"Thank you, Kim." Skinner picked up the phone. "Scully. Thanks for getting back to me."
"I assume, sir, that this conversation has nothing to do with official business."
"Completely unofficial. I don't believe in troubling my agents with Bureau business when they're on leave."
There was very little in the world he could count on, Skinner thought, but one thing as sure as the sunrise was Scully's unerring ability to get right to the point. Usually he appreciated her directness. This time, feeling out of control of both the conversation and the situation that necessitated it, he wished that for once she would have spent a little more time on pleasantries and given him an opportunity to get his bearings. "He called me last night, around two a.m. From London." Even as he spoke, he winced inwardly at his disapproving tone of voice.
"I don't care about that," he said brusquely, heard himself again, and bit at his cheek in frustration.
Scully's response, when it finally came, was cautious. "He went over to speak at a conference on profiling techniques."
"I know." He managed this time to make his words sound patient and factual instead of accusatory.
Mulder had been at loose ends since leaving the FBI. When Skinner received the call from a conference organizer desperate for a qualified speaker to replace the man who'd had emergency heart surgery the week before, he'd naturally thought of his brilliant, if quirky, former agent. He thought he'd have to enlist Scully to help him persuade Mulder to return, however peripherally, to the world of profiling, so averse was he to that sort of work after his early-career burnout, but he had accepted with surprising alacrity.
"I recommended him," Skinner continued. "But the conference wrapped up days ago. He told me he's been spending his time since then consulting to Scotland Yard on a case."
"Yes," Scully said, the note of caution gone from her voice. "A serial killer case. The investigative team has been working it for months, and not getting very far."
"I never would have expected him to accept a job like that." In fact, he thought it was reckless of Mulder to have done so. Lecturing about profiling was one thing; becoming involved in an active case was quite another. Profiling had nearly destroyed Mulder more than once; Skinner had no reason to believe that he would handle the stress any better this time around.
"A part of him hates those cases, but you know he can't resist a challenge," Scully said. "And he feels obligated to help, once he's asked. He knows how good he is."
"Hasn't he called you?" Skinner was surprised. He would have thought they'd be in constant contact. They were living together, after all, and then there was William.
"He talked to me just after he took the assignment. I know where he's staying and how to reach him, in case of emergency. But he's trying to keep me away from this one. He doesn't understand . . ."
"Yes." He could hear her sigh. "I'm worried about him, sir. These cases take so much out of him."
"That's why I wanted to talk to you, but not on the phone. May I stop by tonight? I'll bring dinner."
"You know the way to a new mother's heart, sir. Make it sesame chicken and Buddha's delight from Mister Ping's and it's a deal."
Skinner hung up the telephone, took off his glasses, rested his elbows on his desk, clasped his hands and leaned his forehead on his two outstretched thumbs. He was in the same pose five minutes later when his assistant tapped on the door and walked in with an armful of files.
Skinner raised his head and picked up his pen. "Everything's fine, Kim. I'm just tired. Too many reports," he said, pulling a 302 awaiting signature toward him while watching her deposit her armload of--yes, more reports--on the corner of his desk.
"You have quite a bit of vacation time saved up--about twelve weeks, I think. I can look up the exact figures for you."
"That won't be necessary." He sighed. "I'd take next week, but there's that meeting with the Director--"
"I was just coming in to tell you. The Director's been called to the Hill to testify next Wednesday, and the meeting is postponed to next month."
"Just the usual." Kim eyed her boss shrewdly. "It would be no trouble to reschedule next week's meetings, and the week after, as well."
A two-week vacation. He hadn't had one in--he couldn't remember how long it had been. Years, surely. "Is Crosby tied up on anything just now?" he asked.
"I'd like to see her tomorrow. I know there's no room in the schedule, but fit it in somewhere. Ten minutes."
"How many times have I told you, Kim, that mind-reading is not part of your job description?" His assistant's anticipatory skills were legendary and he had long pretended to be annoyed by them, which didn't trouble Kim in the slightest.
"First time this month," she said, smiling, and he suppressed a smile of his own.
"That will be all," he said gruffly, and turned back to his paperwork in a signal of dismissal. He waited until Kim had closed the door behind her, then pushed himself away from his desk to stand at the window, gazing sightlessly at the concrete plaza below. An hour later, when she returned to say good night, he was still there, deep in thought.
Skinner locked his car, draped his suit coat over one arm, waited to be buzzed in, and took the stairs two at a time. Scully met him at the door, casually dressed and hair shining, with a quietly alert William in her arms. Mulder's a lucky man, Skinner thought, looking at the infant blessed with his mother's eyes and, unfortunately, his father's nose.
"I'll trade," Scully said with a smile, somehow managing to transfer her son to Skinner's arms and retrieve his coat and the bag of takeout Chinese from him in a single maneuver.
"I think I still remember how to hold a baby," Skinner said, following Scully to the kitchen.
"Been a while?"
"Uh huh. My sister's youngest will be twenty next month. But I guess it's one of those things you never really forget. Oh--uh . . ."
"If you're going to put him on your shoulder, you'll need this." Scully handed Skinner a clean dish towel, pulled a tissue from her pocket and wiped William's mouth, then returned to the task of serving up chicken, vegetables and rice onto dinner plates. "I guess you've forgotten about the spitting up part."
"It doesn't matter," Skinner said, looking down at the spot of recycled milk on his pale blue dress shirt. "It was going to the laundry anyway." But he draped the towel carefully before perching the baby once more against his chest.
"I'll take him in a minute. He's just about ready for bed, I think."
"No rush. Believe it or not, Agent Scully, I'm enjoying this." He was, in fact, very comfortable bouncing William gently on his shoulder. There was something soothing about holding a baby. He could practically feel his blood pressure dropping.
Scully glanced at her son, who had captured one of Skinner's fingers in his little fist and was sleepily engaged in trying to convey it to his mouth. "I think he likes it too, sir."
"Under the circumstances, don't you think we could drop the formalities?"
She paused in her food arranging and looked directly at him. "I will if you will . . . Walter."
"Point taken . . . Dana."
He hadn't seen her smile like that for a long time. She stepped closer. "I'll take him now. He's ready to go down. If you could put the plates on the table--"
"Sure." William barely stirred during the transfer. Skinner ran his hand once over the silky little head before stepping away. Why were babies' heads so hot? They radiated like tiny furnaces.
"I don't have any wine, but there's beer in the fridge. Find something you'd like. I'll have sparkling water."
By the time he'd gotten everything ready, she was back. They sat and began to eat. "That's quite a selection of beers you have, Dana. I don't think I've seen that much variety outside of a package store."
"It's all Mulder's doing. I don't even like beer very much, not that I'm drinking anything anyway these days."
"I never took Mulder for a big drinker."
"He's not. But he likes a beer or two with takeout, and we've been eating a lot of takeout lately."
"And all the different brands are--why?"
"Well, in his usual obsessive way, he insists on matching the beer to the style and ethnicity of the food." Scully smiled, taking any hint of censure out of her words. "What you see in the refrigerator is the remnants of what he bought to go with the moo shu, sushi, enchiladas, pizza, lamb curry, wiener schnitzel, barbecue, and crab cakes we've eaten in the past few weeks," she said, ticking off the various items on her fingers. "Neither one of us has the inclination to cook."
"Takeout wiener schnitzel," Skinner mused. "I guess you can find anything in this city."
"Got that right."
"I remember Janet--my sister--telling me how exhausting the first few months were. Mulder eats Indian food?" From what Skinner had seen, Mulder was highly unlikely to be classified as an adventurous eater, unless one considered putting both pepperoni and anchovies on the same pizza to be adventurous.
"Reluctantly. It was an apology for the enchiladas. They gave me heartburn for two days, and Will too, by proxy."
"Janet couldn't touch a tomato the whole time she was feeding Joey. Caused real trouble at Sunday dinner with her in-laws. They're Sicilian. The Indian food wasn't a problem?"
"Not a twinge. And Will was fine with curry spices and saag paneer even if Mulder wasn't. He liked the Indian beer, though. Mulder, that is. Not Will." They grinned at one another.
"Mulder's helping out?"
"Yes, he's been great, but he can't get up in the middle of the night to breastfeed. I haven't had an uninterrupted night's sleep since Will was born."
"What will you do when it's time to go back to work?"
"I'm hoping that he'll be sleeping through the night by then. If he's inherited Mulder's nocturnal habits, I'm dead."
"The regular hours at Quantico should be easier for you than field work."
"Yes, I'm counting on it." Her eyes clouded. "With Mulder gone, I didn't really want to go back to the field anyway. I don't think I could enjoy routine casework. And I know I'd have trouble adjusting to working with another partner."
"Oh yes, a big adjustment. No rescue missions to the Bermuda Triangle, no explaining twenty-seven thousand dollar expense reports to your boss, no getting ditched, no three thousand mile detours to check out the latest report of little green men--"
"Gray, green, whatever. Don't get me wrong. I like Mulder." He paused for a minute, wondering if he was saying too much. "Since he's left the Bureau I guess you could say we've become friends. But working with him had to be a monumental challenge. I know that supervising him was." For more than one reason, but he wasn't going to get into that with Scully.
"We put you through a lot," Scully said quietly. "Terrible things happened to you because of us."
Terrible things had happened, but he'd never thought of Mulder or Scully as having been responsible for them. He'd usually reserved his anger for matters over which his wayward agents actually had had some control. "Not because of you. You and Mulder may have been the catalysts, but don't ever think that you were the cause. There are others who deserve that blame, and who bear the responsibility for all the terrible things that happened to you, too."
"Yes. But still, Walter, you didn't ask for any of it. You didn't choose this fight. Mulder did, and to a lesser extent, so did I. And, I--well, I think I owe you an apology."
"For the times I doubted you. Doubted your allegiances. Mulder believed in you, but I didn't. Not always."
"I could have done more, and I'll always regret that."
"You did what you could, probably more than you should sometimes, more than was safe for you. I don't blame you for anything."
Skinner couldn't think of a thing to say in response, and they finished their meal in a more-or-less easy silence. Scully stood to clear the plates. "Coffee?"
"If it's not too much trouble."
"It's no trouble. I enjoy the smell of it even though I don't drink it now. Go on in to the sofa, Walter. I'll be there in a minute, and then I want you to tell me about Mulder."
Skinner stood in the middle of the living area and let his eyes rove over the attractive room. It was undeniably Scully's space, but everywhere he looked the place had been subtly Mulderized. A basketball sitting in the corner. Mulder's denim jacket draped over the back of a chair. Fish tank gurgling quietly against the wall. Low-budget monster movies piled by the VCR. The apartment looked clean and neat but lived-in, comfortable, a far cry from his own minimally furnished, spotless and sterile condo. Still, he reflected, it wasn't very roomy for two adults and a baby.
Skinner let his eyes return to the denim jacket. Mulder had worn it the last time he'd seen him, over his usual gray t-shirt and a pair of jeans. They'd met at the local Y to shoot hoops. He couldn't recall ever seeing Mulder wearing the jacket before that day. He'd looked good in it.
Scully came in holding a mug of coffee and a plate of cookies. Skinner took them from her and set them on the coffee table. They sat side by side on the sofa. "Is this place big enough for the three of you?"
"It's fine for now. Mulder will be moving out in a couple of months anyway."
"Moving out? I thought . . ." Skinner let the sentence dangle unfinished.
"I suppose that's what most people think. We thought it ourselves, too, for a while."
"Mulder never said anything one way or the other. But all he talks about these days is you and William. I just assumed that you were . . . together."
"We're not, at least not the way you mean," Scully said, and Skinner felt his world shift on its axis. "We're better off just being friends, best friends. I'm glad we found that out before we did anything irrevocable."
"I'd say having a baby is pretty damned irrevocable." Even as the words left his lips, he kicked himself mentally for his rudeness.
"Mulder's only staying here to help with the baby and to bond with him," Scully continued, as if Skinner had not spoken at all. "He'll leave soon enough, but he wants to continue to see William often, take an active role in his life, and I want that too. No matter what, he'll always be Will's father."
"You're taking the prospect of single motherhood pretty calmly."
"My son will have two fully involved parents. Dealing with the possibility, then the certainty, that he would never know his father--that really would have been single motherhood."
"I suppose so." He sipped his coffee, then asked with elaborate casualness, "Either of you seeing someone else?"
Scully looked startled at the question. "I'm in no rush. As for Mulder, to the best of my knowledge he hasn't had a date since before I met him."
"He mentioned something to that effect." Actually his knowledge of Mulder's largely nonexistent love life was thanks to Kim's ear to the grapevine. She seemed to know just about everything that went on in the building, official or personal, thanks to her carefully cultivated connections and acute powers of observation. "I thought it was because you were the one for him and he always knew it."
"No, it was because of his work, his search for his sister. He just didn't have any time or any--any emotional energy, I guess you could say--for anything or anyone else."
"Didn't? What about now?" Skinner realized he was leaning forward. His voice was too urgent. He forced himself to lean back and relax his muscles. "The work is gone."
"And he's reconciled to the fact that his sister is dead."
"So what's next for him?"
"I'm not sure that he knows. There's so much that he could do, and do well. Teach. Write. Consult. He's an entertaining speaker; he could probably be successful on the lecture circuit. Not that he needs to do anything."
"What do you mean?"
"Mulder's a trust fund baby. Didn't you know? His mother's family was wealthy. He's never needed to work."
"I had no idea. Who would? The way he lives . . ." He'd wondered why Mulder had stayed in his Hegel Place apartment for so long when he surely could have afforded something better on his salary. Then he'd consider Mulder's expensive tastes in clothing and reflect that perhaps that's where the bulk of Mulder's paycheck was going. Now, clearly, he'd have to rethink that assumption.
"I know." Scully's smile was wry. "He's never cared much about the trappings of wealth. Except for his suits, of course. And he's always had a state-of-the-art computer. But I think for the most part he's barely touched his inheritance."
Skinner was glad to hear that Mulder had a means of support. He had shown no signs of wanting to find other employment following his dismissal from the Bureau; his lack of motivation was uncharacteristic, and worrisome. "He should work, even if he doesn't need the money. He'll go crazy with nothing to do."
"He'll work. He'll figure it out eventually. Right now I'm not concerned about the consequences of his not working. I'm worried about this profiling job for Scotland Yard. You said he called you in the middle of the night?"
"Yes, it was around two a.m., which made it--what?--seven a.m. in London?"
"Something like that."
"He sounded tired, but wired. I don't think he'd been to bed."
"He sleeps very little when he's profiling, and when he does sleep, he has nightmares. Why did he call you, Walter?"
Skinner had been wondering that himself. "I don't know. The conversation was a little odd."
"What did he say?"