Agent Scully never lets herself be shown into an office when she's in a hurry. It doesn't matter if she's called ahead and got an appointment, she still manages to give the impression that she's just barged in unannounced.
"Sir, I need your help."
Skinner looks up from the ever-present pile of paperwork on his desk. "I'm afraid I can't help you, Scully."
"But sir," she begins to protest, as he knew she would. "I--"
"No, I mean it this time. It's out of my hands." He holds them up, big hands that once carried a machine gun in the jungles of South-East Asia and now just shuffle reports. "Agent Scully, I'm no longer Assistant Director. I've been transferred. If you'd come fifteen minutes later, you'd have found me clearing out my desk."
"Transferred, sir? Where?"
She looks around wildly, as if expecting to see the black helicopters coming to take him away. There's something amusing about the shock in her face even if he'd rather not have to see it. The truth isn't nearly as exciting as she thinks it is. He knows that Mulder will immediately start spinning conspiracy theories out of it, but Mulder could spin barbed wire out of a lace doily.
Skinner sighs. "Effective immediately, I've been appointed Associate Administrator for Special Programs at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration."
NASA Headquarters isn't all that far from the FBI. It's just across the Mall, twenty minutes at a brisk jog. But it's far enough that his whole morning routine has changed. Instead of Federal Triangle, under the shadow of the EPA building, he gets off the Metro at Federal Center, crossing under the graffiti-covered railway bridge and making his way to a federal building where there are never tourists hanging around outside.
The small gift shop just off of the lobby is visited only by the occasional contractor wanting to bring a mug or a keychain back to his kids. In the basement there is no firing range, only an archive. And it holds no autopsy photos or crime reports, only newspaper clippings on the former glories of the past, pored over by a handful of serious bespectacled space historians. It's almost restful.
All he has to figure out now is what he's doing here, and what's really going on in this building.
Walking into his office one morning, Skinner feels his stomach clench instinctively. A column of cigarette smoke hangs in the air, twisting and knotting in the climate-controlled air.
But when the chair across from Skinner's desk swivels around, the only thing familiar about the man sitting there is the cigarette. He is middle-aged, carrying a little bit of extra weight, with thick, greying hair that is inexpertly cut and worn a little long over the ears. His gaze is direct, almost inquisitorial.
"I let myself in," he says succinctly.
"And you are--?"
Skinner is wary, feeling the absence of that gun he isn't allowed to carry any more.
"Jay Browne." He speaks out of the corner of his mouth, the one that isn't holding a cigarette. "Deputy Associate Administrator for Special Projects, or so they tell me. And I'm not going to say that again. It doesn't have much of a ring to it."
"Of course." He feels a bit silly. "Yes, they said you would be coming. Welcome to Headquarters."
"I think that's my line," says Browne.
"Let's get this out of the way right up front," Browne says. "I didn't want the job."
They've avoided the NASA cafeteria and ended up at an Italian place on Capitol Hill, having a business lunch and sizing each other up. Skinner is having cannelloni. Browne has gone for linguine and he's still smoking, filling an ashtray placed strategically by his plate. Skinner is going to have to go on a good long run this evening to clear the feeling of the smoke out of his lungs.
"I don't know if you know how it works at NASA. You do good engineering work, they bump you up to management. Then if you want to get anywhere, you have to do your time at Headquarters. Two years. I won't say they held a gun to my head," he continues, "but it was pretty damn close."
"That's the US Government for you," replies Skinner. He wonders if Browne has ever really had a gun held to his head.
"What about you?"
"There's not that much to tell. I've been with the Bureau since I came back from Vietnam. Rose through the ranks. I made A.D. five years ago."
"Right." Browne taps his lighter on the table, turning it over in his hand with each tap. The slosh of the fluid inside the translucent green lighter is hypnotic. "So how did you end up at NASA then? Piss someone off?"
Skinner shrugs. He's not about to get into the details, not over an overpriced Hill lunch with a government bureaucrat whose motives and connections he hardly knows. Even if Browne is clean, he's not going to believe any of it.
"Let's just say it was time to move on."
Browne nods. His gaze is piercing, the gaze of an interrogator. Skinner decides that it's time to turn the tables.
"Do you have much experience with special projects, Browne?"
"This a job interview?" the man replies sharply.
"We'll be working together for a couple of years. It makes sense to have a little context to put with the name, don't you think?"
"I worked some classified missions back in the 80s, did a little bit with Star Wars. Which is why they picked me, I guess." He pauses, looks around the restaurant. "I don't know about you, but launching spy satellites for the DoD isn't my idea of black ops."
"I'd say you're going to be disappointed."
"Disappointment is my middle name," says Browne through a mouthful of linguine.