TITLE: Blood Ties III: A Nice Trip to the Forest
ARCHIVE: MTA, Xemplary, Gossamer - others are fine, just let me know
SPOILERS: Mild through season 6
CLASSIFICATION: X, A
KEYWORDS: AU, MSR, M/S/Sk friendship
SUMMARY: Something is causing an epidemic of missing persons in the Smoky Mountains. When his good friend attempts to investigate and subsequently disappears, Grey enlists Mulder and Scully's help to search for him. What they find is an X-File.
DISCLAIMER: Mulder, Scully, and Skinner belong to Chris Carter and 1013 productions and though I'd love to own them, I'm content to borrow them now and then. Grey McKenzie is from my own fertile imagination.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Thanks to all of you out there who have adopted Grey into the "X-Files Family." This is dedicated to Laurie, who said, "Next I want you to try an X-File," and Donna, who never lets me get away with less than my best. You guys are terrific.
FEEDBACK: It's what keeps me going. I'd love to hear from you!
Blood Ties III: A Nice Trip to the Forest
Nantahala National Forest
The man sighed contentedly and shifted his back against the log, settling into a more comfortable position. He gazed into the flickering gold of the flames for several moments, feeling their warmth bathe his face even as the chill air nipped at the back of his neck. He turned up the collar on his jacket and resumed shaping the piece of wood in his fingers with a sharp knife, content to allow all thoughts to slip away in deference to the task at hand.
He was a complex man -- an individual of many talents and interests. The soul of an artist dwelt easily alongside the mind of a scientist and the heart of a naturalist. Elements of all three had drawn him into the forest tonight, but for now he chose to indulge the first and the wood transformed willingly under his attention.
The sharp crack of a stick somewhere deep in the darkness broke the silence, startling him so that the knife skittered across the carving's surface to sink deeply into his palm. Cursing under his breath at both the pain and the sudden gush of blood, the man crossed to where his pack lay at the edge of the small clearing and rummaged through it. By the time he'd located the small first aid kit both his shirt and the ground beneath him were liberally soaked with crimson.
He crouched beside his pack, carefully wrapping gauze around the gash, when he heard more rustling and snapping of twigs, this time very close. Frozen, he listened closely to the sound of stealthy movements that originated just beyond the ring of firelight. The low growl that followed caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up. With a mixture of chagrin and fear he realized that his rifle remained propped against the old log with the knife on the ground beside it, dropped in his haste to staunch the blood flow from his injured hand.
The man stood slowly, intending to inch his way back toward the discarded weapons, but the low growl abruptly switched to a loud snarl and two red eyes appeared, floating in the blackness. The orbs boldly met his own with sharp intelligence, and the man felt oddly compelled to take a few tentative steps into the darkness rather than the direction planned. A sense of peace eliminated his apprehension and he was mesmerized, sinking into those eyes like pools of soothing water. The snarl changed once more, becoming a low crooning that urged him closer and assured him he had nothing to fear.
The sharp sting of the needle-like claws that punctured his
skin felt far away, as if it were happening to someone else, and
he could only smile drowsily at the incredible sense of euphoria
that washed over him. When a set of razor sharp teeth fastened to
his neck, he made no attempt to resist.
Bruce Willis exploded in a flash of brilliant white light and Scully snorted, rolling her eyes. Mulder lifted one brow and looked at her from the corner of his eye.
"Yeah, Scully? You've got something to share with the class?"
"This is so completely ridiculous, Mulder! Talk about a contrived plot! It is virtually impossible for so many things to go wrong all at once."
His shoulder already touching hers as they sat on his couch, Mulder leaned in even closer so that his lips nearly brushed her ear. "Scully, it's a movie not one of my theories. You don't have to point out all the inconsistencies," he said sotto voice.
Scully barely masked an involuntary shiver by reaching up to tuck a strand of hair behind the ear that still tingled from her partner's warm breath. "Well I can certainly see why they call it science *fiction*. Next time *I* pick the movie, Mulder."
The ringing of the phone aborted any reply he might have mustered. Shifting the nearly empty bowl of popcorn to Scully's lap, Mulder hauled himself to his feet and moved over to plop down on the desk chair as he scooped up the receiver.
Scully watched as his face lit up with pleasure. "Hey! I was going to call you this weekend. How 'bout that game last night? You owe me ten bucks."
Scully stood and motioned to her partner as she carried the bowl into the kitchen, a smile spreading over her own face. There was no doubt as to whom was on the other end of the conversation. Mulder didn't respond like that to just anyone. As she rinsed the bowl and slipped it into the dishwasher Scully thought about Grey, and the subtle but profound changes she'd observed in Mulder over the past several months.
In the six years she'd known him, an aura of loneliness had always encompassed Fox Mulder. Much as it saddened her, Scully had come to accept it as an inseparable part of the man. She knew her mother sensed it. Margaret Scully had done everything to include Mulder in the family short of adopting him. He'd accepted her mothering with gratitude and good humor, but the void remained -- until Grey.
>From a rocky and uncertain beginning had sprung a steadily deepening bond, strengthened by Mulder's brush with death at the hands of Sara Ross and cemented during Grey's weekend visit nearly a month later. She'd turned to Grey for help when Mulder's nightmares had spiraled out of control, never expecting the results. Not only had her partner's dreams receded to a more manageable level, he'd bared his soul to her one night not long after, confirming for the first time what she'd secretly suspected -- a history of childhood abuse that still haunted him.
Now, Mulder's loneliness was replaced by a kind of peaceful contentment. He was still a man with more than his share of demons and a penchant for guilt, but both were tempered by his newfound happiness. Grey might not fill the hole Samantha had left in his life, but he considerably reduced its size.
"I'd pay at least a dollar for those thoughts."
Scully jumped, startled from her reverie by Mulder's amused voice. He was leaning in the kitchen doorway, lips slightly curved and eyes soft. She flushed, aware that she'd been woolgathering and he'd caught her red handed.
"I was thinking about Grey, actually," she admitted, drying her hands on a towel before turning to face him. She was momentarily surprised to see that his eyes had narrowed with irritation and his arms were folded defensively across his chest. Realizing how her words had sounded, she grinned. "I mean about your relationship with him," she amended. "I'm just so happy for you, Mulder."
The annoyance left his features and he strolled over to where she stood before sliding up on the counter. She couldn't help smiling. He looked like a little boy with his long legs dangling like that, yet they still nearly touched the floor. He took in her smirk and patted the space beside him.
"Hop on up, Shorty -- if those little legs can propel you this far."
Scully resisted the undignified impulse to stick her tongue out, settling for The Look instead. She could see from his face that Grey's call had been more than just the routine hello he'd anticipated, so she scooted up beside him and waited expectantly.
"Grey says hello," he began, swinging his legs slightly so that the heels of his bare feet drummed softly on the cabinets. "He always asks about you when he calls, you know. I still think it's remotely plausible he finds you hot, Scully." He gazed at her from beneath dark lashes and Scully's lips quirked in a small smile.
"How is he doing?"
"He's good -- well, that's not completely true. His call wasn't just a chance for us to shoot the breeze, Scully." Mulder paused and chewed on his lip for a moment before proceeding. "He's worried. I could tell that much even though he's trying to hide it. He called to ask for our help."
A line appeared between Scully's blue eyes. It was her "get to the point, Mulder" expression. "With what? Another serial murder?"
His face betrayed nothing, but she felt his slight flinch at her words. "No, God no," he said hastily. "Something more in line with our unique expertise, much as I know it was killing him to suggest it. He's gotten himself involved in what could actually be an X-File."
Scully's eyebrows climbed up her forehead until they disappeared beneath her auburn hair and she dipped her head in surprise. "You're kidding."
Mulder smirked and raised his right hand in a parody of the
Boy Scout salute. "Honest. He's faxing the case information
to our office so I can submit a 302 to Skinner tomorrow
morning." He sobered. "But even if Skinner won't
approve this I'm going, Scully. I'll take vacation time if
I have to."
Scully studied his face. "Sounds serious."
"It is to Grey. It seems that there has been an increase in the number of disappearances in the Nantahala National Forest. That's..."
"Part of the Great Smoky Mountains," Scully finished. "I'm familiar with the area. I've even been hiking there once or twice."
"Then you probably know that a certain number of disappearances each year is not unusual. People decide they're going to try roughing it and get in over their heads. They lose their way, succumb to the elements -- even black bear attacks are not unheard of. But according to Grey, that number has risen sharply over the last six months."
"Over two hundred percent."
Scully was silent for a moment, then frowned. "Okay, I can see there might be a problem. But what makes you think it's an X-File? And how did Grey become involved at all? Nantahala is a far cry from a Raleigh homicide cop's jurisdiction."
Mulder sighed and ran one hand through his hair. "The X-File is that they recently found someone who'd been missing for over a week. A man by the name of Nilesh Patel, discovered unconscious on one of the small back roads that wind through the mountains in that area. He exhibited signs of exposure, which was to be expected since the nights had been routinely dipping down into the thirties, but his other symptoms were...unusual."
"Such as the fact that that his blood contained a substance not unlike a mixture of alcohol and any of several morphine-based narcotics -- what they were able to test, that is. His blood volume had been reduced by over forty percent and he'd gone into hypovolemic shock by the time he was found."
She could see there was more. He was like a little kid telling his first joke, eagerly awaiting her response so he could deliver the punchline. She sighed in resignation. "Go on, Mulder. Don't keep me in suspense."
He grinned, and it was more than worth her irritation at being strung along. "There were no large wounds, Scully. No major trauma of any kind. Just a set of four small puncture wounds over his jugular."
Scully pursed her lips, conscious of her partner's nearly gleeful gaze as she digested the information. "Maybe those punctures were the source of the blood loss. We could be talking about just another serial killer, Mulder."
"I considered that possibility, and so did Grey. But, and correct me if I'm wrong, that kind of procedure would require some sophisticated equipment under sanitary conditions." At Scully's nod he plunged on. "From Patel's appearance, he never left the forest. His clothes were nothing but tattered rags and he'd obviously been exposed to the elements since several of his toes were frostbitten."
"Has he been able to tell the police anything about what happened to him?"
Mulder shook his head. "According to Grey, he remembers nothing about where he spent those missing days, and what he does remember is largely hallucinogenic in nature. Not surprising when you consider the chemicals in his bloodstream."
"Maybe those chemicals were self-ingested," Scully ventured, gazing at the wall while her mind worked furiously at an explanation. "Maybe he was out there getting stoned and..."
"He's a Muslim, Scully, and a devout one -- no alcohol and no drugs. And he was out there camping with his wife. She hasn't been found."
Scully massaged her right temple in a vain effort to short circuit the headache she could feel building there. "So what are you trying to say, Mulder? You obviously have begun formulating a theory for all of this. What is it? Vampires? Werewolves?"
To her surprise he reached out to place his hands on her shoulders, turning her slightly until her back was to him. When he had her positioned to his satisfaction he began running his thumbs in gentle but firm circles over her shoulders and neck. She'd tensed momentarily at his touch but quickly gave herself over to his ministrations as the tight muscles relaxed.
"Vampires don't drug their victims, Scully," he chided gently as if she'd disregarded common knowledge. "And werewolves only operate under a full moon. I'm not sure what's taken up residence in the Nantahala Forest, but I can almost guarantee it isn't a serial killer."
Scully had dropped her head to allow Mulder better access to a particularly strained muscle in her neck when she remembered something. "That explains why you think this may be an X-File, Mulder. But you haven't accounted for Grey's involvement. Why is he so interested in this case?"
She heard her partner sigh heavily, and turned back to examine his face. He was chewing on his lip again, expression troubled.
"He has a good friend by the name of Steve Northrop who's a ranger for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Evidently Steve heard about the disappearances and after talking to Patel decided to make his own little expedition into the area."
Scully closed her eyes and slowly shook her head. "And he hasn't been heard from since."
"That was two weeks ago," Mulder said gravely. "Steve's family called Grey nearly frantic with worry and begged him to look into it. Grey's pretty torn up about the whole thing. He and Steve grew up together."
"Which explains why you're willing to take vacation time, if necessary," Scully concluded.
Mulder's eyes were the muted gray she'd grown to associate with his empathy for another's pain. "I owe him that much, Scully. He was there for me when I needed him."
"*WE* owe him, Mulder. I haven't forgotten, believe me."
Mulder's smile at her determination turned into an impish grin as he slid off the counter to stand in front of her. "So what do you say, partner? How about a nice trip to the forest?"
The images that phrase conjured up caused Scully to groan as
she too slipped down from her perch. "You pack the bug
spray, Mulder," she said dryly. "I'll bring my Three
Dog Night repertoire."
Office of A.D. Skinner
Mulder shifted slightly in his chair, determined not to fidget. To his left, Scully was the picture of professionalism -- calm, composed, and infinitely patient as Skinner read through each page of Grey's fax with maddening attention to detail. Mulder caught his fingers just as they began to drum on the arm of the chair and quickly folded his hands in his lap. A feather-light touch on his arm brought his eyes up to meet Scully's.
*Relax*. Her gaze said clearly.
Finally Skinner set the last page aside and sighed, removing his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose, then replacing them. His eyes skimmed briefly over Scully, but came to rest on Mulder.
"Frankly, Agent Mulder, I think you're reaching with this one. Other than the garbled testimony of one man and some odd medical data, there's nothing here that tells me this is an X-File. As you pointed out, disappearances in this area are not unusual."
"But the increase in missing persons..."
"I agree the increase warrants attention, I'm just not convinced the bureau should be involved. At this point I find the matter would be better relegated to the park service."
"What exactly are you saying, sir? What's the bottom line?" Mulder said, an edge of insolence to his voice.
Skinner's irritation was betrayed only by the clench of his jaw and the slight twitch of a facial muscle -- his voice remained low and even. "The bottom line is that I'll need more before I can sign off on the 302. I don't know who your source is, but he'll have to do a better job of proving a paranormal slant."
Mulder bit his lip, staring at a point just above Skinner's right shoulder. "Then I'd like to officially put in for a vacation, beginning today," he said tersely. "I'll pursue this on my own time."
Skinner frowned, studying his agent's stony face before giving a small shake of his head. "Mulder, I..."
"The last time I checked, vacation time was my own business, sir. Do you have a problem with that?"
Scully's hand was back on his arm, this time giving it a gentle squeeze. "Mulder. Take it easy."
Skinner's brown eyes moved from Mulder to his partner and back again. He rose from his chair and moved deliberately around to lean against the front of his desk, never breaking contact with Mulder's defiant gaze.
"I'm not speaking as A.D. on this side of the desk,
Mulder. I'm speaking as a friend." His voice was
surprisingly gentle and patient, all traces of his former
annoyance gone. "I promise to shelve the bureaucratic red
tape if you'll drop that problem child attitude and tell me
what's really going on here. What's so damn urgent about this
case that you hauled me in on a Saturday morning and are willing
to use your own time if necessary?"
Mulder's reticence was broken by the recollection of Skinner's unflagging support after the death of his mother -- breaking the news with sensitivity and compassion, flying up for the memorial service, and even pitching in to help sort through her things. Skinner had more than proved his friendship, and he deserved to know the whole truth.
"Consider it dropped," he said aloud, his voice soft with contrition. "You're right, there is more to this case. That information came from Grey, and one of his friends is among the missing. He's already promised the family he'll investigate the disappearance, and he's asked for our help."
Despite the sympathy in his expression, Skinner once again shook his head. "It's a bad idea, Mulder. Grey's link to a possible victim could compromise his judgement and objectivity. There's a reason why doctors don't operate on family members, and a cop is no different."
Mulder dry washed his face with his hands before clasping them together beneath his chin. "I told him as much last night, sir. He wouldn't listen. He can be completely pigheaded once he's decided on a course of action."
"A family trait," Scully muttered under her breath.
Mulder flashed her a glare of vexation but Skinner's mouth quirked in amusement. "So I've gathered."
He stood and moved back around the large desk to sink into his chair. Without further comment he picked up his pen and signed the bottom of the form that lay on the blotter, shifting it to the stack of faxed sheets. Mulder's face, rather than smug, appeared relieved.
"Thank you, sir."
"Don't thank me, Mulder. I signed off because you're a good agent and I'm willing to trust your judgement on this one. Don't disappoint me. And don't let that brother of yours lose perspective."
He waited until both his agents had left the office before slumping back in his chair, rubbing his brow in a vain effort to quell the Mulder-headache he could already feel building. The irony of the situation hadn't escaped him, and he chuckled ruefully.
*I've just sent one Mulder to rein in another* he thought.
*God help us all.*
Raleigh-Durham International Airport
It was obvious that Grey was on edge. He shared perfunctory hugs when they stepped off the plane, but to Scully it was clear he was struggling to maintain a façade of normalcy. The restless, unsettled demeanor contrasted sharply with his normally calm and easygoing temperament, and only increased his resemblance to Mulder. She watched him pacing nervously while they waited for their luggage, hands shoved into jacket pockets in an effort to control them. From the corner of her eye Scully saw Mulder watching, his forehead creased with undisguised concern. She wasn't the only one to observe the change.
She nearly missed their bags, snatching them from the carousel at the last moment. Grey seemed to relax a bit once they were in the car and headed for his home in Eagle Rock. Scully had willingly relinquished the front seat to Mulder, both in deference to his long legs and his gift for lending a sympathetic ear. Grey certainly appeared to be a man who needed to talk.
"Tell me more about Steve," her partner said quietly after they had driven in silence for several minutes. "You grew up together?"
Grey's hands tightened on the steering wheel but his voice remained even. "Yeah. We were neighbors when I was in elementary school, and our families stayed in touch even after the Northrops moved to another town about an hour away. He was..." Grey faltered, then continued, "*is* an unusual guy, I've never met anyone else quite like him. He just seems to be good at whatever he does -- and he's done a lot. He's an incredibly gifted artist, a brilliant scientist, and women were always falling all over themselves to be with him. To top it off, he's such a nice person, you can't even hate him for being so perfect."
"You said his family called you. He's married?"
Grey nodded sharply. "A wife and two little girls, ages one and three," he said gruffly.
Scully watched Mulder stare out the window for several minutes. When his eyes sought out his brother once more he licked his lips nervously. "Does he have a good marriage?"
Grey's eyes narrowed and his knuckles turned white. "What the hell kind of question is that? Yes, he has a good marriage, but I don't see how..."
He trailed off, pulling abruptly to the side of the road and slamming on the breaks. He shifted in his seat to face Mulder, wearing an expression of barely contained fury. "What are you saying -- that he ran out on his wife and kids? That telling Jackie he was going to check out the situation in Nantahala was just a cover story? Were you listening to anything I just said? Steve would never do something like that -- *never*! How dare you even suggest it! If this is the kind of help I can expect from you, Fox, maybe you'd better just turn around and go back to D.C. right now."
Grey flung open the door and stalked into the field that bordered the road. He stopped after about a hundred feet and stood staring into the distance, his back deliberately to the car and its occupants. Mulder sighed and shut his eyes, sliding down until his head barely cleared the seatback.
"So much for my ability to provide brotherly support," he muttered.
Scully leaned between the two seats to squeeze his shoulder. "It's not your fault, Mulder."
He cracked one eye open and squinted at her. "How do you figure? He was already a distressed over his friend's disappearance and I just questioned Steve's moral character. I waved the proverbial red flag in front of the bull, Scully."
"You asked a question that needed to be asked. One that no self-respecting investigator would have missed," Scully replied firmly. "If Grey wasn't so personally invested in this case he would have recognized that. Skinner was right, Mulder. He's too close to this and we'd better watch him carefully or there could be a major screw-up."
Mulder moaned and buried his face in his hands. "I hate it when Skinner's right."
Scully couldn't suppress her smile at that. "Go on, Mulder. Go talk to him. You know what it's like to fly off the handle and say something you don't mean. You've certainly done it often enough."
Mulder gave her a reproachful pout, but he straightened in his seat and got out of the car. He walked slowly to where Grey stood, deliberately insuring that his brother would hear his approach.
"Don't say anything," Grey said, still gazing at the horizon. "I'm sorry I blew up like that. I know you were only doing your job -- the job *I* asked you to do."
"Yeah, well I've never been known for my tact," Mulder admitted, keeping his own gaze on the rolling field.
Grey's mouth twitched and he finally turned his head. "Naaaah! Really?"
They stood in companionable silence for a while before Grey spoke again. "I know you had to ask, Fox. But you also have to believe me when I say that I *know* this man. If he didn't come back to his family, it's because he couldn't. And I can't tell you how much that scares me."
Mulder gave his brother's shoulder a gentle squeeze, unconsciously mimicking Scully's gesture in the car. "I can't promise everything will be all right, Grey. But I'll do everything in my power to help you find him."
Grey scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve and rallied a small
smile. "I couldn't ask for more than that, Fox.
St. Alexius Hospital
"I've told this story over and over again. Why does everyone keep asking the same questions?"
Nilesh Patel's skin was sallow, his voice thin and listless. His black eyes wandered to the window, as though neither Mulder nor Grey inspired sufficient interest to hold them.
"We understand you must be tired of this, Mr. Patel," Mulder said, trying to placate the man. "But reading someone else's report just isn't the same as hearing it from your lips. We may be able to pick up on something the others have missed."
A flash of pain crossed Patel's face and he closed his eyes. "We hiked in about seven miles and made camp. I remember sitting around the campfire with Jayshree. The next thing I know I'm in a hospital and they tell me that Jay cannot be found. End of story."
Mulder ground his teeth in frustration at the man's flippancy. "With all due respect, sir, the chances of finding your wife are slim if you won't at least try to help us."
Passivity vanishing, Patel fixed Mulder with a sharp stare. "What's your interest in this anyway, Agent Mulder? Why are an FBI agent from Washington and a Raleigh cop concerning themselves with the disappearance of my wife?"
"Because I've lost someone too," Grey said quietly before his brother could reply.
Mulder saw the slight flinch, but Grey met the man's eyes and shook his head. "A very good friend. We grew up together. He went to Nantahala hoping to learn the cause of the disappearances."
Patel's harsh expression softened, his brow smoothing. "I'm sorry." He sighed deeply. "Go ahead. Ask your questions."
Grey and Mulder darted questioning looks at each other before Mulder finally spoke up. "What do you last remember about that campfire? Think about the sounds, the smells, any of your sensory perceptions."
Patel seemed to sink more deeply into the pillows that propped him up and let his eyes slip shut. "I remember the smoky smell from the fire, the chill of the air and the warmth of Jay's body at my side. I remember the ache in my leg. I fell on some rocks earlier and gave myself a pretty nasty gash."
"What about sounds? Do you remember anything out of the ordinary?"
"No, just your normal woodland sounds -- an owl, some rustling in the undergrowth..."
His voice trailed off and his forehead wrinkled. He opened his eyes but they were unfocused as he searched his memories carefully. "I do remember something. A...a low growling. But it wasn't like the growl of any wild animal I'd ever heard. It was..."
"It was what?" Grey prodded, his fingers tightening on the bedrail.
"It wasn't threatening. It was a kind of keening that was more...soothing than frightening." Patel's voice had taken on a dreamy, singsong quality and Grey glanced at Mulder, raising his eyebrows.
"Did you look for the source of the sound?" Mulder asked, his voice very quiet and unobtrusive. "Could you have seen anything?"
"Eyes," the man said, still in that oddly disconnected voice. "Red eyes. They were beautiful. So warm and deep."
When Patel didn't continue, Mulder pressed, "And what happened then?"
Like a switch had been thrown, Patel's eyes snapped into focus and he stiffened. "I already told you. I don't remember anything after that until I woke up here. Now are you about finished? I'm tired."
Grey took in Mulder's slight nod before replying. "Yes, we're finished, Mr. Patel. Thank you for answering our questions. You've been very helpful."
Patel's face showed his doubt but he didn't refute Grey's words. "Find them, Detective McKenzie -- Jay and your friend. No one deserves to just disappear and be forgotten."
Grey's lips tightened but his voice was steady. "We'll do our best, sir."
Out in the hallway Grey paused, stopping Mulder with a hand pressed to his chest. "How did you do that? That guy has been questioned at least five times and no one has ever managed to get that bit of information from him."
Mulder shrugged and ducked his head, embarrassed by the awe in his brother's voice. "It's no big deal. I've just found that having a person concentrate on sensory perceptions, rather than a narrative of events can uncover subliminal memories."
Grey would not be put off. "Scully said you were very good at this. She was right."
Mulder shuffled his feet. "I think I saw a drinking fountain in the lounge. I'll be right back," he said, abruptly heading down the hallway.
Grey watched him go, baffled. He was still staring down the corridor when the sharp click of heels on linoleum alerted him to Scully's return from the lab where she'd been reviewing Patel's blood work-up.
"Where's Mulder?" she asked, her brow scrunching.
"He said he needed a drink of water," Grey answered. He studied Scully's face. "He's not very good at accepting a compliment, is he?"
Her puzzlement was immediately replaced by understanding. "No," she agreed thoughtfully. "No, he isn't. I don't think he had much experience with them when he was growing up."
There was no need to verbalize the implications of her statement. Grey pursed his lips in annoyance, then smiled at her. "Then I guess it's up to us to see that he does now."
Scully laid her hand on his arm and gave it a gentle squeeze, flooded with both gratitude and a sense of relief. It was nice to know she was no longer alone in the role of supporting her partner. She thought again how lucky Mulder was to have this man for his brother.
Mulder reappeared at that moment, eyes narrowing and the corners of his mouth dipping a little at the sight of Scully with her hand on Grey's arm and a warm smile on her lips. Scully removed her hand rather hastily and stepped back. Grey just smirked a little at Mulder's raised hackles.
*My, my, little brother,* he thought in amusement. *You're awfully possessive over someone who's just your best friend. We definitely need to work on this.*
"What did you find, Scully?" Mulder asked, deliberately insinuating himself between his brother and his partner.
"Something I didn't expect. Come on, let's go to the lounge where we can talk."
Curiosity piqued, they followed her to the empty waiting area where she began spreading out photocopies of lab data. Mulder and Grey peered over her shoulder at the documents until finally Grey stole a quick look at his brother and shrugged.
"Sorry, Dana. That might as well be Russian for all I can understand it."
Scully pointed to the first sheet of paper that held a variety of chemical symbols and numbers. "This is the analysis of the blood sample. Nothing new here, just the presence of the unidentified compound. The composition is such that it would roughly mimic the effects of someone under the influence of alcohol and a heavy narcotic. Wherever Mr. Patel was during those eight days, he was feeling no pain."
"I think something more was going on, Scully," Mulder mused, still staring at the columns of numbers. "Whatever is causing the disappearances must use a combination of chemical and psychological factors to subdue its victims. Mr. Patel showed all the signs of someone who's been hypnotized."
Scully cocked an eyebrow at that, but Grey vehemently shook his head. "He's right. You should have seen the man -- he zoned out right in front of us." He briefly recounted their conversation with Nilesh Patel and his odd behavior.
Mulder watched his partner's face while Grey talked, observing the variety of emotions that flitted rapidly across her features. Skepticism melded into surprise and then a carefully repressed excitement.
"What is it, Scully?" he asked when Grey had finished. "You look like you know something we don't."
By way of answering, Scully pointed to another of the data sheets spread over the table. "This is an analysis of the area of skin surrounding the puncture marks on Patel's throat. It reveals necrosis -- that's death of the tissue, as well as some microbial contamination. I thought some of the bacteria present were a little odd so I ran a few of my own tests on the sample. It revealed some small organic molecules, electrolytes, and a high concentration of proteins -- Amylase, Lipase, and Cystatins just to name a few."
"English, Scully," Mulder prodded gently, relishing her enthusiasm.
"Put them all together and they point to one thing, Mulder. Saliva." She watched their faces, enjoying the contrast. Grey simply gaped at her while Mulder's eyes sparkled with glee.
"Scully, are you saying those punctures could be BITES?"
Scully's lips twitched a little at his poorly concealed delight. A Mulder hot on the trail of an X-File was a happy Mulder. She only hoped he'd remember that one of them had a very personal connection to this particular case. As if sensing her thoughts, Mulder's gaze shifted to Grey and he sobered.
"From examining the photos taken I would have to say they certainly exhibit the characteristics of bite marks. The flesh is slightly jagged and torn around the edges, rather than smooth as you might expect with a puncture from an object."
Scully sucked her lower lip into her mouth, hesitating. "I'm not an expert," she finally said. "But I don't think so. My guess is that it's from some sort of animal."
"If it's an animal, it's nothing anyone's ever seen before," Mulder mused.
Grey's gaze darted back and forth between them as they spoke, his eyes still wide with shock and his mouth open. "This is getting way too weird. You're telling me there's some kind of animal roaming the Nantahala forest that drugs and hypnotizes people before drinking their blood?"
"Actually, I think that the hypnosis occurs first. That way it can get close enough to deliver the bite or scratch that delivers the sedative," Mulder replied, barely acknowledging his brother's stunned expression.
"How can you two just calmly sit here and discuss this like you're discussing the weather?" Grey demanded indignantly.
Mulder looked at him a little blankly, but Scully understood. "It's what we do, Grey -- what we've been doing for over six years now. I guess it's inevitable that we just don't get as shocked by the bizarre anymore. I'm sorry if that bothers you."
"I know, I know -- flukemen," Grey muttered, then sighed. "Okay, I can deal with this. Let's just get moving before it gets too late and we have to wait another night."
The little frown line that signaled Scully's disapproval appeared between her blue eyes. "I'm still not so sure this is a good idea. Grey's friend went looking for this thing and now we're looking for him. Maybe we should see if we can get some of the local cops to come with us."
"We have more information than Steve did, and more training," Mulder argued. "Take too many people in there and this thing will only keep its distance."
"He's right," Grey said. "The fact that it appears to be an animal means it is likely to operate like one. A predator attacks the weak, not the strong."
Scully slumped back in her seat and moaned. "I give up. It was bad enough when just Mulder was trying to convince me of some hare-brained scheme. Now I'm getting it from both of you!"
"Hare-brained? Scully, you wound me," Mulder said reproachfully.
"You? What about me? She's just put me in the same category as a guy who chases aliens for a living!" Grey observed indignantly.
"And your point would be...?"
Scully clapped her hands over her ears. "Enough! I give up. Just let me run these copies back to medical records and we can go."
She scooped the papers off the table and stalked off down the hallway muttering something under her breath about heredity in general and Mulder males specifically. Mulder and Grey exchanged a long look before Mulder held up his hand for a high five.
"Where were you when I needed you the last six years?" he asked, grinning. "I might have won a lot more arguments like that one."
"What did you do in the past when she didn't back down?" Grey asked, frowning a little.
Mulder shrugged, looking sheepish. "I used to ditch her and go anyway. I've been trying to reform."
Grey raised both eyebrows. "You *ditched* her? You're either a lot braver or a lot stupider than I thought, little brother. From what I've seen of that redhead you were taking your life in your hands."
Mulder smiled, his expression softening into what Grey had
come to recognize as his "Scully face." "You've
got that right. And I've got the scars to prove it. Remind me and
I'll tell you all about it sometime."
Nantahala National Forest
"How's the hand?"
Mulder shifted his pack slightly and looked at her ruefully. "It just throbs a little. It's not a big deal, Scully."
She knew he was embarrassed, but didn't back down. "Mulder if we'd been anywhere else I would have made you go in for a couple of stitches. Once we've made camp for the night I want to examine the wound again and rewrap it. I don't want it to get infected."
"Yes, Mom," he muttered, picking a little at the white gauze that ran between his thumb and fingers to encircle his palm.
"And don't mess with my bandage, you'll get dirt in there," Scully couldn't refrain from adding.
Grey, who had been hiking about ten feet in front of them, paused and turned back with a smirk on his face. "Don't feel bad, Fox. All manly men get injured now and then. It's a hazard of the job. That jack could be a deadly weapon, after all."
"In Mulder's hands, anyway," Scully said, her lips twitching in amusement.
"Ha, ha, ha. I'm glad you two are getting such a big kick out of this," Mulder grumbled. "It's not my fault that lug nut was jammed like that. Next time, Scully can help change the tire. She's a liberated woman."
"I just hope the car will be all right where we left it," Grey said, frowning a little. "I didn't like leaving it beside the road."
"It was either that or wait until tomorrow to start hiking," Scully pointed out, ever the voice of reason.
"She's right. By the time we'd have gotten that fixed it would have been too close to nightfall," Mulder agreed. "And I know you didn't want to wait another day."
Scully allowed her eyes to roam their surroundings as she walked, drinking in the colors, sounds, and smells. The late spring air was warm enough to prohibit the need for a jacket, yet still cool enough for comfort. Dense green foliage was broken only by splashes of yellow, purple, red and blue from spring wildflowers. And here and there, she caught glimpses of the dense, low-lying mist that helped give the Smoky Mountains their name.
Grey pulled off his baseball cap and ran his fingers through hair made wavier than normal from the humidity. He cursed softly and replaced the cap, backwards. "Stupid hair. Weather like this just makes it curl."
Mulder looked at the dark wisps of hair at the nape of his brother's neck, his expression turning soft. "You have her hair," he said quietly.
Grey looked at him intently, hearing something very important beneath the words. "What?"
"Samantha. She had hair like yours. In the summer when we'd be out playing and would get hot and sweaty the little pieces around her face would get really curly. She hated that."
Hearing the underlying sadness in his brother's voice, Grey hesitated a moment before pressing onward. "What was she like?"
A smile, both wistful and affectionate graced Mulder's face. "Tough. Stubborn. A real tomboy. She was determined to do anything I did, and do it better if possible. Since I was four years older that left her frustrated a good deal of the time. She could be a royal pain in the ass." He chuckled softly. "But she was always there for me. When Dad used to..." He caught himself, his eyes skittering away from their twin looks of sympathy. "Dad was always harder on me. Samantha used to stick up for me, defend me when he got angry. It usually worked. She could wrap anyone around her little finger."
"She was a buffer against his temper," Grey murmured. "No wonder things got so bad after she was taken."
Mulder stiffened and his expression turned from open to guarded. "I've told you, Grey. He only hit me twice, and both times he was really drunk. Don't start with that abused child crap."
Grey seemed about to argue, but only shrugged and quickened his pace until he was once again in the lead. A touch on his palm startled him, and Mulder looked down to see Scully's small hand slip into his. When he raised his eyes to hers he saw none of the pity he feared, only compassion and acceptance.
"You don't need to admit it to anyone else, Mulder," she said, her voice pitched for his ears only. "But you should admit it to yourself. You've spent too many years making excuses for your father's actions. You deserve so much better."
Tears pricked his eyes and forced him to look away from her steady gaze, but he tightened his fingers around hers. A hundred different responses danced on the tip of his tongue, longing to be heard, but in the end he just kept walking. The one concession he made was to keep her hand engulfed by his own.
"There's one thing that I don't understand about this," Grey said after they'd been hiking in silence for a while, casting a quick glance over his shoulder at them. If he noticed the linked hands, he refrained from comment.
"Just one?" Scully replied, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. "You're doing pretty well for a novice, Grey. On my first X-File I was baffled by just about everything."
Mulder grinned down at her, finally dropping her hand as they scrambled over a large tree that had fallen across the trail. "Baffled, Scully? The way *I* remember it, you had all the answers."
She flashed him the Scully Death Stare, but remained silent as Grey continued.
"Well, one major thing anyway," he qualified, grinning a little at their banter. "Where did this thing come from? I've done a pretty thorough search and this is the only area to exhibit a dramatic increase in missing persons. I didn't see any evidence that would indicate it migrated here from somewhere else. And if it's been here all along, why did the rise in disappearances just begin?"
"What you're talking about is a mystery that's surrounded all the creatures from folklore -- Bigfoot, Nessie, and the yeti just to name a few, creatures that would have had to endure and elude man for centuries just to have survived," Mulder said, sliding into what Scully labeled his "lecture mode." "That might seem logical enough, but it would mean there would have to be more than one so that reproduction would allow for the species to continue for so long. The problem is, all those creatures have only been seen one at a time rather than in groups -- at least as most stories go. And where's a nest or cave dwelling? With all the researchers tracking such creatures you'd think we'd have more evidence by now. There's a theory about that, though."
Mulder pulled himself from his musings to see that Grey had dropped back to join them and was listening with rapt attention. Scully, of course, was wearing the face she always put on when he postulated the existence of such creatures. It was her "Come on, Mulder, there's a scientific explanation for that nonsense" face. It provoked a strange dichotomy within him. Part of him cherished it, recognizing that it was responsible for grounding him, keeping him focused. And then there was the part that wearied of her unflagging skepticism even when the truth was practically jumping up and down in front of her. That part just felt pissed off. You could measure the status of their partnership by which held sway over the other. Today he just acknowledged her disbelief with a small smile.
"Go on," Grey urged impatiently. "I'm all ears. What's the theory?"
"That they are somehow stepping, swimming, or being pulled through a dimensional rift --a gateway through time."
Grey stopped dead in his tracks and stared incredulously at his brother, hands on hips and panting slightly from the exertion of their climb. "Say that again?"
"You heard me," Mulder replied calmly. "And don't roll your eyes, Scully. Such a thing has been correlated to incidents where people, actual human beings, suddenly appeared in the middle of cities unsure of how they'd gotten there, completely out of their time and out of their element."
"So what you're saying, Mulder, is that you think this creature may have traveled here from another time?" Scully asked. When he nodded, she slowly shook her head. "And just how did this doorway between times open?"
Mulder shrugged. "I'm not saying I have all the answers, Scully. Some people have theorized that it could be an untapped power of the mind -- found even in lower animals -- that allows it to happen. Whatever the cause, it would certainly explain the sudden onset of the disappearances."
"So the creature would have traveled through time only to find it could no longer access its natural food source," Grey reflected. At Mulder's look of sheer delight, he groaned and clapped both hands to the sides of his head. "What am I saying? Next thing you know I'll be looking for little green men!"
"Gray," Scully and Mulder corrected simultaneously.
He raised his hands and looked skyward in a "why me?" gesture before spinning and continuing down the trail. "We need to make camp soon. Better get a move on if you don't want to be wandering around after dark with a time-traveling, blood-sucking whatever-it-is on the prowl."
Mulder shifted his pack again and fell back into step behind
his brother. "Smart ass," he muttered under his breath.
Scully hid the smirk on her face and followed.
Nantahala National Forest
10: 15 p.m.
"Tell me about your family, Grey," Scully said as she carefully unwound the gauze from Mulder's injured hand. "I know you have two sisters but not much else. What are their names?"
Grey leaned back on his elbows and contemplated the fire for a moment before answering. "Shannon and Kira. Shannon is barely a year younger than I am, and Kira is Fox's age."
"What do they do? Do they have families of their own? Sorry, Mulder, I'm trying to be as gentle as I can," she interjected when her partner hissed in pain.
The gash in Mulder's palm had continued to bleed enough that the gauze was now sticking stubbornly to it. She finally managed to ease it free, unfortunately causing it to bleed again in the process. Mulder, reclining against his pack, deliberately refrained from looking at the hand cradled in her lap.
"Shannon is a microbiologist for a pharmaceutical company. Kira's a teacher -- second graders."
"Ow! Scully what are you doing? Feels like you're peeling another layer of skin off!" Mulder whined, jerking his hand out of his partner's grasp.
"Stop being such a big baby and give me back that hand, Mulder, or I really *will* hurt you," Scully said threateningly.
Mulder pouted, putting on his kicked puppy face, but hastily extended his palm to her. "I'm only putting up with this because you're armed," he grumbled.
"And dangerous. But you already know that." Scully returned her gaze to the wound, but not before Mulder caught the twinkle in her eye.
Grey looked on with great amusement. "Why do I sense there's a story there somewhere?"
Mulder glanced at Scully, a wicked look appearing on his face when she pointedly didn't answer. "Never underestimate Scully, Grey. I learned that the hard way. She shot me -- right in the shoulder. I still have the scar."
She dropped his hand and glared at him, outrage warring with mirth on her face. "You'd better explain that or I'll make it a matching set!"
Grey was laughing, now, eyes darting between them in an effort to take it all in. "Come on, Fox. Give. I just don't see Dana as the deranged shooter type."
"Someone was deranged all right, it just wasn't me," she growled, picking up Mulder's hand and spreading some antibiotic cream over the gash. "Tell him, Mulder. And you'd better be sure to get it right."
Wincing a little as she began wrapping gauze around his palm, Mulder held up his other hand in surrender. The laughter in his eyes faded. "It was actually right after Dad was murdered. The people responsible for his death had also drugged my water supply with a hallucinogen. I guess the plan was to make it look like I killed him. It wouldn't have been too far a stretch -- the fact that we didn't exactly get along was common knowledge."
"Anyway, I'd cornered the real murderer with his own gun and was ready to kill him. Scully tried to reason with me, to remind me that if I shot Krychek with that gun it could only implicate me in my father's murder. But I was out of my head by that time, unable to think straight. So she shot me."
Scully surrendered his hand and looked up, guilt in her blue eyes. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, Mulder. It still haunts me sometimes -- the look on your face just before you passed out, so certain I'd betrayed you."
Mulder leaned over to nudge her with his shoulder. "You saved me, Scully. And left me with a lasting souvenir of our partnership. It's definitely more manly than a tattoo."
Grey shook his head in amazement. "She shot you? And you still ditch her? I've made up my mind, Fox. That's not bravery, that's stupidity!"
Scully chuckled softly, then yawned. "I'm beat. We should decide who takes the first watch so that the rest can get some sleep."
"I will," Mulder spoke up quickly. "I can't sleep this early anyway. You two get some rest."
"I'll relieve you at one," Grey volunteered. "Then Dana can take over around four."
Within a half-hour Grey and Scully were both sleeping soundly, leaving Mulder to the crackling of the flames and his own thoughts. Once resurrected, memories of the dark time surrounding the deaths of his father and Melissa were hard to put to rest. He still dreamed those final moments of his father's life, played out at the house in the Vinyard. The pleasant shock of an embrace -- Bill Mulder was a man who shook hands, never the kind to pull his son into a hug -- words spoken in praise and not disappointment or anger, another first. It was ironic and cruel that he'd been given such gifts only to have the hope of more snatched from his grasp.
And Scully -- he counted her loss as double his own. Her relationship with Melissa had been warm and loving, something he could hardly claim about his father. Now he'd gained a brother, but what about Scully? She'd paid dearly for his quest, yet received nothing in return. Grey could keep prodding him to confess his feelings to Scully, but he knew he never would. She had nothing to gain from a relationship with him, and everything to lose.
A branch snapped somewhere deep in the undergrowth, pulling Mulder out of his reverie. He sat up from his sprawl against his pack, all senses attuned to the surroundings. First to seize his attention was the absence of the typical night sounds of the forest. There was no chirping of crickets, no rustlings from small animals scavenging for food. And the cicadas had stopped buzzing. The woods had fallen strangely silent.
He listened, every muscle in his body wired for action. When several minutes passed without further incident he gradually allowed himself to relax, though he continued to scan the perimeter for anything out of the ordinary. He'd just decided the silence was a fluke and was about to lean back when a low growl shattered the stillness. Mulder leaned quickly forward, one hand reaching out to touch Grey's shoulder where it peeked out of the sleeping bag. Three inches from his target, Mulder froze.
The snarl had changed, modulated into something scarcely resembling the utterance of a wild animal. It was a melodic hum that rose and fell, beckoning, cajoling. His gaze darted almost involuntarily in the direction from which it originated, his mouth dropping open in surprise at the sight of two gleaming red orbs that pierced the darkness.
His hand made a single, impotent twitch before falling heavily to his side and his expression turned oddly slack as the animation drained from his features. The gentle crooning filled his ears, driving all fear from his mind. The eyes were perhaps the most beautiful he'd ever seen, overflowing with an ageless wisdom that drew him deeper and deeper until he lost himself in their depths. They told him exactly what he needed to do, and he was only too willing to comply.
Rising quietly to his feet, he left the circle of golden light
from the fire and moved into the darkness. Oblivious, Scully and
Grey slept on.
Nantahala National Forest
She never could say exactly what prompted her to wake up. Later, when events had played themselves out and she had time for reflection, Scully attempted to discern just what yanked her from a deep sleep to total consciousness with the force of a slap. Her scientist's mind could evoke no logical explanation. Which left the slightly preposterous, definitely embarrassing, but probably accurate answer. Something tripped her Mulder Panic Button -- the small, insistent voice in her head that warned her every time he was in danger.
Scully woke sitting bolt upright in her sleeping bag, eyes roaming the camp while her hand slipped unerringly around her gun. She suffered none of the typical side effects of waking abruptly -- her thoughts were clear and her senses sharply attuned for any indication of trouble. Grey was sleeping soundly a few feet away, and the night was still save for the soft crackling and popping of the fire. Her gaze tracked past the flames and she stiffened, unwilling to accept the empty space beside Mulder's backpack. Her partner was nowhere in sight.
"Grey, wake up! Trouble," she hissed, on her feet and over to the pack before the words had left her lips.
Grey was at her side just seconds later, his own weapon ready. "Where's Fox?"
"Gone. I don't know where or how long." Scully's words were clipped, both to economize on speech and to hide the tremor lurking just beneath the surface.
"Hang on a moment." He moved quickly to his own pack and returned with a large halogen flashlight that he methodically panned across the ground.
Scully watched him a moment before kneeling down and placing her left hand on the slippery nylon. "It's still warm. He's only been gone for a few minutes."
Grey cursed softly. "I don't see any tracks -- other than our own, anyway. How can that be?"
Scully frowned. "Bring that over here and see if you can find Mulder's footprints. The ground is pretty soft and we might just be able to follow his movements."
Grey complied, his own brow furrowed with confusion. "Why would he..." He suddenly stopped speaking and Scully looked up questioningly.
The hand gripping the flashlight dropped uselessly to Grey's side and he raised horrified eyes to hers. "How could we be so *stupid*? We just assumed this thing came into Patel's camp and took him. What if it didn't need to? Fox said Patel had been exposed to some form of hypnosis. What if this creature doesn't hunt in the classic sense? What if it uses some kind of mind control to *call* the victim to itself?"
Scully stared at him for only a moment before her mouth flattened into a grim line of determination. "Then we don't have much time. Find Mulder's tracks. *Now*."
After several frustrating attempts Grey locked onto the correct set of footprints and traced them until they disappeared into the trees. He pulled up suddenly so that Scully, hot on his heels, nearly collided with him.
"Why are you stopping?"
"I just want you to understand that it's risky to follow the trail off the path like this. Putting aside the fact that we have no idea where this thing is right now, if we're not very careful we could blunder right off the side of a cliff in the dark," he warned.
Scully saw that his disclaimer was for her own benefit. Grey's body fairly twitched with the need to keep moving. The Mulder warning voice in her own head had risen from a murmur to a shriek, and she set her jaw stubbornly.
"If you can risk it, then so can I. Cut the chivalrous bullshit and stop wasting time," she growled.
Grey's mouth dropped open but he recovered enough to press a compass into her hand. "Keep track of the direction or we'll still be wandering these woods long after Fox's little gray men have come and gone." He walked slowly into the trees, the flashlight carefully sweeping the ground. Tightening fingers around her weapon, Scully shadowed him.
Whether by divine intervention or just plain luck, the terrain was level and the groundcover a mixture of plants that had flattened with Mulder's passage and not yet sprung back. Darkness quickly swallowed both the cheery glow from the fire and Scully's forced bravado. She couldn't help feeling that invisible eyes categorized her every move, and each soft rustle of leaves or snap of a twig stretched her nerves closer to the breaking point.
Grey moved quickly and quietly, following the meager trail with uncanny precision. Scully realized for the first time that he was good at this -- good enough that he'd probably had some formal survival training. Making a mental note to ask him about it later, she gratefully followed his lead.
This time when he pulled up short she was watching. He trained the light on a large area of trampled foliage, kneeling down for a closer look. As Scully crouched beside him her eye lit on a leaf mottled with several dark spots. Catching her lip between her teeth she gingerly swiped the surface with her index finger. From the corner of his eye, Grey caught the motion and turned the light in her direction. The sudden illumination transformed the substance that stuck to her finger from black to crimson.
"Whatever it is took him down here," Grey said sotto voice. "There's clear indication in the tracks that it's dragging him from this point."
Scully opened her mouth to reply but a low moan interrupted her. She and Grey sprang to their feet as the sound of something crashing through the undergrowth erupted to their left. Throwing their previous caution to the wind, both began running in the direction of the noise. Tree branches snagged Scully's hair and roots clutched at her ankles but she plowed on. Grey's longer legs covered twice as much ground, but he checked his speed so that she would not be left stumbling in darkness.
She was concentrating so hard on not tripping that the gunshot nearly caused her heart to burst from her chest. The inhuman howl that followed made her entire body break out in gooseflesh and sent a shiver scampering up her spine. Grey fired a second time, then put on a quick burst of speed that finally did leave Scully alone in near total darkness. Before she could call out in protest, she saw the bobbling of his flashlight stop.
"Dana, over here!" he called, swinging the light back and forth to signal his location.
A small tree branch nearly sent Scully sprawling but she persisted, swearing softly but moving as rapidly as possible. When finally close enough to see that Grey was cradling Mulder's limp form in his arms, she let out a breath of air she hadn't even realized she'd been holding.
"He's out cold," Grey said worriedly as she kneeled down. "And his skin feels kind of cool."
"He's in shock. There's no telling how much blood he's lost," Scully murmured, tipping Mulder's head back gently to expose his throat.
Grey winced at the two ragged wounds, still bleeding slightly. He watched as Scully laid two fingers against the pulse point, then appropriated the flashlight and peeled back an eyelid. Even he could see that Mulder's pupils were abnormally dilated.
"He's been drugged -- pretty heavily by the looks of it," she observed. Casting an uneasy glance over her shoulder she stood. "His pulse is a little weak and thready but I think we'd better get him back to camp before I check him further. We're too vulnerable here, and there's no telling if it will come back."
"I think I shot it," Grey said, swallowing hard. "Dana, I...I caught a glimpse of it before it ran off. It looked a little like a wolf, definitely canine in nature. But it was huge -- easily the size of a small pony."
"All the more reason to get out of here right now," Scully replied, forcing down the fear that his words inspired. "A wounded animal is twice as deadly. Can you carry him?"
"I can if I put him in a fireman's carry. Will that hurt him?"
Scully shrugged. "I don't see that we have much choice. At least he won't feel it."
They slowly retraced their steps to the camp, this time with Scully leading the way and Grey following, his brother slung over his shoulder like a rag doll. She could hear him panting and muttering that Mulder was a lot heavier than he looked. The return trip felt much longer, and though she had used the compass diligently, Scully nearly sobbed with relief when the dim light from the embers of their fire spilled through the trees.
Grey lowered Mulder onto his sleeping bag and slipped a rolled towel beneath his head while Scully rummaged through her pack. She removed a small, zippered bag from which she extracted a stethoscope and a penlight. Grey's mouth dropped open and his eyebrows shot up his forehead.
"You always carry that with you when you go camping? Most people settle for a few Band-Aids and some Bactine."
Scully rolled her eyes, slipping the prongs into her ears. "Not if I was with my family. But this is Mulder we're talking about. He's not exactly the picture of a rugged outdoorsman. And he has a penchant for getting hurt."
"Based on what you've told me about your past 'adventures,' I'd say that's true enough," Grey admitted, watching as she opened Mulder's jacket and laid the end of the stethoscope on his chest. "What *is* it with him, anyway? From the little I've heard about your past cases, he seems to get injured a lot."
Scully didn't answer as she pressed the instrument to various spots, frowning slightly in concentration. "Help me sit him up, I need to reach his back."
Grey obediently hauled his brother up and cradled him against his shoulder as Scully repeated the process across his back. She removed the stethoscope and draped it around her neck, nodding to Grey that he could put Mulder down. Once he was settled, she used the penlight to check both pupils, then ran her hands over Mulder's entire body from head to toe, feeling for broken bones or other injuries.
"He's got a pretty good bump on the head, probably from being dragged through the woods. I'm sure there are bruises, too, but I think its more important to keep him covered and warm right now than to check. I doubt the bump is severe enough for a concussion, but his eyes are so dilated from the narcotic in his system that I can't be sure. I'll know more when he wakes up." The dispassionate doctor's assessment was betrayed only by the emotion in her eyes when she looked down at her partner.
"You didn't answer my question," Grey prodded as she began to clean and bandage the puncture wounds.
Scully sighed heavily and looked up into his intense gaze. That look threw her for a moment, so like Mulder on the scent of the truth. "No. I guess I didn't. What are you *really* asking me, Grey?"
Grey's gaze wandered to his brother, then jumped back to Scully. "I suppose I want to know if he's reckless. If there's a reason, other than the nature of your work, that he winds up in the hospital so often. If there's a problem I should know about."
Scully applied the last piece of tape and brushed Mulder's hair back from his pale brow. "It is the nature of our work, Grey. What we've seen, well..." she chuckled softly and her hand made a sweeping motion to encompass the woods around them. Understanding, Grey grinned ruefully.
Scully's hint of a smile faded. "But you're right, it's more than that. Mulder has a passion for the truth, for finding the answers. At times that passion exists at the exclusion of all else. I can say without any doubt in my mind that he would never put me or anyone else in jeopardy. Unfortunately, that care doesn't always extend to himself. You and I both know that your father left Mulder with a very limited sense of self-worth."
Grey's face darkened. "He wasn't *my* father, Dana. I only wish Fox had been as lucky."
As if on cue, Mulder made small sound in his throat and moved his head. His eyes fluttered several moments before finally opening. When he saw Scully a large, goofy grin spread over his features. "Hey, Scully. Are you dead too?"
It was the last thing she'd expected, and Scully couldn't stop the huge grin that spread across her face. At her side, Grey openly snickered.
"You aren't dead, Mulder. You're safe now," she assured him.
Mulder struggled to sit up, but his movements were clumsy and uncoordinated. "Nope. Can't fool me," he slurred. "I saw that thing that bit me. Biiiig sharp teeth. No way I could be feelin' this good right now 'less I'm dead."
Scully pushed him gently back down with a well-placed hand to the middle of his chest, still grinning in spite of her efforts to look serious. "Lay down, Mulder. You only feel good because you're completely stoned. Trust me, when it wears off you'll wish you *had* died."
Mulder licked his lips. "'M thirsty. Got any water 'round here? My Scully always gets me water when I wake up."
Scully cast Grey a longsuffering look, but her lips quirked with repressed laughter. She'd seen Mulder on painkillers so heavy that he'd made little sense, but never flying high like this. She had to admit he was adorable. "Watch him. I'll get him a drink."
She stood up and moved over to find the canteen and a cup. Mulder's eyes tracked her movements for only a moment before flitting around the camp and then landing on Grey. He smiled delightedly. "Hey, Grey! You're here, too?"
Grey schooled his features to a serious expression. "Last time I checked."
"Good. Then maybe you can tell me who tha' was tha' jus' left to gimme a drink," Mulder said cupping one hand around his mouth as if to muffle his words. He obviously didn't realize that he'd spoken in a normal tone of voice easily heard by Scully.
Grey looked baffled. "That's Scully, Fox. You know, your partner and best friend?"
To his amusement Mulder shook his head vehemently, laying a finger over his lips and beckoning furiously for him to bend closer. "Tha's not *my* Scully. Scully doesn't ever smile real big like that. Scully smiles little tiny smiles or she rolls her eyes an' bites her lip like this (he performed an exaggerated demonstration that nearly sent Grey into hysterics) so I won't see her smile. Scully only smiled really big like that when I almost died in Alaska. Tha's how I know I mus' be dead right now or she wouldn't look like that. Tha's the game we play, see? I say things to make her laugh an' she acts like they aren't funny. If she smiles that little tiny smile then I win."
"Well, if that's not Scully, who is it?" Grey asked, playing along.
Scully returned with the water and slipped one hand under Mulder's head for support, holding the cup with the other. "Stop it," she admonished Grey sternly, but her eyes twinkled.
Mulder finished drinking and let his head drop back to gaze dreamily up at her. "Don't know. She's jus' as beautiful as my Scully, though. And that's saying somethin'." His head lolled to the side so that he could see Grey. "Did you ever notice how beautiful my Scully is? You must've. I've seen how you smile at her. Makes me crazy."
The hand with the cup froze in mid-air and Scully's cheeks flushed pink. Grey, wickedly thinking to himself that this opportunity was way too good to pass up, pasted an innocent look on his face.
"Sure, I've noticed. I just didn't realize *you* had."
"Grey!" The twinkle was gone from Scully's eyes and they now looked as though they might melt steel.
"Oh, I notice all right," Mulder babbled on, oblivious. "How could I work with her for six years an' not notice? I knew she was beautiful waaaay 'fore I knew I loved her." He stopped abruptly and clapped one hand over his mouth, eyes darting nervously around the camp before returning to Grey. "Oops. Good thing she's not here. I can't ever let my Scully know *that*."
Scully had gone very still at her partner's words, eyes glistening and all traces of her anger evaporated. She slowly set the cup down on the ground and pressed the knuckles of one hand to her lips, staring into his face. Mulder smiled dopily back at her. To Grey's astonishment, this time Scully encouraged Mulder's rambling.
"Why not, Mulder? Why can't you tell Scully?" she asked.
Mulder's expression turned mournful. The swift and drastic change in emotion would almost have been comical under different circumstances. As it was, his sadness tore at Scully's heart. Mulder normally guarded his feelings, revealing only what he thought fit for public consumption. As his best friend she'd had a few rare glimpses into his complicated psyche, but he'd never been so openly exposed and vulnerable.
"Tried to tell her -- twice. First time the damn bee got in the way an' the second time she jus' rolled her eyes 'cause she thought I was hallu...hallcin...drugged." He scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "'S for the best. Even if she loved me back -- an' I don't see why she would -- she deserves better 'n me. All the bad things in her life've come from me. Her brother was right -- 'm one sorry sonuvabitch."
Scully tore her eyes away from Mulder's to stare into the velvet blackness beyond the fire, blinking rapidly. Mulder yawned hugely and his eyes lost focus as the lids drooped. Unwilling to let him quit on that note, Grey leaned closer and brushed the backs of his fingers across his brother's cheek. His gesture had the desired effect and Mulder's eyes popped back open, though they remained glassy.
"What *would* you tell Scully if you could, Fox?" he coaxed.
Scully's gaze darted to Grey's face and her brow contracted but she didn't speak. Mulder's mood executed another 180-degree turn at breakneck speed and the goofy grin was back.
"That she's my soul," he murmured. "That I'm a better person 'cause of her. Some mornings seein' her face's the only thing that gets me out of bed, an' makin' her smile's the only truth I need. I dunno where I end an' she begins anymore, an' I don't want to. She's *everything* to me."
A tear slipped down Scully's cheek, but she smiled and leaned over to plant a kiss on his forehead. "Go to sleep now, Mulder," she whispered. "Your Scully will be here when you wake up."
His eyes, already at half-mast, drifted shut. Scully watched him for a moment, trying to inject some order into the chaos of her thoughts. Grey reached over to tuck the sleeping bag more tightly around his brother's shoulders, drawing her attention outward once more.
"I feel like we just took advantage of him," she said, her voice equal parts irritation, guilt, and tenderness. "He never would have said those things if he'd been straight."
Grey nodded slowly. "You're right. But I'm glad that he did. Dana, I've never seen two people more suited to be together yet determined to stay apart. I only had Kate five years, but they were the best five years of my life. I've said it to Fox, and now I'm saying it to you, don't waste a minute. Life is too precious, and too fragile."
He stood and stretched, groaning in satisfaction when his back made a cracking sound. "Now, I think I'll get down off my soap box and get some rest -- that is, unless you'd like me to take the next watch? I really don't think that thing will be back tonight, and if we don't get some sleep we'll be in bad shape."
Scully shook her head, lips curved. "I couldn't sleep yet. I want to keep an eye on Mulder for a while. Besides, I've been given a lot to think about."
Grey grinned. "It's about time, darlin'," he said
with a pronounced drawl. "It's about time."
Nantahala National Forest
Someone was playing a drum solo in his head, his body felt like he'd gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, and his mouth tasted like the inside of a running shoe. But far worse than these physical torments was a hazy memory of spilling his guts in a lovesick confession to Scully. In front of Grey. Mulder moaned and tried to bury his face in the sleeping bag.
Just a hint of amusement colored her voice, moderated by a liberal amount of compassion. Mulder warily cracked open one eye, hissing when a shaft of sunlight turned the drum solo into a percussion ensemble. He pushed himself upright with rubbery arms and for a moment bright spots danced across his vision and his stomach rolled over. Then a soft hand cupped his neck and something solid was slipped behind his back, supporting him. With a small grunt of gratitude he accepted the steaming cup and two Tylenol that were placed into his hands.
"Take it slow," Scully advised, letting her hand linger a moment before sitting back to regard him intently. "You lost an undetermined amount of blood last night so you're going to feel pretty weak. Coffee isn't exactly the best thing for you right now, but I don't have a lot to work with."
When she mentioned losing blood Mulder's empty hand had flown to his throat. Now he fingered the bandage as he took a long sip of the hot liquid.
"So it really did happen," he murmured, his voice sounding raspy and thin. "It all seems like a really weird dream. I've got the mother of all hangovers." His eyes connected with Scully's only briefly before shying away to take in the camp. "Where's Grey?"
Scully chose to ignore his obvious unease -- at least for the moment. "Retracing the tracks to where we found you last night. He's convinced he shot the creature and he's searching to see if it left a trail of blood."
Mulder frowned, putting down the cup and massaging his temples. "You let him go out there *by himself*? What if..."
Scully's lips pressed tightly together and her brow furrowed. "LET? You're kidding, right? The only way I could have stopped him was to use my gun and I think that takes the concept of 'keeping it in the family' a little too far. He's just as hardheaded as *you,* Mulder. He's convinced the creature only hunts at night and at least he took his gun."
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry," Mulder said, raising his hands palm out. "I didn't mean to snap like that. My head hurts and I feel lousy. I'm sorry for taking it out on you."
Scully watched as he managed to deliver his apology without ever looking at her. She closed her eyes for a moment and sighed inwardly. *You can't pretend it didn't happen and hope I'll forget, Mulder. Not this time.*
"You're feeling the effects of more than just the blood loss," she said aloud. "That thing had you heavily drugged, Mulder. When you're that high, crashing is inevitable but never pleasant."
Mulder swallowed hard, his fingers playing restlessly with the zipper on his sleeping bag. Scully knew he remembered his drunken declaration and was terrified by it. The rules of the complicated game they'd been playing for the last six years dictated that she should ignore the tension that thrummed between them, pretending nothing had happened. There were plenty of precedents for this approach, the most recent involving an aborted kiss in the hallway outside his apartment. She'd played by the rules that time, never mentioning the near miss or the feelings behind it. She'd ignored the fact that the man had gone to the ends of the earth for her, disregarding his own injury until he'd eventually collapsed. They were partners, after all, and partners did that sort of thing for one another. It came with the territory. Yeah, right.
Well, frankly, she'd tired of the game. In the wee hours of the morning, gazing at his sleeping face bathed in the glow of the fire, she'd come to a decision. Come hell or high water, the Consortium or little gray men, this time she wasn't backing down. He'd confessed his feelings for her, albeit with some unforeseen assistance. Now, it was her turn to come clean.
She cleared her throat. "Mulder. About last night..."
The look on his face was priceless. She'd watched him face down vampires and sea monsters and never look that petrified.
"I know, Scully, and I'm sorry. I was so stoned I didn't know where I was or what I was saying. Let's just pretend it never happened, okay?" The words tumbled from his lips like rocks rolling downhill, faster and faster until they hit a pleading note at the end. His one attempt to meet her eyes failed miserably and he wound up staring at her feet instead.
Scully, who had been lounging against a stump until this point, leaned forward and slid her hand over his own, stilling its endless toying with the zipper. For just an instant she reexamined her decision and contemplated letting him off the hook. But the memory of his face as he admitted his feelings flashed before her eyes, strengthening her resolve.
"Are you trying to tell me you didn't mean what you said, Mulder?" she asked quietly, allowing just the barest trace of hurt to enter her voice. "Are you saying it wasn't true?"
Her normally suave, oh-so-self-assured partner actually stammered.
"No! I mean, not exactly. What I said was true, I just... Sculleee!"
She looked at him, cheeks flushed and chewing nervously at that bottom lip, and decided it was time to put him out of his misery. At least, she hoped that's the effect she'd achieve.
"You're everything to me, too, Mulder."
His eyes, which had been studying a small rock with the intensity of a seasoned geologist, flew up to lock onto her own for the first time all morning. She met them calmly, willingly opening herself to him and revealing all the emotions she'd carefully kept hidden. Mulder's widened in shock as realization set in, then flooded with tears. He ducked his head in a futile attempt to conceal them.
"You started as a stranger, Mulder. Someone I'd only heard about from others who didn't really know you either. That night in your motel room you shared your quest with me and became my partner. When they tried to split us up I realized you were my friend -- my best friend. Now I can't imagine my life without you in it. You think you've brought me only pain, but you're wrong. You've taught me, challenged me, and never let me fall. You haven't been just my partner or my friend for a long time now, and I'm tired of pretending otherwise. I love you, Mulder."
Mulder swiped at his damp eyes with his sleeve before looking up to reveal a face that somehow managed to blend joy with sorrow. He threaded her fingers with his own and pressed them to his lips.
"I love you too, Scully. More than I would ever have thought possible. I just don't think I'm good for you."
Scully smiled -- the kind of smile Mulder seemed to think was reserved for near-death experiences. "I'm a big girl, Mulder. I think I can decide that for myself."
"Our enemies are going to be there whether we take this step or not. They've never hesitated to use us against each other in the past. This won't change anything. I'm tired of fighting the future, Mulder. I want something *now,* something of our own that they have no part in." Her voice trembled with the strength of her longing, eyes glistening.
His reply was little more than a whisper. "I want it, too."
Her hand moved up to cup his cheek, thumb stroking the rough stubble. He responded by bracketing her face between his palms, drawing closer until she could feel the feather soft caress of his breath on her lips. She let her eyes slip shut, anticipating his kiss, but he abruptly froze and pulled back slightly. Her eyes popped open, brow contracting in irritation when she saw his eyes scanning their campsite and the surrounding forest.
"Mulder!" she said sharply. "What are you doing?"
"Any beehives around here?" he asked, one eyebrow cocked and mischief in his gaze.
His mouth descended on hers while she was still growling his name. Shy and somewhat tentative, it was a simple brush of his lips across her own before he drew back and regarded her solemnly. She licked her lips and felt a shiver of delight when his eyes darkened and his breathing quickened. Grinning impishly, she slipped her hand from his cheek to the back of his neck and pulled him forward until their lips met again.
There was nothing tentative this time around. His hands came up to tangle in her hair and when he deepened the kiss she scooted closer until she was practically sitting in his lap, their bodies pressed closely together. His lips were soft and warm and when she nibbled gently on the bottom one she felt his smile. The woods, the creature, even time itself ceased to exist as they relearned each other in this new way.
"Thank you, Jesus! They've finally seen the light."
Grey's voice hit them like an electric charge, Scully nearly biting Mulder's tongue from the shock. They sprang apart almost guiltily, blushing and panting slightly. Grey was standing at the edge of the clearing, arms lifted, lips curved, and eyes crinkled with amusement.
"Sorry," he said in a voice that sounded anything but. "If we'd been back home, I would've driven around the block a few times. But hey, don't let me stop you!"
Mulder scowled and looked at Scully. "He's enjoying this *way* too much."
Grey smirked and plopped down beside them. "I was just out hunting a bloodsucking canine. Seems to me you two were the ones doing all the enjoying."
Scully pressed her hand to her mouth to camouflage her smile but Mulder rolled his eyes. "You are such a comedian," he said sarcastically. "What did you find?"
The teasing grin left Grey's face. "At least one of my bullets found its target last night. Whatever this thing is, it was bleeding pretty badly. There's a serious trail of blood leading through the woods north of here."
Mulder inched out of the sleeping bag and pushed himself to his feet. He swayed unsteadily, closing his eyes against images that doubled, then tripled. Grey was beside him, one hand firmly grasping his arm, in a heartbeat. Mulder leaned gratefully into the support for only a moment before his eyes opened and he shrugged off his brother's assistance. By then, Scully was also standing, regarding him with narrowed eyes.
"What do you think you're doing, Mulder?"
Mulder shot her a "well, duh!" look before answering. "I'm getting our things together so we can follow that trail. With any luck, it will lead us right to the creature."
Scully's mouth set in a grim line and she shook her head vehemently. "No way. We're taking you back and having you checked out at a hospital. We don't know how much blood you lost and you look like death warmed over. You need bed rest and fluids."
Mulder waggled his eyebrows at her. "Oooo. Bed rest. Sorry, Scully, that'll have to wait. Can't mix business and pleasure." He then proceeded to begin rolling up his sleeping bag.
Grey made a pitiful attempt to hide the chuckle that erupted at his brother's words. Scully, on the other hand, looked ready to chew nails. Her jaw clenched and she deliberately moved over so that she was standing on the bag.
"Don't try to get cute with me, Mulder. I'm not letting you do this to yourself. We're going back."
Mulder sighed and looked at Grey for help, but his brother merely shook his head and held up both hands. "Uh-uh. No way am I getting in the middle of this one. My mama didn't raise no fool."
"Coward," Mulder muttered. He stood and ran his fingers through his hair, wincing when they encountered the bump. "Scully. I'm all right. A little weak, yes. A bit sore, of course. But I can keep going."
She started to protest but he stopped her with two fingers pressed gently to her lips. "Hear me out. We may never get a chance like this again, Scully. This thing is hurt, probably weakened, and leaving a clear trail. If we leave now, by the time we get back here it will be long gone, and it's smart enough to not allow us near it a second time." He looked at her, pleading for understanding. "More people will die, Scully. We can't risk that. Please, I can do this."
She studied his face, her own a mask of indecision. At last she blew out a long breath, her shoulders slumping. "I don't know how I let you talk me into these things, Mulder. Fine, we'll keep going. But the minute I think you're in trouble we head back, no arguments. Agreed?"
He nodded gravely but one corner of his mouth curved slightly, betraying his triumph. "Hey, Scully? Did it work?"
She paused from loading her own pack, confused. "Did what work?"
"Did I get cute? I was just wondering for future reference."
"Shut up and pack, Mulder."
Nantahala National Forest
When Mulder stumbled for the fifth time Scully pressed her lips tightly together to contain the words that wanted to escape. Words like, "Stop being so damn stubborn, Mulder" and "You need to rest." It killed her to see him push himself this way -- face pale, dark circles under his eyes, and sweat dripping from his brow. Yet, just when she was sure he'd reached the breaking point and felt tempted to insist they go back, Mulder offered her a look of pure determination and she'd held her tongue.
"I need a drink, let's stop a minute," Grey said, removing his baseball cap and using his sleeve to wipe the perspiration from his face. He brushed past Scully, giving her arm an unobtrusive little squeeze.
She flashed him a grateful smile, understanding that he had seen Mulder's exhaustion and the "drink break" was actually for his brother's benefit. With the possible exception of Skinner, she'd been the only one to care for her partner for a very long time. Having someone else watching out for him was a new experience, but a welcome one.
Mulder closed his eyes and sank down to the ground with his back propped against a tree. His head hurt and his legs felt as if he'd been hiking through molasses. When he reached up to brush a stray lock of hair from his eyes his hand shook slightly, and he quickly returned it to his lap so Scully wouldn't notice. He'd felt her worried gaze on him all afternoon, and was loath to contribute any more fuel to that particular fire.
As if summoned by his thoughts, Scully dropped down to sit beside him. She offered him a bottle of water and a granola bar, setting them on the ground next to him when he made no attempt to move.
"Try to eat that," she said, leaning back against his shoulder. "It'll help with the shakes."
Busted. He swallowed his dignity and reached carefully for the bottle, proud when he opened it on the first try. Her solid warmth felt good against his side and he shifted a little to slip his arm around her shoulders.
"You're a dangerous woman, Scully," he observed, shaking his head. "Grey's right. I think I should be very afraid."
"You don't have to be afraid, Mulder," she replied without a hint of a smile. "Just maintain a healthy respect."
He grinned and pressed a kiss to the crown of her auburn head. "I'll try to remember that. And if I should happen to forget, I'm sure you'll remind me."
She pursed her lips. "You can count on it."
"I'm going to scout up ahead a little," Grey announced, disappearing into the foliage.
Mulder sighed and leaned his head back against the rough bark. "I'm slowing us down. We should have covered this distance in half the time. The trail's getting colder and it'll be dark soon."
"You're doing the best that you can," Scully said mildly. "Don't beat yourself up about it. I only hope we find this thing soon. I'm not wild about the idea of spending another night with it roaming around nearby."
Before Mulder could respond Grey burst back into view, panting and wide-eyed with excitement. "I think I've found its den! There's a good-sized cave in the side of the mountain up ahead. I didn't go inside, but it seems to extend for quite a distance. There were traces of blood near the entrance."
Without speaking, Mulder and Scully slipped the packs from their shoulders and began rummaging for flashlights. Grey quickly followed suit. Weapons were checked and the packs piled together beside a large rock, all in bleak silence. To Scully's amusement, Mulder suddenly became the voice of prudence and reason.
"Don't take any chances in there, Grey. I know you want to find Steve, but that thing is injured and cornered. And no matter what, don't listen to its growl or look into its eyes. That's exactly how it got to me last night."
Grey tucked his gun into the waistband of his jeans and regarded Mulder grimly. "Don't worry about me, I don't plan on listening. I intend to shoot first and ask questions later."
Grey turned sharply and began walking. Scully gazed at Mulder with a troubled frown before following. He fell into step behind her, trying to quell the sudden, overwhelming wave of apprehension that swept over him. Hazy images flashed rapidly through his mind -- drowning in a crimson pool, an incredible rush of peace and euphoria, and the distant sting of teeth piercing his flesh. He shuddered, swallowing thickly.
"Are you all right?" Scully asked, and he suddenly realized with embarrassment that she'd dropped back to walk beside him.
"Yeah. I'm fine."
She raised an eyebrow. "Rules have changed, Mulder. Didn't I mention that?"
He chuckled softly and it felt good, easing the tight knot in his stomach. "All right, I'm a little spooked -- no pun intended. It's nothing I can't handle."
"You sure about that?" There was no recrimination in her tone, only honest concern.
"Are you going to be watching my back?" he countered.
He smiled sweetly. "Then I'm sure."
The lump in her throat took her by surprise, and she blinked rapidly against sudden tears. Mulder certainly had his share of arrogance and insensitivity, and some days she was tempted to strangle him. Yet he could turn around and say something with such sweet honesty it left her speechless. Loving him would never be easy, but it would also never be boring.
They broke from the trees into a small clearing where the cave entrance was embedded in the rocky face of a cliff. Grey waited for them, his feet shuffling and his flashlight already lit. Scully scanned his face, uneasy with what she read in his features. He was too eager -- too ready to dash ahead while throwing his normal caution to the wind. Skinner's warning echoed in her thoughts, increasing her sense of foreboding.
Mulder lit his own flashlight and she reluctantly did the same. All three of them trained the beams into the opening, revealing a narrow passage about five feet wide that extended for about twenty feet before the blackness reasserted itself.
"I have a very bad feeling about this," she muttered more to herself than to the others.
Mulder caught the unspoken reference immediately and a grin of pure delight transformed his solemn expression. Grey was either too intent on his objective or didn't share Mulder's passion for the Star Wars movies. He pulled his weapon and stepped forward into the cave without further comment, ducking slightly since the ceiling was too low to accommodate his six-foot frame.
Scully followed, with Mulder bringing up the rear. As he stepped further into the cavern and the light dwindled behind him, he had the disconcerting feeling that some dark monster had swallowed him whole. It was *not* a reassuring thought. The walls and ceiling were solid granite, slightly moist from the chill dampness of the air. Scully's flaming cap of hair was the only bright spot of color in the bleak surroundings, and he found it oddly comforting.
The passageway abruptly opened into a large, circular chamber and Mulder and Grey were able to stand up straight. The smell hit them instantly -- the sickening sweet stench of death and decay stifling in the enclosed space. Across the chamber two more passageways branched off to continue deeper into the mountain. As they panned their flashlights around the cavern Scully's landed on a small pile of bones in one corner.
"Cover me," she said tersely, gesturing to the two passages. She moved quickly over to the remains and knelt down to examine them, pulling a pair of latex gloves from her coat pocket.
Mulder trained his flashlight on the right tunnel, glancing occasionally at his partner from the corner of his eye. Grey moved to cover the remaining opening, but he continued to dart his light around the chamber at the same time. Scully, hunched over her find, was silent.
"Talk to me, Scully," Mulder called. "What have you got?"
Her voice was taut, strained. "It's definitely human remains, and there's more than one. Some are just bones but some are..." she trailed off weakly.
"It's like the bodies are desiccated, Mulder. Their condition is very similar to that of an Egyptian mummy. The fluids have been completely removed, leaving the flesh to decompose at a significantly slower rate." Her voice trembled slightly, betraying her horror.
Grey shone his light onto what looked like little more than a pile of rags in another corner. Abandoning his position at the tunnel's mouth, he walked, then ran over and dropped to the ground.
"Steve? Oh, my God, what has it done to you?" he moaned, bowing his head in grief.
Hearing the desolation in his brother's voice, Mulder turned slowly toward him -- and all hell broke loose.
Scully barely had time to register the huge form that barreled out of the passage that Grey had been guarding to launch itself at her partner. Her scream of warning snapped Mulder around just in time to take the impact full in his chest, and he was knocked flat onto his back with an audible crack as his head struck the floor. In the second it took for Scully and Grey to raise their weapons a slavering mouth filled with razor sharp teeth was poised over Mulder's throat. Her partner was limp and unresponsive..
The beast was easily the size of a Shetland pony, covered with glossy black fur that was matted with blood near the right shoulder. Its four legs ended in paws tipped with needle-like claws and its wolfish head bore pointed ears and a long snout. Scully glanced away quickly from the large, red eyes.
"Don't look at the eyes!" she warned Grey sharply.
"I only need the to see them long enough to know where to put the bullet," Grey snarled, his voice choked with anger and unshed tears. His finger tightened on the trigger and the beast immediately pressed its fangs to Mulder's neck. Scully saw a trickle of blood when one pierced the skin.
"Grey, stop!" Scully screamed.
He complied immediately, paling at the sight of his brother's blood. With a growl of warning, the beast began backing toward one of the passages, dragging Mulder along with it.
"What do we do? We can't let it take him!" Grey said frantically.
"If we move, it'll rip his throat open with those fangs. Mulder will bleed to death in minutes!" Scully replied, desperately fighting her own panic as she wracked her brain for a solution.
"I'd rather risk that than let that thing feed off him like it did Steve!" Grey retorted in anguish.
Scully was about to reply when she saw Mulder's lids part slightly and the gleam of hazel as he looked in her direction. Ever so slowly, one closed and then opened in a sluggish wink. Biting her lip furiously to stave off her tears, she mimicked the motion and held up three fingers.
"One," she said quietly, wincing when her partner was dragged over a sharp rock.
"Two." The creature was nearly at the tunnel now and gaining speed.
Mulder swung one arm up as hard as he could in a close-fisted blow to the beast's nose. It dropped him reflexively, opening its mouth to emit a blood-curdling howl of pain and rage. Foam dripped from its jaws as they swung back down toward Mulder's exposed throat and he squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of the sharp fangs. But they never came. Scully's single gunshot resounded through the cave and with a grunt the beast fell motionless on top of him.
It felt roughly like having a brick wall collapse on his chest. By the time Scully and Grey managed to drag the animal off him, Mulder's face was white with pain and he was gasping for air like a fish out of water. Scully threw herself down beside him, shaking with relief and making no attempt to hide the tears that ran down her cheeks.
"Where does it hurt, Mulder? Stay with me," she urged, running her fingers over his face before pressing them to the pulse at his neck.
He wanted badly to let go and sink into the darkness at the edge of his vision, but he struggled to do as she asked. "Head. Chest."
Though she kept her hands as gentle as possible, he couldn't contain the cry of pain when she palpated his ribs. Her eyes begged for the forgiveness that his own granted. She brushed the hair back from his sweaty forehead before speaking.
"Broken ribs, love. Don't move." She turned to Grey, a question in her eyes.
"It's dead," he said quietly. "You stay with him and I'll go for help. If I'm lucky I can make it back by noon tomorrow. Will you be all right overnight?"
Scully nodded, but glanced around her. "But not here. I don't like to move him, but I refuse to spend the night next to *that*. We can set up camp just outside in the clearing."
"I'm on it. Let me get things organized and I'll come back to help you move him." He rested his hand gently on Mulder's head. "Hang in there, little brother."
Mulder's eyes were glassy with pain but he smiled up at Scully. "Called me 'love,'" he whispered.
Scully blushed. "Did I?"
His eyelids drooped. "Yeah. Liked it."
She brushed her knuckles against his cheek, startling him back from the edge of unconsciousness. "You've probably got a concussion, Mulder. Try not to zone out on me."
He managed to stick his lip out in a pout. "Only 'f you call me that."
She was momentarily overwhelmed by both the sheer force of her love for him and the realization that she'd nearly lost him. "Then stay with me, love."
His smile reappeared like the sun from behind clouds.
St. Alexius Hospital
Grey leaned back into his chair, watching his brother sleep and pondering the mysteries of life. In theory the universe existed in a delicate balance, an intricate dance of give and take. Of loss and gain. Of death and life. Each serving to countermand the other so that a tentative harmony could be achieved and maintained.
He'd never been one to indulge in self-pity or bemoan his fate. Yet he couldn't help feeling that lately he'd suffered more than his rightful share of the give. Of the loss. Of the death. Yes, he'd gained a brother, and as their relationship continued to grow so did his gratitude for that gift. But Kate's death was still an ever-present wound that never quite healed. And losing Steve only served to multiply that pain.
Calling Jackie with the news of Steve's death was an experience he knew he'd never be able to forget. He'd tried desperately to soften the bitter, cruel words with his own compassion and regret. And she'd accepted it -- thanking him dully for all his help, for providing closure, if not a happy ending. She'd assured him that she would be fine, would eventually move on with her life. But when he closed his eyes all Grey could see were two little girls that would never grow to know their father. And he had been a man very much worth knowing.
Grey was pulled from his reverie when his brother began to stir, muttering restlessly. He'd been plagued by nightmares throughout the night, one of the reasons why Dana had stuck like glue to his bedside. She'd talk to him softly, soothing him back to sleep before he could awaken completely. Seeing that trying to get her to leave would be a foolhardy enterprise, Grey had secured a hotel room, showered, and slept. By the time he'd returned it had been nearly dawn, Dana could barely keep her eyes open, and he'd easily persuaded her to trade places with him.
He stood up and lightly grasped one arm, laying his other hand on his brother's head and mimicking Dana's actions.
"Easy, Fox. You're all right. You're safe and it can't hurt you," he murmured repetitively.
Whether he lacked Dana's technique or just her voice, this time rather than sinking back into a deep sleep Fox's eyes flew open and he tried to sit up, arms thrashing wildly. Grey held him down firmly, continuing his stream of reassurances. In a moment, Fox's gaze cleared, then registered pain as the abuse he'd just given his ribs sank in. He went limp against the mattress with a small moan.
"Bad dream," Grey observed, sinking back into his chair and regarding his brother intently.
Mulder concentrated on slowing his breathing, wincing at the dagger in his side. "'M used to it," he rasped. "Just a new one for the collection." His eyes roamed the hospital room. "Where's Scully?"
Grey grinned a little. "Asleep at the hotel, I hope. Thought I'd have to use dynamite to get her out of here."
Mulder's lips curved gently and his eyes softened. "Yeah, I'll bet. Thanks." He sighed. "Don't remember getting here."
"By the time I got back with the rescue team you were pretty far gone," Grey agreed. "The doc said you were pretty lucky. You were a couple pints low, so they had to top you off. That hard head of yours sustained only a mild concussion but you've got three broken ribs. "
He tried to shift a little and grimaced. "Yeah. I can feel 'em." He looked up sharply, brow contracted in a frown. "What about the creature? What happened to it?"
Grey chuckled, shaking his head. "Dana's right, you never do stop working! She took care of it -- had it shipped back to the lab at Quantico for analysis. She really keeps her cool in a crisis, doesn't she?"
Again, Mulder smiled softly. "Yeah. She's a rock."
Grey smiled wistfully. "I'm happy for you, Fox. A little jealous, maybe, but mostly happy."
His brother looked startled. "Jealous?"
"Yeah. I haven't forgotten what it was like to be where you are. You and Dana really belong together. You're a perfect fit. If you're lucky a relationship like that comes along once in a lifetime."
Mulder sucked in his bottom lip. "I'm sorry, Grey."
He waved his hand, shaking his head and smiling. "Don't be. I had more in five years than a lot of people have in a lifetime. Just one word of advice -- don't plan on keeping this thing between the two of you a secret."
Mulder looked puzzled. "Actually, we *were* planning on keeping it under wraps for a while. Why shouldn't we?"
Grey's mouth quirked. "Give it your best shot, little brother. But you'll never pull it off."
Scowling a little at his brother's amusement, Mulder decided it was time for a change of subject. "I'm sorry about Steve. I wish we could have gotten there in time."
Grey's smile disappeared and he stood up and walked over to gaze out the window. "Thanks. I'm going to miss him. I'm glad that we found him. At least I could give Jackie that much." He turned around, biting his lip. "I'm sorry, Fox. It's my fault you're lying there. I lost it when I saw Steve and I let down my guard. If I'd been doing my job you might not have been hurt."
Mulder rolled his eyes. "Please, don't get guilty on me. I do that particular number too well myself. You'd found the body of your best friend, it was understandable." He shifted again, searching for a position to ease his sore ribs but finding none.
Grey, noticing his discomfort, moved toward the door. "I'll get a nurse. They said you could have something for the pain when you woke up."
He reluctantly nodded, hurting too much to object.
"Grey, wait!" he called, halting his brother just as he was about to step outside. Grey turned back, eyebrows raised. "What did you mean when you said I'd never pull it off?"
Grey grinned. "Look in the mirror, little brother. I'll be right back."
Mulder glared at his retreating back, thinking that sometimes
his brother made absolutely no sense at all.
Office of A.D. Skinner
Mulder felt an odd sense of déjà vu as he once again attempted not to fidget, this time from the persistent ache in his ribs. Skinner read the report with an occasional disbelieving glance thrown in their direction. When he finished, he looked searchingly at Scully.
"You participated in the lab work on this creature?"
She nodded, anticipating his next question. "I don't have any explanation for it, sir."
"The inconsistencies in the animal's DNA couldn't have been caused by exposure to some sort of mutating agent?"
Scully pursed her lips and Mulder couldn't help smirking a little, knowing how hard it was for her accept the test results, let alone defend them to Skinner. "The inconsistencies aren't mutations, sir. There are...elements of the creature's nucleotides that don't match anything..."
"From this time and place," Mulder completed almost gleefully.
She tried to turn the Scully Death Stare on him, but it melted into a small but affectionate curve of her lips. Skinner watched the exchange with keen interest. The sudden epiphany broadsided him, and he struggled to conceal the subsequent grin that threatened to take over his face.
"And you're certain this was the only one of its kind? They found no evidence of others?" he asked.
Mulder shook his head. "They searched the cave and the surrounding area thoroughly. They found nothing to indicate more exist. Or, for that matter, where it came from." He looked pointedly at his partner. "It's as if it just...appeared from *nowhere*."
Scully rolled her eyes, gazing at him tolerantly. "Be that as it may, I think it's safe to say that the danger to hikers has been removed. They're still working on trying to identify some of the remains. I'll keep you informed of the progress."
"How is Grey?" Skinner asked Mulder. "Losing his friend this way couldn't have been easy."
"He's dealing with it," Mulder said quietly. "He's grateful to have discovered what happened to Steve. At least he has some resolution."
Scully heard the words left unspoken. Without stopping to think, she reached out to lay her hand over his where it rested on the arm of the chair, giving it a small squeeze. His eyes searched out hers and one corner of his mouth turned up in a lopsided grin, silently reassuring her.
She felt another pair of eyes boring into her and was abruptly reminded of their boss. She pulled both her gaze and her hand from Mulder, flushing. Skinner leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands.
"You aren't going to be fit for more than desk duty for several weeks, Mulder. I suggest you take some time off to recoup," he said gravely, though his eyes sparkled.
"Yes, sir," Mulder agreed, feeling uneasy with Skinner's sudden good mood.
"And you might as well do the same, Scully," he continued, stone-faced. "This was a rough case for both of you."
"Thank you, sir," Scully said, relief evident in her voice.
Skinner waited until they had both stood up and were moving toward the office door.
"Besides," he said casually. "It'll give you both a chance to adjust to this...development."
They both froze like deer caught in the headlights of a speeding car. "Excuse me, sir?" Mulder said weakly. "Adjust to what?"
Skinner snorted, rising to move in front of his desk.
"You're not going to make me spell it out, are you?" He
leaned against the oak and folded his arms, eyes jumping between
them. When they both began stammering he stopped them with a
raised hand, his expression stern.
"I just want you both to answer one question."
Mulder looked quickly at Scully, then set his jaw stubbornly. "What question, sir?"
Skinner grinned. "What in the hell took you two so long?"
It took Scully only a heartbeat before she'd joined their boss in laughter, chuckling ruefully. Mulder, on the other hand, just gaped, his brain still trying to process Skinner's grin.
"Oh come on, Mulder, lighten up," his boss urged, still smiling smugly. "Did you really think people wouldn't find out? You and Scully have been the subject of unending speculation for years now."
Mulder stuck his lip out, eyes narrowed in irritation. "Maybe so. But it would have been nice if *we* would've been the ones to break the news."
Skinner sobered a little. "I won't say a word. But I won't have to. It's written all over your faces, Mulder. And let me be the first to say -- I'm happy for both of you. Now, go enjoy your vacation."
Seeing her partner was still recovering from his shock, Scully smiled warmly at Skinner. "Thank you, sir. We'll see you in a week."
She boldly slipped her hand into Mulder's and led him out the door. He followed her passively down the hall to the elevators, his mind obviously occupied elsewhere. It was not until they were in the elevator and headed for the basement that Skinner's words clicked and he swore softly under his breath, grinning.
"What? What is it?" Scully demanded.
"Just something Grey told me," he replied dryly.
"I think he got me -- big time." He was silent for a
moment. "Hey, Scully," he asked suddenly. "You got
The End (for now)