Walking Through Fire

by bardsmaid

Chapter 6

 

Teena Mulder turned from the window to look at the box of photographs on the bed. Even having gotten them out was awkward, unfamiliar territory. Her entire adult life had been a study in suppression, but returning from a week at her sister's had made her gray life of denial seem much less than comforting, or comfortable, than it once was.

It was Trudy's garden that had impressed her as much as anything. It had always seemed like a burden in the past--the garden that drew her sister outside early in the morning, straw visor on, work apron around her middle. Often Trudy would be snipping with shears or down on her knees pulling at straggling weeds as the sun rose. Certainly her project demanded commitment. But on this visit she'd realized that rather than a burden, the garden was a source of renewal for Trudy, and a noteworthy victory for a woman unwilling to accept the convenience of mundane surroundings. Instead she'd transformed her yard into an almost magical sanctuary of light and shade, crisp flowers and flowing branches, a dozen shades of green punctuated by bright whites and yellows, stone paths and benches and the fleeting visits of small, near-weightless birds to gracefully bobbing stems.

Her own life had been like the yard Trudy had begun with.  Unlike her sister, she'd been unwilling to take a chance with it, too accustomed to covering up, hiding, trying to forget or deny. It had become her legacy to her one remaining child. Fox deserved more.  And soon: they were after him now, the murky men, like dark crows intent on stripping the spirit from him. Perhaps it wasn't too late to begin a new landscape. Even small improvements would be better than none at all.

Her courage finally screwed up, Teena crossed the room to the bed and sat down. Her fingers hovered momentarily over the smooth box lid. After a moment she lifted it off and took out a handful of pictures. She faced each one in turn and then set it aside, taking another handful, making herself go on even though she dreaded arriving at the one picture that, more than the rest, would cause her well-deserved anguish.

Oddly, it seemed to be missing.

She went through the contents of the box a second time, and a third. Fox had questioned her about it.  He must have taken it.

Teena stood abruptly and returned to the window, closing her eyes, fighting the need to be angry with him for holding her sins up to her yet again, for never allowing them sink gracefully below the muddy surface. After all, he only wanted to find his sister.

Gradually she began to notice the breeze coming through the screen--the way it buoyed her hair, lifting it. Softly it began to erase the moisture that rimmed her eyes. Calmer, she opened her eyes and returned to the bed. She gathered the spread-out photographs and went through them one last time, pausing at one particular picture and setting it aside. It was casual, almost silly, certainly not formal enough to be put into a proper album. In it she was sitting cross-legged on the floor in shorts and a sleeveless blouse; there was a food stain above the breast pocket. She was laughing. Fox, not more than three years old, was hugging her from behind.


 

The traffic in front of Carravagio's was constant, hungry people going inside and sated diners emerging more slowly from under the green and white striped canopy that shaded the front of the restaurant. Mulder sat on a sheltered bench in front of the business next door, waiting. He glanced again at his watch. 6:55. Depending on traffic, Scully should be here soon.

He ran his fingers over his chin, smooth now after two days of stubble. He was still between personas, transitioning from Joe Homeless to Mulder-Partner-of-Scully: off with the tired jeans and two-day-old T-shirt and the unwashed hair, on with the white shirt and slacks, showered and shaved, as if he'd spent the day in the basement office like a good little public servant. Joe Homeless was supposed to be the disguise. Somehow it didn't feel that way anymore.

Something was going on with the Stair Sprite. There was no telling what the girl's circumstances were, and D. C. could be an unforgiving place if she were short on funds, or on the run as he suspected. If he hadn't been so thrown off by Diana's sudden appearance, he might have tried to get her to open up today.

Diana: when she'd left D.C. it had been night and day--flip the switch. One day it was the X-files and the paranormal and the thrill of the research. The next it had been an assignment in Europe, how she'd always wanted to go there, how she needed the challenge of a new experience. He thought he'd known her. Far be it from him to hold her back if that's what she wanted to do with her life; he just thought he'd known who she was. Maybe it had hurt his profiler's pride that he'd been thrown a curve without expecting it. Either way, the effect had been the same. The loneliness had hurt. It had hurt her, too; he knew that. But the silence in the apartment had been too loud, the bed too big without her. The contact, as with most long-distance relationships, had been too infrequent, and quick to die. Life had gone on and he had work to do. It was a good excuse. It filled the void. 

He hadn't seen it coming at all. Blindsided. Bam.

Mulder pulled a sunflower seed from his pocket and looked around. More diners approached; a line was beginning to form outside the door now. He searched the street for Scully's car. He'd taken more boxes home in the afternoon, packed the last of the kitchen stuff and cleared out the hall closet. Called and arranged for a storage space and a truck to take everything there. His stomach was still queasy, or maybe it was jittery, wound up from the tension and the uncertainty of standing at the cliff's edge and sticking one foot out into the void. He'd gone over everything in the classifieds twice. Not much out there was available cheap except rooms.

A room. His mouth tightened.

"Hey, stranger--"

He looked up. Scully appeared in front of him as if she were color in a black-and-white world.

"Hey."

"Looks like we may have to wait a while," she said, nodding toward the doorway.

"Yeah, I was thinking about getting our names in there but I wasn't sure whether you'd end up stuck in traffic."

She sat down beside him.

"You look tired, Scully."

"Maybe I shouldn't do this. I think if I sit for more than five minutes I may not be able to get up." She stood.

"We could always call in," Mulder said, nodding toward the restaurant. "Order something to go."

She looked dubious. "I'm not up for eating in the car, Mulder."

"We don't have to eat in the car. There's a park about a block over. They have benches."

Scully thought a minute and sighed. "Okay, I'm game. But only because I'm too tired to wait." She pulled out her cell phone and dialed. "What do you want, Mulder?"

"The lasagna, I think."

"With the red sauce?"

"I think I'll go with the white this time."

Scully raised her eyebrows.

"It just sounds good right now," he said.

Scully ordered and then hung up. "Twenty minutes," she said. She seemed a little less tired. "You convinced me. I got lasagna, too. It'll be quicker. They make it in huge pans; it's always ready to go." A yawn started and she stifled it.

"Come on, G-woman.  Take a load off," he said, tugging gently on her sleeve.

She shook her head. "I'm on the verge, Mulder. Twenty minutes could be dangerous."

"I'll wake you up." He patted the bench next to him.

Reluctantly, she sat down.

"You've been pushing it, Scully."

"It's this case of Skinner's. I think the week would have been manageable without it. I had to autopsy Mr. Johnston's remains last night..."

"So you said."

"His lungs were riddled with scarring. Exactly what we were looking for."

"Do you have other victims, something you can build a case on?"

She sighed. "Wilkins is checking for other burials. The question is whether we can find evidence among whatever other burials there may be. The plant is actually located east of Lexington in a little town called Owensburg. It's a depressed area and Beeson-Lymon is essentially the town's only employer. Lots of people are probably eager enough to take the company up on its cremation offer."

"And?"

"And what?"

"Something's eating you, Scully."

She glanced away, toward the restaurant window. The dim figures of diners could be seen through the smoked glass. "Skinner called me this afternoon." She paused, her voice sober. "Andy Johnston, Rita Johnston's son--the one this case was started over--was killed late this morning by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a street." She seemed suspended for a moment. When she spoke again, her voice seemed fragile. "He was her only son, Mulder."

He frowned and slipped a sunflower seed into his mouth. "Sounds like a set-up."

"From what they say, witnesses have identified the driver as a man who's had a running argument with Andy Johnston for years. A local guy--someone who used to be employed at the plant. They haven't caught him yet."

Mulder looked up, above the roofs of the buildings to the sky. The light was thinning. "Maybe you're onto something bigger here."

"Skinner thinks so. I know this is personal for him. But he sent Wilkins with the remains, Mulder; he didn't just ship them. Wilkins stayed and watched me do the autopsy." She smiled slightly, remembering.

"What?"

"Wilkins. He's a rookie but he's going to make a very good investigator. He's curious. He wants to learn. I'm not sure the autopsy was exactly within his comfort zone but he stayed anyway."

Mulder glanced at his watch.

"Skinner wants me to fly to Kentucky with him tomorrow to autopsy Andy Johnston's body. I was planning on sleeping in. At least we won't be leaving until around noon." She glanced at the restaurant, where a family with small twin girls was coming out the front door. Scully's face clouded. After a moment she turned to him. "What about you, Mulder? What have you been up to?"

Mulder nodded toward the front door. "It's about time. Maybe we should check on the food."

They worked their way past the waiting line and in the front door. Their food was indeed ready, packed into a large brown bag with handles. Scully paid and Mulder took the bag.

"You ever been to this park?" he asked when they were outside again.

"I never even knew there was a park around here."

"You'll like it."

The park was small, barely the width of several buildings removed from the middle of a city block, with a thick perimeter of trees and a fountain in the center. Mulder gestured to a bench near the fountain that faced the rear of the park.

"How about this?"

Scully sat down. "Actually, this is quite nice." She looked up, into the canopy of  leaves. Her hair fell back from her face. "You know, Mulder, I can't remember the last time I sat outside."

"Maybe this is a good thing then," he said, taking the box of food she handed him and sitting down.

Mulder opened his meal and started to eat. He wasn't that hungry but he could always save what was left over. It was good, though. Scully had gotten the kind with the red sauce. She seemed to be enjoying it.

"So what have you been up to, Mulder?" she said between bites of garlic bread.

He stopped chewing and breathed out. "I'm thinking about giving up the apartment." 

He hadn't meant to tell her. He'd planned to wait until it was unavoidable.

She frowned at him, exactly the look he could have expected.

He shrugged. "I figure if I ever want to get back into the Bureau I've got to grab onto this thing. If I let go now..." He shook his head. "I may never make it. I have a little money saved up, but it won't last if I keep the place. I can always pick up something again later, when I'm back in."

"But Mulder, it's your home.  And you know how hard it is to find housing around here."

He stared at the water bubbling up quietly out of the top of the fountain and spilling over the rounded edges in glistening waves. "Can't be helped, Scully. I can't let go of this. Not now." He focused on his voice, on keeping it even.

"Have you figured out how to catch him yet? Cancer Man?"

"Not exactly. But I'm laying the groundwork. I've got to let him think his strategy is working, that he's broken me. That I'm not a threat anymore."

"Be your own decoy."

He nodded. "If my guess is right, Alex Krycek will get worried and contact me."

Scully looked suddenly alarmed. "Bit my tongue," she said, wiping her mouth quickly with a napkin.

"I... I don't know what Krycek's angle is yet, what value he thinks I hold for him, but he's bound to come around, and it's a start. Maybe I can get some information; you know he's working for Old Smoky."

"But how can you trust him, Mulder? He could just want to use you against the Smoking Man."

"I know. But at this point, what choice do I have?" He squinted across to the far corner of the park.

"But where will you stay, Mulder?" her voice came quietly after a minute. "If you give up your apartment?"

"I don't know yet. I'll find something."

"What will you do with your things?" She let out a sigh. "Never mind. Not exactly the kind of help you're looking for, am I?"

He looked over at her. "Sure you are. You're the last thing I've got that hasn't vanished into thin air." He paused, then raised his eyebrows. "Thanks for the food, by the way. It's the best meal I've had in days."

"You haven't eaten very much."

"I haven't been all that hungry." He closed the lid on the box. "I'll save it, though. It'll be good for breakfast. Anyway"--he nodded toward her and grinned--"it was a chance to see the amazing Dr. Scully. I figured I'd better go for it while I had the chance." He waited for a protest, a sign that he'd exceeded his limits.

She didn't seem to notice. "You know, Mulder, I was thinking about it last night. Something Wilkins said to me and all of a sudden it felt like a thousand years since we've been out on assignment--even one of Kersh's orange jumpsuit cases."

Mulder bit his lip and looked up, to where the sunset haloed the buildings in molten colors.


 

Alex Krycek eased his car down the dirt-and-gravel road in the dwindling light. The target's name was Cyrus Miller, age 23, and at this moment he should be somewhere inside the grove of trees that lay at the end of this sorry excuse for a road. High school graduate, social drinker, good ol' boy in training, never a jock but hefty enough to be a football player. With buddies stupid enough to buy a stranger's story about being an old friend of Cy's from when he lived with his grandmother as a teenager. Krycek shook his head.

He cut the motor and cruised silently down the last thirty feet of road. Half an hour earlier would have been nice--a little more visibility--but this would do. He checked his weapon and slipped from the car, leaving the door ajar.

His boots seemed unnervingly loud on the gravel, but it should thin into dirt soon, and anyway, Miller should be drunk enough by now not to notice. Krycek entered the trees.

The black silhouettes of lacy branches spread overhead, backlighted in the west by the bright purples and oranges of dusk.  The eastern sky was already a deepening blue. A light shone in the near distance; he could see it already. Not a campfire. A contained area: a car. A car with its interior lights on.  How convenient could this guy get? 

Krycek smiled grimly and walked on. 


 

The light was nearly gone. A pale, thin yellowness remained behind the building to the west of the park, outlining it softly. The trees were beginning to lose their detail, transforming gradually into black lace stencils.

"Rita Johnston, Mulder. I just... What she must be going through." She paused. "I can't get it out of my mind. It's like a loop; it just plays and replays."

She was warm up against his side.

A sudden current of warm air wafted between the trees, rustling their leaves, leaving them whispering. Water in the fountain splashed noisily from the main bowl.

Scully's head tilted a little more, until it nearly rested against his shoulder.

It wasn't Andy Johnston she was feeling this pain for; he was pretty damn sure of that.  It was the boy's mother. The whole situation was too close to home for her.  "You're missing her, aren't you?" he said quietly.

Scully looked away. He could feel her tighten.

Mulder moved his arm from between them and settled it along the back of the bench. His hand curved around her shoulder. "Be glad you haven't forgotten her, Scully. Be glad you haven't tried to picture her so many times that her face dissolves in front of you as soon as you try to picture it."

She turned toward him but said nothing. She seemed to lean into him more; he could feel her breath against his shirt.

Slowly his arm went around her.

He closed his eyes.


 

Krycek approached silently from the rear of the car. Country music drifted softly from the radio. There was a beer on the dashboard; Cyrus Miller sat in the driver's seat, his face yellowed by the weak light, ragged blond hair sprouting from under a baseball cap, a full reddish beard framing his face. His eyes were glazy and he stared straight ahead. Shiny trails ran down his cheeks.

Krycek watched only a moment. He drew his weapon, put it through the open window and fired. Blood sprayed against the passenger window and Miller slumped slightly to the side. Krycek breathed in, breathed out, focusing on his interior rhythm, willing the sudden spike of adrenaline away. After several moments a gurgle came from the body. Krycek slipped a cloth from his pocket and began to wipe the surface of the weapon.

It was a good hit, quick and clean; the guy wouldn't have felt a thing. Still, it was fucking pathetic, playing the old man's trigger. If it weren't for--

A wail tore the silence, raw and close. 

Krycek grabbed the gun by the handle and spun around.  Nothing but leaves and darkness. His ears buzzed and his heart pounded but nothing moved in the shadows. He turned back to the car, bathed in sudden sweat. Except for his ragged breaths, there was silence.

Miller's body moved slightly. Krycek cocked his weapon. The cry came again, raw.  A small face emerged from behind Miller's gut, eyes wide, terrified.

Dream: he was swimming through a dream. He saw the kid Sergei, pale and bony. He saw Victor bleeding onto the cobblestones of Marseille. The numbers on the dashboard clock were blinking. The scream came again, harsh and jagged, echoing down his spine.

Krycek pointed his weapon and fired.


 

Mulder watched wispy clouds drift above the little park, his arm still around his partner. Scully had fallen asleep against him, he didn't know how long ago but he hadn't wanted to wake her. She was exhausted from a week of overwork and commuting, and then Emily had come to visit, Emily who had opened Scully up like no one else. Emily she'd given her cross to, Emily she'd stretched herself for, wanting to take down those walls she maintained so assiduously. Emily she'd sacrificed her emotions to release. Emily who, in the end, had helped her rebuild her walls more solidly than before.

Mulder dipped his head slightly until her hair rested against his lips. He should wake her. She should be in her own bed, sleeping where she could relax. She had another trip to make, another assignment tomorrow when she should be sleeping in, an encounter with the body of a mother's only son, and what would it do to her? How much could she take? This was the only time they'd had--the only time he'd been with her in days, or was it months now, years? She smelled like his partner, familiar and reassuring. He could sit here forever on this bench, Scully asleep against him, reassured by the rhythm of her breathing, of her warmth and weight against him.

He looked up again. Above the trees two or three stars were visible, shining more brightly than the electrically-lit metropolis. A breeze came from the right, blowing strands of her hair across his face.

He shifted. "Scully..."

She stirred and opened her eyes, then sat up abruptly. "What? Oh, my God. I really did fall asleep. What--?"

"Scully, it's late. It's getting cold."

"Mulder, why didn't you wake me?"

He shrugged, sheepish. "You were tired. I figured you needed the rest." He paused. "It was nice here--the trees and the sky."

She looked up. "Yes, it is."

"Come on," he said, standing. He gave her a hand up and guided her toward the path. "I'll take you home."


 

Krycek sped north over the darkened road to Cincinnati. The radio was loud and the windows were rolled down all the way. He shivered. Nobody had seen him, nobody was chasing him, but still he shook, jittery little tremors that refused to stop. There was a squawk from the radio as it skipped from one station to another. Country music poured into the car. He slapped at the off button.

He was too hot. He wanted a shower, wanted to wash away his sweat and the sticky residue of the grove, and there was going to be no escaping the picture in his head.  Damn the old man for assigning him this hit. Damn him for everything.

Damn his mother, too.

His throat swelled, hard and aching, and he gripped the steering wheel harder.

If he made good enough time, he could change his flight. Though the old man would find out if he detoured to New York. He'd check the passenger manifest; here was no trust lost between the two of them. And what reason could he give? Maybe he could volunteer to check up on the group, a surprise visit; the old man never trusted any of them too far. It might appeal to him.

Or it might raise his suspicions. But there was no choice now but to take that chance.

Tail lights screamed red directly in front of him. Krycek braked, swerved into the passing lane and fought the momentary adrenaline rush.

Get a grip, get a rhythm.

Now slow it down.

He checked the rear view--nothing--moved over two lanes to the right, eased on the brake and brought the car to a stop on the shoulder of the road. Fucking air was too thin.

Damn her.

Damn her for not having the guts to end it before it started.

He let the engine idle for a minute and then switched the key off. His body continued to shake. Three cars whizzed by in quick succession, their red tail lights growing rapidly smaller until finally they disappeared. Blackness spread itself around him.

So cold now. He pulled the fake arm against his chest with the good one and let his head rest against the steering wheel. Inside, the steady pulsing of blood moved through him like a poison. The one-eyed boy stared at him, his face contorted in fear.

Silence: first a static-filled hush and then absolute silence, as if he'd been locked into a sealed room. The cold arc of the steering wheel pressed hard against his forehead. Something between a growl and a scream wrenched itself from his throat. The boy stared unblinking. Then a jerky sob slipped from him, and another and another, until he was only a small boat on a swollen river of pain, unable to steer for the shore.


 

Teena Mulder flipped the switch to turn off the bedside light. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness her thoughts settled on her son. Where he would be at this moment?  What dangers would he be facing?

 

 

 (end 6 of 14)

To Chapter 7

 

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