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He holds her while the sobs wrack her body, her small frame shuddering with both terror and relief. His shoulder grows damp with her tears, his chest with her blood, and his own heart pounds between them until the adrenaline rush subsides. When she quiets with a final, shaky breath, and her white-knuckle grip on the back of his shirt loosens, he helps her sit up, helps unbutton her shirt when her hands won’t stop trembling.

She’s wounded. Four fingertip-sized marks beside her sternum still ooze blood, and he asks if he should call for an ambulance. She still can’t speak but shakes her head, and he leaves her only long enough to grab some towels and a blanket. He eases her out of her ruined blouse, then drapes the blanket over her shoulders and hands her a folded towel to press against the wound.

“Let’s get you off the floor,” he says quietly, and she lets him pick her up and move her to the couch.

She doesn’t fully stop shaking for almost an hour.

***

After the bleeding finally stops, he leaves the room again, quickly changing his own shirt and returning with a clean one for her, some damp washcloths, and his first aid kit. He puts everything on the coffee table and sits back down beside her, hesitant for the first time since he got upstairs. Now that the danger and immediate trauma have passed, he’s not sure how to proceed. Blood has seeped beneath her bra, which will have to come off to allow proper cleaning and bandaging of her wound, and while this doesn’t bother him, he doesn’t know whether she’s comfortable with it. Just as he opens his mouth to ask what she wants him to do, she gingerly leans forward, dropping the blanket down to the middle of her back.

“If you would, um, get the clasp for me, I can clean myself up,” she says, her voice quiet but steady.

“Of course.” He deftly undoes the clasp and stands, turning around to afford her privacy. “Let me know if you need help. I’ll just, uh… do you want anything? Tea?”

“Tea would be nice, thanks.” She sounds relieved, and he nods, grateful to have something to do.

His mind wanders while he busies himself heating water and digging the box of tea out of his pantry. He really ought to go check up on Padgett, but he doesn’t want to leave Scully alone. She probably wants to go home soon anyway, to get as far away from this damned building as she can. He wouldn’t really want to leave her alone there either, though. Not while Padgett’s accomplice is still at large.

The author himself, while admittedly (probably) not a murderer, poses a different sort of threat altogether.

Mulder’s thoughts stray then to what he’d read in Padgett’s manuscript, specifically the scene with Scully and “the Stranger” in bed together. It had made his blood boil, and not just with a sense of violation on his partner’s behalf. Mere words on a page, and yet they provoked in him such intense, visceral revulsion. Anger.

Jealousy.

“Mulder?”

He turns around, sees her sitting on the couch, holding his t-shirt to her chest. Her bare shoulders draw his gaze for a moment, but he quickly looks away. “Everything okay, Scully?”

“I can’t, um… it hurts to raise my arms. Could you put the shirt over my head for me?”

He nods. “Sure, yeah.” He crosses to the couch, careful to keep his eyes trained on the top of her head as she hands him the t-shirt and he slips it on her.

“Thanks,” she says, and once her arms are through the sleeves, he lets himself look at her fully.

The haunted expression has left her face, even if the color hasn’t yet returned completely. Her pallor contrasts sharply with the dried blood on her hands, but even dwarfed by his Knicks shirt, she’s regained her characteristic composure. She calmly begins gathering the gauze wrappers and stained washcloths strewn around her, and he moves to help.

“Here, I’ve got that,” he says.

“It’s okay. I want to go wash my hands, anyway. I can take care of this.”

When she tries to stand, though, her face contorts in pain, and he quickly reaches out to support her.

“I’m fine,” she says, before he has a chance to ask. “Just sore. I’ll take something for it in a minute.”

“Let me help you, Dana.”

She shakes her head, the barest trace of a grin on her lips. “Dana. You only ever call me that when things are really bad.”

Just over an hour ago, she narrowly avoided getting her heart forcibly ripped from her chest by a homicidal psychic surgeon. He would say that qualifies.

The tea kettle starts to whistle, and Scully nods toward the kitchen. “Water’s boiling. I’m fine, Mulder. Really. I’ll be right back.”

Warily, he removes his hands from her elbow and upper back, watching carefully to make sure she can stand all right on her own. Given the location of the wound, he wouldn’t be surprised if she has some damage to the muscles around her rib cage, and even without any medical training, he knows how important those muscles are for balance. She seems okay though, and he slowly steps back so she can make her way to the bathroom.

***

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

She doesn’t answer right away, blowing across the top of her tea and staring into the middle distance. He waits. When she finally does speak, her voice cracks.

“I don’t know how to explain what happened.”

“Which part?”

She takes a slow sip of tea, then sets the mug down, shaking her head. “He was real, Mulder. He held me down, he… he left marks. I’ve never felt pain like that in my entire life. It was so bad I lost consciousness.” She stops again, takes another drink, then turns her face toward the doorway. “But I shot him. Point blank. Five, six times, I know I didn’t miss. And nothing happened. I mean, just look. Mulder, I shot him, but the only blood over there is mine. How is that possible?”

How had he not noticed that before? If Scully had shot her attacker multiple times -- and he’d heard the gunfire, could see the holes in his wall -- there should have been a hell of a lot more blood in his apartment. And since there’s not, it can only mean…

“Padgett was telling the truth. All along. Only it wasn’t just that he imagined things that were coincidentally also happening. He was imagining them into being.”

“But that’s not--”

“No, no it all makes sense. Why were you in his apartment before? You already said he frightened you when he cornered you at the church. So, what, it seemed like a great idea to get a little one-on-one time with him in his bedroom after that?”

“What are you suggesting, that he somehow orchestrated my actions merely by committing words to paper?”

“Tell me that you didn’t feel in any way compelled there against your will. That you had absolutely no reservations about sitting with him, in the dark, accepting a drink he could easily have slipped something into.” She doesn’t answer, only looks down at the table instead, and he lowers his voice, putting a hand gently on her knee. “Scully, I know you can take care of yourself, but it’s just not like you to make decisions like that.”

He thinks back again to what he read, the parts where Padgett narrated Scully’s thoughts. The way he wrote it, the appropriate response to being confronted by a stalker claiming to know everything about you was arousal. Had Scully truly spent the other morning turned on by Padgett’s unsettling attention instead of frightened by it?

Taking her silence as confirmation -- though of which part, he’s not sure -- he decides not to press the issue further. “At any rate, if Padgett’s words did bring this killer to life, then I’m betting the threat disappeared as soon as he destroyed the manuscript.”

She looks up at that. “He destroyed it?”

“Threw it in the incinerator downstairs, yeah. Probably saved your life, if bullets couldn’t even stop whoever it was that attacked you.” She goes quiet again, that look on her face that says she’s puzzling things through, trying to decide what to believe. After a while, he clears his throat. “So, uh, I guess that means there probably isn’t any danger anymore, if you want me to take you home. Or to your mom’s, if you’d rather.”

She huffs a mirthless laugh. “I do not have the energy to explain to my mother why I’m showing up at her door with wounds that shouldn’t exist.” (Well, he can’t fault her for that one.) She looks down again at the cup in her hands. “And if I’m honest, I think I’d rather move around as little as possible for the next 24 hours. Even riding in a car right now sounds… I don’t know if I’m up for it.” Blinking up at him, the question already in her eyes before she’s had a chance to voice it aloud, she swallows. “Would it be okay if I stayed here, just for tonight?”

“Yeah, of course that’s okay.” The relief on her face takes him by surprise, as if she thought he wouldn’t want her here. “Mi sofa es su sofa,” he jokes, quickly adding, “not that you have to sleep on the couch. Obviously you’re welcome to my bed.” Blind momentary panic over what he’s just inadvertently implied. “To take the bed, I mean. I’ll take the couch. Un-unless you’d rather have the couch. Totally up to you.”

His panic eases when he sees her smiling at him with a warmth that he can’t help feeling mirrored in his own chest. In that moment, something else Padgett said comes rushing back to him, something he’d dismissed at the time as lies from a murder suspect.

Agent Scully is already in love.

He’s long assumed that she loves him in the way people tend to love family -- the sort of love rooted in obligation, though not necessarily any less genuine for it. He knows he exasperates her on a regular basis, but he also knows she has his back to an extent beyond the mere requirements of their job. Though they’ve never put a name to it, to be told incontrovertibly that she loves him would not come as any sort of shock.

That she could possibly be in love with him, however, feels like something else entirely, something far trickier to process. He would shrug it off, except that it seems Padgett was right about everything else…

“I’ll be fine on the couch.” She interrupts his musing, and he blinks. “Thanks, though.”

“No problem. Wherever you’ll be more comfortable, what with the…” He trails off, gesturing vaguely at where she’s bandaged beneath her shirt. (His shirt.)

“Actually, about that,” she says, finishing the last of her tea and setting the mug on the table, “I have some stronger painkillers in the kit in the trunk of my car. Would you mind going down and grabbing that for me?”

He stands, reaching forward as he does to grab her keys from the table. “I’ll be right back.” He pauses when he gets to the door, turning around toward her again. “I’m locking the door. Just, you know, in case.”

The soft smile she gives him in response sticks with him all the way downstairs.

***

He digs five slugs out of the wall while she sleeps. He doesn’t have to send them to the lab to know that not a single one will test positive for even a trace of human blood or tissue.

While he makes himself a sandwich for dinner, he considers what to do about what he’s started mentally referring to as “the Scully revelation.” Assuming for a moment that it’s all true, that her feelings for him go beyond the platonic, then he is having a hard time coming up with a good reason for them to continue holding one another at a professional distance. (Hell, they’re not even very good at that, anyway.) He has spent far too many years believing that nothing will ever change between them; now it feels like an entire world of possibility has opened up, and it seems insane to not pursue that.

Scully, though… Scully has always been the more pragmatic and cautious of the two of them. If he brings it up outright, she will likely balk at the notion of changing the nature of their relationship, citing worries about damaging their working partnership. And it’s not as though he doesn’t have those worries too. If everything went to hell, he would lose so much more than just a lover, and the mere possibility of that loss utterly terrifies him. On the other hand, though, he finds it extremely difficult to conceive of a world in which things between them would ever go to pieces. He is going to love Dana Katherine Scully for the rest of his life, whether or not they ever do more than just work together. If there were ever anyone he could imagine a forever with, it’s her.

Still, convincing her to make the leap will have to happen organically. He needs something like… like a date, but not. Maybe he could start with a Saturday in the office, dressed down -- now that he knows he wasn’t imagining it all the times her eyes have seemed to linger on his chest and arms, especially when he’s wearing something a bit more form-fitting than a dress shirt -- trading the easy banter that so often seems to end in laughter. (She really does have the best laugh.) From there, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to start spending more time together outside of work as well. Maybe he could convince her to go to a baseball game with him. Does Scully even like baseball?

Leaning against the counter and taking a bite of his sandwich, he starts putting together a plan to find out.