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Blood Ties 11: Evolution (12/17)
Raleigh Community Hospital
She was so small.
Pale as the sheet beneath her cheek, tousled curls spread across the pillow, the hospital bed and machinery dwarfed her already slight frame until she appeared impossibly frail and tiny.
Mulder chewed on his lip, throat tightening as he watched Kira press Claire's limp hand to her cheek, weeping. Peripherally, he was aware of Scully's hushed consultation with the doctor, Grey's agitated pacing, and Kristen's gentle attempts to soothe. But he couldn't seem to tear his gaze from the poignant tableau on the other side of the glass.
Scully's hand at the small of his back startled him from contemplation. He turned to face her, abruptly struck by her shadowed eyes and the lines of weariness around her mouth. He inwardly berated himself for acquiescing to her demand that she drive the final leg of the trip back to Raleigh. They were both skating on the edges of exhaustion, but with her medical expertise, Scully held the crucial role in what lay ahead.
He smoothed a disheveled lock of hair behind her ear. "Let me guess--she's a mirror image of Jessica Chapman."
"Tests are still being run, but, yes, her condition is remarkably similar to that of the Chapman girl. Right down to the mysteriously excised brain tissue. And get this, Mulder. The missing tissue is from the cerebral cortex, near the parietal lobe."
Mulder's eyes narrowed. "Like Jessica."
"The location is practically identical." Scully gazed over his shoulder, then away, swallowing. "Dr. Hsu has graciously offered me the use of a conference room and fax machine. I need to review data on the other children as soon as possible. Perhaps by determining which treatments have failed--"
"What other children?"
Scully looked up sharply, surprised to see Grey standing just behind Mulder, Kristen at his side. His piercing gaze was that of a drowning man.
"I need you two to be straight with me. I can see you know something about what's wrong with Claire."
Mulder and Scully exchanged a long look before Mulder spoke. "Are you certain you want to hear this, Grey? Because you haven't up till now."
Grey huffed, shrugging off Kristen's hand and pacing several steps down the hallway before returning. He ran his fingers through hair that appeared to have received the same treatment many times, and laughed bitterly. "Did I mention that she was found inside a locked house? Lying in her bed, not a single broken seal on the doors and windows, the damn crime scene tape intact? 'Course, you already know the best part. The Houdini who performed that little magic trick also managed to remove part of her brain without leaving a single mark on her."
His voice cracked and he ducked his head, throat working convulsively. Kristen made an abortive motion to touch him before dropping both hands to her sides. When he resumed speaking, Grey's voice was very soft.
"I know how this sounds--even I can recognize the irony. I've been a bastard ever since you got here, when all you've tried to do is help. I've pissed on your theories, Fox, and even now...even now I can't completely accept what you believe. He raised his head and stared into his brother's eyes, tone hardening. "But I'll do anything- -anything--to save that little girl."
Mulder met his gaze without flinching. "So will I, Grey. That's why I'm still here."
"Then tell me. Tell me everything."
With another quick glance at Mulder, Scully launched into a detailed synopsis of their investigation thus far. Grey's face remained impassive until she described Jessica Chapman's return and its outcome.
"Dana, are you trying to tell me there's nothing to be done for Claire? That her brain will eventually just...self-destruct? Because I can't accept that. I won't."
Scully opened her mouth to respond, but Kristen beat her to it. "Slow down, Grey. You know they would never give up without a fight. Dana's saying they've found a pattern. And that studying the pattern, and what happened to those other children, might be the key to saving Claire." She looked from Scully to Mulder. "Am I right?"
Mulder's eyes filled with gratitude as he tapped his nose with his index finger.
Grey's expression softened as he slipped an arm around Kristen's shoulders, but the fingers of his other hand still drummed nervously against his leg.
"If what you say is true, if Claire's condition is identical to that other little girl's, then we don't have time to waste. Mark is with forensics at the house. My parents are downstairs getting coffee and something to eat for Kira. Help me out here, Dana. There must be something I can do."
Mulder's prior concern for Scully's exhaustion was reinforced when she fumbled for a response. He knew for a fact she'd only dozed in the car, and neither of them had consumed more than coffee and a few cookies since lunch the day before.
"There is." He ignored Scully's frown, choosing to focus on his brother instead. "Scully has to be the point person for reviewing the hospital records of the other children. But she's not going to make it through even one chart unless she has a decent meal that consists of something more than sugar and caffeine." He cocked a challenging eyebrow at her when she began to demur. "Shut up, Scully. I've listened to this lecture so often I know it by heart--this time it's my turn. Kristen can help you get set up in the conference room and Grey and I will get us all something to eat." He grimaced. "It's been a long night, and I'm afraid it will be an even longer day before it's over."
Scully folded her arms but her gaze warmed him. "It's good to know you've been listening, Mulder. I must admit, I've had my doubts."
"That's the best you can come up with for me to do?" Grey flashed Scully an apologetic grin. "Don't take that the wrong way, darlin', you know I'm more than willing to help you. I was just hoping for something a little more, I don't know..."
"Manly?" Kristen filled in sweetly.
Grey gave her a wounded look--one Mulder had a sneaking suspicion he himself had used many times.
"C'mon." He tipped his head toward the elevator and started walking down the hallway. "If it helps, I'll let you carry everything."
"Very funny." Grey took a few steps; hesitated. "Aren't you going to ask Dana what she wants?"
Mulder didn't bother turning around. "A cup of yogurt, the closest thing that passes for a bran muffin, and coffee--one cream."
Grey's head swiveled back to consult Scully, who imitated Mulder's earlier gesture with a tap to the nose. He turned to Kristen, who was observing the entire exchange with fascination. She shrugged with a sidewise grin at Scully.
"Make it two, I guess."
By the time Grey caught up, Mulder had pressed the button and was leaning against the wall, waiting. A strained silence descended until the elevator doors rumbled open, discharging Grey's parents and two nurses. Mulder accepted a distracted kiss from Grey's mom and a handshake from his dad, allowing his brother to field their anxious questions about Claire's condition. After a flurry of conversation, they headed for the ICU, and Mulder and Grey boarded the elevator.
Mulder folded his arms and propped himself against the back wall, watching from beneath his lashes as Grey studied the floor indicator. His brother's right foot tapped a staccato beat, his fingers first opening and then closing into fists.
"You have to stop blaming yourself."
Grey peered over his shoulder with a scowl. "Huh?"
"Nothing you could have done would have helped find Claire any sooner, or changed her condition. You haven't failed her, Grey. Or the rest of your family, for that matter."
His brother's eyes were wounded, but he lashed out in anger. "What the hell would you know about it?"
Mulder tilted his head, one corner of his mouth lifting. "Me? I wrote the book."
A soft chime and the doors slid open. He walked past Grey, who seemed stunned into immobility. Thanks to the graveyard shift, the cafeteria was quiet, populated with only a handful of doctors and nurses. Plucking an obnoxiously orange plastic tray from the stack, Mulder slid it along the track, collecting vanilla yogurt, a generic, whole-grain muffin, and an enormous cheese Danish oozing enough fat and cholesterol to put Scully in lecture mode.
"Living on the edge, huh?"
Startled, he looked up to find Grey peering over his shoulder at the pastry in question. Though a part of Mulder appreciated his brother's attempt to reproduce their usual banter, his harsh words in the elevator still stung. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Grey ignored the rebuff. "So much for the lecture on good nutrition. Dana's gonna kick your butt when she sees that invitation to a heart attack on your plate."
Mulder sourly jerked a thumb at Grey's tray, where a bagel rested beside Kristin's muffin, amused in spite of himself. "Coward."
"Let's just say I know what's good for me."
Mulder sighed and placed the Danish back on the shelf. "All right, hand me one of those. But I'm having cream cheese, damn it."
Grey made the switch, expression smug. "Atta boy."
As Mulder started to fill two large styrofoam cups with coffee, Grey cleared his throat. "Fox...about what I said a minute ago. I didn't mean it."
Mulder carefully snapped the first lid into place; reached for a second. "Forget it."
"No, I..." Grey's hand covered the cup, arresting his movement. "If anyone understands, it's you."
The corner of Mulder's mouth turned up. "Scully says we Mulders have a corner on the market for guilt. I've begun to see her point."
Grey dropped his hand and fiddled with his own cups. "Say what you will, but in this case a great deal of it is deserved. I never should have insisted on running this investigation. I've done nothing but spin my wheels." He raised his eyes to Mulder's. "And alienate the people closest to me."
Mulder stared at him for a moment, oddly numb despite the words. Too little, too late. The thought pierced him with a brief pang of regret but he brushed it aside. Things can never be the way they were, but at least we can salvage something.
"You've done what you thought was right, and you've never had anything but Claire's best interests at heart. Let it go, Grey. I have."
Sensing his brother's dissatisfaction with the response, Mulder put an end to the conversation. He transferred Grey's food onto his own tray and carried it over to the cashier, letting Uncle Sam pick up the tab. They walked back toward the elevator without speaking until Grey stopped, eyes narrowed.
"How did you know about Claire's epilepsy, Fox? You promised you'd explain."
"Now? I kind of have my hands full." Mulder indicated the tray he carried.
Grey silently reached over and took it from him, eyebrows raised. "Better?"
"Loads." Mulder tried to gather his thoughts, grateful when the elevator arrived empty. "What do you want to hear--what I think, or what I know?"
Grey eyed him. "How 'bout starting out with what you know? Maybe we can work up to the rest."
"Fine. Jessica Chapman and Claire both suffered from a mild form of epilepsy marked by occasional petit mal seizures. The symptoms were extremely innocuous, just 'phasing out' for short periods of time, a loss of mental acuity. Both girls had outgrown the condition about a year before they were abducted."
"An examination of the girls' MRIs shows that in both cases the excised brain tissue was from the area that had caused the epilepsy."
Grey leaned back against the wall, obviously stunned. "You're sure about that?"
The elevator stopped to admit a doctor and an elderly couple. Grey and Mulder rode the rest of the way to their floor in silence, though Mulder could feel sparks of tension coming off his brother like static electricity. As they debarked, he braced himself for the next round. Grey didn't disappoint.
"I don't know how this nightmare could get any crazier. Tell me the rest. Tell me what you're thinking."
Mulder caught a glimpse of a deserted waiting room from the corner of his eye. Reclaiming the food tray, he strode over and set it down atop a magazine-littered table, then waved Grey toward a chair.
Grey eased himself onto the hard plastic, making a face. "Great. It's that bad, huh?"
Mulder paused in the act of reaching for a chair. "You want to hear this or not? Make up your mind, Grey, because I'm tired of taking your crap."
Grey blinked, disconcerted. "Sorry."
Mulder pulled over the chair, straddling it with his arms resting across the back. Took a deep breath. "I think the medical reports on those other kids are going to show that they were epileptic, too, just like Jessica and Claire, and that they were returned in the same condition. I think that little piece of brain tissue is the common denominator, the key to why these kids were taken. I think that where we see a group of damaged cells, whoever-- whatever--took those kids sees something entirely different, something of great significance." He paused, momentarily forgetting his brother as his thoughts turned inward and he followed his own line of reasoning. "Something that has them fascinated…or maybe just threatened."
When Grey didn't reply, Mulder pulled himself back from contemplation. His brother was staring at him, face pale. Mulder sighed, scrubbing at tired eyes with the heels of his hands.
"You asked for it." Weariness turned his voice to a raspy mutter. "There it is."
Grey leaned forward, elbows propped on knees. "You think the children posed some kind of threat to whoever did this?"
Mulder met his gaze. "I think the brain tissue is important to them. Important enough to outweigh the risk involved in getting it."
Grey buried his face in his hands, shaking his head. A touch of hysteria colored his soft drawl. "Sweet Jesus, this can't be happening. Aliens, spaceships, cosmic brain surgery... It's like some kind of bad joke." He looked up at Mulder with shell- shocked eyes. "But you wanna know the funniest part of all, Fox? You're gonna love this...
"I'm starting to believe you."