Meanwhile, back at the FBI...
SPOILERS: Season 9
DISCLAIMER: Not mine; they belong to FOX, CC, etc.
Notes: This story is the seventh part in a series that rewrites the end of season 9 and then branches off in its own direction.
Special thanks to Mims for the beta.
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The damp streets of Washington glistened beneath the lampposts as Skinner circled the quiet block. But the narrow lane he turned down had little illumination, adding an air of foreboding to the intrigue he already felt. He parked along the curb and checked his rearview mirror before exiting the car. He'd taken precautions, and there were no signs that anyone had followed.
Reaching for the door handle, Skinner shook his head at his paranoia. Back when he'd been promoted to a desk job in the FBI upper echelons, he thought it would mean a slower pace and regular hours--he never expected it to be so cloak and dagger. Yet here he was, once again, meeting his agents at a covert location in the late hours of the night.
He crossed the empty roadway and headed for an unimpressive diner with a handwritten "Open 24 hours" sign in the window. It was a wonder this place was still in business. Skinner fought off a yawn, a reminder that it was well past his bedtime, especially for the middle of the work week. He suddenly felt very weary, and wizened. He was getting too old for this. Considering the allegiances he'd made within the Bureau and the way men like Alvin Kersh were getting fast-tracked past him, he knew he'd reached the end of the line as far as promotions were concerned. Early retirement had been suggested to him once or twice, none too politely, yet he'd been determined to stick around just to prove himself. But maybe retirement wasn't such a bad idea.
Skinner opened the door and distantly registered a bell tinkling, his mind instead dwelling on visions of his cozy hunting cabin, full of peace and solitude, and unending vacation. But he quickly pushed the fantasy aside and got down to business. He made a beeline for the counter and ordered a coffee, black, to go, with a nod toward the one occupied table to indicate where it could be delivered.
Making his way to the booth, Skinner glanced over his two agents. They were seated on opposite sides of the table, both drinking coffee, and talking quietly. A smile briefly twitched at his lips as he mused that their predecessors on the X-Files would've been seated side by side, at least in the later years. He wondered how long it would take these two to fall into the same pattern.
"Agent Doggett, Agent Reyes," he greeted as he took his seat next to Doggett. But that was all of the formalities he had patience for. "What's so important you couldn't discuss it in my office during daylight hours?"
The agents shared a look, then Doggett reached into his jacket and pulled out a sheet of paper. He unfolded it and pushed it over in front of Skinner. It contained simply a list of ten names.
"Someone slid this under our office door last night. No prints, nothin' to identify the source," Doggett explained.
"The only clue we had to their significance was the name at the top." Reyes reached over and tapped the name in question.
Gene Crane. *Special Agent* Crane. The same man who had supposedly died in a car crash in the FBI parking garage, only to turn up very much alive and whisked away on some top secret project.
"Alls we could find out is that they're FBI agents, and all ten have a military background," said Doggett. "Whoever these guys are, their records are sealed up tight. We couldn't get any further without runnin' into brick walls."
"We thought it best to stop before we raised any red flags," Reyes said, lifting her coffee mug to her lips.
Skinner nodded and considered the list. The names were familiar to him, for one reason in particular: all ten had been promoted within the last six months. But he decided to keep that information to himself.
The waitress set down a Styrofoam cup in front of Skinner, steam wafting from the plastic lid. He nodded politely, and the trio remained silent until she had returned to the counter.
Then Reyes leaned closer and finally voiced the words Skinner had been expecting: "Sir, we think these men are Super Soldiers, strategically placed in the FBI."
"For what purpose?" Skinner asked.
"Infiltration, by the aliens," she said as seriously as Mulder would have.
Doggett quickly added, "Or the military."
The agents attentively awaited Skinner's reaction. He let his eyes wander, unseeing, over the list one more time, then he folded up the page.
"I want you to drop this immediately." He tucked the paper into his jacket and reached for his wallet.
"But, sir--" Reyes started to protest.
"Do you remember what happened when you tried to take down Kersh? You were lucky to keep your jobs. If you pursue this, your jobs may not be the only thing at risk." Skinner stood and dropped a five-dollar bill on the table, then picked up his coffee. "Am I clear, agents?"
Doggett looked away with worried eyes, and Reyes met Skinner's gaze defiantly, but both nodded. Skinner could only hope that his orders still meant something to them. It was too bad, however, that he seldom heeded his own advice.
* * *
Skinner scanned the hallway again before slipping the lock pick into the keyhole. This late at night, even the janitors had gone home, and the security guard didn't patrol more often than once every 15 minutes. Internal security at the Hoover building was far too lax, a result of the Bureau's arrogance about their "superb" external security, especially since September 11. But anyone who really wanted access could easily get in, as evidenced by the parade of shadowy figures who made themselves at home in high-level offices.
The knob turned easily. Skinner glanced around once more before slipping through the doorway into the darkened office. He pulled out a penlight and switched it on, not daring to use anything brighter; but in the complete darkness, such a small light was sufficient. With haste, he moved to the secretary's desk and started sifting through stacks of papers, trying to determine the most logical location for the files.
While his hands worked, his mind continued to search for a plausible defense should he get caught. Letting himself into the personnel office earlier was far less questionable. At least he had a key and a right to be there, even if the late hour was extremely unusual. He could just claim to be a workaholic putting in overtime on a case. But breaking into a colleague's outer office was certainly inexcusable. Unfortunately, it was the only way he could see to get his hands on those files.
The foray into personnel had garnered nothing more than heightened suspicions. The electronic records on the ten names from the list were buttoned up tight. Only the barest of personal information was available without a security clearance and a password. The hard copies of their records were all listed as checked out to another office: Deputy Director Alvin Kersh.
But the present search, too, was quickly proving to be fruitless. After thumbing through every pile, rifling through every drawer, Skinner couldn't find any sign of the ten personnel folders. He swept the light over the room, hunting for any hiding place he might have missed. The narrow beam fell upon a door opposite him, and he stopped.
His heart began to race as he considered the possibility.
If sneaking into the secretary's office was reprehensible, breaking into Kersh's inner sanctum was certainly worse. Grounds for dismissal, if not prosecution. But now might be his only chance. Was it worth the risk?
In the quiet, a wall clock obscured in the shadows sounded surreally loud as it ticked off the seconds, a reminder that he was running out of time. "In for a penny, in for a pound," Skinner whispered under his breath. And then he refused to deliberate it any further. He would just get in and out as quickly as possible.
His hands fumbled with the lock, but he took a calming breath and made short work of it. He turned the knob, and switched off the penlight. Impenetrable darkness enveloped him until his eyes adjusted. Unconsciously holding his breath, he slowly pushed open the door.
The clock ticked away behind him; in the inky blackness ahead was nothing but silence. There was no immediate evidence that he'd tripped an alarm or caught the attention of security. His pulse began to even out, and he set to work, determined to linger no more than a couple of minutes.
Through the darkness, Skinner headed toward where he knew the desk was, only flipping on his light when his foot hit the wood of the side panel. On the pristine desktop sat only one stack of files, and he immediately reached for them.
"Something I can help you with, Walter?"
Skinner froze. Across the room, a lamp clicked on. But he didn't need to look over to know who had spoken. He recognized the voice.
Skinner closed his eyes and shook his head, switching off the unnecessary light in his hand. "It was all a set up, wasn't it? I walked right into the trap." He opened his eyes again and turned to face Kersh. "So what now--you tell OPR and I'm eighty-sixed?"
The Deputy Director appeared calm and cocky, lounging comfortably in a plush leather armchair. He reached for a flat wooden box sitting next to the lamp on the end table. "Tell them what?"
Skinner regarded Kersh, who drew a cigar from the box and lit up; his expression was unreadable. Skinner didn't know the man well enough to know what game he was playing. "What do you want from me?"
Kersh took a drag from the cigar and said casually, "Just a word to the wise: if you insist on pursuing this, there *will* be consequences."
"Are you threatening me?" Skinner stepped around the desk, eliminating the barrier between them.
"Only warning you to think carefully about where you plant your flag."
"And what about you? Where's your flag?"
"A wise man knows that in some battles, there are no winners, only survivors. A flag is only likely to get you killed."
Skinner sneered. "A word to the wise? Keep playing it like that and all you'll find is yourself on the wrong side without any allies."
"I hardly think you've proven yourself a reliable authority on choosing allies."
With hands on hips, Skinner let his gaze wander to the dim corners of the room. "I was once where you are, trying to walk the line. I was deluded into thinking there was such a thing as neutrality in this war. But not anymore." He looked back to Kersh. "You think my allies are questionable? I'll tell you one thing--I've learned there's no greater quality in a man than integrity, the courage to take a stand for what he believes in, no matter the cost. In the end, it's the only true victory a man can claim: to be master of his own soul."
Kersh huffed out a bitter laugh, releasing a puff of smoke. "You mean, to declare the sky is falling when no one's listening? You call that courage; I call it foolery."
"At least Mulder and Scully never compromised themselves. They never sold out."
Smirking, Kersh replied, "And look what it got them."
Skinner was rapidly tiring of their futile conversation. "If you're going to call security, then do it. Otherwise, I'm leaving."
Kersh gestured toward the door with his cigar, then returned it to his lips. Skinner eyed him warily for a moment before turning to leave.
"Watch your back, Walter."
Skinner stopped with his hand on the doorknob and glanced over his shoulder. "A man with friends doesn't need to; he has someone to watch it for him." With that, he passed through the door and didn't look back.
* * *
To his weary bones, the journey from the far end of the parking garage to the elevator seemed much longer than the opposite walk less than two hours ago. Skinner had hoped for a better parking spot when he returned from the gym to his apartment building, but this early on a Sunday morning, most everyone was at home sleeping in, leaving the garage filled almost to capacity. Despite his burning the midnight oil this week, his Marine training wouldn't let him sleep late, even on weekends. But with his accumulating fatigue and aging joints, the workout left him feeling spent rather than invigorated.
At the security door to the elevator lobby, Skinner reached for his back pocket to retrieve his access card, only to remember that he was wearing sweats without any pockets. His keys were in his hand, but he realized his wallet must still be in the car. He turned around and looked back across the dim garage. His car was all the way at the other end and around the corner. The way he felt at the moment, it might as well have been several miles away. But he really had no other choice.
On the trek back to the car, Skinner found himself again preoccupied by the same thing that had been weighing on him since his late-night excursion into Kersh's office: When was the axe going to fall? The rest of the week had passed without incident, and without any communication from Kersh. Was this just the calm before the storm? The latent anxiety was certainly as much to blame for his current exhaustion as the lack of sleep. Maybe that had been the point of the threat, to keep him on edge and off his game.
Before Skinner rounded the corner, out of habit his eyes wandered to the convex mirror posted on a pole to his left, meant to provide a view of oncoming cars. As he kept walking, his tired mind took a moment to register that the car he saw with a hood up and a man bent over the engine was his own.
Suddenly on alert, Skinner halted just before he made the turn. He backed up a few steps and watched through the mirror. The intruder showed no awareness of hearing Skinner's approach, thankfully muted by the soft rubber of his sneakers. Using this to his advantage, Skinner quietly dodged to the car parked opposite his and crouched down near the bumper. The man was apparently too intent on his work to notice. From this vantage point, Skinner couldn't see clearly what the intruder was doing, until he briefly lifted a hand full of colored wires. That couldn't be good.
Plotting his attack, Skinner reached for his gun--only to remember that of course, he wasn't wearing one. This was the last time he would go to the gym unarmed, he vowed. The element of surprise was all he had going for him, so he had to use it, and before his target was no longer distracted.
Skinner slowly crept to the other end of the car that was providing his shelter. Just as the intruder was straightening to reach for the hood, Skinner sprang forward and wrapped an arm tightly around his throat. The man reared back, almost knocking Skinner off his balance, but he only tightened his hold. The intruder grappled at the arm squeezing off his oxygen, using his slightly greater bulk to wrench the two of them around the car, heading for the cement wall. But the exertion of the struggle and Skinner's tenacity eventually proved too much--the man fell as a dead weight in Skinner's grasp.
Wary of being fooled, Skinner held tight while he caught his breath. Finally, he let go, and the man slumped into a heap at Skinner's feet. He was perusing the garage to see if anyone had witnessed their tussle, when a cell phone began to ring. The sound was muted but close. Skinner glanced downward first, wondering if the phone belonged to the man on the ground, but the noise was coming from elsewhere. Then, it dawned on him that it was his own phone--he had left it in the car with his wallet.
Being sure to keep an eye on the unconscious man, Skinner quickly moved to the car to answer the phone. He noticed with a touch of amusement that through all of this, he still had the car keys in his hand. The phone was already on the fourth ring, and about to go to voicemail, by the time he answered.
"Assistant Director Skinner? This is Mary Thomas, from the Director's office. Director Mueller has requested to see you as soon as possible."
"On a Sunday? Are you sure this can't wait until tomorrow?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but it's an emergency meeting. You know he wouldn't call you in on the weekend unless it was important. Shall I tell him to expect you?"
It was a very polite way of saying that his attendance was not optional. "I'll be there in half an hour." Then Skinner ended the call, not wanting to linger, and not wanting her to argue that he had to arrive sooner.
For a long moment, Skinner just stood there, glancing between the phone and the man at his feet. Could it be any coincidence that the reprimand from the FBI and the threat Kersh had warned of occurred at the same time? If Skinner had remembered his wallet and phone, he would've been in his apartment when he got the call, while the intruder was downstairs tampering with his car. Shortly afterward, Skinner would've come back down to drive off to the meeting, none the wiser. But the plan had failed.
Skinner knew the intruder wouldn't stay unconscious forever, so he couldn't afford to waste any more time. Quickly, Skinner rifled through the man's pockets. Not surprisingly, there was no means of identification, just a small canister of black paint (to obscure the security cameras, Skinner surmised), a lock pick, and a remote detonator. So, it was a car bomb. Where did they mean to explode it--in the garage? While Skinner figured that they selected the time of day to avoid witnesses, at least it had the incidental benefit that the bomb would not likely claim additional victims. And the fact that he was parked between a dividing wall and an empty space would minimize the odds of igniting other vehicles.
There was little time for decision making, but in that moment, everything became very clear. The events of the last week--the events of the last few years--all pointed in one direction. Skinner would take that retirement after all.
He had seen the signs for a while, and witnessing what his former agents had to go through to find the peace they deserved had made him consider his own future. He had sincerely hoped never to need the "nest egg" he'd started saving for just such an emergency, but now he knew, there was only one right choice. It was time to stop hemming and decisively plant his flag.
Knowing now what had to be done, Skinner swiftly moved into action. He stuffed his wallet and cell phone into the intruder's emptied pockets, then maneuvered the inert body into the driver's seat and shoved the car key into the ignition. If the bomb was destructive enough, the man's identity would be obliterated and the ID in the wallet might be convincing. Even if they did an autopsy and ran a DNA test, the results could take weeks; at the very least the ruse could buy Skinner some time to get away without being tracked.
Skinner took one last look around the garage before shutting the car door and hood, and moving to a safe distance. He still hadn't seen or heard anyone else around. Just inside the door that led into the alley, he stopped and turned. A push of the button would seal his fate.
He released the safety on the detonator, and pushed.
* * *
The hushed tension in the hogan was getting stifling. Mulder set aside the parenting book he had been idly thumbing through and looked over at Scully. She and William were seated on a quilt spread out on the floor playing with his toy dump truck. Susanne sat at the table, reading a pregnancy book, and Gibson reclined on a cushion on the other side of the room, reading a novel for his English class.
Scully sighed and glanced at her watch, then met Mulder's gaze. "Did Michael say how long these things usually go?"
He wasn't sure how long Michael Hosteen had been away at the meeting with the tribal elders, but he knew it had gone much longer than they expected. They were eagerly awaiting news about how their request to occupy and build at the ruins had gone over.
"I doubt they're watching the clock," he answered. "They probably have a different sense of time than we do." These days, however, it was hard for him to ignore the fact that time was running out.
William squealed in glee as his truck overturned, dumping the colored blocks, and Scully shifted her attention back to him without further comment.
Bored with sifting through the pile of books on babies and parenthood he had gifted to Byers, Mulder thought about wandering off to find the guys. They had been here earlier, but as the hours wore on, it was clear that the whole lot of them needed to find things to do before they started driving each other up the walls. It had been a small miracle that Susanne had convinced Byers to go hang out with Frohike and Langly rather than stay with her, feigning some excuse about her and Scully talking boring science--it made Mulder wonder if he was ever that bad about clinging to Scully.
Today, perhaps, he was. Mulder had been worried about her ever since Langly found the news item online: Assistant Director of FBI Killed by Car Bomb. Hearing of Skinner's death was hard for them all, but Mulder hadn't expected just how much it would affect Scully. She'd been more reserved than usual, and even though she resolutely refused to let him see her cry, her face bore evidence of tears repeatedly. He'd hoped that getting her out of the trailer to socialize today would help, but she was little more than physically present.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mulder caught Gibson's movement and turned to see him set down his book and head for the doorway of the hogan. Mulder hoped this meant there would be news, but he knew Gibson had only been waiting around for his friend, Michael's nephew, and that might be the reason for his departure.
While Mulder watched the blanket draped across doorway for Gibson's return, William got up and began to totter after him.
"William," Scully called. "William, come back here."
But the boy ignored her. She was on her feet as William grasped the blanket, and Mulder was just a step behind her. William had already passed through, so Mulder was surprised when Scully stopped abruptly in the entrance. He pushed the blanket further out of the way to see what had caused her reaction.
At the end of the driveway leading to the main house sat a camper he hadn't seen before. A man wearing a ball cap over long, stringy brown hair was descending from the driver's seat. He said something to one of the Navajo men congregated outside, who turned and pointed directly at the hogan.
Mulder immediately looked to Gibson, who was standing a few feet in front of Scully and holding William's hand. Even while Mulder was consciously thinking, "Who is it?" Gibson turned and opened his mouth to answer. But before he could speak, Scully exclaimed, "Oh, my God! Walter!"
Mulder was still trying to register this information as she rushed toward the stranger, who took off the cap, along with the ponytail attached to it, and suddenly became much more familiar. "Well, look who decided to join the fold," Mulder said, mostly to himself.
Skinner met Scully halfway, absolutely beaming at the sight of her (Mulder wondered if he had ever seen the man grin before). She didn't even hesitate to throw her arms around his neck, and although Skinner initially seemed taken aback by the greeting, he soon responded by wrapping his arms around her waist and hugging her tightly.
Mulder quickly caught up with them. As the pair pulled apart, Skinner gave her a once-over and said, "You look good, Dana." Only then did he acknowledge Mulder, and added, "So do you. It's good to see both of you."
In an obvious display, Mulder stepped close to Scully and slid his arm around her waist, pulling her to his side, before he extended a hand in greeting to their former boss. "Good to see you too, *Walter*. You're looking pretty spry for a dead man."
"That seems to be the admissions price around here." Skinner said it with a smirk, but Mulder got the distinct impression that was more in reaction to his blatant posturing, or maybe to the elbow Scully had shoved into his side in response.
Keeping his arm around Scully, Mulder gestured toward the camper with his free hand and said to her, "Finally, someone thought to bring their own housing."
Another car came rumbling up the drive, and Mulder recognized it as Michael's. He left the group to go over and stand near the car as Michael got out.
The two said their hellos but skipped further pleasantries since it was clear what was foremost on Mulder's mind.
"*Officially*, the council cannot grant anyone but the Dine permission to build on our land," Michael said in his measured, steady manner. "However, it is said that the dead inhabit those hills, people who were killed before their time. Who's to say that is not true?"
Michael said the last line meaningfully, and Mulder caught his gist. With a solemn nod, Mulder offered a very heartfelt, "Thank you."
Returning the nod, Michael then headed off toward the main house. After a thoughtful moment, Mulder turned to find the group he had just left watching him expectantly.
"Who was that?" Skinner asked as Mulder returned.
"Michael Hosteen, Albert's son. He was asking the elders permission for us to use some of their land. He didn't offer details, but I'm pretty sure he had to go to bat for us to get their okay."
"So, it was a yes?" Scully asked.
"Mmm, more like, don't ask, don't tell," Mulder said. At her raised brows, he explained, "They can't officially grant us permission to build, but they're not going to stop us either. Half the men on the council were probably code talkers. If Albert really passed on the secrets of the MJ documents, they may have a better idea what's in store than we do."
"And what exactly is in store?" Skinner ventured.
*That* was a loaded question. Mulder shared a look with Scully, then glanced over at Gibson and their son, and Susanne watching on from the doorway. With a friendly slap on Skinner's back, Mulder led him toward the hogan.
"Welcome to the land of the living dead, Walter. We have a lot of catching up to do."
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