No one had to tell her when she reported for work on Monday that something had gone terribly wrong. She could feel it in the air; the charged silence of the guard at the metal detector was her first clue. Normally, he gave her a wave and a friendly smile. This morning he had searched her bag.
He didn't find anything; what could she possibly have that could be considered a weapon? She was Skinner's secretary, not one of his agents. Her limited knowledge of firearms came from reading ballistics reports, and the closest she'd ever been to a gun was the one that sat holstered on Skinner's hip.
All the way up to the fourth floor, people avoided her gaze. A frosty silence emanated from all corners of the mailroom when she stopped in to pick up the weekend's arrivals. The same occurred in the break room, so she left without getting herself a cup of hot water for her morning tea.
It wasn't until she reached the office supply nook that one of the two women there deigned to speak to her, and even then, it was just a cursory introduction to the newest admin. Kim struggled to keep her expression calm as her supervisor casually mentioned that a new AD had been assigned to the fourth floor. When the older woman didn't then re- assign her to a new boss, she knew despite whatever had happened over the weekend, Skinner's job was safe. He was obviously persona non grata among the staff, and so by extension was she, but at least he was still employed here. For now.
She grabbed the needed box of staples and fought back the urge to sprint to her office. A hard, familiar knot of fear formed in her gut, but she kept on with her day: opening the blinds in Skinner's office, putting on a pot of his favorite blend of coffee to brew, preparing the mail and messages for his perusal. An empty Coke can sat in her wastepaper basket, and she remembered with a sigh that she'd offered one just like it to Alex before she left on Friday.
As she bent down to pick up the can, she noticed a ball of yellow legal pad paper wadded next to it. The Bureau had taken up recycling in the last year, and all the clericals were under strict orders to enforce the new rules. She was sitting back down at her desk in order to reach the paper basket underneath when a familiar block print caught her eye. Alex had hated writing in script.
God, Alex. The knot tightened in her belly, and she peeked around Skinner's ajar door to confirm he was really gone. The office was empty.
She slid the wad of paper in her drawer for...what, she didn't know. The letter was probably just some case notes he'd passed to Mulder; it was silly to think he'd somehow covertly left a note behind for her. What could he possibly say to her now? Nothing but more lies.
Still, she left the paper in the drawer.
Skinner arrived a short time later, his face a grim mask of slate. His dark eyes gave away nothing behind the glint of his glasses, his only concession to her worried expression a deft touch to his injured forehead.
"I'm fine," he stated, pre-empting her question. "It was a long weekend."
"Gone," he said, not unkindly. He'd never asked her for specifics, nor had she ever told him, but he'd always spoken of Alex to her in a gentle manner. "He won't be back."
She nodded, not truly understanding but aware that no more details would be forthcoming. The walls had ears, he'd told her time and again. When he moved into his office, she followed, the daily stack of messages and files in her shaky grip. He hung up his suit jacket, then paused as he passed her standing next to his desk. His warm hand cupped her elbow, as much of an intimate caress as he dared give her here, and despite her tumbling emotions, she felt better for the brief touch.
"Arle--" he started to murmur, close to her ear, but she pulled away from him and gave him a warning look. The concern in his eyes shifted to a weary pragmatism.
"Would you like to go over your schedule now, sir?" she asked for the benefit of any eavesdroppers.
"Yes, thank you, Kim," he replied, reverting back to her first name, a signal that he too was switching back to work mode.
When the day continued to spiral downhill, she wondered if she hadn't made a mistake in pushing him away. Skinner kept his office door closed for most of the morning, only speaking to her via intercom. The last time he'd avoided face-to-face conversations with her was the day he had asked her to call Alex's apartment - a number she had known by heart back then - and had found it disconnected.
She fretted over this new development, gnawing on the edges of her pencil until the taste of carbon in her mouth made her queasy. Agent Reyes appeared in her doorway as she was retrieving a new pencil from her jar.
"Hi, Kim. Is he free?"
Kim waved her toward the couch, and relayed the request to Skinner over the phone. His voice was toneless as he asked her to give him five minutes, then let Reyes in.
"He's just wrapping something up," she said diplomatically.
Kim stopped her return back to work when she realized Agent Reyes was giving her an expectant look.
"Did you want something to drink while you wait?" she asked.
Reyes smiled. "No, thanks. I was just wondering how you're holding up."
Kim raised her eyebrow. "Pardon me?"
"You know, with..." Reyes waved her hand toward Skinner's door, "...ah, everything. A lot's been going on lately."
Kim's back stiffened, then relaxed as it dawned on her that Agent Reyes was just trying to be friendly. She didn't actually *know* anything; how could she? She hadn't been here in months, and then only briefly.
"I'm doing okay, Agent Re--"
"Monica. I like the people I work with to call me Monica."
"Monica," Kim conceded with a small nod. "I'm okay, thanks. But technically, we don't really work together."
Reyes tapped the file in her hand, smiling broadly. "As soon as I get the final sign-off from your boss in there, we do. I've been assigned to the X Files with Agent Doggett."
She couldn't stop her gasp in time. "Where...where's Agent Scully? Is she okay?"
"Oh, Dana's fine. She had her baby this weekend," Monica said, a satisfied gleam in her eye. "I guess AD Skinner hadn't told you the good news yet."
"He's had a lot on his mind today," she mumbled, her fingers tightening around the drawer handle. As soon as Monica went inside, she was going to read Alex's note, she promised herself. Maybe there were some answers in there after all. "I'm very happy for Agent Scully."
Reyes didn't seem to believe her automatic response, but she didn't say anything about it. After a few more awkward moments, the intercom buzzed and Kim ushered Reyes into the larger office.
Once alone, her hand flew back to the drawer. Carefully, she smoothed the kinks out of the yellow paper, finding the balance between not making too much noise and not tearing it with her shaking fingers.
"Your new hair cut suits you," read the first line, and she nearly burst into tears right there at her desk. Six years had passed without any communication at all between them, and the first thing he said was a compliment.
God dammit. She missed him. She still goddamned missed him.
She closed her eyes, letting the warmer memories of him wash over her after denying their existence for so long. The welcome burn of his palm covertly pressing against the small of her back as they stood, not looking at each other, in the rear of the crowded elevator on Friday afternoons. The way his eyes gleamed in appreciation as she stood before him in the bedroom, wearing only his freshly-washed Quantico t-shirt. The gently whispered promises in her ear as they drifted off to sleep, of going away to the beach for a weekend, of getting bagels and the paper for a lazy Sunday morning in bed. He never promised her love or commitment back then, and it wasn't until long after he'd vanished that she thought she knew why. He must have known the end was in sight, and he didn't want to hurt her more than he was already about to.
She had hated him for a long time afterward, not wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt for anything. Blaming him with a single-minded devotion for everything that went so horribly, horribly wrong. But it wasn't all his fault, she had come to accept. This, this thing that Walter and Mulder and Scully fought to uncover...it was much too big and too invasive throughout the government to be the work of just one man. Even the Smoker couldn't have that much power, no matter how much he used to posture and threaten Skinner.
A noise in the hallway catapulted her out of her reverie, and she shoved the wrinkled paper under her blotter just as she saw Agent Doggett stride past her office in a rush. The outer door to Skinner's office closed with a hard thump, and soon, she could hear muffled arguing. A few minutes later, both agents exited out the hallway door, and silence again settled in the two offices.
She folded the letter into a small square and tucked it into her skirt pocket for safekeeping. There were no answers here, but she still couldn't bring herself to throw it away. Instead, she fielded calls and worked on memos to soothe her worries. The familiar routine did its expected job, and there were even a few moments when she didn't feel the crinkled paper against her thigh.
At noon, Skinner emerged from his office, shrugging on his suit jacket as he opened the door.
"I'm going to grab some lunch," he said smoothly, moving his head ever so slightly to indicate she should join him. She stood, grabbing her purse and coat as she moved.
"I'll take the elevator down with you, if you don't mind," she answered. He nodded, then helped her with her coat.
They didn't speak again until long after they'd left the building. As if by mutual decision, they walked along the crowded streets toward the hotdog vendor at the edge of the Mall. Skinner paid for both of their hotdogs, and Kim picked up two extra packets of mustard for him while he waited for his change.
They sat on a shady bench at the edge of the reflecting pool, isolated from the world in the middle of a crowd. There were mothers pushing babies in strollers, groups of Japanese tourists and visiting high- school students, even the occasional suit-clad person stretched out on the grass. No one paid any attention to the two somber people eating their hotdogs.
"I'm sorry, Kim," he said finally, and she couldn't bear to look at him. "I didn't want this to happen."
"It's okay," she said, hating that she sounded like a wind-up doll with only four sentences in its vocabulary. Can I help you? May I take a message? Are you hurt? It's okay.
His hand slid over to hers fisted in her lap, intruding on her line of vision. He didn't hold her hand; he simply rested his on top of hers.
"It's *not* okay," he said in a low voice. "But it had to be done."
Their hands blurred in front of her. "Is he..."
She couldn't say it out loud. She prayed he wouldn't make her ask. Prayed he didn't know the answer.
"What do you want him to be?" Skinner asked after a long silence.
What did *she* want? She wanted Alex to be...waiting on her doorstep, ignoring her protests that it was against protocol for her to date a recruit still at Quantico, and kissing the argument right out of her. Standing in her bathroom, the towel damp across his hips, humming a tuneless tune as he slicked his hair into submission, eager to make a good impression on his first day at HQ. Giving her his most charming, insouciant Alex grin as he slipped off her shoes and rubbed her feet while they sat on the couch and watched the World Series after a long workday.
She closed her eyes to blot out the other, harder images. Maybe the better question was what she *didn't* want him to be. Not that dead-eyed bastard who'd blown right past her like she was a piece of furniture, the quiet blond woman following in his wake. Not the straggly-haired man on the videotape, who'd killed her new lover for sport and then brought him back to life. Not even the raw-boned agent who'd crept into her bed smelling of cigarettes and gunpowder, burying his face in her hair as he murmured something about having to get a new partner. That had been their last night together, she realized. The next day, he and Mulder were assigned to the Augustus Cole case, and Alex was gone shortly thereafter.
"Do you want me to tell you the truth?" Skinner offered, his hand covering hers like a baseball mitt protecting its prized catch. He would do it, too, if she said yes. She knew that; he was always willing to tell her anything she wanted to know.
But she didn't want to know *this*, she admitted. What she wanted was just one illusion to remain intact. She wanted one person she could rely on to remember her when all hell broke loose and she was as defenseless as a fawn in a forest fire.
Walter Skinner was that person for her now. Maybe he'd always been that person, and she hadn't noticed. There was something solid and real that ran through his soul, a core of decency and trustworthiness that was irreplaceable and rare.
Knowing the truth might tarnish that, so she shook her head no as her answer.
"Arlene," he said in a strained voice, and the use of her middle name snapped her to attention. He only called her that in private. She finally looked at him, the worry and love palpable in his expression.
"It's okay, Walter," she said, and this time she meant it. "Whatever happened, it...it doesn't change anything."
A wry near-smile tilted one side of his mouth. "You know that's not true."
"It doesn't change *us*," she clarified, pressing the back of her hand up against his palm, touching him as closely as she dared in public. "I'm sorry if I've been distant. The last few days have brought up a lot of memories for me."
"I know," he said softly. "I've seen them on your face. I'm sorry for that - if I could have kept him anywhere but my office, I would have."
"It's okay." She thought about the way Alex's head had tilted at her when she'd brought him his Coke; he had seemed surprised she'd remembered his preference. "They're not all bad memories."
"Someday, I'd like you to tell me about him," Skinner said, his dark gaze never leaving her face. Something approaching levity emerged in his eyes at her surprised expression. "I'm serious. You got to see a side of him none of us did. And you obviously meant something to him--"
"I don't think that's true," she argued.
Kim mulled that over. "What makes you so sure?"
His hand covered hers in a firm clasp, his warmth seeping through to her bones. "He could have used you to get to me. A dozen times over the years, he could have twisted what he knew about you into blackmail, or forced you to help him gain access to the building or to classified files. He never did that."
"No, he didn't," she conceded. Was the absence of action itself an action, she wondered.
"It took me until Friday to realize that," Skinner continued. "I've been so focused on keeping you as far away from the danger as possible that I never noticed that he was working toward achieving the same goal." He exhaled a quick sigh. "Maybe that's why you were drawn to both of us. We're not as dissimilar as I used to think we were."
She wanted to tell him he was wrong, but she couldn't find the words. For years she'd watched Alex and Walter standing across the battlefield from each other, swords drawn across the other's throat. Their clashes ranged from beatings to poisonings to hard words and threats. She had tended to Walter's wounds many times, wondering how much damage he'd inflicted before he'd been bested, and if anyone was caring for Alex's injuries somewhere in his dark corner of the ring.
Her mind skittered away from that last thought, then returned. She'd seen the rubbery sheen of his left hand, seen how he'd pretended not to struggle with the pop-cap of the soda can. Seen, too, the silvered bullet scar that marred Walter's abdomen, seen the fading black veins under Walter's skin after his poisoning. The two men had been locked on opposite sides of a death battle, uncaring of the brutality they inflicted on each other. A battle neither one had begun, and likely neither would be around to finish.
A battle in which she had no part. No weapons, no plan of attack, no safe place to hide. They had both seen her vulnerabilities, and tried to protect her from the worst of their war's viciousness.
But she'd been wounded anyway, scared and scarred by the cruel inhumanity all around her. She trudged through her days, busying her frantic mind with useless memos and phone messages and paper clips. Hoping she'd wake up one day and find herself back warm in Alex's arms, his sleep-roughened voice confirming that it had all been just a bad dream.
That wasn't going to happen. It never had a chance of happening, and she could be honest enough with herself to admit she wasn't sure anymore if waking up with Alex would end the nightmare. Despite what she knew in her heart Walter had done, she felt safer with him. Out of the crushed dreams of their pasts, she'd cobbled together a life with this man, a hodge-podge of stolen touches and soft promises and unwavering trust. Nothing had turned out the way she'd thought it would be, but it was hers, and his.
"I told Doggett I would stand by my actions," Walter said quietly, his eyes grave as he watched her face. "And I will."
Tears threatened at the back of her eyes. "Are they going to press charges?" she asked in a thick voice.
"I don't know. There was a security tape, but it...it's blank. I don't know who has the original."
God. It had happened somewhere in the Bureau. She looked at him, the lines running deep around his mouth as he pressed his lips together. His shoulders were straight, braced for the uncertain future, and the sadness that always enveloped him felt impenetrable.
"He left a note for me," she said, apropos of nothing.
"Have you read it?" Skinner asked gently.
She shook her head. "Just the first line."
"Maybe it's time," he said. He began to withdraw his hand from her lap and rise from the bench, leaving her feeling unprotected. Emboldened and afraid, she grabbed at his loose hand and intertwined her fingers with his.
"Wait." He sat back down, and she took a moment to look back out at the lunchtime sun-bathers on the bright lawn. A group of young sailors huddled together in a laughing clump, the pristine white of their uniforms dazzling against the blue sky. One of the boys had taken off his shoes and socks, and she could see the manicured grass sticking out between his pale toes. A man in a serge suit, his jacket resting carefully on a piece of newspaper, watched the sailor enviously, then bent his knee to remove his own shoes.
A snatch of time out of a drab office day, simply to enjoy life. Had Alex ever taken advantage of a pretty day like this? Had Walter? Had she?
"I want him to be at peace," she said.
Walter's only reply was to worry the edge of his lip with his teeth.
"You asked me earlier what I wanted him to be," she explained. "That's what I want for Alex."
Dark eyes scanned her face, then glanced out to the sunny lawn. Still holding her hand quietly, he didn't seem to register the scene before them.
She wanted peace for Walter too, she realized. And maybe even for herself.
"C'mon," she said, tugging his hand as she stood. "Let's take a walk."
He looked up at her, curious and surprised. "To where?"
She shrugged. "Doesn't matter. Just to walk. Just to...be."
'Alive,' she didn't say. 'While we can.'
The anxiety washed out of his expression as he gathered their crumpled napkins from the bench and then stood up beside her. Still holding her hand, he walked with her along the path, pausing at the first garbage can they passed.
As he threw away the remains of their lunch, the sharp edge of the folded letter scratched against her thigh. Kim dug into her pocket and took it out into the sunlight. Was there anything Alex could say in this that would change anything? Despite the first line, she knew it wouldn't be a love letter; it wasn't his style, and it would have been a lie, anyway. He wasn't capable of those kinds of lies. Nor would he disclose the dark secrets he'd held onto all this time. At least, not to her.
But she hesitated. If she tried hard enough, she could still hear his laugh, a surprised husky bark when she caught him off-guard with a joke. The determined frown line between his brows that emerged when he was concentrating, usually on her. The smell of his warm skin late at night.
"Keep it," Walter said quietly. His free hand caught her chin and tilted her face toward his. "You don't have to read it now, but you should keep it anyway."
A small smile tugged at his mouth as he rubbed his thumb against her cheek. "As long as the memory of him makes you look like you do right now, I think he will be at peace."
She flushed, and slipped the letter back into the dark recesses of her pocket.
"Let's go for that walk," she said.
"In a minute."
Walter leaned down in the sunlight and kissed her. She forgot to worry about who might be watching, or that they were in public only blocks from the office, or anything at all. She simply enjoyed the moment of carefree warmth, and wished it could go on forever.
The sun tickled the tip of her nose as he straightened back up to his full height. His thumb traced the same line against her cheek that he had a moment earlier, and it belatedly occurred to her that she was smiling.