Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (7/?)
By Dawn

Georgetown
Saturday
6:58 p.m.

She was standing in a spill of frigid air, contemplating the contents of her refrigerator, when the phone rang. Scully let the door close with a soft whunk and crossed to scoop the receiver off the counter.

"A little late, aren't you, Mulder? Are you two so wrapped up in bonding that you couldn't look at a watch?" She leaned one hip against the cabinets, the warmth in her tone belying the edge to her words.

A long pause, then a tentative soprano response. "Ah...Agent Scully? It's Kristen. Kristen Harding?"

Scully tucked the phone between her shoulder and ear as she returned to the refrigerator. "Kristen! Sorry about that. I was expecting a call from Mulder." She poked at a container of leftover chili, lip curled.

"I know. I was expecting one, too--from Grey, I mean. Before he left, he said he'd give me a call this afternoon when they went into town for supplies. I've been home all day working on handwriting analysis reports for Violent Crimes, but the phone never rang. I thought maybe you'd heard something." A slight rise in pitch communicated her hope that Scully would deliver.

"I wish I could tell you I had." Scully cracked open a Tupperware dish of something that had grown fur, quickly dropping the entire thing into the garbage can with a wince. "I was at Quantico for most of the afternoon but my cell was on. I haven't heard a thing from Mulder since Thursday night."

Another silence, then a rush of words tinged with embarrassment. "You don't think anything is wrong, do you? Grey is always so reliable; if he says he's going to do something, he does it. And they are pretty high up in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, really. It would be so easy for one of them to get lost, or break a leg, or fall off a cliff..."

Scully's amusement turned sour when she excavated a piece of pizza that looked to have originated in the Pleistocene Epoch. She turned away from the refrigerator and headed for the drawer that held Mulder's collection of take-out menus.

"Have you eaten dinner yet?"

Obviously not the response Kristen had anticipated. "I...um...well, no. Like I said, I've been working on these reports, and..."

"I was just about to call out for Chinese. Why don't you join me?"

"I..."

"Look, staring at the phone isn't going to make it ring any sooner." Practicality built from hard experience, Scully thought ruefully. "I'm sure they're just running behind schedule. It is a vacation, after all. This way we'll save them a phone call."

"I am tired of staring at these walls." Kristen's voice warmed, steadied. "All right. Give me fifteen minutes to wrap up this file and I'll head over. Can I bring anything?"

"Just yourself. I'll see you in a bit."

Scully switched off the phone, sternly ordering the little bell in her head--the Mulder panic alarm--to switch off. She hadn't simply been quoting platitudes to Kristen; Mulder's penchant for taking off on a whim was legendary. If she had a dime for every time...

This is different. Mulder's changed a lot over the last couple years. Plus, his brother is with him. Grey certainly isn't one to get caught up in a wild goose chase to the exclusion of all else.

With an impatient huff, Scully retrieved the phone and punched in the number for Yu's. Since she was unfamiliar with Kristen's likes and dislikes, she thumbed through the menu and selected a variety of dishes in the hope they'd both be satisfied. She ran a quick check of the living room, but with Mulder gone the coffee table was free of sunflower seed husks, the basketball tucked in the front closet rather than nestled on the couch. By the time she had changed to a faded pair of jeans and walked around the corner to pick up the food, Kristen was waiting on the front steps and the buzzing in Scully's head had ceased.

"You must think I'm completely neurotic." Kristen carried cardboard containers to the table as Scully removed them from the brown paper bag. "Getting concerned over one missed phone call."

With a raised brow, Scully held up the teakettle, filling it with water when Kristen nodded. She set it on the stove, one shoulder lifted in a small shrug. "And you could accuse me of being negligent for not giving it much thought. It doesn't make either emotion right or wrong." Her lips curved. "You're new at this. I've had eight years."

Kristen fiddled with the end of the long blonde ponytail that trailed down her right shoulder. "Maybe."

Scully motioned to the table and they sat, sifting through cartons and spooning the food onto their plates. "Look, I really don't want to sound blasť about this," Scully said, pausing to fix Kristen with a compassionate gaze. "I just know Mulder. He exists in his own world sometimes." She smirked. "A world not governed by the laws of nature as we know them. That includes time as a universal invariant. We'll probably get a call any minute laced with profuse apologies for worrying us."

Kristen picked up a pair of chopsticks and snagged a piece of chicken. Halfway to her mouth she stopped, stared at the tidbit as if it were a foreign object, and returned it to her plate. Her faint smile couldn't disguise the disquiet in her green eyes. "Agent Scully... Dana. I'll admit that you and Mulder share a lot more history than Grey and I. But I like to think I know him. And he knows me. So I think I can speak with complete confidence when I say that something about this missed phone call doesn't feel right.

A little line appeared between Scully's brows and she opened her mouth to reply, only to be silenced by Kristen's upraised hand. "Remember last year, when Grey was kidnapped?"

An image flashed across Scully's mind--Mulder shivering with cold, pacing up and down the shoulder of a highway as he searched desperately for clues to his brother's disappearance. He'd been sick--mortally ill--only none of them had realized it at the time, and he'd been too consumed with worry for his brother to acknowledge his own body's warnings. A chill crept up her spine like icy fingers.

"I remember."

"I sat in my apartment for nearly two hours that night, expecting him to walk through the door any minute. Telling myself he'd probably just stopped for gas or to pick up flowers or...or just about anything I could come up with that didn't include blood, and twisted metal, and ambulances. See, my father died in a car accident when I was nine, and to this day..." She swallowed hard. "To this day I can vividly remember the way my mom sat by our big picture window, waiting for him to come home."

"I'm sorry," Scully murmured.

"'S okay. I survived." Kristen's smile faded. "But I also learned a lesson. Bad things don't always happen to other people. Sometimes they hit a lot closer to home. So, you see, those hours waiting for Grey were two of the longest of my life." She studied Scully's pale face. "I know you've been there.

"Anyway, a funny thing happened to me. When that nightmare was all over, when I was sure I'd put it all behind me, it came back to bite me. Grey was driving up from Raleigh for the weekend. He'd called right before he left. And then for some reason, spur of the moment, he decided to make a little detour and visit Mulder on the way. And I..." She pressed her lips tightly together and shook her head, flushing. "I lost it. By the time he got to my place I was a nervous wreck, ready to call the highway patrol to institute a search for his dead body.

"Grey was..." She chuffed a little laugh, "bewildered. To say the least. I cried; he apologized. We talked about it, eventually even laughed about it. It isn't as if I don't know the feelings are irrational. But that doesn't make them any easier to cope with."

"I understand." Scully's voice was low, little more than a whisper. "There was a period of time, after Mulder was so sick, when he couldn't sneeze without my heart climbing into my throat."

"Then maybe you can also understand why I'm convinced Grey wouldn't risk giving me a nervous breakdown just because he was having a great time and forgot to look at his watch." Kristen paused but her intense gaze never wavered. "He wouldn't."

Scully set her chopsticks on her plate. Not only had her hunger been banished by the little lizard wriggling in her gut, the alarm bell in her head had risen from a whine to a shriek.

Kristen's eyes narrowed and she gave a small jerk of her head. "You feel it, too. It's written on your face."

Annoyance mixed with fear, tightening Scully's lips and sharpening her gaze. "Even if something did go wrong, there's no reason to assume the worst. It could be something as simple as a flat tire or a...a damaged phone line. Mulder told me the cabin has a radio. I'm sure if anything really serious had happened..."

Except the more she talked, the less she believed her own words. How many times, really, had Mulder been overdue if there wasn't trouble involved? The "Mulder panic button" in her head had served to be eerily accurate over the years. As the old expression went, "Methinks she doth protest too much." Perhaps her determination to assuage Kristen's fears was merely an excuse for denying her own instincts.

The teakettle whistled shrilly and Scully stood, absurdly grateful for an excuse to avoid Kristen's troubled eyes. She busied herself preparing two mugs of green tea and tried not to think about Mulder's track record with nice little trips to the forest. Kristen accepted the tea with murmured thanks and graciously refrained from commenting on the way the liquid jittered in the cup. Scully cradled her own mug in both hands and took a long sip, eyes slipping shut as she mentally reconstructed her composure.

"I'm sorry." The regret in Kristen's voice failed to conceal the steel beneath. "I've heard about the situation you've been dealing with at work. I honestly didn't want to add to that burden, but it looks like that's exactly what I've done." She set down her mug and pushed back her chair. "Maybe the best thing I could do for you at this point is to leave."

Scully's hand on her arm arrested the motion. "Kristen..." She drew in a long breath, expelling it in a harsh puff. "The way I see it, it doesn't really matter what theory you subscribe to regarding the missed phone call. For the moment, there's really only one thing we can do."

"Wait." The little crease between Kristen's brows clearly communicated how she felt about that idea. Her chin tipped upward. "But if we don't hear anything this evening, I'm contacting the police in Spring Creek first thing in the morning."

Scully released her arm. "If we haven't heard from them by then, I'll make the call myself." When Kristen's forehead smoothed and she nodded, Scully continued, "But it's still early; there's no reason to assume they won't call. And while we're waiting, we may as well eat some of this food. Leftovers have a way of turning to toxic waste in that refrigerator.

Kristen rewarded her with a genuine grin. "I hear you. Those little Tupperware dishes always seem to get shoved in the back where I don't see them. Last time I cleaned out the fridge I think I discovered several new species."

"Hazards of the job." Scully popped a shrimp into her mouth. The crackle in the air between them had dissipated and she felt the muscles in her shoulders loosen. "A case can take Mulder and I out of town at a moment's notice, and frequently it's days before we come home." She chuffed. "At least I put leftover food into those little plastic bowls. Mulder just shoves it into the refrigerator as is. Once when I was at his apartment I found some vegetable soup in a saucepan with a piece of plastic wrap over the top. Top shelf, right next to the milk. He called it 'streamlining.'"

Kristen struggled not to choke on a mushroom. "Streamlining?"

"He said it cuts down on the number of dishes that need to be washed, and makes reheating much easier. You just pull the pot out of the refrigerator and put it on the stove. Simple." She shook her head as Kristen snickered. "When he moved in we made a deal--I take care of putting the leftover food away, and he's in charge of discarding it if it lives past its prime." She grimaced. "When he's here."

"You haven't really told people at work, have you?" When Scully looked up sharply Kristen lifted one shoulder, flushing. "I guess I thought that once you got married the word would be out. There's the usual watercooler intrigue and speculation, of course. But that's all it really is--intrigue and speculation."

Scully picked up her plate and took it to the counter. "It's not like we're engaging in any subterfuge. We drive to work together every morning and we've never removed these." She paused, twisting the band on her ring finger before swiveling to face the sink. Her voice remained measured, even. "Given that, I hardly see the need to take out an ad in the newsletter. Mulder worries about the impact on my career, but frankly, that's peripheral for me. As far as I'm concerned, as long as we continue to do our jobs, our personal life is no one's business but our own. The watercooler gossip will continue with or without our input."

"I'm sorry. You're right, it isn't anybody's business, including mine." Kristen's voice communicated support rather than contrition.

Scully turned and leaned against the counter, arms folded. "It's all right. I didn't mean to include you." She smirked a bit, lips curved and eyebrow arched. "After all, I suppose you're practically family."

To her surprise, Kristen's jaw tightened and her eyes slid over to the wall.

Scully hesitated, then resumed her seat at the table. "Looks like it's my turn to apologize."

Kristen shook her head with a weak smile. "It's all right. Lately, I tend to follow the 'one day at a time' plan when it comes to my personal life."

Scully snorted indelicately before grasping her mug. "There must be a genetic marker there somewhere."

Kristen bit her lip, eyes scanning Scully's face, indecision plain. Finally she sighed and a rueful little smile twisted her lips. "I love him. And I'm pretty sure he loves me. But I never thought I'd find myself competing for a man--let alone with a woman who's been dead five years."

"Kate." Scully swirled the amber liquid in her cup. "Not an easy act to follow."

"Don't misunderstand me--I would never, NEVER expect Grey to forget her or stop talking about her. I know she's a part of him, a part of loving him."

"But it gets a little crowded sometimes." When Kristen's jaw dropped Scully smiled. "Early in our partnership, before I ever dreamed I'd wind up romantically involved with Fox Mulder--not to mention married to him--I figured out that his sister was an integral part of his life. A package deal."

Kristen inclined her head, index finger tracing the wood grain of the tabletop. "But she was his sister. He could allow himself to love you without feeling as if he'd somehow betrayed her."

Old Memorial Bridge. Mulder, wrapped in a trenchcoat and his own despair. The pains in her own body secondary to the ache in her heart...

"Mulder, why didn't you tell me on the phone that it was her?"

"I couldn't tell you."

"Why not?"

"Because you'd never let me go through with it."

Scully blinked, focused in on Kristen's voice.

"...not like he hasn't been up front with me. I knew it wasn't going to be easy."

"You said you're 'pretty sure' he loves you." Quiet. Tentative. Scully left the opening but didn't press.

"He shows me every day, in lots of ways." Kristen's hand crept up to massage the flesh over her right temple. "But he can't seem to say the words. He's come close a few times but..." She chuckled bitterly. "You know, I would swear I could feel Kate there, standing right between us." The smile dried up. "I'm not in a hurry, Dana. I'm more than willing to give Grey all the time he needs to come to terms with his feelings. I'd just like to be sure he'll get there, eventually."

Scully pursed her lips. "Mulder sometimes refers to himself as 'high maintenance.'" She shrugged. "The truth is, nothing worth having comes without a price. You just have to decide whether the end result is worth the cost." She cocked an eyebrow. "From what I can see, we've both made our decision."

"God help us," Kristen muttered, and they both burst into laughter.

The conversation turned to work-related topics as Kristen helped Scully clear the table, pack away leftover food in the dreaded plastic bowls, and wash the dishes. As the evening progressed, however, the silences grew thicker and more awkward as the phone stubbornly remained mute and uncooperative. By ten o'clock Kristen was ready to take her leave, her pale, drawn face a good match for Scully's rigid shoulders and jangling nerves.

"Thank you for dinner." Kristen's eyes involuntarily searched for the phone, then darted back to Scully's face. "I doubt they'll call now. Grey told me he avoids driving those roads at night."

"Try not to worry. They both have their weapons and Grey is more than capable of navigating the woods. We'll probably hear from them in the morning." Scully mouthed the words without feeling them.

Kristen's expression said she wasn't fooled, but she played along. "I hope you're right. Good night, Dana."

Scully engaged the deadbolt and wandered through the apartment, turning off lights as she went. She paused in the doorway to the bedroom, staring at a bed that looked too big, too cold, and too empty. She closed her eyes, remembering solid warmth along her spine, a whispery tickle of breath on the back of her neck, the scratchy hair on long legs tangled up with her short ones. The need to see him hit her with the force of a wrecking ball, crumbling the composure she'd so carefully maintained in front of Kristen.

And abruptly, unreservedly, she acknowledged what she had known all evening. That he was in trouble. Serious trouble.

In three quick steps she'd crossed the room and scooped up the phone. For the next hour she punched numbers, drawing on both her credentials and her diplomatic skills to track down warm bodies in the Spring Creek Police Department, the state police, and the local forestry service. The answers were maddeningly the same. "No, we haven't heard of any trouble or disturbances up that way. Sorry, there's nothing we can do until morning. We'll call if we hear anything." One foolhardy officer at the Spring Creek Police station, irritated by the disruption of his normally peaceful graveyard shift, had the temerity to suggest Scully's concern was not only unfounded but indicative of a neurotic, overly-possessive wife. By the time she'd finished with him he'd offered profuse apologies, promised to send someone up to check on the cabin as soon as it was light, and volunteered to canvass the local hospitals in case anyone with Grey or Mulder's description had been admitted.

When she hung up the phone, Scully's worry and frustration reached critical mass. Her nature, when faced with a problem, was to act. To tackle the situation head on and let nothing stand in her way. Mulder in danger only intensified the impulse, the need to do something.

Yet even Scully had to admit that she'd exhausted all avenues of investigation available to her at 11 o'clock on a Saturday night. Now she could only wait for daylight. And pray, for Mulder and for the one who stood in her place.

"Grey," she murmured, oblivious that she'd spoken aloud. "Keep him safe."

Continued in Chapter 8