Cookies. He could smell cookies. Freshly baked, straight from the oven. That could only mean…


“Sharon?” Skinner shrugged off his coat and glanced around the apartment.


“In here.”


He followed the sound of her voice and found her in the kitchen. She was wearing jeans, and a red tee shirt. There was a smudge of flour on her cheek, and her long hair was loosely pulled into a pony tail from which it was trying to escape, stray strands floating around her face in clinging tendrils. Her hands were covered in cookie dough. He smiled at her, stupidly, and she smiled back.


“I’d kiss you, but…” She held up her doughy hands.


“Chocolate chip?” He asked.


She grinned. “Of course. Your favourite. Are you okay?” Her green eyes studied him intently. He couldn’t hide anything from her. He never could.


“Yes. I’m fine,” he lied, finding himself a glass, and pouring himself a large measure of whisky, which he downed in one gulp.


“No you’re not!” She stopped what she was doing, wiped her hands on a cloth, and then placed them on her hips. When had she become so assertive, he wondered? She used to allow him to shut her out but not any more. “Walter, what happened?” She asked. “You look terrible.”


“It’s just been…a difficult day.” He turned his back on her, left the kitchen, and sought the sanctuary of the living room – only to find that she’d followed him.


“Tell me.” She perched on the arm of the couch and patted the space beside her. “Sit down and tell me,” she ordered and he found himself loosening his collar and tie, and sitting down with a deep, heartfelt sigh. The apartment felt warm and cozy, and the smell of baking cookies was divine. He closed his eyes and she pulled his head onto her lap, and gently played with his bare scalp, the way she always did when he was particularly stressed out. He loved it when she did this – her long fingers soothed away the tensions and strains of too many difficult days. He could stay like this forever, the demons kept at bay for all eternity by the skilful stroking of his wife’s loving, caressing fingers. “Walter.” Her tone was low, whispered straight into his ear. “What happened today?” She asked him.


“Too much.”


A jumbled collage of the day’s events sped through his mind, like an out-of-control slideshow. Krycek’s hard, calculating, green eyes became Scully’s strained, tearful blue ones; Doggett’s arm, pressing against his throat, became his own hands, reaching fruitlessly for the palm pilot that tortured his waking nightmares, and through it all there was Mulder, lying on a hospital bed, plugged into dozens of monitors that told a truth it was almost impossible to believe, his skin faded and peeling, hovering somewhere between dead and undead.


“Tell me.” Her fingers soothed gentle waves of comfort behind his ears, and he felt like a cat as he pushed up against her, purring contentedly.


“Krycek showed up.”


Sharon’s stroking stopped, and she sat him up and gripped his shoulders so she could take a better look at him.


“Walter – are you okay?” Anxiety radiated from her eyes, and her fingers were reassuringly painful digging into his flesh.


“I’m fine.”


Her hands moved his face to one side, and she examined the veins on his neck, tracing one long finger over them thoughtfully.


“You’re not fine, Walter. They’re still a little raised. He hurt you,” she said softly.


“Yes. But I’m fine.”


“Did you see a doctor?”


“No…there was no time. I’m fine,” he repeated again, stubbornly.


“You must see a doctor,” she said firmly.


It felt good to have someone care about him.


“Stop nagging.” He smiled, and placed his hands over hers where they rested on his neck.


“I’m your wife. That’s my job.” She placed a gossamer light kiss on his lips and he closed his eyes, drinking in her scent.


“Does it hurt?” She asked him softly, her fingers still tracing the raised veins on his skin. “None of that macho stuff, Walter. I want to know if it hurts when he pushes those buttons.”


Skinner had a flash of the most searing pain- an agony that sliced through every vein in his body, like a knife, cutting him from the inside out and leaving him dazed, dizzy, and nauseous afterwards.


“Yes, it hurts,” he growled, looking down, unable to meet her eye. He knew there was no shame to admitting that he was weak, that he was human, but all the same, he was of a generation of men who shut out their hurt, and dealt with it in silence. They didn’t burden their wives with it. They didn’t burden anyone with it. That, on some level, was part of his very understanding of what it was to be a man. “It hurts like nothing I’ve ever known before,” he told her, his voice hoarse. “It hurts more than all those wounds I got in ‘Nam, more than that shot in the gut I took a few years back. It hurts so much that I just want it to end. It’s gotten to the point where just seeing Krycek makes me want to take a knife and slit my own throat so I don’t have to feel the pain.”


“You’d never do that.” She pulled him close and kissed his bare scalp.


“No. I know.”


“A few years ago you’d never have told me about that pain. You’d have lied, kept it to yourself,” she murmured, stroking his back.


“That was then. Things were different then,” he replied. “I’ve changed.”


“I know.” She held him for a long time.


“There’s nobody else I’d ever tell, apart from you,” he said, his voice muffled by her warm body.


“I know that as well. Tell me the rest of it.”


He was silent for a moment. When had words of this kind ever came easily to him? And yet he needed to tell someone. He had once viewed himself as a simple man, a man of certainties. Knowing Mulder had changed all that for good. Now his certainties were gone – and with them had also gone his peace of mind, and his ability to see to the heart of a problem, to take charge, find solutions, direct operations…he could still do some of those things, but he felt like a liar – he felt as if he was someone just occupying the body of the man formerly known as Assistant Director Skinner. Sometimes nothing felt real any more – nothing except the pain of the nanocytes and the confusion that was his professional relationship with Mulder and Scully. He was a ghost, a wraith, drifting through his life, no longer connected to any of it.


“What did you do, Walter? What did he make you do?” Sharon asked him gently. “You look so…”


“Haunted?” He drew back, raised an ironic eyebrow at her.


She shook her head, a little smile curving the corners of her mouth. “I was going to say lost,” she chided. He gave a wry grunt of laughter.


“Lost. Maybe. It’s true that I don’t know who the hell I am any more.”


“You’re my husband. You’re Walter Sergei Skinner, the man I love – the only man I’ve ever loved,” she told him fiercely. “You’re a good man, Walter. The finest man I’ve ever known.”


“Thank you.” He caught her hand in his, and held it for a moment. “I don’t feel like that man too often any more,” he confided. “Only around you. That’s why I’m glad you’re here. Why I’m glad you’re still with me, even after…” She gripped his hand tightly, and he nodded, unable to continue. They were silent for a while, and then he cleared his throat.


“Mulder needed a vaccine. Krycek was playing mind games with me – offering me the vaccine but at a price. I told Scully about the vaccine and that a price had to be paid to get it, and she said… she said…Scully said we were talking about saving a man’s life, her inference being that no price was too high – but then she didn’t know the price.” He shrugged.


“She only saw Mulder’s life – not yours. Your life was at stake as well today,” Sharon said.


He looked up sharply. “Mulder’s the important one,” he told her firmly.


“I beg to differ. You’re my husband. Your life is far more important to me,” she told him, equally firmly. “Everything is relative, after all.”


“I removed him from life support,” he said, ignoring her words, ignoring everything but the magnitude of what he’d done earlier in the day. He gazed at his hands, which he had used to pull those tubes from Mulder’s mouth, not knowing what the consequences of that act would be. “You see I just had a hunch – intuition – call it what you want. I figured – Mulder was alive for all those months in that coffin, and it’s only now they’ve hooked up to all these machines that they’re worried he’s incubating some alien virus that will transform him into god knows what. So…it was a long shot, but I figured it couldn’t do him any harm, and maybe it could even save him. Without Krycek’s vaccine, there was no other hope for him.” His voice broke and he examined his hands again.


“You always were smart, Walter. I think you forget that sometimes. I was always in awe of the way you handled your job. Did I ever tell you how my heart just swelled with pride at each promotion you got? And you know, it wasn’t because of the prestige, or the money, or anything like that. I used to feel proud because it meant that other people saw you the way I did – they saw your gift for getting the best out of people, managing personnel, organizing effectively, being decisive, making the hard choices and taking responsibility for them…I loved that they saw how wonderful you are too.”


“You’re biased of course.” He gave a faded smile. “But thanks anyway. Next time I have to take a kicking from Kersh I’ll remember what you said. As for being smart… removing Mulder from life support was one hell of a long shot, even for me.”


“What happened?”


“Well he’s still alive, but whether that’s any thanks to me…Scully thinks that maybe my actions saved him but…” He trailed off, and shrugged.


“You did what you thought you had to do. You were between a rock and a hard place.”


“I feel so guilty.” Skinner got up, and paced the floor.


“Why?” Sharon was as still as a statue, watching him.


“First I lost Mulder in Oregon, and then when…”


“Whoa! You didn’t lose Mulder!” Sharon interrupted him. “Last time I looked he was a grown man, perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Did you abandon him when you knew he was in trouble? Did you walk away from him when you knew he was wounded?” Skinner shook his head, silently. “Well then!” Sharon snapped, her tone angry, an enraged lioness defending her mate. “You didn’t lose him. He was taken. You shouldn’t feel any guilt for that. Ever since he was taken you’ve gone out of your way to try and find him. Who was it who mobilized the search for Mulder in the aftermath of his initial disappearance? You. Even Scully said it was pointless, even she had given up hope of finding him – but you didn’t, Walter. It was you who kept all the channels of inquiry open, you who spent every spare hour you had examining transcripts related to Mulder’s abduction, you who kept abreast of every single development in that inquiry, however far afield, so that when Billy Miles turned up you knew his significance. It was you who had Mulder’s body exhumed, you who battled with Krycek to find a vaccine, and you who eventually saved his life by removing him from life support.”


She finished her long and impassioned speech, her eyes shining furiously in the dark room, and he stood there, an expression of stunned surprise on his face.


“You don’t value yourself enough, Walter. You’ve been a good friend to Mulder and Scully,” she chided him.


“It just never feels good enough somehow.” He walked over to the balcony door, opened it, and took a deep inhalation of the freezing night air. “Scully still doesn’t trust me. You know – she didn’t even call me to tell me that Billy Miles had regained consciousness today. She didn’t call me. I don’t know what else I can do to make her trust me.”


“She’s happy enough to knock on your door in the middle of the night to cry on your shoulder,” Sharon commented acerbically. She came up behind him, put her arms around him, and laced her hands together in front of him.


“She’s been through such a lot. I don’t resent…” he began. She squeezed, silencing him.


“You might not resent it, but I do,” she said. “I’m looking out for you, Walter, because nobody else will – you won’t even look out for yourself. You always do this. You always give so much. Are you in love with her?” The question blind-sided him, coming, as it did, out of the blue.


“Who? Scully? No!” He protested.


She squeezed again. “I wouldn’t mind. She’s a very beautiful woman, and she’s vulnerable right now. I know what you’re like with vulnerable women. It’s that chivalry thing you have going,” she teased.


“I’m not in love with Scully,” he told her, staring thoughtfully at the stars in the night sky. “I’m not sure I even know her any more. She’s different these days. She’s so distant. She doesn’t confide in me – not really. When she does…well she talks in riddles. Maybe she confides in Doggett.” He shrugged, feigning indifference, but it did hurt. He’d known her for 8 years, had been beside her through so many dramas and traumas, had, he thought, proved himself, over and over again, had even sold his integrity down the river to find a cure for her cancer even if he’d never told her about that, and yet it was Doggett she seemed to turn to these days – a man she’d only known for a few months.


“It really upset you that she didn’t tell you about Billy, didn’t it?” Sharon murmured softly. “You’d searched for Mulder for months, then arranged for his body to be dug up. It was obvious how much you cared about Mulder’s condition, and you’d just had your veins fried courtesy of Alex Krycek – but Scully couldn’t even remember to call you to tell you something so vitally important.”


“She had other things on her mind.” Skinner shrugged.


“You could tell her about the nanocytes,” Sharon suggested. “Let her know how hard it’s been for you. Maybe she’d value your friendship more if she knew…”


“No,” he interrupted her firmly.


“Why not?” She rested her chin on his shoulder. He gazed steadfastly out of the window. “Ah. I see,” she whispered sadly. “Well I can understand that you wouldn’t want her sympathy. I also know how you feel about your strength residing in silence. Not only that but if you told her she’d probably just distrust you even more and you couldn’t bear that, could you, Walter?”


“I…” He bowed his head. “No,” he whispered.


“Walter, Mulder’s alive. You did a wonderful thing today.” Her hands stroked his arms, and her skin was warm and soft against his cheek. “Scully might not thank you for it, nor even Mulder himself, but you must know that you did a good thing today – many good things. In your heart – you must know it. If it hadn’t been for you, nobody would even have dug up Mulder, let alone brought him back to life.” She moved around him, silent and graceful, and rested her hand on his chest. “You’ve been so brave and strong – I’m proud of you, Walter Skinner.”


“Thank you.” He swallowed hard, the lump in his throat burning him.


“Maybe you should ask yourself why you give so much to people who don’t really seem to care,” she murmured.


He stared at her, his heart jolting in his chest. “They do…” he began, and then hesitated.


“Do they? Or are they so wrapped up in their own little dramas, in their own world of X Files and aliens, and conspiracies, and how they might or might not feel about each other – maybe they’re too concerned about all those things to care about you, Walter. You’ve always been their steadfast friend, the man who has rescued them over and over again, the man who gave up his career to help them, and much more besides, and do they ever say thank you? Do they even really notice your sacrifices? No, Walter. They don’t give a damn.”


“That’s not true!” He protested hotly. “When Krycek first infected me with the nanocytes, they worked hard to find a cure for me.”


“And failed. You died.” She shrugged. “Even if momentarily.”


“That wasn’t their fault!” He remonstrated.


“They had nothing to do with bringing you back to life though! I wonder if they’d have dug you up, months after your burial,” she mused. “I wonder if they’d have kept on fighting for you, even after death, Walter. I wonder if they’d have kept that flame burning for you or whether you’d just have been one more casualty on the pyre of their grand mission. Do you think they would, Walter?” Her face was hard and cold. “I don’t. I don’t think they care for you except as some expedient puppet to support and help them when it suits them, or distrust when it doesn’t. You got shot in the gut for being the man of integrity that you are, for refusing to drop Melissa Scully’s murder investigation as ordered, and when did you ever get any thanks for that?”


“They did thank me…Mulder did say…look, I don’t do these things because I expect to be thanked,” he growled. “I do them because they’re right. I do them because they’re the only just things to do.”


“What about all the other times you’ve come through for them? Fighting Mulder’s informant in that elevator to get information that saved his life? Getting beaten up in that stairwell for that DAT tape, even despite the fact that both Mulder and Scully pulled their guns on you and as much as told you to your face that they didn’t trust you. It isn’t fair, Walter.”


“Mulder covered up for me when I was in trouble over that body I disposed of using his ID. He also tried to haul my ass out of danger when I was accused of…when…” The past stood before them, painful, and bleak. “You know when,” he whispered.


“Yes. Yes I do.” She came to him, wrapped her arms around him again, and held him tight. “I know,” she whispered. “I know.” He had an image of her lying in a hospital bed, her head bandaged, her eyes closed, her body covered in tubes, and he knew the tears were falling down his face. “Hush. It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s okay.”


“That was a dark time. The truth is… I needed people after that. People who understood. People who’d been there…who knew what I’d been through.”


“Mulder and Scully.” She soothed his back with gentle fingers.


“Yes. Christ. You’re right. I am haunted. It haunts me all the time. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. My work placed you in danger and I pushed you away because of it and yet you still cared enough to come and ask me how I was, even after you knew I slept with that poor call girl, and…”


“Hush.” She held him close, rocking him like a baby, just like she always had when he woke up screaming after yet another Vietnam nightmare, and she had never asked him to tell her what the nightmares were about – she’d just held him, and loved him. She would have made a wonderful mother, but they’d never been blessed with children, despite years of trying. Tests had shown that Sharon had blocked fallopian tubes, and he had felt so sorry for her when they found out, and even more sorry because she felt more pain for him than for herself. When the doctor had first told them the news, she had just looked at him, her eyes reflecting a terrible guilt. He had hated seeing that. It wasn’t just herproblem, it was their problem, and he told her so. Maybe if they had been lucky enough to have children, maybe if he’d had someplace to direct his capacity to care, and take care, to protect the weak, maybe then he wouldn’t have become so caught up in Mulder and Scully’s world. Maybe. “As for the call girl…we had been separated for months, Walter. I wasn’t exactly celibate myself during that time!”


“You weren’t?” He looked at her, surprised. She still had the capacity to surprise him even after all this time.


“No…but nobody measured up to you. It just wasn’t the same. Of course I care about you, Walter – and that’s not because I’m a good person, or anything like that. I care because you’re worth caring about.”


“No I’m not. I fucked up, screwed up…somehow I got it all wrong, Sharon. I didn’t see that Mulder was right until too late…”


“Too late?” She said incredulously. “Walter – he was assigned to you during that Tooms case wasn’t he?”


He nodded, his eyes dull.


“And that was a big learning curve for you, but instead of rejecting Mulder and his theories out of hand you took the trouble to get to know him. You cut him some huge slack when he screwed up, and then, on his very next case after that, you took his side, this insubordinate, seemingly crazy young agent, over that of a man your superiors had told you to obey implicitly. How can you see your role in this as being anything less than completely supportive? You’re your own man, Walter, and you came to your own decisions. You weren’t anybody’s stooge.”


“I don’t know. Mulder wanted me to be more…unequivocal I guess.”


“Walter – you gave up your career for Mulder! You were slated to be the next Deputy Director. Hell, you were in line to be the Director. You know as well as I do how much courage and guts it took to walk away from that, because you the truth mattered to you more than your own promotion. How much more unequivocal could you be?”


“I believe in justice.” He gazed at his hands. “That’s all I’ve ever believed in, Sharon. Mulder’s case was just. I had no choice but to support him.”


“I know, and I respect you for that. I hope he does too, even if he never thanks you for all you’ve done for him and all you’ve given up for him – because I know what you’ve done for him, Walter. I know the strings you’ve had to pull and the favours you’ve had to return just to keep him in his job. I’m sure he doesn’t know, because I know you won’t have told him, but he’s a smart man. He must surely have figured it out. You can’t piss off as many important people as he has and still expect to keep your job without some pretty powerful support. Your support, Walter.”


“You’re always on my side, no matter what.” He gave a little grunt, a faint smile hovering on his lips.


“Well someone has to be,” she told him. “Nobody else is – you’re not even on your own side most of the time. You need me, Walter.”


“Yes. Yes I do. Come here.” He pulled her close, laced his arms around her warm body, and nuzzled her cookie-dough scented hair – sweet and strong, just like her. “Do you remember how we used to dance?” He asked her, twirling her around their living room. “Do you remember how good we got during that vacation we took to Mexico in ’85?”


“Oh yes!” She laughed. “Although we had plenty of opportunity to practice as I recall. There was nothing else to do in the evenings! Well, only one other thing – and that was very nice too.” She shot him a mischievous glance, and he laughed out loud, and twirled her around even more extravagantly. “I bet they don’t know you dance so well,” Sharon murmured into his neck.


“Who?” he asked, his footsteps matching hers easily, moving fast, two bodies perfectly in time with each other.


“Mulder, Scully, Doggett…any of them. There are so many things they don’t know about you – such as your penchant for Charles Dickens, your love of good wine, that utterly vicious forehand smash which is about your only skill on the tennis court…oh, and how you give the best back rub a girl could ever want. Hmm, I still remember those days when I was working on the Monkton portfolio, and I was stressed every night. You’d run me a bath when I came home from work, and afterwards you’d wrap me in a warm, fluffy towel, carry me into the bedroom, and massage me with these big, strong fingers.” She moved her hand, the one that was grasping his, drew his fingers to her face, and kissed them.


“Well you had a hard time with that portfolio – and you were always there for me when I came home after a difficult day at work. You’d cook me my favourite meal and not expect any conversation from me except a grunt – I might not be able to cook, but baths and massages I can do.” He smiled down on her lovely face, and tucked a wisp of her long hair behind her ears. “Sometimes I forget how beautiful you are,” he said, loving the feel of her body nestled against his own, and the sheer joy of holding her in his arms. They felt so right together. They always had.


“Mulder and Scully aren’t the only ones who have their own story,” she whispered. “You have yours. We’re a great love story, Walter. I never stopped loving you, even when I left. I was hoping that leaving would bring you to your senses, make you see how lost you’d become, how much you’d shut me out.”


“It did,” he told her, his voice raw, and choking. “It did, Sharon. I knew I couldn’t lose you. I couldn’t bring myself to sign those divorce papers – I never would have been able to. I’d have done anything to get you back. Anything…” He buried his face in her hair. “I love you,” he whispered.


“And I love you too. Always. I didn’t inscribe that in your wedding ring for nothing, Walter.” He smiled, and she patted the ring where he wore it – on a chain over his heart. “Love forever, Sharon,” she quoted.


“Love forever,” he repeated softly.


He closed his eyes and continued dancing. The room was dark – he hadn’t even turned on the lights, but that didn’t matter. Sometimes he could see her better in the dark. He held her for a long time, until she slowly faded from his grasp, leaving only the faintest scent of cookie dough, lingering in the living room, and then he was dancing alone again, as he had been since her murder in that car wreck, years before – one more thing he had sacrificed to Mulder and Scully’s cause, and the most precious thing he had ever had to lose. His feet flew on around the room, moving in time to a tune that he alone could hear. He didn’t blame Scully for not telling him about Billy. He understood what she had been through these past few months, grieving for the loss of her partner. Ever since they’d buried Mulder he had grieved for Scully as much as he grieved with her, because he empathized so much with what she was going through, having gone through it himself. And he understood Mulder, searching for a truth that always proved so elusive, trying to uncover justice in a web of lies. That was the kind of quest Skinner could understand all too well. He ached at injustice. It gnawed at his very soul. He had a deep and abiding antipathy for anyone who acted above the law. The law was his touchstone. He lived for it. Yes, it had been all too easy to care for Mulder and Scully, to care for them with all the reserves of a man who has nobody else left in the world to care for, and a great capacity for caring.


Sharon was hard on them because she saw the world only from the perspective of how it affected him – the man she loved, even beyond death. Removing those tubes from Mulder today brought it all back to him. He could still remember vividly that terrible day a few years before, when the doctor had asked him for permission to turn off Sharon’s life support machine. At first he’d refused, just as he had refused to sign those divorce papers, but Sharon had come to him, and begged him for release from a life she wasn’t really living, so he had finally given his permission. He had watched her slip away after the machine was turned off, had watched her pale face become even paler, and her skin gradually become cold beneath his fingertips, and still he had sat there for the rest of the day, just holding her dead hand. That had been the second time she had come to him. The first time had been in her hospital room, when she had seemingly risen from her coma and given him vital information. She always came when he was hurting, or under great stress, and she felt so real, so warm, so…alive.


“Love forever,” he murmured, moving his feet in time to music that played only in his head. The music faded, and his feet slowed, then came to a stop and he stood there, disoriented. The room was dark and cold, not warm and cozy, and a freezing wind was blowing through the open balcony door. There were no cookies baking, no wife waiting for him in his empty home. He was alone. He thought of Mulder and Scully, together in the hospital, and didn’t begrudge them their reunion.


He knew how hard it could be to ever really let go of someone you loved.


The End





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