The Wabash, Far Away

"Oh, the moonlight's fair tonight along the Wabash.
...On the banks of the Wabash, far away."

Because they weren't in Washington, Skinner allowed himself jeans and a drink. Because the forefathers of his country weren't there to stare down at him in marble doom, a few minutes later Skinner helped himself to another.

Agent Chen's rec room was filled to overflowing with feds and local cops. There were no monuments or memorials to frown or disapprove, just the buzz of conversation and the pulse of music. The case that had taken too many lives and too many months to solve was finally over. Skinner sat on one end of the couch, watching a semi-drunken pool game.

"Corner ball in the side pocket!"

"That's the 14, you idiot."

"I know the 11 when I see it."

The 7 ball dropped neatly into the side pocket, followed by the cue ball and Agent Masterson's empty beer bottle. "Fuck me. I'm empty." Taking her pool cue with her, she scoped out the condition of the wet bar's fridge. "Green olives!" she hollered.

In the corner, the two local ballistics experts were recklessly playing foosball. They were heckling each other and not even bothering to keep score. At the mention of the olives they abandoned their game and wrestled the jar from Masterson, declaring it was time for a martini.

Masterson jabbed at them with her cue, getting blue chalk all over their bowling shirts. At their insistence, she finally took the beer they offered her and went back to her game, leaving the olives to those who could appreciate them.

The ballistics twins complained over the lack of proper martini glasses and rummaged through the cupboards for a pitcher. The twins weren't related but were still confused for each other. Their bowling shirts identified them as Doug and Kurt -- not their real names.

On the other end of the couch sat Agent Mulder, who was soaking up the atmosphere with all the enthusiasm of a rock dropped into a pond. He sat classically sullen, strangling the neck of his half-empty beer bottle. He was a sober lull in the surrounding tornado.

Because they weren't in Washington, Skinner was on his third beer and only mildly concerned about how he was going to get back to the hotel. "Where's Agent Scully?" he asked the other end of the couch.

Mulder slumped deeper into the furniture and turned to look at Skinner. "Somewhere else. With our car," he said.

"Isn't she doing the last autopsy?" Skinner knew exactly where Scully was.

"Yeah. Didn't want me there--" Mulder tipped the beer bottle toward his mouth, swallowing what sounded like the rest of the sentence. He made no effort to repeat himself.

"Englebert Humperdick!" shouted one of Skinner's own, waving a record over his head. The CD was halted, and the dragging scratch of a needle across vinyl filled the room. Skinner wondered why Chen wasn't around to protest the abuse of his horrible taste in music.

Nobody loves you like I do, sweet lady Jane.

If possible, Mulder was looking even more sullen. He had slipped further into the couch, frowning like it hurt not to. Although dressed in jeans and a tight v-necked sweater, he still slouched as if weighted down with a tie and badge. One foot quietly kicked the leg of the coffee table.

Skinner couldn't count the number of times Mulder had sat on the other side of his desk, looking rebellious and bored. He wondered if Mulder kicked his desk when he couldn't see.

Nobody feels the way I do, may I explain? I'll jump a train--

Bloomfield, who didn't even know what the inside of Skinner's office looked like, started singing along, "I'll steal an aeroplane!"

Skinner knew why they did this. After months of pretending the deaths didn't hurt, after having to go home to husbands and wives who couldn't understand -- it was the way they forgave themselves. It was the only way to stay sane.

Skinner knew why they did this; he just wasn't sure why he was there with them. "Slumming it?" Chen had greeted him at the door. Skinner only knew that he had followed Mulder there, and he had known Scully wouldn't be coming with him.

Masterson joined Bloomfield in his singing as she leaned over the pool table. Her shirt rode up. "Tonight, I watched the people standing still. Tonight, it's almost like I want them there."

The twins spent ten loud minutes trying to decide what kind of gin to use, finally trading Chen twenty dollars for his unopened bottle of Beefeater. While they were otherwise occupied, Masterson got into the olives.

Mulder started checking his watch every few minutes, and his beer made more frequent trips to his mouth, as if it was the only thing keeping him there and when he had filled his obligation by drinking it he could go.

Upstairs a door opened and closed and two sets of footsteps could be heard. Mulder paused, listening. He rested the mouth of the bottle against his bottom lip as he waited. The brown bottle gently dented the pink skin, and Skinner finished off his own beer, recklessly thirsty. Satisfied the footsteps didn't belong to his partner, Mulder went back to his beer. Skinner noticed his own was empty.

Bloomfield and Masterson started in on an inadvertent medley, totally ignoring the record still playing in the background. Mulder got up to stare out the sliding glass door that led to the patio. He tapped his beer against his leg absently, perhaps unaware anyone cared enough to watch him.

Skinner regretted having drunk so much, and he definitely shouldn't be having another beer, but it was in his hands before he could find the guilty party. He shifted positions so he could see Mulder better.

Masterson hit the cue ball too hard, and it hopped off the table, hitting the dense carpet with a thud and rolling over to Mulder. It came to a stop against his foot. Masterson followed it.

Mulder bent down to retrieve the ball before Agent Masterson could accidentally grab his ass on her way down to get it herself. He spun the white ball around in his long fingers, weighing it.

All the parts of Skinner that still knew who he was were insisting he leave before something unfortunate happened. His beer suggested otherwise. He remained on the couch, paying more attention to Mulder than he should.

Masterson leaned into Mulder, wrapping her hand around his. Mulder smiled and gently nudged the end of her cue away from his eye. "That's a big stick," he complimented her, handing over the cue ball.

Skinner wondered if there wasn't something slightly Freudian about her carrying around that stick everywhere she went. But then, there were only three cues, and she probably just didn't want anyone else to take it.

Agent Bloomfield and Detective St. John, who were in possession of the other two cues, realized Masterson might be a while and resumed play without the cue ball.

Masterson's drunken charm glanced off Mulder like he'd been inoculated. Masterson was not so lucky. She grinned at him, stupidly smitten.

"I think it's your turn," he said to her, nodding toward the pool table. "Bloomfield's sinking your stripes." Skinner had to smile at Mulder's tactics. Whatever was going on at that pool table hadn't been regulation for close to two hours.

From the look on her face, Masterson was debating the advantages of billiards over Mulder. Proving she wasn't as drunk as everyone thought, she left Mulder's side and returned to the table, muscling St. John out of the way and placing the cue ball back on the felt somewhat haphazardly. She sunk two balls. From behind his ballistic martini, St. John looked impressed. Masterson was probably a terror shot stone-sober.

Mulder watched her, no doubt appreciating the way she looked in her khaki pants and white t-shirt. Or maybe he was appreciating her work on the case instead. Carol Masterson knew bombs like no one else in the FBI. She could put together a pipe bomb faster than most people could make a sandwich.

There was no way Skinner could pretend to understand Mulder's mind. He realized he shouldn't even be trying. Mulder turned back to the glass and the Indiana night behind it.

The Humperdinck album had been spinning fruitlessly for the past half hour, the tone arm back in its rest. Chen appeared with more beer and a platter full of vegetables and dip. He stopped the record player and turned the radio on. DJ Zen's midnight dance party started pulsing through the room and through Skinner's head.

Mulder slid open the glass door and slipped outside. Skinner found himself staring at his silhouette. The moonlight traced the outline of his shoulders like a knife.

Too many beers. Skinner needed to get back to DC where Lincoln's stern visage and solemn hands could talk him out of this. But he was in Indiana, and the rhythm of Deepsky had invaded his bones. He couldn't help but watch Fox Mulder.

Skinner got up from the couch. The room wobbled, and he blamed it on DJ Zen. The sliding glass door opened smoothly. Mulder twisted around with an expectant look but turned bland again when he saw it was only Skinner.

How privileged Scully must be to see her partner animated. The rest of them just got Mulder's face without the life behind it. Sharon used to say the same thing about Skinner. Except she claimed she never got any of the life, either.

It was warm outside for a March night, and Chen's house was far enough away from the city that the stars coated the sky unchallenged. Mulder probably knew the names of all of them. It's the kind of man he was. The moon was so thin it could have been used to harvest wheat, and it pained Skinner that he couldn't recall the name of such a moon.

"Agent Mulder, I was thinking about heading back to the hotel if you want a ride." It seemed like he hadn't said anything for hours, his tongue felt thick and slow.

Mulder looked at him, smiling faintly as if knowing what he was going to say wasn't likely to make him very popular. "I'm sorry, sir, but you're in no shape to drive. What is that? Your fifth beer?"

Skinner took his word for it, all the while slightly panicked that Mulder must have somehow been watching him through five beers. "And something pink with a chunk of pineapple in it," he felt obliged to add.

"Must have been out of the room for that one, sir."

Skinner shrugged, the movement easy in his turtleneck. "Connie gave it to me. It looked harmless enough."

Mulder's eyes actually widened, and his lips parted slightly. "Then you're certainly in no shape to be driving. I watched her make that. The pineapple was actually my idea -- made it look more innocent." He gave Skinner the once-over in a way that would have made him blush if he were sober. "And you're still standing." He sounded impressed. "Scully and I can give you a lift back if you like. She should be here any moment."

Skinner had a sudden vision of Mulder buckling him into the backseat like a child, while Mulder and Scully rode up front, talking about grown-up things. The image actually made him sick to his stomach, or that might have been the work of the esteemed pink drink.

"We'll see," Skinner said, meaning he'd make a run for it the moment he saw Agent Scully step into the rec room. Mulder nodded, making Skinner suspect he knew exactly what had been said.

"So what was in that pink thing?" Skinner ventured, unwilling to let go of this unnaturally talkative Mulder. Mulder twirled his still half-full beer bottle, making the liquid slosh. Skinner's insides roiled.

"With all due respect, sir, you don't want to know. Just be thankful Masterson didn't end up with it."

The last time Mulder had shown any respect was beyond his recollection. It took Skinner way too long to realize he had said that out loud.

Mulder had the I-told-you-so look of a parent who had let his child stay up past their bedtime only to have them fall asleep on the couch. "Shall I assume that was the pink thing talking?" he asked.

Skinner felt suddenly ashamed -- drunk in front of the people who were supposed to respect him, even fear him a little. He never would have done this back in Washington. "No," he snapped, "that was all me." He expected Mulder to assume the proper look of subservience now that he had been put in his place. One more sign his judgment was compromised.

Mulder only grinned at him. "I was wondering where you'd went," was all he'd say.

Skinner suddenly wanted his desk back, his nameplate, even those sculpted faces that peered down from every edifice and facade. There he was in control, but here, standing next to Mulder instead of sitting untouchable behind his he was in trouble. He noticed anew that he and Mulder were almost the same height.

Skinner began to pray for Scully to come and take Mulder away so that Skinner wouldn't have to look at him anymore. This was dangerous. This wasn't right.

Mulder's fingers held his beer bottle lazily, curved around its brown glass. Skinner backed up a step. Mulder turned and looked at him directly, like he knew, like Skinner's thoughts were no more secret than Anne Frank's diary. His heart rushed. Bad luck. Bad idea falling for him.

Skinner's body felt gigantic as he tried to force it through the doorway. Back in the rec room he avoided the couch and leaned against the wall by the pool table. Masterson was tapping her cue on the floor in time to the music and eyeing the 8 ball like it was going to explode.

The footsteps that Mulder had been listening for finally sounded in the hall, and Scully stepped into the debauchery of the rec room. Skinner wished for the power to blend against the wall like a chameleon capable of imitating wood paneling. Lucky for him, she must have been tired because she didn't even notice him. She was dressed in jeans, tennis shoes and a sea-green scrub top.

"Dana Katherine!" the twins shouted, converging on her with offers of martinis. She only smiled politely and held up her bottle of lemonade Snapple. They ignored her and chattered on about the sublime qualities of a ballistic martini.

Indiana had gotten along well with Scully, and with Mulder too, though he seemed less affected by it than his partner. When they first arrived, Scully had smiled and joked, making instant friends in the twins, and surprising her partner with her levity. Being away from Washington had changed her too.

"There's coverage on channel 6," she whispered to them. It was the way all these gatherings ended. The quickest way to sober up and remember how you got to be wearing someone else's pink angora sweater or drinking straight grenadine out of a champagne glass.

It was now up to the twins to decide when the party started to end, when they should turn on the TV, when they should let the world invade their privacy again -- a gigantic and pushy younger sister. They nodded at Scully. Next to Mulder, they were the most sober of all the rec room crowd.

Scully excused herself and headed toward the patio doors, having instantly determined Mulder's location through some unknown means. It had been such a long time since Skinner had worked with a partner that he couldn't remember if such a sense was natural or if it was something unique to Mulder and Scully's partnership.

Scully passed by the pool table. Masterson had been studying the lay of the table for so long, Bloomfield and St. John had both left to go to the bathroom, both taking their cues with them. They had returned to find her still hunched over at eye-level, regarding the 8 ball with a seriousness borne out of choosing pool over Mulder and still finding the prospects bleak.

Hearing a set of steady footsteps, a rare commodity at this point, Masterson straightened. She embraced Scully and whispered something in her ear so scandalous that Scully blushed. Skinner would have killed important people to hear what Masterson just said. Scully shook her head. Masterson pointed toward the patio with her cue, nodding. Scully shook her head again. Masterson gave up and returned her attention to the pool table.

Scully continued outside to get her partner. Skinner stood with his ear against the wall. It was cool compared to the pounding in his head and the beat of the German techno currently on the radio.

Eins, zwei, Polizei!

Skinner watched Masterson suck on a wedge of pineapple she'd found in the kitchen.

Mulder and Scully came back inside. He was laughing. She was smiling. Skinner called himself a fool all over again. Mulder put his beer down and headed in the direction of Masterson. Now Scully laughed as she grabbed him by the belt loops and pulled him toward the door with her.

Mulder put an arm around her shoulders companionably and reached for a drink of her lemonade. Before they left, Mulder turned around and sought out Skinner. Their eyes met, and Skinner felt Mulder had all the blackmail material he needed right there. Mulder looked away and squeezed through the narrow doorway, still holding on to his partner.

"Dana Katherine!" mourned the ballistics twins. Scully waved at them over her shoulder without turning around.

Watching them go, Skinner collapsed back onto the sofa. After finally sinking the 8 ball, Masterson sat next to him. She was so close he could smell the pineapple on her breath. It was called a crescent moon, Skinner remembered suddenly.

The ballistics twins turned on the TV. Chen silenced the radio. Bloomfield and St. John finally put down their pool cues. Masterson leaned against Skinner a little.

The picture tube warmed up slowly. At first there was only sound, then finally an image. "After an investigation spanning three months, police finally have a suspect in custody for the Wabash bombings. Officials say...."