Blood Ties 10
Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (6/?)
By Dawn

Great Smoky Mountains
4:41 p.m.

"We've got to find someplace to hole up for the night."

"'M okay. I can...keep going."

Grey looked over at his brother, a mixture of amusement, tenderness, and irritation clouding his features. "Fox, you and 'okay' aren't even in the same zip code."

Mulder swiped wearily at a damp lock of hair that insisted on falling into his eyes. "What's that...supposed to mean?" His voice, wispy and breathless, betrayed his exhaustion and pain as plainly as his pale, drawn face.

"It means I've seen stiffs that looked better than you do right now." Grey was breathing hard himself, the strain of bearing most of his brother's weight in addition to his own turning an already strenuous hike into a nightmare. "Look, I'm about done in myself, and the sun will be down soon. Last thing we need is to tumble off a cliff in the dark."

"Well...when you put it...that way..."

"Hang on a minute." Grey hesitated, eyes scanning the dense foliage surrounding them. "Over here." He tipped his head in the direction of a shallow ravine about twenty feet down a steep grade peppered with loose stones and shale.

"Are you...crazy? I'll never make it...down that...without breaking my neck. And yours." Mulder's voice vibrated with frustration and weariness.

"I know it's risky, but we'll take it nice and slow. Trust me on this one, Fox, I know what I'm doing."

"Should now. My motto' no one." Mulder shifted too much weight onto his injured leg, grimacing.

"Really? I thought you changed it to 'trust everyone.'" Grey pressed his lips together, unsuccessfully attempting to conceal a smirk.

Mulder's brow creased, then smoothed. "'S there anything...Scully hasn't told you?"

"You're a fairly frequent topic of conversation." Grey draped his brother's arm more firmly across his shoulders. "C'mon. Just a little further. Let me do the work."

Even at a snail's pace, the trip down the slope was treacherous. Stones, polished smooth by melting snow and rain, defied the traction of their boots, and tree roots poked from the soft earth to catch unsuspecting toes. By the time they reached the bottom Grey was gulping air like a drowning man and Mulder was a dead weight, his chin pressed to his chest and his eyes reduced to slits.

"Almost there," Grey panted, dragging his brother along the floor of the ravine to an area bathed in shadow from the surrounding trees and a slab of rock that protruded from the side of the hill. "Just a little further, almost there." He wasn't sure if he was talking to the limp form in his arms or himself.

Grey eased Mulder down with his back against a large boulder and dropped the packs from his shoulders with a groan of gratitude. He braced his hands in the small of his back and stretched until his spine cracked, then rolled his shoulders and massaged his neck. Never taking his eyes off his brother, slumped against the rock like a broken doll, his only movements the harsh rise and fall of his chest and fingers that clutched and kneaded the flesh just above the bandage on his leg.

"You still with me?"

One eye cracked open. "Just trying to decide...whether to go dancing...or send out for pizza."

Grey snorted. "While you're deciding, I'm going to scout around for a minute. Stay put, okay?"

"If you...insist."

Mulder let his head sag back against the rock with a soft thump and tracked the crunch of Grey's boots on dead leaves and gravel as his brother prowled around the gully. Only a hint of a breeze stirred the trees, but as it dried the sweat gluing his hair to his forehead the chills returned. His head throbbed relentlessly, his leg was on fire, and the cool stone at this back increased his shivering- -tremors that exacerbated every ache and pain. And the one person he longed for, who could ease the misery simply with the warmth of her hand in his, was a lifetime away.

"Fox, sit up a minute."

Grey's voice and the gentle pressure of fingers on his shoulder, startled Mulder out of a doze he hadn't realized he'd slid into. He blearily allowed his brother to tip him forward, balking when soft fleece brushed his cheek.

"Forget it. Going to get...cold tonight. You'll need it."

Grey's hands never faltered as he worked Mulder's arms into the sweatshirt like a stubborn toddler's. "I've got my windbreaker. And I'm going to build a fire."

Mulder stiffened, surprise allowing Grey to finish the job without further argument. "Are you nuts?"

Grey cocked an eyebrow. "You keep asking me that question. Do you expect an answer, or can I assume it's rhetorical?"

Mulder refused to be sidetracked. "Have you forgotten the fact that we are not alone--and for once I'm not talking on a cosmic scale. You build a fire and it'll be like a neon sign for our friend to follow." He broke off, panting heavily from the outburst.

Grey slipped on his jacket and moved over to a small pile of sticks and twigs he'd evidently gathered while his brother had been dozing. He began arranging them in a configuration that made little sense to Mulder's untrained eye, but obviously held some purpose. His reply was calm and unruffled.

"Fox, I didn't drag you down here to enjoy the scenery. The sides of the ravine, the thickness of the trees, and the rock over our heads are all going to camouflage a fire if we keep it small and don't burn anything that will generate smoke. I'm not a novice at this, I know what I'm doing."

"Harder to see...but not impossible," Mulder persisted through gulps for air. "'S risky, Grey. You know it."

Grey fished a book of matches from his pack and turned them over in his palm. "It was cold last night. It's gonna be cold tonight. You've lost a lot of blood, you're most likely in shock, and all that's standing between you and the cold is a couple of sweatshirts." He looked squarely into Mulder's eyes. "You'd never make it, little brother."

Mulder searched in vain for a response but found instead, in a place deeply buried, that his brother was right. Grey proceeded to light the fire, patiently feeding it with twigs until he had a small but respectable blaze. He then retrieved the first aid kit and brandished it with a sympathetic wince.

"'S okay. It already hurts like hell. Can't get much worse."

Grey began carefully to unwrap the strips binding his brother's leg. "You said before that you think this guy set us up. Any ideas who he could be and why he's gone to all this trouble?"

Sweat broke out on Mulder's forehead but he kept his eyes locked on the granite above their heads. "Could be...any one of...ah...the enemies I've made." His mouth twisted into a sardonic little grin. "Plenty to chose from. As for why...'s pretty obvious...isn't it?"

Grey wet his lips, keeping his expression blank as he regarded the bullet wound, the edges swollen and angry red. He opened the first aid kit and uncapped the hydrogen peroxide as he worked to keep his brother talking.

"You're not the only one who's got enemies. What makes you so sure you're the target?"

"Besides the slug in my leg?"

Grey nodded, secretly pleased with the sarcasm. When Mulder continued, he tightened his grip on the bottle of antiseptic.

"In case you've forgotten...he left me a damn calling card...outside what you call a bathroom last night. Or maybe it was more like...a letter of intent--" Mulder's words cut abruptly into a sharp cry of agony followed by obscenities, and his spine arched as the peroxide bubbled and fizzed in the open wound.

"It's over, it's over. Breathe, Fox. Nice and slow." Grey set aside the bottle and dressed the wound with fresh gauze. "You think our boy is responsible for that dead animal?"

"Dead fox." Mulder ground out the words, teeth clenched so hard the tendons in his neck stood in sharp relief. "Bit coincidental...isn't it?"

Grey tied off the bandage and sat back, studying his brother's face with red-rimmed, exhausted eyes. "Whoever he is, he's good. This was planned by a pro."

Mulder raised a trembling hand to swipe at a drop of perspiration trickling slowly down his cheek. "All the ones I put away were good, Grey. That's why they gave them to me."

Grey fished a bottle of ibuprofen from the kit, popped the cap, and snagged his brother's hand. He held it steady and shook three capsules into the palm, handing Mulder the canteen once he'd placed the pills on his tongue. Grey's lips thinned and his eyes narrowed as he watched his brother drink.

"We've already discussed this, so let's not even go there. Every time you talk about that prick Patterson I want to hit something."

The corners of Mulder's mouth twitched. "Anyone ever tell you...your eyes flash when you get angry?"

"Yeah, yeah. Part of my southern charm. I'm not kidding, Fox. I said it before and I'll say it again. I don't understand how you can pass off the way they treated you when you were profiling. If not for the X-Files you'd've wound up in either a grave or a straight jacket, and you know it."

Mulder took another swig from the canteen before handing it back to his brother, the teasing glint fading from his eyes. "There were killers to catch. Lives to save. You think I was the only one...close to a breakdown? Comes with the job."

Grey shook his head, frustration a bitter edge in his normally mellow drawl. "A job you did too well. Patterson used you like some kind of natural resource he'd staked a claim to. And he'd've used you up if you hadn't gotten out when you did."

Mulder shrugged. "Water under the bridge." He blew a soft puff of air through his nose. "In some ways the X-Files aren't all that different. Still chasing monsters. They just don't wear masks."

Grey tucked the first aid kit back into his pack. After more rummaging, he pulled out several foil-wrapped quick energy bars. He smiled brightly, waving them in the air as if displaying a gourmet feast. "Dinner?"

Mulder eyed them with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "Think I'll wait for the pizza guy."

The grin slid off Grey's face. "Fox. You need to eat something. It's the only way you're going to keep your energy up."

"Bubba, if I eat that...won't be my energy coming up." When his brother's expression didn't soften, Mulder sighed. "All right. Give me the red one."

He managed three bites, ever mindful that Grey was watching him surreptitiously, before his stomach rebelled. Dropping the half- eaten bar in the dirt beside him, Mulder tipped his head back and breathed deeply, willing the little he'd consumed to stay put.

"Can't," he said, the words clipped, terse.


Mulder's eyes snapped open and he lunged forward. "I said I can't, damn it! Don't force me to eat something I don't want, I hate that!"

Grey blinked, startled by the fury. "Okay, okay. I hear you."

He slumped back against the rock, grimacing. "Sorry. You just... I always hated that when I was a kid."

Grey scanned his face for a moment, then moved so that he, too, was seated against the rock, shoulder brushing his brother's. "Tee...Mom make you clean your plate when you were a kid?" His voice was very soft, noncommittal.

Mulder gazed out into the ravine, now almost completely cloaked in darkness. "Before Sam was taken. After..." He snorted. "She couldn't be bothered most of the time. I ate whatever I wanted-- whatever I could scrounge from bare cupboards and a nearly empty refrigerator. Every once in a while she'd have an attack of guilt and try to cook dinner for me. Unfortunately, she usually burned it, or mixed up the ingredients so it tasted terrible. That didn't stop her from forcing me to eat it, though."

Grey studied the hair at the nape of Mulder's neck, struggling with the now familiar feelings of anger and sadness his brother's childhood never failed to provoke.

Careful. This is shaky ground.

"Didn't anyone notice what was going on around your house? Other family members? Teachers? Friends?"

The reply was light, sarcastic. "I'm sure the Mulder family was excellent fodder for the rumor mill. But we always put on our game faces in front of company."

Grey tugged off his baseball cap and ran his fingers through sweaty strands of hair. "It's okay to be pissed at them, you know. You've earned that right."

Mulder's shoulders stiffened. "Samantha's abduction was devastating. They did the best that they could."

"Cut the bullshit!" Grey's explosive retort startled Mulder. His head snapped around and his mouth worked for several moments without producing sound. Grey plowed on.

"You were a child, Fox! They were supposed to be the grown-ups, it was their job to take care of you. If they were too traumatized, if they were incapable of dealing with their own crap, then they should've gotten help."

Mulder shook his head with a laugh that took too much effort. "First Patterson, now my parents. Why exactly do you feel the need to defend me against the world?"

Grey didn't smile. "Someone has to, Fox. God knows, you refuse to defend yourself."

Mulder's eyes cut off to the trees, but he leaned a little more heavily into Grey's warmth. "Guess Scully must have figured out by now that she's not getting a phone call. You available to defend me against my wife?"

Grey chuckled softly, willing to let the subject slide. "You're on your own there. I'll have my own explaining to do." He sighed. "With any luck Dana and Kristen will figure out something is wrong and send in the cavalry."

Mulder shivered, drawing his arms deeper into the sweatshirts until the sleeves covered his hands. "Maybe. The thing is, I haven't always been the most...uh...reliable person when it comes to checking in with Scully. She's probably not going to get too worried right away."

Grey finished the bar he'd been munching and stuffed the wrapper into his pocket. "My guess is Kristen will do enough worrying for them both. Ever since your buddy Krycek snatched me while I was on my way to her house... Well, let's just say I always let her know if I'm running late."

Mulder smothered a yawn, shifting his weight in an attempt to ease the throbbing ache in his leg. Unfortunately, the simple movement caused a stab of pain so intense his vision erupted into bright flashes of light, and for several minutes he could hear nothing but the rush of his own breath. He was only peripherally aware of hands pulling and tugging, a low voice rumbling near his ear, and sudden heat driving some of the chill from his body.

At last the pain receded to a dull roar and he was able to slit open his eyes. Only a few slivers of pale light remained, even the small fire's glow muted by the darkness. Mulder suddenly realized something soft and warm had replaced the frigid rock at his back. Blinking, he gazed down at an additional pair of arms wrapped around his middle.

"You back now?" Grey's gentle drawl held just a hint of strain.

Mulder struggled to sit up, reluctant to admit how good the warmth felt. "You can let go. I'm okay now." He winced at the croaking rasp of his own voice. "I promised Kristen I'd behave."

"Shut up." The growl was good-natured, lacking any genuine anger, and Grey's arms tightened. "You're shaking like a leaf and I'm not much warmer. First law of survival--use all available resources. Shared body heat just makes sense. Now get some sleep." Mulder could almost hear the smile. "I promise I'll still respect you in the morning."

On the heels of the warmth came bone-deep fatigue. Mulder's head settled back on his brother's shoulder and his eyes slid shut.

"'Kay. But if it starts raining sleeping bags, 'm outta here."

"Huh?" Grey craned his head to study his brother's face, the features now slack in sleep. He blew out a long breath of air and settled more comfortably against the rock. "Guess that's one she hasn't told me, little brother. Remind me to ask."

Continued in Chapter 7