Blood Ties 10
Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (8/?)
By Dawn

Great Smoky Mountains
5:33 a.m.

The fire was dying.

Grey carefully shifted his brother forward and then eased him to the ground, settling him on his good side, cheek cushioned on a backpack. Fox made a small sound of complaint, eyelids fluttering, and drew his arms more tightly against his body. Grey tucked his jacket up around the hunched shoulders, laying one hand lightly on his brother's head until Fox quieted.

He stood slowly, wincing at the pins-and-needles sensation in his legs as circulation returned. The muscles across his shoulders and neck felt stiff and tight from the rock's damp chill. He gingerly rolled his head and stretched, hands propped in the small of his back. The cold air raised gooseflesh on his bare arms and he hastily gathered several sticks and crouched closer to the fading warmth of the weak fire.

The flames eagerly accepted his offering, and he'd soon rekindled a respectable blaze. The first pale threads of light penetrated the trees, but in the small ravine the shadows remained thick. Grey sat with knees bent, arms linked loosely around his legs, and wished mightily for a cup of coffee--for Fox as much as for himself. Chills had wracked his brother's body on and off throughout the cold night, at times so violently that he could hear teeth clicking together.

Grey had done the best he could with limited resources, stripping off his own jacket and wrapping it around them both in an effort to contain body heat. Toward dawn Fox had quieted, the shivers tapering off, and Grey had managed a light doze which, though brief, had taken the edge off his own weariness.

Soon it would be full daylight, time for them to strike out for the cabin. No way to tell exactly how much ground they had yet to cover, but he figured they'd traveled close to eight miles so far and his internal odometer was usually accurate. That left another three miles.

Three miles. It didn't sound like much. Until you factored in Fox's rapidly deteriorating physical condition. They'd limped along at little better than a snail's pace yesterday, his brother stubbornly insisting he didn't need to rest while desperately trying to conceal how badly he was hurting. How much worse would it be today, after a night spent on the cold ground?

Grey tipped his head and ran one hand along his stubbled jaw, shifting his eyes from the flames to scan his brother's face. Too pale, drawn, the flesh under each eye darkening to a bruised crescent. In the flickering light cast by the fire he looked far too young and fragile to be an almost-40-year-old FBI agent adept at tracking down aliens and serial killers.

Responsibility, weighty and encumbering, pressed down on Grey's shoulders like a knapsack of rocks. It was all up to him, now, to elude a killer, navigate them safely to the cabin, and get Fox the medical attention he so desperately needed. And meanwhile the clock ticked relentlessly.

Piece of cake.

"Whatsa matter? Something wrong?"

The raspy voice startled Grey. He watched Fox wrestle his eyelids open and blink owlishly, brow furrowed.

Grey snorted. "Wrong? What could be wrong? There's a deranged killer after us, you've got a bullet in your leg, and we're still a good three miles from any kind of help."

"Oh, is that all. I was afraid the Mets won the World Series." Deadpan. Sarcasm and dry wit intact.

The fist around Grey's heart loosened, and he rolled his eyes. "Very funny. How's the leg?"

Mulder licked his lips, grimaced. "I'd rather talk about the Mets."



Grey snagged his pack and extricated the canteen. He turned back just in time to grab his brother's shoulder as he swayed precariously close to the fire.

"Whoa! Easy, Fox."

Mulder sucked in a deep breath, then batted Grey's hands away. "I'm okay. Just sat up too fast, that's all." He stared down at the jacket that now lay pooled in his lap, obviously noticing it for the first time. A mixture of shame and gratitude clouded his eyes, and he thrust the coat at Grey without looking up. "Take this, you're gonna freeze."

Grey held his tongue as he accepted the jacket and handed over the canteen. He fished several energy bars from the pack and held them up while his brother drank.

Mulder's lip curled and he took on a greenish hue. "Pass."

Grey opened his mouth to argue but thought better of it, handing over three ibuprofen instead.

"Breakfast of champions." Mulder tossed the caplets into his mouth with a wink and washed them down with more water, then passed the canteen to his brother.

Grey ate two of the energy bars and some water before reaching for the first aid kit. Mulder watched him lay out the supplies for a moment, then turned his face away.

"I've been meaning to ask you about something. Where did you learn so much about survival and navigating your way through the woods?"

Grey's answering chuckle was little more than a cloudy puff of vapor. "I was wondering when you were gonna ask me that question. Guess it's time I shared that part of my sordid past."

"Bring it on." Mulder gave him a brief smirk, quickly returning his gaze to the fire when Grey began to remove the bandage from his leg.

"I hit a bad patch when I started high school, what my parents like to call my PITA phase--you know what I mean?"

"The 'pain in the ass' phase? Are you kidding? Most of the brass at the Bureau would swear I'm still there." Mulder ground the words through clenched teeth. Despite Grey's efforts to be gentle, just unwrapping the leg had caused him to break into a cold sweat.

"I see your point." Grey stared at the angry red flesh surrounding the wound, loath to admit that it appeared even more inflamed than before.

"Anyway, I got in with the wrong crowd. Guys whose sole purpose in life was to party hard, who believed that rules existed so that we could break them. It was life in the fast lane and I was having a great time. Until two things happened."

Grey poured the remaining hydrogen peroxide into the wound. His brother choked off a moan, eyes squeezed shut and hands clenched. When the bubbling and fizzing began to taper off, Mulder cracked open one eye.

"Two things?"

Grey picked up a gauze pad. "Yeah. And they were doozies. First, I got my midterm report. I was failing English Lit and only pulling Ds in Geometry and Chemistry. This from a normally A and B student." Grey shook his head, mouth twisted in a rueful grin.

"My folks hit the roof. Grounding me for life was discussed as a viable option. Then, while they were still making up their minds, I was arrested for possession of marijuana. Now I was dead meat."

Mulder snickered, groaned when the motion jostled his leg, and snickered some more. "I can imagine."

"Anyway, to make a long story short, since it was my first offense and I'd basically been a good kid, the judge let me off with a slap on the wrist. My parents, however, weren't so forgiving. Next thing I knew I was packed off to a kind of...boot camp for troubled teens. I spent my Spring break slogging along the Appalachian Trail using muscles I didn't know existed and serving as dinner to mosquitoes the size of horses. And the strangest part was, I loved it." Grey tied off the bandage and sat back on his heels, a bemused smile on his lips.

"I came back cured of my rebellious ways--" He chuffed. "Well, mostly. And I continued to attend survival camps over the next few summers, just for the fun of it." Grey shrugged a little sheepishly. "And that's about it."

Mulder's eyes panned the ravine, the shadows all but banished by the early morning sunlight. He glanced sideways at Grey, the barest hint of a smile curving his lips. "Final exam time, Bubba. Hope you studied hard."

Grey collected their packs, slipped his brother's arm around his neck, and slowly stood. "Got it covered, little brother. Smooth sailing."

10:30 a.m.

"So this is what you call...smooth sailing...huh? Remind me...never to get in a boat with you."

"Here. Sit down and stop being a smartass."

Grey settled his brother onto a fallen log, dropped the packs, then used the hem of his tee shirt to mop his face. Though the temperature was pleasantly cool in the shade, he was drenched in sweat and his muscles trembled with fatigue. He uncapped the canteen, barely a quarter full now, took a few swallows, and crouched down in front of Fox.

Despite his exertions and two sweatshirts, Fox's arms were tightly laced around his shivering body. Cheeks flushed, eyes too bright. Grey pressed the back of his hand to the damp forehead, dismayed, though not surprised, by the heat. He rummaged through his pack for more ibuprofen, peeled one of his brother's hands away from his torso, and placed the caplets in the palm. Fox obediently swallowed them with some water, his movements jerky and mechanical.

A twig snapped somewhere off to their left. Grey stood, sharp eyes carefully scanning the vegetation as he placed his body deliberately in front of his brother. After several tense moments of seeing nothing but a squirrel and several birds, his shoulders slumped and he turned back to face Mulder.

"I know you're done in. But as near as I can figure we're almost there. I just need you to keep going a little longer."

Mulder dipped his head. "Let's get this...over with."

Packs on his shoulders, Fox's arm slung around his neck, they lumbered onward. Though Fox valiantly tried to help, with each step Grey found himself bearing more and more of his brother's weight, until his back screamed in protest and each breath cut like a knife through his lungs. The scrambled up a small hill, nearly tumbling head-over-heels on the way down when Grey's foot caught on a protruding root.

Ahead, the vegetation thinned and the sunlight blazed brightly. Grey's heart soared with hope, but his body could do no more than maintain the steady plod forward. They dodged a pine tree, skirted a bush bearing bright red berries, and staggered into a clearing. Two hundred yards ahead, shaded by several large maple trees, was the back of a log cabin nearly twice the size of theirs.

"That's it!" Grey crowed. "We made it, Fox! We made it!"

Caution abruptly dampened his euphoria and he tugged his brother backward several steps into the cover of the woods while he scrutinized the cabin and the surrounding area. A blue jay chased several smaller birds from a feeder before settling down to claim the spoils. Two smaller trees served as anchors for a clothesline, where three white tee shirts and a pair of navy pants flapped in the light breeze. Wisps of smoke drifted from a stone chimney.

The heavy thump of his brother's head hitting his shoulder made Grey's decision for him. Fox's eyes slipped shut, then shot open as he fought to hold onto consciousness.

"Looks quiet to me," Grey muttered. "C'mon, little brother. Just a few more steps and we'll find you a place to lay down."

They limped around the side of the cabin. A long gravel driveway snaked through the trees and up to an attached garage, the door three quarters of the way closed. A porch ran past the front door along the entire front of the cabin and an empty rocking chair creaked back and forth in the wind. To the left of the door a wooden sign proclaimed "Welcome" in bright, cheery colors.

Grey nudged his brother as they moved closer. "See that?"

Mulder snorted, winced. "Some hermit. 'S a recluses everywhere."

"Not so loud," Grey cautioned. "We need that recluse to..."

One foot on the porch, hand coming up from his side to knock, Grey froze. Eyes locked on the two- by ten-foot slice of garage revealed by the partially open door. Lips tightening to a thin line he shuffled back around the corner to press their backs tightly against the side of the cabin.

"What's wrong?" Like the flick of a switch, Mulder's voice was sharp, alert. "What is it?"

Grey eased him to the ground, dropping both packs and opening his own. "I got a peek at the car in the garage. Tires are flat." He pulled out his gun and stood. "Stay here. I'll be back."

Mulder squinted up at him. "Are you crazy? What good's that going to do, you don't have any bullets!"

"We've played poker--you should know by now I'm good at bluffing," Grey hissed. "Besides. Even empty it feels good in my hand."

He left before his brother could argue further, continuing along the side of the cabin, around the corner, and toward the back door with his spine firmly against the wood. French doors opened onto a large deck. Grey flattened himself to the left of the door, inching his hand out until he could curl his fingers around the knob.

It turned, easily.

Sucking in a deep breath, Grey nudged the door open.

"Chris? Chris Peterson?"

Nothing. The jay and several other birds took flight, the laundry continued to flap in the breeze, and smoke still wafted from the chimney. Grey tilted his head to peer through the glass. Colorful braid rugs on a polished hardwood floor. A large stone fireplace, the remains of a log smoldering on the grate. Everything neat and in place. Except Chris Peterson.

Grey slipped inside but remained near the door. "Mr. Peterson? Are you here?"

On the wall a large carved clock ticked relentlessly, the sound absurdly loud in the silence. Grey crept through the greatroom to the kitchen. Not a single crumb marred the spotless countertops and the sink was free of dishes, with the exception of a lone water glass. A desk in the corner bore a stack of opened mail and a shortwave radio. Grey glanced quickly over his shoulder before crossing to the desk and reaching for the power switch.

Nothing. Frustration welled up and he found himself muttering whispered curses under his breath as he twisted dials and punched buttons. The end result was the same--the radio might as well have been a box of rocks.

Grey left the radio and strode down a narrow hallway to the front of the cabin, anger undermining some of his caution. To his right a nearly empty coat closet and a study, books lining the walls. To his left a bedroom, the door slightly ajar.

Abruptly, inexplicably, the hairs on the back of Grey's neck stood up. He swallowed, dry throat clicking, lay his palm against smooth, six-paneled pine, and pushed.

The smell hit him immediately. Thick, coppery, it filled the air and left a bitter tang in the back of his throat. A large four-poster bed faced the door, a handmade quilt covering the distinctive form of a man lying prone atop the mattress. Crimson splatters adorned the quilt, walls, and even the ceiling like a bizarre work of modern art.

Still clutching his weapon, Grey walked slowly forward on stiff legs, the back of his hand pressed across his nose and mouth. The quilt cocooned all of the motionless form but a small fluff of steel gray hair. Grey stretched out his hand and plucked at the blanket with thumb and forefinger, drawing it carefully back to expose a face.

"Oh my god."

The words felt torn from his numb lips, and he actually staggered backward two steps before he caught himself. He closed his eyes, breathed through his mouth, and waited for his pounding heart to slow.

"Grey! Are you all right?"

He gasped, spinning, eyes wide. Fox leaned in the doorway, a white-knuckled grip on the jamb all that was holding him upright.


"We made a mistake, Fox. It's not what we thought."

His brother's eyes darted to the bed, took in the carnage. "What are you talking about? You're not making sense."

Grey gestured to the body, face pale. "None of this is about you, Fox. It never was. Our friend--it's me he's after." He paused, swallowed. "And I know exactly who he is."

Continued in Chapter 9