Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (11/?)
By Dawn

Great Smoky Mountains
Sunday
7:18 p.m.

"...It took Grey twelve hours to hike back out, and another fifteen for the rescue workers to reach us. Mulder was in pretty bad condition by then--shocky, cracked ribs, a concussion. His injuries would have been serious enough on their own, but coupled with the blood loss from the original attack.... Well, he was incoherent for most of the trip to the hospital." Scully tightened her fingers on the steering wheel, peering through the windshield at the slice of road illuminated by headlights.

"You must have been terrified. Alone in those woods after dark, Mulder hurt and that...that thing just a stone's throw away." Kristen's voice held equal parts fascination and dismay, the voice of a woman witnessing a car wreck.

"I've had better nights. I wish I could say it was the first time I had to deal with Mulder under those conditions." Scully formed her lips into a hard little smile to conceal an overwhelming sensation of vulnerability. "I'd certainly hoped it would be the last."

Kristen gazed out the window at the dappled shadows of passing trees and foliage. When she eventually spoke, her voice barely broke the drone of the engine. "It's not your fault. Whatever has happened, whatever we find--there was no reason to expect it."

Scully's gaze swung to Kristen's face, the car drifting to the right along with her eyes. She snapped both forward, concentrating on the rutted, uneven stretch of road for several long minutes before responding.

"He didn't want to go. He joked about it--we both did--but I think underneath..." A sharp shake of her head and anger crept into her voice. "It's not surprising, really. I mean, every time the man has ventured into a wooded area not part of a city park system something terrible has happened. I don't know why I..."

Kristen's hand on her arm stopped the deluge of words.

"You did it for him. Because every hour spent hiking, or playing basketball, or...or even arguing who's going to win the World Series--each moment he and Grey can spend together--chips away at those thirty-seven years they were cheated."

Kristen's fingers tightened briefly before retreating. "They needed this trip, Dana. Whatever has gone wrong doesn't change that."

Scully concentrated on dodging potholes, ignoring stinging eyes and the burn at the back of her throat. Feeling...unstrung. And just a bit bemused. Kristen's appearance at her door that morning, suitcase in hand, had taken her by surprise. Her own worries for Mulder and Grey, and the driving need to do something about them, had been single-minded in intensity. Adding another person to the mix, one with fears and intentions just as urgent, was a complication Scully had neither time nor energy for.

She'd never expected the resignation to become gratitude.

Gone was the tentative, uncertain woman she'd shared Chinese takeout with the previous evening. Unexpectedly calm and coolheaded, Kristen was revealing a keen eye for detail and a wickedly dry sense of humor. The former had already proved invaluable during their interview with Sheriff Edwards; the latter a welcome escape valve when the pressure became unbearable.

Scully's lips twisted in a rueful smile. The old saying about misery and company wasn't so far off the mark.

"Stop! I think you just passed it."

Kristen's warning tugged Scully's attention back to the road. Her foot reflexively hit the brake and the car jerked to a standstill, tires spitting gravel. She checked the rear view mirror--more from habit than from necessity--and carefully inched the vehicle backward to a break in vegetation that signaled the private drive.

Scully cranked the wheel hard to the left and jockeyed the car around the curve. "Sharp eyes. I completely missed it in the dark."

"Don't thank me. Officer McCullough may be a rotten investigator, but he draws a heck of a map."

They traveled the quarter mile or so in silence, eyes fixed straight ahead. When the cabin solidified out of the darkness into the headlights' glow, Kristen sat forward, eyes narrowed.

"No lights."

Scully pulled up behind the crippled SUV and turned off the engine. Her gaze moved over Grey's car, to the darkened cabin, and back again. "You didn't really expect them to be gathered around a fire toasting marshmallows--did you?"

Kristen's expression remained impassive. "Are you kidding? Give me some credit." She opened her door and slipped outside, then leaned back in, her face unusually pale in the harsh dome light. "Telling ghost stories, maybe. This is Mulder we're talking about."

The laugh snuck past Scully's lips before her brain could rein it in. She sucked in a deep breath, released the steering wheel, and stepped out of the car. The temperature had dropped with the sun, the crisp air a sharp but welcome contrast from the car's stuffy interior. Though the day had been fair, incoming clouds obscured the moon and most of the stars. Without headlights, darkness shrouded Grey's car, softening edges to an indistinct blur. Scully pulled a flashlight from her pocket and thumbed it on.

Her legs felt tight, muscles cramped with inactivity and tension. Evidently plagued by the same discomfort, Kristen was shuffling her feet, one hand propped on the hood as she pointed and flexed. She followed Scully in a slow tour around the SUV that ended beside the jacked-up rear axle.

Scully crouched down, panning the flashlight beam over the jack and the damaged tire that lay on the ground beside it. "There could be any number of causes for this. The question is, why didn't they fix it?"

Kristen's head popped around the rear of the vehicle. "The answer's right back here. The spare is flat." When Scully joined her she gestured with her own flashlight. The tire was still mounted on the tailgate. Kristen had peeled back the cover, exposing the sagging rubber. "It's not obvious at first because of this covering. It must have been a very unpleasant surprise."

"No doubt." Scully's gaze shifted from the tire to the cabin, the crease between her brows deepening.

Easy enough to get a flat tire navigating roads as rough as those leading up to the cabin. A pothole, an especially sharp rock--even briefly slipping off the shoulder could cause that kind of damage. Nothing unusual there. Nothing to set off an alarm bell, even for someone as paranoid as Mulder.

"What are the odds." Kristen's soft utterance, not exactly a question, drew Scully's attention. She met Scully's intense stare without flinching. "One flat, sure. But two? And one of them brand new?"

Scully's tongue snaked out to moisten dry lips and her fingers drifted to the weapon at the small of her back. "Let's take a look inside." In the distance, a low rumble of thunder underscored her words.

The door was unlocked. Gun now in hand, Scully nudged it open and swept the flashlight beam across the dark room. She could sense Kristen at her shoulder-- could feel the faint puff of the other woman's breath ruffle the hair at the nape of her neck. The air inside the cabin, only marginally warmer than outside, smelled faintly of coffee grounds and ashes. The slow, measured tick of a clock and the low hum of a generator seemed to enhance the stillness, rather than break it.

Scully stepped all the way into the room and crossed to the brass floor lamp that stood beside the couch. Her fingers fumbled with the switch until a soft click and a flood of golden light signaled success. Kristen squinted against the abrupt shift from darkness, her eyes leaving Scully to scan the room. She glanced uneasily toward the opening at her back, closing the door firmly before moving into the kitchen.

The darkened bedroom caught Scully's eye. She crossed to the open doorway, the light from the greatroom providing sufficient illumination until she could locate another lamp. As officer McCullough had indicated, the bed gave every appearance of having been slept in--the pillows rumpled, the sheet and blankets tangled together. A pair of faded jeans was flung over a chair and Grey's duffelbag, familiar from his many visits, sat on the floor, unzipped, one sleeve of a navy thermal shirt trailing out.

Frowning, Scully left the bedroom and returned to the greatroom. She crossed to the fireplace and sat on the hearth, first placing her hand inside the opening and then fingering the cold ashes. Teeth sunk into her lower lip, she swiveled to face the large couch. A pillow and a neatly folded sleeping bag occupied one end, Mulder's duffel perched on top.

Scully stood and walked over to the bag. She tugged open the zipper and reached inside, operating on autopilot, her hands taking on a mind of their own. Her fingertips encountered soft cotton, and she pulled out the New York Yankees tee Mulder slept in on cold nights. The sharp, twisting pain, centered somewhere between her heart and her gut, took Scully by surprise. Blinking hard, she brought the worn fabric first to her nose, then to her cheek.

"Dana?" Kristen's head popped into view, her expression immediately turning contrite. "Sorry. Could you come over here?"

Scully tucked the shirt back into the duffel before joining Kristen in the tiny kitchen. Kristen's face was oddly expressionless except for a slight crease between her brows. Scully quickly took in the short, L-shaped counter beside a small refrigerator and sink. A coffeemaker sat on the butcher-block surface, about an inch of dark brew in the glass carafe.

"Does Mulder drink coffee every morning?"

Scully's eyes jumped to Kristen's and she couldn't help the smile that tugged her lips upward. "Neither Mulder nor I are what you'd call morning people. Caffeine is a necessity."

"How does he take it?"

Scully arched an eyebrow. "How does he take it? His coffee?" When Kristen nodded, she continued in a voice coated with impatience. "Sugar, no cream. Why?"

Kristen held out a red ceramic mug bearing the inscription "Hot Stuff." "Officer McCullough was right about the coffee. He just overlooked an important detail-- there's only one mug. Grey is every bit as addicted to his morning cup of coffee as you say Mulder is. Did you notice another mug around here anywhere?"

"Well...no. But I wasn't exactly looking either."

"Don't bother. You won't find one."

Scully pursed her lips, studying Kristen's face. "What are you trying to say?"

"Dana, someone was in this cabin last night, but I don't think it was Mulder or Grey. Not only are we short one mug, this coffee is black--I tasted it. Grey always uses creamer..."

"And Mulder adds sugar." Scully turned to gaze at the bedroom with narrowed eyes.

"What is it?"

"The bed is unmade, but Mulder's sleeping bag is folded up."

Kristen's response was soft, painful. "Grey's one of the neatest guys I've ever met. He wouldn't leave the bed unmade, Dana. I'm sure of it." She set the mug on the counter as if loath to continue touching it.

Scully met her frightened gaze without flinching. "Okay, let's go over what we know. They were going to drive into town Friday afternoon for supplies."

"And to touch base with us."

"Yes. We know they arrived safely because Grey's car is here, but we can't be sure when they discovered the flat tires. Suffice it to say, they were unable to drive into town as planned. What would have been their next logical move?"

Kristen's eyes went wide. "The radio! Grey told me there was a short wave radio for emergencies."

Both women began moving through the cabin, searching. Scully was the first to spy the small, rolltop desk in the corner across from the fireplace. She pushed back the cover, exposing the radio beneath.

"Here it is."

As Kristen looked on, she manipulated knobs and switches without success. Finally giving up, she dropped the mic and stepped back with a grimace.

"I don't claim to be an expert, but I think we can safely say this radio is useless."

"Two flat tires and a broken radio. Factor in our mysterious third party, and I'm starting to see a pretty disturbing pattern."

Scully eyed Kristen sharply. "Anyone can have a run of bad luck--Mulder's turned it into an art form. But this is all beginning to feel a bit..."

"Contrived?"

"I was going to say planned. Lacking transportation or the means to radio for help, Mulder and Grey wouldn't be left with many options, would they?"

"Only two that I can think of. Sit tight and wait for someone to come. Or hike out, find someplace with a radio or a car." Kristen uttered a wobbly laugh. "Grey is the original Grizzly Adams, Dana. I've no doubts what he'd do."

"Nor do I. Mulder might not know a maple tree from an oak, but he'd never be content to stay put and do nothing. Their duffel bags are here, but their backpacks and hiking boots are missing. I don't think it's a matter of if they went, but where."

"Back to town?" But doubt laced Kristen's voice.

Scully wandered over to the window, arms folded tightly across her chest. "That's a twenty-five mile trip. On the other hand, Sheriff Edwards mentioned a neighboring cabin about ten to twelve miles up the road. The owner resides there year 'round."

Peripherally, she could see Kristen's head bob.

"We could take it slow and still be there in half an hour." Scully locked her eyes onto the indistinct strip of road leading away from the cabin. Leading toward Mulder.

So tempting.

"It's raining." Kristen peered over Scully's shoulder. "The roads will be wet, slippery. And I guess there's the very real possibility that whoever brewed that cup of coffee is out there, somewhere." She uttered the observation in a painstakingly neutral voice.

Scully turned to face Kristen, prepared to reassure. Her impatience to reach Mulder had been steadily growing, inversely proportional to the distance between them. They were close now--she could feel it in her heart, in the very marrow of her bones. The prospect of waiting impotently at the cabin for another ten hours was unthinkable, and yet...

They'd be going in blind, wide open to whatever threat might be waiting for them. Lacking the illumination from moon and stars, flashlights and headlights would be indispensable--and possibly deadly. Blunder over the edge of a ravine or stick out like a sore thumb? Neither was a viable alternative.

Yes, she'd ventured into risky situations before, but usually with Mulder at her back. Though Kristen was an FBI agent, she lacked field experience. Her expertise involved a microscope, not a gun. Rushing headlong into the unknown with such an inexperienced partner could land Mulder and Grey in deeper trouble. Or worse, get someone killed.

Scully slowly released a breath of air. "You're right. We won't do them any good by driving into a ditch or stumbling into a trap. We'll talk out our next move and try to get some sleep. We can head up the mountain as soon as it's light."

Kristen's eyes looked very large in the pale glow of the lamp. "Dana. What do you really think happened here?"

Scully laid her index finger under her nose, considering the kitchen, then the bedroom. When her gaze returned to Kristen, her eyes were granite. "I think they were set up. I think someone followed them here--maybe even got here ahead of them. I think they were manipulated into navigating these woods on foot in search of help. Possibly--though I don't like to consider it--without weapons."

Another long pause as Kristen absorbed her words. "And then?"

It was a question she didn't want to answer, though it had been foremost in her mind. Scully shook her head. "Mulder and I have made enemies, some powerful. It's been more than 48 hours now, with no contact from either of them. We both know that's not a good sign."

Kristen's chin came up and her jaw tightened. "I feared the worst when Grey was kidnapped, and again when that bomb went off at the hospital. He proved me wrong both times."

Scully smiled but merely tipped her head toward the door. "I'm going to grab our bags from the car."

"Need some help?"

"I'm fine. No sense in both of us getting wet."

Stepping into the darkness felt a little like escaping, despite the frigid drizzle bombarding her. Scully didn't want to squash Kristen's determined optimism, but she also didn't feel up to supporting it. Her investigator's intuition told her something bad had been waiting for Mulder and Grey, hiding in the trees like an animal stalking its prey. Had they sensed the danger?

Unlikely.

She pictured them hiking up the road, trading insults and inane observations. Mulder and Grey could get into heated discussions on the damnedest topics. She'd once endured an hour-long argument over the veracity of NYPD Blue.

Scully's throat constricted and hot tears mixed with the cold rain on her cheeks. Odds were, they'd never seen trouble coming until it was too late.

A twig snapped in the bushes, startling Scully from her morose thoughts. A shiver worked its way up her spine like icy fingers. Eyes darting around the clearing, she popped the trunk and pulled out the two bags. The warm spill of light from the cabin windows beckoned her, hastening her footsteps. Kristen flung open the door as Scully approached, her silhouette a welcome reassurance.

She hoped Mulder was warm and dry. Prayed he was safe.

Continued in Chapter 12