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He held her until the tears subsided, and for an unknown stretch of time after, just standing there oblivious to anything around them. There were other agents at the scene, but most knew better than to disturb them. Once, Mulder began to loosen his gentle hold on her small frame, but her arms, already clinging tightly, locked firmly around his waist. He let her stay, his chin resting on the top of her head as he stroked her hair. Neither needed to say anything as her choking sobs began to die out. Her eyes were dry, but she didn't seem to notice. He could feel the rise and fall of her breathing steady against his chest, but for the moment he knew she needed this. She needed the chance not to think – the coming days would doubtless bombard her with more thoughts and feelings than she would want to deal with. Mulder closed his eyes, resting his cheek against her hair. "You'll be OK," he whispered, gently disentangling his arms from hers.
She nodded weakly, eyes not quite meeting hers. A shiver wracked her body as he relinquished contact.
"You're cold," he stated. He imagined, despite her layers of clothing, she was in a mild state of shock from expending so much energy on trying to protect herself.
"I'm fine," she tried to assure him, but her voice came out thick and feeble.
Mulder's worried eyes searched her face. He knew it was killing her inside to show such weakness. "Come on," he placed a soft hand on her shoulder. "Let's get you checked out."
The doctor let her go quickly – shaky, but healthy but for a few minor scrapes and bruises.
The drive back to the motel was achingly silent. Mulder watched her carefully as he drove – she kept her eyes forward, glassy and unfocused, jaw clenched tightly. She never moved, the only sound her still erratic breathing. Rolling to a stop at a red light, he reached over and gently squeezed her forearm. Her eyes flicked downward as his hand lingered. He squeezed again and moved his hand back to the steering wheel, sneaking a glance as she let out a deep breath and closed her eyes, still facing the place on her arm where his hand had been.
Scully barely seemed to notice when they pulled up. After taking a moment to look at her again, Mulder wordlessly stepped out and moved to the other side, opening the door when she fumbled with the handle. "Let's get you inside," he muttered quietly, half directed at her and half spoken to satisfy himself that she was safe, guiding with a hand on her back.
She seemed to relax when they got to her room, if only a fraction. After ushering her in, Mulder bolted the door behind them and discreetly checked to make sure the window was locked. "Here," he returned to her side and took the coat she had shrugged off. She was too worn out to object. "Do you want to take a shower before you go to bed?"
She shook her head briskly once. The sudden tension in her shoulders gave away.
"Right," Mulder corrected immediately. "We'll tackle that tomorrow." He watched her pensively, how she still kept her gaze down. Placing a hand on her back again, he steered her gently over to the bed. "Sit down." She did as she was asked. "First thing's first," he said, keeping his tone serious but not commanding. "I need you to tell me one thing. Did he…" He paused, struggling for words mild enough.
"No, Mulder," Scully interrupted, finally looking up at him, if only for a second. "He didn't do anything to me. And he didn't get the chance to try."
"Good," he whispered almost inaudibly. Watching her averted eyes, her fidgeting hands, her stiff posture, he suddenly felt the urge to reach out and touch her, to make sure she was real. He almost felt he had failed her by not realizing what she felt sooner. Before that night, their physical contact had been limited, but as he helplessly watched her break, steadfast resolve crumbling, their embrace had not been just that. It was a culmination of all they had endured – the tension of the horrors they had witnessed temporarily relieved, the apologies and thank yous that that never been spoken, the wrongs forgiven. Between these layers was a baser instinct too, the simple need for comfort, for the healing human touch. "This is why you went back to DC," he stated simply, without accusation.
Scully nodded, twisting a loose string on the hem of her jacket. "I couldn't, Mulder… I couldn't just stay there."
"Why didn't you tell me the truth?" he asked, frowning but keeping his voice gentle. "Because you were afraid of looking weak," he finished softly for her. Her silence confirmed his suspicions. "Dana," he shook his head, a half-smile forming. "Look at me." He laid a hand on her cheek to force her to keep eye contact, almost relieved to find her perfectly solid. "You are not weak," he emphasized every word, searching her stormy eyes. "I will never think of you as weak. You're the strongest woman I know, and being a woman does not make you weak. Hell, I can't think of a man who wouldn't have broken a long time ago with the things we've seen, if that's what you're afraid of." Her eyes unfurled shades of blue as she took in each word. "Except maybe Elvis," he grinned, and was relieved to see a miniature version break through her mask.
"Elvis is dead," Scully retorted quietly.
Mulder gasped. "The sacrilege!" His laughing eyes softened, though, as he traced his thumb down her cheek. "You have every right to be scared. If I were you I would have done exactly the same thing."
"No, you wouldn't," she sighed halfheartedly.
"You're right." He could see the flicker of hurt as she looked down. "I would have declared my partner crazy and ditched him a long time ago." He gently tilted her head up with his thumb under her chin.
"Mulder –" Her eyes held something hidden below the surface, but they were dull with the late hour.
"You need to sleep," he interrupted, glancing at the clock on the night table. "At least lie down."
She nodded, kicking her shoes off and tossing her suit jacket on the table as he pulled the covers out for her. "Thanks, Mom," she rolled her eyes and slid into bed with a contented sigh, pulling the sheets up and staring at the ceiling. "Mulder?"
"Yes?" he asked, an eyebrow raised as he flopped down on the bed beside her.
"Thank you," she repeated, voice more serious as she rolled over to face him.
Mulder frowned, scrutinizing her open expression, serious but relatively relaxed. For now she was comfortable, but she still had a full night of sleep ahead. Recovery rarely came easy, and the first night would be the worst. "For what?"
Scully shrugged, suddenly self-conscious under his penetrating gaze. "For putting up with me, I suppose." She smiled tightly.
He exhaled quietly – if anything, he should be thanking her. She was the one who kept him grounded in reality, in the need for order even in his field of investigation. She kept him from going over the edge in his never-ending quest to find the truth. "Get some sleep, OK?" He reached over her to turn the lamp off and let his hand brush against her upper arm as she turned to face away from him and pulled the covers up.
"Mulder," she started suddenly when he began to sit up.
He gently laid back down, propping himself up on his elbow. "Yeah?"
She visibly stiffened, clutching the sheets and struggling for words, still facing away from him. "You–" She cut herself off, biting back a silent gasp. Her voice was shaky when she continued. "You'll be here?"
His eyes slipped closed automatically, a breath freeing itself from his lungs as he bit his bottom lip. "As long as you can feel this…" He pulled himself closer and tentatively loosened her hand from the sheets, placing it gently on her chest. Her heart pounded steadily beneath her breasts, the one constant rhythm. "As long as you can feel this, I'll always be here."
The night fell silent, each breath a mere whisper. She gently drifted to sleep, protected by the arm curled across her side, the hand still soft on hers, the warm breath tickling the back of her neck. Before silently excusing himself and laying down on the couch across the room, he let himself stay there with her sleeping form a short moment longer, hearts beating in time.