Blood Ties 10: A Dish Served Cold (9/?)
By Dawn

Reagan National Airport
Sunday
8:16 a.m.

"What do you mean, 'nobody's home'?"

Scully balanced the cell phone precariously between shoulder and ear while she attempted to heft her bag into the overhead compartment. The absence of the long legs and strong arms that normally performed the task fueled her worry and frustration, sharpening her voice.

The voice on the other end of the line remained patient and excruciatingly polite. "Ma'am, it's like I already told you. I sent one of my best men, Jim McCullough, up the mountain first thing this morning. He radioed in not fifteen minutes ago from the cabin. According to him, when no one came to the door, he walked around the area calling for Mr. Mulder and Mr. McKenzie. Nobody answered."

"Agent Mulder and Detective McKenzie." The bag was tugged from her grasp and shoved into the bin. Scully turned to flash Kristin a tight smile before zeroing in on the hapless sheriff. "Well, was the door locked? Did he try to look inside the cabin? What if they were sick, or injured? Did he stop to consider..."

"No, the door was not locked, and yes, he searched the inside of the cabin." The smooth drawl took on an edge. "Everything was in place. The bed had been slept in, there was the remains of a fire on the hearth, and a pot of coffee in the kitchen that was still warm." A pause, and she could almost hear him gathering his composure, see the patronizing smile. "They probably just went out for an early morning hike, the weather's good and the fall colors are awful pretty right now. I know for a city gal the idea of being without a phone can be intimidating, but I don't think one skipped call should unduly alarm you."

Scully dropped into her seat and fastened the belt, ignoring the flight attendant's pointed glare at her cell phone. "Sheriff Edwards, I am a federal agent, not a possessive wife. Believe me, I wouldn't have insisted someone check on my husband and brother-in-law if I didn't have solid reasons for doing so. But we can discuss that when I get there."

An extremely long pause. "Ah...get here?"

Only her concern for Mulder kept Scully from laughing out loud at the dismay in his voice. "That's right. I'm on an eight-thirty flight to Raleigh, so with any luck I'll be in Spring Creek by early afternoon."

"Now hold on, Agent Scully, I really don't think..."

"I have to go, Sheriff, the plane is about to take off. I'll see you in a few hours." Scully stabbed the power button and glared at the phone, her emotions a confused blend of anger, worry, and wry amusement.

"Something tells me they don't get many female law enforcement officers in this neck of the woods. Either that, or the sheriff has a death wish."

Kristen's dry sarcasm wrenched an explosive puff of air from Scully's lips, coaxing them into a weak grin. "I wish I could say that attitude was limited to small towns in the sticks, but I've come across a fair number of my fellow agents that share Edward's views."

"Yeah. I've butted heads with a few myself." Kristen shook her head and stared out the window as the plane pulled away from the gate. "As women we work twice as hard to get half the respect. So much for equality."

"That's the thing that impressed me about Mulder, right from the start." Scully felt Kristen's eyes leave the window to study her face but couldn't seem to suppress the wistfulness in her voice and features. She countered with a chuckle that held equal parts humor and regret.

"There I was, a virtual babe in the woods entering the dragon's lair. Mulder knew I'd been sent as some kind of ringer, commissioned to debunk his work. He was more than aware of Blevin's desire to shut down the X-Files, and he had no way of knowing I didn't intend to be a part of that agenda. Yet from the very first time I walked into his office, he treated me as an equal, as someone of value. He tested me, baited me...made me want to strangle him. But..."

When she didn't resume speaking, expression pensive, Kristen nudged her. "But...?"

"Even when he was acting like the world's biggest ass, he listened to me. When he asked for my opinion, it wasn't just to follow protocol or be politically correct. He really wanted to know what I thought. We didn't agree--didn't even come close-- but he respected what I had to say. Took me seriously." Scully's mouth curved, her gaze on a distant memory from a motel room in Oregon. "Even when I gave him a pretty compelling reason not to."

Kristen leaned closer, her voice dropping. "Is it ever...I mean..." She sat back, cheeks pink. "Never mind."

An arched eyebrow. "Go on."

"No, it's kind of personal and really none of my business."

"Now I'm really intrigued. Go ahead, ask me."

"It's just that you're together all day at work. And now that you're married, you're together nights and weekends, too. Does it ever get to be--I don't know--too much of a good thing? How do you keep from bringing the work home, getting on each other's nerves?"

Scully pursed her lips. "We have our moments." Sighed. "To be truthful, getting married hasn't changed us very much. We always seemed to wind up spending our free time together, even after a long day at the office or a week in the field. He's my best friend, even when he's irritating the hell out of me."

Kristen nodded slowly, eyes drifting back to the window. "It scares me sometimes." Softly, unsure.

"Grey?"

Another short nod. "I can be a control freak, you know? I like to make lists, plan ahead. Even my job involves taking something seemingly abstract and making it concrete." She chuffed a rueful little laugh. "I'm not big on surprises."

Scully smirked. "And he turned out to be a doozy." She sobered. "That's not a bad thing--is it?"

Kristen dipped her head. "It's amazing. But I can't... He's never been anything but honest with me, Dana. Kate's death hurt him so deeply. He may never be ready for any kind of lasting commitment."

"Are you all right with that?"

"I thought I was." Kristen rolled her eyes. "Surprise."

"It's that damn lower lip." The seatbelt sign flicked off and Scully reclined to a more comfortable position. She turned her head, studying Kristen's profile. "Add to it the open vulnerability and a somewhat irreverent sense of humor..."

"Not to mention a great ass." Kristen looked momentarily shocked by her own words until they both erupted in laughter.

Scully laid a finger beneath her nose as she struggled for control. "And before your know it..."

"It's too late." Kristen's eyes still sparkled, but her voice was solemn.

"Welcome to life with a Mulder. Sounds like a bad sitcom, doesn't it?" She closed her eyes. "Let's just hope this particular episode has a happy ending."

Kristen's reply was soft, nearly inaudible. "It has to."

Spring Creek Sheriff's Office
Sunday
3:36 p.m.

The coffee, at least, was good.

The conversation, on the other hand...

"I still think you ladies are making a mountain outta a molehill. One missed phone call is no reason to panic. Those boys are probably off somewhere having a grand ol' time, not realizing what a fuss they're causing."

Scully sucked in a long, slow breath, examining a black scuff mark on the toe of her boot while mentally counting to ten. "Sheriff Edwards, I have neither the time nor the inclination to relate the eight years of history that qualify me as an expert on what my husband would and wouldn't do. Suffice it to say, Miss Harding and I are not alarmists, prone to flights of fancy. We are trained federal agents with enough experience to sense when something is wrong and enough confidence to trust that judgement.

"Now all I need from you is directions to the cabin and five minutes with the officer who searched it."

Edwards' eyebrows knit together and he drew in a great lungful of air. Before he could launch into the expected diatribe, however, something in Scully's face pulled him up short. Clenching his teeth together until he looked remarkably like an older Skinner with hair and a paunch, he jerked to his feet and stalked across the room.

Flinging open the office door, he stuck his head out and bellowed, "McCullough! Get your tail in here." To Scully and Kristen, he added, "Jim'll answer whatever questions you have. Give you directions to the cabin, too. If you're dead set on driving up there now, I'd plan on spending the night. It's gonna storm and those roads can be treacherous in the dark--even for folks that know what they're doing."

Dignity intact, more or less, the sheriff tipped his chin and exited the office, leaving them to wait for his subordinate in solitude.

Scully sighed and took a sip of coffee. "No one could accuse him of being subtle," she muttered.

Kristen raised her own mug in a mock salute. "I'd heard through the Bureau rumor mill that the X-Files division had a knack for pissing off local law enforcement. It's kind of fun to see you in action."

Scully nearly inhaled her next swallow. Coughing and spluttering, she accepted the napkin from Kristen, glaring as she pressed it to her lips. "That's *Mulder's* MO, not mine. He's the one that can't seem to get along with the other kids in the sandbox."

Kristen's mouth twitched. "Uh-huh."

"It's true!"

"So those stories about you in Bermuda..."

"That was completely different; Mulder's life was at stake. We found him floating facedown in the ocean, for God's sake! If I hadn't pulled rank on that mealy- mouthed police chief..."

"And that bombing in Dallas? Something about you two being in the wrong building, tampering with evidence..."

"That 'wrong' building turned out to be the right building and we saved a lot of lives! Maybe I wasn't exactly patient when we were trying to evacuate, but we didn't exactly have time to go through proper channels and make nice. As for the evidence, we were obligated to find out the truth, even if that meant..." Scully trailed off, chagrined by the amusement in Kristen's eyes and her own lame explanations. "Oh, God. I really have become more like Mulder."

Movement drew her gaze. A uniformed officer stood nervously in the doorway, dark eyes darting to Scully, then Kristen, and back again. He looked to be in his mid twenties, still a little green around the edges.

"I'm Jim McCullough. Sheriff says you ladies want to talk to me?"

Scully and Kristen stood, accepting the proffered hand. McCullough's grip was firm, if slightly moist.

"I'm Agent Scully and this is Agent Harding. My husband and brother-in-law are currently staying in the Preston cabin, and are overdue in contacting us. I understand you're the one who drove up there this morning in order to check on them." Scully moved casually around the desk as she spoke, claiming the sheriff's chair and motioning for McCullough to occupy the one she'd vacated.

"Ah...yes, ma'am. Yes, I did." McCullough perched on the edge of the seat, palms smoothing up and down the material of his neatly pressed slacks.

"Can you tell us what you found?"

McCullough stared at her, slack-jawed for a moment. "Uh...nothing. Didn't the sheriff tell you?"

"I'm aware you were unable to locate Agent Mulder or Detective McKenzie. What I'd like to know, is what you did find."

McCullough's brow furrowed. "Not a thing. Far as I could see, they'd had breakfast and gone out--most likely for a hike. Sheriff said you ladies were worried, but I sure didn't see any reason to be."

Kristen leaned forward, capturing his attention. "Nothing looked...odd? Out of place or disturbed? An overturned chair, maybe, or a broken window? We're not looking for bloodstains or a smoking gun, officer. It could be something as innocuous as a spilled cup of coffee."

McCullough shook his head. "'Fraid not. Only coffee I saw was in a pot--still warm, even. Do you really think if something terrible had happened they'd be taking time to make coffee?"

Scully glanced at Kristen, seeing her own frustration mirrored in pursed lips and rigid spine. She sighed. "Sheriff Edwards said you could give us directions to the cabin."

McCullough bobbed his head. "Be glad to. It's not complicated--there's basically only one way up once you get out of town. Here." He grabbed a small notepad and pen from the desk blotter and began jotting down notes.

Scully glanced at the wall clock, dismayed at the lateness of the hour. By the time she and Kristen reached the cabin the sun would be setting. Too late to do much more than search the interior. Any forays into the surrounding area would have to wait until morning. Her heart sank with the realization that she held no hope of finding Mulder or Grey safely inside.

"Here you go." McCullough handed her simple but specific directions written in neat, block printing. "If that's all, ma'am, I really should be getting back to work."

Scully nodded, eyes scanning the piece of paper without really seeing it. McCullough was halfway out the door when she abruptly lifted her head.

"Officer McCullough?"

He turned, shuffling feet betraying his impatience. "Yes, ma'am?"

"Why were you so certain they'd gone hiking?"

His face screwed up. "Ma'am?"

"Earlier you said Agent Mulder and Detective McKenzie had 'most likely' gone hiking. Was there some reason you believed that to be the case?"

Puzzlement smoothed into indulgence. "Well, of course, I can't say for sure. But being that they were gone so early and didn't answer when I shouted, I just figured it was the logical explanation. 'Specially since it wasn't like they could drive anywhere until they fixed that flat."

Scully's eyebrows soared. "Excuse me? Are you saying they had a flat tire?"

McCullough blinked. "That's right. The one up front, on the right."

"You didn't think that was important enough to mention?" Kristen's voice could have cut glass.

An unperturbed shrug. "It's not like we don't see plenty of 'em around here. All you have to do is hit a sharp rock or slip off the road into a ditch and you can kiss your tire good-bye. I wouldn't worry--those fancy SUVs always have spares." He looked at Scully. "Was there anything else?"

"No, I think you've given us all you're able." Scully's dry tone was lost on McCullough, who seemed grateful to make his exit.

Kristen looked at Scully. "What do you think it means?"

"Maybe nothing." Scully stood and walked around the desk. "Maybe everything, I don't know. What I do know is that it's been 48 hours since they were supposed to call, and it doesn't sound as if they ever made it down here for supplies. Something is wrong, despite that pot of coffee Officer McCullough finds so reassuring."

"I'm beginning to suspect Officer McCullough couldn't find his ass with both hands," Kristen observed.

Scully chuckled, a little amazed she could. It loosened the fist around her heart just a bit. "An apt assessment. What do you say we get up there and see for ourselves?"

Kristen nodded, her face turning grim. "I say the sooner the better."

Continued in Chapter 10