Blood Ties 10
Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (4/?)
By Dawn

Great Smoky Mountains
3:46 p.m.

"You're crazy." Mulder climbed over a fallen tree, the trunk slippery with bright green moss. "They're not even in the same league."

Grey shifted his pack so that it rested more comfortably on his shoulders. "Least we can agree on that."

"Batman had that utility belt with all the crime-fighting gadgets."

"Spidey could walk up the sides of buildings," Grey countered. "And he had that whole web thing going for him."

Mulder rolled his eyes. "Like any crook with half a brain isn't going to be able to get out of that sticky stuff. And what about cars? Even you have to admit the Batmobile was way cool."

Grey shrugged, ducking under a particularly low branch. "It was okay."

"Okay? Are you serious? I used to dream about driving a car like that when I grew up." Mulder snorted indelicately. "Unfortunately, I don't think Ford makes them."

"Not exactly Bureau issue, huh?"

Grey signaled for him to stop. Swiping at his sweaty brow with the back of an arm, Mulder watched his brother take a swig from the canteen before handing it over. The water was lukewarm and slightly musty from the canvas, but the wetness slid easily down his parched throat.


Grey slung the canteen back around his neck, squinting up at the pale gold light filtering through the leaves. For at least the tenth time that afternoon, he tugged the baseball cap off his head, impatiently shoving wavy, sweat-dampened tendrils of dark hair out of his eyes before replacing it. Mulder made no attempt to hide a smirk

"Just don't say it," Grey warned, poking a finger at his brother's chest. "We've already established that I need a haircut. You start calling me Shirley again and you're walking home."

Mulder pointedly gazed around them. "I wasn't aware I had a choice."

"Not the cabin, little brother. Raleigh."

"Look at this way. It could be worse," Mulder deadpanned. "You could have your buddy Walt's problem."

"Gee, thanks, Fox. Somehow that just puts it all in perspective." Grey's gaze returned to the sky. "We'd better head back. Way I figure it, we're about three or four miles out, and once that sun starts to set it'll get dark pretty quickly."

"Fine with me. I'm getting hungry already. By the time we hike back, I'll actually be desperate enough to eat that canned stew you packed."

Mulder followed Grey as he began to loop back toward the cabin. Despite his initial lack of enthusiasm for the camping trip, he'd enjoyed the afternoon hike immensely. The hillsides were a patchwork quilt of green, red, gold, and orange, some areas breathtakingly brilliant. They'd happened upon a small waterfall tumbling down a rocky gorge, where a simple drink had turned into a water fight that left them both drenched but refreshed. They'd observed two deer, a rabbit, half a dozen squirrels, and a few unidentified birds with Grey's binoculars. And they'd laughed. A lot.

Distracted by his thoughts and a bootlace that had worked loose, Mulder nearly toppled over Grey, who had stopped abruptly in the middle of the trail.

"You might want to signal next time you... Grey? Is something wrong?"

Grey didn't answer right away, his eyes scrutinizing the foliage as he turned in a slow circle. "Thought I heard something."

"Could you be a little more specific? I hear a lot of things--birds, the wind, my own feet." Mulder's eyes narrowed. "If this is another attempt to spook me with killer wildlife..."

Grey gave a sharp shake of his head, eyes still scanning the brush and ears tuned to catch the slightest sound. "Not this time."

Mulder frowned, stepping closer so that his shoulder brushed his brother's and unconsciously mimicking Grey's vigilance. "You're serious about this."

"I've had the strangest feeling all afternoon. Like we were being watched." Grey shook his head again and smiled sheepishly. "It's probably nothing. Maybe your paranoia is finally starting to rub off on me." He resumed hiking and Mulder fell into step beside him.

"Hey, it's not paranoia if they're really out to get you."

"In your case, I think you have a point."

They reached the cabin without further incident just as the sun dipped below the horizon, lengthening shadows shrouding the clearing in near darkness. Grey was almost to the cabin door when he jerked to a halt with a muttered curse. He stripped off his backpack and tossed it onto the porch before stomping over to the SUV, which was now sporting an extremely flat tire.

He crouched down, running a hand over the puddle of rubber. "Damn. Must've hit something sharp on the way up here."

"Like when you nearly drove us into a ditch." Mulder peered over Grey's shoulder, grunting when his brother's elbow dug into his ribs. "You've got a spare, don't you?"

"Yeah. I'm not messing with it now, though, I'll run out of light before I can even get this jacked up." With a final, black glare at the tire, Grey stood and they walked back to the cabin.

"Tell you what--I'll make dinner. You just sit back and take it easy." Mulder waved his hand magnanimously in the direction of the couch.

"I don't know if I can enjoy myself, thinking of you slaving away in the kitchen. If you wind up with a blister from that can opener, I'll never forgive myself." Grey dropped onto the cushions and kicked off his boots.

Mulder ignored the jibe, divesting himself of both socks and boots before padding barefoot into the kitchen. He fished two beers from the refrigerator, whistled to grab Grey's attention, and lobbed one toward the couch. Grey caught it neatly, tapping the top a few times before opening it.

"What do we have to go with the stew?" Mulder opened the nearest cupboard and began sorting through cans.

"There's a loaf of bread on the counter."

Further investigation produced a saucepan and can opener. Mulder transferred the stew to the pot and turned on the stove, then scanned the counter for the bread.

"No, there isn't."

Grey's head emerged from a copy of "Sports Illustrated." "Sure there is. I put it right next to the dish soap."

Mulder picked up the bottle of yellow liquid and brandished it. "Our hands will smell lemony fresh, but there's no bread in sight, Bubba."

Grey heaved a longsuffering sigh, set aside the magazine, and trudged over to the kitchen, grumbling under his breath. The line between his brows deepened as his eyes swept the counter.

"What the..."

He tugged open first one cupboard, then the other, rummaged through all three drawers and thoroughly examined the empty box that had contained their supplies.

"This is crazy." Hands on hips, he glared suspiciously at Mulder. "Fox, if this is your idea of a joke..."

Mulder held up both hands. "I like to think my sense of humor is a little more sophisticated, though Scully might disagree. Are you sure you didn't just forget to put it in the box? Maybe it's on the counter back home."

"I guess it's possible." Grey's expression remained troubled. "Damn. Now we have no bread for sandwiches tomorrow."

Mulder crossed to the stove and stirred the now bubbling pot of stew. "So we make do with that box of crackers I saw and buy bread when we drive into town tomorrow."

Grey's rigid shoulders relaxed. "Yeah. You're right. I just would've sworn..." He shook his head and pulled two bowls from the cupboard. "Let's eat."

An hour later, stomachs full and dishes washed, they sprawled in front of the fire, Mulder on the couch and Grey on the floor, back propped near his brother's legs. Darkness had quickly leached away the day's warmth, but the blaze drove away the chill sufficiently to keep the cabin comfortable.

"Sam loved it when we'd have a fire in the fireplace." Mulder's voice was soft, pensive. He stared into the flickering yellow and orange flames with a distant smile on his lips. "When she was little, she couldn't understand why we didn't have them in the summer. It would be ninety-five degrees outside, and she'd start raiding the woodpile, bringing in logs."

"Sounds like a gal who knew her own mind," Grey mused.

Mulder snorted. "Why not call a spade a spade? She was about as stubborn and pigheaded as they come. Once she got an idea in her head, there was no discouraging her."

"Sounds familiar." Grey's chuckle turned into a guffaw when Mulder flashed him an obscene gesture.

After several minutes of silence Grey tipped his head back so that he could see his brother's face. "Are you still looking for the people who took her?"

Pain flickered across Mulder's face like the flames over the logs. "I made a promise to Sam after she was abducted. I vowed I'd never quit until I either brought her home safely or caught her murderers." His mouth twisted into a bitter grimace. "I've failed miserably at both."

"You dedicated your life to finding the truth about what happened to Sam," Grey replied. "In the end, that's exactly what you did. How is that failure?" When Mulder didn't answer, he turned back to the fire. "It's all right to put Samantha to rest now, Fox."

Mulder sighed and let his head drop onto the back of the sofa. "There was a time when nothing was more important to me than finding the truth and exposing the men who attempted to bury it." A long pause. "Now, all of that pales in comparison to Scully getting a clean bill of health from the doctor."

Grey sat forward abruptly, spinning to face his brother. "She's all right, isn't she? There haven't been any signs of the cancer coming back, have there?"

Mulder smiled, touched by the concern. "None so far. The doctor's been monitoring her more carefully since the chip was removed. According to him, she's the picture of health." The smile faded. "But it's always there, like an uninvited guest. When she's more tired than usual. If she skips a meal or two." He blanched. "When she gets a bloody nose from a box falling off a shelf."

"How's she handling it?"

This time Mulder's chuckle was genuine. "A hell of a lot better than I am. It pisses her off to no end if I get overprotective. Tells me she won't live her life waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Grinning, Grey settled back into a more comfortable position. "Yeah. I can hear her saying it, too. She's a lot like Kate was, you know? Tough as nails when it comes to defending what she believes."

"What about Kristen? She doesn't exactly strike me as a pushover, either." Mulder's grin turned to a smirk. "From what I've heard she went toe to toe with Skinner when we were trapped in the hospital by the bomb blast. He wanted her to go back to the Bureau, but she insisted on staying put until you were found."

Grey chuffed softly. "Yeah, I've run up against her a time or two myself. Don't let her fool you. She's every bit as tenacious as Dana, her methods are just a little more...subtle."

A comfortable silence, filled only by the hissing and popping of the fire, fell between them. When Mulder spoke again his voice was heavy with sleep.

"Are you happy, Grey?"

Grey turned, hooking one arm over his brother's outstretched legs and leaning his cheek against the cushion. His gaze was abstracted, contemplative, but the corners of his mouth turned up.

"Yeah. I guess I am." His voice held a touch of wistful surprise. "Losing someone you love--it's kind of like breaking a leg, you know? At first the pain is so overwhelming, you can't move, can't function. It hurts too damn much. After a while folks start telling you it's time to get back on your feet, but just the thought of trying to walk again is frightening. You hobble around hurting, every step a huge effort, certain that you're gonna fall flat on your face any minute. And the really terrible part, the thing that keeps you awake nights, is that you can remember how wonderful it once felt to run. How effortless it was. And you know that you took it all for granted.

"And life goes on like that. Some days are better than others. Until one day you take a step, expecting to feel that same old stab...but it never comes. So you take another step, and another, waiting for it to hit, for that other shoe to drop. But it never does. And you realize that maybe, just maybe..."

"You're ready to run again," Mulder murmured.

Grey's eyes jerked sharply to his brother's, then softened. "Yeah. I think I might be. 'Course, I still get these twinges, now and then."

"Nobody said you had to start off with a marathon. The journey starts with just one step, and all that. Give yourself credit for getting back in the race, even if you're not quite ready to finish yet."

"I'll keep that in mind." A grin spread slowly across Grey's face. "Sometimes I forget that my brother's a shrink."

Mulder released an explosive breath of laughter. "Hey, I might as well use the degree to help you. God knows, I've never been much good at helping myself." He broke off in a jaw-cracking yawn.

"Looks like my cue to let you get some sleep." Grey gave the leg under his hand a pat and stood, stretching both arms over his head until his spine cracked.

Mulder blinked up at him. "I must be getting old; it can't be more than ten o'clock."

"It's called fresh air, little brother. You should try it more often."

"I get fresh air." Mulder folded his arms across his chest and clamped his lips into a thin line.

Grey huffed and shook his head. "I'm not talking about jogging through the streets of DC, sucking in exhaust fumes." He sobered. "You work too hard, Fox. You need to take more time, you and Dana. You never did have a honeymoon, did you?"

"Yeah, we did. We went to California, remember?"

Grey's eyebrows disappeared beneath a tangled sweep of hair. "You're kidding, right? Flying out to the coast to investigate a supposed mermaid is not a vacation, little brother, let alone a honeymoon."

"It wasn't so bad. I got us a room at a really nice bed and breakfast on the beach." When Grey's look of pity didn't fade, Mulder scowled. "All right, all right. I've got a couple ideas in mind; I'm planning on surprising her after this mess with the bombing is all cleared up. And before you ask, no, none of them are remotely connected to paranormal phenomena."

"He can be taught." Grey stifled a yawn and rubbed at his eyes with the back of one hand. He hooked his thumb over his shoulder at the back door. "Because I'm such a wonderful person, I'll let you have first crack at the facilities before bed."

Mulder groaned pitifully and hauled himself upright. "I can't believe I actually managed to forget that little detail." He wrinkled his nose. "It's pitch dark out there. And cold--can't be more than 45 degrees."

Grey extended a hand and tugged him to his feet. "See there? You could have a promising career as a weatherman if your job at the Bureau ever falls through."

"And if you're considering comedy, I wouldn't quit my day job," Mulder growled, snagging his jacket and ambling to the door. "If I'm not back in five minutes..."

"I'll radio for search and rescue," Grey snickered.

Mulder paused outside the back door, gazing upward. The cloudless night sky provided a velvet backdrop for thousands of stars and a nearly full moon. The deep silence, broken only by the occasional rustling of undergrowth or the distant cry of an owl, made a sharp contrast to the twenty-four hour bustle of busy DC streets. He drew in a long, slow breath of the crisp air and sighed, slightly amused by the thought that dwarfed all others.

Wish you were here, babe.

He shivered, stuffing his hands into his pockets and crossing the grass to the small but functional shack. He was in the process of reaching for the handle, thoughts still wrapped up in the surrounding beauty and Scully, when the stench of blood hit his nostrils and he froze, eyes dropping to the shadowed ground in front of the door.

At first glance it was little more than a ball of bloody fur, torn and shredded almost beyond recognition. Clumps of hair, bone, and flesh littered the grass, puddles of blood soaking into the earth. One glazed eye stared sightless upward, the lips pulled back from gleaming teeth in a final snarl. The pointed ears, long snout, and rust-colored fur testified that it had once been a fox.

Mulder dropped to a crouch, swallowing hard. He'd seen his share of gruesome crime scenes, but the brutal dismemberment of any creature--whether human or animal--never failed to disturb him. In the darkness, surrounded by wilderness and surveyed by hidden eyes, it caused a chill to race up his spine.

"Fox? You okay?"

Grey's warmth and solidity at his back chased away the shadows. His brother took a long look at the carcass and walked away, returning moments later with a large stick. Mulder watched silently as Grey shoved the bloody mess out of sight around the corner of the outhouse.

"I'll bury it in the morning," he said, watching Mulder closely. "Kind of spooked you, huh?"

Mulder lifted one shoulder, a bit embarrassed by his reaction. "Not what I expect when going to take a leak." He scuffed some dirt over the bloody residue with one toe. "What would do something like that?"

Grey shrugged. "Something bigger and hungrier, I guess. This is nature, Fox. You know, kill or be killed?"

Mulder frowned. "I'm not completely ignorant, Grey, I know how it works. But that..." He shook his head. "From what I could see, whatever killed that didn't eat it. Just...shredded it."

"Yeah." Grey cast a quick glance at the woods. "Well, no one ever said nature was kind." He lifted an eyebrow. "Now are you gonna use that or am I?"

It broke Mulder out of his daze and he grinned. "Patience, Bubba. Give me a minute, and then it's all yours. You can even take that magazine you were reading in with you."


Mulder watched him walk back to the cabin before taking hold of the handle and tugging open the door. The blood at his feet gleamed black in the moonlight. He stepped carefully over the puddle, unable to shake his feeling of disquiet or the pall that had dropped over a once pleasant evening.

Continued in Chapter 5