Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (2 /?)
Eagle Rock, NC
Mulder pulled into the driveway and killed the engine, staring at the small, two-story house. Remembering the first time...
"Fox Mulder. Nothing like a little impromptu family reunion to spice up your day, huh?"
"Good thing I wore clean underwear."
Mulder's lips curved. Back then he'd never dreamed Grey would become such an integral part of his life. He'd erased a void, filled a hole that even Scully had been unable to touch. Who'd have thought that Fox Mulder--Spooky, lone wolf, that crackpot in the basement--would come so far?
The front door opened and Grey leaned against the jamb, cocking an eyebrow. Mulder slid out from behind the wheel, tugging his duffel bag from the passenger seat. With the setting sun the heat of the day had faded, leaving a faint bite to the air that warned summer was over.
"Either you were just doing some mighty deep thinking or my garage door is a lot more interesting than I ever realized." Grey's soft drawl floated through the impending darkness as Mulder strode up the concrete sidewalk.
Mulder lifted one shoulder. "Just indulging in a little nostalgia." He offered Grey a lopsided grin. "Good to see you, Bubba."
Grey tugged him into a brief hug before ushering him into welcoming warmth and the soft glow of lights. "Good to see you too, little brother. Did you run into traffic? I expected you an hour ago."
Mulder let his brother take charge of the duffel and slipped off his leather jacket. "Scully was going to leave a little early so she could see me off, but she wound up getting stuck at Quantico. I dropped in to say good-bye before I hit the road. Guess I should've called."
"Nah." Grey opened the coat closet and handed him a hanger, then led the way down the hall toward the kitchen. "No problem. I kept dinner warm."
"Great, because I'm starving. Lunch was just a roast beef sandwich six hours ago and..." Mulder sniffed the air. "What is it? Smells like..."
"Chili." Grey crossed to a pot on the stove and gave it a vigorous stir. He glanced over his shoulder at his brother, freezing at the bemused expression on Mulder's face. "Fox? Hey, if you don't like chili just say so, I'm sure I can dig up something else."
Mulder just snickered and shook his head. "No, no. Chili is fine--great, in fact. I, uh, have had a craving for it."
Grey studied his face with narrowed eyes before breaking into a smirk. "Oh. Now I get it. This is one of those newlywed stories you're not gonna share, isn't it?"
Mulder snorted and went to the cupboard to collect two bowls. "More like a "Mulder makes an ass of himself" story. But you were half right--I'm not going to share."
"You know, sometimes reality is far less painful than what a person's imagination can conjure up. Especially a vivid one like mine." Grey ladled chili into a bowl and traded it for an empty one.
"I'll take that chance."
Once they'd seated themselves at the table with their chili, cornbread, and tall glasses of ice water, Mulder gazed critically at his brother.
"You look tired. Has everything been going okay?"
Grey toyed with his spoon as if he'd suddenly lost his appetite. "Yeah. Well, as okay as can be expected, I guess. It's been a rough few weeks."
Mulder broke off a chunk of cornbread and popped it into his mouth, waiting for Grey to continue. When it became obvious that his brother wasn't going to elaborate, a little line appeared between his brows. "Kristen?"
Grey eyes darted to his face before his gaze softened and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. "No. That part of my life couldn't be better. It's work that's been making me crazy."
He sighed heavily. "We had a real nutcase on our hands, a guy with a taste for college girls. Crazy, but smart. Raped and assaulted four women before Preston and I managed to collar him. Caught him in the act with victim number five." He abruptly released the spoon so that it landed in the bowl with a sharp plink. "Unfortunately, he panicked, and victim number five bled to death before the ambulance got there."
Mulder winced. "I'm sorry."
Grey leaned back and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah. Guess you've been there, huh?"
"Once or twice."
Grey's eyes roamed his face as if searching for something. "I don't know how you survived, Fox."
Mulder's lips twisted. "With headaches, insomnia, and nightmares, while popping antacid tablets like they were candy." He shook his head, his gaze turning distant. "When things were at their worst, when they'd decided I was the divine oracle of the BSU, I lost track of everything but the cases. I wouldn't even remember what state I was in, but I could describe each crime scene in explicit detail. I wasn't human to them anymore, just a machine. But I got results."
Grey's jaw tightened, his eyes flat and cold. "That son of a bitch, Patterson. He used you."
Mulder lifted one shoulder. "You can't use someone unless they allow it. I'm the one who kept going long after I should have called it quits."
"I hate it when you do that!" Grey snapped, stabbing his spoon at Mulder's chest. "I've never seen anyone more eager to accept blame than you. They manipulated you, Fox. They knew you saw our sister in the eyes of every victim and they didn't hesitate to capitalize on that weakness. Don't make excuses for them, damn it!"
Mulder looked down at his chili, but a grin tugged at his lips. "Okay. I won't." He looked up at Grey, wide-eyed. "You know, I always forget how scary you are when you get angry."
Grey stared at him for a moment, then snorted before biting into his cornbread. "And I always forget what a smart ass you are. Guess we're even."
They passed the rest of the meal wrangling over whether the Yankees had a shot at winning the World Series and debating the Gunmen's latest conspiracy theory. They'd deposited the dirty dishes in the sink, and Mulder had grabbed a towel to dry, when the phone rang. Grey blotted soapy hands on a corner of the towel and scooped up the phone, cradling it between cheek and shoulder while he resumed washing.
"Hello?" His face softened. "Well, hey, darlin'. I was going to call you. We're just cleaning up the dinner dishes." He listened for a moment, then glanced at his brother. "Kristen says hello."
"Hello back." Mulder picked up a glass and mimed a toast before beginning to dry it.
"Yeah, we head out bright and early." Another sidelong glance. "Fox is real excited, I can tell." A pause. "Oh, no, no. Dana's got it all wrong. Fox is a real nature-lover, believe me. A trip to the woods with him is always an unforgettable experience."
Mulder showed Grey his teeth and an upraised middle finger, which his brother seemed to find highly amusing. He continued to dry dishes, hunting through cupboards to put them away and only half-listening to the one-sided conversation. Grey dried his hands and wandered over to gaze out the patio door at the darkened back yard, his voice low.
"...day after tomorrow. We'll be taking some food up with us, but we'll drive down into town for the perishable stuff. I'll give you a buzz then." Grey listened for a moment, then chuckled, a warm, contented sound. "I promise. I will, I will." A barely noticeable hesitation, then, "Me too, Tippi. Good night."
He turned to replace the phone, but a smirk and Mulder's raised eyebrows arrested the motion. "What?"
To Mulder's intense amusement, his normally unflappable brother blushed. "It's a nickname, okay? You always eavesdrop on other people's phone conversations?"
"Who needed to eavesdrop? You never left the room." Mulder waggled his eyebrows. "Care to share the origin of this nickname?"
"No, I wouldn't." Grey hung up the phone and busied himself putting away the orphaned dishes his brother had been unable to find homes for.
Mulder folded his arms and leaned back against the counter, watching Grey's rather jerky movements. "It's an unusual name to call someone," he observed.
Grey slid a pot into a lower cupboard and shot him an annoyed glare. "Oh really, Fox?"
"You don't have to get so defensive." He kept his voice mild and slightly wounded. "I think it's great you have a pet name for Kristen." Grey said nothing, just watched him warily. Mulder ruthlessly squashed the grin that tried to bulldoze its way onto his face. "Makes me wonder though."
"What?" Grey grated through clenched teeth.
"Well, she must have a name for you too, right? Something like 'Snookums,' maybe? Or 'Sugar Lips'?"
Grey narrowed his eyes and he jerked his thumb at the phone. "Why don't you just shut up and call your wife, little brother? I'm going to bring my sleeping bag up from the basement."
Mulder wisely restrained himself and did as he was told. The phone rang three times before a click, a pause, and then Scully's warm alto filled the line.
"It's about time you called, Ted. Mulder's been gone for hours--what took you so long?"
He hung there, slack-jawed, for several seconds before his ears detected the soft chuffing of her laughter. "Very funny. What if it had been Skinner, huh? Or SAC Larraby. Did you think about that?"
"Skinner almost always calls me on my cell, and Larraby shooed me out the door and told me to forget all about work for at least eight hours." Her voice was rich with a mixture of amusement and affection. "Admit it, Mulder. I had you for just a minute there. Big time."
"You had nothing, I was onto you." A faint splash echoed through the receiver. "Scully, where are you?"
"I'll give you a hint--I pieced bodies together for ten hours straight today. My back aches, my feet are killing me, and I smell like...well, you can imagine what I smell like. Where do you think I am?"
Mulder closed his eyes with a sigh. "Candles?"
A soft whimper. "Bubbles?"
He groaned and sank into a chair at the kitchen table. "Sculleee! Why am I hundreds of miles away while you're soaking in that tub all alone with no one to wash your back?"
"I was asking myself that very question right before you called." Scully chuckled softly. "It's only a week, Mulder. I'll keep the water warm." Her voice turned serious. "You both need this, love. You've never really had a chance to spend some time together without interruptions. Make the most of it."
Mulder's lips curved. "I will." He sighed. "I just wish we could've held this little bonding session somewhere else--like the beach."
"Oh, stop whining!" Grey appeared in the basement doorway, a bedroll tucked under his arm and a smudge of dirt on one cheek. "We're gonna have a great time. Plenty of fresh air, long hikes through the woods, meals cooked out over an open fire..."
Scully evidently overheard, because she broke into giggles. "See, Mulder? You're in good hands."
"You think so? I have a better idea. I'll come back and play connect the dots with Larraby and you go camping with Davy Crockett." Mulder eyed Grey, who dropped the sleeping bags with a smirk and tromped back down the steps.
Scully's laughter tapered off, and even through the phone line Mulder could feel the shift in her mood. "Mulder..."
"I won't do anything stupid."
A puff of air and he imagined the eyebrow shooting skyward. "Precognition, Mulder?"
"Just love, babe." He waited a beat. "I miss you already."
Her voice was chocolate, dark and sweet. "Me too. And I'd be very disappointed if you came home in anything less than tip-top condition."
Mulder grinned. "I'll bear that in mind."
"No bears, Mulder. No snakes. No time-traveling wolf creatures. No mothmen. And while I'm at it, no falls, no getting lost, and definitely no broken bones. Got it?"
"And have fun."
"Now you're really asking too much." Mulder's voice was dry, but his lips twitched. "Grey says we'll be heading to a nearby town for supplies the day after tomorrow. I'll call you then."
"Call my cell--I'll be sure to leave it on." Her voice dropped. "Good night, Mulder."
"Good night, Scully. Sweet dreams." He was about to push the button to disconnect when an odd feeling swept over him, like a gust of cold air. He jerked the receiver back to his ear. "Scully, wait!"
A loud splash, muttered curses, and she was back. "Mulder, what's wrong? You surprised me so much I knocked a candle into the tub!"
Mulder bit his lip. The chill had faded, leaving him feeling very foolish. "I just...nothing. Sorry I startled you."
The edge left her tone, her voice turning smooth and a little contrite. "It's all right. What did you want?"
He shook his head, forgetting for a moment that she couldn't see him. "Nothing, really. I just...I love you, Scully."
He felt the warmth of her smile. "I love you, too. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yeah. I'm fine."
He broke the connection and stared out the glass door. Watching splashes of moonlight shift and change as a gentle breeze stirred tree branches. Listening to muffled scrapes and thuds that drifted up the steps as Grey shifted boxes.
Shivering at the faint but lingering chill at the nape of his neck.
Continued in Chapter 3