe not. Mulder wondered if he'd really stepped too far this time. Said the thing that would drive them apart permanently. Lyddie didn't really have an answer to that. She slouched down into her seat and appeared to nap. Mulder drove and thought about Walter.

Mulder had left without telling anyone where he was going. No one left to care. Mother dead. Father dead. Scully gone. Frohike, Langly and Byers dead. He'd waited until Skinner, as Mulder had thought of him back then, had gone on vacation and submitted his resignation, with the minimum notice he thought he could get away with. The AD who accepted the resignation in Skinner's place was all but exultant to get it. They'd put him in his current position to force him out without actually firing him and it had worked. The only forwarding address he'd left with anyone was a lawyer's address he'd left at the Bureau's personnel office.

Still, he hadn't been surprised, about a month after he'd arrived, to get a call from a voice from his past. What had surprised him was who that voice belonged to. He hadn't received the call at home, but in his office, still mostly empty of the piles of books that naturally accreted in professors' offices. His UFO books and almost all the books on supernatural phenomenon had just been dumped in the trash when he'd packed for the move. So had the 'I want to believe' poster. In the mostly empty office, just before class one day, he'd picked up the ringing phone, said "Hello?" He was just starting to break himself of the habit of answering the phone, 'Mulder.'

And Assistant Director Walter S. Skinner answered back, saying, "Good morning, Mulder. I just wanted to see how you were getting on in your new position."

"How did you find me, Sir. Um, Skinner. Sir." He wasn't sure of the etiquette here. They'd gone through hell together, but when Mulder had left, he wasn't exactly on first name basis with the man. Sir had seemed to work best back then, when he was trying to be respectful that was. But the man was also no longer his boss.

"I work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mulder. We must have files on just about all of the professors and half the students at that lefto hippy-dippy college you work at." He must have heard something, some small choking noise that Mulder had made at the thought that the FBI was still watching him. "Seriously, Mulder, I recommended you for the position when they called. When you resigned suddenly, I assumed you'd gotten it. So I called the main campus switchboard and asked for your number."

"You recommended me?" Mulder flustered at the thought. This early it was still painful. Though he was no longer bleeding, it was agonizing, the knowlege of just how much he'd needed this quiet, empty office and those young faces he would be going in front of in just a few minutes. This lifeline had been thrown to him by...Skinner? He was almost pathetically grateful. In the past, he might have been suspicious, paranoid, wondering why Skinner had done it, what ulterior motive was involved. Perhaps his new place in the world was already changing him, making him a new man. He was just grateful. "Look, I'm sorry. I can't talk at the moment. In five minutes I have to go tell thirty first year students how badly their writing bites without breaking their youthful spirits. Then we discuss the House on Mango Street. Humanities. Required class. For the professors as well as the students. Call me at home tonight." He'd given his former boss his new phone number and hung up.

That night, when Skinner had called, they had very carefully avoided the past. In his new, small, white walled apartment, even smaller than the Hegel Place apartment had been, he talked about his new life with the man who had once been his boss. About the trees. About the Meetinghouse and just a few hints of what he'd found there. About the bicycle he'd found at a garage sale and was riding to work everyday, finding fun on it. How he had to let everyone here call him Fox. About how his office was still in the basement. About his students and their blue, green and purple hair, dreadlocks and facial piercings. When they were done talking, Skinner had said, "Thank you, Mulder."

"For what?" Mulder was confused.

"For making it out alive. For making my effort to get you out not be wasted."

"I'm still not so sure I made it out intact." Mulder admitted, the closest he had come yet to admitting to another human the big gaping, yet not visible hole that was torn into his chest. The bleeding had stopped. The mending had started and yet, there it was still and sometimes he still wondered if it would ever close completely. He struggled, with nightmares, day time panic attacks.

"You made it out alive. Give the rest time."

"Goodnight, sir."


"Goodnight, Walter."

A few more phone calls and it hadn't been the concern of a former boss looking in to see how his subordinate was doing, it had been simple friendship. This continued for a year or so, two. Friends calling each other first one time a week, then twice, growing closer with each discussion. Mulder still wasn't sure when his heart and life were hijacked, but he knew that by the time Walter had made his first visit to the small midwestern town, it was more or less a done deal.

By then, they were calling every night, Walter bearing most of the brunt of the ferocious long distance costs. Somewhere about the third month of their phone calls, goodnight had given way to 'take care', but Mulder to this day couldn't remember when 'take care' had given way to 'love you.' It had slipped so naturally into the conversation that one night a year and a half after their calls had started, Mulder had reluctantly let the receiver slip back into the cradle and stared at the phone, knowing what he'd said, knowing he'd meant it, knowing he'd been saying it for a while, but that he couldn't remember when he'd begun, saying it or feeling it. How long had it been? Weeks? Months? When had his world gotten so weird that falling in love with Walter Skinner had felt like the most natural thing in the world?

If Mulder had had any doubts that he'd fallen in love with Walter Skinner, they vaporized the instant the other man had stepped out of his rental car and started up the walk to the tiny brick duplex where Mulder lived. It was finals. It had been the worst possible time for a visit, but Walter had called saying he thought it was time and that he had the time to visit now. The euphoria that nearly drowned Mulder at the sight of the other man was unmistakable. Walter had left his luggage in the car and all but run up the walk. Mulder had gathered the other man into his arms while they stood outside his door. Mulder was on the stoop, for the moment half a head taller and he bent down and placed his lips on Walter's. His heart stopped for a minute as they kissed, or at least that's what it felt like. Walter kissed with a heat that seeped into Mulder's bones and never really left. It was hard to smile and kiss and keep his eyes open so that this memory would remain imprinted on his mind forever. But that's what he'd done, and he had remembered. If he couldn't remember the first 'love you', Mulder certainly remembered their first kiss, how his heart had seemed to contract painfully, a clutch in his chest, at the first brush of lip upon lip, then it released. And he remembered the sweet scent of cut grass in the air, the distant murmur of his fellow inhabitants of the complex outside enjoying the first summer-like evening, the caress of warm air, the soft purple of the twilight. It had been so easy. Walter had made it so easy for Mulder to simply let the soft animal of his body love what it loved. It was at that moment that Mulder knew that the big hole had finally closed over. He had a heart again.

Then Walter had pushed him away gently, "Shit. I'm sorry. We should have waited until we were inside. People are out. They can see. I know you live in the student apartments."

"Walter, it doesn't matter. I don't work for the Federal Bureau of Intolerance anymore," he'd said. He'd thought but didn't say 'and neither should you.' Mulder had continued, "This hippy-dippy lefto college I teach at has the best non-discrimination policy in the state of Indiana. Not only do I not have to be in the closet, when we finally get a chance to cohabitate, we'll get the exact same benefits as my heterosexual married colleagues."

"When? Isn't that a bit presumptious?"

"I always was. A few things don't change." Mulder had paused at that moment, not sure why he had to clear something before inviting Walter into his house. He took Walter's hands in his and said, "But most things have. Walter, I sometimes think that the only thing I have in common at all with your former subordinate back in DC is that I carry the same gun he used to carry and wear the suits he used to wear. I am not the same person I was back then. I had to reinvent myself. Remake myself. There wasn't enough left of me to go on living. He died. I was born and I'm still new and fragile. That's the only way I can describe what happened to my psyche."

"I think I understand. Mulder, I haven't come here because I secretly loved you all those years we worked together." Walter had said. Not a completely unjust assumption. Though Mulder had never considered himself anything but hetero until Walter, Walter was a deeply closeted gay man, going so far as being married seventeen years for cover. "You were irritating. Irrational. A massive pain in my ass. I couldn't help respecting you and your abilities. I cared for you, even liked you, but I fell in love with the man that I met on the phone."

The churning euphoria, the uncontrollable happiness that was so mixed with anxiety that it was impossible to tell them from each other had slipped away. It was replaced by a certitude, a contentment. "I don't think your former subordinate in DC could have fallen in love with you or anyone else. The best he had to settle for was codependancy with his partner. Welcome to my home, Walter. Yours if you want it to be."

And then he'd pulled Walter into his half of the single story brick duplex. Walter had looked around at the ascetic space, puzzled. The only furniture in the room was a desk and chair, with a stuffed briefcase sitting next to it. "Where's your television, Mulder? And your couch?"

"I hope a dumpster diver found them. Otherwise, they're in whatever landfill Alexandria sends its garbage to. I left DC with three boxes and a suitcase. A new man, remember. Doesn't matter now. Come to bed, Walter."

And Walter had come to his bed and never truly left it since, though it had been a few months until the day Walter had shown up, with the proverbial three boxes and a suitcase and a plan to stay forever, having told the Director and the whole Bureau to, quote, "fuck themselves sideways with a chainsaw."

Mulder brought himself back from memory, back to the van, the road ahead of them, Lyddie drowsing in the shotgun position, half his ducklings asleep behind him. Mulder glanced at his hands on the wheel, at the thick plain gold band he'd worn for years now, almost a part of his finger, never once taken off. He didn't remember the exact day, but sometime when they'd been searching for a house together, it had appeared on his plate at dinner one day. Walter never was overly demonstrative, never one to put up with a fuss. Mulder had waited until Walter turned away from the oven, meatloaf in hand. He'd nodded at Walter, then slipped the ring onto his ring finger. The marriage had happened a while back, probably the day Walter had shown up with his few possessions. They just hadn't gotten around to acknowleging it yet. Then they ate the dinner that Walter had cooked without exchanging a single word on the subject. Just as nonchalantly, a few days later, Mulder had woken Walter with a kiss, then slipped a matching band onto his finger and gone off to lead first year students in a discussion of Aristotle's "Ethics." Walter had, theoretically, gone back to sleep.

"Hey, Fox!" one of the ducklings called from the back of the van. Cassie. "Can we make a stop?"

They were four hours out on the road now, somewhere in Ohio, having made good progress. They found a truck stop area. After he'd pulled in and parked, the ducklings scattered to various destinations, finding restrooms, fast food. Mama Duck Lyddie stuck by him and they loaded up on salads that seemed to be mostly styrofoam from one of the chains represented. Mulder added a burger, but discarded the squishy white bun, instead crumbling the cooked beef onto the salad.

"Is there anything that would make you divorce, I mean leave him?" Lyddie asked.

"I can't think of anything."

"Not even if you found out he was a murderer?"

"Lyddie. I once watched him put a bullet into the brain of a man at close range. That man was a feral dog and needed to be put down, for the better good and he was ready to kill one of Walter's agents." Mulder didn't mention that the agent in question had been him.

"That's not the same. It was in the line of duty. Deadly force is a regrettable but necessary choice sometimes. How many times have you said that?"

"Walter's a better shot than I am. He could have easily managed a shoulder take down, especially at that range. He chose not to. Murder one, plain and simple. And I saw it happen. And I still fell in love with him. My hands were not exactly clean either, Lyddie."

They were sitting at a row of connecting laminate tables with attatched stools, hidden somewhat among the plastic plants, this truck stop was just like any other truckstop you could imagine. Once upon a time, Mulder had been in far too many of these kinds of places and he still hated them. The floors were beige ceramic tile, slightly grubby, the laminate was fake wood grain and sounds echoed muted and loud at the same time. They both hushed as one of the ducklings approached with a tray covered with french fries and one of the non dairy 'milkshakes' that the chains sold. David. "Hi, Fox. Lyddie. Mind if I sit with you?"

Fox smiled, pleased that one of his students sought his company when they could have each others. And it was a convenient out to his difficult discussion with Lyddie. He looked up and saw that Cassie, Holly and Thomas were not far away. "Of course." he said, as he smiled. "If it's all right with you Lyddie."

Holly said as she sat down, "Fox, do you know you still have your ankle strap thing on?"

He shrugged and reached down. He tore apart the velcro of the strap and shoved the flourescent thing into his pocket. "After a while you just get so used to them, you forget they're there." He explained. Like so many things in life.

A short while later, they were back on the road, the ducklings back in their own private worlds, ignoring the two professors up front again. He looked now and then at them by the rear view mirror. Heads lolled, even Lyddie slept. Let her, he thought. She deserved the rest. But he'd forgotten this, the worst part of driving. The boredom that numbedhis mind as sure as the seat was numbing his bottom. He used to do this all the time, drive for hours, Scully riding shotgun like Lyddie was right now. Except Scully never slept. Scully. When had he realized how unhealthy their relationship had grown to be? There had been a time when if you cut Dana Scully, Fox Mulder bled. The boundaries between them had all but disappeared.

Heading that thought off at the pass, Mulder fiddled with the radio again, searching for a station. Not much playing in the hinterlands of Ohio. He found a country music station and listened for a moment. A pleasant, not too twangy woman singer was on, and for a moment he enjoyed it, unapologetically, tapping his fingers in time to the swingy rhythm, wondering if he and Walter could two step to it. He wasn't sure. Walter was the better dancer, the one who liked going to that little club in Dayton. Mulder always just followed Walter's lead and tried not to fuck up. "Oh baby, just to feel this feeling" The woman sang. "It's been too long since somebody whispered, ooooh, shut up and kiss me! There's something about the silent type, attracting me to you. All business and none of the hype that no talker can live up too."

Mulder was reminded sharply of Walter, an astringent wash of feeling over his heart rather than the usual warmth, pushing aside the pleasant day dreams of dancing in that club or even just on the gleaming hardwood of their dining room floor, the table pushed aside. He snapped off the radio altogether, no longer thinking of two, strong masculine bodies moving together as one, wondering just when had he gotten to be so unhappy with his life with Walter. It had been a long time since they'd pushed the table aside and brought the radio down from Mulder's study and just danced.

A few minutes of silence were broken only by the lonely sound of tires on pavement. The fight, though it had been hours ago by this time, hung around him like tinsel to a tree thrown out on the pavement the week after christmas- useless, unwanted and clinging no matter one's best efforts. Before his gloom could deepen to irredeemable, his cell phone jingled. He wonder who it would be. Not Walter. Walter would never call while he knew that Mulder would be driving. He was still too sensible, to cautious for that. Mulder reached carefully into his pocket, never taking his eyes off the road. He slipped the cord of the headset up and tucked it behind his ear, then pressed the talk button by feel. His phone was an old model, circa 2003. New phones were little more than the headset and dangling mic. He'd no longer had any reason to upgrade to the newest slim little phone. It'd always been at Bureau expense before.


"Mulder, it's me." said a once familiar voice.

"What can I do for you, Dana?" Mulder responded. He said Dana pointedly, hoping she would get the hint. He'd told her point blank often enough. If he didn't have limits back then, he certainly had them now. He steered the subject into one of the few he judged appropriate between them. The son that Scully believed was his. Mulder didn't think so. The dates just didn't match up. But at one point he'd been a willing genetic donor, so he ponied up child support without complaint. It was the right thing to do and Walter concurred. "Did you need something for William?"

"I just talked to Walter. He said you were on your way to Pittsburgh. I thought maybe I could run over and see you. You haven't been this close in years. It's more than past time that you met your son."

"I don't think that's a good idea." Mulder said, tapping the steering wheel with two fingers again, but this time nervously. "This is a working weekend for me. I can't really spare the time to see you. Some time later Walter and I will visit you in Philly."

That probably would never happen. There had been vague promises on both sides for years now to visit each other at `some time later'. They both knew that Mulder had no intention of visiting her again. If he thought William was his son, it would probably be different, but the pictures Mulder had seen led him to believe that William was no son of his. William seemed one hundred percent Scully, through and through, without a trace of Mulder. But they'd never know for sure, because there was no way they were going to allow genetic testing of the oddly talently boy.

"Mulder," she began.

"Fox. Please. Only one person is qualified to call me that these days." Ironic now how it had seemed an unwelcome intimacy, like people calling him Fox once had been. "He's at home in Indiana."

"Fox. I'm sorry. I still just can't get used to the fact that you're no longer my Mulder. That you won't let me have even a small claim on you anymore."

No Dana Scully, Mulder thought, you forfeited any such claim when you went to Philedelphia because it was the better thing for both you and me. To this day, Scully swore that she had planned all along to somehow bring Mulder with her, that she just had to clear the way a little before getting him transferred. She'd said that she didn't find out he'd left DC until she called to offer him a position and found his number was disconnected. He didn't say anything to her now. This was something they'd been through before, and at better times than this. Scully just didn't get it entirely.

"I just can't believe that you still don't forgive me for going to Philedelphia when I told you right from the start that we'd figure out how to get you up there somehow. After all I've said and done to make it up to you." She was crying, he was sure of it, but refused to be manipulated.

"Dana, this is not a good time for me to be having this conversation." He said calmly, detatched. It had taken many years for him to remain this distant when talking to her and he refused to give it up. "I'm driving. I need my attention for the road. Call me next week and tell me how William is doing. Goodbye, Dana."

Ironically, he had forgiven her for leaving him like she had. Actually, though it hadn't seemed like it at the time, it had been in his best interest. She had been part of the piece that had been ripped out of his chest, a big portion of that empty hole. If he hadn't been at his absolute most desperate rock bottom, if she had still been there in DC, he probably would have blown off an interview for some miniscule college in the middle of nowhere. He'd have remained in DC at his ultimate cost. He was grateful to her for freeing him from her and he'd tried to give her that freedom from him in return. He slipped the earphone back into his pocket and concentrated on driving.

Lyddie was awake again. She must have woken some time during the call from Scully. She reached over and squeezed his hand gently on top of the steering wheel. She knew the story, at least part of it. She didn't need to say anything. Mulder gave her a smile and she let her hand slip down. Then he concentrated on getting them to the conference.

It was dark when they finally pulled into the hotel parking garage. Thankfully, the van was one of the strange hybrid ones, not quite a mini-van, not quite a full sized van, with one of the new hybrid combustion/powercell engines. But it fit easily in the short height clearance of the garage. He found a parking space and pulled into it. As they were retrieving their bags, echoes and distant sounds buffetted them. Mulder was spooked, just a little. He stood up a little straighter and looked all around scanning for the danger, then sheepishly realized it was just normal garage sounds and probably the garage was full of people like them, just getting in for the conference. It had been a long time since he'd been in a parking structure. Ten years maybe, nine. Since he'd left DC. That was the thing about the midwest, almost always plenty of parking.

"I hate parking structures too." Lucy said softly. "They always creep me out and it's not just watching the original Highlander too many times. I think it's that the sound reaches one without the apparent source being visible. All the corners and the other cars provide excellent cover and the mind knows that. At the same time, one's sense of order and symmetry is thrown off balance. All these straight lines, but hardly a right angle to be seen. That and the fact that in our collective unconscious, it's where the archetypal serial killer lurks."

Cassie smirked. Whatever came out of her mouth next was going to sting, Mulder knew. No love was lost between Cassie and Lucy, that was for sure. They had, as people said, `a history' and rumor said that they'd dated, briefly when they were first year students, but both were going out with guys currently. "You going up to our room, Spooky? Or what? Somehow I doubt that the latest son of sam copycat is waiting for us in the lot of the Pittsburgh Days Inn."

Mulder burned with sympathy for Lucy. He wanted to shout, wanted to slap Cassie for calling Lucy that, but he didn't say anything just yet. It was his own issues that caused his reactions. The better part of discretion said to stay as far away from the interpersonal struggles of his ducklings as they would let him remain. In any case, Lucy didn't need him to defend her. As he looked, Lucy didn't crumple under the unkind name, but set her jaw, slung her grubby Guatemalan cloth duffle bag over her shoulder and pushed too long bangs out of her eyes. She said, "Okay, you're right. He's probably in the bushes in that park next door playing poker with the ghosts of John Wayne Gacy and Jeffery Dahmer."

Cassie stalked off, round lost, but clearly planning the next salvo. Mulder made a point of walking next to Lucy on the short trip to the front desk of the hotel. She seemed to sense that he wanted to say something to her so she slowed down, letting the others get a distance ahead. "You know what my nickname was at the FBI academy?" He asked her when the others were sufficiently ahead not to hear. "Spooky. Swear to God you'll never tell anyone."

She smiled a rare smile. She was a small, taut, serious one, Lucy was. In her pseudo-hippie outfit, drowning in a thick Peruvian sweater for a coat, Lucy seemed an unlikely candidate for the BSU, that was until you looked at her face and the smouldering intelligence there. Perhaps she wouldn't nearly fracture there, under those stresses. "Sometimes, it's not so bad to be the spooky one, is it?"

"That eyebrow piercing will have to come out if you're still set on applying to Quantico." he said. "I'll write your recommendation after you get your PhD. There's still a few people there who remember me in a good way."

A few hours later and all the ducklings were settled in hotel rooms. Officially, David and Thomas were sharing a room, and the four girls were splitting two rooms between them. Unofficially, Mulder looked the other way and didn't want to know what the real sleeping arrangements were. He and Mama Duck each had their own room. Mulder put through a call to Walter, to let him know that they'd arrived. No answer, so Mulder left a brief message, closing the call with a `love you' that sounded perfunctory even to him.

A short while later, Lyddie knocked on his door and he let her in. She looked around at the generic hotel room, one low chair by the window providing the only place to sit besides the bed. Hotels, at least, hadn't changed that much since he'd been out on the road, though the art in this one was blander than most, beige and peach abstract splashes on framed canvas. Lyddie was clearly thinking about the struggle it would be to regain her feet again once she sat down. She chose to lean against the wall. He settled down not far away at the edge of the bed.

"Everyone settled in. I don't think we'll miss anything by skipping the opening social," She said. "Hey, you weren't out in DC at all, were you?"

"No. Why?"

"I'll stay here and play chaperone. You go out and have a good time. See some of the big city gay life for a change. The strip isn't that far from here."

Made unexpectedly nervous at this suggestion, he gripped the edge of the mattress and clenched. "Fine, except I'm not gay."

"Okay. Okay. I know. You're not gay." She suppressed an amusement at this, but only managed to banish the smirk from her lips. The eyes still glittered. "But as a man who's openly set up housekeeping with a six foot two inches tall former Marine you can see how people might think that."

"I'll grant you that. But as a bisexual six foot tall ex-Special Agent with the FBI, you can see how my tastes would run to the masculine side of things. I'm a guy. If I still drank, I'd be a beer kind of guy. I don't see how much I have in common with," He paused, wondering how to say it without being offensive. He certainly couldn't tell her that though he immensely enjoyed being fucked by that ex-Marine, he wasn't at all `light in the loafers'. "All of that. Rainbow flags. Pink triangles. Okay. We've had this discussion before. I'm also a case study in internalized homophobia and I know it."

"All the more reason for you to see the sights."

She hadn't let him off the hook until he'd at least agreed to go and check out the bookstore, which she thought would still be open. So he found himself strolling down from the hotel to a bustling downtown area. Bright lights and the big city had never held much attraction to him and still didn't. The club in Dayton was tucked discretely into a strip mall, nothing to let you know until you were inside that it wasn't like any other nightclub. The district wasn't that big, several blocks long. Mulder walked it, ignoring the muffled thumping of dance music and light spilling from some of the buildings, ignoring rainbow flags posted proudly on gift shops and clothing stores. He glanced in the display of one of the clothing stores. And just when was it acceptable for a man to wear a vinyl and mesh crop top decorated with what looked like metal cock rings? He found the bookstore but a cute twenty something dyke in a tshirt that said `I can't even think straight' and even more facial piercings than any of his students was flipping the sign to closed as he reached for the door. He shrugged and turned away. The bookstore was at the far end of the district. He'd have to walk the gauntlet again to get back to the hotel.

His stomach had grumbled and he remembered that he'd picked over his dinner in the hotel restaurant earlier, hardly eating it, mind on Scully and Walter and everything but his food. At that moment, he looked up from his florsheim shod feet for the first time in the while. Across the street was a place called Liberty Diner. Despite the rainbow flags in the window, Mulder approached it. It looked like the sort of place one could get a decent tuna melt and maybe a piece of pie. Better than a greasy spoon, but still with the cosy atmosphere.

It was open, not quite crowded, but with most of the booths occupied by a pre club crowd from the looks of it, gay men, mostly, getting a bit of ballast before heading out to an evening of dancing and drinking. Mulder found an empty booth and slid into it, picking up one of the plastic coated menus and looking at it without really seeing it. He looked around him. Gay positive everything fairly bedecked the place, struggling for space with safe sex posters and events posters. The clintele of the place were nonchalantly, easily out. Men's arms draped over other men's shoulders as they sat side by side in booths. Hands were held. Cruising was in heavy evidence, though it was just staring, watching, nothing heavy. In his turtleneck sweater and black rain slicker with the silver reflective tape on the sleeves, Mulder felt very out of place, old, plain and ugly, among all the ready for the party crowd. Birds of paradise, they were. Hothouse flowers. Exotic, at least to his experience.

A waitress, wide, motherly, with a ferious mop of red hair that he suspected was a wig approached him. Her shirt was covered with buttons. PFLAG. Safe sex. Rainbows. I'm proud of my gay son. Pink triangles. Straight but not narrow. That shirt was leopard skin. She seemed genial and welcoming even before she spoke. Mulder rather suspected she was carrying dozens of condoms and would hand them out freely without the slightest provocation.

"You look like you're new in town, sweetie. And a bit lost. I'm Debbie." Her voice was brash, but so kind. He found himself liking her despite himself.

He smiled at her, remembering how once upon a time ago, it had been as if his face had lost the memory of how to smile. Not now though. The skill of smiling was one of the things Walter had given back to him. "Fox Mulder."

"What a wonderful name. So fitting." she gushed. "Well, if you need help finding your way around, well, the whole neighborhood troops through here sometime or another."

"I'm from Indiana, a college professor. I'm in town for the students in criminal justice convention."

"Oh, a college professor! I should introduce you to my son Mikey. He's so broken hearted since..."

"I'm married, Debbie. I came here for pie." Mulder said, easily. He held out his left hand so that the gold band caught the light.

She flustered for a moment, obviously rearranging her conclusions. "I'm sorry." she said after a moment, more subdued, suddenly just another waitress in a diner to him. "I suppose I shouldn't jump to conclusions just because you came in here. She must be a wonderful woman, since you seem to miss her so much."

"Debbie, his name's Walter." Mulder said. "An ex-Marine and a carpenter who has against all logic and reason decided that he loves me." Mulder didn't add that Walter also used to be one of the highest law enforcement officials in the country. It just didn't seem to fit in that well with his picture of who Walter was anymore. A.D. Skinner had passed away in much the same way that Special Agent Fox Mulder had. For the best probably. Walter was a better man than AD Skinner had been, not penned in by compromise and circumstance, no longer forced to make decisions he hated by vicissitudes he could never control.

Smiling as she realized that she'd jumped to the wrong conclusion again, Debbie said, "What can I get for you, sweetie? I don't recommend any of our pies. Have the lemon bar instead."

For a moment, Mulder was heartsick for Walter's cooking. "I don't suppose you have meatloaf, do you?"

"Of course. Right up." Debbie glanced behind her at the sound of the opening door. Mulder looked over her shoulder to see four men enter the diner together. One who would have been good looking except for everything about him said nancy screaming queen, especially the fake fur jacket shed as they came in covering up a mesh, close cut thing that could only be called a shirt out of convenience. A meek accountant type wearing a blue button down, who looked like the only one Mulder might find something in common with. A happy-go-lucky type in an X-men tshirt and jeans, laughing at some joke shared before they walked in. And then the obvious alpha of the pack. Devastatingly handsome and he knew it, his clothes all designer. Mulder recognized the look. He'd been accused of being a clothes horse in his day, though no, his suits had never been Armani like rumored. This specimen though, decidedly, was Hugo Boss through and through, black leather jacket, black pants, sleek and gorgeous. His hair fell in an agreeable tumble over his forehead. He managed to look masculine and predatory while still being, no, not quite feminine at all either,but not manly in the way Walter was. Oh! Mulder got it suddenly. This was alpha male, queer style. Decidely, unabashedly, shamelessly gay. A man whose gaze would roam over other men, unapologetically, looking for the next conquest. Top of the heap by reasons of attractiveness and force of personality and little else. This was something Mulder had never seen before, much less understood. Now, he saw, he wanted to see more.

All Debbie said was, "Here comes trouble." Under her breath though. Then she added, "I'll go put your order in, sweetie."

She left. The alpha caught Mulder's eye, acknowleging the stare that Mulder couldn't help continuing. The alpha broke away from his pack. Mulder swallowed, suddenly realizing the man's destination. He was paralysed. Entranced as the other man slipped into Mulder's booth without invitation. Mulder had never before been the object of the serious hunt like this. Walter by his side had always fended off everything but the clumsiest of pick up attempts at the club in Dayton. The other man moved easily, gracefully, with loose bones that already suggested a post coital languor. Mulder's heart sped up and his breathing grew perceptibly more rapid. He was hungry suddenly, but not for the promised meatloaf. This was unfamiliar, the thought that anyone besides Walter could want him in the way that the other man's suggestion of a smile promised. Even newer, the thought that he would want a man besides Walter in this way. In a way that grabbed his balls and made his whole abdomen jump. And Fox Mulder was not without his vanity. It was almost shatteringly flattering, the thought that the much younger, much more gorgeous man would consider him worth contemplating conquering. Almost enough to make Mulder forget for the moment about wrinkles and graying hair and the fact that he was approaching fifty.

"New in town?" the other man said. The question implied was more along the lines of `welcome to my territory. You want to see it? My way, of course.'

"Here for the Student's In Criminal Justice convention," Mulder answered. Not sure how this was supposed to go, not even sure what the hell he was doing, he answered with honesty. He wasn't going to make this easy for the alpha, he decided. He certainly wasn't going to humiliate himself by throwing himself at the young man. "I'm a professor, I have students presenting. Just here for the weekend."

The alpha glanced at Mulder's left hand and seemed to take offense at what he saw there. He sneered, "I see you must have left wifey at home while you're out looking for weekend fun."

"Wifey is a six-feet two, two-hundred and twenty pound ex-Marine who would probably pound you to hamburger if he saw you looking at me that way," Mulder said mildly. Actually, that was probably the last thing Walter would do. Not inclined to violence for the sake of violence to begin with, since leaving the Bureau Walter was downright pacifistic. Actually, Mulder said it more because he hoped the thought of an implied alpha confrontation would increase his desirability. The young alpha would score a point, not just a notch on his bedpost by snatching him away for a while from another alpha.

"And if he caught you looking that way at me?"

"I don't know. I've never gone looking before. Anyway, I'm here for the meatloaf. That's what I'm looking for." But as he spoke, he kept looking right into the stranger's eyes, body language belying his words, telling the other man with his eyes, yes, let's fuck.

A short while later, Debbie brought a plate loaded with meatloaf, mashed potatoes. She nearly dropped it on the table when she saw his company. "Brian Kinney, you leave him alone. He's got someone at home. Someone who sounds really nice."

Mulder was about to say something to Debbie, but a complex, unspoken conversation was going on between the two of them with angry flashing eyes. This Brian Kinney finally decided Mulder wasn't worth the wrath he would face from Debbie. Fair enough. Brian was obviously a regular of some kind here, knew Debbie far better than he would ever know Mulder, even if Mulder did end up in Brian's bed. Debbie was a fixture in his life and Brian apparently either respected her or decided a half hour fling wasn't worth the grief she could give him. Brian got up from the booth and said, "Enjoy your visit to town. Tell wifey I said hi."

Then Brian retreated to the table where the other three were now seated. They fell immediately in a gossipy, easy conversation. Probably about Mulder. They were far enough away that Mulder couldn't hear. Mulder envied them for a moment, the carefree give and take, their openess. Even envied the screaming queen his laughter. Not that Walter and he were closeted by any means, but it wasn't like this. Their life wasn't centered around being gay, not like all of this. It was just their life. They paid bills. Made dinner and washed dishes. He graded papers; Walter built and installed cabinets.

Mulder shook his head, wondered what the hell he'd been thinking and then started on his meatloaf. Not like Walter's at all, this was covered with gravy, not tomato sauce. Confused by his own mental state, wondering how one minute he could be homesick for the man's tomato sauce, the next minute seriously contemplating fucking another man. Cheating on Walter. He'd never said the words, not aloud, but still the standard marriage vows were an unspoken assumption between the two of them. He only managed half the plate, sick to his stomach at himself. He was considering just leaving a twenty on the table, dinner and a more than generous tip and just going. Brian Kinney brushed past him, apparently on the way to the bathroom. A card was clandestinely dropped on the table. Mulder covered it with a hand and swept it to him. He took a look at it still cupped in his hand. It was a business card thick white cardstock, linen press, with raised black letters. Brian Kinney was an advertising account executive with a major firm around here. On the back was hand written an address and '15 minutes.'

Mulder left the twenty on the table like he'd been planning, hoping to slip out without catching sight of Debbie, feeling already like a slimy, cheating bastard, knowing what Debbie would think of him if she knew what he was doing. She managed to catch his eye as he left and she didn't say anything. But her face had fallen. She siddled up to him and almost as he expected, she slipped a handful of little square packages to him. He hadn't had to be familiar with them lately, but what they were was unmistakeable. He almost wanted to quipe, `gee, thanks, mom.' to her, but that intimacy wasn't there and probably never would be now. She had seemed happy about him somehow before, in specific that he'd had someone he obviously loved. Now, though, he'd become just another one of the boys who slipped through here every night in search of a short while's company. It had been years since he'd lost someone's respect this quickly.

Not sure still what he decision was, he slipped back out into the night, leaving the artificial cheeriness of the Liberty diner behind him. He wandered through the well lit streets of Pittsburgh's small gay district, back towards the hotel, but also, part of him noted, in the direction of the street that Brian Kinney had indicated on the business card. Mulder had, of course, memorized the part of the city map around the hotel. He knew exactly where Brian Kinney's street was and wasn't exactly surprised to find himself turning down it, rather than heading straight on to the hotel.

When he arrived at the address, he lurked in the shadows across the street from what had once been an industrial building, warehouse perhaps, but was now a luxury loft conversion. Brian Kinney, from the look of this, did very well by himself as an ad executive. Mulder was, honestly, a little envious. Not that government compensation was exactly generous, but he earned even less now as a college professor than he had as a G13. Between child support and the money trap victorian, it was a struggle sometimes.

Kinney was waiting outside, arms crossed, scanning the night. Mulder's old skills served him in good stead and Kinney didn't catch sight of Mulder, for five, ten minutes. He was still trying to decide just what it was he was going to do when Kinney appeared to give up. The other man shrugged his shoulders, gave the night one final look, then turned to go, not up to his loft, but out to the hunt again. Mulder was obviously just another body to him, another anonymous fuck. Mulder knew Kinney's name, but Kinney, Mulder noted, hadn't asked Mulder's and probably wouldn't. Mulder's feet were moving before he'd made a conscious decision. He stepped out of the shadow and across the street. Walter would never have to know, would he?

Mulder's long legs and traitorous body brought him across the street with rapid, easy steps. Inside, part of Mulder watched with mute horror as he approached the other man. Walter wouldn't have to know, but this still would poison the love they had, as far from perfect as it was. Yet it still kept Mulder sane, was still the plug on that gigantic hole where his heart had once been torn out. He knew all this, but couldn't stop himself from walking up to the gorgeous younger man and saying, "Hey. I came. I assume that's what you meant. I've never done this before and I'm unfamiliar with the etiquette."

"The etiquette is simple. We go upstairs. I fuck you. You leave and go home to wifey." With that, he put Mulder into a clinch, right there, out on the street. He pushed him against the rough, cold brick wall of the nearest building and out of the light. Mulder almost reacted violently, long dormant instincts peeking their head up as if this were a fight and then add the anger at hearing Walter described again as wifey.

Of course, what right did he have to be angry about that? His own sin here, his own betrayal was far greater than any disrespect that Kinney could heap on. Mulder was about to have sex with this strange man. He was erect, breathing heavily, traitorous body wanting even rougher and more familiar touches. The younger man was slightly shorter than Mulder and now that they were close, Mulder could tell that he was more slender than he looked in his clothes. There was something pleasant to this, knowing that he was the stronger one here and almost certainly the more dangerous one. Walter was always slightly taller, much more muscular, stronger. He would never use it against Mulder, there was that implicit trust. But it was always there, an elephant in the living room they didn't talk about.

Kinney's hands roved while he planted light kisses on Mulder's neck and jawline, moving closer and closer to Mulder's mouth, as if asking a question. Mulder answered, "Don't kiss me." Somehow, that would be even a greater betrayal than bodies just getting off on each other, as if it would defile that first kiss Mulder had shared with Walter. Kinney removed his lips from Mulder's face, but his hands continued to roam.

Kinney found something under Mulder's jacket. Something he didn't like. His hands flew off Mulder as if burnt and he stepped back. Damn. Mulder had forgotten the gun. Well, it wasn't like he'd planned to go out prowling for an anonymous fuck. The holster and the weight of the gun was something so familiar, Mulder didn't think about it most of the time, just another part of the clothes he put on to face the world.

"What the fuck?" Kinney was saying. "I thought you said you were a college professor. I may not know anything about guns, but I do know that's big enough to be major firepower. What are you really?"

"I am a college professor. Now. Criminal justice. I used to be a cop. A fed. Special Agent with the FBI. There are people out there who still have grudges out there about perps I brought to justice back then, enough that I have legitimate cause to worry. I have all the permits I need to legally carry this thing pretty much anywhere I want. If it makes you feel better, except for target practice, it hasn't been fired in nearly ten years."

"Damn. And I thought I had to be worried about wifey, not you."

"Oh, I'd still be worried about wifey. He used to be my boss."

Kinney seemed to regain courage, perhaps the aphrodesiac of the potential power exchange here was working, the thought of not just stealing this prize from the other alpha, but of topping a man who should in his own right be just as alpha, just as tough. Kinney closed the gap between them again, hands knowing just exactly the responses they wanted from Mulder's traitorous body, nothing overtly sexual was touched just yet, hands nowhere near dick or ass, but still those hands demanded a response and got it. It was nothing like sex with Walter. The touch was rapacious, wanting and taking, hard and unrelenting. Walter could be like that sometimes, but when Walter took like that, every bit of himself was offered back in return. Plunderer gave himself up to being plundered in turn. Brian Kinney just took.

And yet, how intoxicating it was to be wanted in just exactly this manner, with no apologies, no mutuality. Mulder was ready to offer himself up, ready to surrender to this. He would have gone through with this, except he felt something tugging at his ring finger.

"Take this off and put it in your pocket or something." Kinney said. "I can't do this thinking about your wifey."

Mulder was frozen. He'd never, not once, taken off that ring since the night he'd put it on while Walter served meatloaf. It belonged there. Like he belonged in Walter's arms, not in the octopus hands of this total stranger. The part of him that had been watching in mute horror before decided it had taken enough of this crap and found its voice now. He said simply, automatically, "No. Fuck you." and then "I can't."

"What, it doesn't come off anymore?" Kinney gave another tug on the ring and Mulder pulled away from the grabbing, invasive hands. He had to slap Kinney's hand off his ring finger. He stepped back three paces giving him over a good clear yard between Kinney and himself and he knew he would never close that distance between them again.

"I don't know. I've never tried. But it's not coming off."

"What the fuck is your problem here? I'm here to get off. I thought you were too. What are you really here for?"

"I honestly don't know. I'm going now. This was a mistake." He pulled Kinney's business card out of his pocket, dropped it on the ground and just walked away, not waiting for Kinney's response, not caring what it was.

He made his way back to the hotel. He had a momentary fear that Lyddie would be waiting up for him, wanting to tell her how it went, but she was nowhere to be seen, hopefully sleeping. He let himself into the anonymous hotel room with the key card. He shut the door behind him and then leaned against it, head back, one hand over his eyes as if fending off a headache. In a moment, he cautiously took his hand away, as if it wasn't doing any good. The hotel room was warm, almost hot. He shucked off his jacket and dropped it on the floor near the door.

"Oh, fuck! What did I just do?" he muttered to himself. Then it was there, knocking at his consciousness, the stirrings of a full blown panic attack, familiar and hated, perhaps the same one he'd fended off earlier this morning. Breathe, he told himself. He looked around the room for something, anything to take himself out of himself. He felt his pocket, the cell phone that was in there. He could call someone. He could call Walter and Walter would talk him through this. But Mulder couldn't do that, could he, not with the grimy feeling of his infidelity clinging to him like dirt. That more than anything was the cause of this panic attack and he wasn't ready to have that conversation with Walter yet, not over the phone. He'd screwed up, royally. Not that Walter wouldn't forgive him, but he'd changed everything between them.

As he felt the first clutching pain in his chest and the unthinking need to flee mounted, he muttered to himself, trying to reason himself through this, like he had learned over the years. "No point in running. This is internal. I can't out run myself. Just myself here to get me through this. No, myself and God. We can deal with this." His prayer was silent, not even verbalized in his mind, just a sense of needing help. He forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply. Mulder looked around the room again and this time, his eye rested on his briefcase. Plenty of student papers to grade, plenty of work to do. Yes, he could focus on that. He breathed deeply and dragged the briefcase to bed with him. He took the holster off, tucked that into the briefcase and put the gun out of sight under the bed, but within easy reach. He pulled out a stack of papers. He grabbed a red pen and almost started. He was still shaking. This work was not comforting, not in the slightest. It was, he decided, too much like going over case files in a lonely hotel room, in his former life. He looked around the room for something else to occupy himself.

There was the small amber bottle of medication in his garment bag, just one and he'd find himself quite able to cope. But the next day, he'd feel stupid and slow. Mulder knew that the only reason his doctor was so free with her prescription pad was that she knew he hated the drugged feeling and most of the pills would be tossed out once the expiration date rolled by. But keeping that prescription current was still a necessary security blanket, just one that he didn't think he should invoke tonight.

The television sat on the dresser opposite the bed, a big black unblinking eye. Once his constant companion, now it was a stranger. He'd gotten rid of his television because something in him recognized it as a block to his healing. It replaced thought, was a substitute for feeling. Something that he could hide behind and not really deal with his issues. He had recognized that he couldn't do the healing he needed to do with it as a possible escape; that if he was going to allow the silence of his refuge to heal him, he had to listen to the silence. So he had left it in DC. He was past that point now, but Walter hadn't brought his television either and they'd just never brought up getting another. In any case, it held no appeal for him now.

Mulder rummaged in the briefcase, wondering if maybe he had a novel he'd tucked in and forgotten. No luck. Only student papers to grade and the laptop. The laptop, of course. There was other work he had to get to, not school related. He opened it up, propped it on his lap and waited for the logon script to finish. He was already breathing more slowly as he opened up the games folder. By the time he had finished his three ritual games of freecell, he was ready for work. He pulled up the folder for his writing and selected the file titled, "Double your folly, double your fun."

He was, under the pseudonym of William Hobb, the author of a series of mildly successful young-adult mystery novels. Not big time, nowhere near approaching the success of Stine's Goosebumps, but very strong mid-listers that got the occasional favorable review from places like Booklist and Kirkus Reviews. Most writers didn't make the big bucks people thought they did and he was no exception. He wasn't successful enough to make it a sole income and he wouldn't have wanted to, but it was a very important suppliment to his income, the thing that paid the child support. He'd started writing them seven years ago, as a way of talking about the things that he could never talk to with a therapist because some of them were classified, some of them would just get him labelled crazy, but not in a way that would help a therapist heal him. Part of it was wish fulfillment too. The books were about the adventures of Marty and his pal Walt, no little redhead in sight. Part of it was how easily he could lose himself in the writing, without feeling like he was lost. Mulder had written the first couple without showing anyone, but had eventually shown Walter who had been impressed. Walter still had occasional contact with his old friend in Hollywood. That friend had contacts that gotten Mulder an agent.

Mulder quickly skimmed through the last few chapters to remember where he was in the story and then was quickly absorbed in the adventures of his two intrepid boy investigators, imminent panic attack averted and nearly forgotten in the easy flow of words. It left him feeling merely weak and slightly shaky by the time he fell asleep.

Three days later, he was back in Indiana, the van turned in, ducklings and Mama Duck dispersed to their homes, bike collected and pedalled back home. Indiana being what it was, and the Greenhouse effect adding to the volatile nature of the weather, it was nearly forty degrees warmer on the day of his return than it had been on his departure. He shucked the rain jacket and was pedalling home in the rumpled suit he'd driven home in. None of them had wanted to stay any longer after the last session of the conference was over, so they'd just grabbed things and piled into the van, Mulder still wearing his professional drag. Not long past the college, a stranger called out to Mulder, "Hey! Are you a Mormon?"

"What?" Mulder was almost non-plussed, then looked down at what he was wearing, simple dark suit, plain dark tie, white dress shirt. Of course he might get mistaken for one of their missionaries. They rode bicycles a lot too and dressed sort of like this.

"You know, latter day saints?"

"No, I'm a Friend. A Quaker." he called out as he sped past, headed for home. He made good time and almost got home before the storm broke. The clouds had been huge and threatening as they'd pulled into the campus drive, so Mulder wasn't surprised by the sudden clap of thunder and the drenching of warm rain.

He was out in it for only a minute or two before he pulled up under the portecochere. He locked up the bike carefully out of the rain, noting that the driveway beyond held not just Walter's truck, but two others and a compact car. Company was over. God, not what he'd wanted, not how he pictured this return happening. He unstrapped his bags from the bike, wrapped the flourescent leg band back on the handlebars, secured his helmet to the bike. He waited under the portecochere for a few minutes and the downpour lessened to a drizzle, a gentle, warm springtime rain. He walked around the house.

He didn't mount the steps, but stared up at the house, standing on the walk. He dropped the garment bag, not noticing it landed in a puddle created in the cracked, dipped concrete. He wondered, did he deserve to walk up those steps, back into Walter's dream house and the marriage he'd dishonored. No, he'd never said the words, the vows of fidelity and all the rest. Except in his heart, the only place where it really mattered. Yes, he thought at the ache in the center of him, I didn't forget what it felt like to have your heart gone. It feels just like this now. He heard the distinct sounds of live music spilling from the door, a piano, a guitar, more, raucous good-time music, making up for in good cheer what it sometimes lacked in skill.

The screen door was closed, but the other was propped open to let the warm air spill into the house. Light poured from the door and windows like a welcoming beacon, but Mulder wondered how he could dare to approach that safety. This life, this marriage, this love, even this house that he hated some days, had been his net, and he had fucked it up for the sake of vanity and anger. Oh, God, he ached like nothing before.

A familiar figure appeard at the screen door, opened it and closed it behind him. Walter walked to the bottom of the steps. He was dressed in work clothes, the old dress shirts and pants left over from that other life of his, but used now for carpentry. They were stained, worn. The shirt Walter was wearing, once blindingly white and starched was covered with little dribbles of paint. So were the gray gabardine pants. Walter was barefoot at the moment, an odd juxtoposition seen with his old work clothes and he carried a sweating beer in a brown bottle, big hands totally hiding the label. Drips of paint still decorated those hands. Walter had been working this weekend. In the dim light of the purple twilight, Mulder could still see that those paint drips were dark gold.

"Mulder, what are you waiting for?" Walter asked, looking at his husband, his lover, clearly seeing the pain on Mulder's face, the bewilderment, the longing. The look on Walter's face was gentle concern and confusion.

"Who's here?" Mulder asked hoarsely.

"Mickey. Kenny. Rob and Trisha. John and John. A few other people. The Beautiful Twins were here earlier but they're gone now. I called in a few favors and resorted to some outright bribery to get some work done on the house this weekend. I couldn't send them away hungry. They talked me into grilling rather than pizza. I thought you were going to be home much later. And you know Mickey. Once she gets out the guitar, it's all over. Do you want me to send them home?"

This wasn't how he'd been planning to deal with this. The conversation that he'd needed to have right now had been effectively derailed before it had begun. But he couldn't bear the thought of sending any of Walter's, his, their friends away, not when they were obviously having such a good time. They were part of this life, the people who loved them. Apparently enough to drop their weekend plans and engage in what no doubt had been exacting physical labor under the stern taskmaster that was Walter on a project. In exchange for little more apparently than dinner and a chance to use the piano.

"No, don't." Mulder said decisive on at least that issue. "But you. I. We. Need to talk. Now."

"Come up to the porch at least. Out of the rain."

In a moment, they were both settled on the capacious veranda that wrapped all the way around to the side of the house. It was deep and sheltered, with a half wall at the bottom and a generous overhang that blocked out all but the worst storms. Many a thunderstorm they'd sat out there, listening and safe. Walter sat upright, cautious and waiting, on a wicker settee that had seen better days and was losing a snake of wicker from around one of its legs.

Mulder found the nearby porch swing. The sudden warm spell was unexpected so the furniture didn't have its usual pads. The thin slats of the wooden swing were hard underneath Mulder's back. Under the porch, it was so dark that they couldn't quite see each other, just forms draped in shadow. Without comment Walter reached over to the table. One of their smoking friends, banished to the porch even in the winter, had left matches out on the table. Walter struck one and lit the candle inside the hurricane, casting them both in chirascuro. After waiting in silence for several minutes, waiting for Mulder to begin, Walter finally lost patience and started, "Let me guess that your outburst on Wednesday had nothing to do with a certain sweater."

"Oh, God. No. Nothing to do with anything. Just a symptom I suppose." Mulder dug in garment bag that he'd set down on the porch floorboards beside him. He produced a soft, thin sweater. He reached over to Walter and pressed it into his hands. "It's yours now. It doesn't matter. It's just a sweater and I was a dick to yell at you about it."

Walter fondled the sweater for a moment and then set it aside next to him on the settee. "No good. The only appeal it has is that you wear it. Mulder, I know that you didn't mean most of what you said on Wednesday because you were out of your head with worry about leaving home for the first time in nine years. But you have to understand that I was out of my head with worry that my husband left me for the first time in years. I just needed a little reminder of you. That's why I was wearing it. I knew you were probably planning on taking it. I thought if I wore it and looked at you sadly enough, you'd let me get away with it. I didn't plan on you going on the warpath. I'd forgotten that you'd needed comfort too. Did you have any? While you were gone?"

Mulder didn't have to ask to know that Walter meant panic attacks, though possibly full out flashbacks. Mulder had never had the worst of full blown post-traumatic stress symptoms, he'd always managed to keep it together enough to cope, but he had, at the beginning and ironically, once Walter was settled in safely, more than a couple flashbacks, to the things that had happened to him while he was abducted, to other unpleasant things. It'd been years since he'd had an actual flashback though. "A few panic attacks. Mild. I could reason my way through them. Played a lot of freecell in my room at night. You?"

"I kept busy. I had friends around. So, no out and out attacks. Just crushing generalized anxiety. I nearly called Dr Peterson and asked her to renew my Xanax prescription. God, what a pair we make. You think I'd be over this by now."

"Walter, the kinds of things we went through, it's a miracle we're both still standing. That was the kind of pain from which most people don't recover. We've both spent time dead, for God's sake. Just for that, I don't know about you, but personally, I'm reserving my right to have panic attacks for the rest of my life. If I'd been thinking clearly, I would have left a few of mine for you. I should have thought about what you'd be going through."

"Those pills are a controlled substance." Walter said firmly. Of course. You could take the man out of the law, but despite everything they'd been through, you couldn't take the law out of the man. No matter that the DEA had far bigger things on their minds than two old guys sharing a Xanax prescription. "But I wish you had called. That would have made me feel better."

"I couldn't...Walter, I screwed up really bad when I was gone. I did something truly, astoundingly stupid. Walter, I get scared sometimes, you know, about how much you mean to me. The fact that I don't seem to know who I am without you around. My whole life disappeared beneath me in a cataclysmic earthquake of the soul, so to speak. And when I went to rebuild, there you were. I get terrified that you're so close to me and I wonder what if it's not healthy, like Scully and I were at the end. I get scared about what would happen if someday, you aren't there. I get scared about growing old, because it means you're growing old too. I don't deserve you. I'm a vain, spineless bastard. Walter, I let some guy pick me up. A cute young thing. We didn't do anything besides exchange a few gropes before I came to my senses and went back to the hotel. Alone. But there you have it. God, I won't lie. It felt good knowing that some cute young thing who wasn't a hero-worshipping student wanted to jump my bones. I'm a bastard. Total bastard. If you want to kick me out, I can go sleep on the couch in my office."

Mulder waited in wrenching anxiety for Walter to respond. The other man almost always chose his words carefully, taking his time to put together his thoughts so that he expressed exactly what he meant. Walter was looking at an invisible point about halfway between them, brow creased, jaw set. Not the famous 'I'm keeping my temper in check' jaw set, but definitely serious. Long minutes passed in silence. Mulder knew that the conversation would pick up again in a while, that it wasn't over. But for now, he could only squirm and grip the hard wood slats of the swing until Walter decided to speak. It took all Mulder's willpower not to disturb the silence with the swing. The chains that linked it to beams in the porch ceiling squeaked with every motion back and forth.

"I'd be lying if I said that didn't hurt." Walter spoke finally, solemnly. He took off his wirerims, like he did sometimes when he was saying something important. He folded them carefully and set them on the wicker table beside the hurricane lantern. "But you're not going to sleep on a couch ever again if I have anything to say about it. Especially not over this. Why did you stop? Not go through with it?"

"He wanted me to take my ring off. I realized that nothing in the world would make me do that. Came to my senses and realized I didn't want him fucking me. That he was a predatory little creep. That I only ever want you to touch me. You don't know what kind of hell I've put myself in. Worrying that I've completely screwed us up, when I thought I'd worked my way through the whole self-destructive thing."

"Mulder, nothing in the world could make me give you up. Not even if you'd slept with him and four of his buddies. You didn't break any promises to me. You've never sworn fidelity to me. I guess I was always too afraid to ask it of you. I guess I thought that you'd run if I tried to hold you down too much. That's why I gave you the ring the way I did. I thought if we said the words, if we made it too real, that you'd wake up and this dream of ours would be over. And it can't be over, because I need you here beside me. What you did, it's over and done and you came back to me. And we won't talk about it anymore. Unless you need to."

Mulder turned this over in his mind. It contained more forgiveness than he'd expected, without completely letting him off the hook. A thought occurred to him, drifting to the forefront of his mind, when it had been swimming around there for a while. He went with it, hoping it would lead somewhere useful. "Walter, do you remember the first time one of said that we loved the other. Despite this memory of mine, I can't."

"Like it was yesterday." Walter said. Mulder kept quiet, asking him to tell the story by his silence. "It was December 23, 2004. You read a poem to me. Do you remember. Mary Oliver. Your students were reading her for Humanities."

Mulder remembered the poem. He spoke it now.

"You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk
on your knees for a hundred miles
through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let
the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair,
yours, and I will tell you mine.
But meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the soft pebbles of rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile, the wild geese,
high in the clear blue air
are heading home again.
Whoever you are,
no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination.
Calls to you like the wild geese,
harsh and exciting,
over and over and over and over again;
announcing your place in the family of things.

As he finished reciting the poem, Mulder couldn't help noticing the raw emotion in Walter's face. "Yes, I remember reading that poem to you. You often had me read you things that we read in Humanities. You still do. I love that poem. At the time, it felt like a lifeline. And I needed to send it out to you."

"And it was. You read the poem to me. And then you said, and I quote, 'I've got to go. I have to get to a christmas party. Love you Walter.' You said it as if you'd said it hundreds of times before and that was how I knew it was true. Best damn Christmas present I ever got."

Mulder recognized what they were doing. They'd done it before after arguments. Reaffirming their love by telling the stories of the past, rebuilding what had been broken in the wake of their rupture. Reattaching each of the hundreds, thousands of tiny threads that connected them. "Those weren't exactly halcyon days. But at least something good came of them. God. You know, I miss brick city sometimes. Sitting in that tiny room, waiting for you to call as the highlight of my day. Or when you first moved in and we couldn't turn left or right without tripping over each other."

"Believe it or not, I sometimes miss brick city too. It was a shock to the system, living with practically nothing like you were. I remember when I first came to visit. You didn't even have curtains or any dishes besides a few bowls you'd stolen from the dining hall."

Back when he'd first moved to the college, Mulder had just gotten a meal plan from the college and ate in the dining hall with the students. It had seemed simplest. He'd had things far more important to deal with than figuring out how to get the basic necessity of food into him. Once Walter had shown up, things had changed immediately. Mulder had been taken to the nearest Target and had his cart filled with all the basic housekeeping necessities he'd neglected. "I should have known from the beginning it was serious. I remember picking out a toaster and china on our first date."

"You seemed agreeable to it. I knew the instant I got out of my rental car in brick city that I'd be staying with you forever."

"So did I."

"We were meant to be. It's that simple." Walter crossed over to the porch swing and sat down next to Mulder, then wrapped his arm around the slighter man. Mulder returned the gesture and they leaned into each other, shoulders pressed into each other, tops of their heads touching, graying and bald. They kept silent a long time, but the silence was no longer empty and waiting. It was filled with what had been spoken before, the love that still resonated in the air around them. Simple comfort of bodies touching each other, the mere prescence of each other was healing the connections that had been snapped. The goodtime music spilling from inside toned down and became mostly John and the piano, singing a mellow song whose words they couldn't quite make out. It took a good long while before Mulder felt the need to speak again.

"Walter. If you need to keep not saying the words, that's fine. But I think I need to say them. In front of witnesses. With a party after preferably."

"We could do it now. We've got witnesses. A party is already going." Walter was suddenly eager, like a kid at a birthday party. He almost leaped up from the porch swing, but Mulder held him down.

"Uh-uh, big guy. Or, if we do, you're going to be the one to explain to your big brothers and sisters why they missed their baby brother's wedding." Skinners, Mulder had learned long ago, came in six packs. Three brothers, all bigger than Walter and two sisters who weren't as big physically, but made up for it with their bustle and bossiness. There had been some fuss, early on, when they'd learned that their baby brother had taken to shacking up with a former, male subordinate, but eventually, they all rallied round and welcomed Mulder to the family, just another baby brother to them. He even counted it as a victory the year they'd all come for Thanksgiving and Betsy, the oldest Skinner sibling, had smacked Mulder's fingers with a spoon for snitching stuffing before dinner. Just like he'd seen her smack Walter a few minutes earlier.

"Both John and Monica are going to want to come too. But, we don't want to make a fuss. Considering it's been seven years we've been living together."

"We'll figure something out. Think Mickey and company would play for the party?"

"As if we could stop her." As if on cue, the music picked up again, something rollicking that probably really needed an electric guitar. Definitely music one could dance to though.

"We'll make plans later. Let's go in. We can push back the table in the dining room and if we're really nice, maybe they'll play something we can two step to."

"Been a long time since we did that." Mulder was swelling with unexpected, undeserved happiness. "You weren't dancing already?"

"No. It's just not the same without you for a partner. You're a good dancer, better than anyone else around."

Mulder wanted to feel strong limbs next to him, guiding him gently into the next step, next turn and flourish. When you danced, if it was good, you didn't hang onto your partner or drape yourself all over him. You stood straight and tall on your own, but you still depended on him, just as he depended on you. You moved together and if it was good, it was better than anything else going. "I'm going to change then I'll come down. Got drenched on the way home. Thought I could beat the storm and I didn't. Hold on, I have something for you. Souvenier from Pittsburgh."

Mulder dug into his garment bag again and pulled out the one purchase he'd made in Pittsburgh. He'd gone back to the bookstore again, in daylight. Not stopping at the Liberty Diner. He handed the bag to Walter who fumbled getting the slick rectangle of cloth out of it. In the dim candlelight, the bright colors were muted almost to irrecognizability but its identity was obvious. Walter held the rainbow flag up wonderingly. "I figured it's not going to shock the neighbors. They obviously know what's going on here. But if you don't want it outside, we could put it the study or something. Or if don't want it in the house, I guess I'll take it to the office."

"No. I'm just trying to figure out the best place to mount a second flagpole bracket. Why? I thought you didn't want to identify..."

"I'm still bisexual, not gay, but it also seems pretty obvious I've cast my lot in with you. Since I'll be here with you forever, why not?"

Yes, forever. And someday soon, they'd say the words even if they weren't the kind of guys to make a fuss, but it would be real, not that it hadn't been real. But even more real. Meanwhile, their friends were inside, no doubt wondering what was keeping Walter so long.

"C'mon, let's join the party." Walter said, getting up. He grabbed Mulder's garment bag and headed for the door. "They've got quite a jubilee going on in there."

a few notesokay,
I took a few liberties here. Assuming for instance that the whole conspiracy thing would be exposed and resolved, that Scully would get baby William back, etc. Apologies for any x files errors. Believe it or not, I've not seen very many episodes. I place Walter and Fox about nine years in the future, but by author's perogative, the queer as folk characters haven't moved forward.

The college I describe is a real place. Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana, where I went to school. They do not now, nor probably ever will have a criminal justice program. But if they did, it certainly would have the emphasis on 'justice'. I don't know, it just seemed like the perfect place to send Fox to put himself back together again once it was all over. The students really did call the college president Dick to his face, 'cause that's what his name was.

The song lyrics I quote are from Mary Chapin Carpenter's song "Shut Up and Kiss Me." from the Stones in the Road album, which played over and over again while I wrote this. If you're the sort of person who likes song lyrics in your slash, you can look up and read the lyrics for most of the songs on the album, especially "Tender When I Want to Be" and "This is Love."

If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Rose Campion