Walking Through Fire

by bardsmaid

Chapter 3

 

The ringing of the phone woke Scully with a start. She forced her eyes open to find her desk before her. Quickly she reached for the receiver, clearing her throat. "Scully."

"Scully, this is Assistant Director Skinner."

"Sir?"

"I have a case here that I'd like your input on. Some forensic evidence we're going to need analyzed."

Scully blinked. Her eyes were dry. She'd only closed them for a moment, or so it had seemed. "Does this have to do with the defense plant deaths in Kentucky?"

There was a brief pause. "How did you know about that?"

"I spoke with Rita Johnston last night. Frankly, I was surprised that I hadn't heard anything from you first, sir."

"I spoke with her late yesterday afternoon."

"Well, evidently she's in a hurry because she came to my apartment last night."

"Sorry about the lack of notice, Scully. This is a case I already have agents assigned to; we believe there may be a conspiracy to suppress evidence of overexposure to beryllium."

"Yes, evidently the dust from manufacture can attack the lungs, causing beryllium disease."

"It was just another ongoing case until I heard from Dale Lanier the other day. He was a buddy of mine in Vietnam; he saved my life once--" Skinner paused, cleared his throat. "Look, I know we've got a lot of competent people in the labs there, Scully, but I'd like your take on this one."

Scully's eyebrows rose. "Certainly, sir. I explained to Mrs. Johnston that her husband's body would have to be exhumed--"

"Wilkins and Acosta will take care of the details. I'll call you as soon as I know when the remains will be arriving."

"Yes, sir."

Scully hung up the phone and leaned forward, resting her head in her hands. She had never--ever--fallen asleep at her desk before on a lunch break. Of course, she'd never had a private office before. Still, if someone had chanced to walk in...

The phone rang again. She reached for it automatically. "Scully."

"Scully, it's me."

She smoothed an errant strand of hair from her face. Her face softened and she smiled. "What's up, Mulder?"

"I'm going up to my mother's. I need to check the place out and make sure Krycek hasn't turned it into fireworks, or doesn't plan to."

Silence took over the line. She waited.

"...So she can come back home." There was a slight grittiness in his voice.

"Mulder?"

Another pause, longer this time. She thought she could hear him sigh.

"Yeah?"

"Mulder, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I... I thought I was until a second ago. Look, I've got to go check it out anyway, Scully. To make sure everything's okay."

She pursed her lips.

"Scully, I can't talk to her. I was up half the night thinking about it. I went out and ran a couple of miles at two in the morning, but--" His voice trailed off.

"We'll figure it out, Mulder."

"Anyway, I have to do this now. I have to check the place out before she can go back home."

"Mulder, do you have your cell phone?"

"Yeah."

"Call me when you get there."

"Okay."

"Promise me, Mulder."

"I will. I'll call."

There was a click on the other end. Scully hung up the phone, paused and glanced up at the clock. She closed her eyes.

So much was tied up for him in this thing with his mother. She wished him a safe trip.

She wished him strength.


 

Skinner paused in the doorway to the spare room and stared at the closet door. In a box on the second shelf--a box he hadn't opened in years--were pictures and a few odd pieces of memorabilia from a time he preferred not to disturb. But the memories had been roused by Dale Lanier's e-mail, and now they were beginning to awake like a dormant animal rousing itself from a long hibernation.

He'd paced length of the apartment at least six times now, avoiding this room. This time he made himself go inside and cross to the closet. The door creaked as it opened.

He'd begun as an idealist. It was the reason he'd enlisted in the Marines on the day of his eighteenth birthday: to serve, to defend. To make a difference. But it hadn't worked out like that. He'd been sent to a place where battles were fought with an enemy that vanished like ghosts, or slipped like rats into the woodwork. The same villages, the same hilltops were taken over and over again and then abandoned, like insignificant possessions fought over by two rival gangs for the purpose of marking out their turf. A show of force, the only constant being that men died. Boys died: his friends as well as thin, smooth, black-haired kids from the other side and shaky, green recruits who'd just arrived and had no idea in hell how to survive the nightmare they'd been sent into.

For a while he'd succeeded in convincing himself that he was defending a people--until it had become clear that the only group being defended was a corrupt regime bleeding its own poor, a poverty-stricken people swayed by considerations so basic that no government planners, no military strategists, had thought to take them into account. Any lingering pretenses of idealism had been blasted away the day he'd blown the head off a ten-year-old kid rigged with grenades. There'd been no time to think; he'd reacted the way he'd been taught. He'd done the right thing by neutralizing the threat and saving the lives of the eight men with him. But he'd paid a price. The realization that sometimes men could only be saved at the cost of a child's life, or that a ten-year-old was capable of unimaginable atrocities, had left his spirit bruised and numb.

Skinner reached for the light switch and flipped it. He'd told himself things would be different at the Bureau, that the logic missing from the war would help make a solid contribution here possible. But bureaucracy had its own complications. The behind-the-scenes leverage and corruption that had made everything from Hostess Twinkies to American military vehicles available on the Saigon black market were at work here, too, killing investigations that got too close to some power broker's vested interest or moving things in a direction beneficial to a shadow group that was not only beyond prosecution but beyond exposure.

The closest he'd come to making a palpable contribution was in backing Mulder's work. Mulder never gave up, never backed down. He marched to a different drummer--one a lot of people would claim was nothing more than the whispering of an addled psyche. And yet Mulder did see things. He saw and recognized things nobody else was ready to see or comprehend. And though he was volatile, he'd found his grounding in his partner, in Scully the meticulous, steady, solid technician.  Though there was more to it than that; they were a team as solid as any two men he'd encountered under fire, one up when the other was down, each filling in for the other's weak spots. They hadn't become complacent; they hadn't let the bureaucracy wear them down. It was their vitality he supported as much as anything. It held out the hope that justice was possible after all.

Skinner reached out and ran two fingers along the lid of the box that sought him. Quickly he pulled it halfway out, then paused, his fingers tentative against the cardboard, and closed his eyes.


 

Krycek took another handful of pictures from the box and spread them quickly across the carpet in front of him as if he were dealing cards. Solitaire: he was here in her house, and, predictably, she wasn't home, the way she'd never been anywhere he was. He scanned the pictures rapidly--a potpourri of years and situations, everything that had never been put into an album, from Mulder's Academy graduation to family picnics showing young parents and toddlers to another that revealed the old men in their thirties. Krycek paused a moment, swallowed, then gathered the pictures up, set them aside and dealt another hand. They'd looked hopeful, as if they thought there was a chance of turning the future around.

It had been a stupid idea, coming here, though it had seemed to make some kind of sense at the time: Show up posing as anyone--door-to-door salesman, utility worker, a guy with car trouble who needed to use a phone. Anything to get her to the door. A look at her in the flesh wasn't likely to give him a clue as to why she'd done what she had--brought him into this life and then tossed him away to sink or swim on his own. But maybe--just maybe--it would satisfy this crazy curiosity that had been eating away at him lately, and let him chase her out of his head for good.

Never pass up a chance to learn something, though. She might not be here but there'd been a spare key inside the garage in one of those half-dozen predictable places, and the self-guided tour had been okay at first: pale gray carpets and walls, furniture that looked like it rarely got used--the museum look that American old people's houses had. The waste of space was a crime; several Russian families could have shared the place and been better off than they were in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

But when he'd reached the hallway leading to the bedrooms, things had taken a turn. Portraits lined the walls, starting with Mulder as a baby with an open-mouthed smile. In each picture he was a little older--more serious, longer limbed. Then there were two, Mulder sitting cross-legged and holding the kid on his lap, the baby tilted to one side, happy and oblivious, as if she were the leaning tower of Pisa. You could see it even without knowing the story: that the two of them had had some kind of bond.  That something beside just growing up in the same household had connected them. 

In the pictures beyond, the kids got progressively older, the girl's hair longer, her face less babyish. Looking at her made him want to turn away.  There might be a DNA overlap but it wasn't like she meant anything to him. Besides, there was no time for gawking; he had an opportunity to take advantage of before Guess Who came home and he had to make his getaway.

Then, in her room, on the dresser, he'd seen the picture that made his jaw drop and his heart race. There was no way to write it off as just a vague resemblance now. He knew this girl. Hell, he'd seen a dozen just like her, braided hair and piercing eyes just like this picture, four years earlier at a colonist outpost in the middle of Nowhere, Alberta. He'd spent the night in a bunk below one of them, had been wakened by the girl's restless tossing. She'd been asleep but pretty obviously not at peace.  He remembered crawling out of his bunk and watching her for a few minutes in the moonlight.

Looking at the picture, he'd found himself breathing hard, wanting to break something or just get the hell away from the damn house and everything it represented. But the trip would have been in vain then. He'd spit on the carpet and made himself move on to the next room, a guest bedroom straight out of Martha Stewart: soft maize carpet with matching pale yellow wallpaper and white eyelet curtains in the windows. Even a strategically-placed quilt on the back of a rocking chair to give it that homey touch. Image must mean everything, especially for a woman who'd given away a son and handed over her daughter to be cloned. No language--Smith had said they'd been given no language. In the end it had to have been the old man's decision, not hers, to clone the girl, but still, they were definitely on the short list of candidates for the parents from hell. With some effort he'd managed to shake off his thoughts, made his way methodically through the drawers and then the closet shelves and had come up with the box of pictures.

Krycek leaned forward, swiping up the pictures on the carpet and spreading out another row: Samantha on a rocking horse; a view of a dining room before a party; Mulder in a tent in what was probably the back yard--maybe nine or ten years old; men around a barbeque--Bill Mulder, the old man, the Brit, the old Nazi Klemper. The photograph trembled in his fingers. No matter how much he willed them away, every picture was overlaid with clone girls: the one he'd seen lying bleeding on the ground of the growing tents; others standing in doorways of peel-paint cabins; three of them sitting side by side, expressionless, at the long dinner table where he'd once shared a meal; they'd served some kind of baked beans and vegetables. Then the one he'd bunked below stirring in the wee hours, whimpering as if some part of her knew exactly what she was being put through.

He dealt another handful of photos, tight-lipped, then paused to look up and listen. Except for the chainy slurring of the mantel clock in the living room, there was silence. He started through the pictures once more, his fingers pausing by one of them. His mouth hardened and he set it aside.  A few seconds later he scooped the row together and added them to the stack of already-viewed pictures.

A car door slammed in the street. Krycek's head went up, then he was on his feet and at the window, willing down the spike in his pulse rate. His own personal rain cloud: Mulder, lean and lanky, was stretching beside a white sedan across the street. From the look on his face, he wasn't exactly thrilled to be here, though he wasn't wearing the 'kill' look that said he knew who was inside.

Welcome home, man.  For as weird as it is.

Mulder looked up, focusing on the house. Quickly Krycek turned, gathered up the last of the photos and returned them to the closet shelf. Then he was slipping down the hallway, his escape route clear in his mind, a single dog-eared picture tucked deep into the pocket of his leather jacket.


 

"Hey, Scully, it's me..."

"Mulder?"

"I'm here. I just wanted you to know I made it... “ He cleared his throat. “You know--that I'm not jumping out any windows or anything."

"Have you checked the house, Mulder?"

"Yeah, I checked everything when I first got here. No signs of forced entry, no evidence of tampering of any kind. The electrical wiring's okay, the phone still works. She's got a water softening system in the basement and I checked the tank--it's legit. I even got one of those carbon monoxide detectors and put it in."

"You surprise me, Mulder. You with a screwdriver?"

"Hey, I can do it, Scully."  He waggled an eyebrow, even though she wasn't there to see it.  "It's one of my masculine talents."

There was a pause at the other end of the line.

"Scully?"

"Nothing, Mulder." She sounded amused. "I was just picturing you as a handyman."

"Yeah, well I may end up as one if I don't figure out a way to get my job back soon." He bit his lip and turned to look out the window.

"I've come across something interesting," her words spilled out quickly now. "Something that might interest you. I nearly called you last night to tell you about it."

"You?  You nearly called me?"

"A woman came to my door after nine o'clock last night. Skinner sent her."

"Yeah?"

"Evidently the woman's brother was an old Army buddy of Skinner's from Vietnam. She thinks her husband died from some kind of industrial exposure at the defense plant where he worked, and she's worried that her son who works there now is coming down with the same symptoms."

"Where is this he's working?"

"Beeson-Lymon Corporation. Lexington, Kentucky.  Actually, in a little town just east of Lexington."

"Don't they process beryllium?"

"One of only three plants in the country."

"No, I don't think so.  Not anymore. I... I think I read something recently--something the Gunmen did."

"Now there's credibility for you."

"No, Scully, I think they'd come across something important about an under-the-table deal in Congress to tighten the screws on their competitors, to force them out of the market."

"In any event, I've done a little research on beryllium disease. It's not something you get a lot of background on in med school."

"And what did you find?"

"That the standard testing results in a lot of false positives. But a small number of workers are affected, often after extremely low levels of exposure. But the other thing that made me take note is that the company evidently has a policy of offering to pay cremation fees for workers or former workers. Now I know the area's economically depressed and it could be a legitimate gesture of goodwill, but still--"

"Makes a convenient way to get rid of any evidence of contamination."

"Exactly. And Mrs. Johnston did say she got two visits from a solicitous Mr. Beeson intent on helping her with final expenses."

"Sounds like a case." Mulder looked out the window again, at trees that had deepened to black silhouettes against a purple-blue sky.  Not that he was in a position to take on any cases at the moment. He looked up and closed his eyes. "So how are you wound up in this?"

"Skinner said he wanted my take on the forensics. I think he feels that he owes Mrs. Johnston's brother."

"I thought Skinner would have been keeping a low profile after last weekend. Krycek's gotta know where you got that tip on the homeless woman, Scully, and Skinner knows that Krycek knew."

"But this is already a legitimate investigation, Mulder. Agents have already been assigned."

"Anybody I know?"

"Wilkins and Acosta."

"They're pretty good from what I hear." He swallowed involuntarily. He had; he'd heard some pretty respectable things about them. "I'll let you know, Scully. You know--I'll check up on that angle the Gunmen had. I'll call you if I come across anything interesting."

"Okay, Mulder."

"I... I don't think I'm going to stay here tonight, Scully. I was planning to, but I think I'll get a motel instead. Or maybe I'll just grab a few hours in the car and then come back down before the morning rush starts."

The sigh on the other end was followed by a long pause. Undoubtedly she wanted to tell him to check in somewhere and get a good night's sleep but she wasn't letting herself say it.

"I'll let you know when I'm back," he offered.

"Take care of yourself, Mulder," she said. It was a soft tone, not the perfunctory one she used to brush him off.

"Yeah, I will."

He hung the phone up carefully and stared up at the darkening sky. There were stars now, barely pinpricks in the vastness of space.


 

In the dream he was three years old, maybe younger, dressed in pale blue and white plaid shorts, a collared shirt, sturdy little brown leather shoes and white socks. He could see himself as if he were watching from behind: his younger self in the kitchen doorway, looking at his mother down on her hands and knees, half-swallowed by the darkness under the sink, struggling with a wrench and something else. Towels covered the floor. An occasional grunt or mutter came from the enclosed area.

His younger self went closer, curious, until he was standing behind her. Suddenly she backed out of the dark cabinet and turned around, startling him. She paused momentarily, mouth open, her eyes brimming and shiny. She wiped past one of them with the back of her hand. When she saw him, the shape of her mouth changed and she smiled the most beautiful smile. "Fox," she said, as if he were the best gift imaginable. Her arms spread wide and he reached for her.


 

His fingers were cold. His arms were cold if he let himself think about it. Mulder zipped up the front of his jacket and crossed his arms over his chest for warmth, then curled to one side. He groped for the lever that made the seat back recline and dropped it down the last few notches.

It was true. He could actually remember a time when she'd smiled. At least, before Samantha was born; after that she'd seemed always tightened up and pulled in, never quite unworried. But before that he had seen her smile. Scully would attempt to cushion his enthusiasm, would remind him that most people recall very little from before they reach the age of six or seven. But he knew this. There were any number of things he remembered from before Samantha.

Something had happened to his mother to change her.

Mulder opened his eyes and blinked into the darkness, straining to see though the condensation-frosted glass.


 

Peering into the gloom of Krycek's room, the Smoking Man took a drag on his Morley and watched the tip glow red in the dark. He tilted his wrist toward the window and peered at the numbers on his watch. 2:37. Alex would have to watch his drinking. It had done in many a man. It had done Bill Mulder in.

Of course, there were other men he could use to take care of the Kentucky situation. There was risk in sending Alex to where the possibility existed, however slight, that he might cross paths with Dr. Vanek. Undoubtedly he would remember her and the connection he would draw could only be detrimental. There was room for only one man at the mountain's peak and Alex would be eager to take it, given the opportunity. It was the chance he'd taken, forging an offspring in the same fire he'd grown up in, tempering him in the same way, knowing how hard it was, how difficult and lonely a life. But Alex had seemed to thrive in it. He'd developed survival skills. He didn't seem to need or want the trappings he himself had longed for at one time: love, family, acceptance. In that way he was much more suited to the work. It also made him more dangerous.

The Smoking Man pulled a small flashlight from his pocket and shined it around the room. Two utilitarian desks, one with a chair, the other with several mercenary magazines on top; the bed unmade, the pillow crushed and pushed into a rear corner; the bathroom sink, seen through the doorway, with its rusty streak running downward from the faucet, the open shelves above it dressed sparsely with a razor, a bottle of generic pain reliever and a small, clear glass, the kind cheese spread came in.

Perhaps he should have introduced Alex to the concept of attachment, to give him a vulnerability, but it was far too late for that now. He seemed to have no particular bond to people, no stake in them. No need for their acceptance. He was a hardened soldier... which in itself was a double-edge sword.


 

From her vantage point in front of the hall window, Teena Mulder watched huge raindrops splat randomly on the broad leaves that canopied her sister's garden. The late morning sky was frescoed in shades of gray, but a yellowish cast in the light had brightened the greens in the grass and leaves to an almost luminescent state. Large dark blotches appeared on the carved stone bench as the drops became more frequent. Water splattered and then streamed down the outside of the window, turning the scene in front of her into an abstract of grays and greens and whites, foliage and flowers and the gravel of pathways running and blending together.

Unlike their mother, Trudy had never criticized her choices, had never told her she'd made her bed and now she must sleep in it. Trudy's comfortable house, the nice amenities, her way of life, had spoken for her priorities. She'd taken the accepted path; she hadn't married 'down', hadn't taken a risky road, hadn't flouted her mother's advice or opinion. Trudy, though a widow, had grandchildren and a life that breathed quiet color, while she, Teena the rebellious, had an existence that looked much like what was visible through this wet pane of glass, mostly grays and whites with the occasional vibrant green of her one remaining child, the son who mirrored his father's intensity, whose ever-present hurt left her always face to face with the choices she'd made so long ago.

It was time to go. The time spent with Trudy had been pleasant, but now the contrasts between their lives had become too pointed, too painful. Trudy had a life laid out in albums. She, on the other hand, had one she could explain, or confide, to no one: a lifetime of men working on secret projects that could not be told, with ramifications that would not be believed, that created and destroyed people in ways that could scarcely be explained, or for that matter, comprehended.

Sighing, Teena went into the study and pulled the address book from her purse. Opening it to the page with her son's number, she picked up the phone and dialed. Four rings sounded on the other end, after which a recording of her son's voice requested that she leave a message.

"Fox, this is your mother. Call me at Trudy's."

She hung up and breathed in deeply, compensating for the breath she'd unknowingly held. Her home would not be a danger. He wouldn't be after her. It was her son he was after, seeking to manipulate him as he had manipulated her, into a useful tool for his own agenda.

 

 

(end 3 of 14)

To Chapter 4 

 

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