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Out of the Frying Pan

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Part One

Ms. McGee

Julia Edmonds grabbed me just as soon as I walked through the front doors of the school. The building was nearly empty, of course, since school wasn't due to start for another two weeks. Staff, however, are required to attend a general meeting every August. This was my sixteenth such meeting since I began teaching at Polk High School in 1987. Julia's been here since '88, and she's my closest ally in the English department.

"Marcy, you won't believe the new man they've hired to teach Government," she hissed in my ear.

"What is he, a newly-graduated college track star? Or a swimmer? I know you like those shoulders, Julia," I winked, teasing her.

She shook her head. "No, no, he's got to be 50, but this is his first teaching assignment."

"Hmm, another beer-bellied reject from corporate America?"

"No, no, just…just wait until you see him."

And see him I did. He sat in the second row of the auditorium, and for a moment I felt just entranced by the way the overhead lights gleamed from his starched white shirt. His shirt which stretched quite handsomely over his arms and his chest and….well. He must have felt me staring because he looked up and smiled. The smile softened his strong, masculine face, and I'm afraid that I blushed before hurrying after Julia and taking my seat one row behind and several seats to the left of him.

Later, during the meeting, he introduced himself as Walter Skinner, formerly employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.. Oh my, I thought. Oh my. And then I noticed the wedding ring on his finger, but I can't say that I was surprised. Mrs. Skinner was surely a lucky woman.

I worked up my nerve and spoke to him after the meeting concluded.

"Excuse me, Mr. Skinner?"

"Yes? And please, call me Walter."

"Walter," I felt myself blushing slightly again, "I just wanted to welcome you to the school, uh, on behalf on the English department. I hope you'll be happy here."

Another one of those lovely smiles molded his face. "Thank you, I appreciate that, Ms. …"

"McGee. But please call me Marcy." I paused. "Have you and your wife just moved to Fairfax?"

He frowned slightly and then seemed to shrug. "We actually moved here about a year and a half ago, after I left the Bureau, but we, well, I lived in Crystal City before that, so we didn't come far."

"Does your wife work as well? Up in DC?"

Another frown, deeper this time. "No, ah…" He appeared to be searching for some way to answer my question. A moment passed, and his formerly warm brown eyes turned cool. "Not at this time." He looked away. "If you'll excuse me, Ms. McGee, I need to get home."

"Of course." He nodded at me and left, walking briskly toward the front doors and the parking lot beyond. A mystery, I thought, and I do love mysteries.

Part Two

Gail Carter

So, I sat in home room, looking over my schedule. Physics, Calc. I, AP Chem., English 12, AP Government, Russian III, and a study hall. I didn't really want the study hall, but I also didn't want another non-honors class pulling down my GPA. Government was second period, scheduled right after this extended first-day-of-school homeroom period, and I'd heard that there was a new teacher. Some guy.

I figured the class wouldn't be much of a challenge. The old Government teacher had a reputation for letting the AP seniors off easy, and I figured this guy would be in that nicey-nice new teacher phase.

I sized him up as I walked into the classroom. Kind of old, older than my dad, probably. Bald. Tall. Built. Nicey-nice, well, maybe not. Everyone sat down, still talking, mostly not paying attention as he walked around the periphery of the room to close the door. He returned to the front of the room and cleared his throat. No reaction. Everyone kept talking.

"Conversations to a close, people!" His voice came out in a low growl, cutting through the noise in the room. Silence suddenly fell, and all eyes turned to look at him. He gazed back at us, scowling slightly. "Thank you."

He grinned a little, wryly, and continued on in a normal tone of voice, though the whole room still vibrated with tension from the sound of his voice. Involuntarily, I pulled myself up straighter in my chair and, suddenly realizing that my mouth hung open, I shut it with a snap.

"Since today is our first day together, I thought we'd work on introductions. My name is Walter Skinner. You can call me Mr. Skinner. This is my first year teaching, and I'm very pleased to be here. I look forward to getting to know all of you over the course of the year."

He took a few steps and undid the top button on his pale yellow shirt. "As one of my two Advanced Placement classes, I'm going to expect a lot from you. I know that this is your last year here, and that your minds are already elsewhere, but I expect you to learn. I'll try to make it as interesting as possible.

"As for what I know about Government, well, I've been a part of it, or served it, nearly all of my adult life. I was in the Marines, and then I got my BA in History from U. of Texas and my law degree from Baylor. I worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in DC until, well, close to two years ago now."

He looked around the room silently for a moment. As his eyes slid over me, I felt that I had been cataloged, the details of my face noted for future reference. Then he gave us another smile, and he really does have a nice smile.

"As I said, I'm glad to be here. One thing I want to make clear is that I am always open for questions, during class or otherwise. If I'm going too fast, and you don't understand something, if you need help, if you want me to cover something in more detail, I expect you to let me know. Does anybody have any questions right now?"

One of the idiot popular boys in the back raised his hand. At Mr. Skinner's nod he asked, "How do we know you're not still working for the FBI, like, undercover or whatever?" His friends chuckled moronically.

Mr. Skinner raised one eyebrow and cocked his head to the side. "If I were undercover, do you think I would tell you about working for the Bureau? Think about it. Any other questions?" The room remained quiet. "Okay, now it's your turn to introduce yourselves to me. Let's start over here by the door. Stand up and give me your name…"

The rest of the period passed slowly, and then we were back out in the hall, moving on. I found myself looking forward to second period the next day and wondering just how else I might have underestimated my new teacher.

Part Three

Frank Walczak

All I wanted to do was get to Geometry.

"Fraaaaaankie!"

I heard him calling from behind me, but I ignored him, just kept walking toward the doors at the end of the hall.

"I know you hear me, Frankie."

Fuckhead, I thought. Asshole. Leave me alone.

I had nearly reached the end of the long row of lockers, not far from the doors.

His next words came in a stage whisper. "You better be listening to me, faggot."

I bit my lip and just kept going. Asshole. Asshole.

"Turn around and look at me you dickli--hey, man!"

I heard him stumble back against a locker, the metal rattling behind him. His voice rose up out of its harsh whisper to protest against some intrusion. Finally reaching the end of the hallway, I ducked behind the last locker and peered behind me.

My first thought, seeing Mark Lopez backed up against the wall, was that he had always seemed so tall to me. He'd always loomed over me, whispering, taunting. The man, that new teacher, wasn't even touching him. He stood about two inches in front of Mark, glowering down at him, the fluorescent lights glinting off his glasses, his fists clenched, the muscles in his arms bunched under his long-sleeved polo shirt.

He was fabulous.

He stepped a few more inches back from Mark and shook his head, like he was trying to clear it of something. "I don't want to hear language like that in this school." He spoke in a low, dangerous growl. "And I don't want to see you near that young man. I get wind of this happening again, you'll be in serious trouble. You understand me, boy?"

Mark nodded his head rapidly, still pinned to the lockers by the man's penetrating glare.

"Good. Now, get to class." He looked down the hall at me and nodded his head once. "Get to class."

I hurried through the doors and into the math hallway and finally into my class. Too bad I couldn't concentrate on angles and proofs. All I could hear was his voice, intimidating my tormentor. All I could see was his strangely comforting bulk, stepping in so casually to save me from another day of hell. And his nod, there at the end. Maybe I was just deluding myself, wouldn't be the first time, but I felt in that nod a measure of approval that warmed me inside for the rest of the day.

I realized that I didn't even know his name.

Part Four

Josh Thompson

This might be a little TMI, but the fact is that I have a bladder the size of a fucking walnut. One of these days I've got to remember that before I buy a large Coke to take into a two-hour movie. Actually, today might be that day because I so did not want to see what I saw on the way back from the restroom.

Zack, Geoff and I went to see the latest Bruce Willis movie, and I left at what seemed like a pretty boring point. When I came back, it was in the middle of an outdoors scene, sunlight flooding the screen, light spreading out through the theater. I stood in the back for a minute to let my eyes get used to it, and I was looking around, trying to remember where the guys were sitting.

And then I saw the light--reflecting off the top of Mr. Skinner's goddamn head. He was kissing someone, and I thought, aw, nasty, I hope my parents don't… That's as far as I got before the dark-haired person pulled away to reveal a pretty big nose and a serious case of five o'clock shadow. A man! A man!

I thought for a minute that I must have lost it, that I had the wrong guy. But I looked closer, and I have pretty good eyes, the best eyes of anyone I know. And I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that Fairy #1 was none other than Mr. Skinner, my Government teacher.

I ran down the aisle to our seats and crashed in between Zack and Geoff. "Oh, holy shit, holy shit, man," I whispered.

"Would you shut the fuck up, Thompson?" Geoff, my man, is always to the point.

"Mr. Skinner's here."

"So, what? You skip class or something?"

"No, you moron, my dad would kill me." Hell, he'd probably catch me and send me back to class. "Listen, listen, he's back there sucking tongues with some guy."

Geoff snorted. "No fuckin' way. Probably just some ugly chick, his wife or something."

"Only if his wife has to shave, you asshole."

They both shut up for a minute and just looked at me. "Holy shit," they whispered, in sync, after they'd processed the facts.

"That's exactly what I said."

Part Five

Coach Thompson

I figured I'd be able to find him in the weight room. He's been there almost every day, lunch period C, pumping iron. Hell, if I were as dedicated, my wife wouldn't have to keep buying me bigger shirts. He always struck me as an ordinary guy, Fibbie past notwithstanding. He'd turned down my invitation to poker night, but he acted like he wouldn't have minded coming another time.

When Josh told me what he'd seen at the Megaplex, I thought he was pulling my leg, but he didn't act like he was kidding, and I like to think I know if my son is telling the truth. Walter Skinner all over some guy. Jesus Christ on a pogo stick! I didn't exactly know what to do with that knowledge, but I figured I owed the man the respect of asking him to his face.

Just as I figured, he was planted under a barbell, lifting with his usual good form. Even knowing what Josh had seen, all I saw was a middle-aged bald guy in a t-shirt and sweats. He didn't look like any kind of homosexual to me. But I needed to hear from him what was going on, so I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me.

Hearing the door snick shut, he finished off his last rep and sat up. He wiped his face and looked over at me. "What's going on?"

"I need to talk to you, Walter."

He exhaled loudly. "I told you, Carl. I just don't have time to coach a team. Maybe next year, I don't know. I'm needed at home too much right now."

Christ. "Actually, it's that home bit I wanted to ask you about." His eyebrows shot up, and his eyes hardened on me. "Hey, I heard something, and I'm trying to be up-front with you here."

He nodded tightly and stood up across from me. "Go ahead."

"Are you--" I hesitated, wanting to be politically correct. Contrary to my wife's opinion, I am not an ignorant throwback. "Are you gay?"

"Excuse me?" His voice turned low, almost threatening.

"Some kids saw you with a man this week-end." He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "So, I didn't know what to believe. I thought I should ask you if--"

"Am I now or have I ever been a homosexual?"

I sighed. He wasn't making it easy for me, not at all. "It's not like that, okay? I just don't like to hear unsubstantiated rumors flying around about good men."

That seemed to appease him, slightly. "I'm telling you this because you asked and because you seem like a decent guy, Carl, not because I have to. Yes, I'm involved with a man." He paused, taking a deep breath, then held up his left hand. "This ring says that we're as married as the law will allow us to be. I had a wife for 17 years, but she died several years ago, now. I guess you could say I'm bisexual." The last sentence was added more quietly than the rest.

My eyes about felt like they wanted to bug out of my head, but I kept myself in line. "Okay, fair enough."

"Is this going to be a problem?" The undercurrent of threat returned to his voice.

"Well, I'm not going to be telling tales, but I'm not going to say that this won't get around either. Those kids saw you on Friday night. By now, it'll have worked its way through the grapevine. You won't see it in the school newspaper, but short of that, well…"

"I get the picture. I do appreciate your discretion, however. And your honesty."

"Not a problem. I've got to ask though--if you don't have a wife and kids to contend with, why can't you work with me on one of the teams, here? The Fighting Hickories could use your help."

He sighed, looking away. "My…friend, he's not exactly well. I like to be there with him in the evenings."

I jumped headfirst into the first available conclusion. "Oh, ah, I'm sorry."

He smiled a little, surprising me. "It's not what you're thinking. He was an FBI agent, as well, and…he was injured very badly. He's coming along well, which is why I told you maybe for next year. I really wouldn't mind getting involved. I don't even box as regularly as I used to."

"You like to get inside the ring, huh? We should match gloves some time, what do you think?"

He laughed, probably the first real laugh I'd ever heard from him. "Sounds good, Carl. Sounds good."

Part Six

Fox Mulder

He always calls me at 12:30. Every day, without fail, since he started teaching, the phone rings at half-past the noon hour. If I were a stronger person, maybe, I would make him stop. It's ridiculous, really, one grown man calling every afternoon to check up on another grown man.

Except it's not--not ridiculous--my practical side reminds me. Who, after all, could forget the afternoon when he arrived home at 12:50, after a no doubt break-neck race home, to find me standing in front of an empty pan on the burner. Empty because the water had all boiled away.

He didn't want to go back to work after that, but I made him. He needs that job. Not so much for the money, though insurance is certainly a factor, but more for his sense of himself. I know psychology, and I know Walter. He spent better than a year as my own personal nursemaid, hand holder, and physical therapist. He says he didn't mind. He says he wouldn't trade that time for anything, and I try to believe him.

Nevertheless, I've never seen him as happy as he is now. I was shocked when he told me he wanted to become a high school teacher, when he spent all that time, some of the many hours I spent asleep in those early days, taking classes online to get the appropriate certification. But now he comes home from work, and he's happy. Honestly happy.

And I'm glad to have the house to myself during the day. Most of the time. Now that my book is out, I have more free time, but I'm freelancing some for the Gunmen and sketching an outline for my next book. The day he found me in front of the stove was an aberration. I rarely lose time these days, and when I do it's usually in the evening when I'm tired. I check my watch often, though I try not to get obsessive about it, try not to let it rule me.

When they finally returned me, nearly two years after my disappearance in the Oregon woods, I was in a coma and had multiple injuries with mysterious origins, much like Scully's condition upon her return all those years ago. I don't remember any of this, of course. It's lost time, most of it, utterly lost. Six weeks passed before I found my way back, back to Walter.

When the hospital released me, he took me home to his condo in Crystal City, where we stayed until we bought our house here in Fairfax. Even though my physical condition had markedly improved, the doctors wanted to keep me…in the psych ward. Post-traumatic stress disorder, they said. Possible schizophrenia, catatonia, depression, anxiety. A whole mixed bag of neuroses and psychoses.

PTSD? Fuck yeah, an old friend of mine. It's under control. Depression? Yes, to some extent, but highly situational in nature. Anxiety, yes, I admit, yes, but Walter's strong arms calmed me far more than the Xanax and the Ativan ever could.

They clung tenaciously to the schizophrenia diagnosis, those doctors. The fact that the man who wanted to take me home and care for me seemed to share my delusions about aliens and government conspiracies did not cheer them. They wanted to dose me with Risperdal or Clozaril. I've seen people treated with the anti-psychotics, and it's not pretty. They're dosed, and they just seem to blur, melting into their chairs. Talk about lost time. Lost fucking minds. I don't want that. I never want that.

Catatonia. My…episodes…are not pleasant for myself or for the people around me. For me, the difficulty is in the aftermath. The experience is like time folding in on itself so that one moment, say 2:45, leads seamlessly to another--2:53, or perhaps 5:18--with nothing more jarring than the slight bump of a needle slipping over a groove.

In the beginning, when the episodes came several times within a day and my general grasp on reality was not so tight, the realization that I had lost time often sent me skidding headlong into a panic attack, necessitating Walter's calming influence or, in his absence, the drugs. I'm able to hold it together most of the time now. When I'm alone in the house, I keep an eye on the clock to monitor myself.

Walter, of course, watches me like a hawk when he's home. He told me once that, watching me during one of my lost time episodes, he always felt that in those moments I was still gone from him, still in the stars, on the ship, still lost in the deep blackness of my disappearance. When I no longer lose time, I suppose, I will then truly be returned--to myself and to him.

I feel like I'm closer every day.

That day, that Monday that things blew up for Walter--for us--I was having an excellent morning. The mail contained an advance copy of The Fortean Times, which gave my book The Truth Unknown an extremely favorable review. I sorted through my files, pulling out documents I wanted to reference in the first chapter of the new book and then heated up a can of soup for lunch. As I tossed the dishes in the sink, the phone rang--12:30.

"Fox." His warm, rich voice never fails to stir me. Even when I'm deep in cold, black nowhere-land, his growl wraps itself around me and brings me home.

"Hey, Teach." I grinned, knowing he would be able to hear my grin over the phone.

"Oh, Jesus, Fox," he whispered, and that stir of lust inside me turned to cold dread.

"What? What happened? Are you--"

"I'm fine, I'm fine, just… Damnit, Mulder, someone saw us at the movies. A student."

I didn't understand. "So what? Teachers can't go to movies with their friends?"

He blew out a breath. "They saw us kissing, for Christ's sake." He paused, and that cold expanded within me. "One of the coaches gave me a heads-up, but it's all over the school. People are talking about me. About us."

"Okay, okay, well, they can't fire you for this, can they? You haven't done anything wrong."

"But they think I have. I think some of them believe I'm cheating on my wife."

I couldn't restrain a brief, sharp laugh at that. "Are you serious? That's hilarious!"

He remained quiet for a moment, unsettling me. "It's not funny, Mulder. I was faithful to Sharon, until we separated. I'm not--I'm not the kind of man who would do that, and I don't like people thinking it of me!"

His distress, coming at me across the phone lines, was very real. The sharp stab of guilt instantly took away any humor I found in the situation. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for this thing between us to ruin anything for you."

"This thing between us?" I cringed, rolling my eyes at the impending reaction. "I hope to God you know that this relationship is more than a 'thing,' and if I could come home right now I would make damn sure you know."

"I--come on, Walter, you know what I meant. I know exactly what we have here, and I'm still sorry it's got you in trouble."

"This is not your fault," he growled at me before repeating himself softly. "This is not your fault. I love you. Having you in my life means everything to me, but damnit! These people were starting to respect me, and I'll never be able to do anything here if they don't respect me."

"Well…" I thought quickly, grasping for a plan. "You have to tell them about us. Tell them the truth, and they'll respect you for it. These days, there are three states where we could be married. Once they find out how boring we are, the scandal will be over in a few days, and 90% of them will forget all about it."

He didn't reply right away, and I listened to him breathe. "You're brilliant. And right, as usual."

"Of course I am." I grinned again. "So, what are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to see if I can get a meeting with the principal. And then, assuming she doesn't have any objections, I think I'm going to talk to my classes."

"You're going to do great. Call me again if you need to. I'll take the cell phone with me when I go out on the bike." The ultimate humiliation--between the encroachment of middle age and my physical deterioration during my disappearance, my knees were shot to hell. I'd had to give up my old love, my favorite release--running--in favor of bicycling.

"Fox…" I knew what argument would come next, but a distraction for him was welcome. "I really wish you would wait until I come home so we could ride together. What if you--"

"When you come home, it's getting dark, and I like to be out in the sunlight. Besides, I need to do this. If I stay in this house all day, every day, you really will need to take me back to the hospital. I'm careful, and I stay close to home. You know all this."

"And you know how much it makes me worry, but you do it anyway. We bought that stationary bike--"

"--and it's a lifesaver when the weather's bad, but I need to be outside sometimes. This is one you're not going to win, Walt."

"Okay, I'll leave it. For now. I'll see you in a few hours."

"Go get 'em, tiger."

"Thank you for pulling my ass out of the fire here."

"Just returning the favor."

"Be careful."

"I love you, too." Hanging up the phone, I retrieved our collection of take-out menus from the fridge door. That night would be a good night to order in something nice, not pizza or Chinese, and recover together in peace.

Part Seven

Principal Golden

I had just taken a bite of my sandwich when the phone rang. My assistant's voice on the other end surprised me, considering that she had practically pushed me into my office and promised not to let anyone bother me for twenty minutes.

"It's Walter Skinner, Jean. He's being particularly insistent."

Oh, indeed, I thought, licking the mustard from the corner of my mouth. So he'd heard the rumors. A man who likes to face things head-on. Excellent.

"Send him in, Ellen."

A moment later, I heard a brief knock on my door, and he entered. He took the seat across from my desk, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "So how's the weather on that side of the desk, Walter?"

His lip twitched, as though he almost wanted to smile. "A little muggy today, to tell you the truth."

"So?"

"So." He crossed his legs and then uncrossed them. "I suppose you know why I'm here." At my nod, he continued. "I'm here to tell you that it's true. I have a male lover. We're committed to each other."

"And he gave you that ring?"

His jaw tightened, but he answered. "Yes."

"What do you intend to do about it?"

"I'd like to be open with the faculty, anyone who's interested, that is. As for the students, well, I don't imagine I can hide it from them now. I would prefer to be able to discuss it in an appropriate manner, but I'll cooperate if you ask me not to. I'm not ashamed of what I am."

"I should think not."

He blinked for a moment, looking slightly poleaxed, before recovering. "I--thank you."

"There's something I'd like to tell you, but I need your strict assurance that you won't share this with anyone--anyone outside your home, at least."

"You have my word." His solemn, clear-eyed reply gave me no reason to doubt him.

"My lover Catherine and I have been together for six years. We're unable to come out of the closet, and we don't live together. I'd like to try for the superintendent's position when Dr. Landry retires in a few years, and Catherine is planning a campaign for a seat in the State Senate. This is a conservative state, as I'm sure you know, and our position is precarious. We've agreed to place our ambitions before our relationship."

He nodded at me, his dark eyes peering at me through his glasses.

"You're in a different position, of course. With your experience, you could be making a whole lot more than what the school district pays you; I'm well aware of that. The rules say that a teacher can't be fired for his sexual orientation, so your position is safe enough even if certain members of the school board won't be very happy." I paused, wondering whether I should indulge my curiosity.

"May I ask, were you involved with your lover while you were still with the FBI?"

"We…we were involved, yes, but we couldn't be together publicly. He was an agent with the Bureau, actually."

"Oh." Indeed. "That must have been difficult. You never did tell me why you decided to leave your former position."

"Fox, my lover, was very nearly killed." His eyes unfocussed for a moment, gazing at the wall behind me, before his again-sharp eyes caught mine. "When I got him back, I realized that he was far more important than my career."

"That must have been a very difficult decision."

He replied softly, "No, not at all."

Well. Time to get back to business. "In any case, you are certainly free to be frank with your fellow teachers, if you feel like confiding in them. As far as the students go, well, we won't be holding an assembly or anything."

He laughed, a low, rich chuckle. "What about my classes?"

"They're seniors, so…I think they can handle it. Within reason, of course. You are not to become this school's answer to Dan Savage."

"Mmmm, I don't see that happening."

"Very good. If you have any serious problems with this matter, I expect you to bring them to me. Now, if you don't have anything further to discuss, I have about five minutes to finish my lunch before my next meeting."

"Thank you, Jean." He stood up and moved toward my door, pausing momentarily. "Good luck with everything. I truly hope that you never have to re-examine your priorities."

Walter's a good guy, but I have to say that I despise unsolicited advice.

Part Eight

Ms. McGee

I paced back and forth through the staff room, nearly wringing my hands in frustration. "Julia, I just can't believe this! I can't believe it! He seemed like such a nice man! Cheating on his wife? With a man, for Pete's sake?"

"Well, maybe--," Julia started in with another of her placating arguments.

"No, no, I just don't think it's true."

"Marcy, how do you even know he's really married?"

"I saw his ring." I always notice wedding rings on handsome men. "And I saw her. A petite red-head and a good bit younger than him, so I can't imagine why he would run around on her. He seemed so nice!"

The idea that our Walter Skinner might have a male lover was certainly shocking enough on its own. I personally have nothing against gay men, but a man like that, well, I have to admit that it feels like a terrible waste. That aside, I could see past the homosexuality, but infidelity is something I just cannot bear. I see very clearly in my mind the image of him hugging that small, strong-looking woman in the parking lot, and then I try to summon to mind a picture of that same man having an illicit affair with a stranger. I was simply incapable.

Julia sighed. "Maybe he is nice, Marcy. You know we very well might not have the whole story. You should know by now not to trust rumors passed by students."

"I wish you would stop being so sensible." I continued pacing. "I just can't think why someone would make this up about him, of all people. They talk all the time about Andrew," the Latin teacher, "but Walter is hardly the type."

"And what do you know about 'the type'?" Julia can be infuriatingly superior at times.

But she had a point. "I saw Torch Song Trilogy."

Julia pursed her lips and looked at me pointedly. I stopped pacing and closed my eyes, taking a deep breath.

"Okay, okay, but I still can't believe he's the kind of man to run around on his wife." I could heard Julia whispering my name, but I ignored her. "I know I'm obsessing here, but I just can't see him taking off with some man."

The deep rumble of a throat clearing interrupted my train of thought. With a cold thread of horror uncurling in my chest, I opened my eyes and turned around.

Walter Skinner. Oh, goodness.

To my utter surprise, he didn't look angry. Only sad and a little shut off. I had no doubt that he'd heard the rumors and knew exactly what I had been ranting about. I took a deep breath and swallowed my terrible embarrassment. "Walter, I'm terribly sorry--"

He waved a hand to stop my explanation. "It's okay, really. I shouldn't…" He paused, lifting a hand to rub at his smooth forehead. "I should have expected that this would get out sooner or later."

I didn't want his words to make sense to me. "You're not saying it's true?"

He sighed, rubbing at his head again. "It's not what you think. I'm not ashamed of this. I just didn't want my life to be a public spectacle." He sighed, deeply. "But it's too late for that." His look encompassed both Julia and me. "I don't have any wife to cheat on. The man I was seen with is the man I live with."

I gasped. "But your ring? And the woman who came to see you?"

One corner of his mouth twitched in what tried to be a smile. "The ring was given to me by Fox. The woman is a friend, a former colleague. She was Fox's work partner for several years."

Oh my goodness, I thought. Oh my. Julia remained frustratingly silent.

"His name is Fox?"

Walter nodded.

"That's a very unusual name, but this is the second time I've come across it recently." I nudged Julia. "I noticed it on the cover of that book you brought in last week. Your latest UFO book, by Fox somebody. Remember?"

To my chagrin, the tense man beside me broke out into laughter, nearly bending over at the waist with the force of it. Julia straightened and spoke to him for the first time that afternoon. "There's no need to make fun of my reading habits, thank you."

"No, no," he tried to catch his breath. He brought his laughter under control and turned to Julia with a grin. "That book was written by the man I live with."

And I heard what he did not say, because it shone from his dark brown eyes: The book was written by the man he loves.

My breath caught in my throat as I realized how I had jumped to so many conclusions, ignoring all sense, and in the process, maligned and hurt a good man. Though I felt like a fool, I knew that I needed to say something to him, to make amends for my horrible gaffe. Reaching out a tentative hand, I touched him on the sleeve, just a fleeting brush of my fingers, and looked him directly in the eye. "Then I know one thing, your friend is a very lucky man, indeed."

When his eyes crinkled in response and he smiled warmly, I realized just how accurate my words were.

Part Nine

Frank Walczak

I told my dad that I had to get into school early for a newspaper meeting so that he would give me a ride. He wasn't too pleased with the last-minute change in schedule, but he knows I need my activities if I'm going to get in anywhere decent. I like being in the school early in the morning because there's hardly anyone around, and I can almost pretend that I own the place.

When I've come in early before, actually for newspaper, I noticed that He was here early, too--to get ready for first period, I guess. I know it's sort of freakish, but I can't help thinking of him as Him. Mr. Skinner, the Government teacher who got Mark Lopez off my ass. I mean, Mark did threaten to kill me when he ran into me outside the Blockbuster that one time, but at least I don't have to deal with it every day.

When I heard yesterday that He was gay, I just thought that there was no way, like I was hallucinating or something. Because, well, obviously it's no secret about me. Hasn't been a secret since I kissed Jason Feldman at the eighth grade dance and then the class historian took a picture and posted it on her website. I swear, I wanted to die.

Jason's parents moved that summer--to Texas--so he only had to deal with it for the last couple weeks of school. My family's not going anywhere, unfortunately for me. I mean, I guess I'm lucky, in a way. I could have been in school ten or twenty years ago, and that would have been a lot worse. The majority of kids here don't really care all that much, and my parents haven't thrown me out of the house. But that very vocal minority makes me wish that there were some kind of all-gay magnet school. In New York City.

I got there early that day because I wanted to ask Mr. Skinner if the rumors were true. All I had to do, once I got to school, was work up my nerve. I walked down the social studies hallway, past his classroom, and saw that He was inside, sorting through some papers. Not pausing, I walked on past, to the end of the hallway.

Just around the corner, I stopped and looked at the wall.

"Hello, Mr. Skinner, my name is Frank." I mumbled to myself, rehearsing the lines. "My name is…God, that sounds stupid. Mr. Skinner, I'd like to…no. Mr. Skinner, gah! He's so intimidating! Sir, um, sir, can I speak with you for a moment?"

I looked at my watch, realizing with horror that there were going to be a lot more students in the halls in ten or fifteen minutes. There were always too many people around right after school, and there was no way I could get my dad to bring me in early two days in a row. Squaring my shoulders, I walked around the corner toward His room, felt my heart speed up…and walked right on past again.

"Now or never. Now or never."

I turned around again and, when I got to his door, grabbed onto the door sill like a lifeline. "Ummm."

He looked up, his eyes focusing on me, making me want to bolt. I couldn't tell if he recognized me from that hallway encounter. "Yes, can I help you?"

I swallowed past a lump in my throat. "Um, could I maybe speak to you, sir?"

Then he smiled, nodding a little and gesturing me in. "Of course, have a seat, Mr…?

"Walczak. Frank Walczak. I'm a sophomore."

"What can I help you with, Mr. Walczak?"

"I--" Suddenly, despite the comforting warmth of Mr. Skinner's voice, I realized that I was here to ask this man about his sexuality. How could I dare? My throat felt horribly dry.

"Yes?" His voice encouraged me.

"I was just wondering if…if…." I trailed off, hating myself for my cowardice.

Shockingly, he chuckled, quietly and deep in his throat. "I'm going to put you out of your misery here, son. Let me see if I can guess what you're asking. You heard the rumors yesterday, and you want to know if I'm actually involved with a man in a romantic relationship."

My jaw dropped open, and I think that for a moment there I forgot to breathe. "Yeah," I managed to whisper. "That's what I was wondering."

"Well, it's true. It's not a secret anymore, and I never wanted it to be a secret in the first place."

Holy-freakin'-moly, I thought. Emboldened by this delicious new knowledge, I ventured another question, fully verbalized this time. "Did you know when you were a kid?" Was He like me?

He sighed, taking off his glasses and rubbing at his eyes in a gesture that made him look strangely vulnerable and fatherly at the same time. "No, I didn't. I was in denial for a long time, and if a certain man hadn't come along and shaken me up, I might have stayed that way for the rest of my life."

He replaced his glasses and looked at me, his gaze piercing me. "I know it's not easy, not even these days, for kids who discover their sexual orientations at a young age, but in a way I think you're very lucky. You'll never have to lose out on love because of your own hard-headed prejudice, and you won't have to deal with redefining yourself mid-path. Try to think of it as a gift, even if it's not always easy to deal with."

I wanted to leave. I wanted to throw myself into his beefy arms and cry. Instead, I just nodded and inhaled sharply to stave off my stupid tears. "Thanks."

"You're very welcome. I tell my students that I'm here for any questions they may have, and I'll extend that to you as well. But before you leave, has Mr. Lopez been giving you any more trouble?"

So, he did remember. "Ah, no. No."

His sharp eyes focused on me again. "Are you certain?"

"Yeah, he's been leaving me alone." Mostly. Good enough. It's not like the man could protect me outside the school, even if he had been with the FBI.

"Very well. Now, the hallways are starting to fill up, so I'll let you get to your first class. I look forward to having you in one of my classes in a couple of years, Mr. Walczak."

I stood up on only slightly shaky legs and moved toward the door. "Thank you," I told him. Thank you for telling me the truth. Thank you for trying to help me.

Not waiting to hear if he responded, I took off toward my locker with a brand new thought in my head. I'm lucky.

Part Ten

Josh Thompson

There's never anybody in the gym during lunch period C, so Amy and I meet there sometimes, in the corner over by the bleachers. It's pretty private, you know, so we can talk and stuff. We have to keep our relationship quiet, because Amy's ex-boyfriend Mark is psycho possessive. My dad says that Mark's a lot of trouble, and I should stay clear, but I really like Amy.

We had just started kissing--she has these really nice lips, and her lipstick always tastes like peppermint, making my lips sort of tingle. Anyway, I had only just got a taste of that lipstick when the gym doors banged open.

A loud voice yelled out, "Amy!"

Great, I thought, Mr. Psychotic himself. Gesturing for Amy to stay where she was, I walked around the side of the bleachers into the middle of the gym. I looked at Mark, standing near the doors still, and I realized that he had lost it. He had really fucking lost it, because he held a gun in his hand.

Just then the gym doors opened again, and a girl with a volleyball started through. Mark spun, pointing his gun at her. "Get the fuck out!" he shouted in her face, and she quickly backed out, eyes wide. Please send us help, I thought. Little freshman girl, whoever you are, find somebody who can help us NOW.

The distraction gone, Mark turned back to me, and the total lack of sanity on his face made me want to piss my pants for the first time since I was five. "Where is she, you little bastard?" He advanced on me, slowly but deliberately. "Amy!"

I hoped she would stay quiet, maybe find someplace to hide, but she had other ideas. "Please go away, Mark!" her voice called from the side of the bleachers, and Mark advanced more quickly. I wanted to stay clear of him, but I knew I had to protect Amy, so I backed up as he moved forward until I stood in front of her.

"She doesn't want to have anything to do with you, Lopez. Can't you figure that out, you moron?"

Okay, so maybe baiting him wasn't the smartest thing to do, but I'm not exactly a hostage negotiator. I just wanted him to leave us alone. Instead, I watched as the anger in his face turned into a blistering hot rage.

"Shut the fuck up!" He bellowed his words in my face until my ears rang. He made a visible effort to control himself and looked just to my left, at Amy. "Come on, baby, what do you want with a pathetic piece of shit like this guy? You know I'm more of a man than he could ever be."

"You're the pathetic one, Mark," she mumbled into the back of my shoulder.

"You think so, bitch? I'm here to change your mind." He looked around the gym, suddenly paranoid in the wide-open space. "Get under there, both of you." He gestured with his gun toward the space underneath the bleachers, crisscrossed with metal support bars. "Go. Now!"

I took Amy's arm and guided her in ahead of me. She tripped a couple of times, and I banged my shoulder pretty good on one of the bars, but when we made it about half-way to the other side Mark yelled for us to stop. Amy folded herself down to sit in one of the spaces left by the grid work, for once not seeming to care about getting dust on her skirt. I knelt down next to her.

"You okay, Amy?"

"Yeah, I guess. I just really hoped that he would leave me alone." Her voice shook, making her sound about as scared as I felt, watching Mark walk back and forth at the end of the bleachers, swinging his gun in his hand.

He paced a few more steps and then turned to look at us. "So, you comfortable in there, Amy baby?"

Neither of us responded.

"I can let you out of there real soon. All you have to do is tell Joshy-boy there that he's not man enough for you and come out and give me what I want."

"Shut up, you loser freak," she whispered, so that only I could hear.

"No sale, baby? Here, I'll sweeten the deal for you. You come out, and I won't shoot your little friend there…not anywhere fatal, at least."

Oh, shit, I thought. He really wanted to use that gun. I had thought that it was just for show, to intimidate us, but looking at him right then, I could see the truth. He wanted to use that gun more than anything, and he wouldn't be satisfied until he saw blood.

Desperate for an escape, an advantage, anything, I looked through the openings between the bleacher seats and glanced toward the doors, which were hidden from Mark's view by the bulk of the bleachers, and I saw them open, slowly and silently. A man dressed in sweat pants and a t-shirt slipped through, and I recognized him as Mr. Skinner. Jesus, I thought, of all people.

However, the whole scandal from a couple of months before didn't really seem to matter very much, as I watched him creeping, utterly silent and cat-like, crouched low, across the slick gym floor. I felt Amy beside me, starting to shake a little from nerves, and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Stay cool, help is on the way," I whispered directly into her ear.

Another shout from Mark distracted me from tracking Mr. Skinner's progress across the gym. "If you don't tell him to fuck off and come out of there right now, I'm just going to kill you both!" As if to prove his seriousness, he pointed the gun at where we sat in the dust and shadows, and cocked it.

Then I watched his finger move to the trigger, tensing, tightening. My chest tightened, too, and then the air rushed out of me when a gunshot blasted through the still air of the gym. I heard the sound of metal hitting metal--the bullet glancing off one of the many steel bars around us.

Amy screamed behind me, but I just stared forward, the blast echoing in my ears, and watched as Mr. Skinner stepped up behind Mark and grabbed his gun-hand, wrenching Mark's arm behind him. The gun clattered out of Mark's hand, and he fell to his knees. Mr. Skinner pushed him flat onto his stomach and knelt, one knee on Mark's back, holding Mark's head down with one hand and retrieving the gun with the other.

"Get the fuck off of me, you fucking faggot!" Mark yelled, attempting to buck up under Mr. Skinner's knee. Mr. Skinner didn't respond, and Mark kept struggling for a few seconds, but then he stopped, lying strangely flat and still.

Mr. Skinner looked at us, then. "Are either of you hurt?"

"No," I called out.

Amy answered more faintly, "No."

"Okay, good, why don't you come on out, now? Don't worry, I've got Mr. Lopez here under control."

I stood up, trying avoid hitting myself against any more beams, and took Amy's arm to help her up. I led the way back through the maze of grid work, feeling my knees shake in relief that I wasn't going to die under there. We had just stepped out from under the bleachers, blinking in the bright lights, when the gym doors opened again. Two uniformed cops came through--one after the other, guns drawn, just like on TV.

"Nice timing, officers," Mr. Skinner called out to them. "One of you give me your cuffs, so I can get off of this guy, please."

"And you are?" the older of the two officers asked.

"Skinner, FBI. Former FBI," he corrected himself. "Cuffs?"

The cop handed his handcuffs to Mr. Skinner, who quickly fastened one cuff around Mark's wrist and then jerked Mark up to a sitting position, threaded the chain around one of the metal bars at the side of the bleachers, and then shut the other cuff around Mark's free wrist. Finally he stood up, nodded at the cops, and walked over to Amy and me, where we stood against the wall.

"Are you two doing okay?"

I nodded at him, feeling sort of blank, not knowing what I should do next. Amy shuddered beside me, and Mr. Skinner turned back to the cops.

"One of you get this girl a blanket. And let Coach Thompson in."

The next thing I knew, I heard more footsteps, and I looked up. Some lady, the nurse I think, was hurrying toward Amy with a blanket, and next to her was my dad. I had always been sort of embarrassed to go to the same school where my dad worked. Like I couldn't get away with anything, like I couldn't have school to myself. But right then, as my dad rushed forward, past the nurse, past Mr. Skinner, and put his arms around me, I didn't really care.

I felt like the time in first grade when my mom got caught in traffic and was late to pick me up after school, and I thought that she had forgotten me, that she would never come. I sure as hell didn't feel sixteen years old. I heard Amy crying, but the woman was leading her out of the gym, and my dad wasn't letting me go. Finally my dad pulled away, still keeping an arm over my shoulder.

"Walt?"

"Yeah?" Mr. Skinner turned around to face us. I could see that Mark was gone, along with the two cops who got there first, but there were more cops milling around the gym.

"Thank you so much, Walt," my father said, and I realized that he was almost crying. "I owe you my son's life. If there's ever anything I can do…"

Mr. Skinner reached out and clapped one hand onto my dad's free arm. "It's not a problem, Carl. Just take him home."

My dad nodded, wiped his eyes, and led me directly out the side doors that lead outside the school. I left my backpack and my books at school that day. We got into the car, and I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes. Superimposed on the blackness behind my eyes, I saw, over and over again, Mark with the gun and then Mr. Skinner taking him down with one twist of his arm.

I don't care if he's queer. I don't care if he wears high heels and sings show tunes and does obscene things with gerbils. He's my new goddamn hero.

Part Eleven

Principal Golden

I wanted to check in with Walter Skinner, just to make sure he wasn't having any problems he wasn't telling me about concerning his coming out to the school in general. In the months since our first conversation on the matter, there had been a few squawks of protest from the school board and more than a handful of slurs passed around among the students, but nothing very serious and certainly nothing unexpected. I just like to keep an eye on the situation so that I know it's under control.

A little bird told me that I could find him alone in the weight room during the third lunch period, so I sought him out there.

"Walter?" I walked into the weight room and immediately, as always, wrinkled my nose at the odor of sweat that emanated from within. I saw him bent over on the other side of the room, and at the sound of my voice he stood up, bringing a dumbbell up with him. "Do you have a moment?"

He nodded and put the weight down on a bench, reaching for a hand towel to wipe the sweat from his face. God, I thought, he's entirely too butch. I imagined that his lover must be a Martha Stewart clone or something. Slaving away at home on artful dried floral arrangements and striving to create the perfect crepes.

"What can I do for you, Jean?"

"I just thought I'd check in with you, Walter. See how things are going."

"Just fine, thanks, same as--"

His reply cut off as a student burst into the room, a small Asian girl, clutching a volleyball and breathing as though she'd just run a mile. Walter stepped toward her and placed a hand on her shoulder.

"What is it? What happened?" he questioned her gently.

"There's a guy…there's a guy in the gym." She panted out her words in obvious panic. "He--he's got a gun!"

"Okay, okay, what's your name?" Walter spoke to her calmly. I grabbed for the cell phone I carried clipped to my belt and called school security, ordering that all students and staff remain in their rooms and stay clear of the hallways. Then I dialed 911, while listening to the ongoing conversation.

"Sue Chang."

"Okay, Sue, was this an adult? A student?"

"A senior, I think. He's kind of big. Um, he was pointing the gun at this other boy, and then pointed it at me, um…"

"But you're not hurt? You're okay?" She nodded, and he continued. I relayed her information to the police. "Did you see anyone else there?"

"No, just those two boys."

"Good, Sue. You've been a big help. Now I want you to let Principal Golden take you back to her office."

"No, I need to be here!" I didn't like the thought of him trying to push me to the side like some damsel in distress.

"Listen to me, I'm trained for this kind of situation. You get in the way, you can get hurt. I'm going in; just direct the police to the gym when they get here."

He was right, of course, though I still didn't like it. I watched him slip through the big gym doors and hurried to my office, guiding Sue along with me. I handed her over to my assistant and left to wait for the police at the front of the school.

Just as the first police car pulled up in the fire lane, a shot rang from the direction of the gym. Oh no, I thought. This cannot be happening at my school. I watched as the officers pulled on bullet-proof vests, checked their weapons and ran inside. I didn't know what to do. I stayed out in front of the school, watching numbly as more marked and unmarked police cars arrived.

A small Honda, nothing like the unmarked police cars that I had seen, pulled up and a lanky, dark-haired man jumped out of the passenger seat before the car had even fully stopped. I saw the man grab one of the officers by the arm and speak to him, obviously asking him something or demanding something of him. The officer pointed toward me, and the dark-haired man rushed over.

"You're Jean Golden?" As he spoke, I could see that his hands shook, sunlight glinting sporadically off of the ring on his finger.

"Yes, can I help you?"

"My friends called--they heard on the police scanner--possible hostage situation--shots fired?"

I couldn't figure out where this man fit into the scheme of things. "Yes. What are you, a reporter?"

"No." He laughed briefly, a horrible, choking sort of laugh. "I--has anyone been hurt?"

"I don't know, honestly." I told him. "The police and one of our teachers are working to resolve the situation."

"Walter Skinner?" He closed his eyes as he spoke.

Shocked, I answered, "Yes, actually. How did you know?"

He crossed his arms over his chest and paced a few steps away from me. "I'm going to kill him. I'm going to kill him."

"Excuse me, who are you?"

"I'm Fox Mulder." The name rang a bell, and then I remembered. "I'm Walter Skinner's…"

He trailed off, and I noticed that he looked paler than he had a moment before. I remembered, also, Walter's vague references to his lover's health. "I know who you are. It's okay. Let's go inside to find out what's going on."

I sat Fox Mulder down in one of the stray cafeteria chairs and walked over to confer with our security officer. At that moment, one of the policemen came up to us and told us that the situation was resolved. The young man with the gun had been restrained and would be arrested, and the two students--two!--he had been threatening were unhurt. Someone called for the school nurse and Coach Thompson to be brought to the gym.

A minute or two later a familiar figure, still in his sweat pants and t-shirt, exited the gym. I heard a gasp behind me, and Fox Mulder rushed past me. Walter hurried to meet him, and the men embraced tightly, right there in the middle of the commons.

"You son of a bitch," I heard Fox say to Walter, his voice thick. They spoke quietly for a moment before Fox pulled back a bit and said loudly enough for me to hear, "Can't you get out of here early? I just… Can't you just come home?"

Taking that as my cue, I walked over next to them. "We won't be having any more classes today, Walter. Anyway, I think you earned yourself an afternoon off."

He looked at me for a moment, his sense of duty clearly warring with his desire to go on home, before finally nodding. His hand never left his lover's back. "Okay, Jean, thanks."

I shook my head. "You don't owe me thanks, it's the other way around. You saved two students' lives today. The whole school owes you their thanks."

His jaw tightened. "I was just doing my job."

"Bullshit. You're a Government teacher. Now take this guy home." I flashed a smile at Fox, who still looked quite anxious.

"Okay, no need for coercion. I'll just go get my things from the locker room." He turned to look at his lover, wearing a sweet, soft smile I had never seen on his face before. "Come on."

They walked off in the direction of the gym, and I looked around, noticing that not a few pairs of eyes were watching them. Though some of the observers may have been uncomfortable with the unheeding display of affection between the two men, I heard many more people whispering to each other.

"That's the man who took down the boy with the gun."

"That's the man who saved the kids."

And even though only two children had been at risk that day, I knew that violence can spread if not stopped, and that children need to feel safe in order to learn. In a very real way, I felt that Walter Skinner was the man who saved my school, and I intended to do something about it.

Part Twelve

Walter Skinner

I walked out of the gym, hoping to find Jean quickly, so that I could make sure she knew the situation had been resolved. Then, I needed to call Fox before changing and getting back to my classroom. I call him every day after I work out, but of course the presence of a young man threatening other students with a gun superceded our routine. I knew Fox would be worried, so I wanted to call him as soon as possible.

I spotted Jean in the commons speaking with the security officer, but then my eye was caught by a figure sitting in one of the hard plastic cafeteria seats. Fox. I had no idea how he had learned about what was going on, but in a way I was unsurprised that he had found a way to get to me, despite the fact that he had neither a valid driver's license nor a car. He must have felt my gaze on him because he looked up and was out of his seat like a shot.

He hurried toward me, and at that moment I could not have cared less that I stood in a very public area of my workplace, that my boss, several of my colleagues and various other people stood within clear view. All I knew was that a terrible thing had very nearly happened, and there was Fox within reach of my arms. I reached out to pull him in, and he threw his arms around me, holding me tightly, almost punishingly.

"You son of a bitch," he said to me, his hands bunching in the moist fabric at the back of my t-shirt.

"I'm okay, babe, relax." I felt a little out of breath myself, possibly due to the vise grip he had on my rib cage, so I rubbed his back a little, hoping to calm us both down in the process. "How the hell did you get here?"

"I got Lisa next door to drive me over. She couldn't wait, though; she was on her way to take Katie to the pediatrician."

"Okay, babe, why don't I get one of these uniforms to take you home? I'm fine. I'll be home later on."

"Can't you get out of here early? I just… Can't you just come home?" He pulled back from me, and I wanted to take him home more than anything, just to smooth some of the anxiety from his face.

Jean walked over to us then and cut me loose for the afternoon. I should have argued more, but the temptation to go home was too great. The temptation of Fox was too great. I led him into the locker room so that I could change and gather my things. As I pulled my clammy t-shirt over my head, Fox walked around, scoping out the territory,

"We've got this place to ourselves, you know?" His voice held a sultry note that surprised me in the aftermath of his nervous, angry greeting just minutes earlier.

"You don't say?" I grinned at him. "Come here."

He stepped closer, and I reached for his head, running my hand through the soft, graying strands of hair at the back of his neck. Holding his head lightly, I looked him in the eyes, searching for signs of how he really felt.

I couldn't help but think of the day, early that May, when we'd gone to a small festival in a near-by park. I got distracted watching a demonstration, and Fox and I got separated. It took me fifteen minutes to find him, and by then he'd been out of it for several minutes, according to the elderly man who shared the bench I found Fox sitting on. When he came back to me, he had such an acute anxiety reaction that I'd been afraid he would stop breathing. I had to use the drugs that time, even knowing how much he hates them, and he slept for hours when I got him home.

Lying on the bed that afternoon, with his arms clutched around me, I blamed myself utterly. I had thought that he was doing better. I was already then planning to start my new position in the fall, but I almost decided to pull out that day. Fox changed my mind the next morning when, with clear, steady eyes, he reminded me of all the reasons why I should take the job.

Of course, he had been right. I enjoy teaching so much that I realized just how miserable I had been the last several years with the Bureau. The only passion I had felt in my position as Assistant Director had been directly related to my dealings with the X-Files division. The rest had been nothing more than treading back and forth in the same dull, gray rut.

Also, freed to spend his days alone, Fox had progressed rapidly. He finished his book and got it published, bringing himself some much-deserved accolades. More importantly, he very rarely lost time or suffered through the accompanying panic attacks. Fox's doctors had told me, at one point, that I shouldn't expect him to be able to function independently, certainly not soon and perhaps not ever. They wanted to explore modalities of treatment and keep him in the hospital, away from the home and comfort he had been deprived of for too long already.

I told them all to go to hell, and I promised him that I would do whatever he needed me to do, that I would hold onto him forever if that was what he needed to feel whole. I didn't intend to rescind on that promise, not after we had come so far.

Keeping my hand on the back of his neck, I rubbed lightly with my fingers. "How are you doing with this, huh?"

"I'm okay, actually." His voice sounded steady, truthful. "I had to do a little deep breathing during the car ride over with Lisa, and I was maybe a little frantic when I got here and finally tracked down Jean. But I didn't flip out or anything, really."

"Good, good," I replied softly. "Did you lose any--"

"No, not a minute. I kept my eye on the clock, too, waiting for you to come out of that gym. I was fine. I am fine, Walt."

He grinned, and I felt something tight within me loosen up a notch or two. Some of the nervousness I had been feeling departed, and in its place desire rushed in, desire for the magnificent, resilient man in front of me. "You certainly are."

He picked up on the heat in my voice and moved in toward me, reaching a hand up over my shoulder to balance against the locker behind me. He leaned in and kissed me, pressing me back so that the cool metal tingled against my still-unclothed back, contrasting with the moist warmth of his mouth on mine. I pulled his head in closer and felt his lips mash into mine, his tongue darting toward mine.

I felt a sudden moment of panic at the thought that we might be discovered here--a teacher and his male lover necking in the boys' locker room--before remembering that the whole school was most likely still locked down and that we were unlikely to be disturbed. At least not very soon.

Fox pulled his mouth a fraction of an inch from me and took a gasping breath. "I love you, love you," he panted.

I kissed him, lightly and softly, before moving my hands to his shoulders. "You've got to let me get dressed. I need to get dressed before I take you on your knees in a shower stall."

He smirked at me, his hazel eyes crinkling at the corners. "I always had this fantasy…"

"No, I--no." I pushed him away gently and reached for my sweater, the thick Irish knit he had bought me for Christmas. "Let's get home where we can do things properly, without worrying about getting caught by the sixth period gym class and without torturing our knees on the tile, okay?"

He sighed and capitulated, pulling my sweater down over my stomach and handing me my slacks. In no time, we were in the car, our hands held tightly together unless I absolutely needed both of mine to drive, and ten minutes later we were home.

We headed directly to our bedroom on the second floor and stripped quickly. I watched his every move, feeling that I couldn't bear to lose that connection, until finally we were naked, and I drew him to me. His cool skin against me felt like silk, and I walked us back until we fell onto the bed. I kissed him, more free now than I had been in the locker room at school. I attacked his mouth, and his lips quickly softened, offering no resistance, allowing me in, trusting me utterly.

Sliding away from those wet, delicious lips, I looked in his eyes and silently asked the question: slow or fast? He answered me with a buck of his hips and a feral grin. I fastened my lips on his neck and worked my teeth lightly on the delicate skin there, sucking just hard enough to draw the skin up a bit between my teeth. Fox moaned with pleasure and anticipation, tipping his head back to allow me better access. I ran my tongue over the vibrating mound of his Adam's apple, delighting in the rich tones that emanated from his graceful throat.

"Pull up your knees," I rasped in his ear. He complied immediately and lifted his hips, allowing me to slip a pillow underneath. He looked so beautiful, spread open before me. Afternoon sun filtered in through the closed blinds, painting his chest with soft stripes of light and shadow. His body welcomed me with warmth and love and peace, everything I craved, everything my heart required after what had happened at the high school that day.

I prepared us both, enjoying the smooth slide of lubricant over my hard penis, the slick feeling as my finger slipped inside his relaxed, ready opening. His soft sounds of pleasure and impatience grew louder, and I bent down to kiss the tight expanse of his stomach before positioning myself and thrusting inside him.

His warmth engulfed me, and I closed my eyes. I felt nothing around me but that warmth and love and peace that he had given to me. I felt his body clenching around me and writhing underneath me. Sparks of light flew across the blackness inside my eyelids as I moved inside him.

"Please, please," his cry cut through the comfortable silence I swam in, and I opened my eyes to see his hard cock, flushed and glistening, straining up toward me. "Please," he begged again, and I wrapped one hand around his erection, pumping it in time with my increasingly frantic thrusts.

Sweat glowed on his chest and on the mark I'd left on his neck as he let his head fall back, inhaling and exhaling roughly. I pumped him faster, angling my thrusts to brush against his prostate, and he gasped and shuddered, his come spilling over my hand onto his chest.

The pungent scent of it spun up into my brain, urging my thrusts faster and harder until I felt myself falling over the edge, falling back into the sparkling lights and the blackness, falling onto Fox's heaving, sweat- and semen-slicked chest, while his legs relaxed around me. I let myself go, coming deep within him, lying against him, spent and boneless and completely at ease with my world.

When I opened my eyes again and pushed back up to my knees, I realized that he had fallen asleep beneath me. I couldn't help but smile at the sight of him, limp and peaceful, smiling slightly in the dimming light of our bedroom. I eased myself up from the bed and went to the bathroom, bringing back a damp cloth for clean-up. That task done, I lay back down next to Fox and resumed my study of him.

Despite the terrible stresses of the day and our activities in bed, I didn't feel as though I could sleep. Two salient aspects of the day kept returning to my mind. The first was the image of Mark Lopez holding a gun on two of his classmates. I have certainly seen worse things, much more horrible things, during my years in the Bureau and in Vietnam.

Working for the FBI, I saw serial killers, sexual sadists, the kind of deeply evil individuals that Fox was once so adept at understanding and ultimately capturing. In 'Nam, I saw boys the same age as Lopez, myself included, carrying guns and training them on each other. However, I had not expected to find such violence in a safe, quiet suburban school where the security personnel, small in number, had done little other than breaking up the occasional fist-fight and turning a few students in for attempting to sell small quantities of marijuana.

That my presence may very well have prevented a scare from becoming a tragedy was a comforting thought to some extent, but I knew that I had simply been lucky that location and timing had allowed me to intercede. I knew that Fox was angry with me for jumping in with neither back-up nor gun nor vest, but I couldn't live with standing outside while young lives were at risk, and I knew that Fox would understand that.

Fox. I let the image of Mark Lopez in that one dangerous moment fade out of my head to be replaced by the image of my lover, waiting for me outside of that gym, shaken up but not shaken apart. Even a month or two previous, such a stressful situation would have been too much for him, taking him beyond the limits of what his recovery to that point allowed. Several months before that, he was barely leaving the house, even with me accompanying him.

I knew, then, lying next to him in bed and watching the steady rise and fall of his chest, that the doctors had been as wrong as it is possible for human beings to be. He would recover fully and come back to me, come back to himself even better, perhaps, than he was before his abduction. Counting back the days, I realized that it had been nearly a month since his last episode of lost time, and that one brief, bringing little panic in its wake.

I smiled at my sleeping lover, finally feeling the blurry pull of sleep come over me. I arranged the covers up around us and slung my arm across Fox, pillowing my head on his chest. I closed my eyes and breathed in the warm, musky scent of his skin, letting myself slide into sleep, sinking into the images that came, comforting images of our future together. The future we'd fought for, the one that I knew was finally ours.

Part Thirteen

Coach Thompson

Dr. Golden called me at home the evening after I brought my son home. I spoke to her from the dining room table, but I never took my eyes off of the living room, where Josh slept, sprawled out over the couch.

She asked after Josh, and I told her that he was okay, that one of my wife's friends, a doctor, had come out to see him and declared him fine, that he was sleeping, with his mother watching over him. Jean shared her plans with me, and we spoke for a while about what would happen on Monday when the school re-opened. She told me that she would speak with Walter about her plans over the week-end, and I couldn't help but wonder how he would feel about the whole thing.

I figured that in his years with the FBI, he'd probably dealt with enough publicity that handling the press and the public speaking wouldn't be too much of an issue for him. But, then again, he seemed to prefer maintaining his privacy, so all I could hope for was that he wouldn't let Jean browbeat him into agreeing to something he wasn't comfortable with. I imagined that he'd be able to hold his own, in any case.

The week-end passed slowly and quietly, as we stayed home much of the time, trying to avoid dealing with reporters until we could do it on our own terms. Jean had arranged a press conference for Monday, but that would wait until after the assembly she had planned for the morning.

Come Monday morning, I put on a shirt and tie, not my usual choice of clothes, and made sure that Josh chose something presentable. I drove him to school, as I do most mornings, and told him that I would meet him by the administrative offices before the assembly. The students would be called to the assembly from homeroom, and I didn't want for him to have to go into the gym by himself the first time. He'd probably yell at me if I told him that, but he didn't argue about meeting me either.

Later that morning, when we reached the gym, the scene looked remarkably different than it had on Thursday when I'd rushed into the area to see a handful of cops and two shaken kids in the big, echoey room, where the sound of that single gunshot seemed to reverberate, even several minutes later. This time, students and teachers filled the gym, milling around and climbing the bleachers. The sound of microphone feedback underlay the murmur of voices.

I slapped Josh on the back and pushed him off to find his class, and I made my way to the small stage that had been set up under the far basketball hoop. I shook hands with the Superintendent, Dr. Landry, and the chairman of the School Board, and took my seat alongside a few people I hadn't yet been introduced to. Moments later, Walter and Jean arrived, and Jean called for everyone's attention.

She spoke about Thursday's events, expressing her shock and the fear she had felt when two of her students were in danger. After her introduction, an expert in school violence stood up and spoke about conflict resolution and alternatives to violence. When he was finished, Jean introduced two psychologists, a man and a woman, who spoke about how everyone might be feeling in the wake of the shooting. They would be leading discussion groups with the classes over the course of the week and would be available for anyone who wanted to talk to them privately.

Then Jean took the microphone again and said my name. I hadn't prepared much of a speech, and as I stood up and adjusted the front of my jacket, I felt my palms sweating. I cleared my throat and started. "For those of you who don't know me, I'm Coach Thompson. I teach gym and coach the baseball and wrestling teams. I've been here at Polk for ten, eleven years now, and my son, Josh, is a senior. This school is a big part of our family, and I consider it a second home."

I paused for breath and looked out into the mass of students, trying to see which ones I could recognize. "I talk to my classes about safety here in the gym. Proper use of the equipment, how to avoid injury. And I've seen some kids get hurt--a few sprained ankles, a broken wrist once, a couple of knocks on the head. But I never thought that anyone would bring a hand gun into my gym, and I definitely never thought that my son would be a target."

I looked up to where Josh was sitting and smiled at him; he ducked his head. "I am more grateful than I can say that he was returned to me safe and sound, and that his friend Amy was also not injured. For that, I extend my thanks to our Government teacher, Mr. Walter Skinner. This is his first year here at Polk, but I think he's proven himself to be a real Hickory at heart. Now, everybody, stand up and give him a hand. Mr. Skinner?"

Everyone rose to their feet and applauded, the cheers rising to a peak and continuing while Walter took his place at the front of the stage. He smiled at me a bit sheepishly and shook my hand. I sat down, relieved to be out of the spotlight, and he prepared to speak. Finally, the crowd grew quiet, and he began.

"Thank you, Coach Thompson, for your very kind introduction. Thank you, also, to Principal Golden for calling us here this morning, and to our other guests for making time in their busy schedules. Now that all of those thanks are out of the way, I suppose we can move on."

He must have smiled because I could hear quiet laughter from the people gathered.

"This first thing I want to make clear is that I don't ever want to do this again. I don't want to get up in front of this school again and talk about some other disaster narrowly averted or worse--about a disaster we were unable to prevent. I spent the better part of my life in law enforcement, and you come to expect violence in that situation. It's a part of the job.

"But, as Principal Golden reminded me on Thursday, dealing with violence is not a part of the job for teachers, or for students. What you need to understand is that right now, this school is your world, and your world is exactly what you make of it. Each and every one of you has the power to make this school a violent and dangerous place, or to help make it a safe place. You choose whether or not to create violence, and you choose whether or not to tolerate violence.

"If you're angry with someone because you feel that he or she has shown you disrespect or hurt your reputation or your relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or if you just don't like someone because of their race or religion or sexual orientation or the way they look, these are all problems you need to solve without resorting to violence. If you're thinking about hurting or threatening somebody, I want you to think again, and I want you to think again and again until you come up with another solution.

"On the other hand, if someone's threatening you or making you afraid, you need to come and tell me or one of the other teachers or administrators, or one of the security officers or, of course, your parents. Remember, if you choose to tolerate threats and violence, you're not helping to solve the problem. It's up to every single one of you, and I want you to remember that."

He paused, and I could see the tense set of his shoulders relax fractionally inside his suit jacket. "Now, that said, I think--" He stopped suddenly, mid-sentence, and seemed to be peering toward the far wall, where several teachers stood near the doors, but I couldn't make out whatever he had spotted. He tilted his head to the side briefly and then continued.

"I think that this is a great school with a lot of excellent students and teachers and staff. I think that you all have the potential to go out and change the world while I'm in my dotage. I enjoy teaching here, and I thank you all for accepting me as I am into your community. For that, you have my sincerest gratitude. Now, I'm going to turn this back over to Principal Golden."

He nodded his head and stepped back from the microphone, and the crowd stood up again to applaud. There are times when I feel like these kids have been trained like seals to give standing ovations to everyone who speaks to them, but this time around I had no doubt that the honor had been well earned.

Walter resumed his seat, and Jean returned to the microphone to introduce Dr. Landry and the school board chairman, who each gave thankfully short speeches, both of them specifically thanking Walter for his actions. I'd heard a couple of rumors that the board was none too happy with Walter's admission of his sexuality, so those accolades must have been pretty gratifying for him to hear. I'd be willing to bet that he'll be safe from any threat to his career for as long as he chooses to teach here at Polk.

Finally, Jean concluded the assembly and released the students to return to their respective homerooms. I shook hands with everyone else on the stage and then turned to head toward the locker room, but before I could get far, I heard Walter behind me.

"Carl, wait up. There's somebody I'd like you to meet, if you have a moment."

"Sure," I agreed easily, curious to find out who he had spotted in the audience earlier. He led me through the emptying gym to a corner out of the way of the mad rush of bodies where two people stood, a petite, red-haired woman and a tall, dark-haired man.

"I didn't know you two were going to be here." He greeted them both, smiling warmly. "I could have gotten you seats, you know."

"I hope you didn't mind us coming, but I didn't know myself until this morning when he called to invite me. It's not a bad drive from Quantico, so I thought I'd save Mulder here the cab fare." The woman nudged her companion and laughed when he rolled his eyes.

"Well, it was a nice surprise. Thank you."

"You know me, Walter, full of surprises," the man spoke quietly, his tone flat but his expression revealing warmth and wickedness both in his eyes and his grin. His gaze turned to me, then, and he held out his hand. "Coach Thompson, right?"

"It's a sad day when I need you to remind me of my manners, Fox," Walter joked. "Sorry, Carl Thompson, Fox Mulder, Dana Scully. Mulder is my partner, and Dana is an old friend from the FBI."

Blinking at the realization of what he meant by partner, I shook hands with both of them. "Good to finally meet you, Fox."

"Please, call me Mulder. Don't follow his example." He gestured at Walter. "He's annoying as all hell."

"Okay, Mulder, but you can call me Carl."

Scully nudged Mulder. "Hey, before we go, tell him your news."

He turned to her. "I thought I would wait."

"Tell me what?"

"I got a call from Georgetown U. this morning."

"Okay. And."

"They want to hire me as a part-time prof in the psych department." He bounced a little on his heels, smiling more widely.

Walter gasped, his eyes brightening. "Oh, God, Fox. That's wonderful!" It looked like he wanted to sweep his man up off his feet, but instead he just reached out and grabbed Mulder's forearm, holding it in what looked like a death grip. "I'm so proud of you," he whispered tightly. They looked at each other for a minute, eyes never wavering, and then Walter released Mulder's arm and stepped back a bit. "You can tell me all about it tonight."

"You bet. Now, have a good day. Scully needs to get back to work, too."

"Thanks again for coming, both of you. And I'll talk to you later, Fox."

"I'll be there."

They walked away then, and Walter turned back to face me.

"So, what team do you want me to coach next year? Wrestling?"

"You got it," I said, and he laughed, walking off toward his classroom.

Part Fourteen

Gail Carter

I couldn't believe that it was June already. I couldn't believe that I was going to graduate from high school in six days. The last days of school felt so disconnected from reality that paying attention in class was nearly impossible, my thoughts constantly slipping ahead to my graduation party with my family in two weeks, to the job I'd work though the summer, answering phones in my uncle's office. And, most of all, to the Fall, when my parents would drive me up to New York to start college at Columbia.

A lot of the teachers were just showing movies to take up the time, but I should have known that Mr. Skinner wouldn't do that. Not that he was unrealistic enough to expect us to listen to a normal lecture, but he brought in the weirdest guest speakers I've ever seen. Three total freaks, really, but they were interesting.

Throughout the year, I guess whenever he thought it was appropriate or when we were particularly bored, Mr. Skinner had some really cool discussions in class, usually starting off with a short speech from him. He talked a little bit about when he fought in Vietnam, and he made his war experience sound real, and frightening and horrible. I've heard other teachers talk about it before, but it always sounded so remote, and just sort of dull, really. My father was just starting college when the war ended, so he didn't have any chance of going, which I guess is good.

I know I had an uncle, my mom's brother Eric, who died there, though I don't know very much about him. Listening to Mr. Skinner talk, I wondered what Eric had been like and what happened to him, how bad it was for him. I realized, with sort of a sick feeling, that he'd been 19. One year older than me.

In December, after it came out that Mr. Skinner was gay, he talked to us about that. Not the physical stuff or anything, which I have to admit sounds totally disgusting, not that it's that much less disgusting between men and women, if I think about it. This is Government class, after all, so he talked about Civil Rights, about states that still have laws against homosexuals, and about states that allow gay marriages now.

I never really understood why they shouldn't be able to get married if they want to, but considering that not only am I straight but that I definitely don't want to get married, I didn't really get it. Mr. Skinner, though, talked about how marriage represents governmental and societal recognition of a relationship and about the problems people can have because of not being allowed to get married--problems with housing and hospitals and taxes. He also asked us to think about how we would feel if we loved someone and society wouldn't recognize it. Imagining that, I started to understand why so many people are fighting for the right to do something I don't ever want to do.

In February, when that psycho Mark Lopez got our school in the news for all the wrong reasons, Mr. Skinner talked to us about that, too. Of course, he was the hero of the month around here, and a lot of people who had said nasty things about him since December seemed to shut up pretty fast. I think he figured that we had enough psychobabble from the shrinks they brought in, so we talked about gun control instead, relating it to what we had learned about the Second Amendment.

During that discussion, I found out that one guy's older cousin had been shot and killed, and that one of the girls in my class had been robbed at gunpoint up in DC. We didn't talk about it, but I know that a guy who graduated in 2002 shot himself during his first semester at William & Mary. Mr. Skinner told us about a few of the cases he worked on when he was with the FBI, and I have to say I'm really glad that those people aren't running around anymore, some of them not far away from here either.

In June, though, he brought in these guys to talk about conspiracy theory and its history in the US. Langly and Byers and Frohike, I think. Like I said, a bunch of weirdoes. Frohike, the short one, looked like he ought to be wandering around the bus station, mumbling to himself. Langly looked like someone who might sell pot to kids at rock shows. I don't know what was up with Byers because he looked really normal, but he can't be if he hangs out with those other two.

Weird and mismatched as they were, though, they sounded really smart, talking about surveillance techniques and making allusions to hacking, which Mr. Skinner cut off quickly. I never gave much credence to all of the conspiracy theories like, oh, the government shot down such and such a plane in order to cover up their covert operations, blah, blah, blah. These guys, however, made it sound plausible, unsettlingly so, as though the world I had been looking at was not what it seemed.

When this year started out, I thought of it as sort of a throw-away. I already knew where I wanted to go to college, and I wanted to get there right away, not spend another year trapped here in the playpen. But his class, at least, was worth it, and some of the things I learned there I think I'll carry inside me always, and when I think back to the teachers I had who made an impression on me, Mr. Skinner will be at the top of the list.

Part Fifteen

Fox Mulder

The guys came and picked me up after giving their demented little presentation to Walter's morning AP class, and took me out to lunch. Afterwards, I tagged along with them when they returned for the afternoon class, last period, and waited in the teachers' lounge for Walter to collect me at the end of the day. I was looking forward to getting my driver's license back in July with a level of anticipation that almost made me feel like I was back in high school again myself. My doctor said he would let me have my license back after six months of no lost-time episodes, and I hadn't had one since the end of January.

Come the end of August, I was looking forward to driving to the Metro station three days a week and taking the train into Rosslyn. However, Walter had arranged not to teach summer school, and two months of summer stretched out before us like so much clear water. We planned to spend some time working on the house together and take a long vacation up on Cape Cod. As I sat in the lounge daydreaming about rubbing suntan lotion into Walter's broad back, the sound of the door shutting jolted me into awareness.

A woman about my age entered, carrying a laptop and a few notebooks. "Oh, hello?"

I smiled at her and stood. "Hi, I'm just waiting here for my ride. Let me know if I'm in your way."

"No, no, I just thought I'd get some work done in here. I don't have a class this period, but I couldn't get these exams marked with the class next door singing songs in French." She set her things down on a round table and plugged in the laptop. "So, who are you waiting for?"

"Uh, Walter Skinner."

"Oh?" She looked up at me with a curious gaze. "Oh, you're his…"

"Yeah, that's me."

"Fox Mulder, right?"

"Uh, yeah…"

"Sorry, I don't mean to be weird. Julia Edmonds." She stuck out her hand, and I shook it, mildly confused about why she knew my name. "I read your book. I liked it."

"Really? Well, thanks." I was shocked, pleasantly so, that someone Walter worked with had read my book. Hell, I was shocked that anyone so seemingly normal had read my book.

"You're welcome. It was very well written, somewhat of a surprise considering the genre. Are you planning a second book?"

"It's about half-way written." I thought of the ever-growing Word file on my computer at home. "But I'm starting a new job in the fall, so I won't have as much time to work on it. Walter, actually, did a lot of editing on the first drafts for me, but that was before he started teaching. It might take a while for us to get this one out."

"Oh, congratulations on the job. Are you teaching, as well?"

"Criminal Psych up at Georgetown. Just adjunct this year, three days a week, so I'll still have some time for the book." The department head at GU wanted me to come on as a full-time professor in Fall 2005, when a planned retirement would open up a slot for me.

"Look, I'm probably embarrassing myself here, but if you want someone to look over your drafts, I'd be happy to help out. I used to do a lot of editing in college, and your work would be a nice break after the papers my sophomores hand in."

"Don't be so sure. But editing help would be great. Walter's put up with enough of my writing specimens over the years."

Soon after, Julia sat down and began working on the pile of exams, and I resumed staring out the window into the clear June day. This is a good day, I thought, this is one of the good ones. Nothing flashy, nothing anybody would call exciting. Just a productive morning, a long lunch with old friends and a short conversation with a new friend. The prospect of going home with Walter and making out on the couch instead of watching TV.

I still have bad days, when the things that have happened over the years overwhelm me just a little, but they're nothing like they were. Nothing like they were, even, when I was a fully functional FBI agent, chasing down monsters and spending my nights alone, living with monsters in my mind.

Most of these changes I didn't choose, but I can accept them because they brought me this life with Walter and a kind of happiness that I never thought I could have. Through the mist of my thoughts, I heard the class bell ring, and I knew that in ten minutes or so Walter would appear.

We'd walk to his car and kiss briefly, not wanting to be too showy in public but knowing we had nothing to really hide. We'd go out on our bikes for a quick ride around the neighborhood and then make dinner together, bumping hips and shoulders a little too often for coincidence, and eat dinner on the ancient stoneware plates he inherited from his grandmother, plates which glowed subtly with many decades of loving use.

We'd spend the evening together, and maybe we'd talk or maybe we'd be silent, letting brushes of lips and skin on skin speak for us. We might make love, or we might just read in bed, enjoying the company, and then fall asleep together, our legs tangled, his feet warming mine.

I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder and looked up at him, smiling.

The End

"Austere, severe he held few people near.

His oratory filled his foes with fear…

Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump."

--from "James K. Polk" by They Might Be Giants