He fumbled for the phone in the dark, squinting at the large green numbers glowing faintly on the face of the bedside alarm. Finally he got hold of the receiver, stopping the annoyingly high-pitched ringing. "Skinner," he said, his voice thick with sleep.
"Mulder?" He cleared his throat, rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock again. "It's two-oh-seven. In the morning."
"Is it? Oh, jeez, I'm sorry. You were asleep, weren't you. Never mind, I'll call later. Tomorrow. Whatever. Sorry. Good--"
"No, wait! Don't hang up. Where the hell are you, Mulder? You sound like you're at the bottom of a well."
"I'm in London."
"Yeah. I stayed on."
"Having a nice vacation?"
"Not a vacation."
Even sleep-fogged as he was, the tightly wound, pressured reply he heard instead of Mulder's usual laconic inflection set off an alarm in his head every bit as loud as the one he shut off each morning at five thirty a.m. He pushed aside the covers and sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. "What's going on?"
"My illusions have been shattered, Walt. P.D. James has it all wrong. Scotland Yard houses the same poor schlubs as the Hoover. There be no Adam Dalgliesh here."
"What the hell are you talking about? Have you been arrested?"
"There's very little gun crime here. Did you know that? Very few gunshot wounds, but the quality of the knife work is excellent."
"Mulder." He was standing now, pacing as far as the phone cord would allow, back and forth in the dark. "Where are you?"
"I told you, I'm in London."
"Yes, but where are you right now?"
"In my hotel room. But I have to leave in a few minutes, go back to the Yard."
Go back? Why had he been there in the first place? Skinner gave up on trying to construct any kind of intelligent question and asked the simplest one he could. "Why?"
"Because I'm working, that's why."
"You're working for Scotland Yard?"
"Scotland Yard is just a building, Walt. Can't work for a building. Anyway, it's New Scotland Yard, now. The organization inside the building is called the Metropolitan Police. They only have jurisdiction in Greater London. Contrary to what most Americans think, Britain doesn't have a national police force."
"Mulder." He took a deep breath and willed the annoyance, and the worry, out of his voice. "Have you taken a job with the Metropolitan Police?"
"What does that mean?" A part of him wanted to reach through the phone line and shake Mulder into coherence. Another part recognized the elliptical loquaciousness as an avoidance technique.
"It means I'm just consulting."
"Consulting on what?"
"On the seven children, ages six to thirteen, who have been found dead in the past year."
"Ah." There it was, the painful reality that Mulder had been dancing around. Profiling a monster was bad enough; Mulder's personal history guaranteed that having to profile one who killed children would be much, much worse. "And how did you happen to get involved?"
"They asked me to help out." He sounded almost apologetic. "The chief investigator approached me at the conference. They've been working this for a while, having trouble putting the pieces together. There are too many inconsistencies."
"And you think this is your problem--why?"
"Seven children in the past eighteen months. Five boys and two girls. None sexually abused, but plenty of physical abuse. The beatings aren't the cause of death, though. Three drowned, two strangled, two neck broken. Stabbed and slashed repeatedly after death with what's probably a common kitchen knife, based on the shape of the wounds."
The darkness was suddenly oppressive; he reached over, mid-stride, and turned the switch on the bedside lamp.
"Each of the last four was found holding a dead puppy."
Skinner stopped pacing. "Did you say a puppy?"
"That's . . . different."
"You think? So anyway, we're trying to catch this guy in a hurry, because he's escalating. He's killing more often, the kids have been getting more battered, and the knife work is getting more creative."
"To say nothing of the puppies."
"Yeah, that too."
The silence stretched, and Skinner finally said, "Delightful as this report has been, I doubt that's really why you called. So to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Well, I thought I should let you know that we won't be getting together for basketball on Saturday."
"Clearly not." Oh, shit. He'd used that tone again, the pissed-off AD tone that he automatically adopted so often in the office and that came all too naturally to him outside of it. "That's okay. We'll play when you get back. Mulder," he continued, "are you all right?"
The response this time was too quick, too glib. "Oh, sure, Walt. Right as rain. I thrive on eighteen-hour days followed by screaming nightmares, don't you?"
If there was one thing Skinner understood, it was nightmares. He had them often enough himself, even though it had been thirty years since he'd left the jungles of Vietnam behind.
"God, I hate these cases," Mulder said suddenly, explosively, and Skinner imagined him all alone, tormented by the evil and ugliness that were always part of a serial killer investigation, and clinging to his sanity by a thread. Why had he agreed to take it on? It would have been easy enough to plead urgent business or a prior commitment back in the States.
Right. Like Mulder ever ran away from what scared him. "If you need anything, you call, okay?"
"I mean it, Mulder. Anything at all, even just to talk. Day or night."
There was a pause. "Yeah. Okay. Thanks."
They said their goodbyes. Skinner got back into bed and turned out the light, but when his alarm sounded three hours later he was still wide awake.
Scully had curled up on the sofa, sock-clad feet curled up under her, and was hugging a throw pillow against her stomach and chest. "He's been here before. Too deep into it, too affected by the suffering and death of children."
"What these cases do to him--" She pushed the pillow to one side and stood, abruptly, leaning over the table to gather Skinner's cup. "He needs someone there. Someone who knows him and can watch out for him." Skinner watched as she took the cup to the kitchen. When she returned, her expression was resolute. "I'll go. William's old enough to travel. I can pack tonight, take a flight tomorrow--"
Skinner gently grasped her arm. "It's England, Dana. You need a passport for the baby, if you plan to take him."
"Oh. Of course. Well then, I'll just have to leave Will with my mother."
He'd seen her this way before: selfless and tenacious, determined to do whatever it took to help her partner. He'd seen that drive in the corridors of the Hoover, years ago, when Mulder was missing at sea, and he'd seen it devolve into hysteria and despair only a few months ago, in the middle of a muddy field. How often she had thought only of Mulder and his needs--but now there was another small life to consider. "No. You stay. Your baby needs you here. I agree that Mulder could use some help; well, some support anyway. I've already arranged to go."
She sat. abruptly, next to him, looking at him with a glimmer of mistrust, as if she wasn't sure whether to believe him. "Really?"
"If I didn't have a meeting tomorrow with the Deputy Director, I'd be on the plane tonight."
"How are you going to explain it to him?"
"There's nothing to explain. Even an AD is allowed a vacation," he said. "I'm long overdue for one. Kim cleared my calendar, and I'm taking two weeks. If necessary, I'll extend my stay. What I choose to do on my vacation is none of the FBI's damned business."
Scully's eyes widened as his tone grew increasingly vehement. "Of course not," she murmured.
Skinner could feel the angry flush on his neck and ears. He took a deep breath and managed half a smile. "I'll take some pictures of Big Ben, bring back a couple of theater ticket stubs, wear a new Burberry raincoat. They'll never know I've spent my vacation with the deeply discredited, 'get out of the building before we find a reason to arrest you,' ex-Agent Mulder."
Scully was looking at him oddly. Christ, what had he said? He mentally reviewed his words and, this time, felt the blood drain from his face. He could imagine what she was thinking about him . . . that part of him that he'd so carefully hidden for so long, laid out for her examination in one ill-considered sentence. "I should go," he said, standing hastily, wanting nothing more than to escape Scully's steady gaze as quickly as possible. "I have an early start tomorrow."
"I'll get your coat," Scully said, and as she left the room Skinner took a deep, shaky breath. Get a grip, he scolded himself. It's not as if you just declared undying love. The force of that thought slammed at him so hard that he thought he might have to sit again. Were his feelings for Mulder more than simple physical attraction? The idea of it was simultaneously so thrilling, and so frightening, that he could feel himself break into a cold sweat. He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow, sliding the damp cloth into his pocket just as Scully returned with his suit jacket and a piece of paper. "Here's where he's staying, the address and phone number."
"Thanks." He accepted the paper and his coat and they walked together to the door.
"Will you call me? Let me know how he is?" Scully asked.
They stood looking at one another for a moment, and then Scully stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. He returned the hug automatically, tilting his head down to brush his lips lightly against her hair. "I'll take care of him for you," he said.
She murmured something unintelligible against his chest and then looked up at him, her eyes liquid with unshed tears. "All good things, Walter. Godspeed."
It was only as he was walking to his car that he realized what she had said to him, pressed up against him.
"Not for me. For you."