Title: THE CONFERENCE
Summary: Skinner has a pleasant time at a conference.
Rating: Still PG: they're not *there* yet!
Archive: ArchiveX, Gossamer. Any others if you ask: just so I know where this is travelling to.
EXPLANATION: This was not supposed to be more than a couple of episodes exploring a possible basis of relationship between Skinner and Krycek. It is, without my intent, growing into something more. So, I guess the order is EATING, MAIL and now this one. I hope they can each be read without the other, but they do seem to be following. I'll let you know where this is going as soon as the boys let *me* in on it.
DISCLAIMER: These are the property of CC, Fox and 1013, but
let's not forget that imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
Skinner hated these things.
Not the actual conferences themselves, though they were sometimes an incredible waste of time. And not just the public relations aspect of them: contacts needed to be made, maintained, reconnected. Not his forte, but still something he could do with some skill.
No. It was the presentations he hated. The ones he had to give himself.
It was the forcing himself up to his feet, the long walk from his place to the podium. The knowing that he would not be witty, or humourous. That his material would be will researched, well thought out (he knew this about himself, was confident on that aspect of it.), but that the delivery would be bland, monotone.
Because that was the only way he could cover up the nerves, the insecurity that went along with his speaking in front of a group of his peers.
He wasn't a talker. He was a doer. Give him a case to work on, a department to head, and he was fine. But he had never gotten over his acute discomfort of standing in front of a group of people, waiting for them to dissect him.
Even if it were a friendly crowd like this one at the Law Enforcement Symposium. Even when he knew his subject would actually be well received.
He just knew that it would be better delivered by anyone else, and thereby made much more interesting.
He placed his papers on the podium in front of him, made certain that the remote controlling the slide part of the show was in his hand. Took a deep breath, tried to find something to focus on. As Sister Ausmana had tried to get him to do in those Public Speaking exercises every kid in the school had to do.
The door at the back of the hall opened which thankfully distracted him a bit. He looked up to see who had come in at the last moment. Anything to delay the actual having to say those first words.
And really *was* distracted. So much so that the moderator had to cough to get his attention, silently querying if there was something wrong.
Skinner gave a slight shake of his head. Plunged into his presentation. Which he aimed solely at the man who stood, slouching against the back wall by the door of the hall.
What was Krycek doing here?
While one part of his brain dealt with the presentation, another dealt with the fact that not only was Alex Krycek in the room, he was in a room that required specific ID to enter as all the material being presented was classified.
That instead of his usual costume of jeans, t-shirt and leather jacket, he was dressed in some suit that looked as though it had been made for him. Cut to hide the fact that the left arm was not real.
Every now and then Skinner would make eye contact with the interloper. Was surprised, that first time, at his sense of relief when Krycek's head nodded slightly at a point he was trying to make. If it was going over with Krycek, the rest of the group...
He kept on. Whenever he was trying to judge if his point was getting across, he'd check with Krycek. As long as Krycek looked interested, seemed to be following, he found that he didn't really care about the reactions of the rest of the hall.
He'd always found the question and answer portion easier to handle. Though there were the one or two queries that made him wonder how anyone that stupid had made it up to this level in the hierarchy. He wondered if Krycek would dare question him.
At the end, to the polite applause he was used to getting on his performances, Krycek gave him a nod and a smile of... approval(?)... which curiously pleased him.
But after he'd made his way down, answered a few of the comments tossed to him by people he respected, he found that Krycek was nowhere to be seen.
*That* didn't really surprise him. It was after all as if a cat had accidentally wandered into a yard filled with dogs. A smart "cat" took off before the dogs noticed it. And there were more than a few people present who would very much like to have an interview with one Alex Krycek.
No, what surprised him was the disappointment he felt.
He sat patiently through the other presentations of the afternoon. Made a few new contacts.
Decided that before supper, he wanted a shower. He disliked the feeling air conditioning gave him, not that it was unnecessary here in San Antonio. It may have been fall, and it may have been a "dry" heat, but it was still a whole lot hotter than DC.
He was accepting his key from the desk clerk when the man handed him an envelope. It bore his name and title and he recognized the handwriting as the same one on the package label that had been sent from Scotland.
He waited until he was in his room to open the envelope. Inside there was only a book of matches with the logo and address of a local arcade. Inside, written on the cover, "8 p.m.?"
So it was that AD Walter S. Skinner, in San Antonio Texas for a Conference on Law Enforcement, found himself, not networking over the catered supper, but on his way to a "meeting" with a Consortium assassin with whom he seemed to have occasional truces.
He'd dumped the suit and tie for jeans, navy t-shirt, denim shirt. And felt like a kid released from chores as he carefully snuck out of the hotel, avoiding being seen by anyone who knew him, or anyone who would wonder why he wasn't joining the others in the dining room.
San Antonio was a beautiful location for a conference. Over the years, careful restoration to the old buildings, the cleaning up of the canal, the addition of a boardwalk made this a city centre that one felt one could stroll around, safely. And now that the sun had set, the air was cooling down making his search for the arcade even more enjoyable. After three days of confinement to the hotel, this "liberty" was a welcome respite.
He had to ask for directions from one of the many ice cream vendors who was delighted to show him where the arcade was located. "By this time of the evening, the guys who hang around there are ready for a treat."
The guys, once Skinner scanned the open entrance of the arcade, had to average twelve in age. And on a school night? What were their parents... Skinner caught himself. He sounded like some old fogy, even to himself.
Inside, the arcade was well attended, probably better attended than the conference. Here and there was an unused console, but some had several boys, youths gathered around them.
He walked around the hall, looking to see if Krycek had arrived yet. One of the advantages of being an adult in the place was that it was easy to see over the heads
There seemed to be something going on in one of the corners. Skinner strolled over to find about a dozen young boys intently watching someone at play. From the comments, the intent oohs and aahs, the player seemed to be attaining heights of some kind. Skinner edged a little closer.
The player wasn't some boy, but a man, dark haired, wearing a leather jacket. Playing some pursuit game in which the steering wheel he was controlling drove an animated car that was evading villains, cops, anyone with a car, truck, plane, helicopter. Even the occasional tank.
Very successfully to judge by the rising numbers on the score board and the intensity of his audience. And doing so mainly with the use of one hand. Occasionally, the left would come up as if he had forgotten that it could be of very little use, and it was on the last of these that he finally lost control of the vehicle and it crashed, spectacularly, much to the disappointment of his fans.
"Ah, shit, man. You were so close!"
"Damn, that was hot!"
"Hey, no one's ever gotten that high on that machine. See, it's posted his score as the new high."
Krycek stood up and rotated his neck, loosing up the muscles that had tensed up during play. He *knew* that it was only a game, but his own sense of competition wouldn't let him take it as anything other than a serious challenge. He accepted the commiseration of his new friends, turned to let the next kid in line take the seat and saw Skinner leaning against one of the support posts, arms crossed, grinning at him.
"I must remember," said Skinner, "never to let you borrow my car."
Krycek smiled, a bit sheepish. "I tend to let loose on those things. The consequences aren't real."
"Well, you're braver than I am. I would never pit myself against one of those computerized games. It would wipe me out and I have my pride."
Krycek grinned. "There's something over there in that corner that may make you feel more daring." And led Skinner to a pinball machine that stood solitary in a corner, ignored by all the kids who preferred animation to lights flashing. "Don't try and tell me you haven't any skill on these."
"God! I haven't seen one of these in years. I thought they'd all been scrapped." Skinner looked over the play deck, the lighted up billboard. Passed his hands along the sides, feeling for the control buttons.
"Shit, the hours I spent on one of these things at the pool hall." There was more than passing nostalgia in his voice: almost a longing for old times when his life was so much easier, more black and white than the greys that permeated his world these days.
Krycek pulled a quarter out of his jeans pocket, dropped it into the slot. "My treat."
Skinner quirked an eyebrow, meet Krycek's silent challenge and pulled back the ball release. And went into a world that he had left far behind when he had signed on for Vietnam.
The first ball was a bit of a dud. He had forgotten most of his skills. They were finding their way back with the second ball. He got more of a feel for the table with the third.
He had caught the attention of some of the boys, who stopped for a moment on their way to an empty console to watch the man playing with what they had all considered to be a piece of decoration.
It was Skinner's turn to smile sheepishly when the last ball dropped into the collecting hole. "Well, so much for my misspent youth." He pulled a coin out and dropped it into the slot. "Your turn."
Krycek smiled ruefully. "I don't think so. You're the winner, hands down."
Skinner was embarrassed that he had forgotten. But he recovered quickly. "I'll take the left, you the right." At Krycek's hesitation, he added, "Or are you afraid that I'll be so much better at it that you'll never be able to step foot in an arcade anywhere ever again?"
Krycek laughed at the challenge and at the fact that Skinner had known which button to push. He stepped up, said "Hold on." Took off his jacket. "Not so tight," he explained, rotating his arm like a baseball pitcher warming up for the mound.
Skinner snorted, a little derisive. "Ready now? Good." And he put the first ball into play.
Krycek was not the only competitive one at that pinball machine. To the increasingly louder sound of muttered curses (there *were* kids present!), "Watch out!", "Wake up!", "Where's your brain!" the first ball was played out.
The second ball was flung back up with more co-ordination on the part of the two players, slowly beginning to work together rather than against each other to keep the ball into play.
The third was a total dud. They had barely played it when it got away from them and rolled down into the hole.
"Shit!" This from one of the small group of boys they had collected unaware.
Krycek dropped another coin and they set off again. This time all of Skinner's old skills seemed to return to him and melded with those of Krycek. The numbers were beginning to rack up. They won a free game. Skinner pulled off his shirt and tossed it on top of Krycek's jacket. War had been declared and it was they, not the machine, who were going to win.
By now they had acquired a crowd that consisted not only of the younger boys, but some of the teenagers and the manager, an oldster of twenty. They didn't hear them. Which, considering the noisy encouragement they were getting, was evidence of the ability both men had developed in shutting out the world around them when it suited them.
By the end of the free game, the score was respectable enough that Skinner the AD would not have been ashamed to present it to his pals back in the pool hall.
Both men were grinning like idiots as their audience gave them a round of applause.
"Man, that was awesome! I've never seen anything like it," said the manager.
"It was fun," agreed Skinner, picking up his shirt. "Thirsty work. A beer?" He handed Krycek his jacket.
They were on their way out when they overheard two boys explain how the pinball machine worked to a friend who had missed the whole thing.
"So who showed you?" the friend asked.
"These two old geezers. They played it together, but Charlie said... " They moved out of hearing.
Skinner went to make some remark to Krycek when he realised that the man had stopped behind him. Looking a bit stunned.
"Did you hear what those brats called us?" He looked as though he was ready to go back and pick a fight with three pre-teens.
Skinner roared, not at all sympathetic. "What's the matter, Krycek? Don't see yourself as an old geezer?"
Krycek's mouth dropped open. Nothing came out. Skinner grabbed him by the arm, pulled him out of the arcade. Into the fresh air. Into a world that was populated more by adults than kids.
"So how old are you these days, Krycek?"
"Thirty-two. I'm still young." He sounded almost upset about it.
Skinner grinned. "Well, think about it, Krycek. To a twelve year old, thirty-two *is* ancient."
"Shit! I am *not* old."
Krycek was taking this far too seriously, thought Skinner. He pushed the man over to a chair in an outdoor cafe, held up two fingers to the waiter passing by with a tray of beer. He had very little sympathy for the man's feelings.
"Yap," he took a sip of cold beer, "first it's the rug rats that find you old. Then the teenagers start asking you if things were done a certain way when *you* were their age. The older ones want to know if you remember what you were doing the day Kennedy -- doesn't matter which one -- was shot, for an assignment in their History class. Next you'll notice that things aren't quite as clear as they once were. You'll need glasses. And then there are the days when you just *know* it's going to rain."
"Shut up!" growled Krycek into his beer. "I'm not *there*."
"Yet," agreed Skinner. He swallowed his beer under Krycek's glare. "And there are always younger ones around to remind you of the fact that you're not getting any younger. Like you," he hurried to add.
"What, you don't think you make me feel old? What did you think I was feeling watching how at ease you were with that computer game you were handling when I came in? Do you have any idea what the average age of an FBI intern is these days? Or what it's like when I attend a conference and all the new whiz kids aren't yet thirty?"
"This is too depressing," announced Krycek. He signalled for two more beers. "Been fishing lately?"
Skinner watched as Krycek paid for this round. "Yes. I went to Vermont to do some lake fishing. The... eh... reel worked like a charm."
Krycek looked at him from under his lashes. "You're not going to throw it back at me?"
Skinner laughed. "No way. Not a Hardy. No one is ever going to get their hands on it. Thank you, Krycek."
"Da nada." Krycek seemed quite pleased that his gift had been accepted.
The two men strolled along the canal, just talking, not touching on anything that could be classified as sensitive.
At one point, Skinner did make a comment, in passing, at how surprised he was that Krycek knew about the conference. Wondered why he was so pleased when Krycek answered that he had been curious about the paper he was going to present.
"Hate doing those things," Skinner confessed.
"Why? Aren't the ideas yours?"
"Of course they are. But I'm a boring presenter. I know it and they know it."
"Why, didn't you write the stuff yourself?" Krycek was curious.
"*Yes*." It was Skinner's turn to be miffed.
Krycek shrugged. "Most don't. They have their assistants or some speech writer do it for them. Besides, those things aren't supposed to be some comedy routine. And what does it matter if you don't have them rolling on the floor. The subject matter was nothing to laugh at. And you presented it clearly. To the point. What more can you want? Hey! Ice cream!"
Skinner was still mulling over the compliment he thought he had gotten when he noticed that Krycek had ordered dark chocolate ice cream, to be served in a chocolate waffle cone, with chocolate sauce drizzled over the whole thing. He ordered butter pecan. In a plain cone. Nothing on it.
"You like chocolate," he observed.
"Good chocolate," amended Krycek. "Did you know that in studies women preferred chocolate to sex at a ratio of three to one. Now I'm not saying I agree, you understand... "
"But it comes in a very close second." He smiled at Skinner's laughter, glanced at his watch. That wasn't the first time he had done so in the evening.
"You got an appointment somewhere, Krycek?"
"Actually, I've got a plane to catch. I have to leave now to get to the airport. Got to be somewhere for eight tomorrow morning and I can't miss this connection."
They walked over to the street where there were some cabs lined up. Krycek was getting into one when Skinner suddenly realized he had said "connection". San Antonio was many things, but it wasn't a main terminal for connecting flights. Not unless you were taking the long way. Would Krycek actually have been in San Antonio just to...
"Krycek." He waited till the man rolled down the window. "I had fun."
Krycek grinned. "Me, too."
Skinner watched the cab drive away, ambled back to the hotel, whistling softly, in a better mood than he had been for weeks.