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The Phoenix

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Mulder could have kicked himself. He really could.

He passed the three guys without as much as a second glance when he arrived back at the house. They shared a look as he trundled through the room, head hung low, shoulders slumped, before he carelessly threw his car keys in the pot. His arm fell limply to his side and he disappeared upstairs.

The three men waited until his heavy footsteps had faded to silence and the sound of his bedroom door slammed shut. Frohike huffed out a half-hearted chuckle. His eyes flitted between Langly and Byers.

"Must be trouble in paradise, huh?" The feeble joke fell flat. There was a short period of silence between them before he continued. "Jeez, uhh... Y'know, I'm sure they'll be fine. They'll be alright, right?"

"I hope so," Byers said quietly. "I haven't seen him this miserable since, well," he grimaced a little. "Since before he met Dana."

 

Mulder kicked his door shut, immediately regretting the decision when the sound of it banging against the frame pounded in his ears. He felt the floor tremble, and watched with bitter apathy as the photograph of his family on the dresser fell flat from the impact. Whatever. He staggered back onto his couch without checking if the glass had broken; it probably hadn't, and if it had, what did it matter? Broken frames were hardly his greatest problem in that moment.

No, the real issue wasn't even one thing - it was a combination of small things, things that just piled up until they had formed a mountain of unsolvable shit. Mulder had practically lived his whole life refusing to tackle these 'things', only throwing them onto the ever-growing heap of crap that he would eventually need to come to terms with. Only now there was so much that he couldn't avoid. Whenever he squeezed his eyes shut, all he could see was Scully's face back in his car. She smiled at him, so soft and gentle, so sweet. He wanted to believe that maybe, just maybe, there was something in her eyes when she looked at him - something hopeful, something expectant. It was hopeful thinking, he knew that, but there was still this cruel part of his mind entertaining the idea that Dana Scully had fallen for him too.

One of the issues was that he was a coward. He loved his best friend and he had done nothing about it. There was no attempt to deal with his feelings, no resolution. He couldn't even bring himself to talk to her about it, to open up. The opportunity to tell her exactly how he felt was right there in the car, straight after one of the best nights of his life. His hands clenched as he recalled how easy it would have been to kiss her, just like he'd imagined. To cup her face in his hands and draw her closer... He twisted around on the couch restlessly, pressing his fists against his eyes.

What he would have given to just forget everything, even if only for one night.

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"How was date night? Or should I say, date morning?" Natasha called, her tone light and teasing. Her smile faded as she watched Dana slump down on the bed and turn to face the wall. "Hey, Dana?" Her voice was much softer now, almost inaudible. "What's wrong?"

"He's not into me." It took Nat a while to process what she was saying; half of Scully's face was pressed against her pillow, so her voice came out muffled. It also didn't help that it felt as though there was a lump the size of a tennis ball lodged in Dana's throat. "Nat, he's not interested at all."

That didn't seem right. Between the starry-eyed gazes and the unnecessary touching, Natasha didn't need a PhD in rocket science to tell what was going on. She hesitated before walking over to Dana's bedside and sitting at her desk. She placed a gentle hand on her roommate's shoulder. "What makes you think he isn't interested?"

"We were in the car, and we'd just woken up - we took a nap, because Mulder was tired, y'know." There was no anger, no sadness in her words - just the same flat emptiness with which she'd spoken before. It was the voice of someone who was 'used to it'. "We woke up and it was morning. No doy. And I thought he was about to make a move, so I started to lean in and he moved away. Dropped me off back here. Didn't speak a word on the way." Dana scoffed. "You know. Standard."

"Do you think that, maybe... Oh jeez, I don't know, Dana," Natasha sighed. "Are you sure you guys didn't give off some mixed signals? Because that boy follows you around like a lovesick puppy, it doesn't make sense."

"Whatever. I don't care."

Nat sensed that now wasn't the right time to challenge her. She'd wait a while, let her rest. "Hey, I'm gonna go grab breakfast with some of the guys. D'you want me to bring you anything back?"

"No, I'm not hungry." Dana's growling stomach betrayed her.

"I'm bringing back pancakes," Nat smiled. "D, it's gonna be alright. Trust me."

She gave Dana's shoulder a final squeeze before shrugging on a jacket and leaving the room. 

Scully's chest ached, but her body flooded with silent relief. She was alone, and now the tears could finally fall. Everything from their night together came collapsing around her at once, burying her, suffocating her. All she could think of was Mulder's face, his soft features, the way his mussed hair flopped over his eyes... and how, just before he shifted away from her, she could've sworn he was leaning towards her too. Perhaps he'd had second thoughts, or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Either way, the kiss hadn't happened. He'd seen right through her and hadn't even looked her way as she said goodbye.

She tried her best to reason that it was better this way. Relationships equal disaster, she'd learned that years ago. And there's nothing worse than falling for someone so close, someone who knows you just as much as you know yourself. It's dangerous.

That didn't change the fact that there were still tears pooling down her cheeks, leaving a damp puddle on her pillow. She stared blankly at the gray wall in front of her and tried to conjure an image of the magical dusky skies she'd seen in their impromptu car rides, thinking of the miniature spectrum of color that seemed to change every evening. But it was just a dreary gray wall, and she couldn't even conjure the slightest flash of blue, pink or yellow.

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The car was too quiet now, even with the radio on. He took to walking instead.

Sometimes, particularly when he was walking around on campus, Brianna would join him. 

"Hey, Fox!" she enthused the first time. She fell into step alongside him, her blonde hair flying out behind her. "Why the long face?"

He rubbed a hand over the shadow around his jaw. "Nothing. It's nothing. Sorry, I'm just a little tired I guess." Mulder tried for a smile. "How are you doing?"

"Oh, the same as usual," she beamed. "You know how it is."

Somehow, they ended up in some kind of routine. She'd meet him at some point or another in his walk, and accompany him to their class. Occasionally, when he really needed cheering up, or just wanted to get out of his own head, he'd walk her to her other classes. Brianna was nice - she was bubbly and smiley and when she laughed at something he said she would hold onto his arm like it was really funny. He'd be lying if he said he didn't like the feeling of somebody wanting his company. It took his mind away from Scully for a while.

He wasn't entirely sure if he was avoiding her, or if she was avoiding him. Perhaps it was a mutual thing. She knew where he lived; his door was always open if she wanted to talk. But then again, the same could be said for him. There was nothing stopping him from going to her dorm and talking it out, apart from his own fear. Fear of what, he wasn't sure - fear of rejection, fear of opening up to someone... Hell, it could even be the fear of Natasha and Scully beating the shit out of him. It wasn't exactly an unreasonable concern.

But he missed her. Every time she walked into the lab, her eyes fixed on the ground, his chest ached. He kind of hated how she still looked good in a lab coat and oversized safety goggles; it made it a lot harder to get her off his mind. He really hated how she never met his eye, like she was embarrassed to even look at him. 

"Why don't you just talk to her, man?" Langly hissed as another class came and went without any change. Mulder shrugged. He'd already had this talk with Frohike and Byers and frankly, it exhausted him. "You can't just sit here every lesson staring at her with those sad puppy eyes. Just do something about it already! It's driving us wild!"

"There's nothing I can do," Mulder said shortly. He hunched his bag over one shoulder and took off before the conversation could continue.

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"You're still not talking to him?!"

Dana pursed her lips. "And you're still talking about this?"

"D..." Nat sighed. "C'mon. It's been weeks. And I know you're still upset, but it's so clear to see that you're missing him like crazy. You haven't smiled in weeks." 

Scully stared down at the textbook splayed out across her desk. The pen in her hand twiddled absently, doing anything but the work she'd promised herself she would complete. When she spoke, her voice quavered. "There's nothing to say anymore. I don't even know where I would begin with him." She shook her head, holding it in her hands. "I mean... How do you approach someone about this stuff? 'Hey, sorry I got the wrong idea and made a fool of myself, hope we're all good'? Ugh, jeez." She cringed at the thought. "No, it's ridiculous. It's hopeless, Nat."

"It is not hopeless," Natasha argued. "Have you thought about speaking to him about something other than that night?"

"Like what, the weather?" They both laughed at her dry response.

"Man, you're bad at this stuff," Nat teased. "No, I was thinking more of a, 'hey, there's a Halloween party happening this Saturday, wanna come with?'. Y'know, it's light, it's breezy, it's perfect."

"Is it?" Scully raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure it would be real great if I was actually going to a Halloween party, but... Wait. Why are you smiling like that?"

"Because you're so lucky to have friends with some very beneficial contacts," Nat grinned. 

Oh, brother. 

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Mulder flicked through one of the magazines by the side of his couch absently, not even registering the women on the glossy pages. His mind was still elsewhere, thinking of another girl entirely. It had been weeks, and neither of them had so much as looked at each other. Or rather, she didn't seem to be looking at him. He gazed after her in just about every damn class they had, and he hated himself for it.

He was forced out of his thoughts when Byers yelled from downstairs. "Mulder, you've got a visitor!"

"Send 'em up," he called back, quickly discarding the magazine by throwing it back on the pile. Though he knew it was insane, given the time passed and Scully's unrelenting indifference at his presence, there was still a faint spark of hope in him that wished for her to walk through his door. Realistically, it was probably someone from The Gunmen's paper, trying to catch a new angle on some conspiracy theory or other, but it didn't stop him from wishing to see a glimpse of red hair as his visitor entered.

When he saw her, his first thought was that he was hallucinating.

She edged around the door almost shyly, her back pressed against the wall. She closed it quietly and turned to face him. 

"Hi," she said.

"Scully." Mulder stumbled up from his position on the couch and got to his feet. One hand flew to the back of his neck automatically and rubbed circles against the skin as he tried his best not to stare. "Hey. Uh, what are you doing here?"

Come on, Dana, she thought. Just as we rehearsed.

"Well, uh..." she shifted from one foot to the other. "Nat's friend's throwing this huge costume party on Saturday, and it's gonna be crazy." She sighed. "I know we never do parties, but she's pretty insistent that this is gonna be, I quote, 'the Halloween party of the century', so I figured... I don't know. Maybe you'd like to come with me. Or, y'know, whatever."

To her surprise, he cracked a grin. "I'd like that."

A slow smile spread across her face. "Really?"

"Yeah, of course," he said. "I haven't been to a costume party in years."

Scully finally let out the breath she hadn't realised she had been holding since she entered the room. "Okay. Cool. Good. That's, um..." She stopped. Paused. "Uh, look. I'm sorry for making things weird these past couple of weeks. I guess I've just been really tired, and my workload has stepped up a lot, so... I haven't been avoiding you. And, if it's all the same to you, I kind of missed hanging out." Her excuse was pretty weak, but it didn't seem to matter. Mulder's eyes lit up anyway.

"Well," he began slowly, "I kind of missed hanging out too. And I'm sorry, for being weird about everything."

She smiled. "You didn't do anything wrong."

Mulder half-outstretched his arms, and she walked right into them. He chuckled as she circled his waist and rested her head on his chest. "It's good to have you back, Scully."

"Oh yeah?" She felt him nodding against the top of her head and closed her eyes. "It's good to be back."

Neither of them dared to touch upon what had almost been. Both were self-confessed cowards, after all, and there was nothing more frightening than revealing your feelings to a person you were convinced couldn't possibly feel the same way.