Title: An Acceptable Level of Happiness
Author: Jenna Tooms
Rating: NC-17
Spoilers: Season 8. Speculations within. (Spoiler virgin pure as the driven snow here, so any resemblance between this and actual XF plotlines is purely coincidental.)
Keywords: MSR, Holidayfic, Babyfic, Improv, humor, angst, sex
Archive: Gossamer, Ephemeral, yes. Anyone else, please ask first.
Disclaimer: Standard Disclaimer applies.

Summary: Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. Fortunately Scully has Mulder, and Mulder has solutions.


Roanoke, VA.
December, 2001.

"He's screening again," I say when Doggett gets into the car, and stab the Talk button with my thumb. "I've left two messages for him and I still don't know if he's listened to them. How am I supposed to tell him I'm going to be late if he won't answer the phone?"

Doggett's mind is elsewhere than my domestic problems. "Why don't you get caller ID?" He sits on the edge of the passenger seat, facing outside. He pulls off his shoes and bangs the soles together, knocking off drying mud.

"I guess it's time." This worries me more than I like to admit. It could mean anything when Mulder's having one of his anti-social days.

Doggett regards his ruined shoes and sighs. "Tell you what. You drop me off at a Metro station as soon as we get back to the city, and I'll take the train back to the office for my car. There's no point in you driving all the way out there and then all the way back."

"Thank you." It's been one of those days. The Roanoke P.D. called us in for help with what they're afraid is an occult murder spree. Of course the bodies are in the woods outside of town, of course it's been raining for three days so there's no evidence to be found, and of course while I was talking to the witness who found the bodies I waited a little too long and stained my blouse with breast milk. Even Doggett, who is used to it by now, is having trouble looking me in the eye today. I just want to go home, and I know my long day isn't over yet.

"There's some things I want to do at the office anyway," Doggett adds, which I know is meant to soothe my conscience even if it's true. He pulls his door shut. "I'm ready to go."

"All right." I turn the key and my car rumbles to life. As the car warms up I take a moment to flip down my visor and press my fingertip to the photograph there, giving a brief kiss to Malcolm's plump lips. Doggett turns his head away, smiling a little. "Sorry. I miss my baby."

"Then take us home, Dana."

"Right." I turn in my seat to guide my car out of the campground parking lot, eager to get home where my son and my sweetheart are waiting.


When I arrive home my breasts are aching the way they do just before milk starts running everywhere--I have exactly five minutes to get Malcolm up and nursing before I make a mess of myself. Again. I could pump them again like I've been doing all day, but the fact is the breast pump irritates my nipples and I'm started to dread using it. There is no way to keep one's dignity, even in front of a partner as unflappable as Doggett, when all you want to do is scratch itchy inflamed tissue on your chest.

There's been a bitter wind for the past several days along with the rain. The air smells good, loamy and leafy, and I take a deep whiff as I hurry up the steps into my building. I feel a bit like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland: I'm late, I'm late ... I fumble with the keys, my briefcase, and the cooler with my breast milk before I finally get the door open.

Most nights I come home to find Mulder and Malcolm watching 'The Powerpuff Girls', Mulder making commentary and Malcolm chewing his fist and making a few noises of his own. Mulder is convinced Malcolm has a crush on Bubbles.

But instead of my content little family watching cartoons, with the scent of dinner enlivening the air, tonight I am greeted by a wailing baby as Mulder paces back and forth across the floor, trying to soothe him with his soft, "Shh, shh, Big Mac. Daddy's here. Mommy will be home soon."

"I'm home," I say, closing the door behind me.

"Oh, thank God," Mulder says. "You're late."

"I'm aware," I say dryly. I unceremoniously dump my briefcase and the cooler on the floor, following them with my coat and blazer. "Gimme the baby." I'm already unbuttoning my shirt.

Mulder watches my fingers with interest but hands over Malcolm without comment. Malcolm breaks off in mid-wail to latch onto my nipple, and we both sigh with relief.

"You could have called," Mulder says.

"I did call. You were screening again."

His mouth opens and shuts, and he goes to the answering machine. Sure enough, there's a red glowing '2' on the display. "Sorry," he mutters. "You know how I feel about the phone."

"I know." I take a deep breath and let it out. I don't like being angry at Mulder--it doesn't help either of us--and this is just as much my fault as it is his. "Traffic was bad on the way back from Roanoke."

He tries to look interested. "How's the case?"

"John thinks vigilante, I think cult. There are some ritualistic overtones that don't fit in with a crusade for justice, however twisted."

"Uh-huh," Mulder says, neutral. I can't decide if Mulder likes Doggett or not. They tend to circle each other like wolves whenever they get within ten yards, but Mulder never makes so much as a snide remark to me about him. Doggett, of course, only asks about my personal life if I bring it up first. "Well. I'm sure you'll figure it out. Honest cop work and all that."

"I really could use your input, Mulder."

He shakes his head, going into the kitchen with the cooler. "No, thanks."

I sigh and ease into the rocking chair by the fireplace, taking care that Malcolm's mouth doesn't break contact with my breast. Since his return, Mulder has steadfastly refused to even think about going back to the FBI. I can't say that I blame him, but I miss his expertise. And his pencils in the ceiling. And his making fun of my lunches. And his sunflower seeds. And his imitation of Kersh. And his stealing kisses in the elevator.

"I was waiting for you to come home to start the rice," Mulder says as he puts the milk away. "Everything's ready, I just need to start the cooking part."

"I'm sure it's wonderful, whatever you've concocted."

He shrugs and smiles. "Just chicken and stuff. Half an hour?"

"Sounds great. How's your stomach been today?"

"Fine. It's all written down." He slouches in the entryway to the kitchen, watching us. "Ritualistic overtones?"

I smile despite myself and say, "The arrangements of the bodies. There's something very peculiar about them and almost familiar but I can't place where I've seen them before."

"Arranged like how?"

"The files are in my briefcase." I look at him expectantly.

He starts towards the case, then shakes his head again. "You don't want me horning in."

"I don't mind. Have a look." I smooth my fingers over Malcolm's head. His eyelashes twitch against his cheek and he suckles vigorously, as if he hasn't eaten for a week. His weight in my arms, however, proves otherwise. My Malcolm is a big boy.

"Not before dinner." Mulder gives me an uncertain smile and goes on watching us, his hands in his pockets.

Finally I say, "What?" and he smiles at me.

"It just gets me right **here**," he says, pressing his hand to his chest, and then he grins at me again and turns to the kitchen to finish making dinner.

I look down at Malcolm, who is floating blissfully on the high only a fed and warm baby can feel. "He's still learning," I tell him, and Malcolm's hand pulses against my breast.


Mulder's latest campaign is Christmas. Before that it was getting married, though he seems to be content with my wearing an engagement ring. But now he wants a full-blown old-fashioned Christmas. He says it has to be special, it's our first Christmas as a family - and, he told me just last night, "We'd be really sucky parents if we didn't do anything special for Big Mac's first Christmas," ignoring the fact that no matter what we do, Malcolm won't remember a thing and will have to trust the pictures.

It's just ten days before Christmas and we don't even have a tree. I don't have the energy to go shopping for one and Mulder can't go without me. He can't renew his driver's license yet. His reflexes and eyesight haven't improved enough. His body, at this point, is trim and increasingly stronger from all the walking, but it irritates him that he's confined to the neighborhood.

I'm just grateful he can walk at all. When they returned him he was suffering from exposure, malnutrition, blood loss, infections. His muscles were atrophied. His head had been shaved. His corneas were damaged. The admitting doctor stopped counting his injuries at fifty- two.

Mulder won't admit he remembers anything. He doesn't say he can't remember. He doesn't say anything about it at all. I know he has nightmares - I'm awake anyway, I hear them. Sometimes when he's holding Malcolm he cries and he won't say why. His therapist can't tell me what they talk about, of course, but in our few conversations it has sounded like he's having no more luck getting anything out of Mulder than I am.

There are many things I know we'll tell Malcolm when he's old enough to understand. I'll tell him, "Your father was taken away from us during most of the time I was pregnant with you." I'll tell him, "Your father wept against my belly when he learned about you."

But I don't know how I'm going to tell him, "When they took you out of my body your father started screaming, 'Don't hurt her! Stop hurting her! You bastards! God! I'll do anything you want, just stop hurting her!' and they had to restrain and sedate him."

I don't know how to tell Malcolm that. I don't know if I will. Of all the things we don't talk about, Mulder's abduction is the biggest elephant in the living room.


When I finish feeding, Malcolm I burp him and change his diaper. He coos and babbles at me, patting my cheeks and tugging on my hair. We have a strange relationship, my baby and I: because I'm at work all day he's not as exclusive with me as most babies are with their mothers. Mulder, after all, is the one who feeds and cuddles and plays with him all day, so when Malcolm is scared or uncertain he looks to Mulder for reassurance. Still, Malcolm knows and loves me, and I adore him. His drooling smile and dimpled hands are worth every second of the difficult pregnancy, the pain of the c-section, the worry and the fear.

I go into the bedroom and sit Malcolm up against the pillows at the head of the bed so I can change my clothes. Sweats and an old sweatshirt with the neck cut out are a welcome relief from pantyhose and wool. I leave my bra off as well, and the soft fleece of the sweatshirt feels soothing against my sore breasts.

For a moment or two I stand in front of the mirror, inspecting myself. My body is slowly recovering, but it's a fact: I am never going to be as slender as I was before Malcolm was conceived. I'm all hips and breasts right now, like one of those Stone Age fertility figures. Not quite so much ass, though.

"So," I ask Malcolm, "what do you think? Should I admit defeat-- accept the effect of age and gravity and childbearing?" Malcolm blows on his lips and holds out his arms, wanting to be held. I pick him up and kiss him. "I'm glad you're so non-judgmental," I tell him and kiss him a few more times, stroking his soft dark hair. "I'm glad you don't care that I'm exhausted and fat and bad-tempered. And I am glad that you love me, sweet baby boy." I sigh as he tucks his head into my neck. I whisper, "I wish I could stay home and play with you all day," and close my eyes, swaying slightly to rhythm of my baby's breathing.

I hear soft footsteps on the carpet. "Hey," Mulder says as he puts his arms around me, and I nuzzle my cheek against his chest without opening my eyes. "Dinner's ready."

"Okay."

"Can I join this dance?" His voice rumbles beneath my ear.

"Of course." All three of us sway together, me in Mulder's arms, Malcolm in mine.

"What are we dancing to?"

"Doesn't matter."

He chuckles softly and kisses the top of my head. "That's true," he whispers. "It doesn't."


"I've been thinking," Mulder says over dinner.

"Oh?" I fill my fork with mushrooms, rice and chicken and take a bite. Mm. Bliss.

"What if I did Christmas?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'll take care of it. I'll do everything, the baking and the shopping and the wrapping and the decorating and the whole ... whatever."

"You want to bake?" I look at Mulder in amazement, watching him spread peanut butter onto a celery stick.

"Sure. I've been watching a lot of the cooking channel. I've learned tricks I never dreamed of." He eats his celery and licks peanut butter off his fingers, raising his eyebrows at me. "I can eat gingerbread, can't I?" He'll eat plain rice and skinless chicken, but only with several sighs and resigned looks.

"I--you want to bake?"

"My mom used to make this gingerbread cake with lemon sauce. God, it was good. That's the flavor of Christmas to me. That's what I want to make. Since I can't have any other good stuff," he adds with a pout.

"If you want to spend every night throwing up, go ahead and eat anything you like," I say mildly, and get back to the subject at hand. "Do you even have a recipe?"

"I'll find one. It's got to be on the Internet somewhere."

"But aside from the gingerbread cake," I say and sip my milk. "Aside from that, you want to do the whole thing. A tree and stockings hung by the chimney with care and toys for Malcolm and the whole thing."

"The whole thing. I want to give you the best Christmas you've ever had. I know you hate this season and I don't blame you for it, but if I can make it better--"

"I don't hate it." I amend at his look, "I don't **completely** hate it."

"Okay, but you don't like it. That's been fairly obvious for several years now. But if I can make you like it, if I can make it less painful for you ..." He shrugs, running out of steam. "Then let me."

Malcolm sits beside me in his high chair, alternately banging plastic cups against the tray and dropping them on the floor. I reach over and play with his hand, and he works my fingers with his gums. I'm constantly stunned by his tiny fingernails, his strong grip. "Don't make it about me," I say quietly. "Do it for Malcolm if you have your heart set on it. Christmas is more for kids anyway."

"It's about loving people, I thought." He helps himself to another chicken breast. This is good. He needs more flesh on his bones.

"Well, that too. Look: you do whatever you want to do, whatever you find necessary, and I'll watch. I'd love to see your version of the best Christmas ever, in fact. But do it for Malcolm, do it for yourself, even, but don't do it for me. In fact I'd rather just stay out of your way."

"Ho, ho, ho, Scully," Mulder says dryly.

"Bah, humbug," I answer with a tiny grin, and Malcolm adds his two cents with a long string of vowels and spit bubbles.


After dinner is cleaned up, Mulder commandeers the computer to do research, which I don't mind because it means I can play with Malcolm. He's at the stage now where his universe is expanding and he's starting to notice what goes on around him. When objects fall from his hands, his eyes follow where they go. He reaches for things that interest him, and when I place something new in his hands, he'll inspect it for a moment or two before it goes into his mouth.

"Scully," Mulder says when there's a lull in the noise Malcolm and I are making, "there are so many sites out here that are anti- Christmas."

"Really," I say, not completely listening because Malcolm is turning himself from his back to his stomach and I love watching him do it.

"Yeah. They say the trappings of modern Christmas are really pagan in origin and good Christians shouldn't observe them." He points to the screen. "They say it's all about materialism and not decent Christian values."

"Well," I say slowly, "that's the complaint a lot of people have about Christmas: that it's become about shopping, not giving."

"These people are saying that Santa Claus is another disguise of the devil. Tell me in what universe this makes sense. Santa Claus, evil? Jolly old St. Nick?"

"St. Nicholas is an historical figure. Everything else is folklore." I roll onto my back and pick up Malcolm to give him a ride on my knees, and he crows with delight. "A lot of our customs are based on pagan practices. Not just with holidays. Putting your best foot forward is from the Romans, for example. Things like that, everyday things. I can't tell you, as a Roman Catholic and as an Irish Catholic, even, how many of our rituals come from the Romans, the Celts, Mithraism--religions that have their roots in the deep dark past and that are far older than 'decent Christian values'." I sit up to hold Malcolm against my chest, and notice that Mulder is staring at me with his mouth slightly agape. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Oh," he says faintly, "I'm just thinking ..." He sighs and turns back to the computer.

I think I know what he's thinking, but I am much too tired to do anything about that right now. "Anyway. Why are you worrying about what some spoilsports are saying?"

"I guess it disturbs me, people reading such dire things into such an innocent holiday. I mean, if it were really evil, wouldn't we perform human sacrifice instead of donating to charity and giving cookies to our neighbors?"

"The Steadmans down the hall always give me a fruitcake for Christmas. I think that's pretty evil."

Mulder looks at me over his shoulder, his expression suggesting he doesn't quite know if I'm kidding or not. I just smile at him, patting Malcolm on the back, and say, "It's feeding time again. Don't stay up too late, 'kay?" I bend over his shoulder for a quick kiss.

"I won't." He returns my kiss absently.

In the bedroom, I take off my sweatshirt and sit on the bed to nurse Malcolm. He's not crying yet, just making snuffling noises as he punches his fists in the air. He won't nurse if he's truly not hungry, but most of the time my milk production and his hunger are still in sync. During the day Mulder feeds him from a bottle with thawed milk I pumped the day before. It's not a perfect system, but for the time being it's the best we can do.

Despite the hassles I wouldn't change things. I can't imagine another person I'd rather leave Malcolm with during the day--no one but Mulder would love and protect him the way that I would. If Mulder decides he wants to return to work--if they let him--we'll have to find another arrangement, and the only alternative I can see is me staying home. I am not placing my son in the care of strangers, no matter how well qualified they may be. You never know. **We** never know.

Meantime, I'm glad Mulder is here to tend the baby, and that he's happy to do it and pretty good at it, too. His tenderness and patience are unending.

This includes his patience with me. Here's the thing: despite the fact that he's been home almost eight months now, we have yet to make love again. Between Mulder's recovery process and Malcolm's birth, neither of us have been physically able. And even though I've started to notice wiry muscles in Mulder's arms and his stamina has decidedly improved, I have been just too tired.

I know he wants me. It's in the way he admires me when I dress and undress, the way he holds me during the night, the expression on his face when he watches me with Malcolm. I want him too--oh, yes--but I need to sleep for a week straight first.

While I ponder this dilemma Malcolm's suckling has lessened and slowed. I rock him for a few minutes more until I'm sure he's asleep, and then carefully rise to put him to bed. I change his diaper once more, put him in his sleeper, and lay him in his crib. Mulder thinks he got his sleeping patterns from me--he sleeps like the dead until he's ready to wake up, the way I used to sleep. "Used to" being the operative phrase.

I stifle a yawn and go into the bathroom. I've heard horror stories from nursing mothers about dry, cracked and bleeding nipples, but mine aren't as bad as that. Mainly the skin around the areolae is red and bumpy, and the nipples themselves are very tender. My doctor recommended a lotion to help with the irritation, but the best thing, we both know, is to stop using the breast pump. Which I won't do.

I brush my teeth and wash my face, ticking off my mental To Do list. There's still quite a few items on it before I can go to bed.

I'm rubbing lotion into my breasts when Mulder pauses in the bathroom door. "I looked at the files."

"Oh?" I try not to show how glad I am to hear that. "What do you think?"

"They're from Tarot cards. The positions. The guy hanging by one foot? That's the Hanging Man. The couple are meant to be the Lovers. The four people, that's the Wheel of Fortune."

"Do you think it's a message?"

"I'm sure it is. Couldn't tell you want the killer's trying to say, though. Tarot interpretation relates to myth and dream symbolism, but it also depends on the reader and the person they're doing the reading for."

"Do you have some references to the Tarot? This could be helpful."

"I have a book in storage somewhere. I'll look for it." He pauses and says, "Are they still bothering you?"

"Yes."

His voice drops an octave or so. "Do you need some help with that?"

"I think I've got it covered, thanks."

He doesn't answer and I glance at his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. His eyes are distant, his face disappointed, but when he notices me looking he gives me a faint smile. "I'm going down to the storage room," he says quietly.

"Mulder--hey--" I turn around and hold out my hands to him, never minding that I am naked from the waist up. I've been a lot less self- conscious about nudity since Malcolm's birth. "Come here a second."

He crosses the bathroom and puts his hands in mine. I slide my hands up his arms and pull on his shoulders a bit, and the corner of his mouth twitches in a half-smile as he bends to sweetly kiss me.

Oh, he tastes good. Towards the end of his disappearance I would dig through his belongings, looking for anything that still carried his scent. The photographs would always remind me of how he looked and his clothes would always remind me of his height, his size, the breadth of his shoulders--but it was the other, less tangible things that I was afraid to lose, the memory of his scent and his taste and the texture of his tongue in my mouth.

The first time I kissed him after his return I knew I had forgotten nothing.

All right. Yes, I am tired and I smell like baby spit and sour milk, but there's no mistaking the intent in Mulder's kiss. Oh, he wants me- -and oh, I want him too. I open my mouth to his tongue and wind my arms around his neck, nuzzling my face against his beard. He wraps his arms around my waist and lifts me off my feet to crush me to his chest.

I break off the kiss with a hiss as pain flares through my breasts. "Oh, shit, I'm sorry," Mulder mutters, setting me on my feet. "I knew they were sore but I didn't think they were **that** sore--are you okay?"

"I'll be fine." I run some cold water into my cupped hand and splash it onto my breasts. Mulder watches me with his hands on my shoulders and sorrow on his face.

"I'm sorry," he says again.

"It's okay, Mulder. Really." I grip the edge of the sink with both hands, swaying on my feet. I want to crawl into bed and start over again tomorrow.

"You're exhausted, Scully," he says, rubbing my shoulders. "You're working nonstop, you do so much for Malcolm and you hardly sleep-- you're pushing yourself too hard."

"It all has to be done."

"Nobody said it all had to be done by you." He bends and slides his arm under my knees, holding my back with the other.

"Mulder, you're not strong enough."

"Shh," he whispers and lifts me off the floor. He doesn't wobble a bit as he carries me into the bedroom, and he sets me carefully onto the bed. "Stay there."

"I can't go to bed yet, there's too much to do. I haven't prepared my notes for tomorrow and I want to look at your book--"

"You're going to sleep," he says firmly. "It's after midnight and Malcolm will be awake again in just a few hours. You're going to sleep now, young lady."

"Young lady," I sulk as Mulder gets my pajamas out of the bureau, but I don't get up, either.

"I bet your partner wouldn't complain if you telecommuted tomorrow. He knows how to reach you."

I have to admit he's right. Doggett's been trying to convince me to take some extra time off, anyway. He's worried about the pace I've set myself. "All right. I'll stay home tomorrow. We can do more research on the Tarot connection."

"And then it's the weekend and you're going to take that easy, too. Your partner can handle things."

"Yes, sir," I say, widening my eyes at him as he dresses me and buttons up my pajama top.

"You wouldn't have this problem if you'd slowed down in the first place." His voice is much more soothing than his words, and his hands are gentle as he takes off the sweats and replaces them with pajama bottoms. He chose the flannel tonight. Good choice.

"I'm a working mother with a new baby, I can't slow down."

"Scully." Mulder grasps my chin in his hand and lifts my face so I have to look him in the eye. He says, emphasizing each word, "Yes, you can."

Our gazes lock, and then the moment is ruined by a jaw-splitting yawn that I can't hold back. Mulder chuckles and tucks my legs beneath the covers. I lay my head down on the pillow and I feel his hand gently stroking my hair as I drift into sleep.


Even though Mulder insists I take this Saturday easy--on the couch beneath an afghan with the cell phone within reach--he spends it getting things for Christmas. He enlists the help of my mother, who gives me a quick kiss before turning her full attention to her grandson. The little flirt is in fine shape, cooing and grabbing and kicking his feet. The three of them leave the apartment in a flurry of "goodbyes" and "love yous" and "we won't be gone longs", and I am left with silence.

For a moment or two I just sit, watching the fire crackle in the fireplace, and then I sigh and stretch out my arms. It's the first time I've been completely alone in my own apartment since Mulder came home. I don't even want to flick on the TV for company. I just want to listen to the fire and the wind while I do my work.

By mid-afternoon, I've read Doggett's findings and added some thoughts of my own, I've E-mailed them to him and answered a few other messages that were waiting in my In box. I even write in my journal, which has been sorely neglected these last few months--my last entry was Malcolm's birth, and that was perfunctory: "Malcolm Joseph Scully, 9:48 p.m., May 27, 2001. Baby-blue eyes and dark hair. Looks like Mulder." Keep in mind I'd just had a caesarean section and was afraid that Mulder's abduction had truly driven him insane.

Writing about that day is harder than I expected. I start and stop several times, trying to put my thoughts in order. Mulder was still in the hospital, too weak to come home, and they brought him into the delivery room in a wheelchair. I was already groggy from labor, muscle relaxants and the anesthesia they'd given me to prepare me for the caesarean. I remember his hand touched my face and he kissed my cheek. You're so brave, he whispered.

I don't remember much between that and when Mulder started screaming. He must have looked past the sheet that was set up to block the view of my open belly, and that sight, the blood, even the alien appearance of a newborn baby, was too much for him. He knocked over a tray of instruments struggling to stand. He pushed a nurse off her feet. He tried to drape himself over my body, his legs so weak they shook. His hands were so gnarled he dropped the scalpel he had grabbed to threaten the staff away. And all the while I could hear him: Don't hurt her, stop hurting her, take me instead, don't hurt her.

When I visited him a few days later in the psychiatric ward, he wept and apologized over and over. "There was so much blood, Scully. All I could see was the blood." His doctor recommended that I wait until Mulder's condition was more stable, but I brought the baby anyway and laid him carefully in his father's arms. I said, Say hello to your son. And Mulder whispered, his eyes rapturous and his face full of reverence, Hello. Hello, you beautiful child. Hello.

I cap my pend and put the journal aside, not tempted to reread old entries. This particular notebook is the record of loneliness and worry and I don't know if I'll ever revisit it. Even the joy of Malcolm's birth is marred by Mulder's breakdown.

I look at the clock. They've been gone most of the afternoon, and Malcolm's going to be hungry any minute now. Mulder had the diaper bag--a dark blue one that looks more like a gym bag, though it does have a rollout mat for changing diapers--but he didn't take any bottles or milk with him.

I go to the window and look out onto the street. The sun is out and the wind is blowing hard, tearing what leaves remained off the trees. They bundled up Malcolm in his little snowsuit with an extra knitted cap to keep his head warm, and he had his mittens, but it's still so cold out. I rub my arms, shivering. Did Mulder wear his thick coat? Did he remember his scarf? He is getting stronger but he's still an easy target for pneumonia--

The front door opens and the three of them bustle in, Malcolm zipped inside Mulder's coat so that only his little face shows. He's teary and red-faced, and makes his "Feed me! Now!" cry when he sees me. Of course this is enough for the milk to let down, but it's not the first time I've stained this shirt so I don't mind.

"Sorry, Scully," Mulder says as he unzips his coat and I take our wailing baby. "Traffic was worse than I thought it would be."

I kiss Mulder quickly, unbuttoning my shirt with one hand. "I was starting to get worried."

"We left everything in the car so we could get the baby inside," Mom adds, looking away from the sight of Malcolm nursing at my breast. The fact that I breast feed so openly makes her uncomfortable. We were all bottle-fed babies. "Other than this he was a very well- behaved young man."

"Yep, he's a charmer," I say, curling up on the couch. I put my finger in Malcolm's hand and he clenches his fingers around it in rhythm to his suckling. "I think I know where he gets it from," I add, and Mulder, on his way to the bedroom to put away the diaper bag, laughs out loud.

"I'll get the bags. Maggie, you said something about tea?"

"Tea. Yes. That wind is biting." She goes into the kitchen. Mulder takes this opportunity to lean over the back of the couch, tilting back my head, and he kisses me deeply. His hand slides down my chest, caresses my breast on the way, and strokes the baby's head.

"You are so beautiful," he whispers and stands up to go back to the car, leaving me breathless and more than a little distracted.

Mom comes back from the kitchen and sits on the couch beside me. "Teapot's on." After a moment she puts her feet on the coffee table. "Dana," she says pensively.

"Hm?" I stroke Malcolm's head and play with his hand.

"Have you ever gone shopping with Mulder before?"

"I have. Yes." I have to smile. Shopping with Mulder is not for the faint of heart.

She sighs, furrowing her eyebrows. "Do you think he had ADD as a child?"

I start laughing. "No ... but that would explain a few things about him, wouldn't it?"

"The man is non-stop! Every five minutes it was 'Oo, Maggie, look at this!' 'Oo, Maggie, look at that!'" She sighs again. "I'm glad he was carrying the baby. Otherwise I don't think I could have kept up."

"Did Malcolm enjoy it?"

"Malcolm enjoyed it. Mulder takes such good care of him."

I lean my head on her shoulder. "He's a good daddy."

"He's a very good daddy." Mom leans her head against mine. "I wish your father could have met him."

I have to smile at the thought. Ahab and Mulder in the same room ... "Me too. Though I can just imagine what he'd have to say about my having a baby without being married first."

"Your father would love Malcolm the same as the rest of his grandchildren. Though I think he'd be a bit more insistent than I have been about the two of you getting married."

I sigh. Not this again. "We will. Eventually. I just hate the thought of people saying we had to get married. I mean, we don't **have** to get married, we don't **have** to do anything."

"No, of course you don't **have** to. But it would be the right thing to do, don't you think? It's these kinds of institutions that hold society together."

I lift my head and look at her. "You know, Mulder said that to me not two weeks ago. He wants you to convince me, right?"

"He asked me to talk to you. It hurts him, thinking that you don't want to marry him."

"I do want to marry him. Just ... not yet. I want to do it for the right reason, not because society expects it or because it's a neat idea."

"Isn't Malcolm the right reason?" Mom asks gently, and I sigh.

"I'm already a fallen woman," I say, grumpy at where this conversation is going. "A wedding is not going to make that big of a difference. What's taking Mulder so long?"

"Oh, I hope he's not trying to carry all the bags at once." Mom gets up and puts her coat back on, just as the front door opens again and Mulder staggers in with the shopping bags. Mom rushes forward to help him and the teapot starts whistling.

I take a deep breath and get up to tend the teapot, holding my startled baby in the crook of one arm. It's nice to have them back. It is. Really.


Sunday is haircut day, which is a bit traumatic for all of us. We have several toys to keep Malcolm occupied, like a jumper set up in the doorframe of the kitchen, but he prefers much more to be held. So when neither of us can hold him he lets his displeasure be known with piercing shrieks and squeals. He won't start truly crying unless he's genuinely upset, which he will get if we leave him alone for too long. He doesn't like to be confined.

Then there's the matter of Mulder and his reaction to scissors and the razor. When he was first released from the hospital I took him to his old barber. He made it into a seat, and even let the barber tie the cloth around his neck. At the first flash of the scissors, though, he was up and out so fast for a moment I only stood in the waiting area dumbfounded, the baby in my arms.

He will, however, let me cut his hair and trim his beard--which he grew to cover his facial scars. I let him keep it as long as he lets me keep it neat. It emphasizes the leanness of his face, but also makes his lips look even more lush and full. There's something undeniably sensual about his mouth surrounded by dark, grey-streaked hair.

Sunday afternoon I spread an old sheet on the kitchen floor and tie a dishtowel around Mulder's neck. He sits stiffly in the kitchen chair, his eyes on Malcolm. "Warn me," he says, his hands clenching.

"I know." I run my fingers through his hair, combing it out. I never start cutting right away. First I rub his temples and massage his scalp with my fingertips, trying to soothe him until his eyes close. I rub the base of his neck and his shoulders too, trying to reassure him that nothing's going to hurt him here. He often says he'd know my hands anywhere.

"I'm picking up the scissors now," I say when he's relaxed. He acknowledges this with a grunt, his head tilted forward. I keep one hand combing through his thick hair and pick up the scissors with the other, and click them once or twice to get him used to the sound.

I keep one hand in his hair as I trim it, scraping my nails lightly against his scalp. There is one scar on his head and every time my fingertips pass over it my hands tremble. They cut him open everywhere.

I also murmur to him, telling him what I'm doing. "I'm doing your sideburns now. I'm cutting your bangs. I'm trimming the back." He answers me with grunts, his eyes squeezed shut.

The worst is the beard trimmer. I think it's the hum it makes when I turn it on, or maybe the vulnerability of a sharp object at his neck. I set down the scissors and pick up the trimmer. "I'm going to shave the back of your neck now."

"Uh-huh." He rubs his thighs with the heels of his hands.

"Hold still, Mulder."

"I'm holding still." He holds himself almost rigid, trying not to squirm as I touch the trimmer to the back of his neck.

When it's time to trim his beard, I kneel in front of him. "Ready?"

"Yeah."

"Tilt your head back a bit--there you go. You're doing really well today, Mulder."

"Uh-huh," he says again.

"Are you sure you don't want me to shave this completely?" I'm not crazy about the beard--I love his funny face--but I don't mind it.

He opens his eyes to peer at me. Malcolm will do the same thing when I disturb him when he's sleepy. "I'm sure."

I'm careful with the trimmer around his mouth. "Though I will admit it does make you look like that absent-minded professor you almost were."

He chuckles. "The Bizarro World Mulder."

"You still could do it, you know. If you wanted."

He opens his eyes again. "Do you want me to go back to work, Scully?"

"One of these days you're going to get bored with staying at home." I raise my eyes to him and shut off the trimmer. "There. I'm done." I untie the dishtowel and dust his chest and shoulders for any stray hairs. "Doesn't Daddy look better?" I ask Malcolm, who just squeals, recognizing that we're finished.

Mulder stands and lifts Malcolm out of his jumper. For a moment Mulder buries his forehead in the baby's soft neck, and Malcolm pats his face. Mulder takes a deep breath. "Okay. Thanks, Scully."

"You're welcome. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Oh, yeah," he says with studied casualness, which would convince me if I didn't know him so well. I'm not going to press him about it, though. "It wouldn't do for me to become the neighborhood scary hermit guy, would it?"

"No, it wouldn't." I pick up the dropcloth from the floor and shake it out over the garbage can. "Do you ever think about going back to work?"

"Nope." I look at him over my shoulder and he shrugs, bouncing Malcolm a bit in his arms. "All I think about is keeping my boy happy. And my wife--or whatever you are today."

"Your devoted slave," I say, widening my eyes at him, and he laughs.

"That must be the Bizarro World Scully. Do you really think I would get bored with this? Taking care of you and taking care of Malcolm ... it's very ..." He shakes his head thoughtfully. "I really couldn't ask for anything more right now. I mean, could you?"

I smile at him. "No. I couldn't." Which is true.


Over the course of the week Mulder brings Christmas into our apartment. He sets up the tree, a six-foot Blue Spruce, in one corner of the living room. He strings it with tiny white lights but does not decorate it further, telling me I have to wait until Christmas Eve.

He hangs our stockings from the mantlepiece: a blue one for him, a green one for me, a red one for Malcolm, with our names embroidered across the tops. Mine, I am glad to see, says "Dana," but his, of course, says "Mulder" in round gold script.

He hangs lights in our windows and a wreath on our front door. He brings me cups of hot cocoa stirred with a candy cane to drink while I'm at the computer, or greets me at the door with fresh cookies and flour on his shirt. He does not, thankfully, dress Malcolm as an elf or a itty-bitty reindeer, but one night he puts a sweater and a Santa hat on Malcolm and takes pictures. He plays Christmas albums, my favorite kinds: Celtic musicians, instrumental guitar, classic songs and old English carols. The pile of wrapped packages grows daily beneath the tree.

After our first conversation about early Christianity's parallels with paganism, he has found the subject fascinating. He has all sorts of nuggets of information culled from the Internet. He tells me, "Did you know the Yule log is Scandinavian, not English? It was part of a festival for the return of the sun god."

"Good thing we have a small fireplace," I say.

He says, "The twelve days of Christmas is from Mesopotamia--they'd have a twelve-day festival to assist their main god defeat the monster of chaos at the turn of the year."

"So what's the significance of twelve lords a-leaping?" I say.

He says,"The Romans would put candles in green trees to celebrate Saturnalia, and then the Germans borrowed it for their midwinter festival, using evergreens instead."

"You sure it's not the other way around?" I say. "Maybe the Romans borrowed it from the Germans."

"The Romans put intertwined holly and ivy bowers over their doors for Saturnalia too. Holly and ivy are fertility symbols--the holly is feminine and the ivy is masculine." This he says with his half- teasing leer.

"Shocking," I say with a grin, and lift Malcolm to my shoulder to pat his back.

Friday I come home and Mulder greets me at the door, sans both baby and cookies. "Hey, Scully," he says in a low voice, and he gestures with his eyebrows over the door, looking up hopefully. I look up to see mistletoe hanging from the doorframe.

"Oh, Mulder," I say in exasperation, but kiss him anyway. "So, what's today's lesson?"

"Today's lesson," Mulder says, walking me into the apartment and taking the cooler and briefcase from my hand, "is mistletoe."

"Mistletoe. Okay."

"The humble mistletoe was believed to be sacred by several European cultures. The Norse, because of the role it played in their mythology, believed it represented the love that transcends death. In fact, when Norse warriors met beneath mistletoe they wouldn't fight each other--which, considering the pugnacious nature of Norse warriors, was probably quite difficult to do."

"That's very nice, really," I say, taking off my coat.

"The Druids used it in sacrificial rituals and believed it was sacred because it never touched the ground," Mulder says as he puts away the bottles of milk into the freezer.

"I've heard of that. Is Malcolm sleeping?"

"He is. And the Celtic word for mistletoe meant 'all-heal' because they believed it could heal every disease and injury." He takes my hands, balancing me as I step out of my shoes. "And the piece de resistance, Scully, is that to many European cultures mistletoe was an aphrodisiac."

"An aphrodisiac," I repeat. "Really." Do I need to mention ... no, I probably don't.

"I present the mistletoe," he says with a proper sense of drama, and I applaud him.

"Thank you very much. I feel edified."

"Now," he says seriously, "please tell me you're taking this weekend off."

"I have been threatened with bodily restraint if I show my face in the office before the second of January." Doggett actually waved his handcuffs at me, saying he'd attach me to Mulder if it came to that. I'm not going to tell Mulder that but it amused the hell out of me.

"And you didn't bring anything home, right?" Mulder inspects my face when I hesitate. "Right, Scully?"

"Just some things I wanted to look up - Mulder!" I cry as he lunges for my briefcase, and we wrestle over it for a moment before he concedes and I retreat, my briefcase clutched to my chest, both of us laughing.

"You're going to get eight hours of sleep a night if it kills me, Scully," he says, flopping down onto the couch. He holds out his arms and gestures me to him. "Come on, love. Lie down for a spell."

"Do the eight hours begin now?" I say but go to him and lie down on top of him, my head on his chest. He wraps his arms around me and kisses the top of my head.

"The eight hours begin ... now," he says, checking his watch. I fake a deep snore and he laughs. We lie silently for a while, holding each other.

"Mulder," I say softly.

"You're still awake?"

"I am. Malcolm's going to be hungry any minute now. Do you really want to go to my mom's party on Tuesday?"

"She's expecting us, Scully."

"I know ... but there are going to be so many people."

"Mostly your family, as I recall."

"And it's formal. My mom hasn't thrown a formal party since my father died."

"Don't you like the way I look in a tux?"

I sigh and nuzzle my nose against his chest. "I love the way you look in a tux."

"And somebody's getting a new party dress for Christmas ..." He rubs my cheek and I smile. This was one of his few purchases that he consulted me about, though I haven't seen the actual dress yet. He only asked me about color and size. "And this way everybody who's been complaining about not seeing Malcolm can oo and ah over him to their heart's content."

"That's true."

We lie there for a while longer as Mulder strokes my back. He says, "'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' is on tonight."

"Mm."

"I like that one."

"Mm." I feel like I could fall asleep right here.

"The guy who sings the Grinch song is the same guy who does the voice for Tony the Tiger in the Frosted Flakes commercials."

"Indeed."

"And the narrator is Boris Karloff."

"Mm."

"It's got some good songs. I love the songs." He sings very softly and slowly, "'You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch ... you really are a heel ...'" He pauses. "I don't remember what comes next."

I take a deep breath, letting go of the idea of a nap, and sing against his chest, "'You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch. You really are a heel. You're as cuddly as a cactus, you're as charming as an eel, Mr. Gri-inch. You're a bad banana with a,'" deep breath, "'greasy black peeeeel ...'"

"Isn't there something about a seasick crocodile?"

"Third verse. 'You're a monster, Mr. Grinch. Your heart's an empty hole. Your brain is full of spiders, you've got garlic in your soul, Mr. Gri-inch. I wouldn't touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pollllle ...'"

"Scully, I am so impressed that you know this."

I tap his nose with my fingertip. "I like to keep you guessing. 'You're a vile one, Mr. Grinch. You have termites in your smile. You have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile, Mr. Gri-inch.'"

"I knew it! I knew there was something about a seasick crocodile."

"'Given the choice between the two of you,'" deep breath, "'I'd take the seasick crocodiiiiile ...'"

Mulder is grinning at me like I hung the moon, and he takes my face between his hands and kisses me. "I love you," he says, and then tucks in his chin like he expects to be reprimanded.

This won't do at all. I slide up his body and plant my elbows on either side of his head, and kiss him for all I'm worth.

It perks him up, as I hoped it would. He grasps my hips and massages them as we kiss. I comb my hands through his hair, glad that the irritation on my breasts has gone down somewhat so I can enjoy this. One of Mulder's hands slides up my side and stops just beneath my breast, and his thumb strokes the outer curve experimentally. I moan to encourage him and he interprets it correctly, cupping my breast and circling it with his palm.

Of course Malcolm chooses this moment to wake up, wailing and hungry. I push myself off Mulder and he groans with frustration. On the way to the bedroom I whip off my blouse so the milk won't stain it. I am tossing every one of these nursing bras the moment Malcolm is weaned.

"You know, Scully," Mulder says, not moving from the couch, "one of these days I hope you tear off your clothes for **me**."

"One of these days," I say and go into the bedroom to get my hungry baby.


After dinner we all watch 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' companionably on the couch, Malcolm on Mulder's lap. Every time Mulder laughs, Malcolm twists his head back to look up at him and laughs too--his sweet giggle that I could almost believe gives birth to pixies like it says in 'Peter Pan.' Mulder sings all the songs, too, holding Malcolm up to make him dance or rocking him from side to side. It does not surprise me that Mulder cries during the Whos' song: "'Christmas Day is here at last, so long as we have hands to clasp.'" It brings a lump to my throat too.

I watched this last year, on this very couch, alone and wearing one of Mulder's shirts, crying at the least provocation. I was so lonely for him last year. I was lonely, period.

Mulder buries his face in my shoulder, still holding Malcolm, and I wrap my arms and legs around them both. I missed him so much I ached physically. I missed him so much that I doubt I would have survived if it hadn't been for Malcolm. I missed him so much that all my sweet friends, those awkward, well-meaning men who surrounded me like an honor guard--everything that they did to help or comfort only reminded me that I was without my love. Last year was so hard. I don't want to think about it.

Malcolm pulls on my shirt, grunting, and I lift him up against my chest. Mulder's head stays on my shoulder and he plays with the baby's toes. "Are you tired?" he whispers. "I'm tired."

"I'm tired. Did you have therapy today?"

"Yes'm." He's been doing physical therapy since his return. The first weeks were bad - he was so weak it was hard for him to even lift his arms. After two sessions he asked me not to come. He didn't want me to see him swearing and sweating as much as he did to get through the exercises. It was so hard to watch him frustrated and in pain, knowing that it was the only way for him to get back his strength.

"How is it going?" I can't imagine there's much left for them to cover.

"Pretty good. I can squeeze a rubber ball with my hand." I laugh and he smiles, pleased. "Forrest says by rights I should still be in a wheelchair."

"He doesn't know how stubborn you are."

Mulder chuckles. "He knows **now.** Anyway, do you think Big Mac'll let us go to sleep soon?"

"No, he want to play," I say, rubbing Malcolm's nose with mine. He's always frisky for a while after dinner. Mom watches him while Mulder's in therapy. I'd hoped that after today, surrounded by his cousins, Malcolm would be more tired than usual but his afternoon nap took care of that.

I'm not complaining. I love to play with my baby, especially as he gives me wet messy kisses and bounces in my lap on his strong little legs.

Mulder watches us as we play, laughing softly when I imitate Malcolm's noises. I hadn't thought babies were so vocal in their infancy, but Malcolm has many more methods of communication than crying. He grunts, he coos, he babbles, each little snuffle more adorable than the last. I am hopelessly in love with my baby, but I'm sure that's obvious by now.

When it's time for Malcolm to nurse again I stay in the front room, settling myself in the corner of the couch where Mulder lies half- asleep. Malcolm leans out of my lap to pat Mulder's head, and Mulder lifts up his head for a moment to kiss him before the baby turns his full attention to nursing.

I used to worry, when Mulder was first returned to us, how he would handle all the changes that had taken place in his absence. He's taken to fatherhood much better than I could have hoped. Not once did he ask my a hurtful question like "Is it mine?"--as if there could be anyone else, ever--and when I told him the tests I had performed, the precautions I took, he nodded, understanding my fears more than anyone else could. I think, even if the tests had shown Mulder was not Malcolm's father, that some unknown entity was, I think Mulder would love Malcolm just the same because he would still be mine.

I pet Mulder's head as Malcolm nurses, feeling peaceful for the first time in weeks. My work is important, my friends are precious, but my family is priceless--made all the more so by how hard we fought to be together. I don't know if it's true that life begins at conception, but if it is Malcolm's stubbornness and will to live rival only Mulder's own. When I told Mulder all the difficulties I'd been having, the danger of miscarriage in addition to the various threats from outside, Mulder's face got very serious and he put his hand on my belly. "This kid really wants to be born, Scully," he said quietly, and I had to agree.

I know Mulder fought just as hard to come back to us, even if I don't know the details. I don't know how to convince him to tell me, and I don't know what he thinks he's protecting me from by not telling me. Every scar on his body tells me what they did to him. What I want to know is what he felt, what he thought, what he feared, what he hoped for--and most importantly, what he's feeling now.

A brisk knock sounds at the door. I glance at Mulder, but his eyes are closed and he doesn't even stir. I sigh, pull Malcolm's mouth from my breast and button up my shirt. Malcolm does not like this, squealing to make sure I know.

"Just a minute, baby boy, I promise," I say, and peer through the peephole to see who's come by.

It's Doggett.

Don't get me wrong, I'm always glad to see him. But he never comes by just to chat, and the last thing I want right now is to chase down another clue from our Tarot-card murder. I check my buttons-- sometimes they seem to come undone of their own accord--and open the door.

"John," I say warmly. "Merry Christmas."

He looks sheepish. "I was nowhere near the neighborhood but I keep forgetting to bring this to the office." He holds out a small, flat package, gaily wrapped in blue and gold paper with a large gold bow. "It's for Malcolm."

At the sound of Doggett's voice, Mulder sits up, blinking sleepily. "Doggett," he says in his 'I don't like you but we can pretend otherwise' voice, and he stands beside me with his arm draped over my shoulder. I raise my eyebrow at him but he ignores it.

"Mulder," Doggett replies in the same tone. His eyes follow Mulder's hand as it hangs casually just over my breast. He takes a deep breath and looks at me again. "Anyway. I also wanted to make sure you have my number in Atlanta in case anything comes up."

"It's in my planner. Do you want to come in for a minute?" I give my shoulder a none-too-subtle shrug and Mulder's arm retreats a bit. "We've got hot cocoa and candy canes."

Doggett chuckles, his hands stuffed in his pockets, and glances down at his feet. It's such an 'aw shucks' pose I almost snicker. "No, thanks. I just stopped by." He takes Malcolm for a moment, who goes into his arms willingly. "How's my pal?" Doggett says softly, and Malcolm giggles, patting Doggett's face. "Are you having a good Christmas, Malcolm?"

Beside me Mulder almost growls. I've told him everything that happened between Doggett and me while I was pregnant, which in all honesty wasn't much. He still gets jealous. It's ridiculous and annoys me, and I feel like elbowing him in the ribs to get him to behave. Instead I just whisper, "Stop it," and Mulder frowns.

Doggett hands the baby back to me. "Sorry to interupt," he says.

"You weren't. We were just watching Christmas specials." Malcolm decides being back in my arms means he gets to eat again, and starts nudging his mouth against my breast. My body feels like public property sometimes.

"It's late. I'll see you after Christmas. Merry Christmas, Dana. Mulder," he says again in that clipped tone.

Mulder responds in kind: "Doggett," and nearly slams the door shut before Doggett has fully turned away. "The nerve of that guy," he mutters.

"Right. The nerve of him to bring a Christmas present for our son. For God's sake, Mulder." I undo my shirt again and Malcolm nearly wriggles out of my arms in his eagerness to nurse. "And the next time you two decide to have a pissing contest you leave me out of it. I'm not your trophy--I'm not your symbol of a normal life."

It's the wrong thing to say. Mulder's face shuts down like I've pulled the plug on him. "I'm going to bed."

"Mulder, I didn't mean it like that."

"Whatever. I'm tired." He waves his hand towards me vaguely, without turning around.

I take a deep breath and lean my head against the door a moment. "Damn it." Malcolm opens his eyes, his fingers flicking against my skin. "Sorry. Can I raise you to not be territorial? Promise Mommy you're going to be a gentleman, okay?" He just closes his eyes again.

When Malcolm is fed, burped, changed and sung to, I go into the bedroom. His crib is at the foot of the bed, the only place in the apartment where there's room. At some point in the next year we hope to find a bigger place--a two-bedroom apartment, at the very least, where Malcolm can have a room of his own and Mulder and I can have some privacy.

One more reason we have yet to have sex. Malcolm is always right there.

The light is still on when I open the door, and for a moment I think Mulder has fallen asleep while getting ready for bed. He's sitting on the edge of the mattress, his elbows on his thighs and his head and hands hanging low. He's shirtless, and even in the dim light of the bedside lamp I can see the map of scars on his back, like he was whipped with a cat o' nine tails. The edges of the wounds are smooth, though, instead of jagged, which makes me wonder if the instrument they used was a laser or something electric instead of leather and bits of metal.

The wounds break my heart. "Mulder," I whisper, touching his shoulder with my free hand.

His eyes fly open and he jumps to his feet. "Jesus, Scully!" he mutters, grabbing his waffle-knit t-shirt. He pulls it hastily over his head, but not before I catch a glimpse of the scars on his chest, arms and shoulders. He always wears long-sleeved shirts now.

I stammer, "I'm sorry--I just--you looked--"

"I told you I'm tired." He crosses the room to put his dirty clothes in the hamper and close the drawer with his pajamas.

I lay Malcolm in his crib, trying to think of something to say. I stay at the crib, holding Malcolm's hand and watching him sleep. I say softly, "Someday we're going to have to explain to him why his daddy won't go swimming with him or why he wears long sleeves at the beach."

Mulder doesn't say anything for a moment, then he shoves the bureau so hard a bottle of lotion tumbles off, the mirror wavers and my jewelry box falls over. "We'll tell him his daddy's too ugly," he says shortly.

"Mulder--love--that's not true."

"Too ugly for public viewing, too ugly for you to have sex with--"

"Mulder, stop."

"Too fucking ugly!" He shoves the bureau again, not raising his voice--but his face in the mirror is flushed and blank with anger.

"Mulder," I whisper and go to him. He doesn't turn when I wrap my arms around his waist and press my cheek to his back. "Mulder, my love. You're not ugly. You've been hurt, terribly hurt, but these--" I run my hands over his shirt, "these are a badge of honor. You survived. These are proof of your will to live."

"I'm ugly, Scully," he whispers. "Look at me. Ugly." We both look in the mirror over the bureau. His eyes are dark with despair, and he closes them when I gently pass my thumb over where I know the scars are on each side of his face. I stroke his nose, which now has a scar across the bridge.

I whisper, "You're beautiful," and he sighs heavily.

"Don't lie."

"I love looking at you. I love seeing your face every morning. I love watching you with our baby. I love being able to touch you and hold you and kiss you again."

He lowers his head and tears drip onto my hands. I lean my cheek against his back. I can feel his lungs fill and deflate, his ribs expand and contract, the faint hitching of his chest as he quietly cries.

I whisper, "Mulder. Please tell me what you remember. It'll help you. Please tell me."

"I can't."

"You can. You can. For five years, Mulder, you told me I had to remember--you dragged me to hypnotherapists, you analyzed my dreams, we talked and talked and talked--and I still don't remember anything. You do."

He snuffles and wipes his face with the back of his hand. "I think that was kinder. Letting you forget."

"But why won't you tell me? Please talk to me, Mulder." When he says nothing I whisper, "You refusing to talk to me about it seems hypocritical and cowardly, and you are neither of those things."

He says in his lowest voice, "What's there to tell? They tortured me. They let me go."

"Mulder ..." I stroke his chest with my palms. The back of his bowed neck seems very pale and vulnerable.

"When Malcolm puts his arms around my neck and he's so trusting and loving I feel like maybe I'll be okay. I can love Malcolm and take care of him and maybe I'll stay sane. I don't know what more I can do."

"Oh, Mulder," I whisper, wrapping my arms around him tight. "I don't know what to do, either. I want to help you, love, I do, but I can't unless you tell me what you need."

He sighs again and whispers, "I don't want to remember. I want to forget and I know I never will."

I gently rock him in my arms. "Come to bed, Mulder."

"I'm so tired."

"I know. Come to bed."

Mulder turns in my arms and looks down at me sadly. He whispers, "Love me?"

"Yes. Always." I slide my hands up his chest. "Love me?"

"Yes." He stoops down and kisses my forehead, and leans against me as we go to the bed. I tuck him in, and when I lie down beside him and take him in my arms he sighs and scoots down so he can lie his head against my breasts. "Is this okay?" he whispers.

"Yes." I kiss his hair. "It's perfect."


On Christmas Eve Mulder declines to come to midnight Mass with me. This does not surprise me: his enthusiasm for Christmas has not eased his general contempt for organized religion. Instead I take Malcolm, which I have rarely done, and several fellow parishioners who had observed the progress of my pregnancy gather around before the service begins to exclaim over him. Malcolm, however, is no more social and outgoing than Mulder or I, and clings to me nervously, hiding his head in my neck. The ladies, mothers and grandmothers all, understand about shy babies and just tell me how beautiful he is and how much they hope to see his father in church with me someday.

Not bloody likely, I think, but I only smile and thank them. Malcolm is a beautiful baby and I love it when other people notice. I took him shopping with me this weekend and was frequently stopped by complete strangers who wanted to tell me what a pretty baby he is. When I told this to Mulder later, he nodded and said, "Happens all the time. He's quite a cutie, our Big Mac." Mulder thinks he looks like me and I think he looks like Mulder, but the truth is his features are split evenly between us: Mulder's eyes, his dark hair and long nose, my chin and eyebrows, Mulder's mouth and long limbs, my cheekbones and tendency towards chubbiness. It shouldn't work, Mulder's face blended with mine, but somehow on Malcolm it does.

I often think there are many things about Mulder and I that shouldn't work, yet do. Even from the beginning we've been an oddly harmonious pair, for two people as fundamentally different as he and I.

Or maybe the differences are not so fundamental. Mulder, for all his complexity, is a decent, kind, gentle man, and I would not love him so much or so deeply if he were otherwise.

Parenthood, I've noticed, has a way of stripping you to your basics. Suddenly changing the center of your life to someone else's needs can bring out the best or the worst in you. For Mulder it's been his best - for me, lately, it's been the worst. The past few days have been better since I could relax a bit and not worry about doing ten things at once. I've been able to play with my baby and feed him regularly, bathe him and take him places. I think Mulder has enjoyed a little time off from 24-hour daddyhood, or at least he's letting me enjoy it. I've come home from shopping or church this weekend to find more treats in the oven, more decorations around the apartment, more presents under the tree.

There are finally some presents for Mulder under the tree, too, some from Malcolm and some from me. Clothes in Mulder's new size, a few books I hope he'll enjoy, new CDs from bands he likes. When we were only friends I used to give him goofy presents like Star Trek collectibles or books about the occult, but now I feel I can be a little more personal. Sex and parenthood will do that to a relationship.

Once Mass is over, I take my time getting Malcolm into his snowsuit, allowing the crowd to thin out. He plays peekaboo with his cap, chortling, and I tickle him lightly to make him laugh more. "Who's my sweetie?" I ask him, and he throws back his head and laughs. "Who's my cute sweetie? You're my sweetie!" I know baby talk doesn't teach proper speech but there are times when he's so adorable I can't help myself. Mulder likes to tease me, saying to Malcolm, "Who's my widdle snooky-wooky? Who's the sweetest baby ever born?" and so on. Personally I find it hard to believe he never gets carried away by Malcolm's cuteness when I'm not around, but I have no proof.

When the church is almost empty, I put on my own coat and pick up Malcolm to leave. I mean only to say Merry Christmas to Father McCue, but as he grasps my hand he says, "Can you stay a few minutes, Dana? I'd like to speak to you."

"Just a few minutes. I need to get the baby home."

He shakes another parishioner's hand as I step back into the vestibule. I pat Malcolm's back, murmuring to him, but he's starting to get restless and he'll be hungry again before much longer.

Father McCue joins me in the vestibule. "Hello, Malcolm," he says, and the baby hides his face again and then peeks at him. Father McCue chuckles and pats Malcolm's back, and says to me, "I just wanted to ask you when you plan to have this young man baptized."

"Oh. Yes. I really don't know. My fiance isn't too keen on the idea."

"Dana," he says gently, "your son's spiritual life is just as important as your fiance's wishes."

"I know." I shift Malcolm from one arm to the other, and kiss his head when he makes an unhappy sound. "I need to get Malcolm home. Can we talk about this after the holidays?"

"I'm worried about you, Dana."

I give him a quick, tight smile. "Thank you. But we're okay, really."

"You look overtired."

"It's been a difficult year." Malcolm starts crying in earnest and I wince as the milk comes in. "I have to go, Father. I appreciate your concern--I really do--but we're okay. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Dana," Father McCue says as I hurry out of the church. The wind has picked up again today and the weather channel is predicting snow by Christmas morning.

I strap my wailing baby into his car seat and kiss him a few times so he won't feel ignored. "We'll be home in a few minutes, sweetie," I assure him, and his tears calm somewhat though his lower lip protrudes in his father's pout. He's going to be a ladykiller when he's past puberty.

When I arrive back at the apartment I see that Mulder has been busy again: the tree is finally fully decorated. In addition to the white lights, Mulder hung gold and silver balls, topped with large fabric bows; wooden ornaments cut into silhouettes of the Nativity; and several glass ornaments that look like sugared fruit. It's beautiful, but I'm learning to expect no less from Mulder. I step back to get the full effect, pointing out this and that to Malcolm, and that's when I notice the topper: a large plastic replica of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

"And that," I tell Malcolm, "is proof that your daddy still hasn't lost his inner geek."

Malcolm just chews on his stuffed lamb, making it squeak, and pats my hair.

Mulder is nowhere to be seen, however, in neither the kitchen nor the bedroom. The door to the bathroom is closed and I tap on it softly. "Mulder? We're home."

"It's open."

I open the bathroom door and step in. Mulder is in the tub, his eyes closed. He's lit a few aroma therapy candles and left the overhead light off. His hair is damp and one leg hangs over the edge of the bathtub. He opens his eyes a little. "Hey."

"Hey. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Just thinkin'. How was Mass?"

"Good. Fine. Father McCue asked me when we intend to have Malcolm baptized."

This wakes Mulder up, and as he sits up against the back of the tub I try not to dwell on the way the water droplets cascade down his chest. "What did you tell him?"

"I told him we'd talk about it after the holidays."

"Hm. Would they let him be baptized?"

"Yes. There's no reason why they wouldn't. But it's a real commitment to the Church, Mulder, it's not something I would do lightly."

"But you do want to have him baptized."

"I don't know, really."

He sighs and says, combing his fingers through his hair, "It would please your mother."

I scowl. "That's the last reason I want to do anything."

"Gotcha." He leans back in the tub. "Well, I don't really have an opinion one way or another. As long as they wouldn't expect me to convert, anyway. If it's what you want it's okay with me."

"Oh. All right." I assumed he wouldn't like it, and his lack of reaction surprises me. "I want to think about it a while longer, though."

"Mmkay." He blinks at me sleepily and then reaches out his foot towards me, to tap his toes lightly on my leg. "Hey. C'mere."

"Why?" I say but step closer.

"Wanna come in? The water's fine."

"It's Malcolm's dinner time."

"Feed him in here." He circles his toes around my knee.

I honestly can't think of a single objection. I take baths with Malcolm and so does Mulder, though we've never taken one all three of us together. I banish all thoughts of Malcolm on a therapist's couch someday in the distant future, and say, "Give me a minute."

Mulder grins at me, quietly triumphant, and watches me through half- closed eyes as I undress Malcolm. He takes the naked baby from me and gives him a kiss, and eases him gently into the hot water as I take off my clothes.

When I am also naked I climb into the tub, my back to Mulder's chest, and take Malcolm. He splashes the water with his hands until I turn him around to face me, and then his mouth eagerly latches onto my breast.

"I see your rash is cleared up," Mulder says, then chuckles. "Oh, man. That sounds bad."

"Be glad it wasn't contagious, bucko." I sigh and lean against Mulder's chest. His legs frame mine and he kisses my hair.

I could sleep here, lulled by the gently lapping water, Malcolm's rhythmic suckling, Mulder's heartbeat and soft caresses. Mulder rubs my shoulders and twirls his fingers through my hair. He strokes my arms, my breasts and my thighs. He plays with my ears. His hand glides down my back and circles the base of my spine.

"Are you having a good Christmas?" he whispers eventually.

"I am. Are you?" I whisper, "Sh, sh," to Malcolm as I shift him from one breast to the other.

"I'm enjoying myself, oddly enough." He rubs his cheek slowly against my shoulder.

"You realize, don't you, you're setting unrealistic expectations for years to come," I say, my voice going breathy and soft. I close my eyes and lean back my head as he nuzzles me further. His hands have been stroking and touching me since I got into the tub with him. I feel soft and relaxed, pliant.

He chuckles. "Cool." After a moment he whispers, "Is it perverted of me that I love watching you nurse him? I can't think of a more beautiful sight."

"I don't think it's perverted at all." I watch Mulder's big hand stroke Malcolm's head. That's a beautiful sight too, one I used to wonder if I'd ever see.

I turn my head towards his and whisper, "I missed you so much. It wasn't just being afraid I'd never see you again. I was afraid of never truly knowing what happened to you. I wanted you to see your baby. I wanted you so much, Mulder. I wanted you."

He exhales, then says, so soft I can barely hear him, "I wanted you too." I wait. His hands rub restlessly up and down my arms. He whispers, "It hurt so much, Scully. Even when they left me alone, it never stopped hurting. I don't know if I ever slept. I don't know if I dreamed. I was living a nightmare. I couldn't stop myself from screaming your name."

"I had visions. I saw you." My lips are against his neck. I want to turn around and hold him, but I can't with the baby still nursing. "I saw what they did to you. I hoped--I prayed they were just dreams."

"Scully," he whispers, his breath brushing my ear through his open mouth, "Scully, Scully, Scully ..."

"It's all over, Mulder. It's over. Don't let yourself forget that." I reach back to stroke his face, my head twisted towards him as best I can. There are drops of water on his face, and I'm not sure if they are bath water or teardrops. I wipe them away.

"That's the thing, Scully. What if it's not over? What if they come back for you--for Malcolm?" He wraps his arms around me so that he's supporting Malcolm too, and he whispers thickly, "What if they try to take Malcolm? How can we protect him, Scully?"

"I've been asking myself that from the moment I learned I was pregnant. I still don't have an answer. We just do what other parents do: our best."

"I can't bear the thought of losing him."

"Neither can I." We both look down at our beautiful baby, who is mostly asleep with my nipple falling out of his mouth. I lift him up and lie his head against my shoulder to and rub his back. He makes small snuffling noises, blinking his eyes and yawning, and curls up against me to sleep.

I rise from the tub, dripping. Mulder watches me for a moment, then pulls out the stopper and rises from the water too. He ties a towel around his waist and starts to dry me off as I dry Malcolm in his soft hooded towel. Mulder diapers him as I put on my bathrobe, and he stays out of the bedroom while I put Malcolm to bed.


Malcolm's wail through the baby monitor wakes me up, and I force myself up from the floor, blinking and stumbling in the dark. The fire has burned low, now only a few orange and blue flames hovering around what's left of the logs. Mulder turned off the tree lights before we went to sleep. I scoop up my bathrobe and pull it on so that the material catches any stray drops of milk that may fall before I reach the baby.

His crying reaches an urgent note when he senses me close, and he holds out his arms. "Shh, shh," I murmur as I pick him up, "Mommy's here, darling." He makes hungry sounds as his mouth roots around for my nipple, and I pull back the top of my robe so he can nurse.

The light coming through the window is pale and rosy, and I part the blinds to peek out. Snow is falling like bolls of cotton, blanketing the streets in white. I love a white Christmas. I ease into the rocking chair and start rocking slowly as the baby nurses.

"Later on," I whisper to him, "Daddy and I will take you outside so you can see the snow. Your first snow, Malcolm. Isn't that wonderful? Your first snow and your first Christmas. Merry Christmas, sweet baby." I kiss his head and smooth his hair, which is growing in dark brown and thick like Mulder's.

I rock him for a while, enjoying the peacefulness of this Christmas morning. I start singing to him, just snatches of my favorite Christmas songs, softly because I don't want to wake Mulder.

Nonetheless, soon Mulder appears in the doorway, a blanket wrapped around his waist. He says softly, "Merry Christmas, Scully," as he comes to the rocking chair and kneels down at my feet. "And Merry Christmas, Malcolm," he adds, kissing the baby's head.

"Merry Christmas," I answer him and he kisses me too. He rests his head on my lap and closes his eyes. "It's snowing, did you see?"

"I didn't look." He sighs and rubs his cheek on my leg. "Do you think Santa Claus came?"

I can't help myself. "A couple times, as I recall." I grin as he groans and tickles the inside of my knee.

"Wicked, wicked woman." He kisses me again and rises, a little stiff from sleeping on the floor. "Should we do Christmas when Mac's fed?"

"We have to be at Mom's by two."

"We'll be done by then, if we start early enough. I still need to bake the gingerbread and make the sauce." Mulder offered to bring his gingerbread-lemon dessert as our contribution to dinner today. My mother's reaction was less than inspiring, but she hasn't witnessed his cooking skills yet. "And we should probably leave early, because of the snow."

"Noon or so."

"Yeah." He takes sweat pants and a t-shirt from the bureau and quickly dresses. It's a short-sleeved t-shirt. He catches me looking at him, and he quietly smiles and shrugs. I smile back and put my finger in Malcolm's hand.


Malcolm is more interested in the wrapping paper and bows than he is in the toys and clothes we got for him. He laughs with delight at the way the paper crinkles when he rolls over it. He chews on the bows, pulls them out of his mouth to look at them, and then starts chewing on them again. He plays peekaboo with the paper or crawls inside the bigger boxes.

Mulder and I, exhausted, lie on the floor and let him play. My head is on Mulder's stomach and he slowly strokes my forehead. He built up the fire again before we started unwrapping, and put a Christmas album on the stereo. We're surrounded by paper and unwrapped gifts, and neither of us have any desire to move.

"Are we getting old, Scully?" Mulder murmurs.

"Yes." I grin at the ceiling. "Just wait until he's two."

"Oh, boy. Toddlers. Scully, we're going to have a toddler."

"One stage at a time and we'll be fine, I promise."

Mulder filled our stockings with new pajamas and Godiva chocolates, fresh oranges and CDs. Malcolm got a new pacifier and rubber ducky, however, being too young for chocolates. In his family, Mulder explained, Santa Claus filled only the stockings--the rest of the presents were wrapped and put under the tree. That arrangement is fine with me, though I think when Malcolm is old enough to be excited about Santa Claus we'll want to put out some toys on Christmas morning.

I smile again and close my eyes, and Mulder rubs my temple with his fingertip. It's hard to imagine, at this point, Malcolm talking and running around, but it's going to happen someday.

He crawls over now as if he knows I'm thinking about him and pats my belly. "Hi, sweetie," I say, opening my eyes and putting my hand on his back to steady him. "I know you're having fun."

"Isn't it wonderful to be so easily amused," Mulder says. "I thought he'd like the toys more than their packages, though."

"He will. We just have to engage his interest."

Mulder touches Malcolm's arm and the baby crawls up to Mulder's head. Malcolm grabs Mulder's cheeks and plants a wet kiss on his face, and Mulder puts his arm around him and kisses him back. They rest their foreheads against each other a moment. "Love you too, Big Mac," Mulder whispers, and I have to blink back the tears from my eyes. Mulder notices and says, touching my cheek, "Hey, Scully. Don't cry."

I shake my head, unable to explain it. It's so beautiful, my baby and my love, holding each other and looking at me with identical hazel eyes. I never thought I would have this. Last year I wondered if I would even see my child, let alone Mulder ever again.

"You know what would cheer you up?" Mulder says.

"What?" I sniffle and wipe my face with the collar of my bathrobe. We dressed, of course, somewhat, but I wrapped myself in my robe again for warmth.

"I would love to see you in your new party dress."

"And that's supposed to make me feel better?"

"It would make **me** feel better," he offers, which it a good enough reason for me.

"Okay. Give me a minute." I pick up the box with the dress and go into the bedroom to change. I don't bother with underwear--these kinds of clothes are better with as little under them as possible anyway--but I do slip into a pair of shoes to get a good idea of how it will look.

And it will look fabulous. The dress is silk, in a deep midnight blue, shimmering where the light catches the dips and folds. It's low- cut with thin straps over the shoulders, but not so low in the back that I'll be embarrassed to wear it around my relatives. It falls straight from the bustline to the hem, flowing just enough to forgive the problem areas. There are no ornaments nor fancy trappings, but simple has always suited me best. I'll wear my cross and a pair of small hoop earrings, I decide as I look at my reflection. A cashmere cardigan, a pair of strappy heels and silk hose and I'll be ready.

What amuses me about this dress is that Mulder has excellent taste but he'd sooner die than admit it. There's got to be some surprise lurking that I haven't discovered yet.

I walk out of the bedroom with my head held regally high. "Well?" I say in a low voice, and Mulder sits up from the floor and turns around, the baby in his arms, to look at me.

A slow grin spreads over his face and his eyes sweep over me from top to bottom. "Well," he says, his voice low too. "Well, well, well."

"I take it you approve."

"Very much so." He says to Malcolm, "You see your pretty mommy? She's so pretty." Malcolm just looks at me, his eyes wide and his fingers in his mouth.

"I'll take this off and clean up. You need to start baking, and I want to nurse Malcolm one more time before we go."

"Okay. Are you sure you don't need anything more for breakfast?" We had Pop Tarts, juice and oranges.

"I'm sure. Dinner is going to be huge."

He stands, still holding the baby, and comes over to kiss me. Malcolm reaches out for me and I take him without hesitation. One way or another I know this dress is going to get stained today, and I'm not going to refuse my baby just because of an item of clothing. Mulder kisses me again and again, his arms around the both of us, and he leans his forehead against mine. His breath brushes my nose and I smile.

"Later," I whisper, and he smiles back.

"Promise?"

"Cross my heart." I hand back Malcolm, giving him a kiss too, and go into the bedroom to change once more.


Mulder showers and starts his gingerbread while I straighten the living room, throwing away ribbons and bits of paper. I fold and hang the clothes, and stack the toys in Malcolm's toy chest. I put away the CDs and the books. Malcolm's are on the lowest shelf of the bookcase: copies of "Where the Wild Things Are," "The Velveteen Rabbit," "I'll Love You For Always;" CDs of Blue's Clues, Disney musicals and Bach for Babies. Of course, right now he only chews on the books and watches the way light sparkles on the CDs, but before too much longer he'll want music and stories of his own.

The apartment smells of gingerbread and lemon by the time I'm finished. I wouldn't have thought those flavors went together but just the aroma alone make my mouth water. Pregnancy did all sorts of strange things to my sense of smell but it's returning to normal slowly, just like the rest of me. And this sounds wonderful, sinking my teeth into soft gingerbread with just a touch of lemon sauce. Strong flavors have worked well for me lately.

I linger in the kitchen with Malcolm in my arms, watching Mulder move about. This will be the first time most of my relatives will meet Mulder, and though he doesn't appear nervous, I know I am. Just a bit. Maybe more than a bit.

"Are you sure you want to go to this?" I ask. "We could stay here-- we could blame it on the snow--"

"Scully." Mulder comes over and puts his hands on my shoulders. "Are you afraid to introduce me to you aunties?"

"My **aunties** are middle-aged and elderly women with very traditional senses of propriety."

"I'll make nice to your aunts. And I'll even be nice to Bill." He kisses my forehead. "It'll be okay, Scully. It'll be painless."

"All they're going to do is ask when we're getting married."

"All they're going to do is make a fuss over Malcolm. And we're all going to eat. That's it."

I sigh and kiss Malcolm to keep from looking at Mulder. I wish I had his optimism. "Lunchtime," I say, turning to the living room.

"Hey, Scully." I turn and look at him, and he says awkwardly, "It's okay, you know, if your family doesn't like me. I haven't heard from my own relatives for years."

"I want them to love you," I say, holding Malcolm tight. "I want them to think that you're wonderful and perfect. I don't want to have to choose between my family and you--"

"Scully!" He raises his eyebrows, looking both puzzled and amused. "Choosing between us? What is this? So I may not get along with some people I see once a year, so what? It's not the first time. And they love you, that's what's important." He grins. "And they will love Malcolm. We know that for sure."

That's true enough. My family is ga-ga for babies.

Mulder steps close and hugs me. He kisses my forehead. "You know something," he says softly. "I'm nervous too. I mean, they're going to stare--"

"They know you've been badly hurt."

"There's the knowing and then there's the actual seeing, Scully." He rubs his beard and says, "Well, that's my fear. I am really tired of being stared at."

Compared to the rest of his body, the damage to his face is minimal. His eyelids don't droop and his mouth is mobile and full. His ears are undamaged, and they could have done worse things to his nose besides merely breaking it. The scars are visible but smaller than most of the others on his body. "You look fine to me," I say, but we both know I'm hardly objective.

Still, he smiles and kisses me. "Go feed my son, woman."

"Yes, master," I tease, wrinkling my nose at him, and head into the bedroom to nurse.


Finally Malcolm is fed, burped and sleeping again. I feel frumpy, oily and half-awake, and we have to leave soon for my mother's. It's a relief to settle my drowsy baby in his crib and go into the bathroom for my shower.

Mulder likes music when he's bathing, so he rigged up his stereo in the bathroom and mounted the speakers on the wall. I turn it on as the water warms up. The station he has it tuned to is not playing Christmas carols - it sounds more like bluegrass--and I chuckle, wondering when Mulder became a country fan or if he's always been one and I never noticed.

I step over the pile of Malcolm's tub toys and into the shower. Everything about this apartment says a baby lives here, I muse, and turn the shower head to its 'massage' setting. I aim the water at the back of my neck and let it pound for a while. We've got to find a better arrangement for when we want to have sex than sleeping on the floor--I'm sore everywhere.

But the music is up-tempo and I find myself moving just a bit, tapping my feet, splashing the water with a pleasing stomp. The tune is catchy so I sing along. "'If it hadn't been for Cotton-Eye Joe, I'd been married a long time ago, where did you come from, where did you go, where did you come from, Cotton-Eye Joe?'" Stomp, stomp, splash, splash. I lift up my arms and twist from the waist, bump and grind my hips a little and shake my head back under the shower spray. Mulder and I will dance in the living room sometimes, fast when we're feeling silly, slow when we're feeling romantic, while Malcolm looks on and claps his hands.

I like dancing with Mulder. We should do it more often.

The bathroom door opens, letting in a rush of cold air. I'm about to tell Mulder to shut the door when I hear the unmistakable sound of Mulder tripping, following by a loud, "Damn stupid thing!" He throws something at the shower curtain, which lands on the tile with a squeak.

I yank open the shower curtain. "Mulder? Are you okay?"

He looks at me from the bathroom floor. He's wearing his tuxedo already, all but the bow tie and jacket. He looks dapper and handsome, even sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by bathtub toys.

"Perhaps the toy situation has gotten out of hand," he says mildly.

"You didn't look where you were going, did you?" I say.

"I tripped on the duck." He hangs his head for a moment, then sighs and gets to his feet. "Anyway. I came in to ask what you want Malcolm to wear."

"Black pants, a white shirt, and the red sweater. But bring a few changes, too. You never know." I close the shower curtain again.

"Are you going to be much longer? We need to get on the road."

"Ten more minutes." I pick up the bottle of shampoo. Time to end my showery bliss. Maybe tomorrow I'll take a bath. With company, of course. Baths are much more fun with company.


I pull the car up to the curb a few houses down from my mother's and shut off the engine. Already the street is lined with cars: I recognize Uncle Patrick's Pontiac, cousin Ryan's lovingly restored Camero, Charlie's Suburban, the latest in cousin Julia's long line of Porsches, not to mention all the rentals.

Mulder looks at me patiently. "Ready?"

"We could still call her and tell her the snow's too thick to drive. Or that Malcolm's got a cold. Or that you've--"

"Scully," he says patiently.

I bury my chin in my coat collar. It's just the family, I remind myself, my family, people I've known for as long as I can remember. Uncle Patrick taught me to ride a bike. Aunt Olive sang Irish lullabies to me. Uncle Patrick, Uncle James and my father used to laugh loud enough to wake us up from downstairs, calling each other "boyo" and exaggerating the accents they all lost in their childhood. I love these people.

And today they're going to meet the love of my life.

"I'm ready," I tell Mulder, and sling the diaper bag strap over my shoulder. Mulder leans over to kiss me quickly, and then gets out of the car. I gather up the skirt of my dress to keep it out of the snow and get out carefully. My Sorrel-clad feet sink up to the ankles in fresh, powdery snow.

Mulder unstraps Malcolm from his car seat and joins me on the sidewalk. "I feel like a J. Crew ad. We should be heading jauntily across the frozen lake for wassail and roasted chestnuts at the neighbors'."

"We could sing," I say, which is just enough of a non sequitur to make Mulder give me that "was that a joke?" look he's been using so much lately. I grin and nudge his arm with my elbow. "We could still back out if you forgot your wingtips."

"They are in the bag, Scully, along with your dainty little shoes. Though I must say the idea of you going through the day in duck boots is highly amusing."

"I'd rather be barefoot," I say as we slog up the sidewalk, though I don't like the idea of runs in my silk stockings, either. The stockings are somewhat of a sore point at the moment. Mulder likes me in garters, so I'm wearing them now. It's a guy thing, one I can usually handle. Yet somehow I feel that even if my relatives can deal with the illegitimate baby and the scarred lover who is a stay-at- home dad, they won't be able to deal with me in garters at a family party. And damn it, I'm **cold**.

The snow leading up to my mother's front door is trampled away by dozens of footsteps, large and small. Mulder scoops some snow from a bush and holds it for Malcolm to touch. Malcolm's mouth "O's" with wonder as the cold, wet flakes rapidly melt against his warm fingers. "That's snow, Mac," Mulder says, and kisses Malcolm's hand to warm it up again. Malcolm lies his head on Mulder's shoulder.

I swallow hard and ring the bell. Even from out here I can hear the sheer noise my family creates--cousins, kids of cousins, grandkids, aunts and uncles of various degrees--and I take a step back. I feel Mulder's hand on my back, steadying me, and he kisses me quickly.

The door swings open and in an instant my relatives surround us. For the next few minutes I'm overwhelmed by the volume, the many kisses, the exclamations and the hugs. Malcolm hides his face in Mulder's shoulder as we make our way from the front door to the room where Mom's putting the coats. I'm glad Mulder is carrying the baby--it gives him an excuse not to shake hands. He's gone into shy mode as well, just smiling and saying little more than "Hello--yes, I'm Mulder. Say hello, Malcolm."

Mulder escapes to the coat room first, and I glance at him through the doorway as he takes off his overcoat and helps Malcolm out of his snowsuit. Uncle James stops me to give me a bone-crushing hug: "It's been too long, Dana!" Aunt Olive gives me a quiet kiss on the cheek. "He's lovely, dear," she murmurs, and I smile and say thanks, not sure if she means Mulder or the baby. Charlie's boys wrap themselves around my knees: "Aunt Dana! Aunt Dana!" and Matthew toddles along behind.

Finally my mother makes everyone move back into the living room, telling them there will be plenty of time to talk later. I shoot her a grateful look and she smiles at me.

I go into the coat room and sit on the edge of the bed beside Mulder. He is dandling Malcolm on his knees, a word I never really understood until I saw Mulder do it. "Okay," I say. "We're here. Now what?"

"You take off your coat and wow 'em with your dress."

"I don't want to wow my relatives."

"You could just wow me." He leers at me and I kiss his nose.

"You're goofy. I like that about you."

"And I like that you like that," he says, leaning closer to me. Malcolm grabs the buttons on my coat and pulls himself upright.

"Hi, you." I kiss his warm forehead. "Are you ready to play with your cousins some more?" He bounces against my thighs and babbles happily, tugging on my buttons. I take him into my lap and kiss him, while Mulder sits on the floor and takes our shoes and the Tupperware containers out of the diaper bag. He pulls off his snow boots and slips into his formal shoes. He unties my snow boots, laces snapping everywhere, and places my shoes on my feet. He is very careful as he winds the straps around my ankles and closes the tiny buckles. He slides his hand up my calf, then smiles at me and shrugs. "Anyway. Gonna gives these to Maggie." He picks up the Tupperware containers and stands.

"Mulder," I say, though I have no idea what I'm going to follow it with. I stand too and straighten his bow tie, holding the baby on one arm. "Play nice, okay?"

"I will. Don't hide long."

"I'll be right out."

He kisses my forehead and goes to join the party.

Slowly I unbutton my coat and lay it with the others on the bed. I undo all but the topmost button of my cardigan. It's the same midnight blue as the dress, cashmere, with small flowers embroidered in silk ribbon on the placket.

I know I look fine today. I know this color brings out the bloom in my skin and makes my eyes look bottomlessly blue, as Mulder puts it.

I also know that today I am a diversion, like Mulder's mouse ears last night. Redirection and distraction like a magician. If it keeps people from asking Mulder questions he doesn't want to answer, I am content with my role today.

I straighten my shoulders and pick up Malcolm, put on a smile and go out to the party.


Having Malcolm in my arms provides an excellent source for small talk. My aunts divide his features between families; my sisters-in- law compare weaning, teething and sleeping stories; my uncles test his grip and pronounce him strong as an ox; my nephews ask to hold him and get scared when he doesn't lie passively in their arms like a doll.

Malcolm clings to me at first, hiding his face and then peeking out and smiling before hiding his face again. He hasn't had much interaction with other children, and I'm glad to see his cousins don't frighten him for long.

I finally see Mulder, who is sitting on the stairs and talking to Charlie and his wife Josie. Mulder sees me looking and holds up his glass. "Juice," he mouths, pointing to it.

I nod, excuse myself from Uncle Frank and Aunt Dee, and make my way to the stairs. Mulder gives me a kiss when I reach him, and I sit on the stairs a few risers below him so I can lean against his chest. He rubs my neck with one hand. "How are you?" he asks, his voice low.

"Holding up. You?"

"Fine. Just fine." Malcolm starts climbing up me to reach Mulder, and Mulder gives me his glass, lifts the baby from my lap and sets him on his knee. Malcolm notices the infant in Josie's lap and leans over for a closer look.

"So tell me something," Josie says, holding up their new daughter Georgia so Malcolm can see her. "Why Malcolm?"

I just smile, and Mulder says, "Scu--Dana wanted a unusual name."

"A Celtic one," I add. Aunt Dee just spent ten minutes telling me that Malcolm is a Scottish name, not an Irish one, which I knew. I like it anyway.

"Don't get me wrong, I like it," Josie says. "You won't believe the grief my mother gave me over Georgia."

"I like the old names," Charlie says. "They're solid. They've got history."

"It's taken some getting used to," Mulder admits, which is an understatement. His exact words, when I suggested the name Malcolm, were, "You want to relegate him to a life of wimpitude?" He says, "I was thinking something like John. Nice and basic."

"Malcolm was a king," I say, not for the first time.

"Malcolm is a sitcom," Mulder says, as our own Malcolm wriggles in Mulder's lap and pulls on Mulder's bow tie. "But he's cute. We'll keep him."

"I'm sure he's grateful," I say dryly and lean my head against Mulder's chest. I feel more content than I thought I would today. It's been less painful than I feared. No one has asked uncomfortable questions, and as far as I can tell even the children haven't commented on Mulder's scars. This might be okay.

A wave of small children run down the stairs, squeezing themselves around us, and Charlie perks up enough to tell them, "No running in the house!"

"Yes, Daddy!" "Yes, Uncle Charlie!" They disappear around the corner, towards the living room where the hors d'oeuvres are.

Mulder strokes my cheek. He says nothing but I can guess what he's thinking. I still don't have an answer for him but I am thinking about it--I am thinking hard. The prospect terrifies me and exhilarates me at once. Another child. We could have another child.

"Whoops," Mulder says, "somebody smells." Malcolm grabs at his nose and Mulder noisily kisses his hand.

"You noticed it first, you get to change him." I sip Mulder's juice. Mm, apple.

He sighs. "Thanks, honeybunny."

"You're welcome, poopyhead." I smile into the glass as Mulder stands and climbs down the stairs, our smelly baby tucked in his arm. Malcolm waves at me and I wave back.

"You call him poopyhead," Charlie says in amazement, shaking his head.

"Usually to keep from calling him something else." They both laugh at that, and I smile again. "Can I hold Georgia?"

"Sure." Josie hands me the baby carefully.

Georgia is three months old. She is my mother's first granddaughter-- my family tends towards boys--and Charlie and Josie's fifth child. Personally I can't imagine having five children, but they handle it with the same mellow grace with which they've done everything in their marriage. She's very pretty, little Georgia, with Charlie's crystal-blue eyes and today wearing a velveteen party dress and a lace bow around her head. She is serene as I hold her, looking about with the slightly-unfocused eyes of a tiny baby.

"You're so good," I whisper to her. "You're just a plump little Buddha, aren't you?" She coos at me and I laugh.

"Do you ever think about having another?" Josie says, and Charlie squeezes her hand.

It takes me a moment to answer, and finally I just say, "Yes." Neither of them answer, and I go on quietly, watching Georgia watch me, "Malcolm was a blessing and a miracle. Asking for that twice seems like asking for the moon and the stars."

Charlie just nods and Josie put her other hand over mine.


At dinner Mulder is seated across from me, with Malcolm in his carrier at my side. Mulder's been very good with my relatives all day, listening to their stories and talking sometimes. Still, I know his mind isn't on them. He has a way of looking at me that makes my toes curl inside my shoes. He'll be talking innocently to my cousin Ryan and feel my eyes on him, and with one slow blink he fixes his eyes on me. His gaze is piercing, hot as a candle flame, and makes me wish we were home.

It's always like this for us: feast or famine. I sigh and poke my mashed potatoes with my fork.

There's a lull in the conversation, and Uncle Frank decides to fill it with, "So, Fox, you work at the FBI with Dana, right?"

Mulder swallows what's in his mouth and says, "I used to. I don't anymore."

"Oh? So what are you doing now?"

Mom breaks in, "Mulder takes care of Malcolm while Dana's at work."

"And that's it?"

Mulder eats another bite of yams, nodding. "That's it."

Uncle Frank, however, isn't satisfied. "Are you going back to chasing aliens when you're tired of housekeeping?"

Silence falls over the entire table. Mulder's eyes meet mine again, with despair this time instead of promises. I open my mouth but before I can say anything Mulder says, "No. I won't be doing that anymore. There's no mystery left there." He stands up abruptly and walks out of the dining room.

Aunt Dee begins, "Frank, you are the most--"

I can't listen anymore, and stand up too. "Excuse me." I follow Mulder, then see he's gone out on the back porch. I get our coats from the coat room, put on my own, and join him outside.

Mulder sits on the back steps, his hands clenched together. He squints up at me. "Maybe I should have sat at the kids' table."

I drape his coat over his shoulders and sit down beside him. "Mulder," I whisper. "Mulder." I rub his shoulders and he turns his head away from me. He starts to rock back and forth, shivering inside his coat.

"Does it ever stop, Scully? Do you ever stop thinking, 'My God, the things they did to me'? Does it ever stop hurting, Scully? Just hurting all over? God, I hurt everywhere."

I pull his head to my shoulder and kiss his hair. "It stops. I promise. It stops. Sometimes days pass and you don't even think about it."

"Sometimes I can't breathe for thinking about it."

It's going to snow again. The sky is iron-grey, and the air is still and bitter cold. I hold onto Mulder tight. "When you can't breathe," I say, and then pause to get the tremor out of my voice. "When you can't breathe you get me and I'll breathe for you. I'll breathe for you, okay, Mulder? I'll breathe for you."

"Scully," he whispers. My name is his mantra, his prayer, his all- encompassing word. "Scully, Scully."

"I know." I stroke his face with my palm. "I know."


The twin beds Melissa and I slept in for most of our childhood are set up in what has become a guest room. There are pictures of Melissa and me on the walls, our old children's books in the bookcase, dried roses in a vase on the bureau. Some of Melissa's dresses hang in the closet, along with jumpers and overalls I wore when I was a little girl.

Mulder takes off his jacket, shoes and bow tie, and lies down on the bed nearest the window with his back to the room. I fold his coat and sit on the bed beside him. I slowly rub his back with my open hand. "Do you need anything?"

He shakes his head. His eyes are closed. He looks tired and pale, and I wonder if I should blow off the rest of the party and take him home. "I just want to rest a while," he murmurs.

"I'm going to get Malcolm and nurse him up here. Okay? I'll be right back."

"Hey, Scully?"

"Yes, love?"

"If you want to go back to the party you don't have to sit with me."

My hand pauses for a moment in circling his back. I lean over him to kiss his cheek. I rub my nose against his beard. "I'll be right back," I say again, firmly, and am rewarded by his faint smile. I kiss him again and leave the room, closing the door behind me.

Downstairs, the children are gathered around the TV watching "A Christmas Story." Mulder loves this movie, especially the cranky department-store Santa Claus. My mother is in the kitchen with the baby as well as the other adults of the family, cleaning up from dinner, and they all fall silent when I come in.

It doesn't take a genius to know what they were discussing. I set my jaw and go to my mom to get the baby. "He's resting," I say shortly, but Mom stops me before I can leave, her hand on my arm.

"Dana, sweetheart," she says. "We're worried about you."

"You should be worried about Mulder."

"We're worried about all of you. Does he do this often? Does he just- -fall apart--"

"Only when provoked."

"Dana, honey," Uncle Frank says, "I'm so sorry--I was joking--I had no idea he'd take me seriously."

"We thought he'd been kidnaped by terrorists or something like that," Uncle James adds.

I take a deep breath as my family look at me expectantly. "He was abducted by aliens who tortured him for seven months and then brought him home. Personally I'm just grateful he's alive and sane--that he's willing to move on with his life and make a family with me. Believe it or not, most of the time we do just fine. Now if you'll excuse me, my son is hungry."

I hold Malcolm tight as I go back upstairs. He wraps his fist around a lock of my hair and tugs on it, his lips pouting with concern. "It's okay, sweet baby," I whisper, stroking his head. "Mommy and Daddy are just a little upset. It's not your fault."

He plants his mouth on my jaw and sucks on it for a moment, then lays his head on my shoulder. "Little vampire baby," I say tenderly, tickling his side, and he laughs his deep unfettered chortle.

I open the bedroom door a crack. "Mulder?" He doesn't answer so I come into the room, shutting the door, and put Malcolm on the other bed so I can take off my sweater. It takes me a few minutes to figure out how to get the dress down so I can nurse, and finally just unzip it and lay the dress aside. This leaves me in my underwear, stockings and strapless bra, so I get a spare blanket from the closet, wrap it around me, and settle myself on the bed with Malcolm.

"Scully?" Mulder says sleepily from the other bed.

"Oh, hey. I thought you were asleep."

"Not yet. Scully, I've been thinking."

"About what?" I don't look up from Malcolm's contented face.

Mulder sits up. He's found another spare blanket and wrapped it around himself like a tent. He says, taking his time as if choosing each word with care, "I think it was irresponsible of me to ask you to have another baby." I raise my eyes to him, startled, and he goes on, "I mean, having Malcolm was so hard on you. And what if something happened to me? You'd be alone with two babies. I can't even think how I'd handle it if something happened to **you**. It was selfish of me, Scully. I'm sorry I put that kind of pressure on you."

I don't know what to say. I felt no pressure from him, just a sense of waiting. I say quietly, "Dr. Ogilvy said it would be safe for me to have another baby, as long I take some precautions. My blood pressure and so on."

"Oh." He lies down again, pillowing his head on his arm.

"So . . it's not out of the realm of possibility, you know."

"But do you want to?"

I can't lie to him, not now. "I don't know." He sighs heavily and I say, "There are so many factors, Mulder. Financially, for instance. I'm not sure we can afford for me to take maternity leave so soon. Leaving out my health questions, what about yours? Malcolm will be a toddler by the time this baby is born. I mean, if we conceive soon. Could you take care of a toddler and a newborn? And who knows if we can even have another baby at all?"

"You've been thinking about it."

"All day."

He gets up and climbs into the narrow twin beside me. He props his head on his arm and regards us quietly for a moment. "Scully."

"Yes, love?"

"Do you really want to be with me?"

"Of course I do, Mulder."

"There's no 'of course' about it," he says, shaking his head. "There's so much in me, Scully--there's so much that aches--so much that I can't--you deserve more than a guy who can't keep it together."

"Mulder," I whisper.

"I know what your family is thinking," he says, his voice trembling. "They're afraid one day I'm going to crack up and hurt you."

"Mulder--"

"I'm afraid too. I'm afraid one day I'll open my eyes and find your blood on my hands--"

"You haven't done anything to make me afraid of you. I've been afraid **for** you--"

"You don't need one more thing to worry about."

"Do you think I'd stop worrying if you left?" He sighs and I play my fingers along his chin, scruffling his beard. "You make life stable and easy for me and you take such good care of Malcolm. You're such a good daddy. You're the best daddy I've seen, and I've seen some wonderful daddies." He smiles faintly, closing his eyes. I whisper, "A lesser man would have given up. But not my Mulder. You deserve the happiness you've worked so hard to have. You're my hero, Mulder."

His face creases and I see tears on his lashes. "Scully," he whispers again. His arm snakes around my back to hold me. "You know what's strange?" he says. "I never really wanted children. I didn't feel any drive or desire for fatherhood. I thought I'd screw up any child I might have, and I didn't want to ask for trouble."

"What changed your mind?"

"You."

"Mulder," I whisper with a chuckle.

"I knew I loved you and suddenly I wanted everything. All of it. I wanted to give you a home. Babies. A happy life. A safe world." He says in a voice on the edge of tears, "Where did I go wrong, Scully? I wanted to give you everything."

"Mulder, love. My love. You didn't go wrong anywhere. We've got everything. We've got more than I ever dreamed of. More than I hoped for." He opens his eyes to look at me. "I am so happy with you."

"You are?"

"Yes. I am. Are you, Mulder? I can't tell."

Mulder looks at me for a moment, then sits up and puts his arms around both Malcolm and me. He kisses me hard, holding my face in his hand. "Yes," he says simply and kisses me again.


I leave them both asleep, Malcolm in Mulder's arms. I'm inclined to take them home as soon as they're awake, and not stay around the rest of the family festivities. There's still a gift exchange for the children and my mother's elaborate dessert buffet. Some families have three kinds of pie for Christmas dessert. That's just the beginning for us.

They're singing now, Uncle James pounding on the piano. Billy stands back from the piano, a drowsy Matthew in his arms. He sees me hesitate in the living room entryway, and comes over to join me.

"Is he all right?"

I don't ask which 'he.' "They're both sleeping."

Billy pats Matthew's back, swaying a little to soothe him. "Are you sure Malcolm's safe?" he says quietly.

"Malcolm is quite safe, Bill."

"People with post-traumatic stress will take it out where you least expect it, Dana. I heard about this medic in the Gulf War--"

"Mulder would sooner kill himself than hurt Malcolm."

Bill's eyes fix on me and he gives a short nod. "I see." We listen to the singing for a moment--I have no desire to join in and Billy's trying to get Matthew to nap a bit--and then Bill says, "Malcolm. That's a strange name, Dana."

"It was either that or Keiran."

"Why not Keiran?"

"Mulder didn't like it. He said no one would know how to spell it. He wanted Scott."

"Scott's a good name."

"Scott Scully," I say, and Bill grimaces, seeing my point.

"Why not Scott Mulder?"

Now I know what he's getting at. I refuse to take his bait yet, though. "I don't like the name Scott. With Mulder or Scully. I like names like Malcolm and Keiran."

"Malcolm Mulder rolls off the tongue."

"Mulder wants him to stay Scully."

"And if you have more children?"

"They will also be Scully."

Bill shifts Matthew from one arm to the other, murmuring, "Go back to sleep, pumpkin," when Matthew makes a little cry in his sleep. Bill says, keeping his voice low, "He's got it pretty easy right now, doesn't he. No responsibilities, no one expecting anything from him--"

"Is that what you think?" I ask in a furious whisper. "You think this is **easy** on him? Do you think Mulder walked out of that hospital? Do you want me to tell you exactly how many scars are on his body?"

A muscle jumps in Billy's jaw, and he says, "I just want what's best for you."

"What's best for me is Mulder."

He snorts, watching the singers. "Aren't you ever afraid that someday you're going to come home and find him completely bonkers? That he's hurt the baby, hurt himself, burned all your clothes and broken your dishes? People crack, Dana."

"I'm aware of what people do." I can't say he's fine because he's not--he's okay but he's not fine yet--but he's a lot better than people might think.

"And that doesn't worry you?"

"Of course it worries me. But at least he doesn't act like it never happened. That would worry me more. Would you trust me, please? We're together and we're happy, and I couldn't ask for anything more."

Bill's jaw clenches and unclenches. Finally he says, "I don't get it. I don't get any of it, Dana."

"You take happiness where you find it, Billy." Suddenly I do want to sing. I join the group at the piano and my mother welcomes me with a hug. I lift up my voice and join in the chorus, "Gloria, gloria, hosanna in excelsus ..." Which, despite everything, expresses the way I feel today.


Some of the smaller children and older folks lie down for naps as well, filling up every bed. Mulder gives up his place to Matthew and Tara. She's expecting again and tires out easily. He brings Malcolm downstairs and puts him in his carrier, and then sits down at my feet by the fireplace. He leans his head on my knee, letting Malcolm clutch his fingers.

"How are you feeling?" I play with his hair. "Should we go?"

"I'm okay. I'd like to stay until tonight. If you want to."

"Okay." His hair feels so soft. There are grey streaks here as well, mainly at his temples. "Are you hungry? There's plenty of leftovers. I could warm up some potatoes and gravy."

"I'm okay," he says again. "I'm looking forward to all that pie."

I chuckle and go on stroking his hair. In his carrier Malcolm sleeps on, his mouth working like he's suckling. That's a good dream for a baby. I can't say how glad I am that Malcolm's dreams are so peaceful.

I feel Mulder's hand on my ankle. "Everybody's sleeping, or watching TV," he murmurs. Our backs are to the TV, now showing the version of 'A Christmas Carol' with Patrick Stewart.

"Some of my cousins are playing Monopoly in the kitchen."

"Is anyone in the dining room?" His hand slides further up my leg and he fondles the inside of my knee.

The question puzzles me. "I don't think so. Mulder ... what are you getting at?"

He stands and picks up Malcolm's carrier in one hand. He holds out the other to me. "Come on."

I put my hand in his and rise from the armchair. My mother is watching the movie, Charlie's youngest boy Miles in her lap. Mulder sets the carrier at her feet and leans down to whisper, "Will you watch him for a little bit?"

"Of course," Mom says, giving me a slightly worried look, but I smile to reassure her and hold Mulder's hand with both of mine. He smiles his thanks to her and leads me to the dining room.

He shuts the door between this room and the hall and turns to me. His eyelids are lowered and his face is serious. The room has been rearranged since dinner: the chairs are put aside and the table has been moved against the wall, set up for the dessert buffet. The room is gloomy, lit with only the grey light from outside coming through the curtained windows.

Mulder cups my face in his hands, staring at me intently. "Mulder," I begin as he dips his head. "Mulder, if you--maybe we should go home."

"I want to stay. The day's not over yet." He kisses me gently.

"Mulder--oh," I gasp as he kisses my neck, stooping to reach me. I try again. "Mulder, I do not want to have sex with you in my mother's dining room."

"It's the only place we can be alone. Unless you want to go out to the car."

I do not want to go out to the car. It's cold out there. "Then we should go home."

"No. There's more to the party." He kisses all over my face, still cupping it in his hands. My eyelids fall closed and I tilt back my head, clutching at his shoulders. He whispers, "I need you, Scully," and I'm glad I'm holding onto him because his low, dark tone melts my knees. "The only time things really make sense is when I'm inside you."

"Mulder," I moan, sliding my arms around his neck. I understand what he means, I think, and I wish he was right. I wish my touch could heal him. I wish my body could suck out the pain and the poison inside him, to leave him healthy and whole. I wish my hands could lift the marks from his skin, to make him smooth and pink like a newborn. I wish sex was the cure-all people pretend it can be.

Ever since Mulder was returned I have been more affectionate and demonstrative than I had ever allowed myself to be, with him or with anyone, knowing that the physical would help ground and reorient him. I wonder sometimes, when people look at us, if all they see is lust and chemistry. But it's what they don't see, what can't be seen, that really holds us together--it just happens to express itself through kisses and touching.

Mulder undoes the last button of my cardigan and slides it down my shoulders. He kisses my chest above the neckline of my dress. It is only at times like these that I notice our height difference--he's nearly bent double to reach me. There's no convenient sofa, no available bed, nothing but the hardwood floor.


It won't be the first time we've had sex on the floor. I start to kneel as he kisses me, thinking wryly that we're getting too old and sedate for this sort of thing, but he stops me. He peels off my sweater and stands for a moment, caressing the soft wool.

I say quietly, "The door has no lock."

He glances at the table and gets his slow, feral grin. The linen tablecloth comes down to the floor. The table is long enough to shelter us, high enough to fit us beneath it. It'll be like making love in a play fort, but when Mulder lifts the tablecloth and quirks his eyebrow at me I don't hesitate to duck underneath.

Curtained in by the tablecloth, Mulder folds my sweater and puts it beneath my head. I have to smile at his effort to make me comfortable. I help him of with his jacket and pull the knot from his tie. I kiss his neck, my hand in his hair. With the other I work open the buttons on his shirt. I want as much of his skin as I can get.

He kisses my shoulders, nudging the straps of my dress off until they fall to my elbows, and lowers the bodice of the dress to reveal my bra. "Off?"

I hesitate. Nursing mothers release milk during arousal. I just nursed an hour ago but it's still going to make a mess. On the other hand I want Mulder's mouth on my breasts.

I lower the cups, his gaze burning into my skin. There's a drop of milk on my nipple already, translucent like a tiny pearl. Mulder touches his finger to my nipple and licks the drop from his fingertip, and smiles at me. "It's like ... coconut milk," he whispers, and kisses me. His hand cups my breast, and his thumb circles my nipple, careful not to press too hard, aware that I'm sensitive everywhere but especially here.

His breath is hot and quick as he moves his mouth over my face, kissing me. I run my hands up and down his chest and shoulders, kissing him whenever he gets close enough to my mouth. I let my eyes fall closed as his mouth fastens onto the peak of my breast, and the soft wet sound of his mouth seems very loud in the stillness of the room. His hand works my dress down and off my body and he stops kissing my breasts long enough to put my dress aside.

"The real reason you wanted me to wear these today," I whisper, tugging a garter strap.

He chuckles, kissing my belly. "I wasn't planning this. Honest. I just wanted to think about you wearing them all day." He moves up my body to kiss my mouth, and I wrap my arms and legs around him. The cloth of his tuxedo rasping against my skin through the silk raises goosebumps, and I moan again and again as he kisses me and grinds his hips against mine.

Finally he pulls back, kneeling between my spread legs and ducking low to avoid hitting his head, and searches in the pocket of his jacket. He pulls out a condom, and the foil wrapper glints in the gloom. The pace of both our breathing speeds up as he unbuttons his trousers and pushes them past his hips. His hands shake so much that he can't tear the foil open, and I put my hands on his, meaning to take it.

Instead I put the packet aside. "Scully?" he whispers, lowering his body onto mine. He caresses my cheek and our eyes meet.

"We don't need that," I say, and a deep shiver runs down my body.

"Scully," he says, pleased, a smile hesitating around his mouth, and he kisses me deeply. He moves my underwear aside, exposing my folds to his fingers, and it takes just a caress or two to satisfy him that I'm ready for him. As if my moans, rigid nipples and writhing thighs weren't enough to convince him. He licks my moisture from his fingertips and smiles at me once more. He slides his hand down my belly. "I want to tell you something."

"What, love?" I cup his face in my hands, stroking my thumbs along his cheekbones.

"Sometimes--when I could think--when it was quiet--I'd think about you. I'd focus on one little thing that I missed. Like your laugh or the way you kissed me or that smile you'd get when you were pretending to be annoyed with me."

"I wasn't always pretending," I tease softly, pulling his head down for more kisses.

He whispers against my mouth, his fingers molding my hips, "I didn't forget the way you taste, Scully," and I moan again, opening my mouth to his tongue. His thumb parts my flesh and he presses the head of his cock to my entrance. There's a push and a sigh, and then he is inside me, scorching hot, smooth as satin, hard as a bone.

I wrap my legs around him again, my knees high. I want him deep. "Oh, that's it," I whisper, and he chuckles low in his chest. He gives me a moment for my body to adjust to him before he puts his back into it, thrusting hard, and my hips move of their own accord to answer him.

Mulder keeps his mouth on mine most of the time, swallowing my cries. I'm terrified someone will stumble across us, even though if tonight goes as it always has no one will eat until after the children open their presents. But not all of the desserts are out on the table, and who knows when someone will get the idea to finish putting them out. The room is so quiet that I can hear every slish, every bump of my ass against the floor, every slap of our bellies. There's no mistaking the sounds we make.

I love this. I can admit that freely. Simple flat-out fucking--it's a wonderful thing. I love it when he kisses me hard and deep, his tongue thrusting against my teeth and the roof of my mouth. I love it when he squeezes my breasts. I love the sounds we make. I love that he always kisses me like he means it. I love it when he breaks off his kisses to groan, "God, I love you--I love you, Scully--" his eyes squeezed shut and his head thrown back with ecstasy. I love the warm gush of his come bathing my womb. I love his weight in my arms, his heaving chest and sweaty, slick back. I love his tender hand in my hair and his soft kiss on my lips.

Mulder lets his head fall against my neck and he takes a deep breath. "Thank you," he whispers, kissing my ear, and I don't have to ask him for what he's thanking me.

I just say, "You're welcome, love," and rub my nose against his.

"Did you--?" he whispers, and I shake my head. He sighs. "I'm sorry, baby."

"It's okay, love. You can make it up to me later." I grin at him and he grins back.

"I could even do it now," he says, leering at me, and I laugh, brushing my fingertips over his lips.

"Later. Malcolm should be waking up soon, if he hasn't already."

Mulder nods, reluctantly preparing to pull to disengage us and return to some semblance of propriety. The table is high but there's still not a lot of room beneath it, and he bumps his head against the tabletop. "Damn," he mutters, rubbing his head.

"Are you all right?" I laugh a little despite my concern.

"Yeah, yeah ... sex is so graceless, have you never noticed that?"

"I have." I can't keep the smile off my face.

He smirks and says, "Especially with me, huh?"

This time I laugh out loud. "You're perfect, Mulder. You're just right."

He smiles and kisses me.

We both freeze when we hear the door to the dining room open and footsteps enter. "Dana?" Billy calls, and Mulder and I look at each other in panic. Billy says to someone else, "She did say they came in here, didn't they?"

"Yes," says Charlie. I bite my lip and bury my face in Mulder's neck. I do not want my brothers to discover us half-naked beneath this table. I can feel Mulder's chest shaking, trying to hold in his laughter.

"Well, nobody's here."

"Maybe they went for a walk," Charlie says mildly. His voice is closer to the table. I hear a soft tap, and Mulder's eyes go very wide as he pulls his feet beneath the tablecloth.

"Without the baby? Maybe they went upstairs." Bill leaves the dining room.

There's a moment of silence, and Charlie says in a low voice, "All clear, you crazy kids," and shuts the door.

When I stop laughing and get my breath back I tell Mulder, "Never, ever, **ever** again. Ever."

"All right. I'm sorry, Scully," though his expression says he's anything but. He kisses me hard, and then gets a handkerchief from his tuxedo jacket and starts to clean me up so we can get dressed.


The idea behind the gift exchange is for the children to get to know each other better. They each choose a name to get a present for, and the only conditions are to get them something they'll really like and that doesn't cost much. With Charlie stationed overseas so much and the rest of the family scattered far and wide, the children rarely get to see each other and barely know their cousins at all.

I sit on the sofa with Malcolm on my lap, hoping no one will notice how mussed my hair has suddenly become or that Mulder has a lovebite on his neck. So far we haven't gotten so much as a sidelong glance, but that could just be politeness. Or everyone is too busy to notice. Which would be just fine.

Malcolm was given the name of my cousin Ryan's daughter Chelsea, who is eight and likes Barbie dolls and unicorns. We bought her a Fairy Princess Barbie, which she liked so much she gives Malcolm a kiss. Charlie's oldest son Spencer drew Malcolm's name, and he waits eagerly by the couch while I help Malcolm tear the paper off the package.

"Mom said this was really good for his age," Spencer says, almost dancing in his eagerness to see Malcolm's reaction.

"I'm sure he'll love it," I assure him, as Malcolm stuffs a wad of wrapping paper in his mouth. The gift turns out to be an electronic keyboard designed for babies, with ten big colorful keys and buttons to make the sounds change.

"We put batteries in it," Josie says, who is sitting on the other side of me, so Mulder turns it on and gives the keys a press. Malcolm starts visibly, his eyes going wide.

"Where did that come from?" Mulder interprets, and presses a key again. "See, Malcolm? Music." He presses a button to change the sound from regular synthesizer to animal noises: a cow's moo, a cat's meow, a horse's neigh. Malcolm watches Mulder's fingers, and then slams his fist onto a key, making the keyboard bray.

"He likes it," I tell Spencer. "Thank you so much. Say thank you, Malcolm." Malcolm babbles something, pressing keys and wriggling with excitement at each new sound.

Spencer grins and gives a little jump, and runs back to join his cousins closer to his age.

"This is really cool," Mulder says, pressing keys too and changing the noises. "Thanks, Josie."

"As long as you let Malcolm play with it sometimes," Josie says with a laugh. Mulder glances up at her, grinning, and goes on playing with the buttons.

"Mom, Mom, Mom!" Spencer cries, running back into the living room, followed by his cousins. "It's snowing again, Mom! Can we go out and play?"

"Put your coats on," Josie instructs, and calls after them as they scamper to the coat room, "And your boots!"

"Can we go out and play, Mom?" Mulder asks me.

"Bundle up." I smile back at him.

"Yes'm." He takes Malcolm from my lap and gives me a kiss, and carries Malcolm to the coatroom.

After a moment Josie observes, "He seems better."

"Yes." I put the keyboard back in the box, hoping to transport it home with minimal damage. Most of the other adults have drifted into the dining room, seeking dessert, or are helping the children into their coats to play in the snow. The living room is suddenly quiet except for the crackling of the fire.

"He seems very ... relaxed." I glance at Josie. Her face is innocent but she's got a hint of a smile. She says, watching Georgia sleep in her lap, "When Charlie and I were first married we couldn't keep our hands off each other for an hour at a time. And I used to wonder if it would last--you know, you hear about how couples get tired of each other. Especially when you marry young."

I nod. Charlie was only twenty-one and Josie was twenty when they married. Everyone said they should wait, but Charlie only said, "What for?"

"But," Josie goes on, "fifteen years and five children later, the magic is still there. Love is so ... mysterious, don't you think?"

"Yes," I say quietly. Mysterious, wonderful, terrifying, beautiful, all of the above and more.

"It's strange, too, how you never know who you're going to love until you love them."

"One day they're pests ... the next you can't live without them," I murmur. It didn't happen exactly like that for me but that's the way it feels sometimes. I didn't love Mulder, and then I did.

This line of thinking makes me want to hold him again, and I stand up from the sofa. "I think I'm going to play in the snow too," I say, and Josie smiles with understanding.

Hastily I put on my coat and boots and go outside. The children are playing in the front yard, throwing snowballs and trying to form snowmen. Mulder has Malcolm safely in his arms, a good distance from the other children, and he's teaching Malcolm to catch snowflakes with his tongue. They both smile when they see me, and Malcolm squeals and holds out his arms.

"Hello, my baby," I say, taking him and giving him a kiss. "What do you think of snow, Malcolm?"

"I think he likes it," Mulder says. "Even though it's cold."

"Brr!" says Malcolm.

"Exactly! Brr!" He kisses Malcolm and puts his arms around us both, giving us a strong hug. "How are you holding up?" he asks me, kissing me too.

"I'm almost ready to go, I think. It's been a long day."

"That it has." He rests his chin on the top of my head a moment. "I've been thinking about your case."

"Oh? And what have you thought?"

"Do you think your partner would object if I put in a few hours on it?"

I smile and say, "I'm sure his partner can persuade him not to object."

Mulder chuckles and rocks us slightly, and then says," "You know, Scully ... the whole thing with us making love ... it's really great ..."

"Yes," I say emphatically, and he chuckles.

"I mean, you--us--it's always been deeper than sex, don't you think?"

"Well ... I think I've always known what we've got isn't what other people have. There's trust and friendship and genuine liking and reliance ... and a lot of good old-fashioned lust. Lust has its uses."

"Lust is a lot of fun," Mulder says quietly, and smiles at me. "Anyway, I just wanted to say I'm not expecting miracles. I know that sex isn't going to solve everything."

"No, it's not." I look up at him, stroking Malcolm's head while he gums the strings on his cap. "But the things it does solve, they're worth solving." I add after a moment, "You know I love you, don't you?"

"It's always nice to hear you say so."

"I'll try to say it more often." I lean my head against his chest. "Are you happy?"

"You've asked me that already."

"So I'm asking again. Are you happy, Mulder?"

He kisses the top of my head, and Malcolm's too. "Yes. Right now I couldn't ask for anything more."

"I could."

"Oh?" He looks down at me, startled.

"I think I'd like a daughter." I kiss Malcolm's head while Mulder just holds us, his eyes wide and damp with astonishment and gladness. "Though another son would be just fine."

Mulder shakes his head slowly, kissing my hair again. "All right, Scully. All right."

I smile and nuzzle my face against his chest. After a moment or two the children run to us, begging Mulder to help them build a fort, and he kisses me and goes to join them.

"Where's Daddy? Where's Daddy?" I ask Malcolm until he chortles and points to him, making his "da-da" sound." "There's Daddy! Do you see Daddy with playing your cousins? Wave to Daddy!" Malcolm waves, which for him is opening and closing his hand, and Mulder waves back, grinning.

Malcolm is apple-cheeked. It's time to get him inside. I wave to Mulder too and turn to the house, where I'll eat gingerbread cake and talk to my relatives and think about how I am probably the luckiest woman alive. I have everything I've ever wanted, which is more than I thought I would ever get, and it's Christmas Day.

Malcolm pats my cheek, looking at me with raised eyebrows. "Mumumum?" he says, the closest he's gotten to saying Mama yet.

"Would you like to go inside?" I ask him, and he nods solemnly. "Let's go inside." I watch Mulder for a moment more, and then take the baby into the house.

End.

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