It is only as Scully hits the highway that she releases the breath she's all too aware of holding. She grabs the steering wheel with both hands, knowing that otherwise they will shake with her fury, and she is furious. Seething. Mostly at herself, if she's being honest. After all these years, she should really know better, know not to fall into these cheap, petty traps. She has always prided herself on being a strong and independent woman, and yet when it comes to Mulder, somehow she always ends up doing exactly as he asks. She hates this power he still has over her, even in light of their current estrangement. Although he seemed genuinely happy to see her, from that moment on he was obnoxious as he sometimes had been in the old days. Even though he has never said it outright, from the way he mocked and teased her in O'Malley's presence, it's pretty clear he still resents her for leaving.
You shouldn't have gone there tonight, she admonishes herself. But she was just so worried about him, frantically arguing that Sveta was the key to everything, then ghosting her entirely. His erratic behavior distracted her to the point of cancelling her impromptu date with O'Malley (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) and left her useless and unfocused at work (which most definitely is). From there it all went from bad to worse, and the worst of it – to see Sveta peek over Mulder's shoulder, her being inside the house Scully and him had shared for better and for worse, that was the last straw. She was ready to collapse in sobs right then and there on the porch. Releasing herself from his grip on her shoulders was the hardest thing she's done in years. A part of her is furious – How dare she? How dare he? Whereas another part reminds her – This is your doing, Dana. You left him.
She has literally pushed Sveta into Mulder's arms, has resisted him so fiercely she's left him no choice. She doesn't really believe that, but it's easier than sticking to the ugly truth. She knows there's nothing fair about her bitterness, that she cannot expect Mulder to remain celibate, that she hasn't been a saint herself, sipping champagne in O'Malley's limo simply because she has enjoyed to be wooed, even if the age gap is nothing to build a relationship on. Her frustration with Mulder, with the state of their relationship, has made her vengeful, and so she took certain pleasure in informing them Sveta had no alien DNA. She obviously failed to mention having the sample retested, as well as the fact she had sequenced her own genome just in case. For the moment she just enjoyed seeing their grand theory crumble, their faces fall. Sveta seemed particularly crushed. She's almost ashamed of her gloating.
There's something about Sveta that Scully just cannot stand. It may be the ever-present quiver in her voice, or that wide-eyed look, like a deer in headlights. She's a proper damsel in distress. There's this air of frailty around her that makes Scully want to shake her out of her reverie, yell at her to wake the hell up. Recounting Scully's life story and invading her most private, painful memories surely hasn't helped Sveta's cause. It's how innocent Sveta looks, how young she is – so much younger than herself it makes her heart ache. According to her medical records, she is just about the same age Scully was when first partnered with Mulder all those years ago. Before she lost everything for his cause – family and motherhood and her youth. But Sveta is already haunted by those things that bind her and Mulder together, and he's drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Scully isn't surprised, not really. She's witnessed it happen time and time again throughout the years. Something about female helplessness has always seemed to fascinate him (Lucy Householder, Melissa Riedal-Ephesian and Arial Luria to name just a few), to sweep him off his feet, as though through it he'll be able to salvage a part of his sister. And Scully herself has never been this feeble. It just isn't in her nature. Is that why he hasn't noticed her back then? Why it's taken him years to see in her something more than just his partner? Seven years to finally make a move? She knows she's being ridiculous, that it's hardly Sveta's fault, and yet she cannot help it. It is an impulse, if nothing else.
When Scully finally gets home she's exhausted, and so she changes quickly and gets ready for bed. She's trying very hard not to think, not to compare the spotlessness of her new house with the warmth that emanates from every corner in Mulder's, as messy as it is right now. It holds so many memories that it's easy to disregard its current shortcomings. Much to her annoyance, as soon as she snuggles into the covers, she's suddenly wide awake, as if her brain has turned itself on and won't shut up. She becomes restless yet again as the last few hours echo mercilessly in her ears, outrageous information and self-admonishing becoming one. She groans and buries her head into the pillows.
Her cell phone rings on her bedside. The sound catches her by surprise; she's forgotten to switch it into Silent mode. She grabs it and glances at the screen, hoping against hope it's Mulder. But the number that flashes on her screen is unknown to her. Although it is very unlike her, and at this time of night of all things, she accepts the call anyway, sitting up and leaning against the bed board.
"Dana?" His number may be unfamiliar, but his voice she recognizes instantly. When she doesn't reply, he clears his throat. "It's Tad... Tad O'Malley."
"I know," she replies foolishly, wants to kick herself. Then, as if that isn't bad enough, she adds, "It's late."
"I know. I'm sorry. I wanted to..."
"Know I wasn't upset?" she completes, and hears him chuckle. He obviously remembers their previous, similar exchange. "I told you, it's fine. I'm used to it."
There's a tiny pause before he speaks again. "Well... Seeing as last night didn't quite go as planned, I still owe you dinner."
It sort of answers something she's been wondering about. Yesterday at the hospital, when he told her he had just wanted to see her again, his admittance caught her off-guard. Up until that point she believed that the blatant interest he had shown in her was solely due to her being Mulder's sidekick on the X Files. For so long she's defined herself according to Mulder's standards, Mulder's quest, that after all these years, the possibility that someone will find her intriguing for who she is is utterly baffling. In the years since leaving the FBI she's been trying her damndest to leave Scully behind and get back to being Dana, but no matter what she's done, Scully has always been lurking in some dark corner of her mind, ready to pounce. But this guy is persistent. This guy is interested in just Dana, not Scully and everything she represents. And while she's just as intrigued by him, almost despite herself, she knows what her answer should be.
"Listen, Tad, I... I'm flattered. Honestly. But I can't do this."
"Can I ask why?" She sighs; where to even start? But he speaks again before she can think of a proper reply. "I think I can guess why," he says quietly. Disappointment is evident in his tone. He's clearly not used to not getting his way. He recovers impressively fast, though. "I get it. I do. It was worth a shot. I just... I wish you could see yourself the way I see you."
"Someone who could be your mother?" The words slip darkly before she can hold them back.
"As a serious scientist, you should know age is nothing but a number," he counters, and she smiles to herself. As a scientist, perhaps, but not as a woman. He's a young man with his entire life ahead of him, and she's a woman passed her prime. But she can barely utter an argument when he speaks on. "You're intelligent, you're beautiful, you have this pull about you that you hardly seem aware of, and your work... My God, if I could do half the things you do." He sounds sincere, almost distraught even. "I get the impression you're not told that enough and it's a damn shame. You shouldn't be so hard on yourself, Dana."
While she's determined to shut out his flatteries, she finds herself unable to. There's strange reassurance to them; it's much more potent given the way she's been tormenting herself over Sveta. She hasn't replied yet, but it doesn't seem to bother him.
"Look, I understand that there's... history it's hard for you to move on from. But if you ever want to talk, just as friends, I've been told I'm a good listener. I promise to leave my conspiracy theories at the door."
She chuckles darkly. "Thanks, I appreciate it." She considers using the moment in order to plead with him to not go live with Mulder's crazy speculations, then decides against it. As much as she abhors the idea of them going public with their theory, she can't possibly exploit his kindness. She's above this.
His words stay with her long after they hang up. She's laying there in the dark wishing it was someone else speaking them to her. She's ashamed of her yearning, for it only proves O'Malley's point. She really is unable to move on; doesn't even know how to begin to do so after all these years. And then something terrifying occurs to her: if O'Malley has picked on her inability to leave the past in the past, Sveta must have too. Will she share this knowledge with Mulder? Her observations about Scully's psyche, delivered with such serenity, were so frightfully accurate, things she couldn't possibly pick up on a random search online. And there are secrets in her mind Scully doesn't want revealed to him, especially not that. She hopes Sveta knows better than sticking her pretty nose in other people's business.
A shrill sound pierces the silence and she starts, not expecting it. It takes her a moment to realize it comes from the landline, which is in the living room. She frowns, momentarily confused. Her mother is the only one calling her at this number these days, but it's the middle of the night. Besides, they have just spoken earlier that day. But what if her mother needs her help? What if there's something wrong, an emergency...
She tears at the covers in panic and races to grab the phone. "Hello?" she breathes into the receiver, heart pounding.
"Mulder?" As soon as his name escapes her lips, she feels silly. Of course it's him. Of course; who else would it be? "How did you get my number?"
He lets out this throaty chuckle that makes her weak in the knees despite herself. She sinks onto the armchair behind her. "A guy must have some secrets, Scully," he drawls, still in that same bedroom tone that has always made her insides melt.
"Are you okay? Do you need something?" There's no other reason for him to call her so late, as far as she's concerned. They're passed the days of calling one another at a silly o'clock just for a random chat. She remembers when those started, the first time the X Files have been closed and both of them reassigned. It feels as if forever has passed since then. Now, even this brief exchange is tense and awkward; it feels as if that's the only thing that exists between them these days. It reminds her of something he told her upon coming back from the dead, returning to an apartment and a life that were nothing but a distant memory to him. I have no idea where I fit it, he said. She thinks she knows now what he's meant.
He clears his throat, and the sound reminds her he hasn't answered her question. "I just wanted to... apologize."
She blinks into the darkness in shock, momentarily forgetting he cannot see her. "Apologize?" she echoes in confusion; rare are the times he has ever apologized to her about anything.
"These passed few days, it's just... It's harder than I thought possible, Scully. It used to be so effortless for us. I wasn't expecting it to be a struggle. I thought it would be seamless. And as if that isn't bad enough, there's this guy O'Malley and I..." He sighs; there's genuine desperation in his tone. "I can't compete, Scully. I'm too old for this."
Somehow he just does that, every single time. However furious she is with him, he always ends up saying that one sweet thing that will completely disarm her. His insecurity is there in his every word, his candor weakening her. "Don't you think I feel exactly the same?" she finds herself ask before she's able to stop herself.
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about you. And Sveta. And whatever is going on there."
For a moment he's stunned into silence. Then he lets out another chuckle; she grabs the phone receiver until her knuckles turn white. "You can't be serious."
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"Because this is ridiculous. Scully..." His voice trails off after uttering her name; it's as if he's shaking his head in dismay. "You must know that you... that I would never..."
"And I would?"
"You have every right to. If you do, this will be my doing, I… I don't deserve you. I never have."
"Bullshit," she says softly, because really, how can she stay mad when he stumbles over his words so adorably?
"You're still my one in five billion, Scully. Probably closer to ten billion now; which only reinforces my point."
"And you're still mine," she whispers.
"I thought it would get easier over the years, you know? That we would learn our lesson and stop keeping everything so bottled up."
"I suppose some things never change."
"Hmm." There's a brief pause, after which he says, "I should have told you every day what you mean to me, how much I lo – "
His soft words are replaced with a loud shrill which nearly gives her a heart attack. Just the alarm, she tells herself as she reaches for her phone and turns it off with shaky fingers. She looks around the room, disoriented. Not the living room, but her bedroom. The landline is nowhere to be found. She's staring about her for a moment, unsure how or when she's even gotten back to bed. It takes her another second to realize she's never left the room. She checks her phone absentmindedly, finding the call from O'Malley. Everything else has happened only in her head.
Disillusionment hits her like a punch, harder than the morning sunlight against her eyelids; she leans back with a huff. The fact he has called to apologize should have been her first hint, but she would have probably dismissed it out of hand, wanting so badly for it to be real. It has been the illusion of an infatuated child, nothing more; she should have known better, really.
Her steps are heavy as she gets out of bed. She frowns at the sound of her cracking joints as she walks into the bathroom. For the first time she isn't shying away from the sight of wrinkles and laugh lines on her face, but examining each of them with extra scrutiny. She smiles at her reflection in defiance as O'Malley's words come to mind once more. It's not very convincing, her smile, but she's determined to keep it there, a small distraction from her aching heart.
A new day has dawned, coming too soon, different, and yet exactly the same. She is still in this house which isn't quite a home yet, still alone, still getting older. The world is about to learn about the greatest of conspiracies.
And Mulder hasn't called.