Walking Through Fire

by bardsmaid

Chapter 2

 

Alex Krycek hit the floor of his room with a thud. Gasping, he forced his eyes open and searched the blackness in front of him, heart racing. No movement came from anywhere in the room. After a moment he focused inward and willed the adrenaline racing through him to fade. It was only the dream.

Chalk up another version of the scene in front of the convenience store, the numbers on the car's clock flashing their warning. It was amazing that his mind still came up with this one; there were so many other nightmares now to choose from. Maybe it was just another reminder that he'd come full circle since he'd arrived in this country: hit man to fugitive to independent player who'd almost--almost--swung by on a precarious rope and grabbed the top rung on the Consortium's ladder. It had all gone to hell within a day's time: his leverage, the vaccine sample, the boy. Marita. 

And it had gone steadily downhill from there.  Farther than he could ever have believed.  Now even his dreams were recycled. 

The car bomb scenario: It had been a while and there were always variations. One time he'd be locked in the car, trapped; another time the players would be different. Occasionally the old man himself would come up and leer through the window. This time it had been his mother looking in, or at least a mock-up of her. It had to be that driver's license picture Che had downloaded from the Connecticut motor vehicle database after he offed the homeless woman; why else would he be thinking of her?  He should have left the matter lie.

She'd had an odd look on her face, a kind of pained curiosity.

Krycek wiped the sweat from his forehead with his right sleeve and got to his feet. In the bathroom he splashed his face with water, then took a small glass from the counter and held it under the slow-running faucet to fill. Before he took Mulder to Tunguska there'd been no need for a glass; he could cup his hands under the faucet and drink from them like any other guy. He looked at the glass, at the slight shake of his hand from the jolt of the dream, then set the glass on the counter and turned off the faucet. He drank slowly, deliberately. The water tasted metallic, of old iron pipes.

Pushing out a heavy breath, he returned to the bed, tossed a thin cotton blanket over the sweaty sheets and lay back down. The near side of the bed was dry, but lying there wasn't an option. He slept with his back up against the wall--had for years. Life was a lot more manageable when you knew what was coming at you.

Krycek closed his eyes, then opened them again and looked up. A slash of light ran diagonally across the ceiling, cutting through the occasional eruption of cracking paint. Great digs. After all these years he was still the peasant of the bunch--of the little private army the old man had produced to combat the future.  Or to help him defend his own position within it. His half-sister had a respectable position and a prestige address. But then she was a team player; she did what daddy told her to.  At least as far as the old man could tell. Underneath...

He'd met her once.  It was enough.

Then there was the old man's new golden boy: Jeffrey, as soft and nave as they came, the offspring of the old man's legal wife, the woman who'd become the poster child for the Consortium's experiments. What the hell was so special about him? Maybe it was just that he was fresh clay, ready for the old man's shaping. Too bad for you, Jeff.  Watch how his attitude toward you changes once you've messed up.

Krycek grimaced and eased himself a little farther onto his back to take the pressure off his stump, which he'd landed on when he fell off the bed. He'd done more than either of them, and yet he was treated like the servant restricted to using the back door.  Sure, the old man liked to tell him he was the one he depended on, the one he counted on in the clutch. More likely he was just the old man's favorite way of reminding himself how thoroughly he'd screwed Bill Mulder over.

And what about his mother? Had she been clueless or star-struck, or just a lonely woman looking for a warm body to make her feel alive? Living with old Bill Mulder might do that to you. Still, she couldn't have been too smart. What kind of woman would have let the old man get her pregnant not once but twice, then have carried both kids to term? Okay, so Bill Mulder wasn't supposed to have known that Samantha wasn't his. But why bother to carry a kid you knew you weren't going to keep? Even poor girls in the village near the orphanage where he'd grown up knew how to get out of that.


 

Mulder stretched his legs over the arm of the couch and turned to look at the shafts of dull light coming through the living room blinds. There had to be a weakness in the Smoking Man that he could exploit. He always seemed so invulnerable, though, like the devil himself looking down at you and laughing. No matter when or where you crossed him, he already seemed to know every crack or chink in your armor. However implausible it sounded, his forces were always set up, dug in and ready before anyone else appeared on the battlefield.

Mulder smiled suddenly to himself. Maybe that was it--a place to start, at any rate. If Smoky had a manual for living, it would be Sun Tzu's Art of War. There was a copy somewhere, in a box he hadn't touched since Oxford, probably somewhere in the bedroom.

He stretched his arms over his head and then glanced around at the contents of the living room. He'd need a storage unit someplace to put this stuff: all the boxes, the files, his furniture, when he had to clear out of here. He would have to clear out. He couldn't afford to stay here, paying out what little he had left in rent.

Mulder pulled up to a sitting position. There was nothing about the apartment you could pin down as having any real sentimental value. And yet it was his headquarters. It was almost other-worldly to lie here looking at it and realize he would be somewhere else soon, that his boxes and files and chairs and... The couch would have to be stored; that was the earth-shaker. The couch--his bed, his command post--locked away somewhere under a moving blanket, like Samantha's things stored for so long in the Quonochotaug garage. Gone now, all of them. Never returned to anyone's use.

Mulder reached under the pillow and took out the long, dark braid of hair. Whatever Samantha was--whoever her father, whatever the true circumstances of her abduction, or the validity of his recovered memories--this hair was the one thing that proved she'd been real, a living, breathing little girl he'd shared a life with and then lost. 

He eased himself back down and rolled onto his side. Scully'd surprised him tonight. What safety had been left unlatched, what alarm disconnected that she'd found herself able to actually share something from inside her without having that internal buzzer go off--the one that invariably sent her on a scrambling retreat into her shell? It had been nice, the kind of thing that usually only happened when they were marooned somewhere, like that rock in Lake Okobogee, or sitting at a stakeout. Mulder smiled. A message from her father from beyond the grave? Scully's interior life was a lot richer with possibilities than she'd like to admit. It probably scared the hell out of her sometimes.

Mulder traced the smooth length of the braid with two fingertips and returned it to its spot beneath the pillow. He stood up and ran his hands through his hair, then turned on the light and went into the bedroom to look for his copy of Sun Tzu. There was work to be done, and one smug son of a bitch to be caught at his own game.


 

Scully pulled her robe around her, glanced toward the steamy bathroom mirror and opened the door to the bedroom. The cooler air chilled her face, still damp from washing. She went to the chair and picked up her jacket, brushed off a stray hair and took it to the closet to hang. She'd never told that dream--that vision of her father--to anyone; she hadn't intended on ever telling it. It had just slipped out naturally, like breathing, and the odd thing was that there was no regret, no feeling of vulnerability for having let it out. There would have been at one time, but somehow, tonight in Mulder's apartment, the awful moment hadn't come. They'd touched a point of common ground, she and Mulder, a place where they both stood on the same shore. There was something solid and reassuring about it.

Scully closed the closet door, then went to the bed and sat down. A yawn escaped her. It was only nine-thirty, but it might as well have been one or two in the morning. Maybe it was the commute. It would take some getting used to.

She sighed and lay back on the comforter.

The commute and the fatigue were one thing. The yearning was another matter entirely. She wanted to be investigating, to have access to the kind of material or cases that might give the two of them a lead in finding and exposing the Consortium, or finding Cassandra Spender, and the fact was that every hour she spent on the road, or teaching a class, was an hour that kept her from that search. She had lab access now, and she could analyze evidence from now to eternity, but just where would that evidence come from? Before, it had come from Mulder, but now he had less access than she did; as of yesterday he had no access at all. Scully looked down and loosened her hand from a fistful of bedspread.

At the sound of the doorbell, she pulled up quickly. Nobody came by at this hour, unless it was Mulder with something to tell her, or show her, something his enthusiasm wouldn't allow to wait. She pulled the robe more snugly around her and retied the belt, then hurried to the door. On tiptoe, she could see her prospective visitor through the peep hole. The woman on the other side was no one she knew, an older-looking woman, thin and poorly dressed.

The doorbell went again.

"Miss Scully--"

"Who is it?"

"My name is Johnston. Mr. Skinner sent me."

Scully frowned. "What is this about?"

She could see the woman coming closer to the door, and the voice, when it came, was a loud whisper tinged with desperation.

"Please, Miss Scully. May I come in?"

Scully hesitated, then sighed. She unlocked the door and opened it part way. The woman slipped inside almost before Scully knew what was happening. Somewhere in the back of her mind a low voice--Mulder, or her father, or someone from the Academy--berated her about letting in a complete stranger at night. She turned to face her visitor.

"Rita Johnston," the woman said with a slight twang, and held out her hand immediately in greeting.

Scully smiled cautiously. "Dana Scully," she said, taking the hand the woman offered, "though I see you already know that."

"Mr. Skinner said you might be able to help me," Rita Johnston began.

Scully sighed, made herself smile, then closed the door and locked it again. Ms. Johnston was a small woman, probably in her mid-fifties, with gray hair at her temples that streaked back through shoulder-length hair, which she wore tied back.

"Help you with...?"

The woman looked around. She seemed tired. Scully gestured toward the sofa. "Have a seat. Please."

The woman sat down gingerly on the first cushion she came to. She looked Scully in the eye.

"My son works for Beeson-Lymon--"

"And Beeson-Lymon is?"

Rita Johnson looked apologetic. "It's a defense plant. In Kentucky; that's where I'm from. He's been with the company just two years, but he's starting to get sick already. I know the signs. He's gone to the company doctors more than once, but they always tell him there's nothing wrong with him, just to cut back on the cigarettes."

"But you think it's something else," Scully said, leaning forward slightly toward her guest.

"Yes, ma'am. My husband worked at the plant twenty-two years, rest his soul, and it did him in the way it did in those other men he worked with."

"You believe your husband died from something job-related?"

"Yes, I do. And I think the company is covering it up."

"Mrs. Johnston"--Scully shifted on the sofa--"exactly how is it that you got my name?"

"My brother served in Vietnam with Mr. Skinner. When we couldn't get anywhere about my husband's death and then Andy started having problems, Dale figured it was time to call in the cavalry."

"And Skinner gave you my name?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Mrs. Johnston, I'm a forensic pathologist, not a practicing physician. I can't do anything directly for your son, though I could give you a list of things an examining physician could look for. Now in your husband's case"--she looked at the woman on the other end of the sofa, trying to gauge her strength--"it would mean exhuming the body so tests could be run. I know that could be a painful decision for you."

Rita Johnson hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Bill would be willing, if it would save our boy." She paused. "It's lucky I stuck to my guns as far as the burial went."

"Excuse me?"

"The company covers the cost of cremation for employees, but I said no thanks, Bill wanted to be in the family plot in one piece with his mother and dad."

"Mrs. Johnston, did the company pressure you in any way to have your husband's body cremated?"

"Mr. Beeson visited me twice hoping I'd take him up on it but I guess I'd made my mind up. He acted like he was concerned for the family welfare, the cost and all--"

"But you weren't swayed?"

"Bill'd made up his mind. I couldn't go against his wishes after he was gone."

Scully smiled at the energetic woman on the other end of the sofa. "I'm going to do some research," she said. "Is there a local address where I can contact you?"

"I'll be on a Greyhound tonight," Rita Johnston said. "I'll give you my home number."


 

Mulder lay in the dark, a copy of Sun Tzu tented on his stomach. A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Draw your enemy in with the prospect of gain. Cause division among your opponents. Attack when they're unsuspecting. Move when they're unprepared.

"Those who render others' armies helpless without fighting are best of all..."

It was the original guerilla manual, a bestseller 2500 years old. Mulder smiled. The book had been at the bottom of a box whose contents he hadn't seen or touched in years, covered by Plato, Jung and a copy of Hamlet that inexplicably called up an image of his old professor standing at the lectern and gesturing with both arms as if he were conducting a symphony, a man who would probably have been rendered speechless if tied up. He could hear the professor's voice again, his exact timbre and cadence as he intoned "...the story of a young man whose idyllic life is destroyed by the death of his father and his mother's betrayal of his father for--"

Mulder sat up abruptly. For the man responsible for killing his father: he hadn't seen the parallel before. There hadn't been one at the time.  At least, not one he'd known of. His mother hadn't aided in killing his father, but Cancer Man was the one responsible in the end. And though she hadn't run off and married the old cigarette-smoking son of a bitch, flaunting their relationship, she hadn't been as repentant as Gertrude, either. Gertrude at least had recognized her shortcomings in her son's impassioned protests. His own mother had slapped him in the face and denied everything, as if he were the one at fault for having asked the question. Reassuring, in the end, to know your family life was a tragedy worthy of the Bard.

He ran his hands back through his hair, tossed Sun Tzu onto the coffee table and stood. The clock glowed a green 2:13 from the end table. Mulder went to the desk, reached beside it for his basketball and began to bounce it slowly, rhythmically--bam. The ball passed through stripes of street light as it rose and fell. His mother was at his aunt's house now; he'd have to talk to her soon to let her know whether it was safe for her to return home. He didn't know if it was safe. Probably. Unless something had happened to the house in the meantime to indicate otherwise. And what would he say when the conversation reached its inevitable pause? He had nothing to say to her, nothing that might not earn him another slap in the face.

Bam.

He couldn't avoid her forever.

Bam-bam.

She always seemed immune--immune to everything. Except when he tried to question her about the past, and then a pain surfaced in her face, as if everything he said cut her in some way.

Bam-bam. Bam-bam-bam.

A sudden thumping came from below the floor, followed by the ringing of the telephone. Mulder caught the ball and went to pick up the phone.

"Yeah? Sorry... Okay, yeah. Yeah. Sorry."

He hung up and ran a hand back through his hair. The room was too hot--too cramped, too quiet. Too closed in. He held the ball, poised to bounce, and finally lobbed it into the leather chair.

In his room he found sweats and running shoes and put them on. He worked the apartment key off his key ring and slipped it into his pocket. When he pulled the door shut he hesitated, then went left to the stairwell instead of right, toward the elevator. Every stair, every expansion and contraction of muscle, felt necessary, as if it were helping him break through a shell or cocoon that held him. He paced his breathing, eager to get to the bottom, to be outside in the cold air. The street beyond the building was silent and motionless, suspended in a freeze-frame of night. Mulder hesitated only a second, then turned right and hit the street sprinting.


 

Scully clicked the 'shut down' option and watched the computer screen go grainy and then fade to black. She wasn't tired now, though it was nearly two in the morning. It was a godsend: a puzzle to untangle, people to help. Though she couldn't for the life of her imagine why Skinner had given her name to Rita Johnston and failed to let her know.

After she returned from taking Rita to the bus station, she'd gone surfing for background information. Beeson-Lymon's Kentucky operation was indeed a defense plant, one of five the company owned. This particular one, however, did something only two other plants in the country did: it processed beryllium. Made into an ultra-hard, lightweight metal, it was used in missile casings, fighter jets and even in the space program. It also produced a toxic dust that could be dangerous--even potentially lethal--at extremely low levels of concentration. Very possibly it was the culprit Rita Johnson was searching for... if the evidence checked out. She would have to run tests on Bill Johnston's remains, and as many other victims as possible. Hopefully not everyone had taken the company up on its cremation offer.

Scully stood, stretched and headed for the bedroom. She knew now how Mulder felt when he called her in the middle of the night. This was a case that would pique his interest, and she felt the urge to call and tell him about her visitor. Mulder would like Rita Johnston. He would appreciate her earnestness and single-mindedness. He'd be impressed by the fact that she'd come here to talk and then had immediately turned around to spend the night riding a bus back to Kentucky. Scully had suspected that the reason for her haste was economic--that Rita didn't have enough money for a place to stay the night. She'd offered to put her up in a motel, but Rita wouldn't hear of it, though she had gratefully accepted Scully's offer of a ride to the bus station.

Scully glanced toward the phone. Mulder was probably asleep, and there was no point in waking him. He'd seemed pensive tonight, though not brooding; she could tell when that kind of darkness came over him. If he was resting, disturbing him might do more harm than good. She could call him tomorrow, after she'd had a chance to talk to Skinner.

Scully got into bed and reached to turn off the light on the night stand. She had to be up again in three hours.

If she could have foreseen the way her life would go, the direction it would take--if she could have shown this picture to her younger self, the one fresh from the Academy--she would have denied that it could ever be her. It had been a long six years.


 

Mulder came awake to sun in his face. He grimaced and rolled in an attempt to escape the brightness, but it was no use; light covered the couch. At least, the end he was on. He sat up and covered his face with his hands, then blinked and looked over at the clock. 10:17. It was warm. The morning was half over.

He reached for the phone and dialed the number of the rental car agency and waited, stuck on hold. He couldn't keep doing this, renting cars when he had to go somewhere. When the Bureau was paying it was one thing, but on your own dime it was a different story. Taxis were no bargain, either.

He got up, tucked the phone under his chin and went to the leather chair for the basketball. He picked it up and bounced it twice. When the agent came on, he grabbed the phone.

"Yeah, I'd like a car for one day--" He looked at his watch. He wouldn't be picking it up much before twelve. He could make it home by tomorrow noon; it should be no problem. "Midsize...something midsize."

Hold again.

Maybe he was crazy to be doing this, driving all this way--like driving was some kind of treat--to go to his mother's house and check it out so he could avoid talking to her. Was he really spending all this time and money to avoid a phone call? He tucked the phone back under his chin and began to bounce the ball, harder this time, bam-bam-bam.

After his reservation was confirmed, he hung up and tossed the basketball back into the leather chair. There wasn't much time. A shower was the first thing on his list, and packing a few things. He should call Scully, so she'd know where he'd gone--so she wouldn't worry that he'd done something stupid again. Mulder headed for the bathroom, peeling off his t-shirt as he went.

 

 

(end 2 of 14)

To Chapter 3 

 

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