Walking Through Fire

by bardsmaid

Chapter 4

 

There was warmth, then a light he could sense, and the familiar feel of the leather couch beneath him. A car horn sounded in the street below. Mulder rolled onto his side, opened his eyes and squinted against the midday brightness. He reached over his head, groping for the alarm clock, and rolled back. 1:13. He set the clock on his stomach and closed his eyes again. He needed to get up.

He'd made good time after all. He'd gotten into D.C. and had the car back at the rental agency by 8:15, easily averting the second day's charges he would have incurred if he'd slept the night in Connecticut and waited until morning to start back, though he could still see the road in his mind and feel the motion of the car. His stomach growled, half hungry, half queasy. He opened his eyes again and eased himself up to a sitting position. There was work to do; Sun Tzu had said nothing about waiting until the sun was warm to put your plan in motion.

Mulder ran his hands back through his hair and tried to will the thickness from his head. He needed to shower. He needed a ride; maybe Byers would take pity on him and send Frohike like a good dog to pick him up. He could check out that story about Beeson-Lymon's beryllium maneuverings and then head for the Mall from there--that would be Step One. Then he could sit and think it out some more, and while he was at it, figure out what to do about his mother, and transportation. And the apartment, which was sitting in the forefront of his mind like a past-due bill.

He stood and stretched and started toward the bathroom. The light on the message machine was blinking green. He hesitated, then turned and approached it. His fingers curled, reluctant. Gradually he made them loosen and touch the play button.

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

He grimaced, turned away and walked toward the window. On the horizon a few thin clouds drifted toward the north. His eyes closed. There was rhythm but no thought, just the constant pulse of blood pumping through him, steady, regular.

Just do it.

He went back, picked up the phone and dialed. Two rings, three rings, four. He bit his lower lip.

"Hello?"

"Mom? It's me." He cleared his throat.

"Fox?"

"You left a message on my machine..."

"Yes, I did. I want to go home. I've had a nice time here. It's been wonderful, really, but I'd like to go back now."

"Good timing." Go with it. Just go. "I was... up at the house last night. I checked everything out; I think it's okay. I think you'll be safe there." He let out a slow breath. "It's me they're after, Mom."

There was a long pause on the other end.

"Why?" she said finally, her voice dry. "Why are they after you?"

"You know me, Mom--can't keep my mouth shut. I can't keep my eyes shut and pretend what they're doing isn't going on."

A sigh could be heard on the other end of the line.

"Your father couldn't hold with what was happening, either, and you know what happened."

"Yeah, I know."

"Fox., be careful." There was a short pause. "I have to go now. Thank you for checking the house. Goodbye."

Mulder set the receiver down slowly and stared out the window, then swallowed and walked to the leather chair. He picked up the basketball and began to bounce it, slowly, thump-thump-thump in rhythm with his heartbeat.


 

"... No, I can be here, sir. Actually, I'm anxious to see what kind of story Mr. Johnston has to tell."

"I appreciate it, Scully. Wilkins should be there with the remains by eight o'clock."

"I'll be ready, sir. I'll let you know as soon as I have any information."

Scully hung up the phone and stared at the blank wall across from her desk. Skinner was sending Wilkins with the remains. Was he just being thorough, to make sure he did the best he could for his war buddy, or was there something else going on here? Did he think Mr. Johnston's remains were in danger of disappearing in transit?

Scully glanced at the clock. She had over seven hours, time that could be used to any one of many good ends. The two papers she'd found on beryllium disease would make good reading. Student work was beginning to come in; it needed to be gone over carefully. This was where her students would learn to be meticulous if properly trained--to follow every lead, to notice any abnormality, any potential sign of something that might hide a crime, and in the process allow justice to triumph over the tragedy in the world.

She smiled ruefully. She loved their eagerness, their courage at tackling even the things that seemed most gruesome--the aftermath of man's inhumanity, the depth of the dark possibilities revealed there--secure in their conviction that they could digest it objectively, that it would not affect their weekends or their world view. They were so much younger than they realized.

Reaching for a pen, she rolled it absently on the desktop. The sample of Krycek's hair she'd taken to the lab on Monday for DNA testing might be ready. It had haunted her each day since, and each day she'd had to force it from her mind, a Pandora's box calling to her when she could only imagine terrible things inside.

Or she could be wrong. There was always the chance that she'd misinterpreted what she'd seen. Maybe there was no connection between Mulder and Krycek, only a chance juxtaposition of Mulder's story about his mother's third pregnancy and the tenor of Krycek's remarks that had led to a connection in her mind.  Pure coincidence. Surely there could be other valid explanations. Krycek could--and probably did--have some purely strategic reason for his apparent interest in Mulder.

Scully gathered together the materials she needed for her one o'clock class and tucked them into a folder. She glanced at the clock--12:40--and left the office, letting the door slam shut behind her. There was an elevator across the hallway but she was drawn to the stairwell by the picture windows. Trees beckoned from behind the glass with their intense green. Scully took the stairs quickly and emerged into dappled sunlight through an exit door at the bottom. She paused and took a deep breath of the sweet air coming from the greenery. Then she started to walk. From the distance came the peppering of gunfire from a practice range. All over this complex--this campus--hopeful, eager people were being trained to probe, to question, to analyze. To survive. To protect the lives of their partners.


 

Mulder sat on the broad steps beside the lake in Constitution Park, head pillowed on his arms, letting the gradual warmth of early afternoon seep through his T-shirt and onto his back. He was still tired from traveling, and from lack of sleep. He'd eaten at the Gunmen's but Frohike's spicy cooking hadn't helped the state of his stomach. It was useful, though; it helped the quality--the authenticity--of the presentation. The easiest of Sun Tzu's rules to implement, one he could put to good use immediately, stated, "Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective."

He hadn't washed his hair, hadn't changed his clothes. Hadn't shaved. He looked up, out across the water, and squinted into the hazy light. He only needed to be seen. He was a decoy for himself, and a decoy to help protect his partner. He laid his head against his arm and felt the bristle of stubble, like sandpaper. His eyes closed. He was back on the I-95, south of Baltimore.

He could fall sleep here. It wasn't like his couch but it would do. It was a talent he'd never honed--sleeping sitting on public stairs--though there were plenty of homeless men who had the skill down cold.

He drifted...


 

... And woke to the press of his head against cement. Pain spidered through his side when he moved. Mulder grimaced and opened his eyes. Clouds were scudding past the sun and a steady whisper of wind came toward him off the water. He straightened. 2:47. He'd been here for over an hour.

He had information for Scully. He should call her. But not from here.

Mulder turned and looked around. Behind him, the same pale-skinned girl he'd seen on Tuesday was sitting on the uppermost stair in the shade.

"You okay?" she asked, nodding toward him. She wasn't eating anything this time. The backpack was beside her.

"You the spirit of the stairs or something?" he said.

She shrugged self-consciously. "I guess." She didn't seem displeased. "You just looked a little... bummed."

"Yeah, well I guess that makes sense. My life's"--he paused and shook his head--"hit the fan, in a manner of speaking."

"Wherever you think you've hit bottom, you eventually find somebody whose life is in worse shape than yours," she said, not seeming to address him in particular.

He turned back again, toward the pond, and watched the way the wind rippled the surface of the water. He dug a sunflower seed from his pocket and slipped it into his mouth.

"I lost my job," he said without turning around. "I'm practicing being homeless." He spit the hull. It landed three stairs down.

"Your first time?"

Mulder turned around and eyed her again. Her hands were twisted together. "Losing my job or being homeless?"

"Either."

"I'm not homeless yet." He looked past her, in the direction of the estuary. "First time for my job."

"First time's the hardest for anything," she said. "Then you start to get used to it. You can get used to anything, whether you like it or not. Whether you should or not."

Mulder frowned and turned to glance at her. She was staring out into the water.

"I'll remember that," he said, standing up. He rubbed his shoulder and started up the stairs.

"Take care of yourself," she said as he passed.

"Yeah. You, too."

Mulder went down the path leading toward the center of the Mall. There was a Metro station close to the J. Edgar Hoover Building. He hesitated, then turned right instead, heading for the Smithsonian station. It was closer, and there would be enough walking to do on the other end of the line.


 

Krycek rolled to the near side of the bed and cleared his throat before reaching for the ringing phone.

"Alex?"  It was the old man's voice.

"Yeah."

"I missed you last night."

"Yeah, I noticed your butts in here." His mouth pressed into a tight line.

"How is Mulder doing?"

"I don't know; I'm not psychic." He rolled onto his back and focused on the corner of the ceiling. "He seemed pretty depressed the last time I saw him. You asking me to check up on him?"

"Keep your eyes open. I heard he was seen sleeping next to the lake in Constitution Park this afternoon." Delight tinged the old man's voice. "Like a homeless man."

Something cold knotted in Krycek's gut. "Maybe he's finally out of your hair." Keep it neutral.

"Perhaps." Another pause, probably for a drag on the ever-present Morley. "I may need you in a few days, Alex. We've had a little... disturbance at our Kentucky facility. It may settle of its own accord. But if not, I'll need you to go there and take care of things."

"You know where to find me." He reached to hang up the phone.

"Oh, Alex--"

Krycek sighed and put the phone back to his ear. "Yeah?"

"Bars can be dangerous places. Too much liquor loosens a man's tongue, makes him forget who he is, what he's about."

"The downfall of the weak." Krycek rolled his eyes.

"Exactly." There was a last breath--the cigarette--followed by the hum of a broken connection.

Krycek smirked. The downfall of the weak. He hung up the phone, got up off the bed and went to stand at the window. In a few hours he'd make it a point to go out and make a show of being weak again.

But what about Mulder? Was he holding up through all this, or would he end up going down the drain this time? For all his tenacity he was fragile, like the little blond Sergei back in the orphanage. He'd warned Vlad and Yuri to leave the boy alone. The kid was too scrawny; it was obvious he was never going to last. But they'd taken him under their wing anyway--brought him extra food, made him little homemade toys. Let him worm his way into their emotions. And when he died they were never the same, never strong again.

If Mulder couldn't make it on his own... 

Maybe he hadn't learned the lesson himself. The strong survived and the rest fell by the wayside. Natural selection.

Krycek looked at his faint reflection in the glass and closed his eyes. In the blackness behind them he saw the photograph of little Mulder with Samantha draped over his arm. Overlaying it, half-transparent, was the image of a clone girl restless on a bunk somewhere in Alberta.


 

"But how could this happen?"

"I honestly don't know."  The girl behind the counter was apologetic, very obviously uncomfortable. "It just isn't there."

Scully frowned. "And you've checked the chain of evidence?"

"The paperwork stays with the samples all the way through. Your bag is gone and the paperwork is gone with it." She shrugged. "I have a computer entry for Monday, the day you brought it in, and nothing after that."

"You must be able to check with whoever was working Monday to find out who handled it."

The girl nodded. "I've already checked with everyone here now who was also working that day. Nobody remembers seeing it. I have messages out to the two people who aren't here today." She paused, her forehead showing worry lines. "I'm really sorry, Agent Scully. I'll let you know as soon as I find anything out."

Scully managed a thank-you accompanied by a stiff smile and turned away. It could be a mistake, a simple foul-up, but her instinct, the part of herself Mulder had taught her not to discount, didn't believe it. Mulder had thought it was just him they wanted out of the way, that she would be safe now and free to go on with her work. But it wasn't that simple. Maybe it had never been that simple.

Scully started back toward her office. The hallway was deserted but she felt a sudden, overwhelming urge to run, to escape. The sound of her heels echoed off the polished, vacant surfaces. There was no one here, and yet she could feel their presence--the presence of the ones who watched, who abducted innocent women, who drove to distraction the people who pressed ahead, who wouldn't stop searching, or asking questions.


 

Mulder worked the key in his lock and nudged his bag of groceries inside the door with the side of his foot. He closed the door absently behind him, pocketed the key and walked slowly toward the living room, pausing in the doorway. After a moment he let out a slow breath. The leather chair with his basketball in the corner, like a baseball nestled securely into the pocket of a fielder's glove. The desk in front of the window, a window that even now held the sticky remnants of masking tape he'd used to contact X--X who had died so long ago--X who had saved his mother from dying alone on the floor of the Quonochotaug house, a house that was itself gone now, destroyed. His coffee table with its clutter. The couch. The plastered-over spot on the wall behind it where a bullet had lodged after grazing Scully. It had been meant to kill her. Or him. A souvenir of the night his father died.

There should have been more time to make arrangements, time to get used to the idea of not being here, of having to leave and put all this in storage. But the fast-forward button had unexpectedly been pressed, and now here it was: the strangeness of looking at all his familiar possessions as if they were only ghosts of themselves. As if they were already gone, dead in their own way.

He went to the coffee table and sat down on the edge of it facing the couch. His fingers wandered over the papers on the top and then traced the grain of the wood. He'd come to the decision, riding home on the Metro, to go ahead and give notice on the apartment. He'd have a month to find something else. He had to start somewhere, sometime, and in the back of his head he kept hearing the words of Miss Muse-of-the-Stairs saying that you could get used to anything. It was true; complacency was a killer. But he should've had a month. Everyone expected a month's notice.

He'd stopped at the little mom-and-pop grocery on the way from the Metro station--better to grab a few things now than to have to walk back later--and then had gone straight to the manager's apartment on his way upstairs. There'd be that month's leeway to find another place. Then came the words he'd never expected. "Too bad you didn't tell me weeks ago," Carl had said. "I've got someone who's really hot to have one of these places." How soon? he'd asked, uneasy. "Well, she was dreamin' about next week," Carl said, though of course he knew Mulder couldn't be out by then, and anyway, it was Thursday already, practically Friday.

He'd taken a deep breath, the kind he'd taken before he jumped off the bridge onto the train carrying the Japanese scientists--a hold-your-breath, hold-your-mind's-breath kind of thing--and said yeah, he could do it. Anyway, Carl was offering him a partial refund on his last month's rent for his trouble, and the extra money would help.

Mulder leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. Maybe he did need a month; maybe parts of him did, anyway. But there was no month now; there were only two days. Maybe it was a good thing, a necessary kick in the ass.

He got up and wandered around the room, touching chair and lamp, letting his fingers slide down the cold glass of the fish tank, then went into the bedroom and stared at the boxes. Some were half empty. He walked up to a stack and opened the top box. Only a handful of files. The box below--same story. He took the files out of the first box and hesitated. Different topic; he didn't want to mix them. He set the box aside and opened the one below it. A few more papers, different again, and what did it really matter if he mixed them if he hadn't opened the boxes in two years, or four? 

What if he never opened them again?

Mulder set the files in his hand on top of an unopened box, then leaned forward until his head touched the wall, and closed his eyes.


 

Two days were nothing--the blink of an eye--and just what would he do if another place didn't fall into his lap that soon? In a town like this, finding new digs in two days was about as likely as having Bigfoot show up for a press conference on the White House lawn. Mulder grimaced. His stomach was still awash in a watery sickness. He was hungry and now that he thought about it, he'd left the bag of groceries sitting by the door when he'd come in, which meant the milk would be warm. Then he'd wandered around the apartment and finally had copped out completely and sat down on the couch just to gather his thoughts--or who knew, maybe to keep it from disappearing from his life like everything else--and here he was, horizontal again no telling how many hours later.

Mulder forced his eyes open and looked as his watch. 10:38. He had information for Scully. She wouldn't be asleep yet... unless she'd drifted off at her desk studying the background for that case Skinner had given her. He should call.

He pulled up and reached for the phone. The Gunmen had been onto something after all, a couple of documents passed to them by someone inside the DOE outlining a tentative government 'deal' with Beeson-Lymon based on the imminent demise of its only competitor, Chronwell Industrial Metals.

He ran one hand back through his hair and paused. His mother had actually said that--not just the 'be careful', but the part where she'd admitted knowing something, where she'd said his dad hadn't held with what the group was doing. She'd almost sounded as if she were in his corner for a change, as if she feared what they might do to him. He reached for the phone and punched in Scully's number. One ring, two. He turned; the grocery bag was still there--by the door. He sighed. Three, four. Click. Message machine.

"Scully, pick up... If you're screening, pick up. I've got the scoop on that Beeson-Lymon thing for you--"

Empty air. He started toward the bag of groceries.

"Scully, I'm back in town." He lifted the milk out of the bag, frowned--too warm--and headed for the fridge with it. Yellowish light spilled from the open door. "Look, call me when you get a chance."

He set the milk on the top shelf, pushing aside half a dozen partially empty cans and containers, a few of them prime candidates for lab experiments. The phone was beeping. He stared at it for a moment and shook his head. He had no idea where she was at any given time anymore. She had another assignment, a new life. He jabbed at the phone's 'off' button and slammed the refrigerator door. The light that had covered the floor was abruptly swallowed up in darkness.


 

Scully looked up from the open chest cavity in front of her and glanced at the tall, dark-skinned man sitting on the lab stool, watching.

"Are you sure you want to sit here and watch all this, Agent Wilkins?" she said.

"I'm committed for the whole ride." He was soft-spoken. "Hey, it's always good to learn things. They tend to come in handy." The barest hint of a twinkle lit his eye.

Scully smiled. "Yes, they do, though this is a lot more than what most people are ready to confront."

"I guess I've got a personal stake in it. Facing down an old fear, in a way," Wilkins said. "When I was eight years old my mama died, and that was scary enough in itself." He paused and shook his head. "But the thought of that autopsy, that they'd cut her open that way... I never could grasp the need for that--to disturb her that way. It's a hard thing for a kid."

"It can be difficult for anyone," Scully said. "As the examiner you rationalize it to yourself.  You give yourself clinical reasons, remind yourself of the good you're doing... There"--she lifted out a lung--"I believe this is what we're looking for."


 

Mulder set the nested cardboard boxes on the table, gave the front door an absent push and sat down immediately with the newspaper, separating the heavy sections. No part of D.C. was a low-rent neighborhood--at least, not anyplace you were assured of waking up alive--but there had to be a place somewhere that he could come up with a room. Besides, he'd had a dream full of grim foreboding a little while earlier, just before he'd wakened fully: himself, file boxes piled against a wall, trying to sleep at the Gunmen's, listening to Frohike snore, having to keep Langley from poking around in his boxes, catching Byers giving him that quiet puppy look, playing the helpful host but feeling sorry for him nonetheless. Camping out at the Ice Capades would be more inviting.

There had to be some way to find a little private space. He thought suddenly of the girl, little Miss Stair Sprite. Where did she stay? She might be a local kid just sitting around and thinking, ditching school or some other problem in her life. But it didn't seem like that. She had the look--the classic look of someone on the run, though maybe even she didn't know to where. He wondered what her story was.

An unexpected noise in the hallway and he glanced toward the door. He'd hadn't fully closed it when he came in and now a small, round face framed by vigorous dark curls filled the lower part of the doorway. Deep brown-black eyes stared at him, then a small nose wrinkled and the little girl broke out in giggles. Mulder smiled back involuntarily. A woman's hurried footsteps approached in the hallway.

"Mavash!" a shrill voice came from just beyond the door, and the little face was whisked away.

Mulder stood and peered out into the hallway. A woman with a white head covering and an ankle-length dress was headed for the elevator, Mavash in tow, serving up a peppered rebuke to the curly-headed toddler in a language he couldn't quite identify--possibly Farsi. At the elevator the little girl turned back and focused on Mulder with laughing eyes.

Mulder closed the door carefully and pulled the classifieds from the sheaf of newsprint on the table. He took them to the desk by the front window, sat down and reached for his glasses.


 

"Here, you can see it," Scully said, backing away from the microscope.

Agent Wilkins took his place at the instrument and peered in.

"And what we're looking for is...?"

"The dark area," Scully said. "Do you see it?"

"The little long thing?"

"Yes. It's called a granuloma, a specific kind of scarring. It's indicative of beryllium disease. It's pervasive throughout this tissue."

Wilkins backed away from the microscope. "So this is all we need?"

"Well, it verifies that Mr. Johnston had symptoms consistent with beryllium disease. But I'll have to run a few more tests to rule out other possibilities. If this weren't a criminal investigation it would be enough, but we've--" She stopped. "I've--" She cleared her throat. Heat rose in in her face. "My partner and I... ex-partner... saw a lot of very strange things during the time we were field investigators. It's taught me to be very thorough, not to discount any possibilities." She studied the countertop, then looked past Wilkins into the shadows on the far side of the room.

"It wasn't what they said, was it?" Wilkins said quietly. "The reason they let Mulder go."

"They didn't 'let him go'. He was thrown out." The words tumbled out unchecked, surprising her. She pressed her lips together in an effort to compose herself. "No, it wasn't what they said."

"Look, I know a lot of people laughed about him--made jokes about you guys. But hey, I've seen things in my life that I can't explain. You guys had guts. You did good work."

"Maybe we still do," Scully said quietly. She sighed. Her whole body felt heavy, weighed down with fatigue. The building was quiet; most likely they were the only ones still here. "Now, as far as Mrs. Johnston's son goes..."

"Andy?"

"He'll have to be tested, too, if you're going to prove a pervasive overexposure. There's a blood test--it's called a lymphocyte proliferation test--an LPT--that he'll have to take. It's not a simple test, because it involves exposing live cells from Andy's blood to beryllium and then waiting to see if the lymphocytes grow, or proliferate. I'll have to get you the name of a lab that can do the test."

She paused while Wilkins wrote down the information on a notepad.

"Of course, the medical evidence is just a small part of what you'll need to indict Beeson-Lymon in a criminal action. If they are indeed doing what you suspect, then someone has to be making it worth their while."

"A small percentage of their production ends up in computers," Wilkins said. "But the vast majority of it goes to defense applications. It's sold to a number of different defense contractors."

"And ends up in the hands of the military."

Wilkins looked askance at her, the frown marring his pleasant features.

"Corners have been cut in the past, when the need seemed overriding. And I've seen... too many things. Things you probably wouldn't believe if I told you." She paused. "I'm only saying not to discount any possibilities. Keep yourselves open."

He nodded.

Scully shook the hand Wilkins offered and headed for her office to gather her things. A yawn overtook her. Another late night, and she wouldn't be home before midnight. But the first piece of Rita Johnston's puzzle was in place; that was worth something. To Rita Johnston, it would be invaluable.

And Mulder: In the bustle of everything that had happened, she'd nearly forgotten about him. He should be back in D.C. by now. She hadn't spoken to him since he'd called her the night before from his mother's, when she'd clumsily poked him in several obvious sore spots.

In the car she locked the door and buckled up, then reached for her cell phone and dialed. She started the car and backed out of the parking space. There was a click as the call was picked up at the other end.

"Mulder, it's me," she said.

 

 

(end 4 of 14)

To Chapter 5 

 

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