There were two men, and the girl was on her hands and knees, one behind her, the other getting head. They had a rhythm going, but it was late afternoon and there was a dusty glare of daylight on the rounded glass of the tube, and a bar of light moving up the wall and passing over the pock in the drywall where Scully had dug out the slug. Through chamber and gun barrel and air and then glass and a spinning graze across the left temple of a government servant, and then into the sheetrock. Bullet barrel X glass Scully wall. Some people, thought Mulder, have a purity the like of which you'll never see. Perhaps they deflect the terrible things. Or perhaps they attract them, because where there is so much good there must also necessarily be a balance of bad.
By evening he was on their bench near the Tidal Basin. When separated they always met there, or at least he told himself that; they actually hadn't met there in years. He paced the promenade and he paced among the little trees and he sat on the bench, and he lunged to his feet and paced some more. Eventually he took out a penlight and examined the bench all over for a message, a deep state cryptogram, some hint of contact. He found gum, brut art, guano, athletic tape; the hardwood looked difficult to carve, and there were only a few crass scratches advertising the street handles of idle footpads. He was furious that he was reduced to this, and that her situation in his life had become but a faint and indistinct hope, a longing for vandal poetry:
Scully was here but now she's gone / She left her name to turn you on
He leapt up and went to the rail. He and Scully had stood here not so long ago, on their lunch break. She had said 'May I?' and he had turned to find her with her eyebrows lifted in question and her expert hand poised to dive into the pocket of his suit jacket. A pair of ducks, observing something in her attitude, coasted in. Scully ferreted among the loose sunflower seeds in his pocket, knuckling his hip. The male duck was large and brassy, with a curl in his tail and a Daffy Duck ring around his neck. He commanded Scully to make it snappy. His mate was small and plain and tidy, turning her head this way and that as she watched Scully's hand. They're us, Mulder wanted to say, but he sensed that Scully was in one of her thinking-trances. She cast her arm and the seeds pattered on the water, and the ducks darted forward and dabbled them up and spat them out. They dabbled and spat until without perceptible signal they turned coolly sideways and allowed the current to draw them away, as unmoved and contained as if the river were part of them body and mind, like an exterior bloodstream.
Skinner met Mulder outside a Farragut bar as the sun was reducing thickly behind the buildings at the end of the square. A lentil steam rippled up from the sidewalk. Mulder was somehow at variance with the brisk stream of people, a beer sign blinking behind him, jacket over his shoulder. He was conversing with a derelict who talked too loudly and wore a filthy 1970s Army jacket. Skinner pulled up and watched them for a moment. You could learn a lot about a person when they were interacting with street people or the really messed up Vietnam vets. Mulder had done research in psych hospitals and was good at handling outcasts or terrified children, even psychos, and he probably thought himself the first wiseass to refer to his A.D.'s office as 'the Skinner Box.’
Mulder looked over and saw Skinner, and broke off the conversation with a casual lift of his chin.
‘Thanks for meeting me,’ Skinner said.
Mulder winced brightly, the only time his impassive features came alive. He spat a hull on the sidewalk. 'This better be good; I was getting a great spiel about cell phone towers and government mind control,' he said.
'Is that what you were talking about with that hobo?' Skinner asked.
Mulder followed him into the bar and settled into a booth, evidently exhausted. He tapped the table. 'A hobo's a migratory worker,' he said. 'Tramps travel around but don't work. Bums don't travel or work. Get your mendicants straight.'
'So, in the derelict world, you'd be a hobo.' Skinner held up two fingers as a waiter sailed near. 'Old Crow.'
Mulder shook his head. 'A gimlet,' he said.
The waiter allowed himself to be arrested in the midst of his endless circuit of the room. He carried a tray Statue of Liberty-style above his head, and smelled steamy from the dishwashers. He twitched a pierced eyebrow. 'No shit,' he said.
'In theory, none,' said Mulder.
'I suppose you tooled down here in a Model T?'
'I did,' said Mulder, brightening for a moment.
'He'd like a whiskey,' Skinner said, shutting them down.
He’d run into Mulder in the hall at work that afternoon, and decided to try to do something about the dull depression in the eyes that met his so defensively, as if Mulder had forgotten all the times he had helped Skinner out, and only flatly hated himself now, in his abandonment. But Skinner had not forgotten. Skinner considered Fox Mulder a friend, the sort of friendship that is tacit or even surly until the shit hits the fan. He honestly loved the gifted, phantasmagorical man who held the keys to other kingdoms like an ancient hill woman, who could not see himself for what he really was, and who messed up at love as mortally as the rest of us.
In the booth, Mulder seemed to be sinking away into himself in a gray and scouring blizzard. The waiter was gone, and a woman with runway posture strutted past in a slinky gown. They both checked her out, keeping it macho, but Mulder's ogle lacked heart. Skinner had the impression that Mulder didn't often drink, which would make his task easier.
'I don’t think I should drink,' said Mulder. ‘My stomach’s messed up.’
'Well, I'm going to sit here and tie one on,' Skinner said, removing his jacket and getting comfortable. He was thinking about oyster shooters, or maybe something that you pounded on the bar and sucked the foam off of. From where he sat he could just barely see a wall-mounted TV, with a news channel slowly scrolling through a long bulletin. Two shots of bourbon descended past Mulder and stood waiting in the middle of the table.
The bell jingled above the door. The place was busy, but now something was happening in the crowd around the door, an outrage, from the sound of it.
The Vietnam vet appeared, cutting a wide swath, his eyes on Mulder. He came at a halting and steady pace towards their booth, limping or jerking, unhurried, with some sort of amusement and inner calculation on his face. He seemed to busy himself greatly with the task of walking, murmuring to himself, ignoring the wake of protesting patrons. Mulder looked a little more alert. He tipped his head tenderly.
The veteran arrived at their table in his ragged layers like a wild man with a sort of leafy cap upon his head, subdued PFC insignia, his hair twiggy and the layers of clothes and canteen straps and tattered blankets emitting the smell of garbage and smoke in an impenetrable wall.
He and Mulder nodded civilly, and nodded again. 'Brother, I'm a little short,' said the vet.
'Didi mau!' said Skinner, slapping the table. The vet, calmly taken aback, considered him with a slightly snobbish glance, and said nothing.
Mulder gave Skinner a look, and felt around in his jacket on the bench beside him.
Skinner knew exactly the sort of shit the man had seen, that they'd all seen, the three of them, in their various wars, and the sort of shit they'd done that could make you want to shut off the normal world, the stuff you could no longer live with because, let's face it, reality was not what you had thought it was, and you were not who you thought you were, and this was all you deserved. Mulder himself with his sullen face was on his way to the gutter, loneliness and loss and mistreatment his justification. Maybe not the gutter, but some sort of symbolic mode of suffering, like alcoholism or a vow of silence, or working himself into the ground. What irritated Skinner was that the vet believed himself deeper tenanted by humanity because he embraced the sort of funky atavistic state that most people could not stomach.
The palm of the man’s hand was a permanent, greyish black, as if his hands had been dipped in stain. Mulder dropped a folded twenty into it, and the man looked gently into Mulder’s eyes. 'I hope you find your girl,' he said.
Skinner looked at Mulder in surprise. 'Me too,' Mulder said.
The waiter and the bouncer were approaching from each side, and the vet held out his blanket-draped arms like a carrion bird about to rise, philosophically indignant but resigned, away into the evening. He was still looking sympathetically at Mulder. 'If that ain't a bearcat,' he said, with a shake of his leafy head, and then they were upon him, and he disappeared in a cheerful tumult. The bells spilled their noise over the indignant crowd. People were throwing Mulder edgy looks, and he shifted a little and looked at the mess of sunflower husks he had scattered over the table.
Skinner cleared his throat. 'You know, Mulder, women leave...They feel sad about it and guilty about it, but it's just something they have to do.'
‘She isn't just a woman—she's...’ Mulder said. He had a stick pretzel between his teeth. He was busy twisting a Keno ticket. His glower wandered along until it landed on Skinner, and he seemed surprised to find his boss on the other side of the table. His legs shifted, knees cracking, and his eyes narrowed into a sneer, and, fittingly, he produced a phrase he’d picked up from Scully. ‘All due respect, Sir, but I don't think you know a goddamn thing about women.’
"Mulder, shut the fuck up and drink that drink!" Skinner snapped, stabbing the table with his forefinger. Mulder obviously didn’t have much trouble in the women department, considering the fact that a bright young doctor had frittered away five years of her prime on his ludicrous project. All the same, it was pretty rich that Mulder would claim to be an actual authority on women. He appeared to divide his time between calling phone sex lines and hovering chastely over his colleague. What Mulder knew of womanhood was Scully, who was, as he had pointed out, no ordinary case. Knowing Scully would not make you an authority on anything but pedantry and the soul of containment. It would make you believe that there was something better and harder and more faultless about the world, and also something perennially unattainable, so that you would find yourself living with unmitigated yearning. Mulder probably believed that he had looked into the sun.
Skinner had observed in recent years that they looked upon the world as a pair, a binding doubleness and distance in the vision of each, a feeler lag as they mentally reached for the other. They were natural police. They gazed upon you from the shadows of an arcane thicket. And just as collusively, and with suggestion, there was often a humor washing about them that lit up Scully's eyes and dared not touch her sour mouth, and which made Mulder look happy. If they were fucking each other Skinner didn't want to know, there being hardly anything sadder or more precarious in the world than battlefield love.
Slowly, irresolutely, Mulder reached for the shot glass. He set it back down with a thoughtful look, licking his lip, and shuddered delicately. Skinner sighed.
'Tell me where she is,' Mulder said.
'You know I can't, Mulder.'
'Did you see her at her debriefing?'
Skinner nodded. Scully had come down from Baltimore, having settled precariously close, despite her bid to escape. She had chosen her usual chair before his desk, taking time to smooth the back of her skirt as she sat down, ending up hunched over with her hands at the backs of her knees. She looked at the empty chair beside her. She seemed distracted to the point of hypnosis, as if all the doors and windows were about to flip open and skeletons gad in on strings. Stamped beneath each of her wide blue eyes were the lavender thumbprints he remembered from her illness.
Skinner stood restlessly, pressing his knuckles into the blotter. He asked her an innocuous question about her new civilian life and Scully looked up at him slowly, scornfully, as if she'd never before considered his existence. He suspected that she had yet to forgive either him or Mulder for keeping her out of the loop on the New Spartans thing. 'I know it's not easy leaving the FBI, losing your identity as an FBI agent—'
'No, Sir,' Scully said stiffly. She might have been agreeing or disagreeing with him. Her expression said: Cut the crap. She swallowed, glancing at the door again.
'He's out in the field,' said Skinner. Openly, he met her glare. It occurred to him to wonder how the rest of the world had become 'the field', as if the Hoover Building were sanctuary in a raging wilderness. It was satisfying to convey the sense that Mulder was off struggling in the wilds, although actually Mulder was down the hall in the bullpen, if he'd bothered to come to work. Skinner seriously doubted that Scully was going to stick her head in there looking for old friends. 'I can't forget how you went after Cardinale,’ Skinner said. 'There was a time when you really trusted me. If you're in trouble, I need to know.'
She grabbed the arms of the chair and rose, fight in her eye. That's right, thought Skinner. 'You,' she had whispered as he held her in his arms, her face so close that he could smell her breath and the heat of her skin slipping from under her collar, he could smell the blood. He could almost pretend that the accusation had meant something else.
'Are you asking me if I trust you now?' she asked icily.
'If you need help, Scully, if you're being coerced into this, you've got to tell someone.'
Although he had not dismissed her, she’d had enough. She paused with her hand on the door, rolling her head helplessly, then turned and glared at him. 'If I need your help, Sir, I'll ask for it.'
'She was okay,' Skinner reported to Mulder. They had left the bar and were wandering together along the streets. Mulder was drunk. It was dark, and the night was rich and jazz-colored, and it was a shame they were not in the mood to enjoy it.
Mulder held a cigarette that a woman had handed him, with a meaningful look. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, that Mulder was drunk. His jacket trailed from his hand and the cigarette was cold. The liquor had taken a while to make him truly confusable, but now Skinner had his hands full just getting him down the street, and Mulder's mental fixation on Scully was floating up on full display. 'I think she's in trouble,' Mulder confided. 'I think the Smoking Man's alive. The Lone Gunmen told me she was sent to England. She's been threatened somehow. Blackmailed.' Mulder walked in a straight line, but the straight line had nothing in common with the lay of the sidewalk. Periodically Skinner had to correct his trajectory. 'I have never, in all my days,' said Mulder, seemingly walking through entire eras of time with his eyes closed, 'never have I seen Agent Scully forced into such a drastic position. And if it's because of me, if she thinks she's doing it to protect me, if she’s somewhere suffering because of my petty dabbling in some meaningless conspiracy, how am I conceivably to live with that? Do you have any idea what she means to me, Sir?' He did not wait for an answer, but stopped, his hands in his pockets. He had dropped a folded twenty, and it lay by his shoe. 'Please, Sir, give me back the X-Files,' he said.
'I can't, Mulder.'
Mulder shuddered irritably. Something had slowed inside of him, and they left the sidewalk and crossed a patch of grass. He stood at the edge of the bushes and looked down at the estuary. Skinner followed him and stuffed the twenty in the breast pocket of Mulder's shirt.
Mulder turned, startled, as if he'd been stabbed. 'Come on, I know you lied to me!' he said.
Skinner shrugged, watching him. With a touch of forethought, he removed his suit jacket, which had a particularly nice cut, and folded it over the back of a park bench.
'How can you not tell me where she is?' Mulder snarled. 'You don't have a fucking clue what this means. If anyone did, they'd be more involved in searching for her!'
'She isn't lost, Mulder!' Skinner said impatiently. He folded his glasses and slipped them into the jacket. He rolled his head from side to side and shook out his hands a little.
'Did they take her to keep me quiet? Is that it?' Mulder asked desperately, coming across the grass.
'Mulder, nobody took her—she went of her own free will.' Skinner adjusted his footing on the wet grass and calculated his next words, watching Mulder's tense face. Mulder was breathing rapidly. His eyes were black, his sensitive mouth hanging indignantly open. Skinner let the moment settle into its perfect slot. 'Besides, since when have you ever shut up about anything?' he said.
Mulder lashed out, and Skinner moved smoothly aside. Mulder lunged swiftly, and they grappled, legs braced. He smelled like bar smoke and musky deodorant. It was good to be pitted against his full strength; he was strong, but Skinner was a thousand times more experienced. Skinner pushed hard, head lowered. 'God, I hate the way you fight, Mulder. There's no finesse, no plan,' he grunted. He seldom missed the chance to mentor a rash young agent.
'Not if my plan is to kick your ass!'
'Come on, I can kick your ass any day of the week,' Skinner grunted, shoving him away. Mulder came at him again, his wild onrush knocking Skinner sideways a step. But Mulder was too tall and easy to unbalance, all legs, and he let rage cloud his mind when he fought.
'Come on, come on!' Mulder circled, arms wide. 'I thought you killed those V.C. with your bare hands!' Skinner tossed out a fast punch, but Mulder skidded backwards on the grass, out of reach.
'Come here, you little prick,' Skinner panted, untroubled, his heart beating hard and slow. He was just getting warmed up. It was easy to get Mulder in a headlock.
They grappled again, until Skinner got his hands against Mulder's chest and pushed him away. Mulder's lip was cut. His fist slid off Skinner's chops in a slow, sloppy punch. Skinner shook his head and felt better than he had all week. Mulder looked punchy, though, and he was weaving, coming in with a hollow roar, his fist drawn back.
Skinner calmly narrowed his concentration, centered his feet and went with a tempered haymaker, cracking him squarely in the jaw.
Mulder cried out in surprise, although the pain must have taken a few seconds to hit. He staggered into the shrubbery and felt for the trunk of a cherry tree with his hand. He bent over and threw up while Skinner stood flexing a stiffening hand.
Mulder salivated and spat, still gripping the tree. The lights on the water were beautiful, and a little breeze came off the water and cooled Skinner's forehead. It really was a lovely evening. 'I have puke in my nose,' Mulder related, sounding euphoric.
Skinner was the civilised sort who carried a handkerchief. Mulder blew his nose and patted the cut on his lip, and got a sip at a bronze drinking fountain. He hawked and spat into an urban beautification flowerbed.
Skinner unrolled his cuffs and put on his glasses and picked up his jacket and they walked along the sidewalk. 'Jesus, you bastard, you got blood on my shirt,' Skinner commented.
'Pansy-ass,' Mulder said cheerfully.
Skinner hailed a cab and put Mulder in it.
Mulder rolled down the window and looked up at him. His eyes were bright and the lip was swelling. 'Thank you, Sir,' he said, irony and honesty mixing in his voice. Skinner tapped the roof to signal the cab driver. 'Anytime, Mulder,' he said.
Let him never forget how it felt when she said that her own life was standing still, how she was trapped in a nongermane nightmare. And let him now feel only gratitude that she had broken free of all that, stuck her iron in the fire and shot the gears of prospect. And even if he only saw life as a futile series of impulsive gestures, impermanent as writing on water, let him admit, yes, that joy and love had left their mark, and that he was the stone she had so inscribed.