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 Back to Part Three

On Tuesday morning, when Skinner called Mulder's room to ask if he was ready for breakfast, there was no answer. He wasn't concerned, thinking that Mulder'd gotten an early start on his day. He turned on the television and was surprised to see the breaking news report on the taking into custody of the suspected Battersea Killer. The newscaster described Leonard Hugh Jones as a resident of Clapham, unmarried, an engineer working on the redevelopment of the Battersea Power Station, and a frequent volunteer at the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. His photo revealed a nondescript and harmless-looking man, slightly built, sandy-haired and wearing glasses, about 35 years old. The English public would have a hard time imagining such a man as a murderer of children, Skinner thought as he hit the shower. 
Fifteen minutes later, he stepped out of the hotel and set a brisk pace toward New Scotland Yard. At the reception desk he asked for Mulder and then, having been met with a look of incomprehension, for Detective Sergeant Patel or Detective Inspector Jenkins. He was polite but persistent and did not hesitate in using his FBI credentials to good advantage. After a few minutes he was escorted up several floors and then to the end of a long corridor, where he encountered Mulder outside what he presumed to be an interview room.
Mulder was leaning back against the corridor wall, his eyes closed. His face had the pasty look of someone who had not slept well or eaten properly in days. His suit was rumpled and his shoes unshined, and a smudge of dirt ran along his jaw and down onto the collar of his once-white, now dingy dress shirt. Skinner realized that Mulder hadn't started his day early; rather, he'd never ended the previous one.
"Television news says he confessed. Congratulations."
Mulder opened his eyes. "Thanks," he said, his voice slightly hoarse. He pushed himself off the wall. "You know why Jones killed?" he asked. "He was fixated on dogs, thought of them as his children. A parent of each of these kids had all shown hostility to, or abused, a dog. He was punishing them for having hurt or rejected his surrogate children by taking away their real children." 
Mulder's voice had taken on a tone of anguish, and Skinner watched as he turned his head and surreptitiously brushed away a tear. "It's over, Mulder," he said gently. "He can't hurt any more children. You've stopped him."
Mulder dropped his hand and stood a little straighter. "It's not over yet. There are some other open cases, three possibilities, bodies never found. If he did them, I'd like some closure for the parents."
"Leave it to the police, Mulder. You look done in."
Mulder shook his head. "They're good at interrogation, but they just don't have the experience with cases like these. They've asked me to stay. I'm going to stick around for a while, do what I can to help."
Skinner sighed quietly but, in truth, he had not expected any other response. "Have you eaten?"
"Had a cup of really bad coffee. The stuff they make here ought to be handled like toxic waste. And a stale digestive biscuit," he added disjointedly.
"I'll bring you something a little more substantial, and some good coffee. You want anything special?"
"I'd kill for a hit of Starbucks."
"You've got it. How many others should I buy for?"
"Two." He pulled out his wallet, but Skinner waved him off. "Thanks, Walt. This must be a pretty crappy vacation for you, huh?"
"No problem. You're alive and well, more or less, and not there--" he pointed discreetly up. "--or there," pointing down. "Everything else is a walk in the park." The words hung in the air as Mulder's expression turned soft and then thoughtful. He turned away from Mulder's half smile and speculative gaze and headed back outside.
"This isn't the best neighborhood, Mulder. Let's head back." 
Skinner had returned to Scotland Yard with coffee, bacon-and-egg sandwiches, and a clean shirt, all of which Mulder had accepted gratefully. He'd spent the rest of the morning at the Tate Museum, the original one, losing himself among the Turner landscapes and Pre-Raphaelite portraits and trying not to worry too much about Mulder's exhaustion and state of mind. 
At lunchtime he'd walked back to Scotland Yard, waited for nearly half an hour for him to emerge from the interview room, then wrapped his hand around Mulder's forearm and led him out of the building and down the block to a local café for hot soup and a ham sandwich. 
He'd spent the remainder of the afternoon sitting on a surprisingly comfortable bench outside the interview room, reading a paperback copy of a Dick Francis novel. The Metropolitan Police detectives, Jenkins and Patel, emerged separately or together from time to time to visit the men's room, step into the break room to fetch coffee, or just to stroll up and down the corridor. Skinner was aware, each time they passed, of their glances; he kept his eyes on his book and didn't give them the opportunity for small talk. 
Around four o'clock Mulder stepped out and down the hall to the men's room. On his way back he commented, "Haven't you got something better to do?" without pausing long enough for an answer. 
At six fifteen, Mulder and Patel exited the room together. "That's it, then," Patel said. "I think we've gotten all there is to get."
"One more closed," Mulder said. "At first I thought Annie Kilpatrick might be his, too, but now, probably not. Sorry not to be able to close that one out."
Patel shrugged.  "We got Jones off the streets," he said, "and Jamie Ramsay's parents will be able to bury their little boy. Pretty good day's work, all in all. Don't tell the Detective Inspector I said so, but we couldn't have done it without you." He looked over at Skinner, then back at Mulder. "The FBI were right idiots, giving you the sack."
Skinner stood. "We were, and I said so at the time. Are you done here, Mulder? You look exhausted."
"Yeah, we're done." Mulder turned to Patel and they shook hands. "Good working with you, Sanjay."
"And with you, Mulder. Say, did anyone tell you? The powers that be approved a consultant's fee for you. It might be a while before you receive it, however. Bureaucracy, you know."
"They're the same everywhere," Mulder said with a smile, and he and Skinner headed out.
"So what now?" Skinner asked, once they were on the sidewalk.
"You mean long-term, or right this minute?"
"Either. Both."
"I'm hungry. There's a decent fish-and-chips place not far from here. That sound okay to you?"
The place to which Mulder led him was spartan, but as clean and fresh as Skinner supposed a place serving vast quantities of deep-fried food could be. "Cod sounds good," he said, standing back from the order counter and looking over the large wall menu. 
"They do it well here," Mulder agreed.
"What are mushy peas?"
"Ugh, Mulder said, shuddering. "They defy description. But hey, if you want an adventure, go ahead. You can always say you lived to tell about it."
Feeling unusually daring, Skinner did order mushy peas to accompany his cod and chips, and they carried their food and soft drinks to the small eat-in area. The first thing he tasted was the peas, and he was forced to agree with Mulder's assessment. "I don't get it. I like split pea soup. I like fresh peas. But these--"
"Yeah, I know. Yuck."
"That about sums it up."
They ate quickly and with little further conversation. Mulder acted fidgety and spent the entire meal looking everywhere but directly at Skinner. He barely allowed Skinner to finish before he pushed away from the table. "Feel up to a walk?"
"Sure. I'm surprised you do, though."
"I've been cooped up all day with a killer. I need some fresh air."
Since then they'd been walking in a part of the city that Skinner was certain would never be highlighted on any tourist map. They crossed the footbridge over the Thames near Charing Cross and, once they'd passed beyond the immediate riverbank area, there was little of any interest to see. Mulder seemed to know the area despite the lack of recognizable landmarks. He kept up a constant chatter about nothing important, and didn't seem to expect Skinner to contribute to the conversation.
For his part, Skinner could think of a number of places he'd rather be, such as in the hotel bar holding a glass of Scotch. The weather wasn't particularly cold, and it wasn't raining, but there was an unpleasant dampness in the air.
After nearly an hour of walking through increasingly seedy neighborhoods, he stopped in his tracks and said, "We've walked a long way, Mulder. Let's head back."
"Not yet," Mulder said, without stopping. "There's something I want you to see."
They walked on in silence. Five minutes later they stood across from an ordinary street corner pub. This one, he'd swear, was no different than any other working-class bar within a hundred mile radius. Skinner looked at Mulder. "We walked all this way because you want a drink? What was wrong with the last twenty places we passed?"
"Look at the name." Skinner raised his eyes to a sign above the door. There it was, in the ubiquitous old English lettering: Skinner's Arms. "I saw this place a few days ago. We drove past it, on the way to interview Jill Goodenough's mother."
He felt an odd and inappropriate desire to laugh, but then he glanced at Mulder's sad expression and all humor fled. "Do you want to go in? You must be tired. We'll have a beer, sit for a while." He started across the street, thinking of honest English ale that was tasty enough, even though it was served too warm.
"Wait." Mulder's hand stopped his forward progress.
Skinner turned to face Mulder, whose grasp had tightened uncomfortably on his forearm. "What is it?"
"You might not want to drink in there. It's not an ordinary pub."
"Looks fairly ordinary to me," Skinner said, looking at the many-paned windows and half-timbered façade. "Pretty quiet. Must be a slow night."
"Yeah, I guess Tuesday wouldn't be the hottest night for a gay bar."
Skinner looked questioningly toward Mulder, then turned his attention back to the pub. The few patrons who had entered or exited while they stood and watched looked utterly average. All were men in casual clothing. No leather, no screaming queens, no public tonsil-hockey.
"I saw the name, and I thought of you."
Conversation with Mulder frequently bordered on the surreal; he'd gotten used to it. This particular conversation, however, was perhaps a bit more surreal than usual. 
"After the interview, late that night, I thought of you, and I came back here."
Mulder's gaze was steady, as if he was waiting for Skinner to absorb some crucial information from his series of non-sequiturs. What wasn't he understanding? What was Mulder trying to tell him? 
"Then I went in, and saw what kind of a place it was. And I thought of you."
He was startled into a speechless immobility. Was Mulder talking about Skinner's sexuality--not that he'd ever given Mulder so much as an inkling, he was sure; years of practice had honed his camouflage skills to perfection--or commenting on his own?
"So whaddya say, Walt--will you take me to Skinner's Arms?"
He knew what he'd heard, but a part of him still refused to believe. The air around them seemed charged with anticipation. Mulder, the calm center of the whirlwind, continued to look at him. Skinner realized he was holding his breath and exhaled carefully.
Time slowed to a crawl. In a state of altered awareness, he thought back to earlier times with Mulder. As if he were watching a slide show, all the scenes clicked through his mind. Traveling with Mulder on a case; sitting across the desk from him, discussing a 302 or an expense report; standing at his bedside after one of his numerous injuries; or, more recently, in their new-found friendship, sharing a pizza or going for a run. He didn't know how they had come to this moment. Perhaps it had something to do with Mulder's particular vulnerability when he was profiling, his emotions lying so close to the surface and his normal reticence stripped away by exhaustion. Or perhaps he hadn't hidden quite as well as he'd thought, especially these past few days.
He saw himself reach a hand to Mulder's cheek, watched Mulder lean into his palm and close his eyes. And then time stopped altogether for a moment as Mulder opened his eyes, waiting for an answer to a question he had not asked. But--he had asked, hadn't he? The night that Skinner lay on the couch in his office, the nanocytes at work in him as Mulder waited with him for Scully, talking quietly to him. The dark and terrifying period following the discovery of a dead woman in his bed. That day at the Wall. A dim memory--one that he had thought a dream--of lying in a hospital bed, Mulder holding his hand. And the time just weeks ago when Mulder had reached down and pulled him off the floor of the basketball court, pulled him up and a little too close, and held on a little too long. Mulder had been asking for a long time, Skinner realized. He'd been so busy guarding the barricades around himself that he hadn't noticed.
Mulder straightened, leaning away from Skinner's touch. Skinner lowered his hand, rubbing his thumb over his empty palm, feeling suddenly bereft. 
"I came back here that night," Mulder said, "because I didn't want to sleep. I'd reached that point in the profile when the demons come out. The point when the nightmares start to get really bad. The next morning was when I called you. I didn't think you'd come; I couldn't ask you to. But I'm glad you did." His smile was small and almost shy. "I knew what I needed. I needed to be somewhere safe. I needed to be in Skinner's Arms."
The words slammed into Skinner, ripped his heart open and took his breath away. And time no longer stood still but rushed and swooped around him. He stepped forward and wrapped himself around Mulder. Mulder relaxed against him, melting into his arms as if he planned to stay there forever.
"Hey, big guy," Mulder whispered against his ear, "Where have you been all my life?"
He smiled at the cliché even as he blinked away the tears that suddenly threatened. This felt so right, so true. He had wasted so much time. Mentally sweeping aside the regrets, he took Mulder's face in his hands, and kissed him. Mulder tasted of stale coffee under the residue of greasy food, but it didn't matter. Skinner slid one hand behind Mulder's neck and kissed him again, and felt him sway. 
He knew the weak-kneed response wasn't due to passion. "Mulder, you're out on your feet. Time to get you to bed."
"Ohhh, sounds good," Mulder said, running a hand down Skinner's back to his ass.
"I didn't mean that," Skinner said with a chuckle, feeling his cock stir.
"You didn't answer my question."
"What question?"
"Will you take me to Skinner's Arms? Take me in there," Mulder said, raising his head from Skinner's shoulder and nodding toward the pub, "and raise a pint with me?"
"And dance with me?"
"I don't dance," he said automatically. Skinner had always thought himself a clumsy dancer. With a partner in his arms he felt heavy and awkward; gyrating to a rock-and-roll tune made him horribly self-conscious.
"Walter," Mulder said in a dreamy voice. "Please. I want to be in Skinner's Arms, in Skinner's arms. If you get my drift."
Skinner began to laugh. "I should have seen that one coming," he said, tightening his hold on his future. "One beer, one dance--a slow dance--and then we're out of here, okay?" What the hell, nobody would be watching them anyway. Nobody would care about the boner he was sure to develop under the influence of a slow tune and a molten Mulder in his arms. Maybe Mulder would get hard, too. He hoped so.
"Okay," Mulder said, leaning on him even more heavily.
"Okay," Skinner repeated. Once the beer hit, he knew, he would end up having to muscle a semi-conscious Mulder into a taxi, and the prospect didn't disturb him at all. The fear and terrible longing that had so weighed him down were gone, and by the time he and Mulder had reached the pub door he knew that with this man, for this man, he could dance, light as a feather, all night long.
Late in the moonlit night Skinner lay on his side, head resting on one crooked arm, watching Mulder sleep. Shortly after he had fulfilled Mulder's wish to be doubly wrapped in Skinner's arms, he had guided the exhausted and unprotesting man to a taxi and the hotel, and then to bed. The only concession Skinner had made to his own desire was to stretch himself out beside Mulder and hold his hand.
Now, at his side, Mulder sighed and stirred. His rest had not been easy. Even in sleep he practically vibrated with tension. Earlier he had thrashed briefly, crying out incoherently. Skinner had stroked his hair and murmured into his ear and he had whimpered once, then quieted.
Mulder moaned softly and shifted, turning onto his side. He opened his eyes briefly, not really awake, and Skinner took the opportunity to settle himself on his back, pulling Mulder against him. Mulder laid his head on Skinner's chest, draped an arm across his stomach and hooked a leg around his thighs, clinging firmly enough to be uncomfortable. 
"Shhh, everything's all right. I've got you, Fox." He could feel his own heart beating steadily against Mulder's cheek, felt Mulder pressing down into him as if to wrap himself completely in that comforting pulse, and hugged him close. "I've got you. I've got you." The tighter the embrace the more Mulder calmed, until finally Skinner was sure that he must be squeezing the life out of him. "I've got you," he murmured once more, and felt Mulder relax fully into sleep. And so he held him through the night, listening and watching, whispering away the nightmares, keeping Mulder safe in his arms.
Author's Note: There really was a gay pub in Southwest London called Skinner's Arms, just south of Kennington near Oval. Since this story was begun, however, Skinner's Arms has been refurbished and renamed and now is known as the Black Sheep.


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January 2010

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