Walking Through Fire

by bardsmaid

Chapter 5

 

He approached her chair from behind, silently, and paused a moment to watch her curled up, reading. He'd always enjoyed watching her: the dark wave of her hair, the way she would read a book resting her chin on her hand. She was so like her mother, a woman he'd barely known but one who had nevertheless sufficed to give him this child. She'd been a scientist, the mother, working on the early stages of Bill Mulder's project, a forceful woman for her era: professional, confident, analytical. She'd been one of the first casualties among the project staff, the victim of a process that had been too little understood at the time. Diana had been five at the time of the accident, though she'd never formed an exceptionally close bond with her mother because of her mother's pressing work schedule. He had taken her, after her mother's death, and placed her in a boarding school, a place with a good reputation and close by, so that he could visit her often, support her, shape her. He'd sent her to college afterward, again nearby, so they could maintain contact. Diana was bright, every bit as analytical as her mother in her own way. She was a born strategist, a negotiator, a smoother of the way. She'd taken it in stride when he'd told her about the plans, about the future and what would happen... at least, as much as any human being could. 'What can I do to help?' had been her first response.

"Diana," he said softly.

She turned around abruptly, eyes wide, then relaxed at the sight of him. "Hello," she said, smiling. She sat up straight. "Do you need something?"

"I wanted to see you," he said, settling into the chair across from her. He reached into his pocket, then brought his hand back empty and planted it consciously on the chair arm. "How are the X-files these days?"

"There's been very little new casework. I think Skinner is afraid to make himself noticeable at this point."

"And well he should be. He's in a precarious position. He knows what happened to Mulder. And what appearing to side with Mulder's agenda might do. He needs his job."

"I've been going through all the open case files and discovered that my copy of the medical workup on Gibson Praise was missing. I've made arrangements to get another copy."

He raised his eyebrows. "And the boy? There's still no trace of him?"

She shook her head. "His name is on file with all the agencies and local authorities--anyone who'd be likely to look. They were advised that he was mentally unstable with a history of self-destructive incidents; it should have been enough to generate more attention than the usual missing child case. But there's been nothing in all this time."

"You've kept an eye on his home, his parents?"

"We have sources in place. If he were to contact them, we'd know."

He frowned. "I suppose a missing Gibson Praise is the next best thing to our having him in hand. But the boy is smart--too smart. I'm afraid he may be out there making some kind of plan."

"He's just one boy."

He raised his eyebrows. "It only takes one player out of control." He cleared his throat. "Which brings me to the point of my visit. I have an assignment for you. Fox Mulder seems to be somewhat... depressed of late over his recent dismissal."

"And you want me to go see him? At his apartment?"

"No. There's no need for that. Something more casual." He breathed in deeply. "I hear he's been spending his afternoons in Constitution Park. By the lake. You might arrange to chance across him there."

She nodded. Her face showed neither eagerness nor resistance. "I'll do it tomorrow," she said.

He got up from the chair. She stood, too. He approached her and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

"Goodnight," he said, and went to let himself out.


 

Mulder waded between cardboard boxes to reach the ringing phone. He picked it up, tucked it against his shoulder, and smiled at the greeting coming from the other end.

"Hey, Scully, what's up?"

"I didn't wake you, did I?"

"No..." He moved past a box. "No. I was... doing some cleaning up around here. You know, organizing things." He made his way to the couch and sat down.

"So you made it home from your mother's okay?"

The couch cradled him like a familiar, well-worn baseball glove. "...Yeah. I caught a few hours in the car and then I had this dream and I woke up. Anyway, I wasn't tired after that, so I started back. I figured I could beat the morning commute. No use spending all that time spinning your wheels if you don't have to."

"I know. I've been having to get used to this Quantico commute all over again. I have to admit that it's less than enjoyable."

He glanced over at the fish tank. The fish would have to go.

"Hey, Scully, I've got that scoop for you on the Beeson-Lymon thing. I checked it out this morning at the Gunmen's. Somebody they know inside the DOE passed them a couple of documents outlining--get this--a 'tentative offering' that includes higher beryllium prices and reduced exposure standards if Beeson-Lymon agrees to continue to supply once their only remaining competitor, CIM, bites the dust."

"CIM?"

"Chronwell Industrial Metals." The desk was filled with stuff he needed. "It's a family business and old Mr. Chronwell's been diagnosed with just a few months to live. His kids don't want to take over from Daddy, so the company's going to be closed down." The desk wouldn't take up much space if he kept it; it wasn't a big desk.

"My God. Mulder, I--"

The raw emotion on the other end of the line jarred him from his domestic speculations. He closed his eyes and forced away everything but her voice.

"I just finished examining Bill Johnston's remains, Mulder, and his lungs were riddled with granulomas, the scars produced by beryllium disease. We're going to arrange for his son to be tested, but that may take some time because the test will have to be repeated several times for verification. And that will only tell us if he's sensitive to beryllium. If he is, he'll need to undergo further testing--very painful testing. I'm hoping Agent Wilkins will be able to locate other former workers' bodies we can examine. But if the standards are relaxed--"

"...a lot more people are going to be affected," he finished.

There was a pause, then a breathy sound on the other end of the line.

"Scully, was that a yawn?"

"Yes, Mulder, as a matter of fact it was. Actually, I'm lucky I can even see straight right now. I guess this case has just mushroomed to take up all my spare time. I only got three hours of sleep last night and I'm just now on my way home after finishing Mr. Johnston's autopsy."

Mulder rested his head against the back of the couch. "Hey, you can always snooze at lunchtime now that you have your own space. That's why they have locks on office doors."

"I'll remember that." She sounded slightly amused. "But I think I'll just wait and sleep in on Saturday, Mulder. I can make it one more day."

"Suit yourself, FBI woman. Just remember that fatigue can dull your edge." He paused, suddenly sobered, and went on quietly. "Hey, you know that dream I told you about--the one I had last night?"

"What about it?"

"It was about something that happened when I was little." He could picture himself again: the child standing in the kitchen doorway in his blue plaid shorts. "It got me thinking."

"That...?"

"She wasn't always like that.  My mother.  Closed off, tense. I... I think she got that way after Samantha was born. I can remember some things from before then, and I actually do remember her smiling. I remember her being happy."

"Are you sure you can trust your memory, Mulder?"

"I know, Scully. I know most people don't remember all that far back, but I know this stuff. I remember this neighbor we had next door. He was an old man. He had a cat and an electric fireplace. That really fascinated me, that fireplace. He died when I was three and a half."

The room was suddenly quiet. He opened his eyes and looked toward the fish tank. The bubbler sputtered and began to work again.

"Maybe something happened to her, Mulder. Something must have happened."

He could see his mother again--young---the tearshine in her eyes and the sudden change in her expression, as if he'd brought the sun out. "I know. I've been thinking about that--you know, trying to profile her, figure her out instead of..." Instead of just letting their differences bite him on the ass every time she said something, or did something.

"You know, Mulder, I wouldn't be telling you anything new if I said your mother's a... a difficult person to understand. She is. But if you've found something you can hold on to--something that was real to you--then hold onto that. Go with it. I've got to say that I don't think I would have had the patience with her that you've had. Maybe in the end what she needs is your understanding."

"Yeah." She'd been near tears, coming out from under that sink. And then everything had changed.

"...ummm..."

"Was that another yawn?"

"Mulder, I do believe that if I hadn't been talking to you I would have driven off the side of the road by now."

"Now you're worrying me, Scully."

"As a matter of fact, in recognition of this significant accomplishment, I'm going to take you to dinner tomorrow night. Maybe that Italian place you like so well."

"Caravaggio's?"

"Caravaggio's it is. Besides, it'll give me a good reason not to stay late at work."

"Scully, I'm overwhelmed."

"I assume that means you accept. Do you want me to pick you up?"

He looked around the room, at the boxes and the stack of pictures he'd already taken off the walls.

"Uh, no. I... I can meet you there. It's no problem."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I'll be there.

"Say around seven?"

"Yeah." A pause.  "I guess I need some kind of appointment to see you now. Just don't crash before you get to tomorrow night. Are you anywhere near home yet?"

"Just pulling onto my street."

"Then I guess I'll sleep okay."

"See you tomorrow, Mulder."

"Yeah," he said. She'd clicked off already.

He leaned forward to set the phone on the coffee table and rested his head in his hands. Breathe in, breathe out. Steady--keep it steady. Like a fighter pilot flying through a narrow canyon, you only make it through if you focus ahead, if you don't get distracted by how close the walls are to the tips of your wings.

Or maybe the thing to do was to be like the little girl in the doorway a couple of hours earlier: keep your bounce, don't let the details bog you down. Life is more than your problems.  Or so they say.

Mulder leaned to the side and reached under the pillows. His fingers found his sister's braid and curled around it.


 

Diana yawned and pulled the shawl closer around her. Pale light was beginning to color the early morning sky.  She padded over to a chair beside the window and stared out at the Washington skyline. She and Fox had watched a sunrise once, when they'd first met, after sitting up all night talking about precognition and space and the British and Jung. There had been brilliant colors: purples and burning pinks and a yellow the color of fall poplar leaves in the French countryside--an almost electric glow. This sunrise--the one outside the window now--was a thin parchment color, tinged with the lavender-gray of passing clouds.

She hadn't slept well. She'd showed no emotion when he'd asked her to go visit Mulder. It was a result of conscious training: to be professional, to show nothing, not her eagerness or her dread. The cause was foremost, of course. But still, the knowledge hadn't made sleep come any more easily.

She was perfectly capable of making the contact. She would find out how he was and report to her father; the information could be crucial in the end analysis. What she was incapable of was walking away from Mulder unaffected. Like a radioactive material, contact with Fox Mulder always branded her--the energy, the hope, the trust freely given. The trust assumed in return. Unknowingly, he turned a mirror to her that she was loathe to view.


 

"This is the worst kind of news, Agent Wilkins." Skinner tucked the phone between his cheek and shoulder and reached for a pencil. "Tear the scene apart. Find out everything you can about this... what did you say his name is? Miller?... Cyrus Miller." He wrote it down. "Has anyone contacted Rita Johnston yet?" He stood, went to the window and stared into the day's brightness. "Yes. Thank you."

He sighed and waited. People passed by on the sidewalk below. "As soon as you have anything. Anything at all."

Exhaling deeply, Skinner returned to his desk, hung up the phone and rested his hands on the broad, smooth surface. He closed his eyes and let his head hang. It could have been an accident. It could be just another freakish twist of fate, like ten thousand things that happened on the battlefield. The other option was more disturbing.

He straightened and went to the bookshelf. He knew the way his own mother had reacted when she'd learned he'd been wounded in combat. And he'd still been alive. Rita Johnston was a strong woman--an exceptional woman--but she was still a mother. She'd have those ties. Take a child and you ripped away part of the mother's soul.

Skinner drifted to the guest chair, hands on hips, then to the window, then back to the desk. She was a strong woman, with conviction, in the way Mulder was strong. He nudged the desk chair with his foot. It had been--what--a week and a half since he'd seen Mulder? He hadn't called, hadn't dropped by to see if there was anything Mulder needed. Hadn't offered any kind of support. They could be watching him, of course. They could very well be watching his every move since he'd leaked the Cassandra Spender tip to Scully.  It might be a sensible excuse--that he was saving his own ass--but it was an excuse nonetheless.

But this investigation: Maybe it was more than what it seemed on the surface. It might carry implications he didn't want to begin to think about. He'd know for sure if the Cigarette Man showed up in his office soon. This was hardly the kind of payback Dale Lanier deserved for saving his life in a firefight half a world away.

Drifting back to the window, Skinner pressed his palm against the warm glass.


 

Mulder spit a seed onto the step below him and looked out across the expanse of barely rippling water. He'd gone to bed at 2:30 in the morning and woken up at ten. He'd made a second box-gathering foray and had gone through drawers of stuff in the kitchen and bathroom, saving what little he needed and throwing away the rest. He'd bought oatmeal while he was at the market--the kind that could be zapped in the microwave--and had made some before he left, though his stomach was still queasy. He knew this feeling and it wasn't the kind of ache that could be fixed with a pill.

He glanced behind him to where he expected to find Miss Muse-of-the-Stairs, but he was alone. He'd been expecting to seeing her this time. There were no constants.

He would see Scully at seven. He wasn't sure what had inspired her to invite him to dinner, but it was okay; he'd accept. It was a chance to see her, to talk with her in that comfortable, familiar way again. To soak her in, as much as it was possible to soak someone in without having it affect them in any way. She had her necessary defenses--the ones she believed she needed--and she reached past them only when she had to. But like a sunbather on an intermittently cloudy day, he'd stay and take whatever he could get. She'd become his reason for getting up in the morning when getting up to find Samantha had lost its kick.

Resting his head on his arms, he closed his eyes. He hadn't had any kind of normal schedule in weeks. He'd go whole days without sleeping and then pick up a few odd hours in the middle of the morning, or the afternoon. Then he'd be wired in the middle of the night, ready to go running at two in the morning. How many times had he done that lately?

Footsteps sounded on the steps behind him and before he thought to lift his head and take a look, a hand on his shoulder made him start. It was a soft hand, gentle.

"Fox?"

He squinted up into the midday brightness. "Diana?"

"What are you doing here, Fox?"

He swallowed, hesitated. "Just thinking. Taking in the day."

"I come here on my lunch hour occasionally." There was a white bag in her hand. "I like the view: the ripples on the water, the geese. A little bit of quiet in the middle of the frenzy."

His eye caught the subtle swaying of a nearby willow tree. He was tired suddenly, worn. Strange how that sudden flash of child-think could overtake you, the desire to just curl up somewhere safe when you'd known for years the world wasn't like that.

"I heard what happened, Fox."

She sat down beside him. She was wearing a navy blue suit, her usual tailored number with the knee-length skirt and the matching pumps--the kind that looked like normal office shoes but were comfortable to walk in. "I haven't figured out where the directive came from; bureaucracies are strange things that way. But I'm hanging onto those files, Fox. Skinner's a good man; I think he has a genuine interest in seeing the work developed, but I get the sense that someone above him doesn't see the value in the investigations you've been working so hard at. I think they want to shut us down again if they can find a way to justify it." She sighed.

He shook his head. No words came. There were two ducks now, bobbing in the water at the pavement's edge.

"Do you know what you're going to do now?" she said after a moment.

"I dunno." One duck bobbed below the surface, his tail feathers skyward. "I was thinking of making homelessness a career, but the perks don't seem too good."

He glanced up at her silence. Mordant humor had never worked with her; it hadn't been a part of their dynamic. They'd both been too needy, too starved for connection to focus on putting up walls, or jousting. "Sorry."

Her hand settled on his shoulder. "You'll find something, Fox. You're a good investigator."

He nodded, or tried to, but it was a half-hearted effort. There was pressure inside him, an empty ache steadily filling him like a balloon, swelling and swelling with no place to expand.

She shrugged. "Somehow I'm not hungry right now. Want half a sandwich?" She held out the bag.

"No. Thanks. I'm guess I'm not ready for anything, either."

It was almost the way they used to sit, side by side, shoulders touching, heads together. He stirred.

She moved and tucked her legs under her to stand. "Take care of yourself, Fox. Don't give up."

She stood. He tried to give her a smile. Then she was gone, her footsteps echoing up the stairs. By the time he turned around Diana was gone, but the Stair Sprite had materialized in her usual location.

"Warmer today," he said with a shrug, attempting conversation.

It took a beat before she responded. "It is." She opened her backpack and started to poke through it.

He watched her a moment. Usually she was the talker; if he didn't know better, he'd say she was trying to avoid him.

She looked up. "I'm just... My mind's kind of full right now."

Mulder shrugged and turned back to the lake. "I know what you mean."


 

"Alex?"

Krycek held the receiver to his ear and twisted his wrist far enough that he could read his watch. "Yeah."

"I need you to take that trip to Kentucky." Pause. "Just a small errand. You'll need to leave right away."

"No problem."

"I'll send a car for you. Your tickets and instructions will be there."

"Give me fifteen minutes."

He reached across the bed, set the receiver back in place and stared at the ceiling. 1:30 in the afternoon and he hadn't even made it out of the sack yet. Two days in a row he'd done the same thing, just no motivation to get up, to get out and doing. It was a definite red flag, but the way he'd been feeling, it was hard to bring himself to care.

What was the point, really?

There it was: the ultimate question, the one he'd managed for years to avoid. There were a dozen years at best before the aliens came screaming down from the skies to claim the planet. At best. That had been the timetable before the rebels showed up, anyway, and there was no telling whether or how soon they'd make another appearance that would change everything.  One thing was certain: They were even less likely than the Colonists to end up as allies to the human population.

At one point--ancient history, it seemed now--he had been in a position to make a difference.  Maybe even to change the larger course of things. He and Marita had delivered a vial of the Russian vaccine to a Colombian pharmaceutical company to have it turned into enough vaccine to save hundreds of thousands of human lives--maybe millions if everything had gone smoothly. There was money for the work, and channels for distribution had been established. But everything had gone to hell when Marita took off with the Kazakh kid Dmitri, then had gotten infected herself, a series of events that had left him under the thumb of the Well-Manicured Man. The Brit had been all for distributing their secret vaccine--hell, he hadn't agreed with much the group had done for years.  But without Marita's approval code, her original insurance that he wouldn't somehow retrieve the vaccine and cut her out, the vaccine in Cali had become untouchable.  A few months later, their contact at the pharmaceutical works had been killed in a drug cartel hit gone bad, bringing their plan, and their hopes of fighting the future, to a grinding halt.

After the Brit's death, he'd ended up as the old man's bitch: errand boy, chauffeur, gofer, go-between.  And he was still stuck there, tired as hell of being played but unable to figure out, with absolutely no contacts or influence of his own, whether breaking away would be a fool's errand.  Or whether if he stuck around, he might eventually learn some secret of the old man's that could turn things around... or that he could use against him.

Then there was Mulder.  The old man had been waging a slow campaign for months now, like water torture, intent on breaking Mulder down.  Somehow, letting the old geezer succeed and get his satisfaction was a line he just hadn't been able to cross.  Maybe it was the hope he still had for Mulder.  Or maybe it was just that a loss for the old man felt like a win to him, and at this point, if it was the only win he was going to get, he'd take it.

Krycek stood and worked off his t-shirt, first over the stump, then over his head and finally off his good arm. There'd been a mirror on the back of the bathroom door when he'd moved in here. He'd taken it off one night--put a fist through it and then ripped it off--on one of those evenings when he'd actually had a few too many of those drinks he usually faked. Like the old man said, the downfall of the weak. And weak was something he couldn't afford to be.

He headed for the bathroom, wondering what the old man needed him for this time. To end some insignificant life? To blow something up, to torch a warehouse or a car? Maybe to plant evidence of things that had never happened. To influence the future by rewriting the past.


 

"Scully."

"Scully, this is A. D. Skinner. There's been an unfortunate turn of events in the Johnston case. Rita Johnston's son Andy was killed today in a hit-and-run accident in downtown Lexington. He was attempting to cross a street." He paused. "I'd like you to come to Kentucky with me and examine the body."

She paused and bit her lip. "Right away, sir?"

"I want to get on this ASAP. I have a feeling--" There was abrupt silence at the other end of the line. "I have a feeling this thing may be a lot bigger than we realize. I want to find out what we're dealing with here before our evidence starts to disappear."

"I was planning on meeting Agent Mulder after work, sir. It's been a rough couple of weeks for him."  She took a breath and held it, waiting for his response.

"You do what you think is best, Scully. I can probably get Wilkins to camp out overnight at the medical examiner's if I have to. How about tomorrow? I just think Rita Johnston's suffered enough already; I don't want her son's body being held for examination or shipped to Quantico. I'd like to get this over with."

"Certainly, sir."

"Good. I'll see if I can find a flight out around noon. I'll be in touch." Another pause. "Give my best to Agent Mulder."


 

Diana sat at her desk--Mulder's desk, the one her efforts had helped take from him--the words on the report in front of her an unfocused blur.

Every time it was the same. She would go in prepared to do a job, fortifying herself with assurances of his naivete, or his obsessiveness, or the futility of his blind crusade. And he would give her some small kindness, a trust she hadn't earned, a hope she could never really share. Not with what she knew. They were Ophelia and Hamlet meeting, with her father carefully hidden behind the arras.

"Agent Fowley, is something the matter?"

It was Jeffrey's voice. Diana looked up. She shook her head.

"Just a little bit of indigestion, I think."

"Do you want something for it?"

"No, I think I'm all right." She paused. "Thank you."

He looked at her, one eyebrow raised, then turned and continued to his desk.

After a moment Diana glanced at her partner, now head down, absorbed in paperwork. She studied the tight curl of his hair and the straight set of his mouth. He was petulant and defensive, like a small boy in the presence of other boys he didn't measure up to. He was unbelievably naive; he knew nothing about the larger picture... and wouldn't have believed it if he were told. He knew nothing about the rest of them: herself, Alex, Samantha Mulder. He knew only that he had a father who had suddenly reappeared in his life, someone with a degree of power he didn't fully understand, or trust. And sometimes--sometimes--there was a clear touch of something else about him: a sincerity, a caring unattached to any self-interest.

He was a boy forced to grow up too early, made to shoulder a burden too large for his capacities.

She understood all too well what that was like.

 

 

(end 5 of 14)

To Chapter 6 

 

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