St Jude's Hospital

Louden County, Virginia

10.50 P.M.

The soft beeping of the monitor was mesmerising. Each little peak that registered Mulder's heartbeat became hypnotic. She couldn't look away, daren't glance at his sleeping form for fear that he might still slip quietly from her tenuous grasp.

She knew the thought to be an irrational one, brought on by fatigue and a day of high octane tension, but she couldn't help herself, she had to keep scrutinising the monitor. Standing sentinel over her weakened partner in a way that had been denied her earlier.

He's safe... injured... bruised and beaten... but safe. Her mind informed her, trying to comfort that part of her psyche that still refused to believe the evidence of her eyes. A soft groan broke through her thoughts and for a brief moment she dared to look away from the screen. Mulder was moving fitfully in the bed, sweat beading his face, eyes dancing back and forth under closed eyelids. He grimaced in pain as he unconsciously moved his injured arm in his sleep. Before she had even realised she was doing it, Scully's hand had reached out. Her small fingers running up and down his forearm, smoothing over the skin, avoiding the place where the IV had been inserted, soothing her partner's mind along with his injured body.

He stilled almost immediately, his body relaxing under her comforting touch. His eyes abandoned their manic dance. His breathing evened out and he slipped into a more peaceful slumber.

Scully's gaze returned once more to the monitor. Her vigil resuming, searching for the tiniest sign that he might be in trouble. But the monitor continued its steady rhythm undisturbed. Fifteen minutes passed before she finally allowed herself the luxury of closing her eyes. They felt dry and gritty beneath their lids, a sure sign of her overwhelming tiredness. I'll rest just for a moment. She told herself, Just for a few minutes. To recoup.

Another soft groan filled the silent room and all thoughts of her own rest evaporated as her eyes snapped open. She searched the various monitors, sweeping across the readouts with anxious eyes, checking his vitals.

They remained stable. More stable, she chastised herself, than the woman monitoring them.

A broken sob shifted her attention back to the bed and her partner. His face was a twisted mask of pain, his right fist clenched so tightly that the knuckles had turned white. His lips were pulled back in a grimace, and beads of sweat once more dotted his skin.

Scully leaned forward until her lips were against his ear, "Mulder, do you want me to increase your medication?" She moved back in her seat, awaiting his answer. Her hand hovered near the valve on the IV tree that would increase his intake of Demerol.

She watched as he fought his way back to consciousness slowly, his body fidgeting inside the constraining covers. His eyes fluttered briefly, holding on to the last vestige of sleep before carefully opening.

"Christ!" He moaned, pulling his good hand across his eyes in a vain attempt to shield them from the intrusive light. His face visibly paled, the blood seemingly leeching out and being replaced by a stony grey pallor. He retched, abruptly turning away from Scully's gaze, searching for some unseen object.

"Easy." Scully's voice was soft, a touch of concealed concern tarnishing its edges, "Take it nice and easy. You've been through the wringer." She helped him into a seated position, placing a cardboard bowl before him. The movement and dizziness that followed was all it took for him to put it to good use.

When he was finished, she wordlessly handed him a drink so he could rinse his mouth, then she took the bowl away, leaving him briefly while she went in search of a sluice room. When she returned Mulder was lying back down. He looked worn out, his vomiting session having taken the last of his reserves of energy.

Scully hurried to his bedside, "How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Like the entire Bronco's defense just sacked me." he replied, grimacing slightly as a sharp pain lanced through his arm. "Did you say something about increasing my medication?"

"Just a second." She took a step to the side, checking the IV bag that hung from the post next to his bed. Moving her hand toward the transparent line, she adjusted the valve slightly, allowing more of the pain relief to enter his system. It had an immediate effect, Mulder's face relaxed visibly.

Ever the professional physician, Scully wrapped her fingers around his wrist, digging them into his flesh, feeling for the pulse that resided there. Her other hand brushed his forehead, looking for signs of fever.

"I'm feeling much better." he informed her.

She ignored him, preferring to check for herself. She concentrated upon her task, mentally counting his pulse rate as she observed his reactions. There was no outward sign of a fever, his pulse was regular, and his pupils seemed reactive to the light. All in all they were good signs, although his earlier vomiting would remain a cause for concern, but even that seemed on par for the mild concussion he had suffered. Confident of her own diagnosis, she let out the breath she'd been holding. Relief surged through her, washing away the last of the adrenaline that had been keeping her body functioning. The room began to spin wildly, she teetered on wobbly legs that now refused to hold her upright, thrusting out a hand she held onto the side of the bed until her balance returned.

Her movements had not been lost on Mulder, who was now watching her with concern written all over his battered face. All she needed was for a few moments rest, time to put her blitzed defences back into place.

As though reading her thoughts Mulder patted the mattress beside him, "Looks like you could do with taking a load off partner."

A weary smile crossed Scully's lips as she took the proffered seat, balancing herself precariously upon the bed, one foot braced on the floor in order to keep her balance. She adjusted herself slightly so that she could face him.

"I just need a minute."

It was a typical answer, one that she knew he had become intimately familiar with over the years. He would know better than to challenge her, to call her on this unaccustomed show of weakness. It was one of many unspoken rules in their partnership. He gazed at her for a while, his hazel eyes determinedly seeking out her blue ones. Then he nodded imperceptibly and she knew that he would play his part. Gently he placed his good hand over hers, softly squeezing her fingers underneath.

"Take all the time you need, Scully. I'm not going anywhere."

Their eyes clashed again, a multitude of questions and answers flowing between them. They both knew how close it had been, how close Mulder had come to spending this night in the morgue. Scully blinked away the encroaching tears and looked away, embarrassed that she may have let him see too much.

"So..." It was obvious from the tone of that one word that Mulder had decided to change the subject, "How soon can I blow this joint?"

"A few days."

She noticed him wrinkle up his nose at that remark. The one thing he hated more than visiting someone in the hospital was actually having to stay in one. She tried to explain his forced incarceration. "You lost a lot of blood, Mulder." Her voice sounded thick, heavy still with emotion. She took a moment to clear it before continuing. "You took a couple of bullets. The one to the shoulder did some minor damage to the ligaments. The doctors want to make sure that it's healing properly before they release you and you're gonna need a little physical therapy to help your range of motion."

He nodded solemnly, his good hand rising up to touch his wounded shoulder. "But... it will heal?"

"In time." Scully replied. "But you mustn't push it, Mulder. Let it take the time it takes."

He nodded again at her slight admonishment. She knew him well enough to know that he would try to circumvent the convalescence time so that he could get back to work as quickly as possible. She leaned forward a little, her small hand travelling toward his forehead and the thick gauze that covered part of its surface. "The second bullet hit you here." Her fingers brushed tenderly against the surface of the gauze, tracing the unseen path of the bullet that had so nearly ended his life. Her eyes pooled with more unshed tears, these ones threatening to spill forth at any moment. "That's gonna leave a nasty scar you know."

Mulder smiled lightly, trying to ease the pain he could see lurking in his partner's worried gaze. "It'll add character to my roguish reputation." His smile grew wider. "Chicks go for the wounded hero look." He waggled his eyebrows at her in an attempt at a friendly leer, but winced when the movement tugged at his stitches. "Ow!"

"Serves you right." Scully replied trying to match his smile, but it failed to reach her eyes, that one place she knew Mulder took solace in. Her fingers began their travels once more, slipping across his face, skirting around the deep blue/black bruise that adorned his cheek where he had been pistol whipped.

Mulder sat statue-like beneath her touch and she silently thanked him. He knew how important it was for her to take her time to re-connect with him, to prove to herself the reality of his presence. She had allowed him to do the same whenever their situations had been reversed.

She moved on, fingers sliding further down his face, encountering his evening beard on route toward his mouth. The stubble rasped against her nails, sounding much louder in the quiet hospital room than it really was. Mulder's eyes closed, and he nuzzled his face against the palm of her hand as she continued her journey. She halted at his mouth, outlining the shape of his lips, stopping at the jagged cut that split his full bottom lip.

"God. They really did a number on you..." She tried to fight the sob that welled up inside her, but found she couldn't. It broke free of her tight restraint, shattering the stillness in the room.

Mulder's eyes snapped open, searching her face, trapping her in the snare of his intense gaze. He began to form a question, but Scully headed him off, shaking her head adamantly from side to side.

"I'll heal, Scully," he said soothingly, trying to reassure her that the blemishes on his face and body would one day disappear. "I always do."

Yeah, but after today, I don't think I ever will. Not after coming so damn close to losing you.

She couldn't voice those words, not without muddying the waters further in their already precarious relationship. So for Mulder's benefit she nodded in agreement with him. He cupped her chin in his good hand and ran an unsteady finger across her lower lip. It trembled under his featherlight touch.

"Hey..." he tilted her face upward to meet with his gaze. "you okay?"

She nodded slightly. "I'm fine, Mulder." Seeing his eyes narrow at her familiar fob off, she rushed to placate him. "Really, it's just been one bitch of a day."

He studied her for an uncomfortable moment before letting her off the hook. "You should go home, Scully. You look wiped out."

"I will...soon. I just wanted to be here when you woke up." She shifted a little uneasily on the bed. "I have something I need to give you."

"Really?" The innuendo in his tone was not lost on her and his eyebrows were beginning their march toward his hairline again. The movement pulled at his stitches. The grimace would have been comical if it hadn't looked so painful.

Scully fished around in her pocket, finally pulling out the bloodied letter now wrapped inside an evidence bag. "I think this belongs to you." If the grimace on his face had been comical, the look of shock and fear now in his eyes was a complete contrast.

His fingers twitched as they slowly made their way toward the stained letter. He was acting as though the slightest contact with the parchment would result in mortal harm. Tentatively he took the plastic wrapped letter from her grasp, turning it over and over between his shaky digits. He seemed to take a fortifying breath before asking the question that Scully knew was coming.

"Did you read it?"

"No." Her whispered reply could be barely heard within the confines of the small room. "No, I didn't."

Mulder's face registered relief, only quickly dissolve into confusion and then to disappointment. He frowned, his gaze going back to the letter and then to his partner.

"Why not? It was addressed to you."

"I think the answer to that question is pretty obvious." Scully said, hoping that her meaning would sink in, obviously from the look on her partner's face it was evident that it hadn't. She sighed. "Mulder, that letter was meant to be read only in the event of your death. Her remained silent. She rolled her eyes, why was he making this so damn difficult?

"I've got news for you partner," she announced. "Reports of your demise have been greatly exaggerated. You're alive, ergo it wasn't necessary to read the letter." She didn't let on that she had been tempted while she had waited for him to wake up, or that it was only her nervousness at the thought of its contents that had stopped her. She sat back on the bed, stretching her arms out on the mattress to brace herself.

Mulder seemed to take a moment to process everything. He scratched the side of his long nose with his index finger, a move that Scully knew well as being one of thoughtfulness.

"Even so." he said after his brief contemplation. "Weren't you curious?"

"Is there any reason I should be?" Her reply came out a little more harsh than she had intended and she immediately felt guilty.

"It was my dying declaration," Mulder responded, the wounded tone barely masked. "My last mortal words...my last thoughts and wishes..." He broke off, staring at the letter still in his hands. "...my last link with you."

"Maybe I don't want to be the beneficiary of your porn collection, Mulder. Frohike would be a more suitable..." She froze when she saw the hurt look cross his face. Her jest had completely mis-fired, harming her partner in the process. He was being serious. She thought back to the few lines of the letter she could still remember, they had been serious too.

They were about to step out upon some very shaky ground. Were they ready for it?

She took a deep breath and took that first fateful step. "What do you want from me, Mulder?"

He shook his head, unable to meet her eyes or answer her question. She took another small step forward in this emotional minefield they were entering. "Do you want me to read the letter?"

He twisted said item between his fingers, still refusing to meet her eyes. "Um...well..."

"I thought as much," Scully replied, not harshly but with resignation. "I think maybe you need to think this through."

"I have thought it through," he replied tersely. "It was all I could think about in the bank. He was reading it to you, Scully, speaking my words... my thoughts. He was taking words I'd written with passion and love and twisting them into some ugly version of the truth."

She sucked in a breath, her heart had began to thud like a jackhammer inside her chest, she could feel its vibrations fluttering against the fabric of the blouse she wore.

"On second thought...maybe you should read it." Mulder held out the bag toward her.

"No!"

Scully's adamant reply caused him to lock gazes with her. She could see the confusion in his eyes, the beginnings of doubt rising to the surface, she slipped her fingers across his lips stalling him from saying what she knew he would say. His attempt to extricate them from an embarrassing situation.

I made a mistake... Let's just forget it, okay?

Not this time, Mulder.

"It's not what you think," she whispered softly. "It's not that I don't want to read it...I do." She allowed a small smile to grace her lips. "It's just that..." She hesitated, glancing away from his intense stare, dropping her eyes down toward her lap. "It's just that after all this time. All the things we've been put through to reach this moment..." Her eyes lifted, searching out his once more. Her hand caught his much bigger one, spreading his fingers wide and slotting her own between them. "I don't want to read the words, Mulder. I want to hear you say them."

His mouth opened, his lips moved, but nothing came out. His eyes bore into hers, flashing messages loud and clear between them, but he couldn't find the voice to project them.

"I...can't..." His voice stumbled over the words. "I tried once before and you didn't believe me."

"Then try again and maybe I will." She leaned in closer. "It's only three little words, Mulder."

She looked at him, challenging him to say them out loud once more. To put his heart on his sleeve and to put his feelings on the line.

"I like you." he said nervously.

"Uh huh, not good enough, G-man."

"I..." He suddenly smiled roguishly at her. "I. Want. You."

"Now you're getting ahead of yourself." She gave him a look of mock reproach, but her eyes told him all he needed to know.

All in good time.

"Scully..."

"Yes?"

He looked longingly into the bluest eyes he had ever seen, seeing the love shining there.

"I love you."

He waited for the roll of her eyes, the softly spoken, 'Oh brother' like before, but it didn't come. Instead she closed the distance between them, sliding her hand around his neck and gently pulled him into her embrace. They stayed that way for a long moment until Scully pulled away.

It was time to detonate the final mine that lay between them.

She swallowed, giving herself a moment to regain lost composure, to put the thoughts that were tumbling erratically inside her head into some sort of order. "I thought today was it..." Her soft voice was tremulous, the tears that she would usually be ashamed of showing teetering momentarily on the edge of the abyss. "I honestly thought it was the end." He nodded quietly, urging her to continue.

"I always thought I'd be ready for it." She could see that the tone of inevitability in her voice had rocked Mulder, although he tried to hide it from her view. "With all the times we've been here...at this point...where life and death meet." She hesitated, and ran a shaky hand through her hair, then sighed. "I guess I've always known that we're both living on borrowed time, that there would come a day when our luck would finally run out." Scully shook her head forlornly. "I thought today was that day...when I would have to let you go...the day our luck ran out." A single tear broke forth, she could feel it running slowly down her cheek. "And I found that I wasn't ready for it...that no matter how much I prepared myself...I'd never be ready for it."

She looked at him intently, blue eyes boring into hazel. "I didn't want it to end like that...apart from each other. Alone." Her index finger wandering absently across his damaged lower lip. "I always hoped there would be time." Her eyes slowly wandered upward across his face, until she stared through watery tears at his beaten face. "Time to tell you that I love you."

"Scully..." Mulder's voice was tremulous and when she finally managed to blink her tears away she could see that he had shed a couple of his own. She closed the distance between them once more, watching this time as Mulder rose up from the bed slightly to meet her halfway. "I love you," she whispered as her lips descended toward his.

The cellphone in her pocket took that inopportune moment to spring into life.

"Leave it." Mulder mumbled against her mouth. "It'll only be Kersh."

Scully pulled back slightly, one eyebrow cocked curiously. "How do you know?" Mulder pushed himself further up on the bed until he was sitting more upright. "Let's just say the guy's got great timing." The phone kept up its shrill ringing, Scully sighed and thumbed it on.

"Scully."

"Agent Scully." AD Kersh's voice echoed down the line. "Would you mind telling me what the hell is–"

"Not now!" Scully snapped, switching off the cellphone and dumping it unceremoniously upon the cabinet beside Mulder's bed.

"You hung up on him." Mulder stared, wide-eyed.

"I did. We're in a hospital, Mulder, doesn't he know that cellphones interfere with delicate hospital machinery?" She grinned at him and he returned it in kind. God, she'd been around him way too long.

"By the way...I think you used one of my lines." He slid his good hand around her shoulder and pulled her toward him.

"I only hope you didn't have this in mind when you dumped me with that line." She moved slowly toward him, licking her lips seductively with the tip of her tongue. He stifled a groan. Their lips met in the softest of kisses, moving gently against each other, making a promise for the future.

Somewhere in the back of Scully's mind she could hear the faint explosion from a now very distant minefield. She knew there and then, her arms wrapped around her partner and her lips caressing his that the path ahead of them was finally clear.

End of Story.