Karen Kosseff poked her head out into the hallway and looked toward the man seated in the otherwise vacant row of chairs beside her door.
Mulder looked up from the sports section someone had left behind.
"May I speak with you a moment?"
Something tightened in his stomach. "Sure." He stood and went through the door she held open. She didn't ask him to sit; she merely faced him.
"It will probably come as no surprise to you that I'm very, very concerned about Agent Scully," she began softly. She had one of those soft counselor voices, the kind you could sink into and smother, though Scully had thought enough of her to make the appointment. "She's been through some extremely traumatic incidents in the past couple of weeks as I'm sure you're aware."
He reddened involuntarily, wondering just how far back Scully had gone in recounting the trauma. He nodded.
She paused, looked him in the eye, forced herself to smile. "I'm trying to find a way to express this that won't violate my pledge of confidentiality to Agent Scully, but I think"--she took a breath, composed herself, went on--"Agent Scully has a need to see herself... in control of her own life... as having the strength to do that. It's very natural." Another pause. "What she needs most at this moment is a strong support network, and I'm afraid she doesn't have that, isn't willing to avail herself. Agent Mulder, you've been her partner for six years. I think you're in a better position than anyone to see that she gets the support she needs." A pause. "Can you do that for her?"
"Yes." His voice sounded solemn, as if he were making a promise in court.
Kosseff walked to the door of her inner office and opened it carefully. He could see Scully inside, sitting in a chair. She seemed faraway.
"Someone is here for you," the counselor said softly.
Scully looked up enough to catch Mulder's gaze. After a second she stood and came toward them.
"I understand there were a few complications to your coming here today," Kosseff said, addressing both of them. "I'll let you discuss your plans." She went through the inner door and closed it, leaving them alone in the outer office.
Scully looked up at him, the barest hint of expression curling at one corner of her mouth.
"I'm tired," she said.
He couldn't tell if she'd been crying again. She looked like she needed to rest, like she needed to be at home in her own bed. But he had a presentation to make, soon; he wasn't sure how soon.
"Scully, they're putting a panel together. It could be a couple of hours, maybe less." He grimaced. "Maybe more. Do you want me to take you home? I can if you want me to."
Apprehension tinged her expression and then melted into something he couldn't quite read. She shook her head. She wasn't ready to be there alone.
"You could stay at my place..."
He could see the gleam of water starting to form in the corner of her eye. She took a step forward and then hesitated.
Mulder took the intervening step between them. She looked up at him momentarily and attempted a smile--part embarrassment, part weariness, part resignation--and rested her cheek against his jacket. He smoothed her hair back with one hand and left it to rest against her neck.
"I've got things to do here, Scully," he said. "What if...? How about if I get Byers--just Byers--to come and stay with you for a few hours. You could lie down in the car. I'll be done in a while."
After a pause, she nodded against him.
Mulder took the cell phone from his pocket and dialed, watching her take a seat on the sofa against the wall. He talked, half-attentive, with Byers. She was trying to look okay, trying to look comfortable, but it was a weak attempt. She certainly wasn't pulling off the 'I'm fine' routine. It scared the hell out of him.
"Yeah, ten minutes," he said, and hit the 'off' button. They could wait ten minutes. He nodded at her. "It's okay, Scully," he said. "He's coming."
Mulder watched from behind the glass as Scully walked out the front door of the Hoover Building and stood near the curb. He'd be out there with her if he could, making sure she was settled with Byers, but he couldn't afford to be seen with her, not for her sake nor for his own. The less he showed himself, the better. At least here. Now. Anyway, he had an appearance to put in on a certain set of stairs.
Byers' car pulled up, an innocuous light blue sedan. He spotted her immediately and double-parked at the curb. Mulder bit his lip. Scully hesitated; the back seat passenger window lowered slowly. Byers was calling to her, saying something--hopefully nothing that would send her over that cliff edge she was hanging onto so precariously. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them and looked again. She was disappearing into the back seat now and the door was closing. She appeared to be saying something to Byers. She seemed okay.
Mulder took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Krycek's thumb drummed against the steering wheel as he waited for the light to change. Fifteen minutes it had taken him to make it this far, though it would have been even more of a hassle if the old man didn't have a few convenient, close-in parking spaces at his disposal. He glanced ahead, at the humid green of the Mall vegetation. Maybe she'd think he'd flaked, or maybe she'd have decided he was exactly the kind of guy they were always warning girls like her to stay away from.
Mulder hadn't shown up by the lake. But at least he'd checked. The old man would know he'd done his bidding and the next thing, after this crazy little detour, would be to drop by Mulder's old place, pull that last cassette out of the recorder and find out what Mulder was actually up to. If he'd mentioned anything at all about what he had planned, or where he was going, it would be on that tape.
The light ahead of him turned green and Krycek accelerated with the traffic around him. A block away, now half a block. He searched the curb area ahead where the street intersected Constitution Avenue. No sign of her. His thumb tapped the steering wheel again and he braked quickly to avoid a parked car pulling into traffic. There was no guarantee she'd show.
There. Six cars ahead she'd stepped into view: pale hair, worn dress and that little yellow cardigan it was too hot to be wearing. He swallowed. She caught sight of him and stood waiting, red backpack hanging off her shoulder.
In the dark behind her closed eyelids, her boundaries were the gray cloth upholstery pressed along the length of her left side, the suffusing warmth of the hazy day, the slight pinch of her shoes. In her mind she could see the woman from her dream, insistent, wanting to show her the contents of the bag she carried. She didn't want to see inside the woman's bag. There was a body there, half rag doll, half little girl. She didn't want to look.
She was falling again, spiraling, tumbling end for end. It would be hours yet. She could feel her eyes burn, the swelling in her throat.
The voice was soft, compassionate. She opened her eyes and looked up through the window above her. At an angle she saw Byers' face. He seemed worried, like a kindly old grandfather looking over her.
"Agent Scully, would you like to walk? It might do you good."
The tumbling had stopped. Temporarily. She made herself sit up. After a moment she nodded her assent.
Byers opened the door and she stepped out into the brightness of midday. There were trees all around. They were in a small parking lot. A path went off to one side. It was the Arlington side of the river; she remembered the sound of going over the bridge.
Byers took the first few steps and she followed. After a moment he slowed slightly, waiting for her, and they walked together in silence. The path led toward the river--packed, hard dirt, wide enough for two. In the distance, the sparkle of water winked between tree trunks. Her walking was the rhythm of footsteps and the cool-and-warm-again of passing through shadow and dappled sunlight. A veil of sadness hovered above her--around her--but did not touch. Mulder would be out there, on the other side, putting in his decoy appearance by the lake in Constitution Gardens.
Her toe caught on something and she was launched forward, stomach pitching, fingers reaching. Byers' arm was there; her hand went around it near the elbow.
"All right?" he said, concerned and yet calming. He was the perfect babysitter.
"Yes. Thank you."
She left her hand where it was and they continued down the path.
Karen Kosseff had been her usual professional self, taking Scully's questions and turning them back on her. What was it she thought she needed; what did she think she should do? But this time she needed answers, not a mirror. It was all too mixed-up. It hurt to contemplate; everything rose and swirled around her when she tried to pin it down. She tightened her grip on Byers' arm. He didn't seem to mind.
The path was more footsteps, left and then right, sunlight and shade, rhythm, breathing, movement. Halt.
She looked up. The Potomac spread in front of them. There were benches.
"Agent Scully, would you like to sit?"
She focused--benches, shade--and finally nodded. She let go of Byers' arm. Downriver to the right, on the far side beyond Theodore Roosevelt Island which blocked her view, was the lake where Mulder would be. The water moved slowly, a rippling gray-green mass.
Byers was in front of her now, sitting on the bench. She walked around it and sat down beside him, the haze in her head fading. Damp air prickled at her face. Her stomach was hungry; she'd eaten nothing. Byers sat neatly in his gray and charcoal suit, his beard neatly trimmed. She felt herself redden and half-smiled.
"I... I really should apologize," she started, her voice interrupting the silence. For being so weak, so needy, so--
"No need," he said, smiling softly. He paused. After a moment his expression changed and he looked out over the water. "I know what it's like." He glanced at her. "The feeling, I mean. That falling feeling--wondering if it will ever stop." He was staring upriver, at the opposite shore.
She sighed. Tension seemed to escape with it. Ants scurried across the ground in a jagged line.
"Some years ago..." Byers was talking again. He stared past the horizon, into memory. "I was engaged to a woman. She'd been divorced. We used to go jogging in the morning, when it was cool."
He glanced over to acknowledge her. She half-smiled.
"One day I was sick, and she went out without me. I never saw her again. She was struck by a car. Run over by her ex-husband."
She felt the veil descending, tightening around her. "I'm so sorry."
After a few seconds he smiled. "Eventually I learned to celebrate her--who she'd been, what she'd done. It took a long time, though."
Byers never talked.
"...So I know," he said.
"Thank you," she said.
Mulder reached back to rub the sore spot at the side of his neck, then eased his head against a convenient railing and closed his eyes. The color behind them gradually faded from yellow to red to black. In the dark he could feel the tension of time ticking away, the minutes counting down. It was the last time he'd have to play this dirty-jeans, tired-shirt charade, the last time he'd sit here waiting to be seen, displaying himself for Smoky like a common whore.
It was Krycek. In all that had happened he'd forgotten to tell her, or maybe it was best right now that he didn't mention that it had to be Krycek who'd shot Cyrus Miller and the little boy Scully'd had to examine. Acosta had caught up with Miller's friends at the funeral and two of them remembered seeing the man in the photograph. He'd been asking about Miller, saying he was an old friend.
He'd shot a child, an innocent two-year-old boy for godsake, and what did it take--what the hell kind of background did it take--to produce a human being so morally bankrupt?
When he opened his eyes, he squinted out over the expanse of placid water, then turned to look behind him. The stairs were empty. What had become of the girl? In the crush of moving, of finding out about Skinner's arrest and then his trip to Kentucky, he'd forgotten about her. Probably she'd moved on by now, not that she looked like she had the means. Her clothes had been old, hand-me-downs at best. Maybe someone she knew had come to take her home.
Mulder glanced at his watch. It had been forty-five minutes but it felt like hours. He ran a hand back through his hair. High-level meetings could go on for... well, for a lot longer than he wanted to wait. But he'd have to. Everything was riding on this. He could feel the subtle drumming of his pulse, quicker than usual, waiting the way a track runner waits for the crack of the starting gun.
He turned and squinted toward a stand of trees. Scully would be out there, beyond those trees and across the Potomac. Byers had said he'd take her across the river, someplace quiet where she could walk if she wanted to. He hoped she was finding some peace there.
The old man's voice delivery was uneven, emotion leaking through. Krycek pressed his hand against his ear to block out the din of the jukebox.
"I need you right away." There was a pause, but not long enough for the old man's trademark drag on his Morley. "Mulder has a tape. He has me on videotape. There must have been a unit in his apartment somewhere."
Krycek's heart spasmed.
"He's requested permission to show it to a Bureau panel this afternoon."
"What do you want me to do?" Heat rose inside him, covering him with a fine sheen of sweat. It was his recorder. He'd put it there to make sure Mulder wasn't burning his fingers on a hot stove or falling into an irreversible funk.
"Stop him. Get the tape." A pause. "Find the device. I want to know who put it there."
Krycek's heart raced. Gino was watching. He turned away from the bar and closed his eyes a moment. What a hell of a time to be caught already off-balance. He'd need an airtight story to feed the old man in order to walk out of this in one piece.
He cleared his throat. "And Scully?" His delivery was smoother this time, though his heart continued to pound, oblivious to his will. He'd have to pull the recorder, clean it, get the damn tape back. Mulder wouldn't give it up without a fight but the guy was crazy if he thought he'd make it to the head of a conference table with that tape before a bullet found him.
"Scully has outlived her usefulness to us."
Krycek took a short breath and held it. "I'll take care of it." It was his best cool, professional, hiding-the-fact-that-he-was-scared-shitless voice.
The line went dead. Krycek switched off the phone, got up from the bar and headed for the door.
Mulder ran his hands back through his hair and grimaced at the loud, squabbling honks of two large geese beside the water's edge. It been two hours and what the hell were those panel people up to? Aside from the Chinese leftovers in his refrigerator he'd eaten nothing, and it was 1 p.m. now. His stomach wanted food, and yet it was a nervous want, too, an echo of his need to present the tape, to nail Smoky, to kick his life out of neutral and back into gear. One foot tapped a rhythm against the stair.
He glanced into the trees on the left. What was Scully doing now? Waiting like he was? Maybe she'd fallen asleep; that would be better. She needed the rest.
Unexpectedly, the girl formed herself in his mind. He'd seen it and yet he'd paid no attention, drowning in his own private quicksand. He could see her again, long faded dress and a pale yellow cardigan sweater, something straight out of the fifties. It was the way she sat, leaning back slightly, her hand resting on her belly, on the barest hint of roundness. She'd been pregnant.
It was taking too long.
He pulled out his cell phone and punched in the number. His foot tapped the base of the handrail beside him.
The Director was out to lunch.
Mulder hit the 'off' button and gripped the phone hard. His mouth tightened. Maybe the Director was out to lunch and maybe he wasn't. Maybe something had happened. Maybe Smoky'd found out.
Mulder stood abruptly and started rapidly up the stairs.
The sadness had descended again, wrapping itself closely around her, almost smothering in its tightness. Byers was right: it felt like falling. A freefall.
Byers had taken her to get some lunch. She'd managed to please him by eating a muffin and then the feeling had come, a thin, gray, seeping sadness she seemed to wick up like a piece of dry cotton fabric, thirsty and eager, though she wanted none of it.
Scully opened one eye and closed it, taking in a quick view of the back seat's interior and the sky beyond. The cloud cover had become thicker, the afternoon cooler. Mulder would be waiting, impatient, pacing on the inside if not on the surface. Taut, ready to snap at the least provocation. She was glad she wasn't there. And yet she was with him. It was his life hanging in the balance, his spirit reaching, teetering.
She felt her throat constrict, the wetness begin to leak from the corners of her eyes. End for end. It was happening again.
Krycek stifled a growl and resisted the urge to slam his good fist into the closet wall. The recorder was gone, along with the small upper shelf he'd set it on. He leaned his head against the door, panting. He'd have to get another one to give to the old man; he wouldn't know the difference. Or he could admit he'd placed it himself. Maybe the old man would give him bonus points for ingenuity. Or it could raise the red flag he'd dreaded, setting off the old man's natural fears that he'd go his own way once he knew enough. Given that the old man had been caught on the tape, sudden admissions of truth weren't likely to be the way to go.
And it wouldn't take much for Mulder to realize that if the old man had talked in his apartment, he couldn't possibly be the one who put the bug there. And who was Mulder likely to blame in the heat of the moment? Who did he always blame?
Krycek looked up at the dull overhead bulb and closed his eyes momentarily. Why are we always like this, Mulder? They weren't so far apart in what they wanted, but they always ended up on opposite sides of any struggle, at each other's throats. Cain and Abel.
He exhaled heavily and worked to push the chaos into the back of his mind. After [ausing to listen--all quiet beyond the door--he slipped out into the hallway. Where the two hallways intersected, he glanced toward Mulder's old place, then headed for the stairwell and started down.
Now he'd have to walk the high wire. The old man had to have the tape; there was nothing to be gained by having the old man exposed now, possibly taking him out of the picture before he'd given up enough of his secrets. And Mulder had to be kept alive, which wasn't going to happen as long as he was carrying that tape around. But Mulder would fight giving it up, especially since he thought it was the key to his future. And there'd be no reasoning with Mulder. When had Mulder ever listened to anything he had to say? Getting the tape from him would have to be quick, clean, decisive--no lag time, no room for argument.
Krycek emerged from the stairwell and made his way outside to where he'd parked. He worked the key in his car door and got in. It was happening again: everything accelerating around him, events becoming critical, the stakes heightened. The only thing thing this rat race shit was good for at the moment was keeping the image of a certain brown-haired boy out of his head, and the memory of standing across a kitchen table from his mother, stumbling like a fool over his own words.
He started the engine and pulled out into traffic. The girl had had pale skin and hair, not that much different from Marita's coloring. Marita had admitted once, in one of those awkward, quiet moments that occasionally overtook them, that she might have wanted a child someday. If circumstances had been different. If they'd lived in some alternate universe that wasn't going to hell. He'd been awed at the time, touched that she'd trusted him enough to expose herself that way.
Mulder sat in the outer office, elbows on knees, waiting. Scully had seemed a little out of focus when he'd talked to her. He'd have asked Byers about her, anything that could have been answered with a 'yes' or a 'no' to keep from attracting her attention. But she'd know; she'd realize exactly what was happening and he wouldn't do that to her, give her a vote of no confidence that way. He sat back and straightened his tie. Public persona #1 for the second time today. He looked at his watch. It was nearly four.
The secretary came back into the office looking puzzled. "He was here a minute ago. He must have just stepped out."
"I can wait," Mulder said, though he felt no calmness. His stomach tightened further.
The girl sat back down at her desk and opened a folder from the pile in front of her. She picked up a pen and twirled it absently between her fingers.
The phone rang and Mulder nearly jumped. Redness rose in his face but he willed it away. The secretary was talking, glancing over at him and then back at her desktop. Finally she hung up.
"The Director's been called away on an urgent matter of national security. He says tomorrow morning at nine."
Urgent. Urgent, yes, but he could guess whose security was being protected. They were doing it to him again. One hand curled tight but he checked himself and stood. He could almost feel Scully's reaction as if she were there: the hand on his arm--just the ghost of a touch--saying something quiet, rational, urging him out of the room with that sultry whisper of hers before he did or said something he shouldn't--something she, at least, would regret later.
"Nine," he said, nodded tightly and let himself out.
There was no security in nine o'clock tomorrow morning, no guarantee or comfort in it. Anything could happen between now and then. Something wasn't right. He had to get to Scully.
He looked down the hallway. The elevator door straight ahead of him was just opening. He quickened his pace and then stopped abruptly, turned, and headed for the stairwell.
(end 13 of 14)
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