Mad Season

by Goddess Michele

Title: Mad Season Part Three

Spoilers: Season nine finale

Beta: nope

Disclaimer: Boring but necessary disclaimer: C.C., Fox and 1013 own them, I'm just borrowing them for fun, not profit, and I promise to return them only slightly bruised, but in that good 'thank you sir and may I have another?' way.

Author's Note: Thanks again to everyone for their patience. I hope you enjoyed Fox and Walter's second trip to Canada, and you can be sure we haven't heard the last from that little cabin in the Rockies...

Chapter 10-Black and White People
"And it's one more round of petty conversation You hold on boy cuz
You won't go down like this?
Just roll on over
Lay down till it's more than you can take."

For one dreadful moment, Skinner was frozen. A moment was all his heart would allow, though. Seconds later he was shucking the backpack, dropping his gun and cradling the hurt man in his arms.

"Mulder? Mulder!"

No response.

"Shit!" With a groan, Skinner came to his feet, Mulder in his arms. The shotgun had rolled harmlessly out of Mulder's grasp when he'd fallen, and Skinner kicked it aside as he carried his lover back towards the bedrooms.

There were two doors off the hall. One of them was ajar, and it was this one that was emitting the wavering light that Skinner had noticed earlier; he entered that room.

A hurricane lamp sat on an old fashioned washstand next to a large, quilt covered bed.

Skinner's eyes flitted rapidly around the room, noting several things that would bear closer examination later. But for now it was enough that there was light to see by and a warm place to lay his lover.

The flickering lamp highlighted the blood on the comforter--Mulder had been already lying there, apparently.

Ignoring it, Skinner draped Mulder's prone form across the bed. The pained sound that followed came from his own lips as something in his back protested. Mulder remained silent and unmoving.

Skinner hesitated, and then touched Mulder's face gently. His hand came away wet with blood and tears, and that seemed to galvanize him into action.

He tugged off Mulder's shirt and pants, and found a blanket to cover him with when he shivered.

He ran back to the other room, where he'd dropped his kit, scooped it up, found his flashlight and made his way into the kitchen.

He was flicking at switches before he remembered that the power wasn't on.

The flashlight was FBI standard issue, and easily showed him a kitchen much more modern than he had expected. But his curiosity would have to wait. He found the sink, dowsed with his hands on taps, and discovered warm water. A mumbled "thank God", half-prayer, half-entreaty, and he was fumbling through mostly bare cupboards until he found himself a large shallow bowl.

Armed with water and cloth, he made his way back to the bedroom. Mulder hadn't moved.

Fighting the urge to rush, to touch, to act, he set the basin next to the lamp, then used his flashlight to find a second lamp; matches from his kit brought it to life, and doubled the light in the room.

Mulder looked worse.

Steeling himself with a deep breath, he started with the obvious.

Like an archeologist brushing away the ages from an invaluable relic, he wiped away the grime and the blood. First on Mulder's face, then working his way down his body. He rinsed the cloth often, and tried not to notice the way the water was turning pink.

He recognized many of the injuries--the gashes on his cheeks, and matching ones on one wrist and both ankles. He'd seen them before, of course. But again, he noted differences that indicated that Mulder had escaped before the aliens could properly restrain him. Another silent prayer, this one of gratitude, and then Skinner was digging through his bag for the first aid items he'd bought, thankful that he'd been as pessimistic as he had in the grocery store.

He was able to cover the arm and legs with gauze and tape, and staunch the flow of blood. But when he tried to bandage Mulder's face, he felt the heat of infection before he noticed the puffiness of the wound, and Mulder moved for the first time, turning his head away with a small wounded cry.

"Come on, puppy. It's okay." Skinner found himself saying as he held Mulder's head steady to put antibacterial ointment on the wounds. He could feel Mulder resisting him under his hand, and while it wasn't doing any good, part of him rejoiced at the feel of anything beyond slack unconsciousness on Mulder's part.

He finished affixing the bandage, and then turned back to his bag. He found the water bottle he'd been drinking from earlier. The water was warm and stale, but more importantly the bottle itself had a sports cap, and that made it easier for him to slip it between Mulder's lips. He let the water dribble out, not forcing it at all, and while a lot of it spilled over the man's dry lips and down his chin, some of it found it's way into Mulder as well, and Skinner smiled in grim satisfaction as he saw his lover swallow reflexively.

He touched Mulder's forehead, brushing lank hair off of it, and thought his hand would be burned from the fevered heat coming off of him. Setting aside the water, he dug around his kit to find drugs. He came up with three different ones, two ASA and one ibuprofen, debated a moment, and then decided on the strongest ones. Cursing the childproofing, he forced open the bottle, shook out two tiny pills, and pushed them into his lover's mouth. He followed that with more water, and then replaced the comforter he had pushed aside to tend to Mulder's injuries.

He watched for a moment, saw no movement, heard no sound, so he picked up the bowl of water and took it back to the kitchen, dumped it and replaced it with fresh water, rinsed out the cloth, and felt himself being watched.

He whirled around, wished for his gun, and found no one there.

"It's okay," he muttered, "I'm okay. He's going to be fine. Just fine..."

Mulder was sitting up when he returned to the bedroom.

"Mulder?" He approached the bed with some trepidation.

Mulder's eyes were open, glazed and fever bright, and he was staring fixedly at a point somewhere on the far wall. As Skinner moved closer, Mulder's eyes never wavered, until he was looking at something past Skinner's shoulders.

"How did you know?" he suddenly asked, startling Skinner with the rough tone of voice. He gave Mulder a confused frown, and was ignored.

"Yeah, right," Mulder scoffed. "What would a rat like you know about true love?" A pause, and Skinner knew nobody was behind him. Mulder was delirious, his wounds infected, and it was making him sick. Making him see things. Making him see--

"Don't you touch him!" Mulder suddenly yelled, and Skinner turned despite himself.

There was no one behind him.

He turned back to the sick man in the bed, pushed gently on his shoulders, trying to make him lie down again.

"Mulder, come on. It's me--it's Walter."

"How do I know?"

Skinner almost answered him, then realized he was still talking to someone else as he continued.

"How do I know it's not just more of your conjurings, Alex?"

"Fox, please," This was far worse than Mulder's unconscious silence, Skinner decided, as frightening as that had been. He tried to get Mulder to focus on him, but when he reached for him, his hands were batted away.

"Shut up, Krycek, just shut up!" Mulder screamed and lunged forward.

Skinner caught him and wrapped strong arms around him. He struggled briefly, and then Skinner felt his arms come round him in response.

"Walter?" a tiny sound, totally unlike his delirious ramblings.

"It's me, puppy. I'm here."

"Oh, thank God!" A shuddery sigh and he burst into tears.

Skinner rocked him, stroked his hair, kissed his brow and whispered inane words of love. Months of worry, despair and separation vanished in a smothering wave of emotion between them, and for long moments, nothing else existed for them but the feel of each others arms, the texture of each other's bodies. It wasn't sexual although it was as strong as the force of an orgasm. And it wasn't codependent; each man could feel his own strengths as well as his needs. It was something bigger and better than all of those things.

When Skinner pulled himself gently away, his eyes were wet too.

"I thought I'd never see you again," he admitted in a whisper.

"I knew you'd come," Mulder replied just as softly. He leaned forward again, wordlessly asking for more comfort, and this time Skinner was able to take a less emotional inventory of the man in his arms. Mulder was hot--too hot--not just where he'd been wounded, but his face, arms, legs, whole body. Something was horribly wrong, and he could sense it, even if he didn't know what it was. He moved himself forward so that he could lie Mulder down again. Mulder looked up at him, eyes sparkling in a teary and unhealthy way.

"Scully?" he asked, and Skinner wasn't surprised.

"She's going to be okay. Doggett's with her."

Mulder's eyes slipped closed with a sigh of relief, then reopened and he said another name. Skinner shook his head.

"He's not here, Mulder. You were imagining things."

Mulder shook his head. "No," he protested. "I saw him--talked to him--he--he--"

Skinner put his hand over his mouth for just a moment, gently, and said, "Nobody's here but me, puppy."

Mulder didn't say anymore, but Skinner saw the argument in his eyes.

"Can you sleep, Mulder?" he asked. "You need to rest."

"I'm fine," he said, and they both knew he was lying. Neither man knew exactly what had happened, not even Mulder, who'd of course been right there. All he knew now was that he felt like he'd been hit by a tank made of wasps, and that the ones that hadn't stung him had taken up residence in his head, making his eyes feel like hot marbles in his skull, and causing his thoughts to become painful and random and confused. He closed his eyes, muttered something about the wasp nest getting too big, and then lay still.

Skinner just sat next to him on the bed, filling his senses with the sights and sounds of his lover. He knew there was more he should be doing, from finding out how a thirty year old cabin came to be so modern and thoroughly cared for, to trying to figure out if Mulder was in fact dying, as it appeared. But for just a moment, he let his own needs overshadow all of that, and just looked at him. Took him in. Rehung all the Mulderpictures in the den of his heart and added this new one to it.

"I love you, puppy," he whispered. Mulder frowned in his sleep.

Skinner walked out of the room.

Chapter 11-If You're Gone 
"I think you're so mean 
I think we could try 
I think I could need 
This in my life 
I think I'm just scared 
I think too much 
I know-this is wrong-"

Skinner sat down on the porch steps and put his head in his hands, exhausted tears threatening.

Mulder was dying--he was sure of it.

After an all night vigil that included countless sponge baths, more painkillers and applying fresh bandages when Mulder ripped his off in a feverish delirium, Skinner felt like he'd accomplished nothing. His lover was unconscious again--he didn't think it could be called just sleeping--

In between Mulder's bouts of waking insanity, Skinner had managed to get his kit unpacked, get the generator running, and get some food into himself. He'd tried giving Mulder some broth that he made with freeze dried soup mix and hot water, and only succeeded in making the man vomit all over the comforter.

He'd changed the bedding, murmured a constant litany of prayers, and listened to Mulder argue with a dead man.

And now here it was, the dawning of a new day, and the sun was glorious coming up over the mountains, there was a cool breeze wafting the scent of green growing things around him, and birds sang cheerily from high in the trees.

And Mulder was dying.

He'd have to take him into town. His tired mind immediately began planning the route, how to get that damned tree out of the way, finding a hospital, getting around any unanswerable questions, and a million other things, so that he didn't register the shadow that fell over him, nor did he notice the source of said shadow until a rough, familiar voice said:

"Get up!"

Skinner flinched at the hard tap on his hurt arm. His head came up with a groan and he reached for his gun before remembering that he'd left it in the cabin.

"I said get up!" Alex Krycek demanded with another hard punch. "We don't have much time."

"What the hell--?" Skinner recoiled from the vision of the intense dark haired man, looking much as he had the last time he'd seen him. He was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt, with a leather jacket on but unzipped. Black gloves encased his hands, but as Skinner watched him remove them, he noticed that the left arm, which had hung neutrally by his side when he'd seen him last, was moving easily and both hands were clenching into fists.

Skinner knew he had to be dreaming.

He shook his head and was on the verge of pinching himself when Krycek hit him again, harder, nearly toppling him over. Sudden reality crashed down on him and he jumped up from the step, crying out his lover's name.

"Mulder!"

"He's alive...for now..."Krycek told him, sounding almost compassionate, and Skinner closed his eyes at the sound, trying desperately to wake up. He had to be sleeping, having a nightmare. He'd killed Alex Krycek another lifetime ago. He'd pulled the trigger once, twice, three times...saved Mulder...saved himself...No, this was definitely a nightmare. Alex Krycek couldn't be here, grinning wolfishly (and charmingly, some part of his mind insisted) at him.

"Hey, Walter, don't look a gift horse in the mouth," he said. "I'm here to help you--to help Mulder."

"Fuck you." Skinner turned away from him, intent on going back into the cabin and figuring out the best way to get Mulder down the mountain. The new and improved, two-armed dream Krycek was also psychic, apparently, and he stopped Skinner cold with his next words.

"You can't take him down," he said.

"He's dying!" Skinner snarled back.

"If you take him away from here, they'll find him, and then he's dead for sure." Krycek snapped.

Skinner knew he shouldn't turn around, that he shouldn't answer. He knew that this was just an apparition, nothing more than his own exhausted worry given a new form.

He turned anyway. "You idiot!" he exclaimed, "I can't just sit here and--"

Krycek slapped him, cutting the words off in mid sentence.

"Boo-fucking-hoo," he growled, his tone mocking. "I can't believe what a damned baby you're being about this, Walter." Now there was mean good humor in his words, and Skinner remembered that cold yet sexy smile, just as he remembered that old threat: "Push of a button, Walter..."

Krycek was still talking. "Where's that surly bastard who cuffed my ass to his balcony so long ago? Or has Mulder got you completely pussy-whipped?" This last said with a contemptuous sneer.

With a roar, Skinner came off the porch steps, suddenly not caring if he was talking to a man, a ghost or his own sleep-deprived vapors. He was determined to choke the life out of Alex Krycek in any form.

He landed on the ground with a startled grunt as air was forced from his lungs, and he groaned as his head hit something on the gravel and weed choked land hard enough to make him see stars. He was alone.

He shook his head and took a swipe at his scalp with a hand, discovered blood and groaned again. Dizzily he staggered to his feet, looked around hard, found no one, and remembered Mulder. He stumbled up the steps, letting dark thoughts of insanity and eating bullets bounce around in his mind like moths off of a light bulb, and wondered if he'd make it back to Mulder's side.

Now Krycek was inside the house, and Skinner came to a sudden halt at the sight of the dark haired young man lounging insolently on the couch in the living room. If he'd needed any more proof of insanity, he'd found it.

"I don't know what kind of game this is, Krycek," he tried for a growl, got a tired sigh instead. "And frankly, I don't care--not about you, or your ghost, or even about myself. Just do whatever the hell you're here to do, but stay out of my way--I won't let you let Mulder die."

"Mulder doesn't know how lucky he is," Krycek mused, and Skinner saw the oddest expression cross the man's face. Remorse, maybe. Fear, or anger. He wasn't sure if he even wanted to know.

Krycek stood easily, smoothed out an invisible crease in his jeans, and the cynical smile was back on his face. The smile that had always made Skinner want to simultaneously hit him and kiss him. "Well, Walter, my friend," he said, "this is where it gets tricky." He moved towards him, and Skinner suddenly felt like his feet were cemented to the floor. When Krycek reached out a hand to him, he could only flinch as cold fingers brushed his cheek. "Mulder can't be moved, and any doctor's you might find around here wouldn't know how to help him anyway." From a jacket pocket, Krycek pulled out a small vial of amber liquid. "And so, you're going to have to trust me."

Skinner missed Krycek's last words, so transfixed was he by the tiny bottle in the man's hand. "Anti-virals?" he whispered wonderingly, feeling something too great to be called relief, and wondering if he might faint from it. His fingers twitched, and he leaned forward.

Krycek noticed immediately, and put the vial back in his pocket.

Skinner groaned aloud and wondered if he could risk jumping Krycek for the medicine.

"Don't be an ass!" Krycek barked at him, easily reading the intent in Skinner's dark eyes. "I told you I was here to help Mulder. I don't think letting him die would be doing him any favors."

"No shit." This was mumbled quietly, but loud enough to make Krycek smile.

"Listen up, now, Walter. This is where you come in." The grin disappeared for a moment, and then came back just as toothy and twice as nasty. "First of all, clean yourself up--you look like shit." Before Skinner could do more than splutter an objection, Krycek's voice overrode him. "There's plenty of hot water now. The generator's good to go--" In case Skinner doubted him, he reached over and flicked on a small lamp near the couch.

"What--why--why are you doing this, Krycek?" Skinner felt himself fighting an inner battle with a myriad of emotions: desire for Mulder, anger and confusion at Krycek, dull curiosity at the man's existence in the first place, rage at himself for his own feelings of helplessness, and overlying it all, a deep exhaustion that almost made him want to weep.

Krycek gave him his moment, and then when he saw that threatening anger was winning the war in Skinner's eyes, he spoke again, this time sounding soft, almost thoughtful. "Did I say Mulder was lucky? Well, my friend, so are you."

"Krycek..." Skinner meant it as a warning growl--it came out as an almost defeated sigh.

Krycek gave him a sharp look, and then a frown, and then before Skinner could react, he pulled the older man into his arms, and dragged his head down onto a shoulder.

Skinner struggled briefly, found out just how strong Alex Krycek really was, and gave up, gave in, let all the tension, fear, anguish--all of it--well up and out of him in a great sigh and a barely bit-back sob.

Krycek's hand was cold on his head, stroking softly, and Skinner just had time to think, 'so this is insanity,' and then he was being pushed away. Now he struggled again, this time to stay.

"Now, Walter, go--clean up, let go..." As he spoke, Krycek brushed away the one tear that had slipped free. "I'll make sure he stays alive for you." The cynical grin returned, but Skinner thought he saw something wistful in it. "If he dies, you have my permission to shoot me again."

Skinner couldn't find a response for that and Krycek shoved him towards the bathroom. After a stumbling start, he found his legs moving him more naturally. But at the washroom door, he turned, all strength and cold dark eyes, and said, "you don't want to fuck with me, Krycek."

"You got that right." Krycek ended the conversation simply by walking out of the room.

In the bathroom, Skinner found new plumbing, clean towels, fresh soap, and something that felt like hope.

In the bedroom, Krycek stood beside the bed, impassively watching Mulder die.

Mulder writhed sluggishly under the covers, while sweat poured off his body and a pitiful groaning sound came out of him.

Pressing his fingers to Mulder's throat, Krycek found a pulse, and felt it jumping and fluttering erratically under his fingertips.

"You stubborn son-of-a-bitch," he muttered wonderingly. He glanced out the door--he could hear water running--and added, "you deserve each other." Something in his tone suggested that this wasn't the insult it appeared to be.

Not bothering to try and wake the unconscious man, Krycek found the vial in his pocket and thumbed off the cap, while with the other hand he gripped Mulder's jaw and squeezed hard, forcing his mouth open.

With an almost deliberate lack of compassion, he tipped the contents of the bottle into Mulder's mouth, and then covered both mouth and nose with his hand, thus keeping the medicine in until lack of air from his nose made Mulder swallow in order to breathe.

When he was satisfied that the drugs were inside the man, Krycek stepped back, threw the empty vial to the floor and gave Mulder a long lingering look, a look that said he remembered a younger man, a man who had not yet come to hate him, a man that looked damned good in a Speedo. He still looked good to him.

He made a disgusted sound and turned abruptly, not looking back.

When Skinner came out of the bathroom, clean and dressed, he found no sign of Alex Krycek, but four more vials identical to the first one stood like tiny sentinels on the coffee table, along with a hastily scrawled note of instruction.

Chapter 12-Rest Stop 
"While you were sleeping, 
I was listening to the radio and
wonderin' what you were dreaming, 
When it came to mind that..."

Days went by. Skinner followed Krycek's instructions to the letter, not allowing himself to question the validity of them, only knowing he had no other choice. He forced the medicine on his insensate lover every morning and every night, and told himself the man was getting better.

In fact, there seemed to be no change at first. Although Mulder seemed to be sleeping more easily, his night terrors still brought him up screaming and clawing at nothing, and Skinner found himself on short sleep rations, as his mind became attuned to the slightest movement or sound from Mulder.

He made Mulder drink water and juice, and when the delirious man fought against it, he wore the bruises like medals. He kept Mulder warm with quilts found in the linen closet, and kept him clean with repeated sponge baths and sheet changing. When Mulder talked, he talked back, even when it made no sense, answering the nonsensical questions with affirmations and love.

When Mulder slept, Skinner spent time exploring the cabin, never far enough away from his lover's side that he wouldn't hear him if he so much as hiccoughed. He discovered that the plumbing was as new as the appliances, and that the fireplace was in good working order. There was a heater for the place, but so far the days and nights had held warm, and he'd found no need for it. He was startled to find food, canned stuff and non-perishables mostly, and plenty of it, stocked in clean cupboards. He tried to picture Mulder, weak and sick, taking time to stock up the place and do a few repairs around the house, and couldn't do it.

It didn't make sense, and his tired mind worried at this fact like a puppy with a bone, fighting for attention with his still frightened belief that Mulder was beyond help.

The morning after the last of the medicine was gone, Skinner stumbled out of the bedroom, exhausted and aching from holding his lover through yet another long spell of nightmares. No part of him begrudged Mulder's need for this, but his body was telling him that it might not be something he wanted to be taking up on a full time basis. He wandered into the kitchen, and lit the burner under the teakettle. Searching out a clean mug and a teabag, he mumbled some half remembered shanty under his breath and wondered when he'd last slept. It felt like it had been years.

A sound from behind him made him freeze. He turned his head slowly, waiting to see if the sound would be repeated. When nothing happened, he let out his breath slowly and shakily, and set his cup by the stove. He thought he should check on Mulder again while the water boiled, and found himself drawn to the kitchen table instead.

A creamy white envelope sat on the table, his name scrawled across it in handwriting that was hauntingly familiar, but not in a way that he remembered from his own life; more like a Civil War ghost. There was something almost sad about it, although he couldn't have explained where that thought came from.

He moved towards the table, sat heavily on one of the metal and vinyl chairs (he'd already decided he hated their green-checked diner feel, although he suspected Mulder, were he capable of it, would love them), and reached for the envelope with hands that shook, though not from fear.

Until the kettle whistled shrilly for attention, he simply stared at the thing, the letters of his name burning into his tired eyes, his weary mind. Still moving mostly automatically, he made his tea and brought it back to the table, then considered the envelope once more.

He tore it open.

A newspaper clipping fell out of it, along with an old photo, a small key, and a single piece of paper as thick and creamy as the envelope.

The photo was the first thing he picked up, and tears pricked at his eyelids as he looked down on the old photo, white bordered and creased, of two young men, one idealistic, one far less so, smiling awkwardly up at him while standing in front of the very cabin he now sat in. Had Dirk really been that handsome, he wondered, and had he ever had that much hair? He smiled mirthlessly at that, turned the picture over and marveled at a date that seemed to be almost prehistoric.

Setting the picture gingerly aside, he unfolded the crisp piece of paper. More tears wanted to blur his vision, and he rubbed his eyes once and forced them back as he read:

Walt:

I told you so! That mountain air, you know. Once it gets into you, you never really lose it. Like so much that we hold onto as precious and dear, you never even know it's there until you need it, and then, like life itself, tenacious and ever unfolding, it presents itself, and you know you are where you need to be.

I don't know what it is in me that tells me you will someday see this. Perhaps it is the illness speaking, and I am simply raving like the madman you always told me I was. Or perhaps the cancer that is robbing me of my body is giving me instead some mental gift. A knowledge, or precognitive sense, that you will see this, see the mountains again; stand where we once stood, believer and skeptic finding the truth together.

If it's a war that has brought you back here, Walt, I hope it is one far nobler than the one that first brought us up here. And if it's something else--someone else--I can only hope that he's seen beyond the hard assed Marine you always thought you were. I hope you let him in, the way you let me in.

I wonder if you ever told him about us.

I've made certain provisions in the event that we do not get to speak face to face again, and I'm more and more sure that this will be the case. The doctors tell me that hope springs eternal, but you know that I always found the truth to be closer to my heart than that, and my heart tells me time is short.

All the information you need, all the by the book, sign in triplicate, ten cent words and yada yada bullshit that I always eschewed, you will find at the Royal Bank in Banff. The box number is 1013.

I hope he's there, Walt, and I hope he loves you. As I once did. And as I do.

Peace,
Dirk

"Oh my God..." the whispered words slipped from Skinner's lips in a trembling hushed sigh, and he set the paper aside, letting it touch the table as gently as if it were made of spun glass.

The newspaper clipping was, of course, an obituary. He barely skimmed it, letting the stark black type give him the facts without flowery phrases: Dirk Sheldon Rydholm...August 2001...donations to the Canadian Cancer Foundation in lieu of flowers...

He took off his glasses and wiped at his eyes again.

At the sound of his name, the paper went fluttering to the floor, and he jumped up so quickly that he nearly overturned the chair. The voice was weak, but clear, and he recognized it for a real thing, not some ghost. He'd had to deal with enough of those lately to know the difference.

He ran back to the bedroom, saw that Mulder was sitting up, and feared he was having a nightmare. But the younger man made no protest as Skinner moved to his side and eased him back down on the bed. Just looked at him with dark eyes that were actually seeing him, maybe for the first time since he'd gotten here.

Skinner saw that Mulder's brow was beaded with perspiration, and his skin was soaked, but he wasn't shivering, and the fever that had produced that heat seemed to have disappeared, leaving only this damp reminder of what had been.

"Mulder?"

Mulder reached up one hand, stroked the beard that Skinner had been neglecting to cut since he'd first set out on his mad journey.

"You look like a bear." Mulder's voice was thick and hoarse, but perfectly clear and lucid just the same. Skinner caught his hand and held it to his cheek just a fraction longer than he needed to, then released him and shrugged.

"I thought it made me look rugged," he replied.

"It makes you look like a gay Dan Haggerty."

"Smart ass."

They exchanged weak relieved grins. Mulder's eyes slipped closed, then re-opened, a tell tale gleam in them that Skinner recognized immediately, even though it had been a long time since he'd seen it.

"Well, Grizzly Adams, here's a deal for you," he began, tugging gently on his lover's beard. "You 86 the face fur, and I'll let you have your filthy way with me."

Skinner's grin intensified, then disappeared altogether when he took a good look at Mulder. The man had just come out of a near-deadly infection-based coma that was in all likelihood of alien origin, not to mention the wounds from the attempted abduction that, while healing, were still wounds and not yet scars, and he hadn't had anything put in him more nutritious than orange juice since who knew when.

And yet, and still, he was Mulder. His Mulder. And just as his heart leapt hearing the man talk, so did he feel gentle lust jolt through him at the suggestion. But he wasn't about to hurt him--wasn't about to push anything. Not now, when he'd been so sure he was going to lose him...

He smiled again, softer, and let his own hand brush Mulder's chin. "That's no baby's bottom you've got going on there, you know."

Mulder's response was to nip at Skinner's fingers, suck softly at one for a moment, then release him, and shift around on the bed, trying to sit up. Skinner watched him struggle for a moment, and wondered how long it had taken him to do this once already, without the delirium-induced strength from before. A moment later, though he was sitting down beside him and taking him into his arms.

Mulder leaned gratefully into the other man's embrace, more sweat coming off of him at the exertion.

"Okay," he breathed into the other man's ear. "So maybe I'm not quite up to my contortionist impression, but..."

Skinner chuckled softly under his breath, held Mulder tight and ran his hand through his hair. That little voice inside him, the one that usually came from somewhere in his balls, was offering a hectoring opinion on just how good the man felt in his arms, not to mention reminding him strongly that he was naked, but Skinner ignored it for the time being, content to listen to his emotions instead.

Apparently, Mulder's little voice was much stronger, however, and he turned his head so that they were face to face, and pressed his lips to Skinner's. Mere moments later, both men were open mouthed and gently trying to devour one another.

To Skinner, Mulder tasted sweet, like the peppermints his father had always carried with him. A familiar taste that he hadn't had in so long...and all the more sweet for having gone without.

Mulder lost himself in the warmth and depth and security he found within the kiss, tasting all that he had been fighting for, all that he needed, all that Walter Skinner offered him, and it was enough.

When Skinner felt Mulder's fingers brush lightly over the front of his pants, he pulled away suddenly. Mulder frowned and tried to recapture his mouth, but Skinner held him back with a determined look. Mulder took solace in the fact that Skinner had to take several deep breaths before he could speak.

"I thought you wanted the chin-rug gone first."

"I'm willing to risk a little rug burn if you are, big guy," he smiled and tried to control his own breathing. Another stroke over what was becoming a very conspicuous erection, and a whispered, "Please..." were Skinner's undoing.

But even as his body hummed under his lover's ministrations, he vowed that he was going to take all the time in the world if he had to, and not push Mulder, not even if the other man thought he should.

He carefully eased Mulder out of his arms, and shushed the small cry of protest with a soft kiss. When he had Mulder on his back on the bed again, he followed him down, lying beside him and holding him in a loose embrace, while allowing Mulder to move his hands over him. He reveled in the feel of those long nimble fingers as they undid buttons, stroked over chest and belly, and reacquainted themselves with his cock.

"Oh, God," he groaned, "I've missed you so much!" Then he returned the favour, pushing away both Mulder's hands and his growing desire, and letting his own big hands find all the familiar and so badly missed contours of his lover's body. There were new things, of course; the wounds he had to carefully avoid, although he skimmed the edges of the bandages a few times, always mindful of causing Mulder any discomfort. He listened attentively to the man's breathing, trying to distinguish pain from desire. Mulder seemed to sense this, and let loose a string of breathy affirmations, making sure Skinner knew that what he was doing was more than welcome. And when Skinner finally took hold of his cock, he also covered his mouth with his own, tasting the grateful moan as Mulder's hips lifted off the bed. His lover's excitement made his own more powerful, and he groaned in response, and rubbed himself on Mulder's hip, almost able to ignore how the satiny skin was pulled taut over the bone there.

Mulder's eyes had slipped closed at the first strong touch of Skinner's hands, but now he opened them and found that when Skinner's mouth pulled off of his own, his eyes were open too. For a moment that lasted well into eternity, they simply gazed at one another, trying to fill up all the empty places inside themselves with each other.

Mulder looked bedraggled, worn, scraggly--an alley cat brought in from the cold bare moments before death. He also looked aroused, alert and nearly overwhelmed with some unspoken emotion. Skinner thought he'd never looked more beautiful.

Skinner's clothes were in disarray, yanked open from neck to crotch. His chest was heaving, his cock jutting red and arrogant from his open pants. He looked almost feral, all soft gray beard and crisp salt and pepper curls across his chest. By contrast, his eyes shone dark and soft, almost aglow with something that romance novelists had been trying to capture since time immemorial, and Mulder thought he was quite the most breathtaking mass of contradictions he'd ever had the pleasure to know.

To love.

The moment ended when Skinner, who had been thrusting softly against Mulder's body the whole time, came with terrific force, crying out his lover's name as his body thrashed in almost helpless ecstasy. It was loose and wild and intense, and Mulder relished every moment of the other man's orgasm, until he felt those hands, those remarkable hands, on his cock, stronger this time, stroking forcefully, cajoling his body into responding in tandem with his lover.

He threw his head back, and by contrast wrapped his arms around Skinner and hung on for his life, letting the sensations overwhelm him, knowing it was safe to do so, and his orgasm was all the more amazing for that knowledge.

Minutes later it was over, and for minutes more after that they simply clung to one another, letting their minds drift, each man feeling a peace that came from simply being together, a calm that they'd both been missing, unaware until now just how much.

Skinner felt himself drifting perilously close to sleep, and he shifted his body away from Mulder's, knowing that he couldn't let himself go just yet.

Mulder gave him a contented smile and reached up to stroke his cheek.

"I could get used to this," he whispered.

"Really?"

"No, absolutely not," he replied. His eyes closed but the grin remained. "It had better be gone by the time I wake up."

Skinner laughed quietly, stood shakily, and moved towards the door in search of clean clothes, a warm cloth for some clean up, and maybe something to eat. A glance back at his lover, and another laugh when he heard a completely familiar snore, and then he looked up at nothing, wondering if the right person would hear him as he whispered,

"He loves me, Dirk. And I love him."

Chapter 13-Fairground 
"And I love the thought of coming home to you,
Even if I know we can't make it
And I love the thought of giving hope to you 
Just a little ray of light shining through..."

"Get up!"

Mulder groaned and tried to bury his head further into the pillow. He glanced over at Skinner lying next to him, heard the slow even breathing of a sleeping man, and then yelped when a hand descended unkindly on his buttocks. The blow stung, even through the comforter.

"What the hell--?" Reluctantly, but unwilling to risk another smack, Mulder rolled over onto his back and looked up into Alex Krycek's eyes. He recoiled visibly from the fierce look on the man's face, and reached out to touch Skinner's arm, drawing strength from him.

"You don't have the luxury of that!" Krycek hissed, "and he'll be dead if you don't get up right now and come with me!"

"No." Mulder pushed himself up to a sitting position, rubbed his eyes and frowned, suddenly transformed into the world's biggest four year old. "You're dead, and this is just a dream. Go away!" He sounded on the verge of a tantrum.

"I'm not dead yet," Krycek replied with a grimace. He tugged on Mulder's arm.

"I'm still sick." Petulant now.

Krycek wasn't giving an inch on this one. "Get your head out of your ass, Mulder. There's no time!" He leaned in close, and Mulder swore he could smell peppermint on the man's warm breath. "They're coming!" he exclaimed. His green eyes blazed, and Mulder suddenly believed him, although there was no good reason for his trust.

"I don't know if I can," he suddenly confessed, but he was moving at the same time, working his way slowly out of the bed. Krycek caught an arm when he faltered, and guided him to his feet with unexpected gentleness. The leather of his gloves felt cool on Mulder's bare skin.

Mulder glanced back at Skinner.

"He'll be fine, if we get going now. Where are your clothes?"

Mulder realized simultaneously that he was both standing and naked, and was pleased by the former and embarrassed by the latter. Krycek seemed not to notice, and was instead looking around the room for something that Mulder could wear that wasn't dirty or bloodstained or both. Mulder took his cue from him, and ignored his nudity, moving slowly towards the dresser at the foot of the bed. He had stacked his clothes there when he first found the place, before the illness had completely overwhelmed him, and now he pawed through the pile to find boxers and socks, while Krycek kept a hand on his back to steady him.

He was still self-conscious as he dressed, and found himself slightly short of breath for even that small effort. As he buttoned up his jeans and pulled the long sleeved t-shirt over his head, he hoped that Krycek wasn't expecting too much from him.

"Nah, just your typical duck and cover," said Krycek, and Mulder frowned at him and snapped, "Get the hell outta my head."

In the dim light of approaching day, Krycek's eyes gleamed and his lips turned up in a cynical grin. "How can I, Mulder? Isn't that where you think I came from?"

Before Mulder could reply, Krycek was steering him towards the door, and he turned back with a despairing look for his lover.

"Look, Mulder, there'll be plenty of time for the both of you, I promise, but not if we don't get the hell outta Dodge, and right now!" And he pulled Mulder from the room.

In the living room, early morning sunlight was pushing valiantly at the curtains over the large front window, providing more than enough light for Mulder to see and then catch his shoes when Krycek threw them at him. He sat heavily on the couch, and felt blood pounding in his temples as he bent to pull on the heavy work boots. When his fingers fumbled with the laces, Krycek was there, brushing his hands away impatiently and tying them with quick ease. Then he was being hauled to his feet again, and he stumbled as Krycek dragged him towards the door.

"Hang on!" he complained. "I'm--I--"

"No time. We have to get you out of here now!" But he did slow up slightly, and wrap an arm tight around the barely recovered man as he brought him out of the cabin to squint at the sudden bright light.

"Mulder, listen to me. They've already gotten the tree you dropped out of the way, and they know the truck there is Skinner's. But if you're not here, they'll think you've gone somewhere else. They haven't quite put two and two together, and they think you've gone looking for Scully, and that Skinner went looking for the two of you together."

Krycek was speaking rapidly, and Mulder was having a hard time understanding.

"What do you mean? Scully and I--"

"No time, Mulder. You have to go." He turned Mulder towards the back of the cabin, and released him.

"Where am I supposed to go?" The whine was back in his voice, and he flinched when he heard it, but he was suddenly desperately afraid, and he found himself waging an inner battle with himself. One cold and hard part of him, the part that had gotten him this far without losing himself, either by death or descent into madness, recognized that there was more going on here than just his mind playing Krycek-shaped tricks on him, and that there was going to have to be an end to this sometime. He couldn't run forever, but he had to give himself, not to mention his friends and lover, some time to regroup, and plan, and somehow win. Unfortunately, this semi-rational voice was being drowned out by the equally desperate need to run back into the cabin, and dive into the bed with the one man who'd ever made him feel safe and loved, without reservation, without fear.

"There's a path around back," Krycek told him. "Follow it 'til you come to a stream. Cross the stream, go up the little hill there. You'll find a dugout on the other side. The doors and roof are sod covered. It's small, and dirty, but you'll be safe."

At the note of real concern in his voice, Mulder gave him a startled look. Krycek looked almost embarrassed, and he covered it with a gruff tone. "Go. Go now."

"What are you going to do?"

"Well, I won't be taking coffee orders, that's for sure!" he snarled suddenly, and then at Mulder's honestly fearful expression, he softened, and added, "I'll make sure you and Walter live to fight another day." He leaned forward quickly, and pressed a cold kiss to Mulder's lips, shocking the other man, and making him back away, eyes wide. One hand came up to his mouth.

"I waited too long for that." Krycek's nasty grin was back in place, but only for a moment, and then he looked serious and grim again as his hand encircled Mulder's wrist. He pulled his arm towards him, and turned it so Mulder's palm was face up. He placed a small gun in Mulder's hand.

"Just in case," he said. In the silence of early morning, both of them started at the sound of birds taking flight from the trees en masse, and in the far distance, the soft drone of a vehicle engine. They stared at one another for a moment, and then Mulder turned, steadied himself, and started walking quickly to the back of the cabin.

Krycek watched until he was out of sight, then, as the approaching vehicle got louder, he sprinted back into the cabin.


Skinner woke with a start, sitting up and pawing at the end table for his glasses before he was even fully awake. Some sound, thick and sleep-muddled, came out of him and it might have been his lover's name. He fumbled the glasses onto his face, shivered as the comforter fell away from his chest, and looked over at where Mulder was lying asleep beside him.

Mulder wasn't lying asleep beside him.

"Oh, hell..." He reached over, found the bed still warm to the touch, and said a quick but fervent prayer. Tossing aside the covers, he jumped from the bed and scanned the room quickly for his clothes.

He heard a banging sound and it only took him a moment to realize that it was the front door being forced open, and that the snarling word sounds from the living room were not his lover announcing his return from a nature walk.

Instinct took over, and he dove under the bed, just as the bedroom door flew open with enough force to splinter the frame. From beneath the box spring, he could see two sets of combat boots moving quickly around the room. He could hear heavy breathing, and whispered communications and barked orders. He could smell the sweat of the men, the iron tang of their weapons and the sour stink of their clothes. The boots left muddy prints on the hardwood floor. He experienced one moment of sheer blind panic, realizing that they'd been found, Mulder was gone and he was naked save for his briefs. Almost immediately, though, he found himself formulating and discarding plans in an intense yet controlled way that he might not have been able to do if not for his trials in the war, combined with the constant tension he'd been undergoing for months now. Maybe even years. He slid silently to the middle of the bed, foolishly crossed his fingers, and listened.

The men were tossing the room as efficiently as a couple of low rent neighborhood robbers, throwing his and Mulder's things around, dumping drawers and raking through closets. A thump as the mattress was pulled askew, and he bit his lip to keep from crying out.

Then low muttering, and he couldn't make out what they were saying, but he didn't think they were planning a birthday party for him.

Another set of boots entered the room, and Skinner recognized their spit polish gleam as that of a superior officer. More muttering, and he thought he heard them say Mulder's name. Dread filled his stomach like hot lava, and the worry he'd been trying to suppress tried to come up on him like indigestion. He gulped it back, doused the heat of it with cold fury at the situation, then flinched at a crashing sound that told him the mirror over the dresser was now so much shrapnel. The shards crunched under the men's feet as they moved around the room, and then, blessedly, the footsteps started receding.

He waited for long minutes, biting his lip and worrying about Mulder, but at last he felt that the men would not be back, at least not for the time being. Instead of crawling out from under the bed, he shifted carefully to one side, feeling just slightly claustrophobic, but not wanting to take unnecessary chances. He reached out slowly, ears still exquisitely tuned to every whisper of sound, hoping that he wasn't making enough noise for them to hear him, and praying that if they came back, they would be louder than he was. He found a pair of jeans crumpled on the floor and dragged them towards himself, wondering if they were his or Mulder's, and knowing he was going to look pretty ridiculous if they were his lover's.

They were his.

Achingly aware of time passing, not to mention the dread forming icicles around his heart at Mulder's persistent absence, he shimmied into the jeans, waited several more minutes, then eased out from under the bed. He stayed crouched low and tried to ignore the voice in his head that told him no amount of crouching was going to hide him if the men chose to return right at that moment. Instead he concentrated on first trying to remember where his gun was, and then not despairing when he realized the men were between it and him.

"Okay, Walter, new plan," he murmured to himself. "No gun means you need to get one, or get away. 'Cos guns don't kill people, super soldiers kill people." He dashed across the room and put his back to one side of the doorway, then peered out into the hall, expecting a bullet and dully relieved when there was no movement from outside the room. A moment more of listening and waiting, and then a mad dash brought him to the bathroom.

When no one with an agenda that included killing him seemed to notice, he closed the door, turned, and faced the bathtub--and above it, the small window that opened on the back of the cabin, and the woods beyond. He stood paralyzed for a moment, skeptical of the size of the window, not to mention his own ass.

Sounds from the living room, boots and guns and barked orders, got him moving, and he wondered if the window opened easily because Mulder had already done this, or if it was just his own fevered imagination.

Wincing and cursing at every small sound, expecting to get caught at any moment, he stepped into the tub and pushed at the window. A second, harder shove, and the frame shuddered under his large hand. On the third try, wood splintered with a small unpleasant squeal, and he waited for the cavalry charge. When nothing happened, and the echoing of the sound that he imagined he heard had abated, he gave another hard tap to the window, and the whole thing fell out of the wall. If there were men outside, he was done for, and he knew it, but apparently the patron saint of former Assistant Directors was paying attention today, and his actions continued to go unnoticed.

As he worked his way through the small opening, he imagined that he would be getting his ass shot off at any second, and fluctuated between appreciating the grim humor of an ass full of lead, and sick dread at the same thought. He took one moment to wish he'd lost just five pounds more, thought that made him sound like a sissy, and then, with a deep breath, he popped through the window like a cork out of fine wine. He brought his hands out and caught himself as he tumbled to the ground, wincing as tremors from the impact jarred the muscles in his arms painfully. He scrambled to his feet, nearly slipped on the damp grass and weeds growing thick around the back of the building, and cried out sharply when his bare foot hit a shard of glass from the window, which had broken on its impact with the ground.

"Shit," he muttered, again hoping against hope that no one was outside, but not thinking it likely. He limped forward, heading towards the woods, changed his mind and instead hugged the back of the cabin and sidled painfully towards the corner of the building.

When he reached the corner, he took several quick breaths, trying to ignore the throb in his foot and calm his spiraling thoughts, which wanted to send him running in blind panic into the woods, calling out Mulder's name and shrieking like a madman. He blew out the scared air, drew in deep lung fulls of calming nature scents, and turned the corner.

It was a toss up who was more surprised; Skinner, or the military man who apparently was not investigating any noise, but was instead looking for a place to piss. The man held his rifle loosely in one hand, and was singing something off key when he turned and came face to face with six plus feet of strung out former marine. The urine he'd been planning to spread around the grass instead ran hotly down his leg as, with a growl befitting a grizzly bear in full frenzy, Skinner grabbed him around the throat and threw him up against the cabin wall hard enough to nearly knock him senseless. The gun fell from his hand, and Skinner quickly kicked it off to the side. The man began struggling, his hands coming up to slap and claw at Skinner, who ignored the efforts in favor of covering the man's mouth roughly while still squeezing him around the neck. His back protested as he continued to hold the man off his feet, but he ignored that too, and in a few moments, he felt the soldier's struggles grow more frantic but less effective, and then he was suddenly heavier, and Skinner let go and the man collapsed in an unconscious stinking pile at his feet.

Skinner tried to pretend that didn't feel good, and went to collect the man's gun. Once the heavy rifle was snug in his arms, he suddenly felt better, and his thoughts again turned to Mulder. He hoped he was okay, prayed he'd had some precognitive insight into these events and was hiding in the woods. But he was a realist too, and knew there was just as much chance that Mulder was dead on the other side of the cabin, having been surprised by the attack much like the soldier had been surprised by Skinner.

Shots from inside the house made him flinch and run for the front of the cabin, forgetting all his hastily made plans. If they were firing inside, it had to mean there was someone in there fighting them. And there was only one man who would be doing that.

"Mulder!" Skinner came round the front of the cabin and froze as an older soldier, this one apparently far more experienced, not to mention wiser than the man he'd subdued around back, leveled a gun at him and yelled "Drop it!" When Skinner hesitated, the man didn't. He hefted the rifle and took a shot over Skinner's head.

Answering shots came from inside the cabin, and someone yelled. Skinner lowered his gun and the man took a step forward, the barrel of his own weapon now firmly aimed at the other man's stomach. He wrenched the rifle out of Skinner's hands, said, "move", and indicated with the gun that Skinner should walk towards the front door of the cabin.

At the steps up to the door, the soldier walked behind Skinner and pushed him to his knees. "Hands behind your head!" he barked.

Skinner complied slowly, cursing himself, the soldier, and the whole damn situation. His heart ached with worry for Mulder, and he found himself thinking less of his own death and still trying to plan, even as he peered into the gloom of the cabin, where the front door stood ajar, trying to figure out what was going on inside.

The soldier took the steps backwards, watching Skinner and keeping the gun trained on him the whole time. On the porch, he called into the cabin: "Rush! Scott!" A pause, and Skinner realized they were names, not suggestions. "Miller?" The only response was another shot, this one from a distance, not from the cabin at all, and Skinner's worry increased tenfold, as he regretted briefly not killing the man he'd subdued. He watched as the soldier stuck his head into the cabin, and moved to rise as soon as the other man's attention was off of him. He didn't get far.

The soldier leveled the gun again, having let it grow lax in his hands as he called out for his fellow officers.

"Don't even think it, you pathetic old queer," he hissed. Skinner's eyes widened.

"You think we don't know? We know everything about you, Skinner. Everything about you, and Mulder--hell, all of you." He grinned nastily. "This may be just another job, but in about ten seconds, I'm going to take great pleasure in greasing your dirty cocksucking ass."

Skinner couldn't find any rage left in him, just resignation, and a hint of exasperation at not only having his life taken by a man who would in all likelihood never be punished for the crime, but would instead take some stupid pleasure from the act.

The soldier aimed the gun, and in what felt like clear silence, Skinner heard the click of a hammer being drawn back. His last thought was of Mulder, and the first shot rang out.

Alex Krycek stepped between Skinner and the soldier, and the first bullet took him high in the shoulder.

"What the hell--?" Without pause, the soldier shot again. This one tore through Krycek's arm, producing a wince and shudder but nothing more.

"Krycek!" Skinner cried out in shock. The young dark haired man never turned.

The third shot was the kill shot. Right between the eyes, and Krycek fell to the ground. Skinner scrambled forward, ignoring the soldier's command to "Hold it right there!"

There was no blood. Only Krycek, smiling painfully up at him, green eyes clear but quickly losing focus.

"Good luck, my friend," Krycek whispered.

The sound of the shot caught Skinner off guard. He looked up just in time to see the soldier drop his gun as the side of his face seemed to crumple, taking on a caved in look like an empty tin can. This time there was blood, plenty of it, and it gouted out of the wound in the man's head like a fountain. And then the man fell forward, his ruined face hitting the porch with a wet smack. Skinner felt bile rise in his throat at the sound.

Mulder came around the side of the building, smoking gun in his hand, looking pale and scared, but determined, and his eyes locked with Skinner's for an indefinable moment.

Skinner looked back down at the man who had saved his life, thinking of both of them now, Krycek and Mulder, and thinking that he had to get them both some help now, and that he should take charge of the situation.

There was no one there.

"Walter?" Mulder's voice, weak and teary, brought him to his feet. And then he was trying to run, shambling and limping instead, and Mulder was stumbling towards him, and they caught one another in the front yard, crushed each other, tried to climb inside one another. Mouths and arms and tears intermingled. Mulder dropped the gun to clutch at Skinner's shoulders, and Skinner didn't notice when his glasses fell to the ground as he tried to devour his lover, and be devoured in return. Both men recognized the onset of shock in the other, and knew it had to be addressed. Both men realized that there was going to have to be a lot of plans made to end this war, if that's what it was, and that those plans had to be made now. Both men thought of Alex Krycek and wondered what exactly he had been.

But neither of them moved for a very long time...

Chapter 14-Smooth 
"Make it real or else forget about it..."                                   

Mulder heard the snap of small twigs and the crackle of dry leaves and was pleased not to feel the sudden urge to bolt for the first time in weeks. He sighed instead and jammed his hands into his front pockets, then continued staring at the patch of woods in front of him.

To anyone else, this chunk of dirt, weeds and shrubs might have looked just like every other part of the forest, but to Mulder, the woods were full of ghosts.

Skinner came up behind him, wrapped two strong arms around him and whispered sternly in his ear, "Where's your coat?"

"I'm not cold," Mulder replied, just as a cool breeze ruffled his hair and made him a shivering liar. Skinner brought his arms off him just long enough to shuck his windbreaker and drape it over Mulder's shoulders, leaving himself warm enough in his long sleeved white t-shirt, and plaid flannel over shirt. Then he pulled Mulder close to his chest again.

"Better," Mulder acknowledged.

"What are you doing out here, puppy?"

Skinner felt Mulder shrug in his arms.

"Oh, you know...ghost busting," he said with a sad half-grin.

"I don't think any of the bodies buried out here have any stories left to tell."

Mulder didn't reply for a moment, and Skinner held him tighter and kissed him softly on the cheek.

Finally, in a whisper, Mulder said, "What about Krycek?"

"He's not here," Skinner's voice was gruffer than he intended, and he paused, and then said in a softer tone, "He's not anywhere."

"But he was, Walter," Mulder argued, turning abruptly in Skinner's arms so they were face to face. "We have proof. The medicine--"

"You took it all." Skinner's expression added that he was damned happy that Mulder had taken the medicine.

"The food--the generator--" Mulder persisted.

It was Skinner's turn to shrug this time. "Anyone could have done that. Even you. Maybe you just don't remember it."

"The men in the cabin?" Mulder was like a dog with a bone on the subject, had been since they'd come here and buried the dead men that day, both of them still mostly in shock, but understanding what had to be done nevertheless. Neither one of them had mentioned Krycek then, and for weeks now Skinner had deftly avoided the subject of how exactly he had managed not to be shot, refusing to rise to Mulder's often less than subtle hints. He knew that they needed time to heal, from disease, from injuries, from their own tattered psyches. But now...

"They shot themselves," Skinner explained patiently. Hadn't he seen it himself? Mulder had still been kitten-weak that day, still recovering from his near-death, so most of the dragging and the burying had been done by Skinner, and he'd gotten a good, or maybe not so good, close look at the wounds inflicted on the men.

"You have an answer for everything, don't you?" Mulder tempered his words with a smile and an inappropriate kiss on the nose.

Skinner returned the smile. "Almost," he said.

"You sound like Scully," Mulder didn't sound like he was complaining.

"Speaking of which..." Reluctantly, Skinner let Mulder go. "Company's here. That's why I came out here looking for you. I picked up some beer in town yesterday, and, well, it's no A-list-canap-munching-soiree at the Ritz, but it's gotta be better than talking to the corpses."

"Maybe..." Another smile, this one less sad. Another kiss, this one on the lips this time. Then he took the hand Skinner held out to him, and allowed himself to be pulled away. He glanced back once, and could have sworn he saw two dark green sparkles amongst the lighter green and gold of the leaves.

"Walter," he said, his tone deadly serious, and Skinner halted at once. "Do you--" he paused, took a breath, didn't look at his lover and tried again. "Do you think Krycek really came back to save us?" He thought he might have pushed Skinner too far, but the other man turned, gave him a sharp hug, arms wrapped tightly around him, hands stroking up and down his back. He nuzzled his hair, and then looked him right in the eyes, and in a tone warm with understanding, he said,

"No. I think he came back to save himself." A more thorough kiss, this one with soft open mouths and hints of things to come.

Mulder felt himself leaning into the kiss, and was dimly grateful for his lover's strength. When Skinner pulled away, they smiled at one another, and the older man took Mulder's hand again. "Let's go home, puppy."

"You know," Mulder said as they resumed walking through the trees. "That was pretty deep for you, old man."

Skinner almost commented on the "old man" thing, then just shrugged it off with a grin, which Mulder matched, and then a laugh, and a growled "You just wait, and I'll show you who's old."

Their mingled laughter echoed through the trees.


Mulder tensed at the sound of voices as they stepped up onto the porch together. Skinner didn't comment, just tightened his grip on Mulder's hand and led him through the front door.

John Doggett and Ringo Langly were arguing over something, while John Byers tried to interject. Melvin Frohike, meanwhile, was hovering protectively over a diminutive redhead who was sitting in the wooden rocker in the corner and watching the argument with an indulgent smile. None of them noticed Skinner and Mulder walk in until Skinner bent to untie his shoes, and Mulder's attention froze on Dana Scully. He must have made some sort of sound, because she suddenly looked up. Her eyes grew impossibly wide, and all four men looked up when she cried out.

"Mulder!"

"Scully!"

The argument was forgotten for a moment as everyone turned to see Mulder racing forward, while Scully struggled to get up out of the chair. Frohike held out an arm, which she used to pull herself up. She took one step forward on legs still mending from unspeakable alien horrors, tottered slightly like a woman three times her age, and then Mulder was there, taking her into his arms, and her own arms were reaching around his waist.

Scully's tears wet his shirtfront as she whispered his name over and over again. Despite the assurances she'd gotten from Doggett, that both Skinner and Mulder were alive and safe, until she had actually seen him there in the doorway, she realized she had been mentally preparing herself for his death.

Mulder dropped kisses and tears onto the top of Scully's head, inhaled her scent and prayed he wasn't dreaming. Skinner had promised him that she would come, but he'd been terrified to hope for it. He had his own recent ordeal, and the abduction before that to draw memories from, and he knew that some dark part of his soul had thought she'd never want to see him again, that she'd blame him for her own terrifying experience.

Neither of them could pull away. Scully felt a familiar twinge in her ankles, wrists and back, and knew she should be sitting again. Mulder realized that there were others in the room, and that he should be greeting them all. But it was impossible. As best friends nearly separated forever, their universe had narrowed until it was just the two of them.

The Lone Gunmen, not unexpectedly, had decided that this sudden show of strong emotion needed drinks and snacks, and had retreated to the kitchen hastily, with Frohike wiping at his eyes and daring the other two to comment.

The other two men found themselves standing side by side, both watching the scene with a great deal of interest, but polar opposites in expression.

Skinner looked on with a smile of almost parental indulgence, and felt his eyes grow moist when he saw his lover's tears.

Doggett didn't look like he was ready to smile just yet. Cry, maybe, but for far more personal reasons. He knew in that moment that he didn't exist for Dana Scully, and he wondered if he ever would again.

He didn't have to wonder long. Scully pulled back gently, and reached up to cup Mulder's face. They smiled through tears at one another, and Scully pulled her friend down and gave him a loving kiss on the forehead.

"I thought I'd never see you again," Mulder whispered.

At this, Scully turned to Doggett. "John?" she called to him weakly and held out a hand.

He was at her side in a flash, taking her small hand in his large one. Scully looked back at Mulder. "You wouldn't have, if it hadn't been for John."

Mulder made a mental note of her use of the man's first name, then turned a frank gaze on Doggett, who fought the urge to squirm under the intense scrutiny. He returned the look, and for a moment, their eyes did all the asking: John's ice blue and bright with concern, jealousy and obviously strong feelings for the woman next to him, and Mulder's hazel and shimmering with teary prisms, making the gold in them sparkle as he remembered all this man had done for them while working with them, and realizing just how deep his commitment to Scully was. He wondered if Scully knew, and a quick glance at her face confirmed for him that she did.

With a smile, he held out his hand. "Doggett...John, I can't thank you enough for what you've done."

Hesitantly, Doggett shook Mulder's hand.

Skinner came up beside Mulder, and now they looked like the start of some crazy square dance as they stood couple to couple, not speaking for a moment, simply relishing the existence of one another. The spell might have been broken had a caller told them to do-si-do, but was instead ended by Scully murmuring Doggett's name again, and turning to look wistfully back at the rocker.

"Oh, Scully, I'm sorry." Mulder moved to help her, but Skinner pulled him back firmly, wrapped one strong arm around him in a gesture both loving and demanding, and Mulder leaned into him in acknowledgement as Doggett helped Scully back to her chair. When John turned back and caught Skinner grazing Mulder's temple with his lips, the last vestiges of his jealousy fell away. He knew that Mulder and Scully had the best friendship in the world, but that there would always be room for him, as there was room for Skinner.

"Okay, who wants a beer?" Frohike exclaimed, bursting out of the kitchen.

"You buying, Melvin?" asked Doggett.

"Of course." Frohike could afford to be magnanimous while doling out bottles of beer that Skinner had bought. He paused and gave Scully a warm smile. "Tea, Dana?" he inquired softly, and she nodded, still holding tight to Doggett's hand.

"Hey, are there mountain lions up here?" Langly demanded, tumbling gracelessly into the room.

"Oh, man, would you quit it, Langly?" Frohike groused. He was still looking at Scully, but addressed the room as he said, "You can take the geek out of the city but..."

"I'm serious, dude. I swear! I was getting the glasses out of the cupboard, and I saw one in the window."

"You saw a mountain lion?" Doggett was skeptical.

"Well, it's eyes anyway. It was looking at me with these big green eyes. Like it wanted to get in here, and--"

"That's it, no beer for you. You're cut off!"

This made Scully and Doggett laugh, but Mulder tipped a look at Skinner, who was looking right back at him with a matching perplexed expression.

"Mulder?" Scully caught the exchange, and couldn't hide the worry in her voice.

Mulder turned to her with a smile. "No cougars here, Scully, scout's honor," he replied with a smile. "An occasional rat, maybe, but mostly just..." His smile got wider. "Just chipmunks!" he exclaimed.

"The acorn is out there," Skinner intoned gravely, and then they were hugging one another and laughing in almost hysterical snorts and gasps, while the rest of the room stared on in confusion...

Mulder wiped his eyes, which had teared up again, this time from mirth, swiped Frohike's bottle of beer and held it up. "Par-tay!" he exclaimed.

And that's what it was.

Epilogue-What a Wonderful World 
"The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky 
Are also on the faces of people going by 
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do 
They're really saying I love you."

Walter Skinner was sleeping on the porch of the cabin when the call came.

He jumped at the chirp of his cell phone, which seemed unduly loud and inappropriate in relationship to his surroundings. He fumbled for the phone, the chair he was lounging in creaked forebodingly, and the book that had been resting open in his lap slid to the wood flooring of the porch with a soft thump.

"Skinner." The bark was a holdover from a past life, one he didn't need now but one he found impossible to completely rid himself of. He listened to the voice on the other end of the phone and found himself growing more alert. The last vestiges of sleep fell away from him, and the man on the phone said something that made his eyes grow wide behind his glasses.

"Are you sure?" he demanded, running a hand over his bare scalp and across his equally bare chin. The man assured him that he was, and then added something else and a slow grin bloomed on Skinner's face.

"That's about the best news I've heard in months, John," he said, and meant it. A few details later, final pleasantries and promises to visit were exchanged and Skinner hung up the phone.

Bending to retrieve his book, he found himself unable to stop smiling. He smiled at the trees, the birds singing in them, and the chipmunks and squirrels rustling around in them. He grinned at the sky, which had given up the pinks and oranges and reds of dawn (when he had come out here to read, feeling lazy but unable to stay in bed) for a more vibrant blue of mid morning. And finally, as he dropped the book into his chair and straightened out, his grin escalated a notch as he looked into the cabin through the screen door.

Skinner fairly danced his way through the door and around the living room, and then, at a sound from the kitchen, he chuckled to himself and headed in that direction.

Mulder was standing at the sink looking out the window above it. He'd apparently just woken up, as was evidenced by his unfocused gaze and adorably tousled hair. The water was running in the sink, but he seemed to have forgotten he'd turned on the tap.

He was wearing one of Skinner's old shirts, which was hanging on his lean frame far enough that only the cuffs of his hunter green boxer briefs peeked out from under it. His lean strong legs ended in thick wool work socks, one pulled up, the other slouched down, revealing a scar on one slim ankle.

He continued to peer dreamily out at the backyard while Skinner stood in the doorway grinning at him, his muscles tensing as he prepared to pounce.

Mulder didn't stand a chance.

Two hundred pounds of extremely enthusiastic affection tackled Mulder, spun him around before he tumbled into the sink, and lifted him off of his feet.

"What the hell--?"

Mulder's eyes widened in surprise, but were scrutinizing his lover carefully a moment later as he quickly assessed the situation and struggled in Skinner's embrace.

"What are you doing?" he demanded, his tone sharp but not angry.

Skinner set him gently on his feet, put his hands on his shoulders and smiled hugely, head cocked to one side in a way that, in a particularly romantic frame of mind, Mulder might have called "endearingly cute"

But still half asleep as he was, and before that first cup of coffee, Mulder wasn't in a place where he was seeing the cuteness factor of the man in front of him just yet.

"Jeez, Walter, what are you--"

Skinner licked his open mouth, bringing his words to a sputtering halt. He wiped at his mouth and gave Skinner a narrow, suspicious look.

"Are you high?" he demanded.

This made Skinner giggle and kiss the tip of Mulder's nose. He moved to do it again a moment later, and Mulder held up a warning finger, made sure he had Skinner's smiling attention, and closed his eyes, stating flatly, "This is me closing my eyes and counting to t-ten." His breath caught on the last word as Skinner slipped his hands under the shirt, resting them on his hips with warm familiarity. Mulder continued. "And when I open my eyes, I expect to see my surly albeit loveable Walter Skinner standing here, and not this--this 'pod-person'."

Skinner laughed again and his fingers teased around the waistband of Mulder's shorts. He found Mulder's ear with his mouth and the younger man shivered at the feel of his warm breath as he growled. "By the time you count to ten, this 'pod-person' is going to have you naked."

Mulder's eyes flew open.

Skinner kissed him roughly, ignoring his muffled squeal of protest. His hands came away from Mulder's hips and he plunged them into his sleep-mussed hair, holding him firmly as he bit and licked and sucked at Mulder's full ripe mouth. Moments later, Mulder's arms came around him, his hands warm on his neck and the back of his skull, and he let his own big hands drop back down to grasp his lover's hips and pull him tight to his body. Cloth shifted, wordless sounds of need were exchanged, and then, in true caveman style, Skinner wrapped one arm around Mulder, and stopped kissing him only long enough to drag him off to the bedroom.

Without preamble, he pushed Mulder onto the bed and followed him down. He fairly crushed him to the mattress but got no word of complaint as he reclaimed that pliant mouth, pressing tongue and lips into service, drinking in the tastes and textures of his lover as his hands made short work of the buttons on the shirt. Soon enough he was feasting on Mulder's chest, nipping and licking at nipples and navel and feeling himself growing more excited as the body under his fishtailed in ecstatic torment, and groaning affirmations slipped from Mulder's mouth.

Mulder gave up trying to move under Skinner's fevered assault, and instead fumbled with the t-shirt Skinner was wearing, tugging with heated desperation to try and get it over his lover's head and keep Skinner's mouth on him at the same time. It was a losing contest, and he opted to go with the mouth thing and skip the t-shirt thing, especially when Skinner slid further down his body, now pressing soft, almost tender kisses to the satiny skin just below his navel. And when he mouthed him through the soft cotton of his briefs, his back arched automatically and he cried out his lover's name with breathless abandon.

Skinner spent long minutes teasing and tormenting his lover until he could taste Mulder leaking through the material of his shorts, at which point he tugged them down just enough that Mulder's cock sprang free of it's cloth confines, and Mulder gasped as cool air brushed over his erection. Moments later, Skinner's hot mouth replaced the cool air, and Mulder thrust his hips brutally forward with a shout. Skinner took him with ease borne of experience, using his mouth to draw out Mulder's pleasure, knowing just when to lick gently, when to suck roughly, when to pull back.

Mulder was nearly insensate with pleasure, all thoughts centering around the feel of Skinner's mouth, so much so that he was only dimly aware of his shorts being pulled off, and his lover moving off of him just long enough to slip out of his own clothes. Then he was back on the bed, his mouth and hands moving over Mulder's body with growing need, his own impressive erection throbbing between his legs, pressing hot and urgent against Mulder's hip, then trailing wetly across his thighs as Skinner nestled between his lover's legs, forcing them apart easily with his body.

Mulder raised his head and Skinner lifted his mouth from where he had been reacquainting himself with a nipple, and they exchanged slightly dazed grins. Then Skinner was sliding up his body, creating nearly explosive friction, and Mulder found his voice again, begging and pleading with his lover in a strangled gasping voice as Skinner burrowed his way under his chin, nipping and nuzzling his throat. One big hand reached down between Mulder's legs, recapturing his cock and stroking it expertly, while the other clutched his hair just tight enough to hold his head back and allow him complete access to what was definitely one of Mulder's weaknesses.

Skinner felt his hand growing slippery as Mulder's cock twitched wetly in his fist. When he abandoned his grip, Mulder groaned almost painfully, and his hips jerked uselessly. His eyes, which he'd closed as Skinner brought him closer and closer to orgasm, opened wide, the pupils so dark with desire they were nearly black. A moment later those same eyes grew slightly unfocused as Skinner's fingers danced lightly down from his balls to his ass, one slipping easily into the cleft of his buttocks. Something that might have been a prayer of thanks issued like a sigh from Mulder's mouth, followed by a whimper as the same finger lightly circled his opening, then pushed into him suddenly, while the other hand fondled his cock and balls softly.

Again, Skinner prolonged the tease, pausing between stretching thrusts of his fingers to lick at the tip of Mulder's cock, loving the taste of the man as much for Mulder himself, as well as the satisfaction that came from knowing that he did this. He made Mulder feel this way. And knowing too that only Mulder could do this for him, to him...

More begging from his lover and a sweating intensity to his movements, not to mention a tensing of his own muscles, caused Skinner to withdraw momentarily, find lube and condoms, and apply both liberally, one to his lover, making him hot and slick, the other to himself, carefully lest he get carried away in sensation.

He thought Mulder might have whispered "at last" as he glided easily into him, trembling at the way his lover's muscles tightened around him, but any sound he made was drowned out by his own groan of completion. It didn't take long for him to begin thrusting deep into Mulder's body, and when he brushed over the man's prostate, and Mulder cried out ecstatically and began thrusting back just as hard, their wet heated bodies slapped out a rhythm that sang out with more truth and honest emotion than anything heard on the radio...

"I love you, puppy!" Skinner murmured emphatically, pushing Mulder's legs higher in order to reach his mouth and kiss him, hard and demanding.

"Oh god, Walter, I-I love--Oh god, yes!!" came the reply.

"Close enough!" Skinner growled. Mulder shouted out something joyful and wordless, and they came together in a tangle of limbs, cries, twisted sheets and sweat-soaked skin...

"Puppy?" Skinner asked some minutes later, when he found he could breathe enough to form words. When no response was forthcoming, Skinner found himself chuckling under his breath, then moving slowly around as he did a brusque clean up of himself and his lover, pausing only when Mulder cracked open one eye and made a fuzzy sound that might have been his name.

"Pod person says next time you get clean up..." Walter said, laughing again. Mulder's lips quirked up in a crooked grin, but he said nothing until Walter was back in bed with him, pulling a quilt over them and holding him tight, his arms forming both a cushion for his head and a warm weight on his chest. He grinned at his lover and said "Puppy wants to know what that was all about...not that Puppy's complaining, mind you..."

Skinner kissed him softly on lips still swollen from far less tender ministrations, and smiled. Mulder didn't think he'd seen Skinner smile so much. At least not all in one morning.

"I love you," Skinner told him matter-of-factly, followed by "John called."

"I love you too," Mulder found the words easily now. "What did he want?"

Another kiss from Skinner, this one on the sudden crease of worry that flashed across Mulder's brow.

"He's pretty sure the last of the "Operation: Get Puppy and Partner" goons are history, and Langly finally got the last bit of info on you out of the FBI mainframe."

Mulder stirred in his arms, raising his head with a disbelieving grin. "Really?"

"Really and truly, puppy."

Skinner felt Mulder slump in his embrace, and only then did they both realize just how worried he had been.

"That's incredible news," Mulder whispered. Skinner kissed the sigh that followed away.

"No, that's just the good news. The incredible news is even better than that."

"Better?" Now a brow rose skeptically, followed by a short laugh, "Unless you're telling me we're about to go into round two, I can't imagine what could be better. We're safe, Walter...you're safe." As he spoke he ran one hand lovingly across Skinner's forearm.

"Safe," Skinner agreed, then added, almost offhandedly, "And godparents to be..."

This time Mulder sat bolt upright, and the grin that bloomed on his face nearly outshone the sun, so blinding was it in its intensity.

"Scully?" he exclaimed. "She--she--"

Skinner eased him back down into his arms, kissed him again. "John says it looks good, and they weren't even trying...it just happened." As if reading Mulder's mind, he added, "He said to tell you that she said she'd call tonight to talk to you." He felt Mulder settle back, his face taking on a thoughtful expression.

Neither of them spoke for a time, and Skinner thought maybe Mulder had fallen asleep, and was contemplating joining him, when he felt a soft nudge to his ribs, and he caught Mulder's sly glance.

"Maybe we could return the favor..."

"What do you mean?"

Another grin, this one slightly more mischievous. "Well, if we keep trying..."

Skinner shook his head, laughing, "If that ever happens, I'll personally go back and re-open the X-Files," he said.

"I feel free, Walter," Mulder said when he stopped laughing over that thought. "Finally and for the first time. You know?" he gazed at Skinner imploringly, almost willing him to understand. Which of course he did.

"I love you, Fox," he said, knowing he'd be saying it again and again, for a very long time.

Mulder turned in his arms, letting his hands wander over his arms, down his sides, stroking over a hip with a certain proprietous air. At Skinner's quizzical look, he kissed him soundly and gave his ass a squeeze, then leaned in close to his ear and whispered, "If it's a boy, let's name him Sergei..."

This time their laughter mingled, sounding all the more content for the sharing, and when the laughter turned to sounds more carnal, less silly, they were content knowing that they could plan for a future neither one had dared hope for. A future now theirs for the taking.


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