Blood Ties 11: Evolution (17/17)
Raleigh Community Hospital
Grey's nose twitched. He sucked in a deep draught of the rich, steamy fragrance, forcing heavy eyelids to cooperate. Bleary eyes focused first on the styrofoam cup suspended just beneath his chin, then on Dana's smiling face. Accepting the cup from her hand, he smothered a yawn before taking a sip. Hot and strong, it chased a few of the cobwebs from his head. A larger swallow and he heaved a contented sigh.
"Darlin', you are a goddess."
She offered him a little smirk and raised her own cup. "Nope. Just a fellow addict." Her gaze cut over to the couch where his brother lay sprawled across the cushions, motionless. "Do I need to check for a pulse?"
Grey chuckled and patted the chair beside him. "Trust me, he's fine. I can see his chest move from here."
"Where's Kristen?" Scully took the proffered seat and nudged the loafers off her feet, wriggling her toes.
"Having some breakfast with my folks. I wasn't hungry."
She cocked one eyebrow, lips tightening. "You're as bad as Mulder. Both of you are going to wind up hypoglycemic before this is over."
"Speaking of which... Did you talk to the doctor?"
Annoyance gave way to a genuine smile. "He's cautiously optimistic. Claire continues to show an increasing amount of brain activity. The EEG indicates something in the neighborhood of four to six cycles per second. If the improvement persists, she should wake soon."
Grey felt a goofy smile take over his face. "Coffee and good news. Definitely a goddess."
Scully held up one hand, obviously struggling to control her own enthusiasm. "There's still the possibility of brain damage. We won't know for sure until she regains consciousness."
"But you don't think so." Grey scrutinized her expression, looking for any sign of apprehension and finding none. "You think she's going to be all right. Don't you?"
"I think Claire's overloaded neurological system came dangerously close to self-destructing. And that the coma is her brain's way of shutting down for repairs."
Grey turned to look at his brother, something like awe creeping into his voice. "He did it again, didn't he?" He shook his head. "Even when the situation looks hopeless, he finds a way. He's a regular Houdini--put him in a locked room and he manages to conjure up the key."
Scully pursed her lips, unable to hide the twinkle in her eyes. "Mulder's methods rarely involve the front door, Grey. A more apt analogy would be to say he crawls out a window." She chuckled. "One that nobody knew existed."
Grey shook his head, one corner of his mouth turning up. "ECT. Nobody but Fox would come up with such a crazy...brilliant idea. We owe him Claire's life."
"I've been in touch with the other hospitals, detailed Claire's treatment and the results. So far it seems to be achieving similar success with the other children."
"That's great, Dana. Really great."
He leaned back in the chair, aware of her sharp, assessing gaze as he continued to drink his coffee. Deliberately ignoring it, he smiled inwardly and waited for her to ask.
"Things have changed between you. Again."
He let the smile seep onto his face. "I hope so. How could you tell?"
"We haven't had much chance to talk, but..." She gestured at Fox's sleeping form. "He's relaxed for the first time in days. It's as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders." She looked at Grey from the corner of her eye. "I didn't think it was simply relief over Claire."
"Upstairs, in the waiting room, we had a talk." Grey set his empty cup beside his chair, wincing. "Well, I did most of the talking, I guess."
Scully's lips thinned. "I'm glad to hear it."
Grey snorted. "Yeah. Amazing how clearly you can see things once you take your head out of your ass." Her chuckle warmed him, giving him the strength to continue. "I'm sorry, Dana. If hard times are a test of character, then I'm afraid I've failed. Miserably. I hope you both will eventually be able to forgive me."
Her small hand pried open his clenched fist and curled around his fingers. "You made a rocky start, Grey. But when push came to shove, I'd say you ended well."
Grey lifted their joined hands, pressing a kiss to her knuckles. "I'd say you're being generous. More than I deserve."
"I'd say you're kissing my wife. Back off, Bubba."
Grey gave Scully's hand a squeeze and released it, watching his brother roll to a sitting position. Clothing disheveled and cheek creased by the couch, Mulder ran his hands through sleep-tousled hair and feigned a scowl.
Grey chuckled. "Better me than you. I've seen road kill in better shape, little brother."
"Looked in a mirror lately? I've got serious competition."
"None of us is exactly fresh," Scully observed dryly. "I'm having a hard time remembering when I last saw a shower."
Mulder stood and stretched, then shifted with a grimace. He pinned Scully with a reproachful pout. "At least one of us had a complete change of clothing in the overnight bag."
"Did I forget something when I packed?" Scully was all wide-eyed innocence. "I'm sorry, Mulder. We were in such a rush..."
Grey's gaze flitted between them, a slow grin taking over his face. "I've warned you about her, Fox. This is a dangerous woman."
"You have no idea."
The patter of running footsteps, and a moment later Kira appeared. Flushed and breathless, her eyes glowed with happiness and tears. "She's awake! I had to step out while the doctor checks her over, but she seems fine, more than fine, she asked where she was and she...she complained that she's hungry..." Kira's gush of words ended in a sob and she threw her arms around Mulder's neck. "Thank you."
Mulder blinked, his arms slowly coming up to return the embrace. "You're welcome."
She pressed a kiss to his cheek and turned, latching onto Grey, who had come to stand beside her. "And you." She lay her cheek against his and murmured into his ear. "You saved me from making a terrible mistake." Stepping back, she grabbed hold of his hand. "C'mon. I know she'd like to see you."
Grey allowed himself to be drawn down the hallway, casting a questioning look over his shoulder.
Mulder waved him on. "Go ahead. We'll go home and get cleaned up, see you back here a little later." He smirked. "Wouldn't want to scare the poor kid."
As they watched them disappear down the hallway, Mulder draped an arm around Scully's shoulders. Sliding her own around his waist, she leaned in to his side. "Everything's going to be all right now."
He kissed the top of her head. "Yeah."
Tilting her chin up, she looked into his eyes. "You did it, Mulder."
He grinned, tightening his embrace. "Nope. We did."
133 Waterbrook Lane
The atmosphere was positively festive. Grey's parents and his sister Shannon regaled Kristen with stories of Grey's childhood exploits while Shannon's husband, Rob, rode herd over their two children, chasing them away from the soda. Scully and Kira sat in the corner with heads together, discussing everything from Claire's recovery to the novels they were reading. Grey and Steve, his condition stable for now, were eating chips and checking basketball scores, coexisting peacefully, for once. And presiding over it all, set up on the couch like a small queen, Claire nibbled pizza and soaked up the attention.
Mulder, ever the willing slave, delivered her third cup of soda, perching on the edge of a cushion when she coaxed him with big brown eyes.
"You feeling all right, slugger? Sure you're not too tired for all this?"
Claire rolled her eyes. "I wish people would stop asking me that. I'm fine, Uncle Fox." She looked up at him, lips parted as if about to speak, then pressed them together.
Mulder nudged her with his shoulder. "What?"
"Funny. Didn't look like nothing." He nudged her again. "Give."
She peered at him from beneath her lashes. "Promise you won't get mad?"
"You gonna call me names?"
"Use four letter words?"
A giggle. "No."
"Then I promise I won't get mad."
She fiddled with her blanket for a moment, picking at a frayed edge. "Did your sister really get taken away by aliens?"
He felt his jaw drop. "I... Where did you hear that?"
"Mommy and Uncle Grey were talking once when they didn't know I was around. Uncle Grey said your little sister disappeared when she was eight, and that you believe aliens took her." She studied his expression carefully. "Do you?"
He kept his reply calm and matter-of-fact, though he had a feeling he knew where Claire was headed. "Yes. Yes, I do."
Her brow furrowed as she considered his answer, teeth gnawing her upper lip. Several minutes passed, and he'd just begun to hope he'd dodged the bullet, when Claire spoke again. "Is that what you think happened to me?"
He choked out a laugh. "You hear an awful lot, don't you?"
Mulder's eyes swept across the room, but no help was forthcoming. All around him people continued to eat, chat, and laugh, completely oblivious to the fact that an eight-year-old girl had just backed him into a corner. He met Claire's gaze squarely.
If she was upset by the confirmation, she didn't show it. "I don't really remember very much."
"What do you remember?"
She squinted a bit, as if trying to decipher a picture in her mind. "Light. A really bright light, except... Instead of being warm, it felt cold." She shivered, her expression too old for her years. "Whoever took me away, I don't think they liked me very much."
Mulder tucked the blanket around her with unsteady hands. A dozen responses flickered through his mind, but he discarded them all. In truth, Claire's observation seemed eerily accurate.
She watched him, face solemn. "You know what's not fair, Uncle Fox?" When he raised his eyebrows, she continued. "They gave me back to my mommy. Why didn't they give your sister back to you?"
The familiar pain pierced his heart, though its edges were blunted by old secrets revealed and new relationships forged. Mulder managed a smile at her childish outrage. "Lots of things aren't fair, sweetheart. But I'm really glad you're here now, and safe. And that you're going to stay that way." He tweaked her nose and was rewarded with another giggle. "I believe that, too."
Claire's cousins, Patrick and Amanda, chose that moment to bound up to the couch. Patrick thrust a box onto Claire's lap while his sister perched on the coffee table.
"Hey, Claire, wanna play Monopoly? You can be the dog."
Amanda, remembering her manners, smiled up at Mulder. "You can play too, Uncle Fox. Patrick called dibs on the race car and I've got the shoe, but you could be the hat."
Mulder grinned. "You know, it's been a long time since I've had an offer that tempting, but I think I'll go have another slice of pizza instead. Maybe I'll catch the next game."
He wandered into the kitchen, grateful for a respite from the commotion of the living room. Bracing his palms on the counter, he stared out the window at the backyard. Moments later arms encircled his waist and something soft and warm draped itself along his back, coaxing a smile onto his lips. Scully.
She pressed a kiss between his shoulder blades. "What's the going rate on thoughts these days?"
He shrugged. "Not sure, but I doubt they're worth the investment."
She moved to his side, peering up at his face. "Mulder, when you leave a party to brood in an empty room, I'm all ears."
"I'm not brooding."
Her raised eyebrow communicated more clearly than words what she thought of his evasion. Mulder chuckled, in spite of himself.
"I'm not, really. I just... I had a talk with Claire a few minutes ago."
He finally turned to face her, lip caught between his teeth. "It reminded me of all the children who didn't make it home. Claire's right--it isn't fair."
"That must have been some talk."
"She's some kid."
"She is. And she's home now, alive and well. As are eleven of the thirteen other children taken when Claire was. They're going to get their driver's licenses, go to the senior prom, fall in love... All because of the work you did--" At his warning look, she amended, "--we did--on this case. Do you hear what I'm telling you, Mulder?"
"That we've ensured years of sleepless nights for their parents? Ow!" He rubbed his ribs where she'd punched him. "All right, all right. I'll stop brooding."
"Thank God for that." Grey stepped into the kitchen, giving Scully a wink. He jabbed a finger at his brother. "Only you could get morose in the middle of a party."
Mulder folded his arms, feigning an air of injury. "You know, I don't have to stand here and take this. I was invited to join a very high stakes game of Monopoly. They're even saving the hat for me."
Grey chuckled. "I wouldn't if I were you. I've played with that crowd and they're a ruthless bunch. Plus, Patrick cheats."
Scully chuffed. "Sounds like a near miss, Mulder."
Grey sobered, studying their faces. "You know, we don't have to stay. You two look tired, and you've got an early flight."
A silent consultation with Scully, and Mulder shook his head. "We'll hang around a bit longer. After all, I still haven't heard half those stories your folks are telling Kristen."
Scully kissed Mulder's cheek and pulled away. "I told Kira I'd bring her something to drink. Are you two coming?"
Grey glanced at his brother. "We'll be there in a minute." Once she'd left the room, he cleared his throat, eyes dropping to the tile. "Fox, I... I wanted to talk to you before you left."
"Okay." Mulder frowned at his brother's obvious discomfort. "Grey?"
Grey looked up. "I just need to know... Are things okay between us?"
Mulder considered carefully before replying. "Yeah. Yeah, they are."
Grey's whole body relaxed. "I'm glad."
Mulder grinned. "You know, I'd almost forgotten what it was like to fight with a sibling." He ran his hand along the yellowed bruise on his jaw and cocked an eyebrow. "I can live without it."
Grey was oblivious to his attempted humor. "Me too." He sighed. "This is important to me, Fox. I spent a lot of years wondering what it would be like to have you in my life. I don't want to mess it up."
"You haven't." Mulder shook his head. "Maybe even the opposite."
Grey's face twisted in confusion. "Come again?"
"Look, the last three days have been hell. There've been times I thought we should just pack it in, call it quits. But I think we both learned something about each other, Grey. And that maybe we've come through this better. Stronger." A pause. "You might even say we evolved." He chuckled softly at his own joke.
Grey eyed him warily. "Why do I get the feeling I don't know what the hell you're talking about?" He held up both hands. "Never mind. I don't want to know." He tipped a thumb toward the living room. "What do you say we check out that Monopoly game? See if we can catch Patrick cheating?"
Mulder pushed himself off the counter, grinning. "I'd say that's the second best offer I've had all evening." He stretched out his arm with a flourish. "After you, Bubba."
AUTHOR'S NOTES: It's hard to believe I've completed the eleventh installment in this series. A huge thank you once again goes to everyone who has encouraged me along the way. It's been such a pleasure to receive your feedback and hear your thoughts. And, of course, many, many thanks to my wonderful betas: Deb, Vickie, Suzanne, and Michelle. You gals make me work for every chapter, and the story is better for it.