Title: Interstice
Author: Christy (attalanta@aol.com)
Category: MSR
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: Beyond the Sea, Gethsemane, Redux I/II, Christmas Carol, Emily; plus mentions of episodes through Season Eight.
Feedback: Is always appreciated at attalanta@aol.com.
Disclaimer: Of course, the characters of Mulder, Scully, Bill Jr., Tara, Mrs. Scully, and Bill Sr. belong to Chris Carter, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, et al. I intend no infringement. However, Matthew, Charles, and Liam, as presented here, are my interpretations of characters introduced but not developed on the show.

Summary: Christmas with the Scullys, 2001. Mulder's there, and so are Bill and his family, and Scully's long-lost brother, Charles.

Author's Note: This story exists in the same universe as my first fic, Via, a post-Existence story. It's not necessary to read that story first, but it does provide some background. A Warning: This story utilizes multiple narrators, namely Scully, Mulder, Mrs. Scully, Bill Jr. and Charles. The story focuses on the relationships of the Scully family rather than that of Mulder and Scully, although this is, of course, important to the current Scully family dynamic.

Music quoted from and referred to in this story include the following: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as sung by Judy Garland, "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" as sung by Bing Crosby, "Silent Night" as sung by Julie Andrews, "Merry Christmas, Darling" as sung by the Carpenters, "That's How Things Go Down" as sung by Carole King; and "Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane, Let It Be,Come Together," and "Here Comes the Sun," all, of course, by the Beatles.


"As I turned away, my heart pounding enough to shake me, I heard him say, 'Remember, whatever happens, you will always have a home,' which was true but also a manner of speaking." - Mavis Gallant


Saturday, December 22, 2001

"No one can tell what goes on between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just... come out the other side. Or you don't." - Stephen King

"For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love." - Carl Sagan


Maggie

Dust rag in hand, Margaret Scully gave the living room one last pass. The candlesticks on the mantel of the fireplace; the potted poinsettias and stained glass lamps on the end tables; the top ridges of the picture frames that made a collage of the east wall of the living room. She paused, straightening a photograph.

It was one of her favorites, taken the day they brought Charles home from the hospital. He was cradled in her arms, red-faced and new. Melissa and Dana were scrunched on the couch next to her, but Billy was perched casually on the sofa's arm, his expression uncertain, suspicious. Bill knelt behind the couch, his head and shoulders rising from behind the green velvet fabric. His arms were outstretched, winding across the top of the couch, encircling all of them, even Billy.

Maggie smiled at Bill, stroked her finger gently along the tiny dot of his face and down his arm. Merry Christmas, my love, she thought, resting her thumb on his round face. Thirty-four years ago, she thought absently. That photo had been taken over thirty-four years ago. She wiped her dust rag over the fingerprint she'd left on the glass. Thirty-four years was a very long time.

Then Maggie turned her attention to the nativity scene arranged on the other end table. She dusted along the already-clean roof of the manger, then picked up each figurine, gently outlining the features of its face, the creases of its clothing. She was careful, so careful; this crèche had belonged to her grandmother, who had brought it over from Ireland as a new bride.

Maggie arranged the tiny figures, positioning the sheep and camel and oxen around the outer rims of the manger, then filling in the spaces with shepherds and wise men and angels. Then she straightened Mary and Joseph, who knelt inside the manger, their eyes downcast in modesty and their arms open and empty.

She checked the drawer of the end table, making sure the tiny Baby Jesus was still safely tucked inside. She smiled, knowing she needn't check the drawer anymore. There were no overanxious children to sneak in and remove the tiny infant, to place him in the manger before his birth on Christmas Eve. It had always been a struggle to keep the Baby Jesus out of the manger during the four long weeks of Advent. Each year, Maggie remembered, one of the children managed to slip into the drawer and set the infant in the center of the manger, giving Mary and Joseph something to train their anxious eyes on.

Today was the twenty-third of December, and the crèche was empty. But not for long.

Maggie heard a knock on the door, then the creak of its opening. She swiftly shut the drawer, then stepped into the kitchen to store her dust cloth beneath the sink.

"Mom?" a voice called out.

"Bill," she shouted back, hurrying into the hall. "Bill?"

"Merry Christmas," Tara called, with Matthew echoing her greeting in his high- pitched baby voice.

"Oh, come here," Maggie said to her grandson, who scrambled out of his father's arms and into hers. After a long and overdue hug, Maggie tugged off Matthew's gloves and hat. "Look how big you've gotten," she exclaimed. "If I didn't know better," she kidded, "I'd think you were a very grown-up *four*-year-old."

Matthew's eyes widened, and a joyous smile stretched his face. "I'm almost four," he boasted.

"I know," she said, smiling, before turning to greet her son and his wife. "Merry Christmas," she said. The three of them reached around Matthew and embraced. Bill put down the suitcases he'd been carrying and then went out to their rental car for the rest of their bags.

"Our flight got canceled," Tara explained. "But we got to the airport so early that they got us onto another flight." She stopped to smile at Maggie, then tugged on Matthew's hood.

"Here, Matty," Tara said, "let me get your coat off." Maggie let Matthew down and allowed his mother to peel away his thick winter jacket and scarf.

"So bundled up," Maggie exclaimed. Though there was snow on the ground, it wasn't all that cold outside -- at least not yet, she thought, remembering the wintry weather the forecasters were predicting for this week -- but she knew that it must feel so very cold compared to the warm San Diego sun. "Did you see the snow outside, Matthew?"

Again he grinned. "I wanna make a snowman."

"Please," Bill said as he stepped inside.

"Please," Matty echoed, gazing up expectantly at his father.

Bill nodded. "Later," he said, dropping the last of the luggage inside and pulling the front door closed behind him.

"Promise?"

"I promise," Bill said, and Matthew took a step toward the stairs.

"Boots, young man," Bill reminded his son, snagging the back of Matthew's sweatshirt before he tracked slushy footprints upstairs. Sitting on the bottom steps, Matthew kicked off his boots and, with the toes of his socks hanging loose, ran upstairs.

"Careful," Tara called up after him.

"I left a box of your daddy's old toys on your bed," Maggie added, following her grandson upstairs. She turned back to address her son. "I was getting the Christmas decorations out of the attic the other day and found some old toys belonging to you kids. I thought Matthew might enjoy them," she told Bill, who followed her upstairs and into the guest bedroom, where Matthew had already discovered the toys.

"At least they'll keep him occupied," Tara said, trailing them upstairs. "We couldn't pack nearly enough toys and games to keep him busy the whole trip," she lamented before slipping past them and into the bathroom.

"I thought you three could sleep here in the guest room, and Charles can have the pull-out in the study," Maggie explained. "Then, when Dana stays over on Christmas Eve, she and Fox can have the pull-out, and Charles can sleep on the couch downstairs. I've already set up the crib in the study for the baby."

Bill made a thick, disapproving sound at the back of his throat. "I can't believe you're *supporting* this," he said, shaking his head.

She sighed, disappointed. "Bill."

"Come on, Mom." Bill's tone turned acerbic. "I realize there's nothing you can do about it, but you don't have to *endorse* this behavior."

"Bill," his mother said with a glance over at Matthew, who seemed to be playing ignorantly on the floor beside the cot she had set up for him.

"We could sleep boy/girl," Bill suggested. "Tara and Dana in one room, and Charles, Matthew, and me in--"

"And the baby? And Fox?" she asked. "Bill, that would mean three men, a small boy, and a seven-month-old baby in one room."

"Well, then, the baby can stay with Dana and Tara," Bill suggested. "I'm sure Tara won't--"

"Speak for yourself, mister," Tara said, emerging from the bathroom. "Those arrangements are ridiculous, honey, and you know it. Never mind that it would leave you and Fox in the same bedroom."

Bill's brow crinkled in defeat, and Tara laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Bill, this isn't summer camp. We're all adults here--" I hope, Maggie thought. "--and Dana and Mulder have been sharing an apartment for months now."

Maggie refused to look over at her son, knowing all too well what his reaction would be. Of course he knew that Dana and Fox were living together, had been, in all practicality, living together since just after the baby was born, though it had taken Mulder a few weeks to terminate his lease and move himself, box by box, into Dana's Apartment.

"We should be glad they're going to stay over Christmas Eve night at all," Maggie added. "They live close enough that they could meet us for midnight mass, go home, and drive back here to open presents on Christmas morning. Plus, with a baby..," she sighed. "Anyway, the sleeping arrangements might not be ideal -- or spacious -- but we can make due."

Bill shook his head, then slapped two suitcases on the queen bed that she had shoved against the wall to make room for Matthew's cot. Again Tara laid a hand on his shoulder. He didn't shrug her away, but Maggie noticed that he didn't exactly welcome her touch, either.

Maggie watched as her son flicked open the suitcases and began unpacking, dropping piles of clothing into drawers before slamming them shut, then pushing around hangers with angry, metallic clinks. She sat down on the bed and leaned back against the headboard, watching Bill slam about angrily out of one eye and Matthew play happily through the other.

Of course it saddened her to think of the distance between her children. They had been so close when they were younger, with Bill, Melissa, and Dana especially close in age. There had been a larger space between them and Charles, her baby, but he had tagged along nonetheless, struggling to keep up. Always struggling. And Melissa, sweet, loving Melissa, had taken to Charles like a second mother, leaving Dana and Bill to battle it out as she fussed over the baby.

Maggie knew that her children prided themselves in their independence, but to her they would always be but parts of a whole, parts of her, one entirely dependent on the next. Bill Junior: the oldest, taking after his father: driven and stubborn and Navy through and through. Then Melissa: Billy's opposite, calm and loving, laid back and extroverted. And Dana: intense like Billy, but more introspective, sometimes too smart for her own good, Maggie thought sadly. And finally Charles, her baby: sensitive and sweet, at times emotionally raw. So needy.

Couldn't they see that who they are today has everything to do with who they were then? With who had raised them and whom they had been raised with? With who had loved them and whom they had loved, as well as, with whom they loved now?

It was times like these, despite her children's many accomplishments, that Margaret Scully wondered if she had failed them. She had wanted to give her children an appreciation for family, for each other, but clearly she had not.

Until so recently, only Bill had embraced family life, marrying and having a child of his own. Before her death Melissa had shown no inkling to marriage, and Dana had always been so busy, first with medicine and then with the FBI, that Maggie wondered if she would ever have another grandchild.

At least she had wondered that until the Christmas Matthew was born, when she and Dana had traveled to San Diego to see Bill and Tara. When Dana had revealed both her inability to conceive a child, and her desire, as sudden and irrational as Maggie's own had been so long ago, to have one.

And Charles, her baby. Maggie sometimes forgot that Charles was a grown man, that he was already older than both she and her husband had been when they had married and started having their children.

The Scully children were scattered geographically -- Bill in San Diego, Charles in Seattle, Dana in Washington. If it wasn't for her, Maggie knew that the three of them would have no contact; if she didn't organize holidays, which usually only Dana, as the closest, came to anyway; if she didn't pass on their news; if she wasn't the glue holding them all together.

She wanted for them the kind of relationship she had had with her own mother, with her sisters. But for so long Melissa had been the only one with whom Maggie had felt that same closeness: Melissa, who would cuddle with her on the couch and watch old Cary Grant movies, who would bake cookies with her, who would help her wrap Christmas presents without complaining about the good snowball snow she was missing.

For Maggie, that closeness had made Missy's disappearance all the more difficult. It had come after a particularly harsh argument with her father after she had announced that she had quit another job -- her third in two months -- and that she was moving in with her boyfriend because she couldn't make her rent. Of course Bill had been angry and disappointed, and, knowing him, he hadn't keep secret his displeasure.

And, to her eternal regret, Maggie had sided with her husband that time. She knew it was old-fashioned of her, but she just couldn't approve of Melissa's living with a man that was not her husband. She had tried, though more gently than Bill, to convince her daughter of that, to tell her that she could always move back home and take some time to get her life back together.

But, instead of moving in with her boyfriend or her parents, Melissa had moved out, moved away. Disappeared.

It was months before Maggie received a postcard from Melissa, on Mother's Day, no less. I'm okay, it read, and I'm sorry. I love you, Mom.

The postcard had been addressed to Mrs. Margaret Scully. There had been no mention of Melissa's father or siblings, though Maggie later learned that Melissa had been in infrequent contact with both Dana and Charles.

Melissa couldn't explain how she had known to return later, how she had known that Dana was sick and that she was needed. She hadn't known about her father, hadn't returned when Bill was struck down with an unexpected heart attack.

After Bill's death, Maggie had been sure that she was about to lose Dana as well. Dana's relationship with her father had been particularly tense after her decision to join the FBI, but she loved him -- of course she still loved him, as he still loved her -- and she had tried so hard to please him, even though she had finally broken free, made up her mind to follow her dreams instead of her father's.

Maggie had been afraid of losing Dana, and indeed she had, for the almost-year between Bill's death and Dana's kidnapping. But then, miraculously, she had gotten her baby girl back, alive and in one piece. And, equally miraculously, she had gotten Melissa back. Maggie couldn't help but feel as though she had made some sort of unintentional trade, her husband for her daughters. Two for one.

And then losing Melissa... it had almost been too much to bear. She had been lucky in that Missy's death had kept Dana close, had given to her the daughter who had always belonged to her father.

It tore Maggie's heart out every time Dana came to her, usually late at night and entangled in a life-or-death crisis, needing her help. Or, more often, needing her comfort. And sometimes just needing her presence, as she had when she discovered little Emily in San Diego that Christmas, the year that Matthew was born.

The frequency of those visits had worried Maggie, but, in a guilty sort of way, it also made her feel good. Needed.

And it had been a very long time since Dana had needed her.


Bill was still unpacking and huffing about indignantly when the doorbell rang. Maggie raced downstairs, feeling like a schoolgirl nervous about her first date, so excited was she to have all her children home again. At least all her living children, she amended with a mental apology to Melissa as she passed the family photographs on the wall.

Footsteps clattered on the stairs behind her as Maggie reached for the door and opened it. Standing on her front step was Charles. Maggie grinned and pulled him inside, holding him tight, not wanting to let him go.

"Jeez, Mom," he said into her hair, "you're crushing me."

"My baby," she whispered, reaching up to smooth his wavy red hair and feeling tears spring to her eyes. Finally she pulled back and held him at arm's length, studying the face she had once known so well, the face that had so often cried against her shoulder.

But Charles was no child. He was as tall as Bill but thinner, skinny almost. She worried that he wasn't eating enough, scolded herself for not taking the time to teach him how to cook more than spaghetti and hot dogs. He was still a redhead, but his hair, which was badly in need of a cut, had darkened and now stood in sharp contrast to his too-pale skin. Was he getting out enough? Maggie worried. He looked as though he needed some sun and maybe a little exercise to build up some muscle on those lanky limbs of his. His eyes sparkled behind his rimless glasses, and a thin silver earring hung from his left earlobe.

"Charles," Bill said as he stepped off the stairs and behind his mother.

"Bill," Charles said, and approached his brother with his arms out. Bill hesitated for a minute, then stepped into his younger brother's embrace, holding stiffly before thumping his brother on the shoulder and backing away.

"Hi, Charles," Tara said, stepping forward though Matthew held tight to her thigh. "Tara. We met once, Thanksgiving, six years ago?"

Charles nodded. "And your wedding, briefly. I remember," he said, and he and Tara hugged around Matthew. "And who is this big guy?" he asked, stooping down to his nephew's level.

Matthew stared intently at his uncle, this stranger in front of him, but didn't let go of his mother's leg. Charles stared intently back, a small grin on the edges of his lips.

"What's your name?" Charles asked.

His nephew looked up at his mother, then over at his father, before turning back to his uncle. "Matthew."

Charles smiled. "My name's Charlie," he said.

"*Uncle* Charlie," Bill clarified. "Charles is my brother. You remember, Matthew, we told you you were going to meet your uncle?"

Matthew nodded solemnly, his eyes still locked with Charles's.

"How old are you, Matthew?" Charles asked. Matthew glanced up at his mother, then held out three tiny fingers. "Three?" Charles said. "And I hear you've got a birthday coming up in a few days, too." Matthew nodded, eyes wide.

Finally Charles stood and smiled at his brother. "Where's Dana?" he asked.

"They should be here soon," Maggie said, checking her watch. "Let's get your things upstairs." Charles hefted his duffel bag and an oversized art portfolio over his shoulder and followed his mother upstairs.

"I've put you on the pull-out couch in the study," she told her son. "But I was hoping you would move to the couch downstairs on Christmas Eve, when Dana and Fox stay over with the baby."

Charles nodded as his mother swung open the door to the study, a converted bedroom. Charles dropped his bag onto the couch, which had already been made up as a bed. He quickly surveyed the room, then turned to face his mother.

"Soooo... This guy Fox. What's his story?"

Maggie sighed. Where to start? "He was her partner at the FBI," she said, and Charles raised an eyebrow at her.

"Partner, huh?"

"And her friend," she added. "But beyond that, you'll have to ask Dana." And then let me know, she wanted to add, but did not. Charles nodded slowly.

"Why don't you unpack your things," she suggested. "We'll let you know when Dana arrives."


Mulder

Mulder pulled the car onto US-50 and set the cruise control to 67. It was the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, and the highway was crowded with cars, some headed home for the holidays, others getting an early start on the night's partying. The edges of the previous night's snow had already darkened from the exhaust fumes of that day's heavy traffic. But the dusting of snow on the trees was still white and clean. Like new.

Mulder glanced in the rear view mirror, eying the baby in his carseat. Bundled up in his hooded snowsuit and scarf, William's face was barely visible, and he waved a tiny hand that was folded into the mittens on the end of his sleeves.

"Scully," Mulder said, glancing over at the passenger's seat. "Shouldn't we uncover him a little? It's kind of warm in here, and it's a forty-five minute drive to your mother's."

"Does he look warm to you?" Scully asked, craning herself around the front seat to get a better look.

"I don't know," Mulder said. "I can't see his face."

Scully turned around long enough to shoot him an irritated gaze, daring him to call her overprotective. Mulder shifted his shoulder against Scully's back, which was now almost wedged into the space between the front seats. He allowed his eyes to shift next to him, to Scully's backside. Mulder smiled appreciatively.

"Are you warm?" she asked the baby, tugging at his scarf.

"Da da da," he called out as soon as the restricting fabric was loosened from his face.

Mulder grinned almost guiltily. Liam had been saying "Dada," and a handful of other near-words, for over a month. But, to Scully's escalating frustration, he had yet to attempt a "Mama." It seemed almost unfair, considering the nine months she alone had nurtured and carried and protected him.

"Mama," Scully prompted, and Mulder again glanced in the rear view mirror. Scully's face was close to their son's, her lips slowly forming "Mama," but Liam simply smiled and clapped his hands together.

"If I didn't know better," she said, settling back into her seat and adjusting the seatbelt, "I'd think he was laughing at me."

"He'll say it," Mulder assured her, allowing his hand to drift from the steering wheel to rest on her knee.

"I know," she said, setting her gloved hand atop his bare one.

Mulder turned his attention back to the road, changing lanes to zip past a slow moving semi-truck. A small red sports car snuck by on his left. Mulder wondered, as he often had during the many hours he and Scully had spent together in a car, where the other drivers were headed. Were they, too, going to start a nearly weeklong visit with a family they barely knew, yet were suddenly part of... sort of?

It was during Thanksgiving dinner that Scully's mother informed them -- warned them, Mulder now thought -- that both Bill and Charlie would be in town for Christmas. On Thanksgiving, Christmas had seemed like such a long way off to Mulder, and he didn't think twice when Scully accepted her mother's offer to join the rest of the family at her house.

Maybe it was the tryptophan in the turkey -- though Scully assured him that the media buzz about this somnambulant chemical was exaggerated if not completely off base -- but Mulder's thoughts hadn't moved past their cozy Thanksgiving dinner for four, cooked by Scully's mother in their Apartment.

A month had seemed like forever in the future as he cut a piece of sweet potato pie and transferred it messily onto a dessert plate. But now, with only a forty- five minute drive standing between him and Bill Scully, Mulder was starting to feel the heat. He slipped his hand from beneath Scully's and turned the temperature down a notch.

He was glad to see Scully's mother, with whom he and Scully and Liam had enjoyed a pleasant Thanksgiving. However, as the calendar flipped to December and Mulder was forced to face the reality of spending the holidays with Clan Scully, uneasiness took over.

Mulder had never met Charles, Scully's younger brother, but he had spoken to him briefly on the phone several months ago. He had been calling to talk to Scully after receiving the photographs of the baby she had sent him. However, Mulder had only had enough time to introduce himself before Scully snatched the phone from his hand.

But it wasn't Charles that Mulder was nervous about seeing. Scully had spoken kindly, though infrequently, about her younger brother, who, Mulder understood, had been living in Seattle for the past few years. Scully had explained that Charles worked as the manager of a bookstore, though his true passion was for his art, on which he spent his nights and weekends.

No, it was Bill Scully that Mulder was reluctant to see again. He hadn't spoken to or seen Scully's eldest brother for four years, not since Mulder had stayed over at Bill and his wife, Tara's, house when Scully called him after discovering Emily's existence.

But Scully had. And she had sent Bill and Tara the same photos of the baby as Charles had received. And Tara had called a week later, eventually coaxing Bill on the phone. Mulder had been trying to soothe Liam, who was upset that his mother was talking on the phone instead of feeding him. So he took the baby into their bedroom to muffle the sounds.

But, when Liam wouldn't let up, Mulder had to bring the baby to Scully, who had put the call on speakerphone while she nursed. So Mulder heard the majority of Scully's conversation with Bill, although he took to pacing anxiously around the room when biting his lip wasn't enough to hold his tongue.

He told himself that this was a private conversation between Scully and her brother, and that he should leave the room and let them continue. But Scully didn't take the call off the speakerphone even after she had gotten Liam settled at her breast. So he figured that maybe she wanted him there for moral support.

Okay, so he wanted to stay; he would admit that much. He had been hoping that she wouldn't wave him into the other room or shoot him that "give me a minute" look. And she hadn't. So he heard Bill's carping, accusatorial tone, his assessment of Mulder as "your crazy partner" and "that man." He hadn't heard it all, but he had heard enough.

Over the years Mulder had seen Scully in more tense situations than he cared to remember, and he had always admired the way she kept cool in times of strife. Of the two of them, he was usually the more emotional. However, he had never admired her more than he did that day, while she spoke with her brother on the phone.

Scully had grown calmer and calmer as Bill grew more and more angry. "Do you know what you're doing to Mom?" he'd accused. "She's worried sick about you."

"She never said anything to me," Scully said.

"Of course not," Bill roared. "She doesn't want to upset you so soon after you've given birth."

And you don't care about that, huh? Mulder thought.

"Bill," Scully said in a sigh.

"No, Dana. Listen to me. Mom doesn't need this kind of stress." And neither does your sister, you bastard, Mulder thought. "She isn't so young anymore."

"Bill," Scully tried to say, but again was cut off.

"It's bad enough that you won't tell Mom who the father is," Bill said, his voice raising. "Jesus, Dana, she's your mother, not some casual acquaintance. You owe it to her, and to the rest of the family, to tell us the truth."

"I *owe* it to her?"

"Yes," Bill said. "You owe her something for all she's put up with, with you and that job. How many times have you come to her for a shoulder to cry on after that crazy partner of yours has either disappeared, or done something stupid and dangerous, or both?

"And then you continue working while you're pregnant -- and from what Mom says, it was a difficult pregnancy -- putting both your life and your baby's life at risk. And don't think we don't know why. Mom told me about your partner disappearing.

"How could you be so stupid, Dana? You risk your health, and your baby's, for a man who doesn't think twice about walking out on you while you're pregnant. What, did you think you were the only one who could find him? It's just like with your cancer, thinking you could cure yourself."

But she did find me, Mulder thought, watching as Scully gently stroked Liam's head as he nursed. How could she remain so calm, Mulder wondered, when her own brother had shifted into attack mode? Mulder felt his own anger rising up so many times during that conversation; watching Scully and Liam, he had wanted nothing more than to reach through the phone lines and strangle Bill for threatening their tenuous happiness.

Apparently Scully's thoughts were not far from his own. "I did find him, Bill," she said.

"At what risk?" Bill shot back, his crisp anger not lost across thousands of miles of phone cables. "And then you disappear yourself, so close to your due date. Driving to the middle of Georgia? How could you be so irresponsible? What did you expect Mom to think during all this, when you weren't answering your phone or your door? She was worried sick, Dana."

"I had to, Bill," she replied. "You don't understand. And Mom knew where I was."

Mulder nodded, remembering the frantic phone call he had received from Margaret Scully the morning after Scully and Reyes left town. He had berated himself for not calling her first to assure her that Scully was okay, but he had had so many more pressing concerns on his mind, between Billy Miles and Krycek and Noel Roher. And, obviously, Scully.

Of course, he had been able to give Mrs. Scully little comfort, but at least he had shared with her everything he knew, at least everything he thought she needed to know.

"And now Mom says you're living with him," Bill had choked out. "I'm sure Mom won't say anything to you about it--" Yeah, Mulder thought; Margaret Scully has too much tact for that, and too much respect for her grown daughter's ability to live her own life "--but someone's got to. Do you honestly think that's the best way to raise a child, living with a man you aren't married to? What would Dad say?"

This time Scully cringed along with Mulder. Stranger as he was to Scully's family, he knew that bringing up Captain Scully's disapproval was not the way to win Scully over. Or to get her to see your point of view. By this time, however, Liam had drifted off to sleep, and Scully handed him over to Mulder, who took the baby into their bedroom and settled him in his bassinet.

So Mulder didn't hear Scully's response to Bill's low blow. Instead he hummed softly to Liam, trying to drown out the angry bursts coming from the speakerphone and the measured responses coming from the couch.

But they -- or, rather, Bill -- were still at it when he rejoined Scully in the family room. "--and not getting married. It's like you've abandoned your upbringing and your religion. And to what? To join this man's paranoid quest? History has proven that you can't keep yourself safe doing that, Dana. How can you expect to keep your child safe?"

Bill was on a roll. "And what are you going to tell this baby when he grows up - - because, believe me, Dana, they do groow up -- when he asks about his father? Are you going to let him assume that this man who's living in his house is his father? If the guy's still around then, that is," Bill spat out.

"Or are you going to keep everything secret from him, just like you have from the rest of us? We're your family, Dana; I don't see why you can't tell us the truth."

Again Mulder bit his tongue. He could see quite clearly why Scully didn't want to tell Bill the truth, given his overreaction to the announcement that Mulder had moved in with Scully and Liam.

However, what Mulder didn't understand was Scully's reluctance to tell her mother that he was Liam's father. Margaret Scully had seemed receptive to the idea of Mulder moving in when they shared their news with her over dinner one night. Mulder thought the older woman had been expecting an altogether different announcement, but she recovered nicely from her surprise and congratulated them. So why couldn't Scully confirm, at least to her mother, that Liam was his?

"It's personal," Scully said to Bill. Mulder knew that that response wouldn't have quieted him, if he were Bill Scully -- a thoroughly frightful proposition he didn't allow himself to dwell on -- and he also knew that, if he was anything like his sister, it wouldn't pacify Bill either.

And it didn't.

"Again with the 'personal,'" Bill scoffed. "The same reason you gave for not telling me about your cancer. Jesus, Dana, I'm your brother. If you can't share something personal with me--"

Liam's cries broke into his uncle's argument. Scully closed her eyes and leaned back into the couch, and Mulder dashed into their bedroom to soothe him. He closed the door behind him and Bill Scully's voice faded into nothingness.

It wasn't until Mulder had rocked Liam to sleep, placed him carefully in his bassinet, and returned once again to the family room that Mulder saw that Scully had taken Bill off speakerphone and had stopped trying to respond to Bill's diatribe, which had metamorphosed into a muffled, angry rise and fall.

The sign for the Rowe Boulevard exit came into view, and Mulder flicked on his turning signal and maneuvered into the right-hand lane. He glanced over at Scully, wondering what she was thinking, whether she, too, was worried about Bill. She hadn't seen her brother for months, not since before Liam was born. And before that it had been even longer, perhaps a year or more.

Mulder's only salvation was that they weren't staying at Scully's mother's house, as her brothers were. They had agreed to stay over on Christmas Eve night so they could keep up the early-morning Scully family tradition of opening presents at the crack of dawn.

Strange tradition, Mulder thought, but then who was he to call anyone's family strange? After his sister's abduction the Mulder family had celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah with TV dinners and gifts bought on the way home from a long night at the office, if he was lucky.

It was because of those memories that Mulder had coaxed Scully into agreeing to visit with her family for Christmas. While she was more than happy to see Charlie and her mother, Scully had been understandably reluctant about spending so much time with her older brother.

However, and perhaps despite his good judgment, Mulder had convinced her that her mother's house was where they needed to be, at least for the holidays. Mulder didn't want Liam growing up with the same separate, disenfranchised feeling that he himself had had. Liam needed to know his uncles and his cousin as well as his grandmother, to understand his roots, even if they were a bit twisted.

And Mulder knew that his son would get little from his side of the family tree. His parents and sister were dead, and there were few relatives with whom he had kept in touch. Though there was no love lost between him and Bill Scully, the man was his son's uncle, and would play some part in his son's life, though Mulder admitted that that prospect was easier to swallow when Bill was home in San Diego or at some unknown sea port, than when he was on a plane headed for DC.

Scully had been surprised when Mulder explained all this to her. Not disagreeable, but surprised. And she had, in turn, surprised him by suggesting Liam not forget his father's roots either. On Mulder's confusion, she had elaborated, shyly suggesting that they celebrate Hanukkah as well as Christmas, if he was comfortable with it. She had said that, though he wasn't particularly religious, his background was now also Liam's, and that maybe they should learn more about it.

He had been reluctant but had eventually agreed, figuring that fair was fair. So they had hunted through Mulder's parents' things, boxed up in musty U-Store-Its and in the attic of the house in Quonochontaug. They had managed to unearth a heavy gold menorah that had belonged to his father's mother, as well as a children's picture book about Hanukkah.

Mulder steered the car through the streets of Margaret Scully's Annapolis neighborhood, dread creeping over him. His life had changed so much in the past two years. At times, he could scarcely believe that he was the same man who had routinely fallen asleep to the drone of an infomercial and spent his weekends in his basement office.

No, he thought, his life had not only changed; it had grown. Again he looked over at Scully, who was still gazing out the passenger side window.

The evolution of his life was the reason why he felt so anxious as the car crept slowly, inexorably, towards Scully's mother's house. He would have felt more comfortable if he was arriving alone, as Scully's partner, planning to convince her to forego her family time to investigate a suddenly crucial case. He knew that role; he had played it so many times before.

But now he had a new role. They had always hesitated to call each other anything but partner. That one word had always summed up their relationship in a way that no other word could. Partner implied equals; Partner carried none of the preconceptions of Boyfriend and Husband. But now Partner meant so much more.

Maybe it wasn't his business if Bill Scully disapproved of Dana Scully, FBI partner, but it was most definitely his business if Bill hurt Dana Scully, Partner.

Even more, Mulder felt a fierce protectiveness where his son was concerned. Scully could take care of herself, that she had proved to him again and again. But Liam was relying on him, on both of them, and Mulder would not disappoint him.

Mulder pulled onto Margaret Scully's street, trying to calm himself by remembering that Bill and his family wouldn't be there yet. Charles's flight was scheduled to arrive earlier than Bill's, and Mulder knew Scully was looking forward to a brief visit with just Charles and her mother before Bill arrived. Mulder figured Scully wanted to get the baby settled and introduce Mulder to Charles first, and Mulder was all for that. He wanted a chance to get on Charles's good side before Big Brother Bill prejudiced the man against him. He could use another ally.

Finally Mulder pulled the car into a familiar driveway, behind an unfamiliar van. He put the car in park and heard Scully sigh next to him.

"Bill's already here," she said.

"How do you know?"

Scully nodded at the bumper of the van, the corner of which was marked with a small, square Lariat Rent-A-Car sticker. "Charlie wouldn't rent a van," she said.

"I thought their flight wasn't supposed to come in until later," Mulder said.

Scully shrugged. "I guess not."

Mulder unbuckled his seatbelt and opened his door, but Scully didn't move. He turned to her and laid his hand on hers.

"Do you want to go back?" he asked, only half teasing.

"No." But still she didn't move. So Mulder reached down and unbuckled her seatbelt. Finally she pushed open her door and got out of the car.

Together they leaned into the backseat to check on Liam, who had been lulled to sleep by the drone of the drive. Scully fixed his scarf and hood so that they once again obscured his face, then stepped back, allowing Mulder to unlatch the carseat from its base and carry Liam into the house.


Maggie

"Merry Christmas," Dana called out, and Margaret Scully craned her neck at the sound.

Dana stood in the foyer, an overstuffed diaper bag slung over her shoulder. She held out her arm, propping the screen door open for Fox, who stepped in behind her. He held the baby carrier low and in front of him as he closed the door behind them.

Maggie scrambled off the couch and over to her daughter. "Merry Christmas," she said, then, "Oh, let me see my grandson."

Fox glanced down into the carrier. "He's still asleep," he said in a low voice. He raised the carrier so she could see the baby, just his tiny pink nose sticking out from under so many colorful layers of fleece and cotton.

"Let me set him down in the family room," Dana said, heading with Fox toward the back of the house. The rest of the family followed them, an overeager parade, wanting to get a glimpse of the baby. When they got to the family room Fox set the carrier on the floor beside the couch, then unzipped his jacket.

Dana focused her attention on the baby, carefully loosening his scarf and easing the hood away from his face. She unsnapped the front of his tiny snowsuit to reveal a flannel snowflake-print jumper.

"Oh, Dana, he's beautiful," Tara exclaimed, reaching around her mother-in-law to run a finger down the stretch of soft flannel. "He's already so much bigger than in the pictures you sent."

Dana smiled proudly, still bent over the baby's carrier, fussing with the buckle, attempting to undo it without waking him. Fox lifted Dana's hat off her head, and she looked up, realizing that she was still wearing her coat. Finally she unzipped it and handed it to Fox, who took it and his own to the front closet.

Quietly and reluctantly the family headed back into the living room without the sleeping baby, Matthew running ahead with a red train engine in his hand. Maggie finally caught Dana and hugged her hello, passing her on to Tara for a greeting and pulling Fox into a quick embrace. After a brief hesitation, he hugged her back. Maggie couldn't help but notice Bill watching them carefully until Dana caught his attention and gave him a stiff, tentative embrace.

They settled back in position, Dana joining her mother and sister-in-law on the couch and Fox sitting across from them in an armchair. "Where's Charles?" Dana asked.

"Right here," came his voice from the hall.

"Charlie," Dana exclaimed, jumping up from the couch and almost launching herself into her younger brother's arms. "Hey, stranger."

When they pulled back Charles held his sister at arms' length. "Hey, Dane, it's great to see you." Charles ruffled his sister's hair and she dodged away from him, spinning to face Fox.

Fox stood and offered his hand to Charles. "We haven't met. I'm Fox Mulder."

Charles stuck out his hand but crinkled his brow. "Who?"

Maggie watched Fox and Dana exchange glances, and she herself suppressed a grin at Charles's antics. Dana should realize her brother was just kidding, Maggie thought, but, by the panicked look on her daughter's face, she knew that Dana and Charles's relationship had grown too distant.

"Fox Mulder," Dana said to Charles. "I'm sure Mom--"

Charles shook his head, maintaining his puzzled expression. "I'm sure I would've remembered a name like Fox." He squinted and gave the man a slow once-over. "And you and Dana...?"

"Mulder's my--" Dana faltered. Knowing her daughter could no longer fall back on the old standby of "partner," Maggie wondered what her daughter would say. Her boyfriend? Her son's father? Whatever she chose, it would not be enough. Maggie waited for Dana's response in an awkward silence with the rest of the family. Even Fox looked eager.

"Hey, Dane, I'm only kidding," Charles said, smiling and pulling his sister back into a hug. "Gotcha."

Then, to Fox, "I'm Charlie, Dana's younger, funner brother." The two men shook hands again. "So, Dana called you Mulder, but Mom--"

"Mulder's fine," Fox said, and Charles nodded.

"So, Dane, Mom says you had a baby, but, you know, I see no evidence..."

Dana smiled. "He's sleeping in the family room. Come on," she said, and the family once again trailed her into the other room.

"Look who's awake," she cooed when she caught sight of her son, who was now smiling, his big blue eyes watching them carefully. Dana disengaged Liam from his snowsuit and Fox held the puffy blue garment as Dana lifted Liam from the carrier. She hefted the baby onto her hip and turned to face Charles.

"Meet your family," she said to her son.

Tara reached out and smoothed a hand over the soft red-gold hair on Liam's head. "Look at this hair," she laughed, "just like your mommy." The baby crinkled his eyebrow and regarded his smiling aunt carefully.

Maggie watched her younger son hesitate, then hold out a hand to his nephew, who turned away shyly and buried his head on his mother's shoulder. Dana rubbed his back comfortingly.

"Aw," Maggie said as they all laughed. "You'll come to Grandma, won't you?" she asked, holding out her arms.

Dana handed her the baby, who looked at her cautiously before breaking into a smile as he recognized her. Tara and Charles crowded around Maggie, and Matthew jumped around their legs. "Lemme see, lemme see," he whined.

"Here, let's go back into the living room," Maggie said, cradling the baby, and they wandered into the hallway, Dana carrying the diaper bag.

"Mom, I'm gonna put this in the fridge," she called out, holding up a zippered pouch. "They're Liam's bottles and some teething toys."

"You're calling him Liam," Charles said, weighing the name. Fox nodded. "Liam," Charles repeated. "I like that. Much better than 'Bill,' anyway," he teased.

They all turned to look at Bill, who was settled on the floor across from where Maggie and the rest of the family sat with the baby. He forced a grin, but Maggie regarded him carefully after the others had turned back to the baby. He narrowed his eyes, as if studying the little boy.

"We figured there were enough Bills," Fox was saying. "Scully's father and brother, my father..."

But Maggie still watched her own Bill, whose mood hadn't much improved since their discussion about the sleeping arrangements. He sat on the perimeter of the family; even Matthew, who had been playing on the floor with his father prior to his aunt's arrival, had abandoned him to squeeze between his mother and grandmother on the couch, regarding his cousin carefully.

"Liam," Charles repeated, and the baby, recognizing his name, turned to face his uncle, his pale blue eyes wide. "Liam Scully. It fits him."

"Mulder," Dana said as she joined them in the living room.

"Hmm?" Fox answered, turning to Dana.

"Liam *Mulder,*" Dana clarified, balancing on the arm of the chair where Fox was sitting. All eyes turned to her, including Liam's. Including Maggie's.

It was the most Dana had ever said to confirm the assumption that Fox was Liam's father. Now Maggie glanced at Bill, who was looking at his sister with narrowed eyes. Of course he had suspected it; they all had. You need only watch Fox with Liam -- or with Dana, for that matter -- to know. And they were living together. What more evidence did Bill need?

It was obvious to them all, but Dana had never said anything to confirm or deny their assumption. Maybe she thought it was unnecessary; maybe she thought it wasn't their business; maybe she thought it would put too much pressure on her relationship with Fox, who had had an even more stressful year than Dana. But, even though she had longed to be included in her daughter's life, Maggie wasn't surprised by her Dana's silence on the subject. She had always kept too much inside.

And, now that Maggie considered Bill's expression, she realized that it was more disgust than surprise. She would have thought Bill would be glad that they had done something in the conventional way, giving Liam his father's last name. Maggie herself had been glad that Dana and Fox seemed to be moving towards a more defined relationship, towards -- dare she hope? -- a marriage.

"Do you think he'll come to me?" Tara asked, breaking the awkward silence.

Dana shrugged, and Maggie handed Tara the baby. "Hello, sweetie," she cooed. "I'm your Aunt Tara, and this is Matthew, your cousin." Liam reached out towards his cousin's face and the boy offered him the train he was holding.

"No, Matty," Tara said, intercepting the toy. "It was nice of you to share, but Liam's just a baby. He's too little for the train."

"Here," Dana said, digging through the diaper bag and handing Matthew a thick, water-filled, plastic wand-type toy, one end filled with glitter and small plastic fish. "This is his favorite."

Matthew dropped his train and took the wand, turning the toy upside down, watching the plastic pieces settle to the bottom. Finally, reluctantly, Matthew handed the toy to his cousin, who shook it gleefully and kicked against his aunt's lap.

Maggie smiled down at Liam and bent to kiss the top of his head as she stood. "I'd better check on dinner," she said and left for the kitchen.

Maggie basted the roast and turned on a burner for the carrots that waited in the steamer. One ear still in the living room with her family, she washed the baster out in the sink. She could hear their voices but could only make out every other word, not enough to follow their conversation.

To her, they simply sounded like a family.


Maggie

"I thought tomorrow we could all go to Chesapeake Bay Mall," Maggie said as they sat down for dinner. She passed a serving dish piled with parsley-basted carrots to Charles, who was sitting to her left.

"You got some last minute shopping to do, Mom?" Charlie asked, taking the dish. He spooned carrots onto his plate, then passed the serving dish over to Tara.

Maggie smiled. "There are a few things I need to pick up," she admitted. "But Chesapeake Bay Mall has the best Santa in the county. I thought we could take the children, for pictures."

"That's a good idea," Tara said as she cut Matthew's roast beef into bite-size pieces. "We had a photo of Matthew taken in San Diego, but it'd be nice to have one of both boys together."

Maggie nodded. That had been her thinking as well. She so rarely saw Matthew that she was eager for any new photographs of her grandson. And, she guessed, from the few times Dana had been to San Diego or Bill had been to DC, that Liam and Matthew would probably not have the luxury of growing up together.

So sad, Maggie thought. Matthew had cousins in California, but Matthew was Liam's only cousin, and probably would be for some time. Maggie couldn't imagine Charles being ready for a family anytime soon. And, remembering back to what Dana had told her about her infertility, Maggie could only conclude, sadly, that Liam's birth had been a miracle, a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that it was most likely that Liam would be an only child.

"Mom? You okay?"

Maggie looked up at the sound of her daughter's voice. "Fine," she said, smiling across the table at her daughter, who was mashing carrots with her spoon for Liam.

The baby sat, in an old high chair Maggie had dug out of the attic, between Dana and Fox. Liam patted the palms of his hands, which were already coated with smashed food, on the high chair tray, spreading mashed potatoes over its surface. "Da da da," he called out happily.

Maggie's eye was caught by Bill, who sat across from her, opposite the head of the table. He visibly stiffened at the sound of Liam's babbling. Maggie shook her head just slightly. Obviously Bill was still hung up on Fox and Dana's relationship. Maggie had hoped that he would come to know Fox in these few days, come to see that he was the right man for his sister and the right father, the only father, for his nephew.

Fox turned to the baby with a smile. "What is it, buddy? Are you making a mess of your dinner?" Fox wiped Liam's face with his napkin, then turned to Dana. "Did he have his bottle yet?"

"No," she said, then pushed back her chair.

"I'll get it," he said, rising from the table and laying his hand on her shoulder before disappearing into the kitchen. A minute later, Fox returned with the bottle, which he placed on Liam's tray.

"Da da," Liam repeated, baring his gums and two bottom teeth in a big grin directed at Fox. He grasped the bottle and expertly fit it into his mouth.

"Does he say, 'Mama' yet?" Tara asked.

Dana looked up from her son, a look of good-natured irritation on her face. "No," she said. "Just 'Dada.'"

Maggie nodded. "That's how most babies are," she said. "You three all said 'Dada' first, but Melissa said 'Mama.' At least I got one," she joked.

Tara laughed. "'Dada' was Matty's first word, too. Remember that, Bill?" She looked over at her husband, who nodded and managed a proud smile.

"I told him that 'Dada' is most babies' first word, but, honey, you acted like you'd beaten me in some kind of parenting competition." She laughed. "He held that over my head at least until Matty's first birthday." They all chuckled.

"I think 'Dada' was my first word, too," Tara said. "I remember calling my mom to ask her about it when Matthew took so long to say 'Mama.'"

"'Da' sounds are easier for babies to make," Charles explained. "I remember that from an anthro course I took in college. Something about sounds originating at the pallet versus sounds originating at the lips.

"Hey," he said, turning to his sister, "you should try teaching him to say 'Dana.' That'd probably be easier."

"I don't know, Charles," Dana said as the family smiled at her brother's suggestion. She locked her glance on Fox. "All things considered, Liam probably won't call me anything until he can say 'Scully.'"

Again they laughed, and Liam put down his bottle to look curiously around the table.

Likewise, Maggie set down her fork and gazed slowly around the table at her family, who were recovering from their laughter and returning to their dinner. My family, Maggie thought proudly, wishing Bill were there with her to see the adults their children had become. She looked around the table, at Fox and Liam and Dana, at Bill and Matthew and Tara, and, finally, at Charles, sitting next to her.

Maggie looked back over at Bill, her firstborn, still her baby. He put a forkful of pot roast in his mouth, and Maggie watched him chew quickly, then swallow. She was struck by how much her son resembled his father, his strictly straight posture; his slow, stubborn sense of humor and eventual booming laugh; his strength.

Maggie watched as Tara snaked an arm behind Matthew's chair and clasped Bill on the shoulder. She squeezed his shoulder and he turned to her and smiled. Then Bill set his fork down and cleared his throat. The rest of the family looked up from their plates.

"Tara and I have some news," Bill said, reaching his hand up to clasp his wife's.

Maggie smiled, sure of what their announcement would be. Tara was pregnant, she knew. Maggie had been getting the strongest vibe to that effect ever since Bill, Tara, and Matthew arrived earlier that afternoon. She wasn't sure what it was, exactly; it was just a feeling. A strong feeling.

Tara didn't look any different, but Maggie had always had a knack for knowing these things. She had even guessed about Dana's pregnancy, and that had been a tough one, far from likely or even, they thought, possible. But the awkward, half-happy, half-scared message her daughter had left on her answering machine had only confirmed the feeling festering in Maggie's gut.

She had even had these feelings about two of her own pregnancies, first with Melissa and later with Charles. She had been aware of both those pregnancies the next morning, when she had awoken and just felt... different.

The first time, with Melissa, Maggie had told her husband and he had laughed. And she had laughed with him. How silly. They couldn't be pregnant again. They were spending a long weekend at a bed and breakfast in Vermont and, in their giddiness at being away from Billy for the first time, they had pushed her feeling out of their minds.

But then, a week or so later, when her pregnancy began to seem less like a joke and more like a probability, they had started to get a little nervous. Billy was only four months old, and they hadn't been planning for another baby so soon. But that was Melissa, keeping things interesting.

The second time, with Charles, Bill and Maggie had both been significantly more receptive to the possibility of another pregnancy. They had begun to think that three children would be all for their little family, when Maggie once again gotten that feeling. This time, when she told Bill, he believed her straight out. He urged her to make an appointment at the base infirmary before he shipped out the next week, and she had. And she was right. There was Charles, an unexpected gift. Her baby.

So now Maggie waited eagerly but confidently, as Bill and Tara grinned at each other over Matthew's head.

"I've been reassigned," Bill said with a smile.

"Reassigned?" Maggie asked.

"Where?" Charles added.

Now it was Tara's turn to grin. "Norfolk," she said.

"Norfolk?" Dana repeated. "Virginia?"

Bill nodded. "Norfolk, Virginia. Instead of on-ship engineer, I'll spend most of my time at the base. I won't have to travel as much, which will definitely be nice, and we'll be closer to you here in DC, Mom."

And closer to Dana, Maggie thought. "A promotion?" she asked.

Bill nodded. "I've had my sights set on this kind of position for years," he said proudly, and Tara smiled over at him.

"That's wonderful, Bill," Margaret said. "It'll be so nice to have you three back East, to get to see Matthew more often."

Tara nodded and Maggie turned her gaze to her daughter-in-law. Bill's news hadn't quieted the expectant feeling in the pit of Maggie's stomach. Not at all. Maggie studied Tara's face, her bright smile and twinkling eyes.

Tara turned to face her mother-in-law. "You know," Tara said, her grin broadening. But Maggie simply smiled back at her.

"Know what?" Dana asked, glancing between Maggie and Tara.

"Know our other news," Tara said, looking back over at Bill. "We're pregnant."

"Ooh," Maggie exclaimed. "I knew it! I just *knew* it." She jumped from her seat and ran to the other side of the table to embrace her son and his wife. Dana reached around the table and gave Bill a quick, almost formal hug, and Charles did the same with Tara, who sat next to him.

"Congratulations," Fox said, taking advantage of the excitement to try to slip a spoonful of mashed potatoes into Liam's mouth.

"When are you due?" Maggie asked Tara as she headed back to her seat at the head of the table.

"June," she said, sitting back down. "And the timing couldn't be better. Bill's new assignment doesn't start until March, so we'll have plenty of time to move out here and get settled before the baby's born." Tara kept talking, detailing their tentative plans for visiting Norfolk before they headed back to San Diego, and the perfect timing that wouldn't force Bill to ship out just weeks after the baby's birth, as his previous assignment had required after Matthew's.

But Maggie's thoughts had strayed from her daughter-in-law's plans. Again she looked around the table, stopping lovingly at each face. How exciting it was for her children, she thought, including Tara and Fox in her warm feelings. She remembered this time in her life so fondly, the years she and her husband had started and then nurtured their own family. Even though Bill's travels had passed the majority of the everyday parenting to Maggie, she cherished that time in her life. There were babies to feed and bathe and soothe, and small children to play with and read to and teach. She both envied the futures her children had ahead of them and, at the same time, rejoiced in the luck she had in being there to share them.

Everything was falling into place for Bill and Tara, with Billy's new assignment and Tara's pregnancy, with their move back East. Not only would they be close to Maggie and Dana, but they would be closer to Tara's parents, who lived in Pittsburgh. Of course, Tara's oldest sister still lived on the West Coast, in Los Angeles, Maggie remembered, but she had another sister who lived in New York and whom, Maggie was sure, she would be glad to see more often.

And Dana and Fox. Maggie looked over at them, both of their heads bent over Liam, trying to coax another spoonful of mashed carrots into his mouth. It appeared that things were working out between them, but of course Maggie hoped they would make it official. She supposed she was old-fashioned that way, but she knew it would be easier for them if they were married. They were no longer partnered together at the FBI, so they had no worries about Bureau prohibitions of spouses working together, if such prohibitions even exited; Maggie wasn't sure. Then again, they never seemed to do things the easy way, but, somehow, it all seemed to be working out well. At least, Maggie thought, it was working. She watched Liam's stubborn smile as he shook his head, refusing a spoonful of potatoes this time.

And Charles. Maggie sighed. Talk about not doing things the easy way. Maggie prayed for each of her children and grandchildren every night, and for Tara and Fox. But Charles had long held a special place in her prayers. He, as much as Dana, seemed to make things so much more difficult than they needed to be.

For years he had battled with his father, with his brother. She knew that Dana had been through the ringer in recent years, but it was Charles who had had a lifetime of fighting, of toil. Every night Maggie prayed for peace for her Charles, for the ability and willingness to relax into his life before it was too late.


Sunday, December 23, 2001

"They're writing songs of love, but not for me." - Ira Gershwin

"Life is like music; it can be composed by ear, feeling, and instinct, not by rule." - Samuel Butler


Charles

They met in Margaret Scully's living room at nine the next morning, as soon as Dana and Mulder got there. They had left early the previous night, just after dinner. The baby had been cranky, crying as they all pitched in to clear the table and wash the dishes. Half the Scully family took a turn walking the baby around the house, but to no effect. So Dana and Mulder left, and it wasn't long before the rest of them wandered upstairs, tired.

But Charles had had a hard time falling asleep. His body was worn-out from the long flight, but his mind was still on Seattle time. Sitting on the lumpy pull- out couch in the study, he had tried reading one of the books he'd packed, but he couldn't concentrate. His gaze kept drifting over to the crib set up near the window, but he couldn't figure out why he was so distracted.

Charlie slept fitfully and awoke early the next morning. He slipped into the shower, then dressed in his converted bedroom, glancing over at the crib as he dressed and made up the pull-out. His mom was already downstairs, and Charles helped her start coffee and make breakfast, and the aroma of scrambled eggs and bacon urged Bill, Tara, and Matthew from bed.

So they were all dressed and ready when Dana and Mulder pulled into Margaret Scully's driveway the next morning. All they had left to do was work out how many cars they were going to take, and who was driving with whom. Easier said than done, Charles knew.

"Our van's big," Bill said as they pulled on their coats, "but it'll be tight trying to fit all eight of us, especially with a carseat."

Dana nodded. "We can take our car, too. Then we won't have to move Liam's carseat into your van."

"Okay," Maggie said, handing Matthew his mittens, then turning to Dana and Mulder. "Do either of you know how to get to the mall?"

Mulder nodded. "I've been there before," he said.

Bill jingled his keys. "Okay, then. You three in Dana's car and the rest of us-- "

"I'll ride with Dana," Charles offered. He had had his fill of Bill yesterday, his brother's cool greeting, his sulking after Dana arrived, his monopolizing the dinner conversation. If he could get out of riding in Bill's van, Charlie knew that spending the rest of the week en famille would be that much more tolerable.

Bill narrowed his eyes at his brother, then looked over at Dana. "There's more room in the van, I'm sure," he said. "Especially with a carseat in the back." Bill looked like Charlie remembered feeling so many times on the elementary school playground after he had been picked last for kickball. Tough, Charles thought.

"There's room," Mulder said, "if he wants to ride with us." Bill transferred his scowl from his brother to Mulder. Thanks, man, Charles thought, sending a positive vibe over to Mulder.

"Fine," Bill said, punctuating his reply with a crisp zip of his jacket. "Let's go."

Charles followed his sister to her car and waited until she buckled Liam into his carseat before climbing in the backseat next to him. Mulder pulled the car out of the driveway and headed down the street, Charles turning to watch Bill's van follow them.

Charlie had just wanted to get out of riding with Bill, but riding with Dana with a pretty good bonus. He hadn't spent much time recently with either his brother or his sister, but it was his sister he missed, his sister who intrigued him now. Bill was Bill: steady, predictable, boring. But Dana...

It had been his mom who had told Charlie, about a year ago, that Dana was pregnant. He'd had a hard time masking his surprise, even over the phone. Dana? Pregnant but not married? That was something the family might expect of Melissa or Charles, not Dana. Perfect Dana, Daddy's little girl, the Captain's favorite. Sure, she wasn't exactly the picture of a poor single mother, but still...

Until then, Dana's single act of rebellion -- as far as he knew -- was joining the FBI. If you could call that rebellion, Charles thought; he sure as hell didn't. Rebellion was running away from home to join a motorcycle gang. Dropping out of school a week before graduation. Dying your hair purple and taking drugs. Rebellion wasn't changing careers from medicine to the FBI, no matter what Captain William Scully, Senior, thought.

And the Captain thought quite a bit: he didn't want his baby girl joining an old boys' club, risking her life to chase murderers and terrorists. And he didn't hesitate in making his opinion known. Charlie was all too familiar with Captain Scully's look of disappointment. He had been on the receiving end of that look more times than he could count. But he couldn't remember the Captain ever looking at Dana that way, like she had disappointed him so deeply that she would have to earn her way back into his heart.

Their mom, Charles remembered, had tried to stay out of it. They were all home for Christmas when Dana broke the news that she was planning to leave her medical training if her application to Quantico was accepted. Margaret Scully had tried to keep the peace, urging her daughter to consider her father's opinion.

But Dana had been adamant. While his sister had always been pig-headed, Charlie couldn't remember her ever standing up to their father like that. Charlie had lurked on the landing of the stairs, listening while Dana and the Captain argued late into the night. Then he crept down again later when he heard Dana crying in the family room. But Melissa had brushed past him on her way downstairs to comfort Dana.

Charles had expected Dana to give in. She was stubborn, but she was no match for the Captain. But Charlie had underestimated his sister, who had left San Diego even more determined to attend the Academy. There hadn't been another argument - - that was probably their mom's doing, CCharles realized, remembering how she hard she had tried to bring her husband and youngest daughter back together -- but whenever the topic of work or school came up things got tense.

But despite that anxious week in San Diego, the Captain's relationship with Dana hadn't completely fallen apart. Not the way his would have, Charles thought bitterly, if he'd been the one to disobey the Captain like Dana had. No, he amended, *when* he had disobeyed the Captain.

It infuriated Charles to imagine the Captain's reaction to Dana's recent life choices. In a way, Charles had always figured that he and Dana were alike. Both had stepped out of the Scully family gender typing, Dana breaking through their mom's views of femininity and Charles never quite fitting into the Captain's vision of a man.

The Captain had tried teasing and strong-arming and roughhousing Charles back into the role of Scully Man. But Maggie had supported her daughter's forays into tomboyhood instead of forcing her into frilly dresses and lacy tights and pink nail polish. And, Dammit, Charles couldn't help but resent Dana a little for that. Of course it wasn't her fault, but she had somehow managed to stay in their mom's good graces even when she was killing snakes with her bee-bee gun.

And, through it all, Dana had remained the Captain's favorite. Sure, Captain Scully had loved his namesake oldest son. But Bill had given his father exactly what was expected of him: obedience, toughness, diligence. No more, no less. So of course he had loved little Billy, who spent his life trying to please his father. Trying, perhaps, to become his father. As far as Charles was concerned, he had succeeded.

Despite this, Dana had been the Captain's favorite, an unexpected gift of a girl. She was so unlike Melissa in her strength, her stubbornness, her unabashed intelligence. Dana would never play dumb to attract a boy. She would not ask for a makeup kit for Christmas. Certainly she would never spoil the family fishing trip by crying over the stuck worm that was to become bait. Not like Charles had.

No, Bill Scully, Senior, had nurtured his youngest daughter into a tomboy, had provoked her confidence and outspokenness and daring. She was his unexpected surprise. Instead of receiving a carbon copy of sweet little Missy, he had gotten tough-as-nails Dana. Maybe, Charles thought, he should have suspected that the very traits he had nurtured and admired in his youngest daughter would one day turn on him, growing Dana into her own person instead of an extension of him.

No, Charlie knew all too well how Captain Scully would react to Dana's pregnancy and current living arrangements. Initially he would be surprised, maybe a little disappointed at the untraditionality. Certainly there would be an argument. Maybe he would dip into the morality of the Church, maybe into the honor of the family, but surely into his own displeasure.

But before long, Charles knew, he would come around. He would put on a tough front, but the Captain would of course be proud of Dana. He would fall in love with her son as he had with her. No matter what Dana did, she had never been able to push beyond the limits of her father's love.

What Charlie wasn't sure of, however, was what William Scully's reaction to his grandson's father would have been. Charlie turned his attention to the front seat of the car. Fox Mulder wasn't the kind of man Charles had pictured Dana ending up with. No, he had imagined someone more like their father, someone buttoned up and closed mouthed. A suit with the hanger still attached.

Of course, Charles didn't really know Mulder. But from what he had seen of him, the guy didn't fit into the picture of a future Charles had imagined for Dana. Successful career, immaculate house complete with white picket fence, a couple of perfect children. And, of course, a perfectly presentable husband, an attorney or an accountant who wore three-piece suits and drove a Volvo. Someone safe, suburban, and staid.

But from what he had heard from his mom, this Mulder was a loose cannon, a rogue agent with a dangerous, possibly deadly, interest in alien abductions and government conspiracies. More than once he had sent Dana into the arms of their mom, seeking help or comfort or safety. And because her escapades with Mulder forced Dana to admit that she needed help, Charles knew that the kind of trouble she and Mulder got into was serious.

This in itself didn't turn Charlie against Mulder. No, he was sure that Dana could take care of herself. He knew his sister was smart and tenacious and strong. He figured that, as an FBI agent, she carried a gun and knew how to defend herself. At first it had been weird to think of his sister in that role, but Charles had grown used to the image, which, he admitted, now rather fascinated him.

Two things about Fox Mulder intrigued Charles. First was his mom's tireless defense of the guy. Over the years Charles had received a running commentary on Dana's work, on her partnership with a man first referred to as Agent Mulder, then, later, as Fox. Charles knew that his mom had grown close to Fox Mulder after Dana was kidnapped, and that, according to Maggie, Mulder had shown "uncommon devotion" in helping find Dana and keeping Maggie up to date on the investigation into her disappearance.

But the thing that most interested Charles was his brother's intense dislike of Fox Mulder. Bill Scully, Junior, hadn't kept secret his contempt of Mulder. Charlie's relationship with his brother was even more distant than with his sister, but Bill had somehow managed to weave Fox Mulder's name into every phone conversation they'd had in the last half-decade. You'd think Bill was the one who worked with the guy.

Once, after Dana had received some minor injury in the line of duty, Bill had tried to persuade Charles to phone Dana and try to convince her to leave the FBI. Or at least find a new partner, Charles remembered Bill saying. Charles had, of course, refused. Bill had been livid, accusing him of not caring about Dana's well-being or that of the family in general, of being self-absorbed and afraid of confrontation.

"Charles... Charles?"

Dana's voice brought him out of his memory, and Charlie focused his gaze on the front seat. "Sorry. What did you say?"

"Scully says you're an artist," Mulder said, glancing back at Charles through the rear view mirror.

Charles smiled, mostly at Mulder calling Dana by her last name. "Dana's being generous," he said.

"You're not an artist?" Mulder asked.

"Only part-time," Charles replied. "The Captain -- our father -- wouldn't pay for art school. And when I switched my major from English to art, he stopped shelling out for my tuition," he explained.

"Dad was pretty strict," Dana told Mulder. "He didn't think art was an acceptable career choice."

"He barely thought English was acceptable," Charles scoffed. "Now physics, that's a real major. A subject to be respected," Charles intoned in a deep, booming voice meant to emulate the Captain.

"So I dropped out of school and got a job, first in an art supply store," Charles continued in his own voice. "I got a great discount on supplies, but the store closed. Now I work at a bookstore. I manage to save enough money to take an occasional class at the fine arts college at the University, but at the rate I'm going, I'll be retired before I get my BFA."

"What kind of art is it you do?" Mulder asked as he pulled the car off the freeway.

"Painting, mostly," Charlie said. "Watercolor and oil. I just finished a photography course, but I was more interested in photo collages than taking the actual pictures."

"We should've had you take Matthew and Liam's portrait," Dana said. "It would've saved us a trip to the mall on one of the busiest shopping days of the season."

"Aw, Scully, it'll be an experience," Mulder said with a smile. "It's his first Christmas; every parent needs a collection of old photos to embarrass their kid with in front of his friends."

"Yeah, Dane," Charlie said. "Like that photo Mom has of you crawling naked across her bed."

"Charles," Dana admonished.

"Really?" Mulder asked, his interest piqued. "Think she'll show me if I ask nice?"

Dana laughed. "If you ask nice, maybe you'll get to see the real thing," she said in a low voice.

But it wasn't low enough. Charles smiled. He was in favor of anyone who could get Dana to loosen up a little.


They waited at the East entrance to the Chesapeake Bay Mall. Charles stood patiently with Dana, Mulder, and Liam in the stuffy, glassed-in entrance while Bill drove the van around the parking lot in search of the perfect spot. Charlie had been about to wander off into the mall to hunt for an art supply store when Bill finally found a satisfactory spot near the mall entrance.

Bill's search had given Dana and Mulder time to settle the baby into his amazingly complicated stroller. Charlie watched as they unfolded the beastly thing, locking it in place, and then strapped Liam in. Cool, Charlie thought as Dana tucked a bottle of juice and a baggie of Cheerios into a small zippered pocket at the back of the stroller.

"Okay," Tara said when the rest of the family joined them inside the mall. "First we should probably get in line for the picture with Santa. The day before Christmas Eve, the line'll probably be a mile long."

Great, Charlie thought. What fun. But the rest of the family agreed with Tara, and they headed en masse to Santa's Winter Wonderland, a miniature-sized village in the center atrium of the mall.

Tara had been right, Charles saw when they finally caught a glimpse of the Wonderland. Or, should he say, a glimpse of the line that, eventually, hopefully, would lead them to the Wonderland.

They joined the queue, which immediately grew behind them. Charles glanced around and saw that theirs was the only party with more adults than kids; most other groups consisted of one, maybe two parents trying to manage a small herd of children, most of whom had long since worn out what excitement they had once felt for sitting on Santa's lap.

The line moved a few steps forward, and Dana elbowed Charles. "Told you you should've taken their picture," she said, looking up at him with a grin.

"Yeah," he agreed, pulling his coat off and folding it over his arm. Not only was the mall loud and bright and a disgusting display of conspicuous consumption, but it was as hot as hell. He pushed up the sleeves of his denim shirt and noticed that one cuff was decorated with a splatter of yellow paint. Oh, well, he thought.

"Here," Dana said, slipping his coat off his arm. She reached around Mulder and hung the heavy garment off the back of the stroller.

"That's convenient," Charles said. "It won't tip over?"

Dana shook her head. "This thing weighs a ton," she said. "Push it around for an hour and you'll see."

Charles nodded and opened his mouth to un-volunteer himself as pusher of the stroller, but Dana had already turned away at the sound of Liam's frustrated whines.

"Are you warm, too?" she asked, lifting him from the stroller. Jeez, Charlie thought, you'd think they were on a two-week expedition to the Antarctic, the way that kid was bundled up. But, as Mulder peeled off the baby's snowsuit to reveal denim overalls and a tiny red turtleneck, Charles smiled. Some things were certain; he had always pictured Dana as an overprotective mother.

Charles squinted towards the front of the line, then scanned the mall until he found a clock. He sighed. They were going to be in line forever. It figured that this was how he would die, trapped in a stuffy Christmastime mall with his family. Oh, joy. Plus, Charlie had always hated malls, the blinding lights, the aimless shoppers, the greasy food court. He much preferred buying his clothes from the multitude of thrift shops that lined the streets of his Seattle neighborhood.

And malls were aesthetically displeasing, Charlie assessed, all alike in their shiny newness and too-bright anonymity. They reeked of consumerism and materialism and greed. And now, with gaudy Christmas decorations hanging from anything that didn't move -- and a few things that did, he noticed, spying a cluster of electrically animated elves jerkily pointing the way to Santa -- it was even worse. The air was thick with children's Gimmes and I Wants, and not nearly enough Pleases or Thank Yous.

Garland and tinsel and spray-painted snow littered the store windows, almost obscuring the sale-priced Christmas gifts that would, in two days' time, end up boxed and wrapped and shoved under a Christmas tree. And, probably, Charles thought cynically, in two more days' time, either covered in a layer of pine needles or returned back to those same store windows.

His eyes scanned the familiar storefronts, the same stores that were in every mall. A Gap manned by smiley high school preppies. A jewelry store with too- bright lights and salespeople quick to pounce. A Strawbridge's advertising low- priced sweaters and blenders and watches that went on the same Special, One- Time-Only, Get-Them-While-You-Can Holiday Sale every weekend.

And it wasn't just that. Charles hated weaving through the crowds of people. The couples who couldn't stop holding hands long enough to eat their overcooked burgers and soggy fries in the food court. The children who managed to escape their parents and mistake his blue jean-clad legs for their fathers'. The gangs of sulky teenagers who leered at everyone over the age of twenty-five.

They were all there together, all partaking in what they saw as entertainment and Charles saw as a vacuum of culture. Why don't you take your kids to a museum, he wanted to shout to the stressed-out parents? Why don't you go to a library, he wished he could ask the teenagers. But most of all, when he watched these strangers wander, coupled and grouped and familied, he wondered, why can't I be like you?


"Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay. From now on your troubles were far away." Judy Garland's throaty voice filled the mall, and Charles wished his troubles were far away. As far away, he thought with a backward glance, as the end of the line to see Santa.

But he really shouldn't complain. After an hour's wait, they had almost reached the jolly old guy who, now that he could see him, Charles had to admit looked pretty authentic. His beard appeared real, his glasses had actual lenses in them, and he somehow managed a fresh smile each time a new kid stepped on his toe en route to his lap. He sure beat the hell out of the Salvation Army Santa on the corner of Charlie's street. Keith wore a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap adorned with a white puff ball and an eyebrow ring shaped like a Christmas tree ornament, and had a decidedly feminine affectation.

Charles turned his attention to the rest of Clan Scully. His brother and Tara had stooped down to spit-comb Matthew's staticky hair and tuck in the t-shirt he wore beneath his reindeer-print sweater. His sister and Mulder were similarly fussing over Liam, Mulder holding the baby as Dana retied the double knots on her son's tiny hiking boots.

Margaret Scully stood between the two families, beaming proudly. She reached out and grasped Charlie's shoulder, drawing him to her. He saw that she had tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. She shrugged apologetically and wiped the tears away. Charlie gave her an indulgent half-smile back. She had always been weepy around the holidays, especially since the Captain died, but so far this year she hadn't been too bad.

Maybe, with the whole family together again, she was too busy to dwell on the Captain's death. It had been so long since they had spent Christmas -- or any time at all -- together, long before the Captain and Melissa died. His guilt gnawed at him; he was usually the one who had kept them apart. Sometimes it was Bill, who often spent months at sea, but usually it was Charles.

Despite Bill's constant grumbling about Dana's time-consuming work, as far as Charlie knew, Dana had always been there for the holidays, for Christmas and Thanksgiving, even for Easter and Mother's Day. Of course, it helped that she lived so close to their mother, but Charles didn't think Dana had missed a family holiday in years.

Finally it was their turn. Matthew, after significant prompting by his parents, followed Dana up to Santa Claus's throne. The old man grinned, but Matthew eyed him suspiciously. Liam, however, was all smiles as his mother set him on Santa's lap, then helped Matthew up. She backed away, waving at Liam when his smile faded slightly at her retreat.

Dana stepped back in line with them, standing next to Mulder. Charles watched his sister, not his nephews, as the pimply faced photographer snapped several shots of the boys. Mulder's arm slipped around Dana's waist and pulled her close, and she laid her head against his upper arm -- she didn't quite make his shoulder -- for the briefest of seconds.

Charles realized then that this was one of the reasons he was having difficulty fitting Dana into this new life. Here was this man she had been working with for almost a decade, had a child with, and was shacking up with, Charles thought deliciously. Yet they never touched. Well, rarely. He had seen Mulder lay his hand on Dana's back a few times, but they didn't hold hands and certainly had not kissed.

Of course, they didn't seem uncomfortable with each other either. No, Charlie thought, quite the opposite. They moved together easily, fluidly, with a familiarity born of what seemed to be an intense and long-exclusive relationship.

Still, Charles thought as they were ushered through the line, it was strange. He watched Mulder lift Liam off Santa's lap and kiss the top of the baby's head before buckling him back into the stroller. It was strange because they were both so demonstrative with Liam.

Charlie wondered what kind of father Mulder had had, to feel so comfortable being affectionate with his son, and in public no less. Charlie himself couldn't remember Captain Scully holding him or Bill any closer than was necessary to put them in a headlock. Dana and Melissa, of course, but not the boys.

For his sons the Captain had reserved the honor of roughhousing and wrestling and boxing in the basement. Charlie remembered the weight set the Captain had bought Bill and him one Christmas, forcing them to spend the rest of the day setting it up when Charlie would rather have been testing out the new colored pencil set Melissa had given him.

Bill had spent every morning before school in the basement with that weight set, lifting and hefting and grunting. Dana and Melissa had tiptoed around the closed basement door, laughing at Bill when he broke into the Village People's "Macho Man." But more than once Charlie had caught Dana in the basement, having worked herself into a sweat with the smallest of the weights.

Then there were the ever-present models, usually ships and submarines, that the Captain brought back for Bill and Charlie when he returned from leave. The more interesting presents, the books and t-shirts and pencils with lead that changed colors, were always given to Missy and Dana.

Finally Liam was settled back into the stroller and the family quickly broke into smaller groups so they could finish their holiday shopping. Bill and Tara disappeared together after spelling out "B-i-r-t-h-d-a-y" to Maggie.

That's right, Charles remembered, they would be celebrating Matthew's birthday on the twenty-sixth. His real birthday wasn't until the following week, but by that time Bill and Tara and Matthew would be in Pittsburgh with Tara's parents. Charlie would have to find a gift for his nephew.

He watched as Dana and Mulder wheeled Liam off in another direction. Then his mother waved at him before pointing Matthew in the direction of the toy store and scurrying after her grandson.

"Through the years we all will be together," Judy Garland continued. Damn liar, Charlie thought as he wandered through the mall by himself.


Two hours later Charlie was waiting outside Johnny Bee's, a 50s style diner at the East entrance of the mall. He had finished his shopping at the toy store, picking up a Lego set for Matthew. Then he had spent the rest of his time in the two bookstores since, of course, the mall didn't have an art supply store. The bookstores weren't bad -- he jotted down a few interesting titles add to his January order -- but neither were they any different from the cookie-cutter Borders in Seattle.

So Charlie was the first to arrive back at the East entrance, where he stood at the window of Johnny Bee's and watched the staff entertain the customers. Every fifteen or twenty minutes the waiters and waitresses lined up and danced to a tune selected with one of the tiny jukeboxes that sat on each table.

He had already watched the staff's exuberant version of the B-52s' "Love Shack" when Tara and Bill arrived, each of them clutching a shopping bag. "Been waiting long?" Bill asked.

Charles shook his head. "Not long," he said. "And it's been entertaining."

"Johnny Bee's," Tara exclaimed. "We've got one of these in San Diego, but I didn't realize it was a chain. You ever been there?" she asked Charlie.

"No," he said.

"Oh, we should eat here, then," Tara said, checking her watch. "It's past noon, and I'm sure Matty's getting hungry. I wonder where he is." Tara rose to her tiptoes, then sunk back down. "I don't see him or Mom, but there are Dana and Mulder," she said, gesturing towards her left.

Minutes later they were indeed joined by Dana and Mulder, who was pushing Liam's stroller. "Are we late?" Dana asked, checking her watch.

"No," Charles assured her. "We're still waiting on Mom and Matthew."

"Get any shopping done?" Tara asked them. Dana nodded, and Tara smiled knowingly. "I remember those days," she said. "Being able to shop for Matthew while he was with us, not even having distract him while Bill paid. Just wait," Tara warned Dana and Mulder. "The first Christmas is definitely the easiest; it gets harder as they get older."

Bill nodded his agreement. "This year we had to get a babysitter for Matthew while we went shopping," he said. "It's getting tougher and tougher to distract him."

They smiled, then Tara turned to Dana. "While we're waiting, I'm going to stop by the restroom," she said, nodding to her right. "You want to join me?" Dana nodded, and the two women headed off into the crowd.

Charles turned to Bill and Mulder, and uncertainty hung between them. Charles stuffed his hands in his pockets, and Bill crossed his arms over his chest. Mulder rolled the stroller forward and back, and Liam giggled.

Easy for you, kid, Charles thought. Your biggest problem in life is waking up in a dirty diaper. Just wait, Charles thought. One day, sooner than you think, you'll be standing here with your brother and... some other stranger, wondering where you were when everyone else learned how to live a normal life.

"Women," Bill scoffed. "Going to the bathroom together. I'll never understand the appeal."

They're probably talking about us, Charlie thought. At least about you, Bill; aren't you everyone's favorite topic of conversation? But Charles and Mulder simply gave polite nods, and the conversation died. Obviously uncomfortable with the silence, Bill coughed a bit, then tried a different tack.

"Say, Charlie," he said, "you excited about this year's bowl games? I hear Wash. U.'s got a good match-up on New Year's. I bet you're glad you'll be back in town for that game."

Actually, Charlie couldn't care less about football, Wash. or any other U., and he guessed that Bill knew as much. Even as a little boy, Charles had never been able to sit through Sunday afternoon football marathons with Bill and the Captain. In fact, the extent of his athleticism was the tai chi class he had once taken with a college girlfriend.

"I'm not much of a sports fan," he told Bill.

Bill grunted in displeasure and turned to Mulder. "What about you? Your alma mater in any bowl games this season?"

"No football at my alma mater," Mulder said. "At least none that would be played in a bowl game." Bill squinted at him, trying, Charles thought, to decide whether the guy was playing with him. "I went to Oxford," Mulder said.

"Oxford?" Bill asked.

"In England?" Charles echoed.

"That'd be the one," Mulder said.

Interesting, Charles thought. "Why Oxford?" he asked. "No accent... You're not British, are you?"

Mulder shook his head. "A long, boring story," he said in a passable English accent. He scooped Liam out of the stroller, even though, to Charlie, the baby seemed content sitting in the stroller. "Isn't that right, buddy?" he asked Liam as he set him against his chest and bounced him up and down.

"So you're not much of a football fan either?" Bill stated.

Mulder shook his head. "Basketball," he offered, "or baseball."

"You play?" Bill said casually, but Charles smelled a challenge.

"A little," Mulder said equally casually.

"Baseball or basketball?" Bill asked.

"Depends on the season," Mulder said.

Bill's eyebrows raised as he gave Mulder a once-over, as if evaluating his physical fitness. From Charlie's admittedly limited athletic experience, the guy looked pretty sporty, tall and muscular. But Charlie doubted he would measure up to Bill's standards. Exactly like the Captain, Charles thought, no one good enough for his family.

Bill had played football throughout high school; had, in fact, been a three-year letterman quarterback before the Captain had "advised" him to drop the game to concentrate on his studies while at the Naval Academy. Charlie remembered when the Captain had had that talk with Bill, the summer before he started at the Academy. It was late at night in Bill and Charlie's bedroom, and Charlie had pretended to sleep while the Captain and Bill spoke quietly. Bill had taken it like a man, Charles remembered, though he had pounded his fist into his pillow more than once after the Captain left the room.

"Do you play?" Mulder asked, shifting the baby so that he was facing straight ahead. Both Liam and Mulder eyed Bill carefully, returning Bill's challenging gaze.

Bill shrugged. "Now and then," he said. "I don't have the time I used to, but I plan on signing Matthew up for t-ball this summer. I don't know how much time the new job will eat up, but I'm hoping to help coach."

Hoorah, Charles thought. Start him early, Bill. Teach him all those things the Captain taught you. Maybe the Captain had used up what was left of his boy lessons on Dana, or maybe he had been out to sea the week when he was supposed to teach those lessons to his youngest son. Either way, they had never made their way down the food chain to Charlie. Or maybe he simply hadn't been paying attention.

Teach Matthew the things you know, Bill, the things that make you into the Man you've always wanted to be, the things the Captain had never bothered to teach me: Do your best; Don't hit your opponent when he's down; Kick ass now and take names later; and, most importantly, Take It Like a Man. Maybe those were valuable lessons after all, Charlie mused.

Certainly they were serving Bill well, and Dana wasn't doing half-bad with them either. Charles eyed Mulder. What testosterone-fueled lessons had his father taught him? Charles's gaze drifted to Liam, who was trying to stuff his left fist into his mouth. With parents like Dana and Mulder, what lessons would his nephew learn?

"Sorry we're late," Margaret Scully called out as she and Matthew hurried over to them. "Matthew and I had so much fun that we just lost track of the time."

"Where's Mommy?" Matthew asked, looking around.

"She and Aunt Dana went to the restroom, Matthew," Bill said. "They'll be--"

"I'm hungry," Matthew whined, tugging on his father's pant leg.

"I told Matthew we could eat lunch when we finished shopping," Margaret said. "Any suggestions?"

"Tara said Johnny Bee's was a good place," Charles said, nodding at the nearby restaurant.

"The food's nothing special," Tara said as she and Dana joined the family in front of the restaurant. "But the atmosphere's a blast."

They agreed on Johnny Bee's, and, as they got in line at the restaurant, Charles realized that it was the first thing they'd agreed on since they'd all arrived. He wondered if it would be the only thing. Probably, he thought. Probably they should consider themselves lucky they had come this far.

The waitress led them to a large booth, and Charles slid in, careful to get in first and sit with his left side to the wall. He was a lefty, and he didn't want to spend the meal elbowing anyone... especially his brother. Bill, Tara, and Matthew slid into the booth next to him, and Charlie was immediately glad that he had gotten in first; Bill was the last person he wanted to rub elbows with. His mother and Mulder slid into the other side of the booth, and Dana arranged Liam in a high chair before taking the end seat.

"Have you folks ever been to Johnny Bee's before?" their waitress asked, tossing her blond ponytail over her shoulder and skimming the plastic-coated menus across the table to them.

Bill and Tara nodded. "Once," Bill said, and the rest of them shook their heads.

"Well, you've got your own jukebox there on the table, and we start you out with three nickels. When you request a song it gets entered into the playlist, and when it comes up, it'll be piped through the restaurant," she explained. "I'll just give you a minute to look over the menus."

"Thank you," Maggie Scully said as the waitress left. The Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love" fell over the table as the Scullys grew silent and considered their menus.

"Oh, Dana," Maggie said, looking across Mulder at her daughter. "I didn't think to ask: did you bring anything for Liam? I'm sure he doesn't have enough teeth-- "

"No, he doesn't," Dana said. "But I've got a bottle and some cereal. And we can cut something up for him. He'll be fine." Gross, more smooshed up food, Charlie thought, remembering back to the previous night's dinner and the mess Liam had made on his high chair tray.

"French fries," Mulder said, checking the menu. "He's had french fries before."

Scully nodded, and the waitress returned to take their orders and their menus. Maggie glanced around the restaurant with a grin. "Your father and I used to eat at a diner just like this one, before we were married," she said. "All the kids used to go there for a burger and fries and a chocolate malt after the football games."

"Just like 'Happy Days,'" Mulder said with a smile.

"More or less," Maggie admitted. "There was a big juke box in the corner. We'd line up and feed it our nickels. I remember," she said, her voice growing soft and wistful. "I was still in school when I met your dad, but he took me to the diner when he was home on vacation from the Naval Academy. He kissed me for the first time at that diner, while Elvis Presley was playing on the jukebox."

Maggie continued her journey into the past, but Charles glanced around the restaurant, bored and frustrated. He had never been a fan of his mom's Dating the Captain stories. Probably, he thought, because he couldn't quite believe them. Not that he thought his mother was lying. Of course not. But, try as he might, he couldn't imagine what of the young William Scully might have endeared him to Margaret McKinney. Not that Charlie had ever been an expert on the subject of what women wanted, but still...

Charlie's gaze fixed on a couple in a booth at the back of the restaurant. They were sharing a plate of french fries and a chocolate malt, their heads bobbing alternately to sip from the shared straw. They looked to be in high school, maybe college, and Charles tried to imagine his parents in their place.

To fit in with the high school kids, the Captain would have worn his letterman jacket; he had told them often of his glory days in high school as an offensive lineman, how he had played varsity football four years straight, setting some kind of record, though, with his limited knowledge of football, Charles didn't know what kind of award an offensive lineman would win. But that position suited the Captain, Charlie thought: steady and dependable and doing all the grunt work but getting none of the credit. The Captain would have fancied the position self-sacrificing and tough. Noble.

And Maggie McKinney would have dressed fashionably, a poodle skirt maybe, and saddle shoes. Her dark ponytail would have bobbed against her shoulders, and the Captain's bulky high school ring would have rested in the v-neck of her sweater. Charlie cracked a grin at the image.

But his thoughts were interrupted by the waitress. "Iced tea?" she asked, then set down the glasses in front of his sister and mother. She sorted out Bill's Pepsi, Tara's hot tea, and Matthew's milk, then plunked down two tall malt glasses in front of Charlie and Mulder. She set down a handful of straws and two spoons, then disappeared.

Mulder grabbed a spoon and dropped it into his malt. He tasted the thick froth, then smiled. "There used to be this great soda shop near our house in Quononchontaug. Probably just like yours," he said with a nod at Maggie. "We'd ride our bikes into town after an all-day baseball game and order chocolate malts."

"Hey," he said, spooning another dollop of malt and reaching past Dana to Liam. "Here, buddy," he said, aiming the spoon at Liam. "I bet you'll like this."

Liam eyed the spoon cautiously before finally opening his mouth. Mulder fit the spoon inside and the baby clamped his lips around its cool metal handle. His forehead wrinkled, his expression betraying his surprise at the sudden cold, then his pleasure at the thick, chocolaty sweetness. He smiled, showing two tiny teeth, as Mulder pulled the spoon from his mouth.

"Mmm, did that taste good?" Dana asked, running her hand over the baby's head. "I bet it feels nice on your gums."

Charlie reached for a straw and dropped it into his own malt, then took a long, thick sip. It was good, perfect to combat the overheated mall and greasy heat of the diner's nearby grill. They sipped at their drinks, Mulder feeding Liam alternate sips of his malt, until the waitress brought out several plates of french fries and onion rings.

The waitress knelt down next to their table and removed a bottle of ketchup from her apron pocket. She set four square paperboard saucers on the table, then uncapped the ketchup bottle.

"Watch," she said to Matthew with a smile, and the little boy craned his head to see. Working quickly, she dropped ketchup onto each saucer in the shape of a smiley face. "There ya go," she said, pushing one saucer towards the boy.

"Smiley face," Matthew said.

"What do you say, Matthew?" Bill prompted.

"Thank you," the little boy replied, still smiling at the saucer of ketchup.

"You're welcome," the waitress said, setting the bottle of ketchup on the table before heading back into the kitchen.

"These are just like the fries at the diner where your father and I used to eat," Margaret said after taking a bite of a french fry. "You can actually taste the potato in there, not like that cardboard stuff they pass off at fast food restaurants nowadays."

Bill nodded. "I know," he said. "We've been trying not to get Matthew hooked on fast food, but..." He looked pointedly at Tara.

"But I've had the most amazing cravings for cheeseburgers lately," she said with a guilty grin. "Fast food cheeseburgers, the greasier the better, and extra onions."

"Personally," Bill said, "I think she's milking this craving thing for all it's worth. With Matthew it didn't start until much later in her pregnancy. I think," he said, again glancing at his wife, "that she remembers how eager I was to run out at midnight for a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and a serving of onion rings--"

"Two servings," Tara corrected. "I wasn't the only one with an onion ring craving. And you weren't all that eager, either," she remembered. "For most of my pregnancy you were at sea, and I had to go out myself."

Bill's smile faded. "But when I was there--"

"When you were there," Tara said, laying her hand on his, "yes, you did run out for ice cream and onion rings at midnight. My hero."

They laughed. "I remember," Maggie said. "When I was pregnant with you, Bill, all I wanted to eat were vegetables: cauliflower, cabbage, corn on the cob. And it was strange, because you were the only one of the four that I never had to fight with to get you to clean your plate."

That fits, Charles thought. Of course it was Bill who ate all his vegetables. Tara smiled and bit into an onion ring. "That's odd, because I've heard that whatever foods a woman craves when she's pregnant will be her child's favorites."

They all looked over at Matthew, who was stuffing an onion ring in his mouth. "Ouch," he cried out, reaching for his milk.

"Careful, Matthew," Bill warned. "They're hot. Here." Bill pulled his son's plate towards him and quickly cut two onion rings into smaller pieces. "There. Wait a few minutes for them to cool so you don't burn your mouth again."

"What about you, Dana?" Tara asked, turning her attention to Liam, who was sucking intently on the end of a french fry. "What did you crave with Liam?"

Dana smiled, slipping the spoon from Mulder's malt out of her mouth. He snatched it away from where she laid it on the base of his glass. "Sunflower seeds," she said with a pointed look at Mulder.

"Really? You never told me that," he said with an almost proud smile.

"You corrupted me," she said, and Charlie didn't want to touch that one. He hoped Bill would let it go. Thankfully, he did. Being in public had always brought out Bill's kindly older brother image. For once, Charles was grateful at its immergence. "I kept a bag in your desk drawer," Dana added.

She smiled and snatched back Mulder's spoon, which she swirled thoughtfully in his half-empty malt glass before removing a spoonful and offering it to Liam. "And then pizza," she said. "I had pizza three or four times a week during my last trimester."

Try as he might -- and even though he had seen what few photographs his mother had taken -- Charles had great difficulty conjuring up the mental image of his sister pregnant. He wished he had seen her then, if just to satisfy his own niggling curiosity. But plane tickets were so expensive and the bookstore had had a rough few months in the sales department, so he had had to save up his plane ticket money for Christmas.

"Does Liam--?" Tara began.

"Not yet," Mulder said, toying with an onion ring. "We're waiting for a few more teeth before trying him on pizza. And no sunflower seeds yet either," he said with a slightly pouty glance at Dana, who smiled.

"I think sunflower seeds are going to have to wait a few months, Mulder," she said with a smile as the waitress arrived.

"Okay," the waitress said. "Kiddie cheeseburger," she said before placing the plate in front of Matthew, then distributed the rest of the plates. Cheeseburger with extra onions for Tara, chilidog for Bill, grilled cheese for Maggie, barbecue cheeseburger for Mulder, BLT for Dana, and a chicken sandwich for Charlie.

They passed around napkins and bottle of ketchup, then dug in. Like the fries and onion rings, the food was oily but delicious. They said little while they ate, and Dana and Mulder focused on trying to get Liam interested in the Cheerios they had brought along for him rather than their sandwiches.

Matthew, however, was a fairly self-sufficient eater, once Tara cut his cheeseburger into bite-size chunks. "It's the only way he'll eat it," she said with a shrug. She turned to Matthew, who was poking one finger into the bun of his burger. "Hey, Matty, how 'bout I don't cut up your cheeseburger today? Don't you want to eat it like a big boy, just take a bite?"

"Nuh uh," Matthew said, shaking his head. "That's yucky."

"But that's how your daddy's eating his sandwich," Tara said as Bill took a bite of his hot dog. "And me and Grandma and Uncle Charlie and Aunt Dana and Mulder."

Matthew looked up at Tara, an expression on his face that Charlie read as 'You
*are* kidding, aren't you, Mom?' So Tara sighed and cut up the cheeseburger, then pushed Matthew's plate back in front of him and took a bite of her own sandwich.

Charlie watched the rest of the family, feeling as if he were caught in some kind of alternate universe. Sure, it had been a long time since he had been with all of them together, and he understood that things changed. He knew that, intellectually he did, but, well, seeing it was a different proposition altogether.

Despite his artistic leanings, Charlie had dabbled in science as well over the years; Dana wasn't the only one with an interest in Einstein. Right then he felt as though he were living the twin paradox: he had gone up into space and returned just a minute later. But that minute had been a decade for his siblings, who were busy living their lives, Bill married with a child and a pregnant wife, Dana with a baby and in what appeared to be a serious relationship.

Charlie was catapulted back into his childhood. Once again he was the socially backward baby who could never catch up to his siblings, no matter how fast he ran. So why not give up running, he figured. He would always the youngest. No matter what I do, he thought, or what Dana and Bill do, I'll always be the youngest, always the last to start school and the last to finish. The last to leave home.

Probably, he thought with a glance at Dana and Mulder, the last to get married. Clearly the last to have a family, if any of those things were ever going to happen for him at all. And, frankly, he had his doubts: he was thirty-four years old and couldn't remember the last time he was in a serious relationship.

"You know," his mother said, and Charlie looked up at her, setting his sandwich back on his plate. Margaret Scully was smiling proudly around the table, and Charlie braced himself for something gushy and maudlin.

"You know," she said again, "I want you to know how happy I am to have all of you here for Christmas. I can't remember the last time..." She shook her head, then dabbed at the corners of her eyes, still smiling. "And I'm so proud of you. All of you," she said, focusing on each of them in turn. "And I know your father would be, too."

Charles followed his mother's gaze as it again traveled around the table, from Bill to Dana to himself. Bill coughed slightly and studied the squirts of chili left on his plate, and Dana focused her attention on Liam, although he was sucking contentedly on his bottle for once.

When Maggie's gaze reached Charles, he, too, looked away, feeling guilty. It was a no-brainer that the Captain had been proud of Bill and Dana. Bill had done everything right: admirable career, happy marriage, perfect little family; Bill had become the same man his father had been. And Dana, well, despite the twists her life had taken, Charles knew the Captain would be proud of the way his baby girl had fought every step of the way, in her career, for her health, and in her personal life. Dana never could hold her father's disappointment for long.

What Charlie didn't understand was why his siblings looked away guiltily as their mother's proud gaze passed over each of them. What could they have to feel ashamed about? They weren't struggling for money and direction in their careers. No, they were both at the point in life where thirty-somethings were expected to be, where Charlie knew, deep down in that place where the harshest truths resided, that he would never be. So why couldn't they look their mother in the eye?

Charles, however, was another story. He had disappointed the Captain every step of the way; never being enough of a boy or enough of a man; dropping out of school to live as a semi-employed artist; not marrying or having a family or maintaining a respectable relationship. If the Captain could see his youngest son now, he would probably have another coronary.


Dana

The drive home passed in silence. Unlike the previous day's drive, Scully thought, remembering Liam's unrelenting fussing that had forced her to sit in the backseat with him and had made them to leave her mother's house early. His crying had continued in the car, magnified by the small confines.

Not that Scully had minded leaving her mother's early. No, by the time dinner had finished and Liam had grown cranky, she too had grown tired. She loved her family -- really, she did -- but it had been years since she had spent a day with all of them. It was the weekend of Bill's wedding, she remembered. Her father had died earlier that year, but the rest of the family was there. Not that they got to see much of Bill or Tara, who were both so busy trying to make everything run smoothly.

She tried to remember the last time she had seen Charles. It was Christmas, she decided, but she couldn't place the year. It was after she had been assigned to the X-Files, after Melissa had died but before Matthew was born. Maybe 1996, she figured. It had been just the three of them that year: Scully, Charlie, and their mother. Bill had been oversea, and Tara had spent the holiday with her sister in Los Angeles.

It was on Thanksgiving that Margaret Scully had invited the three of them over for Christmas. Maybe it was her mother's apparent acceptance of hers and Mulder's living arrangements, but Scully couldn't find it in herself to argue. Maybe, too, it was a fantasy that they could all be together again and everything could be picture-perfect: singing Christmas carols, baking cookies, Midnight Mass, gifts under the tree on Christmas morning. Surely, she had thought, they could all behave themselves for five days.

Plus, Scully knew that it had been years since Mulder had truly celebrated any holiday, Christmas or Hanukkah. Or even Flag Day. And he had seemed so excited about Thanksgiving, eager as a little boy as they cleaned the apartment that Wednesday. She had joked with him that there were no gifts on Thanksgiving; that was Christmas, in case his memory was a little foggy.

She had immediately regretted her weak attempt at humor, knowing that it well could be that his memory was foggy, that he had never been one for holidays. She remembered the Christmas he had toted her along with him to that haunted house, the year she had spent most of the night at his apartment, unwrapping their gifts to each other, then watching old holiday films on American Movie Classics.

They had eventually fallen asleep on the couch, the third showing of "Miracle on
34th Street" buzzing in their shared subconscious. Scully had woken up when the rising sun pushed through Mulder's blinds and into her eyes. She had woken Mulder up in her panic, and had left him behind, dazed, as she scrambled to get home to shower and stuff her family's Christmas gifts into festive holiday bags before heading over to her mother's house.

It had been easy to let Mulder's Thanksgiving enthusiasm wash over her, cause her to forget that, with the entire family in attendance, Christmas would be more complicated than miscalculating how many pounds of turkey were appropriate for three adults and a baby that had still no teeth.

Scully had tried to get out of it later, pleading temporary insanity when she attempted to explain to Mulder why they simply could not spend Christmas at her mother's with the rest of the Clan Scully. And, despite his Thanksgiving joy, she had fully expected him to agree with her that Christmas wouldn't be as pleasant, not with Bill, Junior, in attendance. They would try next year, Scully told him. Maybe they would get lucky and Bill would be at sea. They could deal with Charles, she knew. She just wanted another year before seeing Bill again. Was that too much to ask?

Apparently so. And apparently she had forgotten who she was talking to. How could she have expected Mulder, of all people, to agree with her for once? Of course he had to argue, to insist that this was Christmas and they were family, Liam's family as well as hers. She couldn't deny her son spending his first Christmas with family, could she?

Damn, she thought. The guilt card. Mulder didn't often play the guilt card -- no, he usually got further with a sad look and a turn of his pouty lip, and he knew it.

But this time he had been right. Or at least she had thought so then. Fine. They would spend Christmas with the rest of the family. It would make Mulder happy, it would give Liam something to, well, not remember, but see in photos when he got older. And it would be a nice Christmas gift for her mother, who had always been rather gloomy around the holidays anyway.

Scully looked over at Mulder, caught him glancing at Liam through the rear view mirror. "Is he asleep?" she asked.

"Nope, wide awake," he said, glancing over at her before turning his attention back to the road.

"So, Mulder," she said. "Are you regretting yet agreeing to spend Christmas with everyone?"

He shook his head. "I thought it was going well," he told her. "There hasn't been any yelling or screaming. No one threw the roast at anyone else. And everyone showed up. In the history of Mulder family holiday gatherings, that alone would rate it a success."

"Not yet," she reminded him. "Don't forget that it's only the twenty-third. Plenty of Christmas left for yelling and screaming and roast throwing."

He gave her a wry grin. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think Bill's taking it pretty well."

She just shook her head. You don't know Bill very well, she thought. She knew her brother was building up to something. More than once she had noticed him staring intently at Liam. Scully knew full well that he was trying to match the baby's facial features with Mulder's. She had seen her brother's gaze dart back and forth from her to Liam to Mulder at dinner the previous night, then again at lunch at the diner.

Boy, has fatherhood turned you into a softie, Scully thought. "He's just distracted," she told him. "I don't think he's come around, Mulder."

Scully could feel it building up in him, the sidelong glances and the concentrated stares gathering his strength like a storm. She knew this from a childhood of experience fighting with Bill; she knew this quiet was not a good sign.


Monday, December 24, 2001

"In this body, in this town of Spirit, there is a little house shaped like a lotus, and in that house there is a little space. There is as much in that little space within the heart as there is in the whole world outside." - The Upanishads

"The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing." - Pascal


Dana

"Okay," Margaret Scully said as the family gathered in her kitchen the next morning. "I have ingredients for sugar cookie dough and gingerbread dough. I thought we'd make two batches of each, and then you could all take some home with you."

Scully nodded, watching her mother's excitement manifest itself as a glow that she had not seen for so long. Too long, she thought, feeling more than a hint of guilt for the role she had played in her mother's unhappiness. But she quickly pushed it away, knowing her mother wouldn't appreciate it, knowing that she herself had never appreciated Mulder's second-hand guilt.

At first, she had been tempted to blow off the Scully family cookie baking session; the prospect was oh-so-tempting to spend the day home alone with Mulder and Liam, recuperating from yesterday's trip to the mall and resting up for the family-time marathon that would stretch into Christmas day.

But Scully knew how much this rare family time meant to her mother, and she had decided that she shouldn't begrudge her this small happiness. After all, who knew when they would all be together again? Even with Bill moving to Virginia, Charles didn't often find his way back East.

Maggie set two laminated recipe cards on the kitchen counter. "Fox and Dana, you know where everything is kept," she said. "Why don't you two gather the ingredients. I'll get everything else we need -- bowls and spoons and the mixer."

"What should we do?" Bill asked.

"Read the recipes," Maggie said. "And watch these two." She passed Liam over to Tara as Bill helped Matthew climb up on the stool next to his mother.

"Mommy, when will the cookies be done?" Matthew asked. "I'm hungry."

"Matthew, we just ate brunch," she said, bouncing Liam up and down on her lap. The baby gurgled and munched on the fist he had wedged into his mouth. "And we haven't even started the cookies yet."

"But I'm hunn-gree," he whined, reaching out for his mother. Matthew gazed longingly at Tara, then frowned at his cousin. "I wanna sit with you, Mommy."

"Honey, I'm holding the baby right now," she told him. "Why don't you sit on Daddy's lap?"

"Come over here, slugger," Bill said, reaching for his son, but Matthew was not in a compromising mood. Again his arms stretched out towards Tara.

"No! I want yoo-oou, Mommy."

At the sound of Tara's sigh, Scully turned away from the pantry and set a handful of tiny spice jars on the counter. "I'll take him, Tara," she said, her arms held out for her son.

But Matthew was already crawling, albeit grudgingly and with a much-practiced pout, onto his father's lap. The little boy furled his eyebrows, concentrating his pout on his oblivious cousin, who grabbed at Tara's hair as he bounced on her lap.

Tara shook her head at her sister-in-law. "Matty needs to get used to not being the only child around," she said in a low voice. "Otherwise it'll be that much harder when the baby's born."

Scully nodded and settled for a quick caress of her son's face. Mulder and Maggie, arms full, joined them back around the kitchen island. Maggie separated the cup measurements and ingredients into two piles, and they began measuring and mixing and sifting and flouring.

As her mother sorted through ingredients and utensils, Scully remembered so many past Christmases. Every year her mother had urged the four of them to help her with her holiday baking. But almost always Scully had declined, usually in favor of reading or playing outside with the other kids from the base. Charlie and Bill had never helped either, Bill claiming that baking was "girls' stuff," and Charlie grabbing a sketchpad and colored pencils and taking off in the opposite direction as Bill.

It was only Melissa who stuck around the kitchen to help their mother, who eschewed plans with her friends, simply saying that "My mom needs my help." And every time Scully was tempted into the kitchen by the smell of freshly baking cookies, she saw Melissa and her mother sitting at the kitchen table, sharing cookies and stories and secrets. And every time Scully regretted having abandoned her mother and sister for her own pursuits. Yet, when cookie baking came around again the next Christmas, the temptation would be too great, and she would invariably disappear again, leaving Melissa and her mother in the kitchen.

"Dana?" her mother called, and Scully turned away from the counter, where she had been smashing a scrap of dough into a dirty little lump. "Could you take out that first tray of cookies? Check the bottoms first to make sure they're browned."

"Sure, Mom." Scully slid the cookie sheet out of the oven, then replacing it with an unbaked sheet.

"I've got the icing," Charles said, setting a bowl of thick white goo on the kitchen island.

"They need to cool first, Charlie," Tara said as she sorted through the tiny tubes of food coloring. "At least a little."

So Scully transferred the cookies to the wire cooling rack and joined the rest of the family around the kitchen island. They hovered over the cooling racks, inhaling the sweet sugar-cookie smell. Bill and Matthew set aside the bowl of plump walnuts they'd been pressing into the centers of the raw dough. To Scully the walnuts looked like tiny brains, two perfect hemispheres, curled and coiled. She smiled as Matthew reached out a flour-dusted hand, aiming for a crisp sugar cookie, then pulled it back at his mother's warning gaze.

"They're not done yet, Matty," Tara said.

"We need to plan first," Bill announced. "Do we want frosting and sprinkles on all the cookies, or do we want to do a batch with just sprinkles or just frosting? And we have to decide about the round ones. Are those going to be ornaments or wreathes or--"

Charlie laughed. "We don't need to plan out every last detail, Bill. Just pick up a damn cookie and decorate it."

Bill narrowed his eyes at his younger brother. "Planning isn't a bad thing, Charles," he said. "I've always found that life moves along more smoothly if you have a plan in place. Cuts down on the unexpected complications."

Scully wanted to laugh at her brother's unbelievable seriousness, but she did not dare. Come on, Bill, she thought. We're talking about Christmas cookies here, not battle strategies or missile trajectories.

Charlie rolled his eyes. "You don't plan art," he said. "Art just... happens."

"Art isn't the only thing that just happens," Bill said under his breath, and Scully hoped that she was the only one who had heard him.

"What?" Charlie asked.

"Nothing," Bill replied. "Let's just do the cookies."

And so they did. Charles grabbed a sheet of paper from his mother's cake decorating kit and molded it into a cone. He spooned the white frosting into the cone, then tested the tip on a piece of wax paper.

Scully watched, impressed at her brother's not-unexpected ease with the frosting. On the few occasions that Charles did help their mother out in the kitchen, Scully could always pick out the ones he'd done, the cookies that were the perfect balance of color, never too much frosting or sprinkles. Charles knew when to stop. At least in his art, Scully thought.

Tara slid a hot cookie over in front of her, seemingly considering the decorating possibilities. Bill hunted through the cabinets and unearthed several small bowls, each of which he filled with a large dollop of icing. Then he dropped some food coloring in each bowl, and mixed.

"Be careful with the coloring," Charlie said, looking up from his gingerbread cookie. "It doesn't look like much when you add it, but it gets dark quick."

"It's fine," Bill insisted, mixing the contents of one bowl. Tara grabbed the other two bowls and handed one to Matthew, and they, too, started stirring. But Scully saw that Charles was right; Bill's frosting blossomed from lime to emerald to evergreen to an inky, almost black color.

Thankfully, though, Charles's attention had drifted from his brother's icing to his own cookie, onto which he was tracing an intricate snowflake. It was beautiful, Scully thought, but she wasn't surprised.

Art, in any form, had always been Charlie's thing, and she suspected that by the end of the afternoon Bill would be joking about the uselessness of artistic talent, the benefits of being left-brained, the waste of time that was cookie decorating. Some things never changed, Scully thought, grabbing a holly-shaped cookie and passing one over to Mulder, who sat beside her with Liam on his lap.

She used a tiny plastic brush to paint a layer of egg whites onto the cookie, then reached for the container of candied sprinkles. She was careful to keep the red sprinkles on the berry-shaped end of the cookie and the green on the leaf- shaped end. When she finished she held the cookie out, admiring her creation.

"Looks good," Mulder murmured, reaching across her for the bowl of egg whites and brushing against her shoulder and chest. He dropped his head close to her ear. "Sorry," he whispered without remorse.

She smiled, but leaned back against the chair, away from his invading arm. It was silly, she knew, but she still felt awkward with Mulder in front of her family. He had always been a toucher, at least with her, keeping his hand on her lower back even before they were together, touching her face to comfort her, setting his hand casually on her shoulder or arm. And she had never minded his touch -- actually, she had enjoyed it, even when she tried to convince herself that it was thoroughly unprofessional and unenjoyable.

But outside the privacy of their office or their Apartment, in front of others and especially in front of her family, it made her uncomfortable. It wasn't like her family thought Liam was a virgin birth, but knowing and seeing are two entirely separate things. Scully didn't mind so much when it was just her mother, the three of them and Liam alone at Thanksgiving. Mulder had touched her freely, and she hadn't had to quell the urge to back away. But with Bill right there...

And Mulder knew it, too, damn him; he knew that the feeling that coiled in the pit of her stomach when he touched her in front of her family wasn't arousal. But still he tried to sneak little touches, brushing his hand against her face, her back, her arm. Nothing overly suggestive, but it made her nervous anyway. She could feel her face burn every time he touched her, as she glanced around to make sure no one had seen them.

She would have to talk to him about it again later... Or maybe not, she thought as he again brushed against her breasts as he reached for the egg white brush. It wouldn't do any good anyway, she thought. Probably it would just encourage him.

Plus, she was angry, embarrassed almost, that she even cared what her damn family thought about her anyway. She felt like a naughty teenager, caught necking with the quarterback under the bleachers after the big game... Not that she had ever had done such a thing, with the quarterback or anyone else, but eight years working with Mulder had done a great deal to boost her imagination.

Scully wished she could adopt the same to-hell-with-them attitude that Charlie had always flaunted, but it just wasn't her. Never had been. Even though she might not be as loving, as demonstrative, as her mother was, Scully knew that she couldn't deny the role her family played in her life, like them or not.

"Cute, Dana." She looked up to see Charles watching her oversprinkle a bell- shaped cookie with multicolored candies. "Instant cavity."

She smiled and brushed off some of the sprinkles, then looked over to Charles's plate of cookies. He had only finished three so far, but they were beautiful, intricately decorated, like something out of a Martha Stewart special, almost too good to eat. "Wow," she marveled. "Look at those. They're beautiful, Charlie."

Charles glanced down, as if unsure. "You think so?"

"They're perfect," she said. "I don't know who you get your talent from." That had always been a mystery to her. Neither of their parents were artistic, though Maggie had always had a flair for decorating, for arranging anything from a vase of flowers to the unlikeliest of couples.

"Certainly not from me," Maggie said, echoing her daughter's thoughts.

"And not from Dad," Bill chimed in.

"No," their mother said. "Certainly not from your father, either." She dropped another plate of warm cookies on the kitchen island, and Scully picked up one of the frosting cones, ready to try something a bit more ambitious. More adventurous.

"Missed a spot," Bill said, snatching a cookie from Charlie's plate of masterpieces and dabbing a spot of frosting in the center.

"Hey," Charlie exclaimed. "What are you doing?"

"Calm down," Bill said, dropping the corrected cookie back on the plate. "It's just a cookie."

"But it was my--" Charlie stopped, bit his lip, then shook his head. "Never mind," he said, dropping his frosting cone on the island and joining his mother at the oven.

Dammit, Bill, Scully thought. Can't you just leave him alone? Bill had always been like this, picking and prodding until Charlie couldn't take it anymore. Then Bill got angry when Charlie lashed out at him.

Scully remembered once, when they were kids, when Charlie had short sheeted Bill's bed after enduring a week of teasing after Bill discovered Charlie was the only boy amongst the winners of the third grade art prize. Then Bill had lost it, knowing it was Charlie who had fixed his bed but unable to prove it. So he did what he had always done when he wanted to reinforce his older brother dominance; he got physical. He had poked and smacked and pushed at Charlie until he simply wore the younger boy down. Like always. Scully sighed and snatched a gingerbread cookie off the plate.

"That's probably not cool yet," Tara warned, concentrating intensely on a circular cookie that she was trying to decorate like a wreath.

"I don't care," Scully murmured under her breath, taking out her frustrations on the defenseless piece of gingerbread. She tried to make the cookie, which was shaped like a snowflake, into a work of art, like Charlie's, but it ended up as a mess.

"You okay?" Mulder asked her, touching her gently on the arm.

"I'm fine," she said evenly, and he gave a little hum that meant that he wasn't buying it but would wait until they got home to press the issue. And it would be another day before they were home, she thought with a victorious grin. 'Thanks,' she mouthed, and he nodded. "Come here, sweetie," she said, and reached out for Liam.

Mulder stood, moving towards her, then smiled and handed her the baby. "Thought you meant me," he said in a low tone, and she raised an eyebrow at him. Then she glanced around the kitchen, checking to make sure no one had heard him.

Her stomach tumbled when she saw Bill watching them intently, his eyes darting between her, Mulder, and Liam. Bill's mouth was set in a stubborn line, and Scully could see the tips of his front teeth digging into his lower lip.

Transferring the baby to her hip, Scully stood and wandered over to her mother and Charlie, who were starting in on the pile of dishes that had accumulated in the sink.

"Need some help?" she asked.

"Sure," Charlie said. "You could find some more dishwashing soap." He nodded at the empty bottle on the sink, and she squatted down, then leaned heavily into her brother's legs until he got the hint and stepped aside. She sorted through the contents of the cupboard until she located a fresh bottle of detergent, then handed it to him.

A minute later Mulder finished decorating his last cookie and came over to the sink to wash his hands. Her mother and brother moved aside, Maggie hunting through a drawer for more towels.

"Hey, look," Charles said, pointing at the ceiling. Scully glanced up to see that she and Mulder were standing beneath a sprig of mistletoe that was tacked to the light fixture above the sink. Mulder reached around her to take a towel from Maggie, pinning Scully against the sink as he dried his hands.

"It's mistletoe," Tara said, looking up from her cookie and smiling indulgently at them.

Mulder stooped down a bit, equalizing the increased height difference between them due to Scully's bare feet. He brought his head down to hers and his lips brushed hers, gently, quickly.

"I don't *think* so," Charles scoffed. "I'm sorry, but that's the way you'd kiss your grandmother, not, well..."

Scully suddenly felt warm, the small semi-circle of her family pressing too close. They had all moved a step of two closer, Bill abandoning his stool to stand, arms crossed like a disapproving father. But Charles was grinning mischievously, his eyes twinkling. Her mother and sister-in-law were smiling knowingly, hopefully. Even Matthew watched them, a curious expression in his eyes and smear of dark green frosting at the corner of his mouth.

Scully took a step backwards, her back digging into the countertop. She shifted Liam on her hip, using him as a sort of shield. But Mulder gave her a half-smile and stepped into her.

"You don't--" she began, but stopped when Mulder took her chin in his hand. She was going to tell him that he didn't need to perform for the amusement of her nosy family. The situation made Scully uncomfortable in so many ways, her family watching them, Charles urging Mulder to kiss her again.

But Mulder bent over her, and, as his mouth approached hers, Scully rose to her toes as if she were being tugged by an invisible string. He captured her mouth with his, their kiss quickly turning into something more full, more passionate. As his tongue pushed past her lips, Scully forgot where she was and who she was holding and who was watching... forgot everything but Mulder.

It all came back to her when they finally pulled apart, each of them sucking in a desperate breath of air. She looked up at Mulder, who shrugged and gave her a little smile, and Scully felt a blush creep over her face. Damn pale skin, she thought, rolling her lips.

"All right," Charlie exclaimed, clasping his sister and Mulder on their shoulders. "Now that's more like it."

"Da da da," Liam called out, clapping his hand against her clavicle. She pulled him in front of her body again, this time to protect her from her family instead of Mulder.

She turned to face the sink, absorbing herself in trying to wash a cookie sheet with one hand, attempting to forget that her family was standing behind her. Sighing, she gave up on the tray and reached instead for a small bowl, rubbing the crusted-over red frosting off with her free hand.

She could feel the stares of her family burning into her back, Bill's judgment, Charlie's playful antagonism, Tara's amusement, her mother's concern. Damn them, she thought, wishing she meant it.

It wasn't just with Mulder: she had always been uncomfortable with public, or even semi-public, displays of affection. She remembered her relationship with Jack Willis. It had been just up her alley, sneaking around together and hiding, never bringing him to meet her family and never getting introduced to his, rarely going out together for fear of being spotted by one of her friends or his colleagues. The only person she'd told about Jack was Melissa, and that had been months into their relationship, and then only because she couldn't stand to keep him a secret any longer.

It wasn't just with Mulder and it wasn't just in front of her family. The truth was, Liam was the only one she felt completely comfortable kissing or touching Mulder in front of. She had always been a private person; it wasn't just in front of her family, she told herself. Of course not. But she supposed it had gotten worse with Mulder's disappearance, when she knew the whole world could see that she was pregnant and assume the baby was her partner's.

Suddenly everyone who saw her had known the most intimate details about her life. Strangers came up to her, their overeager hands finding their way to her belly, their overeager mouths asking about the sex, her due date, even her plans to breastfeed. She had felt the gazes, which had started out with a knowing smile before dissolving into a sympathetic sadness when their eyes traveled down to her naked ring finger.

True, she had always been a private person, had never felt comfortable sharing her emotions. Only with Melissa, she thought. But now she wondered whether Mulder's disappearance had made this worse. It had burned her up that strangers could question her and touch her and show concern for her, when Mulder -- the only person with the right to do these things -- could not.


Charles

Charles ran the worn Santa Claus towel over the wire cooling racks, fitting a pinch of terrycloth between the slats. His gaze drifted out the window, to the sprinkles of snowflakes that fell from the sky and stuck to the window. Charles watched a single flake, an ice crystal that stuck to the window pane yet did not melt.

A soft wind whispered through the trees outside the kitchen window, yet the single snowflake held on, and was soon joined by another. Then another. Charles set the dried cooling wrack on the counter and craned his head to better see outside. The snow was beginning to accumulate, slowly, but they were predicting a new couple of inches by morning. It would be a white Christmas.

The phone rang, and Dana, who was standing nearest, wiped her hands on a dishtowel before picking it up. "Scully residence." She paused, and her brow crinkled in apparent confusion. "Sir?"

Another pause, then, "How did you know where...?" She sat down on the barstool beneath the phone. "I see. Yes, sir, he's here. Just a minute." She lowered the phone and cupped her hand around the receiver. "Where's Mulder?" she asked Charlie.

Charles shrugged. "Bathroom, maybe?"

She raised the phone to her ear. "Can he call you back, sir?" Another pause, and then Dana reached out her hand, snapping her fingers softly in his direction. She made a scribbling motion with her hand, and Charles handed her a pen and paper. "Okay, go ahead, sir," she said.

Charles finished drying the rest of the dishes, one ear stuck on his sister's side of the conversation. "That's okay, sir... Mmm hmm... Yes, sir. I'll tell him." She capped the pen and set it on the counter. "And merry Christmas, sir," she said before hanging up the phone.

Charlie quirked a curious eyebrow at his sister, then paused. Fifteen years ago, even ten years ago, he wouldn't have hesitated to barge in on his sister's business and ask who was on the phone and what they wanted, even if, as was clearly the case here, the call wasn't for her.

But now he wasn't sure. It could be something about work, either hers or Mulder's, and Charlie knew that that subject was probably best left confidential... or at least unsaid, he thought, remembering the few details he had ever heard about his sister's job, as well as their brother's reaction to those details.

But just then Mulder walked into the kitchen, and Charlie didn't have to wonder any longer. "You just had a phone call," Dana said.

"Me?"

She nodded. "It was Skinner."

"Skinner? How did he know where we were?"

"I asked him, but all he would say was that he had his ways... whatever that means," she said. "What I'm wondering, though, is why he didn't just call you on your cell?"

"He probably did," Mulder said. "But I turned it off." Dana raised a surprised eyebrow at him, but the edges of her lips hinted at a smile. "What did he want?"

She consulted the message she'd taken down on the notepad. "He said he needs your help. There's a man -- a Marvin Ross -- who--"

"Marvin Ross?" Mulder asked.

Dana nodded. "You know him?"

"Yeah," Mulder said. "All too well, as a matter of fact. I profiled him several years ago, back when I was with Violent Crimes. He was brought in on a serial murder charge, but the Bureau couldn't make it stick."

"But he did it?"

"Oh, yeah," Mulder said. "He did it, all right. Killed a dozen women in DC alone, plus four other possibles in the New York City area. But the Bureau didn't have enough to keep him, so..."

"He went free," Dana finished, and Mulder nodded. "Well," she continued, "according to Skinner, he's holding a half-dozen people hostage -- including one member of local law enforcement -- in a DC church. Apparently he's a suspect in a recent murder, and a DC cop just happened to spot him on the street. He chased him into the church, where Ross pulled out a weapon. Skinner wants to know--"

"No," Mulder said. "I hope you told him no."

"But--"

Mulder cut her off. "I'm not going. I'm not going to miss Liam's first Christmas. If you didn't tell him that, I will." He reached up for the phone, but Dana intercepted his hand. She slipped her fingers between his and let their hands drop.

"All I told him was that I'd give you the message," she said. "But, Mulder, you don't want to go?"

"The only place I want to be is here," he said, and they stood still, eyes locked in silent conversation, their fingers still intertwined and Dana's thumb grasping Mulder's wrist. As quietly as he could, Charlie continued putting the dishes away, the harsh clinks of flatware and china filling the room.

Finally, Dana broke the silence. "I think you should go," she said.

"What?"

"I think you should go," she repeated. "Skinner said you don't have to stay -- he just wanted a consult. The agent who's handling the case could use your expertise. Skinner gave me the agent's number."

Mulder opened his mouth to object, but Dana wasn't finished. "You won't miss anything," she assured him. "It's just Christmas Eve. The only other thing we're doing today is going to mass, and that isn't until after we eat. You should go."

Mulder looked at her, considering. "Fine," he said finally, "but I'll be back for lunch."

Dana nodded. "And tell Skinner I'm not angry," she said. "He apologized twice over the phone; he thought I was mad at him for interrupting our Christmas."

Mulder nodded and bent down to give her a quick kiss. "Make sure you apologize to everyone for me," he said with a glance and nod at Charlie.

"They won't mind," Scully said, but Charles could tell that she was lying. Maggie and Tara might not mind, especially if they didn't think Dana did, but Bill would. Bill would take it upon himself to be insulted for his sister. Certainly Dana knew that, and Charles would bet his plane ticket home that Mulder did, too.

But he left anyway, pausing to give Dana a more leisurely kiss and mutter something unintelligible into her ear. She tried -- unsuccessfully -- to stifle a smile as she watched him leave the room. Charles grinned. "You should thank me, Dane," he said.

"Thank you?"

"Yeah," he said. "I knew if I gave him a push--" he nodded at the mistletoe "-- he'd take it from there." Dana smiled and cuffed him none-too-lightly on the upper arm. "Though I hope for your sake that he doesn't always need that kind of encouragement."

"Charles," Dana said with a sigh and a blushing smile.

In response he bumped his hip against hers, bending slightly to equalize their heights. "Only kidding, Dane," he said as the kitchen door swung open to admit his brother, sister-in-law, and mother.

"I put Liam down for his nap," Maggie told Dana, setting the receiver of the baby monitor on the countertop. "And Matthew's watching a Christmas special on TV in the family room. After all the sugar in those cookies, I'm afraid his nap's been pretty well spoiled."

"Maybe not taking a nap will tire him out," Tara said hopefully, grabbing a metal tin and lining it with wax paper before stacking cookies inside. "Otherwise he'll be up till all hours, too excited about Santa to sleep."

"I remember those days," Maggie said. "Dana and Melissa sneaking downstairs to check out the presents when they thought their father and I were asleep."

Dana smiled and glanced at him with narrowed eyes. "Charles did it, too," she offered weakly.

"I did not," he replied. He had, but not as often as Dana and Missy, who used to go through their parents' closet and search beneath their bed for their Christmas packages. They were both so impatient, so stubborn when it came to the secrets and surprises they thought their parents were keeping from them.

"Oh, you all did," Maggie said with a good-natured smile. "At one time or another, you all snooped for your Christmas presents; every child does. Did you think we never knew?" she asked, off her children's surprised looks.

"I never did," Bill said proudly, and Charles wasn't surprised. Of course Bill wouldn't snoop. Not goody-two-shoes Bill.

"Of course not," Charles said in a low voice as he snuck a cookie off the cooling rack. Gingerbread, his favorite. He bit the head off the cookie man, letting the spicy, warm dough melt in his mouth.

"And what is that supposed to mean?" Bill asked, setting his fists stiffly at his waist and turning to face his brother.

"Bill," Tara said, setting her hand on her husband's arm, and, surprisingly, Bill let it drop. But Charlie could still feel his brother's prickling irritation, and he wasn't surprised that it was then that Bill first noticed Mulder's absence. "Where's Mulder?"

Dana met Bill's accusatorial stare. "He had to go," she said. "The phone call was for him."

"Go?" Maggie asked. "Go where? It's Christmas Eve."

"It was Skinner," Dana told her mother, who nodded. "Our former boss," she explained to the rest of them. "He needed Mulder's help."

"I thought you two didn't work on the X-Files anymore," Bill said.

"We don't," Dana replied. "But we still help out sometimes. I've examined several bodies at Skinner's behest, and he calls Mulder in to consult as well."

"So Mulder--" Bill spit out his name "--left you here, on Christmas Eve, to investigate an X-File? I can't believe him, and, frankly, Dana, I can't believe you would tolerate that kind of crap!"

Charlie looked back over to Dana, who had yet to break eye contact with their older brother. "I spoke with Skinner," she said evenly, "and gave Mulder his message. He didn't want to go, but I told him he should."

"You what?" Bill asked, and this time Tara's gentle touch was not enough to calm him. Charles leaned back against the oven, bracing himself for the storm of Bill's anger. "Jesus, Dana. I don't understand you. I would think that, since you did bring him to spend Christmas with the family, he would be polite enough to stick around. Or at the very least tell us he was leaving."

"Mulder asked me to apologize to the family for him," she said. "He had to go, and it was important that he leave immediately."

Charles waited for her to explain the hostage situation and Mulder's past experience with the suspect, but she said nothing. Charles considered explaining, but he stopped himself. It wasn't his business; maybe the case was confidential, and he shouldn't have heard as much as he did. Besides, explaining this away to Bill was Dana's responsibility, not his. So he, too, said nothing.

"Bill," Maggie said, trying her hand at calming her son. "I'm sure it was an emergency. I'm sure he didn't want to go."

"Yeah," Bill said, his stare turning from suspicious to something almost cruel. "After all, it's not like he's ever disappeared before."

Dana opened her mouth to respond, but she was cut off by a loud and strangled cry from the baby monitor. Without a word she spun on her heel and dashed upstairs. The four of them stood there, saying nothing as the pound of her feet on the steps echoed through the kitchen. Charlie nibbled the edges of his cookie, watching his brother's reddened face, Tara's obvious exasperation, his mother's helplessness.

A minute later they heard a rustling sound, then Dana's voice, infused with light static yet gentle and soothing, from the baby monitor. "It's okay, Liam," she cooed. "Sshh, sweetie. Go back to sleep. Daddy'll be back soon."

This last sentence was punctuated by a sharp intake of breath on Bill's part. Charlie, Tara, and Mrs. Scully turned to look at him, waiting for a response. Though Bill said nothing, Charlie could almost read his thoughts; Bill was nothing if not predictable.

Charlie suspected that Bill had arrived in DC with a wisp of hope that Mulder was not Liam's father. But that possibility had been slipping away, inch by inch, right in front of Bill's eyes these last three days. Charlie knew from experience that Bill wasn't just going to let it go. And if he didn't blow now, Charlie knew that only meant that it was building up, and that, when it did come, it would be a doozy.

They stood there for a minute, listening to Dana comfort the baby, Bill visibly tensing each time Dana said "Daddy." Then Tara went into the family room to check on Matthew, and Maggie soon followed her. Only Charles remained in the kitchen with Bill, intermittent whimpers and "Dada"s and the answering words of comfort hanging in the air between them.

Finally Charles followed his sister upstairs, standing at the closed door to the bedroom for several minutes, considering. He wanted to knock but wasn't sure she would let him in, even if she knew he wasn't Bill.

He wanted to tell her not to let Bill get to her. She would say that he wasn't, though Charles could tell from her stone-still stance and cool responses that he was. Like always. Bill had always been able to get under Dana's skin. Over the years she had gotten better at fighting back, eventually discovering that the best way to annoy Bill was just to ignore him. Charles could tell she was trying valiantly to do just that, but he wondered just how long she could keep it up.

Charles raised his hand to knock, then stopped. He wanted to tell her that not all of them felt like Bill did; that, to him, Mulder seemed like a good guy, trying to do the best for his family. Obviously he loved both Dana and the baby. Charlie could see that, and knew that his mother and sister-in-law saw it as well. He wondered how it could be that Bill could not.


Dana

"Maybe we should go to an earlier mass," Margaret Scully suggested as the weather report faded into a commercial. "It looks like the storm's going to hit earlier than they thought."

"I know I wouldn't mind going earlier," Tara said. "Without his nap, I'm sure Matthew will be pretty out of sorts by midnight."

"What do the three of you think?" Maggie asked, turning to her daughter and sons.

Scully shrugged. Early mass or midnight mass, she didn't much care. She was just anxious for Mulder to get back. Sure, she was the one who'd told him to go ahead, even though she'd known that Bill, at least, would give them a hard time. But now that the snow was starting to come in earnest, she was starting to worry.

It was stupid, she knew. So stupid. Mulder had been in many situations that were a hell of a lot more dangerous than this before. But usually she was with him; usually she had his back. Even since they'd stopped officially working on the X- Files, they usually went on consultations together, even though they usually split up once they arrived on scene, her to examine the body, him to talk to Doggett or Reyes and comb through the evidence. Just like old times.

But not, Scully thought. She gazed down at Liam, who sat on her lap, working a cold plastic teething toy with his mouth. Things were different now. They'd already had several discussions about how careful they would have to be, not running off half-cocked, using their heads before following their instincts. That was more Mulder's problem than hers, but over the years they had each made their share of stupid decisions. They had resolved to be more careful now, especially when they were investigating together.

"So we'll go to the earlier mass, then," her mother announced, and Scully looked over at her.

"Sure, Mom," she said as the commercial clicked off and the Channel Five newscasters reappeared.

"And our last story this Christmas Eve," the over-dyed, over-coiffed newscaster pronounced, "has an appropriately happy holiday ending. News Channel Five has been covering the hostage situation downtown for the past several hours, and we're happy to report that police have captured the suspect. We now go live to Sandra Stark on the scene. Sandra?"

The newscaster's face was suddenly replaced a live feed from the scene, a small stone church Scully recognized as being on the city's south side. She studied the screen intently, phasing out the overexcited voice-over. She looked past the yellow crime scene tape and the huddles of uniformed police officers, past the blaring lights of the patrol car and the handcuffed suspect being escorted through the crowd.

Where are you, Mulder? she wondered as her eyes darted back and forth across the screen. Finally she spotted him, standing on the outskirts of a small throng of FBI agents, recognizable by the white letters on the backs of their dark jackets. Someone must have lent him a jacket, Scully thought absently. Theirs were both hanging in the hall closet of their Apartment. Mulder's head was bowed, and she realized that he was dialing his cell phone. She smiled as her mother's phone began to ring.

Tara answered it, then passed it over to her. "It's Mulder," she said with a grin.

"Hey," Scully said into the receiver.

"Hey, it's me," he said, and she watched him, in the corner of the screen, as he stepped away from the other agents. "Just wanted to let you know that I'm heading back. The situation's been resolved."

"I know," she told him. "We're watching it on the news."

"I'm on the news?" he asked.

"Yup," she said.

"Hope they got my good side," he joked. She watched him turn around in search of the news cameras. But the 'live' feed was just slightly delayed, and she saw his lips moving even though the phone line was now silent. "I'll see you in a few minutes."

"Be careful," she said. "The storm they were predicting for Wednesday's coming early."

"I will," he said before clicking off the phone. She watched him on television for another second as he dropped the phone into his pocket and stepped off screen.

"He's on his way back," Scully told them as she handed the phone back to Tara, who hung it up.

"That his case on TV?" Charles asked.

She nodded, then stood as she lifted Liam onto her hip. "I'd better change him," she said, heading out of the family room.

"I'll do it, Dana," her mother said, taking the baby from her. She set one foot on the stairs, then turned back to her daughter. "Everything okay with Fox?"

"Yeah," she said. "Fine."

Her mother nodded, then disappeared upstairs. Fine, Scully thought as she wandered into the living room. But she didn't feel fine. She felt more than a little embarrassed at her worry for Mulder. He was headed back, and, besides, the situation hadn't even been all that dangerous. Just a consult, tapping into Mulder's experience with the suspect. So what was her problem?

Scully glanced around the room, her gaze resting on the manger -- less the baby Jesus, which, she knew, one of them would add after they got home from mass that night -- before drifting to the fireplace. Lined up on the mantle of her mother's fireplace were several dozen Christmas cards.

One of Margaret Scully's most enduring talents was the assiduous way in which she maintained a friendship. There were women her mother had known from elementary school that Maggie still corresponded with; other friends from high school; some from Japan, where the Scullys had been stationed for a few years, back in the 60s; from Germany, where her parents had lived part of the time Scully was in college; and from various other pit stops their family had made during her father's years with the Navy.

Scully admired this ability of her mother's, an ability she had never had, though she always meant well. When she graduated from high school and college, and then from medical school, she had promised her friends she would keep in touch. But each time her busy present had kept her from returning to her past, as much as she might treasure it.

Scully's eye caught a familiar card, a card with a childishly drawn angel amid a dark sky dotted with golden stars. The Christmas card she had sent to her mother, bought from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. The young patients of MD Anderson crayoned and painted new holiday cards each year, and each year Scully bought her cards from their catalog. It was a small thing, she knew, but for her it was also a necessary thing, a connection to a past that she knew she would never forget.

This year Scully had received the small box of cards in the mail at the end of October. She had stashed them in her desk drawer, telling herself that she had weeks before she needed to write them out and mail them.

But this year was busier, with Liam, with settling in at her new job, with settling Mulder into her apartment. She had almost forgotten about the cards until she sifted through the contents of that drawer while looking for a pair of scissors.

She found them and panicked; it was already mid-December and she had yet to even begin them. So the next day, an unseasonably warm Sunday morning, after Mulder took Liam out for a run in the jog-stroller, Scully dug out her address book and her favorite pen, and set out to write her Christmas cards.

But when she opened the first card, after she addressed the envelope, she found that she didn't know what to say. The recipient of the card, an elderly aunt she hadn't seen in years, was not the problem; Scully needn't write a long note, just a quick Merry-Christmas-and-Happy-New-Year, but what stumped her was how to sign the card.

This had never been a problem before; all she ever had to do was scribble "Dana" and stuff the card into the envelope. But this year she didn't know what to write. Should she include Mulder's name? And, if so, what should she write: "Dana, Mulder, & Liam"? "Dana, Fox, & Liam"? Though it seemed odd to use Mulder's surname on a greeting card, the other combination seemed wrong, though Scully knew that was how her mother thought of them.

But, to Aunt Gladys, those names would bring only confusion. Scully doubted the elderly woman was aware of either Liam's or Mulder's existence. Writing "Dana, Fox, & Liam" would likely cause poor old Aunt Gladys to check the address label to figure out who the card was from. She knew "Dana," but who were these "Fox & Liam" interlopers?

Obviously what she wrote would depend on who was receiving the card. To her distant family she could simply sign "Dana" and write a quick note to announce Liam's birth. To her close family -- her mother and brothers -- she could sign all three names without explanation.

But she was still undecided about what to write to in-betweeners, to old friends and semi-close family members. Scully thought of Ellen, a college friend whom she had held on to through her time at medical school and the Academy. But her years on the X-Files had estranged her from Ellen, not because of any conscious effort but because her work had taken so much out of her, had exhausted her so thoroughly that, on her rare days off, she had often wanted to do nothing but take a long bath and forget there was such a place as the Hoover Building, such an entity as the US government, and such a man as Fox Mulder.

But now, she felt a sudden longing to reconnect with Ellen. But what to write? "Ellen, we haven't been in touch for years, but I thought I'd check in. Guess what? In May I had a baby with my partner. Here's a picture -- the baby, not the partner. What's new with you?"

Sure, Scully thought with an almost-laugh, that would work. Certainly it would earn her a panicked and excited phone call. Finally she decided on a short note: "Ellen, sorry I've lost touch. Too much to share on a card. We should meet for lunch. Love, Dana."

She was still working on her cards when Mulder and Liam returned from their run, Mulder reeking of sweat and old athletic shoes. She didn't have many cards to send, but having to consider what she would write on each made it a time- consuming task. Mulder parked the stroller beside her, and, after taking a detour to the kitchen to refill his water bottle, he returned to join her at the desk.

Scully unstrapped Liam from his stroller and lifted him out. His head drooped sleepily onto his shoulder. "Hey, my sweet boy," she said to the baby, then kissed the tip of his nose before cradling him against her chest. "Good run?" she asked Mulder.

Mulder nodded. "Gotta work on the kid's endurance, though," he said, then chugged some water from his sports bottle and wiped his wet hand on his t-shirt.

Ick, Scully thought, trying not to grimace. She had promised herself long ago that she would have to relax her anal-retentive standards of cleanliness if she and Mulder were to live together peacefully. Not that there were many of those tendencies left, she thought ruefully, noting the pile of baby laundry on the couch and the toys scattered across the floor.

"What're you up to?" he asked.

"Writing out my Christmas cards," she said. She paused, glanced at the small pile of sealed and addressed cards and the larger pile of blank ones. She checked her watch. "For the past two hours."

"Lots of cards?"

"Not really," she said, sighing. She twirled the pen around her fingers. "I'm... I don't know what to write."

Mulder picked up the card she had been working on when he walked in. The half- finished note was addressed to her cousin Michael, who lived in Chicago with his family. Scully and her siblings had all been close to him while growing up, but Scully hadn't seen him in years. Not since her father's funeral.

Scully reddened as Mulder read the message, in which she mentioned Liam's existence but not his. At least not yet. She had been puzzling over that when he walked in. Finally he finished reading the short note and looked down at her.

"What's the problem?"

"I can't figure out what to say," she said. "About us." He nodded. "I've done the cards for my mom and Bill and Charlie." She looked up at him. "I signed your name. I hope that was okay. I--"

He smiled at her. "It's fine, Scully. Whatever you want to write."

It wasn't the answer she was looking for, and, most days, she probably would have left it at that. But she was frustrated and emotionally drained and feeling brave. "But what do *you* think I should have written?" she asked. "What do you want me to say... about us?"

He leaned back against the desktop, looking at her over his shoulder. He raised the hem of his t-shirt, revealing a trail of dark, sweaty hair leading to the waistband of his shorts. He wiped his forehead with the shirt, then let it fall back into place.

"You're right," he said finally. "You should sign my name to your mom and brothers. If we're really doing this, that is..." He looked down at her almost uncertainly.

"Of course, Mulder," she said, still surprised -- and, she admitted, a little disappointed -- at how often he needed to hear her reassurance that she still wanted him, that she still loved him. "Of course we're 'doing this.'"

He smiled. "Just checking," he said.

Clutching the now-sleeping baby to her chest, she stood and rose to her tiptoes. To hell with the sweat, she thought, pressing her lips to the salty hollow at the base of his throat. She grasped the back of his neck, pulling him down to her level. Looking directly into his eyes, she said, "You don't need to check. Nothing's changed."

He nodded solemnly, then stood as she released his neck and dropped to her flat feet. Scully sat back down in the desk chair, again looking up at Mulder.

"But I still need to know what you want me to sign," she said. "And to whom. My immediate family is taken care of, but what about friends and other family members?" she asked. "Do you want me to include your name if you've never met them?"

He shrugged. "It's up to you, Scully," he said, but she watched him carefully, wondering if this was yet another test.

Ever since he had moved in with her, they had each had their moments of uncertainty, Mulder certainly more than she. At times Scully almost felt as if he were testing her, making sure she didn't want him there just because of Liam. And, she admitted, at times she had tested him as well, when daytime nightmares brought up worries that he was there out of some misplaced sense of guilt or obligation or overprotection... or that his only feelings of love were directed at their son.

Their tests had become less and less frequent, Scully realized with relief. And, as far as she could tell, she had passed each of Mulder's, and he hers. But now, as she watched Mulder in silence, Scully realized that this was very definitely another one of them.

She suppressed a sigh, wondering when it will all end, wondering if they will ever be able to just *be*: be happy and secure and together. But she just smiled at him.

"I want to include your name," she said. "I'm sick of hiding; I want everyone to know about you and Liam." She stood and grasped his chin with her hand, forced his gaze to meet hers. "I love you."

This time it was his turn to lean in for a kiss, and she obliged, running her fingers through the sweat-soaked hair on the back of his head. He rested his hands behind her, caging her against the chair, and she deepened the kiss, sliding her tongue past his lips. He dropped his hands from the back of the chair to rest on her waist, and snuck his thumbs inside the waistband of her jeans.

Finally they pulled apart, and Mulder straightened. "I should take a shower," he said reluctantly. Transparently, Scully thought.

She smiled. "Care for some company?" she asked with a nod to indicate that Liam had fallen asleep in her arms.

"Thought you'd never ask," he said, offering her a hand. She took it, and he tugged her towards the bathroom.

"He still asleep?" he asked when she rejoined him after detouring to Liam's bedroom to set him in his crib, kissing his forehead in thanks for not waking up when she laid him down.

"Mmm hmm," she said. "We have, oh, maybe, half an hour, forty minutes."

"S'enough," he rumbled as she closed the bathroom door behind them.

"Scully?"

She whirled around as the voice behind her drew her out of her memories. Just in time, she thought, not entirely sure she wanted to relive that afternoon's activities in her mother's house, with the rest of her family weaving in and out of the room.

"Hi," she said to Mulder.

"Hey," he said with a smile. "I was just wondering where you disappeared to."

"Just... thinking," she said as he came closer and she stepped into his arms.

"What about?"

"Things," she said coyly, resting her head against his chest. "How did the case go?"

"I'm sure you heard it on the news, but they got Ross. Neil Juden's pretty good -- the agent in charge of the case," he explained. "You ever met him?"

"No," she said.

"Wet behind the ears, but he shows potential. I think he was a cop once, so he's got some experience. Skinner had gotten him a copy of my profile, but he had some questions about Ross's background, his MO, that sort of thing."

"So all's well that ends well?" she asked.

"Mmmm," he said noncommittally. "Ross had already shot one of the hostages by the time I got there, but it was just a flesh wound. He'll be okay. Juden eventually talked Ross down and he's in police custody now. He--" Suddenly she felt him stiffen.

"What?" she asked.

He set his hands on her shoulders and turned her around so that she was facing the same direction as him, so that, once again, she could see the fireplace. "What?" she repeated.

"Stockings," he said softly.

Her gaze drifted over the mantle, which was not only covered in Christmas cards, she noticed, but decorated with the family's stockings. Her eyes flitted past her mother's well-worn stocking, then Bill's own broken-in one, Tara's newer one, her own worn stocking, and on down the line. Then she stopped, darting her gaze back to her own.

Hanging between her stocking and Charlie's was another new one. The stocking was made of bright red felt, and the fold of soft white fabric along the top bore three letters, carefully stitched in red: Fox.

Scully turned in Mulder's arms and smiled up at him. His own expression was a mix of surprise and happiness, and she felt her grin broaden as she watched the emotions work through his face.

"Your mom," he said, half in question, half in wonder.

Scully nodded. "I told you not all us Scullys are so resistant to good-looking, hard-assed g-men," she said, punctuating her words by slipping her hands down Mulder's back and into the back pocket of his jeans.

"I haven't had a stocking since I was a kid," he said softly. "Not since we celebrated Christmas at my mom's parents' house. The year Samantha disappeared we stopped going; Mom said we shouldn't celebrate Christmas, after..." He paused, looking down at Scully, his eyes awash with emotion. She settled into his chest, tightening her arm around his waist.

"You shouldn't be so surprised, Mulder," Scully said. "You're a part of this family, like it or not."

Mulder laughed. "Like it," he whispered into her ear. Even if it doesn't always like him, Scully thought.


BILL

"Time to eat," Bill called as he stepped into the living room. "Time to eat, Day--"

He froze when he saw them, Mulder facing the fireplace and Dana standing on the other side of him, blocked from Bill's view. All Bill could see was her hands fitted in Mulder's back pocket, her thumbs resting on his ass.

They pulled away at the sound of his voice, and Bill felt the tiny muscle above his eyebrow twitch uncontrollably.

"--Dana," he finished. "Time to eat."

"Okay," she said, and Mulder followed her into the kitchen.

Bill stood in the living room for a moment. He, too, had noticed what it was on the mantle that had caught Mulder's attention. He stared at the stocking, biting his lip in frustration.

Dammit, Mom, he thought. You have to make things easier for him, don't you? Treating him like he's a real member of this family, when we all know that he's just going to take off again when the mood strikes him.

Fools, Bill thought at his mother and sister. Even at his wife, who had felt it necessary to lecture him on the drive from the airport to his mother's house while Matthew zoomed his toy trucks across the backseat of their rented van. She had lectured him like a mother, and he had felt a rush of embarrassment at being reprimanded by her in front of his own son.

"Now, Bill," she'd said, her tone condescending. "I'm sure Dana's bringing Mulder..."

"Yeh," he grunted back, concentrating on the road as he switched lanes without bothering with his turning signal.

"Bill, I know the two of you don't get along," she said. Understatement of the year, Bill thought. "I don't understand it, but you can't hide it." I'm not trying to, he thought. "And it doesn't much matter when we're in San Diego. But when we're in DC..."

He'd nodded, grunted again.

"Bill, please listen to me," she'd said, her voice strung out with the weariness of preparing for, and finally taking, a cross-country trip with an overexcited almost-four-year-old. "In a few months we'll be back East. You don't need to start out on everyone's bad side."

He'd burned with anger as she continued lecturing him, frustrated at what she was doing while fully understanding why she was doing it. She didn't trust him to be on his best behavior at his mother's house. Hell, he didn't trust himself either.

He may feel calm -- well, relatively calm -- right then, but he knew that when he stepped into his mother's house and saw Dana and Mulder... And Dana's baby, he reminded himself. He had seen pictures of the baby as a wrinkly faced newborn, and he'd been confused and ashamed at the anger and guilt and frustration he'd felt.

It happened every time he thought about or spoke with his sister, a tightness forming in Bill's stomach that he couldn't quell. He imagined Dana and her baby, living with Mulder, and he wondered how that could be his sister's life, how she could chuck her upbringing and beliefs for this man. How she could turn her back on what had once been such a promising future.

"Remember," Tara had said as he parked their rented van in his mother's driveway. "Please, Bill, remember that Dana's an adult. She's been through some tough times recently, and she deserves to be happy. Please just remember that."

Bill felt a shout of anger rise in his chest, but, of course, he subdued it, sublimated it. He knew that Dana deserved to be happy; he knew all about her kidnapping and cancer and (supposed) infertility. That last one he had his doubts about. Obviously.

And he guessed that her job had destroyed any hope of her having a normal personal life. Dana might not be overly forthcoming about her job, but Bill knew that she had been through so much -- too much -- with Mulder. Maybe she had just gotten used to his disrespect and workaholism and self-centeredness. Maybe she was just with Fox Mulder out of habit, because she was there and so was he, and, hell, why not be there together?

Bill stared at Mulder's -- Fox's -- stocking, hanging right there between Dana's and Charles's. Like he was a part of the family or something. Bill shook his head. Fox Mulder would never be a part of his family, he was sure of that. Bill gave the guy six more months, at most, before he took off for greener pastures... greener pastures decorated with crop circles, Bill thought bitterly.

"Bill? You coming?" his mother's voice called from the dining room, and Bill turned away from the stockings and wandered into the dining room. He took his seat at the head of the table, then grabbed the metal tongs and dug into the salad bowl.

"Chicken and dumplings, Daddy," Matthew said excitedly. Matthew loved chicken and dumplings, Bill was proud to say. The dish was also one of his favorites, and his mother had given Tara her recipe soon after their wedding, claiming it was the key to a successful marriage with anyone named William Scully. Chicken and dumplings had also been his father's favorite.

"It looks delicious, Mrs. Scully," Mulder said as he settled Liam into the high chair between his and Dana's seats. "I love your chicken and dumplings."

Bill shot a glance over at Mulder. I'm sure you do, he thought.

"I think it's a guy thing," Tara said as she watched her husband spoon an extra dumpling onto his plate before passing the hot casserole dish over to her. She placed a small helping on Matthew's plate, then spooned out some for herself. "This is Matthew and Bill's favorite, too."

"I don't know," Maggie said, rising from the table to fill their wine glasses. "It was never Charlie's favorite."

Bill looked over at his brother, who shrugged. "It's fine," he said. "But you're right; it's never been my favorite." He took a sip of his wine. "But Melissa used to love it."

Maggie smiled. "The only thing Missy and your father agreed on," she said. "Chicken and dumplings." They laughed.

That's not the only thing they agreed on, he thought with a glance at Dana. Bill knew that their father loved all four of his children, but he also knew that Dana had occupied a special place in his heart. She was his baby girl. Even more than Melissa, who had acted the part of sugar and spice and everything nice so much more convincingly than Dana ever had.

And, though Melissa had always been especially close with Charles, she had also had a special relationship with Dana. A sisters' bond, Bill figured. They told each other things that they'd never shared with him. They used to sit together in the back seat of the family car, smashed hip to hip, giggling over private jokes. Charles sat next to them, half-listening and half-daydreaming. When their father was at sea, Bill occupied the coveted front seat with his mother, and had often had to turn around and tell one of his siblings to quit kicking his seat or flicking bits of paper at him.

Bill remembered passing the door to Dana and Melissa's shared bedroom late at night as he headed to bed. They were supposed to be asleep, but each night he could hear them, talking and giggling. Sometimes they played Melissa's record player, the volume turned low so no one would hear.

But Bill heard. Bill always heard.

"So, Fox," Maggie said, "how did your case go?"

Mulder glanced briefly over at Bill, then returned his gaze to Maggie. "It was fine, Mrs. Scully," he said. "And I'm sorry--"

Yeah, right, Bill thought. Not so sorry that you didn't go, though, huh?

"That's okay, Fox," she said, tapping his hand gently. "I was married to a Navy Captain for over thirty years. I understand that crisis doesn't take a break for the holidays."

Thanks, Mom, Bill thought. Forgive him for leaving on Christmas Eve. And while you're at it, why don't you forgive him for everything else he's done to this family. For Melissa and for Dana's cancer and for taking off after getting Dana pregnant and for putting her through hell for the past nine years...

"I'm glad it went well," Maggie continued. "I know you can't go into detail about what you do, but I get so worried sometimes, with the two of you traveling all the time."

Bastard, Bill thought at Mulder. His mother had enough difficulties; she didn't need to add her daughter and Mulder's escapades to the list. She's too old for this, he thought, his eye caught by the wrinkles that lined his mother's eyes and mouth.

"You shouldn't worry, Mom," Dana said, and Bill bit his tongue. Yeah, as if she could stop worrying about her daughter. Her only daughter, who had made probably the most dangerous of career choices, with the most treacherous of partners.

"Besides, we won't be traveling again, not like we used to," Dana said. "Not for a while, at least." She caught Mulder's gaze and held it, and Bill felt a whiff of something pass between them. Regret? Restlessness? Was Mulder getting bored with the Daddy routine? It was just a matter of time, Bill figured.

"Not with our new jobs," Dana finished.

Ah, yes, the almighty New Jobs. Bill had heard all about the New Jobs months ago, from his mother over the phone, which was how he heard anything worth hearing -- and a few things that weren't -- about Dana. Heaven forbid his sister should pick up the phone herself just once and let him into her life.

His mother had been ecstatic about the New Jobs and, according to her, so had Dana and Mulder. Both were at the FBI Academy, Dana teaching forensic pathology and Mulder, criminal profiling. His mother, however, hadn't mentioned that they still 'consulted' on the X-Files, as Dana had put it earlier that day. But maybe she didn't know; maybe they hadn't told her, either. He wouldn't be surprised.

On the phone that day Bill had questioned his overjoyed mother about the New Jobs. Hadn't Mulder been fired from the FBI? That little tidbit of info had leaked through the Scully grapevine long ago, despite Dana's attempts to keep it from him. How could he be back with the Bureau again? Bill suspected his government wasn't as forgiving as his baby sister was.

But Maggie had said that there had been some sort of shakeup in the upper echelons of the FBI. The agent who was currently assigned to Dana's former beat had investigated some Bureau Director or another, uncovering a slew of inappropriate activities. There had been a wave of firings and reappointments, and, before anyone knew it, Mulder was back in, though the Bureau's forgiving nature apparently didn't extend into the X-Files.

Not that Bill expected the New Jobs to last very long. Certainly Mulder would get bored of teaching and 'consulting' and ask back on his old beat. And, of course, he would drag Dana back along with him. But his mother saw the New Jobs as the solution to all problems of the Mulder-Scully universe, allowing the two of them to be home with the baby more often. At least, Bill thought, until Mulder got restless and the baby was dumped off with Maggie, who sometimes watched him while Dana and Mulder were at work.

Bill thought back to when Matthew was a baby. He had had to ship out such a short time after his son's birth that he had missed so much, but he did remember the late nights, the teething, the messes, the terrible twos...

Not that he thought Dana wouldn't be a good mother, but Bill doubted she and Mulder were prepared for the difficulties of parenting. Sure, the baby was cute now, but babies grew up, became children and then teenagers.

And then, Bill thought with a glance over at Charles, who was picking at his chicken and dumplings, they became adults.


Later That Afternoon Bill was kneeling down in front of Matthew, fixing his son's tiny bow tie when Tara emerged from the bathroom connected to their bedroom. Bill stood and smiled at his wife. She returned his grin and stepped over to him, reaching up to straighten his tie. He snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her close.

"You look beautiful," he muttered into her ear, trailing his fingers down her velvet-clad back.

"I look fat," she said, smoothing her hand over the front of her dress and pulling away from him to inspect her profile in the mirror mounted above the dresser.

"No," he said. "You can't tell."

"I don't know," she managed to say before Matthew grabbed hold of her legs. "Careful, Matty," she said in a louder tone, reaching down to smooth her nylons.

"Momma, I don't wanna wear a tie," Matthew said, tugging at his tie.

"I'm sorry, baby," she said, squatting down beside him and redirecting his prying fingers, "but we're going to church, and it's important that you look nice for Christmas Eve mass."

"We should get downstairs," Bill reminded Tara. "We're leaving at 5:20."

She nodded and took Matthew's hand, and the three of them went downstairs. His mother and brother were already there, Charles looking presentable for once in a clean blue button-down shirt and dark pants. He slipped on a matching blazer and ran a hand through his unruly hair. No tie, Bill noticed.

So did Matthew. "Daddy," he whined, looking up at Bill, "you said I hafta wear a tie."

"You do, Matthew," Bill said, glaring at Charles.

"But Uncle Charles isn't wearing one," Matthew said, tugging impatiently at his collar.

"Don't own one," Charles said with an apologetic shrug.

Bill opened his mouth to remind his brother of the existence of department stores -- and their visit to a mall just the other day -- but Tara cut him off.

"Uncle Charles is a grown-up," she told Matthew. "He can choose his own clothes. But you," she said, bending down to plant a kiss on the top of Matthew's head, "are our little boy, and you have to wear what Daddy and I choose."

Matthew's grasp on his mother's hand grew limp, and the little boy fell dramatically to the floor. Bill sighed, sensing a temper tantrum coming on. Thanks, Charles, he thought, stooping to stand Matthew squarely on his feet.

"Dana," his mother called upstairs. "You ready?"

Bill turned his attention towards the stairs. His mother's exclusion of Mulder didn't escape Bill's attention. Of course Mulder wasn't coming to church with them. Bill was well aware of the man's aversion to religion. He had picked up on that much during his weekly telephone chats with his mother. Of course she hadn't out and out said that Mulder was an atheistic heathen, but Bill was no idiot. He read through her words. Bill suppressed a shudder. Maggie Scully was unbelievably transparent, and it was disturbingly clear to Bill that, for some inexplicable reason, she loved "Fox " like a son.

"We're ready, Mom," Dana said, finally appearing at the base of the steps.

"Oh," his mother exclaimed upon seeing Liam. "Don't you look adorable!" She took the baby from Dana and smoothed a hand over his fuzzy red-gold hair. Dana took her jacket from the hall closet and slipped it over her dress. She pulled Liam's tiny snowsuit out of the closet as well, then looked up when Mulder descended the stairs. He was wearing a suit and tie.

"Are you coming with us, Fox?" his mother asked, the hope in her voice almost palatable.

He nodded, then took Liam and, with Dana, tried to tuck the baby into his puffy fleece snowsuit. Bill narrowed his eyes, watching them. So Mulder was coming to church, was he? What a suck-up. Obviously this guy was trying to get on the family's good side. Bill grunted in frustration and, after a stern look from Tara, stepped towards the closet, brushing past Mulder on his way.

Clearly Mulder had enough hope for this relationship -- Bill grimaced at the word -- that he would bother to kiss up to Dana's family. Bill yanked his family's coats out of the closet, sending the wooden hangers clattering to the floor.

He handed Matthew's and Tara's coats to his wife, then pulled his own on. Okay, so he had been wrong about one thing: Mulder wasn't going anywhere, at least not yet, despite his repeated disappearing acts during Dana's pregnancy. Bill conceded that point, but he wasn't ready to surrender the war.


They arrived at the church early, but already it was crowded. Bill circled the front parking lot and drove around to the back before finding a space. Of course, Mulder, who was driving Dana, Charlie, and the baby, had parked quickly, pulling into a space vacated by a parishioner late to leave from the earlier mass.

So Charles, Dana, Liam, and Mulder were already seated when the rest of the family stepped into the church. Dana and Charles were kneeling on the fold-down kneelers, but Mulder sat in the pew holding Liam. Not praying, Bill noted. Apparently that was as far as Mulder was willing to go for Dana: come to church, but don't participate. Nice.

Bill, Tara, Matthew, and Margaret Scully wove through the crowds of gathered families, then filed into the pew with the rest of the family. Bill stepped aside to allow his mother take the seat next to Mulder, then slid in after her, with Matthew and Tara following.

Bill unfolded their kneeler and he and Tara urged Matthew to join the rest of them. Surprisingly, Matthew actually obeyed and knelt down beside them.

But the little boy quickly grew bored with his child-sized view of the back of the seat in front of him, and he stood next to Bill. After finishing their prayers and tucking the kneeler back beneath the seats in front of them, the family sat in relative silence while they waited for mass to begin. Tara had smartly brought a small book in her purse, and it amused Matthew for longer than Bill expected. Thank God for small miracles, he thought.

Bill glanced down the row. His mother was turned around in the pew, talking animatedly with an elderly couple sitting behind them. Bill nodded at the man and woman when his mother introduced him, then looked past her, to Mulder and Dana, who were talking quietly.

"Scully," he heard Mulder say before he dropped his voice, and Bill felt a chill run down his spine. It still grated on him the way Mulder called her by her last name, the way he said it, Scully, low and endearing.

It was such an informal, buddy-buddy thing to call your partner by her last name. As a Navy man, Bill was used to it; he had called co-workers by their surnames for years. He said her name like a verbal caress, like a lover's touch. It was because of the way he said her name that Bill first knew that Fox Mulder was trouble with a capital T.

And Dana and Mulder had always acted so damned innocent of it all. Like they had never realized the charge of sexual energy between them, when it was so thick that Bill could almost taste it even years ago, just before Matthew was born, when Dana had called Mulder after discovering that sick little girl she thought was her daughter.

Bill tightened his fists into balls. Just thinking back to that time made him angry. It should have been one of the happiest times in his life, the birth of his son, the child whom he and Tara had tried so hard for, for so long. And his mother's and sister's visit was an added bonus; that they might be in town for the baby's birth was unbelievably lucky.

But then it was all complicated by Dana's discovery of this little girl and the arrival of Fox Mulder. When he met Mulder several months before, Bill had never imagined that the man would be sleeping on his sofa come New Year's, that he would be sleeping with his sister sometime thereafter.

Mulder had, of course, tried to convince the judge that Dana be allowed to adopt this orphaned little girl, never once considering that Dana's life wasn't fit for a child, and certainly not for a sick child. Never even considering that a woman who'd never given birth, who'd been diagnosed as unable to conceive, could not possibly have a daughter.

All of a sudden, everything was about Dana: the discovery of her supposed daughter and then the little girl's death. Bill was sorry for his sister -- even if the girl wasn't Dana's, Dana believed that she was, and her grief was deeply felt -- but just thinking back to that time still angered Bill. He seethed when he remembered how a time that was supposed to be so joyous had turned into such a circus, with Fox Mulder as ringmaster.

And now, here Bill was, spending another holiday with Mulder, sharing his family with the guy, the prospect of many more Christmases and birthdays and Thanksgivings hanging before him. Unbelievable.

Of course Bill knew that Dana and the baby would be at his mother's house for Christmas; Dana lived nearby and Bill figured that even the unbelievably numerous demands of her job wouldn't keep her away for the holidays. But he wasn't sure about Fox Mulder. He supposed he should've assumed the man would be there. After all, he thought bitterly, they were living together. Surely Dana would bring Mulder.

So, while he had eventually realized that Mulder would probably be joining them, Bill had also hoped that something, anything, might keep the man away. Maybe some alien invasion or secret government conspiracy; those things had always done the trick in the past, he thought, thinking of the phone calls that had lured Dana away from more family gatherings than he cared to remember.

But of course he had come, arriving with Dana like he belonged there, like he was part of the family or something. When Bill finally got a glimpse of the baby, he had studied him carefully. Of course, because of Dana's illogical devotion to the man, they had all suspected that Fox Mulder was the father. As far as Bill knew, no other man had played a serious role in his sister's life since, well... ever.

Still Bill held out hope that William wasn't Mulder's son. First there was Dana's inability to conceive, which Maggie had told Bill about in San Diego four years ago in an attempt to excuse Dana's cool reaction to Tara's pregnancy. In retrospect, the diagnosis had obviously been incorrect.

And if that had been wrong, maybe there was also another explanation for the baby's paternity. Maybe artificial insemination, as much as that idea creeped Bill out. Or maybe there was another man in his sister's life, a man whose existence had never been shared with Maggie and, therefore, had not been passed on to Bill.

Of course Bill had seen the pictures of the baby that Dana had sent him and Tara, but in those he looked like any other newborn; it was difficult to tell who he looked like, though Maggie swore that he resembled Charles as a baby.

However, seeing the child in real life had given Bill an improved perspective. On first sight of the baby, all Bill could see in him was Dana: her red hair, her fair skin, her blue eyes.

But then, looking closer, he had to admit that he could see Fox Mulder as well, in the baby's nose and mouth, in his long fingers. Unfortunately, Bill's suspicions had been confirmed by Dana's own words, said to the baby when she thought they were alone, overheard by the rest of the family through the baby monitor: the child was Mulder's.

"Daddy," Matthew said, tugging on the corner of his father's suit jacket.

"Yes, Matthew?"

"Daddy, I'm bored," he whined.

"What about your book?" Bill asked, glancing around for the book.

But Matthew simply repeated, "I'm boo-ored," and leaned his head against his father's arm.

"I know, Matthew," Bill said with a sigh. He checked his watch. "It'll be starting in a few minutes," he told his son. "You know, your grandma told me that last year that there was a special Christmas pageant during this mass. You'll get to see a play."

"A play?" he asked. "Like the Rudolph play?"

He and Tara had taken Matthew to see a children's puppet theater version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on the base the previous week. Matthew had loved the play, and, after Tara dug out their Christmas CDs, the little boy had figured out how to set the Rudolph track on repeat. It was all they had listened to for a good four days, Bill remembered with agony.

"A little like Rudolph," he told Matthew. "But a different story. Do you remember the children's Bible the Easter Bunny got you last year?" he asked, and Matthew nodded. "The play will be the story of baby Jesus's birthday."

"Like my birthday?" Matthew asked, his eyes brimming with excitement.

"Not exactly," Bill said, and was about to begin retelling Matthew the Christmas story when the church organ struck a chord, filling the church with music. The idle conversations that had been whispered back and forth among congregants quickly fell off.

But Matthew was not to be dissuaded. Again he tugged on his father's coattails, and Bill leaned down. "Maybe they'll play 'Rudolph,'" Matthew said with a hopeful smile.

Bill held in an amused chuckle, whispering to Matthew, "Maybe."

Mass progressed slowly. To Bill, Christmas Eve mass always had -- leftover excitement from his childhood, he supposed. As a kid he had always fidgeted during mass, imagining the presents that would appear as if by magic the next morning, so many with his name on them.

But, even as a child, he had tried to disguise his impatience. Even back then he was cognizant of his parents' need for him to be the big kid, their responsible oldest child, to behave and, more often than not, make sure that Melissa, Dana, and Charles weren't acting out of turn, either.

This was especially the case when their father was at sea. Each time their father left, he reminded Bill of the responsibility of being the man of the house, the need to protect for his younger sisters and brother, and to care for his mother. Bill had always taken that responsibility seriously, knowing that the family's well-being was in his hands, knowing that he his father would expect a thorough report on the family activities upon his return.

And Bill took his responsibilities most seriously on Christmas Eve, whether it was the threat of no presents if he misbehaved or the conscious realization that it was a special time, and they were in a special place, and he should be on his best behavior.

And, even though Bill had long outgrown the excitement of awaking on Christmas morning to find piles of surprise presents, still he was impatient during mass. He found his focus drifting as the lectors plodded through the readings, as the priest began the gospel. It didn't help matters that the gospel was the same every Christmas Eve, the journey of a pregnant virgin and her new husband to Bethlehem, the birth of the Son of God, the visitation of shepherds and angels and Wise Men.

This year, however, at least the reading kept the attention of Matthew, who watched the play with wide eyes. Bill himself regarded the pageant with a bit more cynicism. There was Joseph, walking with Mary to the innkeeper, to ask the man, played by a little boy in an oversized bathrobe, about a room. There was Mary, flat-stomached yet pregnant one minute and a mother as soon as she picks up the baby doll lying in the straw-filled manger.

The magic of theater, Bill thought, remembering the thirty-three hours of labor Tara had endured to bring Matthew into this world. Bill supposed that, if you were giving birth to the Son of God, maybe you were given certain perks.

"Dada," the baby called out suddenly, and Bill turned to look past his mother and Mulder, to Dana, who was holding the baby. "Dada," he called out again, reaching for Mulder, who took the baby from Dana's arms. The baby gazed out over Mulder's shoulder, Dana's wide blue eyes staring intently at Bill, and Mulder's full lower lip trembling on the verge of tears.

The little boy was quiet now, and still. But his gaze was steady and serious, and Bill couldn't help but feel slightly uncomfortable for the scrutiny. Sure, he knew that babies that age probably couldn't focus on objects as far away as he was sitting, but, to him, it looked as if the child were studying him, judging him. Bill had thought the baby had Dana's eyes, but now he could also see Mulder in the intensity of the baby's stare.

Then Mulder shifted Liam in his arms, breaking the baby's eye contact with his uncle. Bill turned his attention back to the mass, to the gold-robbed priest who was pouring wine into a line of shiny chalices. "What Child Is This?" the choir asked softly in the background, the organ tones replaced by the more understated sound of a piano. Matthew sighed, heavily and deliberately, as he leaned up against his father, and Bill put his arm around the little boy.

Finally they stood, preparing for the Lord's Prayer, which had always been Bill's favorite part of mass. When he was a child and all six members of the Scully family attended church together, they would hold hands for the Our Father.

Bill remembered when the prayer, when the entire mass, was performed in Latin. He was still young when the switchover to English began, so he couldn't recall the Latin words to the prayer. But he did remember the feeling that the archaic phrases had given him: that he was a part of something larger and more important, a feeling made stronger when he clutched the hands of his parents or siblings.

"Our Father," the priest prompted, and the congregation joined him. Bill's hands reached out, his right searching for Matthew's tiny hand, his left for his mother's. This priest was still fairly old-school, Bill noted with a pleased grin, and the man chanted, rather than simply spoke, the words of the prayer.

Bill tried his hardest to lose himself in the prayer once again, but he found that he was no longer able to. Trying to be inconspicuous, he peered around his mother, catching a glimpse of Fox Mulder. Mulder's right hand held Mrs. Scully's left, and his left held Dana's right. Though Dana was now holding the baby in her right arm, she also had the baby's hand clasped in her own, and Mulder's hand held theirs, easily covering both her hand and the baby's.

Bill craned his head further, trying to catch a more thorough glimpse of Mulder. Finally his mother stepped back slightly, and Bill could see that Mulder, though joined in the chain of Scullys, was not reciting the prayer along with the rest of the family. Typical, Bill thought. Just typical. Always has to be different, stubborn, doesn't he?

That image stayed with Bill after the prayer ended, after the family dropped hands, when the baby started fussing, furiously kicking his tiny legs and escalating his cries to new volumes. Bill glanced over to his sister, who rubbed her son's back as she stepped close to Mulder.

Dana nodded towards the upstairs baby room, which was tucked away to their right. She turned around to reach for the diaper bag, but instead Mulder reached for her, his hand finding her waist, his fingers spreading across her stomach. He leaned down, whispering something into her ear. She pressed her mouth closer to him, trying to make herself heard over the baby's strangled cries. Mulder's hand on her abdomen pressed her closer, then he shook his head and took the baby from her arms, hitching the struggling child up against his chest.

Bill read his sister's lips: Thank you. He exhaled a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding -- touching his sister like that right in front of him, in church no less, in the sight of God and the entire Christmas Eve congregation. This guy had no shame. He watched as Dana slung the diaper bag over Mulder's shoulder.

On his way to the aisle, Mulder moved past Maggie Scully, who caught the baby's foot in an affectionate gesture. Bill pressed back against the pew to let Mulder pass. The man squeezed by, Bill getting a stiff shoulder in the upper arm as he passed.

Bill's eyes trailed Fox Mulder down the aisle through the church until the man disappeared through the double doors that led to the baby room. He redirected his gaze to the tiny yet crowded room, watching for Mulder, but was distracted when he felt Tara's hand on his elbow.

He turned to his wife as her hand ran down his arm and caught his hand. "Peace," she said with a smile, and he leaned down to kiss her while they shook hands. Reaching around Matthew and Tara, Bill shook hands with the rest of the family, then turned to share peace with the parishioners sitting behind them.

Soon it was time for Communion, and Bill stood, along with Tara, Dana, and Maggie, to join the extended line-up. But Charles did not join them. Instead, he kicked up his kneeler and scooted back on the pew to allow his family to pass. Their mother touched him gently on the shoulder as she went by, but Bill felt like kicking his brother.

Give me a break, he thought. Charles always was one for dramatics. Of course he couldn't just get up and go to Communion with the rest of the family, with the rest of the damn church. No, he had to sit in the pew and draw attention. At least Mulder was still in the baby room, Bill thought as they stepped slowly towards the altar. No need to completely embarrass the family with both men not going up to Communion.

Bill allowed his gaze to drift over to the baby room, which was crowded with families with small children who either were too young or, more likely, had not been properly taught to behave during mass. Bill wasn't looking for Mulder, per se, just scanning the seats of the claustrophobic room.

But he saw him nonetheless. Mulder was standing against one of the long glass windows, the baby slumped over his shoulder, asleep. He had shed his suit jacket and loosened his tie, and the diaper bag no longer hung from his shoulder. It was just Mulder and the baby, standing and staring down into the church proper.

Bill squinted at the man, trying to follow his gaze. He's looking at me, Bill thought with a start, then realized that it wasn't him Mulder was looking down at: it was Dana. Only his mother stood between Bill and his sister, and he watched Mulder watch Dana as the line approached the priest, Bill banging his knee after not paying attention to where he was going. Dammit, he thought, forgetting where he was, then mentally castigated himself for his transgression.

But still Bill watched Mulder watch Dana until she stepped up to take the Communion wafer, then stepped to the side to sip wine from the chalice. Bill lost Mulder's gaze only as he accepted his own Communion host.

He hesitated as he progressed towards the woman holding the chalice. She offered him the gold cup and, after a second's uncertainty, he took it from her. Bill didn't usually take wine -- he had seen all too many parishioners cough and sneeze throughout the mass, then waltz up and brazenly drink wine from the communal cup -- but this was a special day, he thought as he raised the cup to his lips. Christmas Day, he thought as the wine poured into his mouth and down his throat.


Mulder

By the time they got out of church, the parking lot was covered in a thin but steadily growing layer of snow. White flakes immediately coated their eyelashes and hair, and the cool air froze their skin. The sky was black and pinpricked with stars, and their breaths puffed out in small clouds.

The wind blew through his jacket and chilled Mulder to the core. He raised his collar to protect his neck, then stuffed his hands deep into his pockets. He turned to see that Scully was holding Liam's sleeping form tight against her body. With the way her arms wound around him, the only evidence of their son was a large spot of pale blue fleece against his mother's dark winter coat.

"Good thing we decided on the earlier mass," Margaret Scully said, her words spun and twisted by the howling wind. "Drive safely. We'll see you back at the house," she called out as she followed Tara and Bill, who was carrying a sleepy Matthew.

Mulder, Scully, and Charles stepped carefully through the icy parking lot, the three of them huddled close against the wind. Mulder placed a steady hand on Scully's back, hoping that her new black velvet heels were up to the challenge of the icy parking lot. Mulder's own shoes were also fairly new and unscuffed, but they had considerably more surface area than Scully's. Still, he didn't know whether he could catch her if she went down. Charlie's shoes, Mulder was glad to see, were actually boots with thick rubber treads, and he let the younger man lead the way to the car.

Once they got there, Mulder walked Scully around to the passenger's side before unlocking the doors. He slid into the driver's seat and started the engine, then found the ice scraper between a blanket and the medical bag Scully kept in their trunk.

"Let me," Charles said, pausing at the open back door and holding out his hand for the scraper.

"Get in. I'm fine," Mulder insisted, slamming the trunk lid and, in the process, knocking off the dusting of snow.

"At least take my gloves," Charlie said, snapping his gloves off his hands and offering them to Mulder.

"Thanks," Mulder said, fitting the gloves onto his fingers. They were warm, lined with flannel and still heated from Charlie's hands. Mulder flexed his fingers, then started scraping at the windshield. Scully buckled Liam into his carseat, then slid into the front passenger seat.

Finally Mulder had scraped the windshield and windows to his satisfaction, and he deposited the scraper in the trunk before getting in the car. He turned down the heat a bit, then pulled the car into gear. Slowly he followed the parade of taillights through the church parking lot and onto the street, which, Mulder was glad to see, had been recently plowed and salted. Nevertheless, traffic crawled through the frenzied flurries of snow.

Though he was busy concentrating on the slick roads, out of the corner of his eye Mulder could see Scully glance intermittently in the backseat. But her focus was not on her son, who was zonked out in his carseat, but on her brother.

Finally Charles gave in. "I know what you want to ask me, Dana," he said. "So just ask and get it over with."

"What's that?" she asked.

He smiled. "Why I didn't go up for Communion."

By Scully's guilty silence, Mulder knew that Charles had guessed right.

"I don't really go to church Seattle," he said. "But I remember the rules, Dana. No Communion until you've gone to confession and cleansed your soul of its sins. And I haven't been to confession in... I can't remember how long."

"That's an old rule, Charlie," Scully said. "And I challenge you to find a priest who would refuse Communion to someone simply because he hasn't confessed."

"It's not... It's just... I just didn't feel right about it. And I know I'm gonna hear about it from Bill later on -- he gave me this dirty look as he squeezed by me on his way up -- but I just couldn't. I'm not... I didn't feel worthy."

Mulder said nothing, but he knew what Charles meant. Over the years he had tried -- God knows he had tried, he thought, rremembering his moment of despair in a DC church after Ruby Morris's reappearance -- but he had never been able to accept the infinite forgiveness that, he had heard, was offered by religion.

Neither of his parents' paths, not the Judaism that his father had rejected nor the Christianity that his mother had abandoned, had been able to soothe his unending grief and guilt. But it had not been the fault of those creeds. Mulder knew that, if he were to try out each of the world's religions, he would feel the same way. It was not that these faiths did not offer adequate forgiveness; it was that he was unable to accept it.

"Oh, Charles," Scully sighed. "If it was a matter of being worthy, none of us would take Communion. Why do you think one of the last things we say before Communion is, 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed'? It's the Communion that's the healing."

Charles was quiet, and so was Mulder. What Scully had said gave him hope, but not hope for himself. He had found his faith almost ten years ago, in the guise of a petite redheaded g-woman with an arching eyebrow and an indomitable spirit. His faith fell asleep beside him every night and woke up next to him every morning. His faith was in his partner, in the mother of his child. He knew that, with her and through her, he would find his truth. And maybe someday he would be worthy of it, and of her.

No, what Scully had said gave him hope for Liam. Mulder couldn't make himself forget the knowledge he had spent his career accumulating, the threat of alien invasion, the government's role in the enslavement of the planet. But still he dared to hope. Maybe that was something else Scully had given him, he realized, hope for a future of any kind, hope for a better future, for them and for Liam.

Boy, you're getting maudlin in your old age, Mulder thought as he pulled the car into Maggie Scully's driveway and parked behind Bill's van. He decided to blame it on the season and the stuffy warmth of the car's interior, not to mention the overlong and overcrowded Christmas Eve service.

"How'd Bill beat us home?" Charles asked as they unbuckled their seatbelts and tested their footing on the icy driveway.

"Maybe Mom knew a shortcut," Scully said, "where the roads were plowed better." Scully stood and slipped on the icy pavement, catching Charlie's coat sleeve to steady herself.

"Whoa," Mulder said, hurrying over to her side of the car as quickly as he could, despite his unsteady footing. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, then opened the back door.

"Let me get Liam," Mulder said. "Your shoes are death traps."

"Yours aren't much better," she retorted, but she did follow Charlie up the freshly salted steps and into her mother's house.

With one knee balanced on the cushiony back seat, Mulder carefully unhooked Liam's carseat from its base. He shifted his weight back onto the foot that was balanced on the ice and swung the carrier out of the car.

The baby squirmed gently and turned his head to the side, but his eyes, which were barely visible through the wrappings of cotton and fleece, remained closed. Mulder shut the car door and swung the carrier in front of him. Blinking back the snowflakes that were settling on his eyelashes, Mulder navigated the steps and opened the door to Maggie Scully's house.


Maggie

By the time the other car pulled into her driveway, Maggie had already changed out of her church clothes and was in the kitchen, throwing together an impromptu dinner for her family. She heard Dana's and Charlie's voices first, followed by a quick stomp of their feet to clear the snow from their shoes.

"Mom?" Dana called out as she and Charlie stepped into the kitchen, Dana almost sliding on the tile floor in her stocking feet. She grabbed the edge of the counter to steady herself.

"I'm getting together some dinner for us," Maggie said, stepping back from the refrigerator. "Are you hungry?"

Dana nodded. "And cold," she said. "But I'd better go change before I kill myself on this floor." She disappeared back into the living room, and Charlie took a seat on one of the bar stools arranged around the kitchen island.

"What about you?" Maggie asked him. "Hungry?"

"Of course," he said with a smile, then snatched a cold shrimp from the circle they made around the bowl of cocktail sauce. "Good," he said, his mouth still half-filled. "The kids go to bed and we get some adult food, huh? Nothing to mush up or cut into bite-size chunks?"

His mother smiled. "Where's Fox?"

"Getting the baby out of the car," Charles said. Indeed, in a minute Fox joined them in the kitchen, the baby carrier gripped tightly in his gloved hands.

"Slippery out there," he said, carefully setting the carrier on the table and lowering the handle. Liam was still sleeping, his fleece-clad head lolled against the side of the carrier. Mulder pushed back the baby's hood and carefully unzipped his snowsuit. The baby stirred, but just barely.

"I had Bill sprinkle some rock salt on the steps, but I'm afraid I didn't have enough for the entire front walk," Maggie said, removing a tray of cut-up vegetables and dip from the refrigerator.

"Thanks," Fox said to Charles as he slipped off his gloves and handed them to the younger man. Charles nodded and set them on the counter in front of him.

"How're you gonna get him out of there without waking him?" Charles asked Fox.

Fox simply smiled, then proceeded to perform the delicate operation of separating the sleeping baby from his snowsuit and carrier. He unbuckled the straps and slipped them over the top of the carrier, then carefully began to extract the baby from his snowsuit. When he had finally loosened the garment from around Liam, he turned to Charles.

"Give me a hand?" he asked. Charles nodded. "Try to slip the snowsuit off when I lift him."

Charlie smiled. "This is gonna work?" he asked, and Fox nodded. Charles shrugged, but he did as instructed and they successfully separated the baby from his garments.

"Bravo," came a voice from the doorway, where Dana stood, having already changed into a long sleeved t-shirt and University of Maryland Medical School sweatpants. Her hair, longer than it had been in years, was now pulled back in a ponytail and, to Maggie, she looked like a little girl again. Her little girl.

Maggie remembered that first Christmas break from medical school when Dana had visited them, and she marveled that, dressed so casually and with her hair pulled away from her face, Dana looked almost the same, though over a decade had passed. A very eventful decade, Maggie thought with a glance at Fox and Liam.

"You're a natural," Dana said as she moved to stand next to her brother.

"Yeah," Charles scoffed. "Sure."

But Dana simply smiled, and took the baby from Fox. "He's out," she said. "Let me go set him down upstairs."

"And I'd better change," Fox said, following Dana out of the kitchen.

Maggie watched them go, watched the way Fox's hand brushed against her daughter's back. They made quite the odd couple, Dana in her sweatpants and bare feet not quite reaching the shoulders of Fox, who still wore his suit, though he had loosened his tie.

Maggie removed several mugs from the cabinet and checked on the tea and coffee she had set brewing. Almost ready. She stacked plates on the counter next to the food, then stood back to survey her work.

"Looks good, Mom," Charles said, this time stealing a spear of broccoli and scooping a thick dollop of dip onto it.

"Sure does," Bill said as he and Tara stepped into the kitchen. Both had changed into more casual clothes.

"Matthew still sleeping?" Maggie asked.

"Half," Tara said. "He woke up when I changed him into his pajamas, but he's pretty wiped out from missing his nap, so he might stay down for the rest of the night," she said. "If we're lucky."

"Where's Dana?" Bill asked, glancing around the kitchen.

"She and Fox went upstairs to set the baby down," Maggie said, then turned to her younger son. "He slept the whole ride home?"

Charles nodded. "A child-free night," he said with a wicked grin and quick raise of his eyebrows. "Maybe things'll get interesting."

Maggie turned away to check on the coffee pot, concealing her grimace at her son's statement. Interesting? She didn't know what Charlie was looking for, but things were quite interesting enough for her, thank you very much. She slipped the carafe out of the coffeemaker. "Coffee?" she asked.

On Bill's nod, she poured him a cup, then filled three more mugs with tea and handed two to Tara and Charlie. "I don't know what the five of you are planning," she said with a warning glance at her younger son, "but I was going to play Santa. I've got presents to wrap and set out under the tree, and stockings to fill."

"Stockings?" Charles asked, a look of mock confusion on his face. "I thought Santa filled our stockings, Mom! All this time you've lied to us?"

Maggie smiled, then caught Charles by the shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze. "Oh, you," she said. "Very funny."

"Actually, we have presents to wrap, too," Tara said sheepishly. "Some sort of new security regulations with the airlines: they discourage passengers packing any wrapped gifts."

"Well, then," Maggie said, hunting through the cupboard for a tray. "If we move everything into the living room, we can eat and get our wrapping done."

She smiled at them as she pulled two matching trays from beneath a stack of pans in the cupboard. "That way we can get to bed early so Santa will come," she kidded.


An hour and a half later they were in the living room, scattered around the Christmas tree. Spread around them were wrapping paper rolls, scotch tape dispensers, and plates dotted with leftover cocktail sauce and dabs of onion dip. Mugs rimmed with filmy layers of coffee and tea were balanced on end tables and secreted under the leg of an armchair.

An old Christmas medley record was playing on Maggie's stereo system. "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," Bing Crosby crooned, and she had to agree with him. The grandfather clock bonged ten slow tones, almost in time with the music, and Maggie surveyed the damage.

The gifts had been wrapped and tucked under the generous branches of the blue spruce Maggie had decorated three weeks ago. Despite its age, the tree was in good shape, its branches still strong and supportive of the numerous ornaments they held. Maggie slowed her gaze as it traveled over the branches, remembering the genesis of almost every one of those ornaments. Despite her children's objections, every year she insisted on decorating the tree with trinkets they had made in elementary school, glitter and felt, construction paper and magic marker.

Her favorite ornament hung front and center, a picture frame made of Popsicle sticks still stained with grape and cherry and orange. The small square photo in the frame showed all four children, crushed together on the ugly green velvet couch they'd owned so many years ago. Charlie is a baby in the picture, and Melissa holds him carefully yet proudly. She is flanked by Billy and Dana, whose legs stick out at the camera. All four children sport identical smiles and matching Christmas sweaters that had taken Maggie almost eight months to knit.

Maggie remembered that Christmas, one of her favorites, one of the few that Bill had not missed. He had taken that photograph, and then she had taken one of him with the children, a photo that was now sitting on the dresser in her bedroom.

Maggie looked around the room warmly, luxuriating in each person sitting around the tree. Charlie was sprawled on the couch, making an intricately woven chain with scraps of wrapping paper. Bill and Tara each sat against an armchair, Tara writing out nametags for their packages and Bill collecting pieces of wrapping paper and discarded paper napkins in a shopping bag. Dana and Fox were leaning against the couch, Dana's legs and Fox's almost touching. But not quite, Maggie noted with a grin, remembering her daughter's embarrassment when Fox had kissed her beneath the mistletoe earlier that day.

All six of them were quiet, full and speculative. They had been eying each other's wrapped and half-wrapped gifts all night, trying to guess what each had bought the others. Maggie knew this Christmas was complicated, their first all together after Bill's and Missy's deaths, Charles home for the first time in so long, Dana with a sudden family.

Maggie herself had struggled for weeks trying to come up with a gift idea for each of them. Matthew and Liam were easy: toys, clothes, books, games. She had overbought for them, she knew, but she figured it was her prerogative as their grandmother. Besides, she thought with a sad realization, she was Liam's only grandparent; it was up to her to make sure that baby was aptly spoiled.

It had taken her until Sunday to finally decide and finish buying their gifts. Charles she had been done with for weeks. He had unknowingly inspired her when he said that he had found a yoga class he wanted to take at the University but couldn't because it, combined with his art class, was too expensive. So she'd contacted the University registrar and prepaid the class credits for him. A member of the accounting department had even made up a certificate for her, and it, wrapped up with a yoga mat, made for an interestingly shaped package.

Fox and Dana had been a challenge. Originally she had planned to buy them each something; after all, just because they were together, that didn't mean that they had a single interest, a single mind. But then she had puzzled over what to buy Fox ; she wasn't sure she knew him well enough to choose an apt gift.

And, surprisingly, she couldn't figure out what to get Dana, either. So she had relented and bought them a joint gift, a voucher for a weekend at a tiny bed and breakfast in Virginia. She remembered receiving a similar gift from Bill's parents the first Christmas after Billy was born, when she was feeling abandoned and rundown and frustrated. They had had to save the trip for Bill's next leave, but it had been worth the wait. Maggie felt a flush creep up her neck as she remembered the weekend they had spent in Vermont, the weekend they had conceived Melissa...

Maggie looked down, looked away, and picked a fuzz-dulled scrap of tape out of the carpet. Then there had been Bill and Tara. She had decided early what to get them. Each time they visited her, they raved about the fresh seafood that was available in Maryland. So Maggie had investigated a bit and found a seafood place that would ship cross-country, and she had ordered seafood to be delivered monthly to them in San Diego.

However, after their announcement of Bill's transfer, Maggie had reconsidered. When they all went to the mall on Sunday she and Matthew had gone to the same travel agency where she'd purchased the weekend voucher for Dana and Fox, and she had bought one for Bill and Tara. They could use it after they moved back East, she thought, to get away for a weekend either before or after the baby was born. And, in each of Tara and Bill's and Dana and Fox's gifts she had included a short note volunteering to babysit for the weekend. As long as both couples didn't choose the same weekend to use the vouchers.

Like that would happen, Maggie thought, stifling a laugh. She imagined each couple preparing for a weekend getaway, only to discover the other there. Bill's face would be overtaken by the scowl that, it seemed, had become omnipresent whenever Fox was in the vicinity. Dana would grow quiet, her countenance stern, and she would say nothing to Bill's face but later suggest to Fox that they return another weekend. Tara would laugh at the coincidence, try to make a joke to cover up everyone's obvious dissatisfaction.

And Fox... Maggie couldn't predict what Fox's reaction would be. But that was about par where her daughter's partner was concerned. Over the years she had known Fox, she had often felt displaced and confused in his presence, not knowing whether he was going to cuddle up next to her on the couch like an overgrown puppy, or retreat to the basement like an old hound who was grateful he hadn't been sent out to the doghouse.

Maggie glanced at Fox, who had rolled his foot over and was poking Dana's gently with his toes. Such a complicated man, she thought, and was filled with a strange new respect for her daughter when she thought of her and Fox together. Maggie had always known that Dana was special -- complicated, yes, and often difficult -- but at times so loving and passionate. For years she had wondered about her baby girl, wondered what kind of man she would choose to love, worrying that she wouldn't be able to find anyone up to the task that was Dana Scully.

And Fox Mulder was no picnic either, Maggie admitted. He was at least as complicated and difficult as Dana. But, in a strange way she couldn't explain and would never have predicted, they fit together. Maggie hoped that she wasn't the only one who could see this.

Glancing back at Bill, she had the feeling that she was not. Bill stared at his sister and Fox with a steady eye, his focus on the gentle play between their feet. She guessed that Bill also knew that Dana and Fox fit together, though his realization was not manifested in happiness or even tolerance, but in anger.

Maggie knew that Bill didn't approve of Fox Mulder. None of her children had ever had an easy time keeping a secret from her, despite distance and their best efforts. And Bill had never been shy about his feelings for Dana's partner, expressing them through thinly veiled worry when Dana was sick with cancer, then distracted frustration when Dana called Fox to join her in San Diego four Christmases ago.

The staticky record switched over to a new track. "Silent night, holy night," Julie Andrews sang innocently. "All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace."

Heavenly peace. Maggie sighed, wondering what that was. Certainly it was nothing the Scully family had had in a very long time, especially between Bill and Dana. Things there certainly hadn't improved since Dana had become pregnant. If anything, Maggie thought, they had worsened. Bill had visited Washington exactly once during Dana's pregnancy, having just enough time to stop by her apartment for dinner with his sister and mother.

Luckily, though, Maggie had intercepted him before he could lay into Dana with his condescending concerns and accusatorial advice. She and Bill had had words, and Maggie had tried to impress upon her son her happiness for Dana. Sure, she admitted that Dana's situation wasn't ideal, but Maggie knew that her daughter wanted this baby so badly, already loved him so thoroughly. She had thought, perhaps naively so, that she could make Bill understand this.

The timing was right; though he hadn't had dinner with them, Fox had returned. Bill could afford to be generous, Maggie had thought. At the time she had believed that she might have made a small inroad into Bill's anger; at least she had convinced him that Dana had enough going on that she needn't be bothered with her brother's disapproval.

But it wasn't long before Maggie realized that Bill hadn't changed his opinions of Dana's life choices, just sublimated them. That in itself was a minor miracle, as Bill was not known for his discretion. Months later, when she told him that Fox had moved in with Dana and the baby, Bill had been strangely quiet, filling his end of the conversation with mmm-hmms and yeses before handing Tara the phone.

Maggie sighed and glanced back over at Bill. He had shifted his gaze to Charlie, she noticed, and Bill was squinting at his brother, his head cocked to the side. Bill looked over at Dana, then back to Charlie. He opened his mouth, and Maggie braced herself.

"Charles?" Bill said.

Charles looked up from his wrapping paper chain. "Yeah?"

"Charles, is that... Do you have the same cross as Dana?" he asked.

Maggie noticed the gold chain around Charles's neck, then a necklace around Dana's, though, from this distance, she couldn't make out the charm on either.

"I don't know," Charlie said, holding the necklace away from his throat and turning to Dana. She did the same, revealing an identical gold cross. Suddenly Maggie recognized the crosses, and her heart sank as she anticipated Bill's reaction.

"Yeah," Charlie said as he leaned over the side of the couch to inspect his sister's necklace. "I guess so."

"That's a strange coincidence," Bill said evenly. "Don't you think?"

The room was quiet for a minute, and Charles and Dana glanced at each other uncertainly. Finally Charles spoke up. "It's not a coincidence, Bill," he said. "This was Melissa's necklace."

Bill's face grew tight and reddened slightly, though Maggie couldn't tell whether it was from embarrassment or anger. He glanced back and forth from Dana to Charles. "Melissa's?"

Dana nodded. "You remember, Bill," she said. "Mom gave Missy and me these necklaces for Christmas one year."

Bill nodded once. "And Melissa gave hers to you?" he asked Charles, who shook his head but said nothing.

Maggie stepped in. "I gave it to him," she admitted. "Dana and I went through Missy's things after she died. We each chose a few things to keep and a few to send to the two of you. I thought Charles might want Melissa's necklace."

Actually, Maggie remembered, she had sent Charles more than a few of Melissa's things. Maggie loved all of her children, but she recognized the special relationship between Melissa and Charles. She had sent Bill a small box of Melissa's things, mostly books and an album of childhood pictures. But to Charles she had sent several boxes containing jewelry and clothing, as well as crystals, dreamcatchers, and other such items Maggie and Dana had decided Charles would better appreciate.

Bill glanced over at her, and Maggie nearly withered from the intensity of his gaze. "Did you want her cross, Bill?" she asked, uncertain as to why Bill was so bothered; he had never gotten along well with Melissa.

Maggie blamed herself, mostly. She had always lumped them together, Billy and Missy, her near-twins. She had dressed them in coordinated outfits, hoping in some way to bring them together, trying to give them the closeness she had had with her own sisters.

Bill shook his head in response to her question. "No," he said. "I just didn't realize you'd given it to Charles."

Maggie nodded, hoping to settle the matter, hoping Bill wouldn't turn this into an issue, as he so often did. He read into things, and would certainly read something into this. She could almost hear him ask, What about me?

But Bill said nothing. Tara stroked his hand gently, and Maggie gripped the bag of wrapped stocking stuffers as she stood. "Well," she said with a sigh. "It's getting late and I'm not as young as the rest of you. So if you all will head into the family room, maybe Santa will stop by and fill your stockings."

"Oh, Mom," Charlie said, "we're not kids anymore. You can fill the stocking with us sitting here. We don't mind."

"Well, maybe I do," Maggie said, shooing Charlie towards the family room.

"Come on, Charlie," Dana said as she rose to her feet. "Let's get lost so 'Santa' can do *his* work." She smiled at Maggie before stooping to collect the dirty dishes on a tray. Tara and Mulder helped her, while Charles and Bill gathered the scraps of wrapping paper. They rescued the bottles of beer Charlie had retrieved from the refrigerator and the plate of cookies Tara had brought out.

"Good night," Maggie called behind them as she watched her family filter slowly out of the room. First she went to the tiny drawer on one of the end tables, unearthing the Baby Jesus, which she gently placed in the manger. Maggie smiled tenderly as she set the figurine between Mary and Joseph, filling the crèche, signaling Christmas.

Then she dragged her bag of presents over to the fireplace. She removed seven smaller sacks from the heavy garbage bag, and went about filling each of the stockings.

The needle of the record player lifted and dropped onto the last track. Maggie knew this, knew this final track from almost wearing it out over the past several Christmases. It made her cry -- it had always made her cry -- but especially so since Bill's death. Since the words to the song started to mean something to her.

"Greeting cards have all been sent," Karen Carpenter began, and already Maggie could feel the tears spring to her eyes. "The Christmas rush is through. But I still have one wish to make. A special one for you."

Maggie sang softly along with the poignant melody, her mellow tones blending easily with those issuing from the speakers of her battered old stereo.

"Merry Christmas, Darling. We're apart, that's true. But I can dream and in my dreams, I'm Christmasing with you. Holidays are joyful, There's always something new. But every day's a holiday, When I'm near to you. The lights on my tree, I wish you could see, I wish it every day. Logs on the fire Fill me with desire, To see you and to say, That I wish you Merry Christmas. Happy New Year, too. I've just one wish on this Christmas Eve. I wish I were with you."


BILL

"I still can't get over that earring, Charles," Bill said as they settled down in the family room. He stared at his brother's earlobe, forcing his attention away from that cross around his neck. Trust their mother to give Melissa's cross to Charles, he thought. Charles, who didn't even take Communion...

Charles smiled and fingered the small silver hoop in his left earlobe. "Thinking about getting one yourself, Billy?" he asked, then took a swig from the beer bottle he cradled between his knees.

No way in hell, Bill thought, but he just shook head and reached for the plate of Christmas cookies.

"Hey, you never saw my tattoo, either," Charlie said with a sly smile.

"Why am I not surprised that you have a tattoo?" Bill said flatly, chomping off the head of a gingerbread man.

"I thought all Navy men had tattoos. Isn't that some kind of initiation when you cross the Equator?" Charlie rolled the beer bottle between his flat palms, a teasing smile stretching over his face.

"No," Bill said. "It's not."

Tara smiled. "Come on, Bill. You know as well as I do that lots of Navy men have tattoos." She sipped from the mug of hot chocolate cradled gently in her hands.

Bill turned to her, a poorly faked scowl plastered on his face. "And just how do you know about other Navy men's tattoos?" he asked, and she just laughed.

"It's nothing insidious, Bill," Charles insisted, setting down his beer.

"You don't need to show us, Charles," Bill said, holding out his hand to stop his brother.

But Charles's pant leg was already rolled up to his calf, and he tugged off his sock to bear his ankle. Then he stuck out his foot, revealing a small circle filled with brightly colored shapes.

"What is it, Charles?" Dana asked as they all leaned in.

"It's a Charles Scully original," he said proudly. "I designed it myself."

"An earring. A tattoo," Bill lamented. "What would Dad say, Charles?" He shook his head. Sometimes he just didn't know about his brother. "Can you believe this, Dana?"

Bill turned to face his sister just in time to see her exchange a glance with Mulder. Dana's mouth was upturned in a knowing smile, and Mulder was biting the edge of his lip, trying not to grin back at her, trying not to draw the rest of the family's attention to them.

"What is it?" Bill asked, and they turned to face him like children caught snooping for their Christmas presents.

"Nothing," Dana said, unable to disguise her grin. She took a swig from her beer and tried to look innocent.

"What?" he demanded.

"Dana?" Charlie asked with a wicked grin. "Don't tell me...?"

"Dana! *You* have a tattoo?" Tara asked, eyes wide.

Bill narrowed his eyes, waiting for his sister to correct them, to say that, no, it was Mulder who had the tattoo. Probably an alien cult symbol or something. Bill wouldn't be surprised.

But Dana said nothing, just looked at Mulder, and then her face crinkled into a reluctant smile. She brought her hand up to the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes, then nodded.

"Awwright!" Charles said. "My sister, the rebel. Where is it?"

But Dana only shook his head, and Mulder rubbed her back sympathetically, affectionately.

"Come on, Dane," Charles said. "Let's see."

"Yeah, Dana," Tara urged, and Bill turned to look at her with disgust. He really had no interest in seeing Dana's tattoo, didn't even want to know where it was. It was bad enough to know that she had one, and to know that Mister Special Agent had seen it. Of course he's seen it, Bill reminded himself, taking a long pull from his beer. Idiot, he thought, and didn't know whether he meant Mulder or himself.

"Unless it's somewhere you'd rather not show us," Tara said quickly.

Dana shook her head. "No, it's okay," she said with a roll of her eyes and a shy half-smile. She glanced again at Mulder, who was still grinning. Not grinning, Bill corrected, leering.

"Fine," she said finally, standing.

Bill didn't want to look, didn't want to know. But Tara and Charles were watching Dana with wide eyes as she handed her beer to Mulder, then stood, turned her back to them, and pulled her shirt from the waistband of her sweatpants. She lifted it, baring her lower back.

Just above her waistband, which was rolled low on her hips, in the small of her back, was a faded, multicolored circle. Upon closer inspection, Bill saw that the circle was really a snake, a snake with the tip of its tail in its mouth.

"It's awfully light," Charles said, scooting off the couch to get a closer look. He knelt behind his sister and examined the circle on her back. "Are you getting it removed?"

"I was," she admitted, "before I got pregnant."

"Wow, Dana," Tara marveled, and Bill couldn't help feeling a little annoyed with his wife's girl-like fascination towards his sister's tattoo. It was just a tattoo, for God's sake, some ink on her skin. He knew a dozen men with them. What was the big deal?

"But what does it mean?" Tara asked.

"It's an ouroboros," Dana said.

"Greek for tail biter," Mulder explained upon the confused looks on their faces. He took a long drink from Dana's beer bottle.

"It's an old alchemists' symbol," Dana continued, "a symbol of death and rebirth. The snake has no beginning and no end, just endlessly devours and renews itself."

Tara and Charles nodded, as if they understood Dana's cryptic response, which, to Bill, explained nothing. What was that supposed to mean, a snake that eats its own tail? Seemed awfully self-destructive to Bill, some kind of strange masochistic torture.

"I'm gonna go upstairs and check on Matthew," Bill said, rising from the couch just as Dana dropped her shirt over her tattoo and sat back down. He spun on his heel and headed out of the room before anyone could say a word.

Bill knew that Matthew didn't need checking on, but he had to get out of there. It was him against the family, and Bill couldn't figure out when that had happened. When had he become the villain, the outsider?

Taking the stairs two at a time, he remembered back to when his father had been at the helm of the family, keeping them all sailing straight. Bill couldn't figure out how his father had done it, how he had kept the family on a proper course *and* maintained their respect.

Several years ago, when Bill finished up at the Naval Academy, Captain Scully had sat his son down. First he told the young man how proud he was of him, how excited he was about his son's sterling future. Then his tone turned sad, and William Scully, Senior, told his son that one day he would be called upon to take care of the family. Of course, he said to Billy, it wouldn't be anytime soon; he didn't need to worry about that. But someday, his father assured him, someday it would be his turn. His responsibility.

Despite his years of substitute-fathering his siblings, young Bill Scully hadn't understood the weight of it all until his father died, just a few short years later, of an unexpected heart attack. Suddenly the burden of the Scully clan was his for good and forever, and Bill Scully's worries and fears multiplied overnight.

There was Melissa, who hadn't even showed up for her own father's funeral; Melissa, who had been missing from the family for the past several years after what seemed to Bill to be a petty disagreement with their father.

There was also Dana, who had forsaken medicine, a sensible career she had trained for for years, to join the FBI, to hunt little green men with some crackpot who believed that aliens had kidnapped his sister.

And then there was Charles: Charles, who had never fit into his father's rigid worldviews; Charles, who had rebelled from the life of a Navy man ever since he was old enough to wave good-bye as his father's ship left port.

Bill was confused, feeling as though he had lost his anchor. How could he manage this ragtag clan?

First he made some decisions in his own life. He and Tara had been dating at the time, and he soon proposed to her, certain that she was the woman he wanted at his side for the rest of his life. He saw Dana, Melissa, and Charles at his wedding but then not again for months, maybe years. Despite this, Bill's life was on track, his career and his marriage both thriving.

But his relationship with his siblings was withering. The next time he saw Melissa was at her funeral, where he thought the weight of his guilt would push him into the grave along with her. He had failed his family, failed his father. He hadn't taken care of them as he'd promised: Melissa was dead; Dana was cavorting around the country, trailing slime men and other crazies; and Charles was MIA.

Bill skipped the creaky top stair and paused at the guest bedroom where he, Tara, and Matthew were staying. He pushed the door open softly, not wanting to wake his sleeping son. He walked carefully over to Matthew's cot, pausing to gather the sheet and quilt scattered on the floor. Gently he recovered Matthew, laying his stuffed shark next to him. Matthew promptly pulled the shark into a death grip under his arm.

Bill smiled, pressed a soft kiss on the top of his son's head, and left the bedroom. He headed toward the stairs, but paused when he passed the door to the study, the room Dana, Mulder, and Liam had taken over from Charles for the night.

Again Bill paused at the closed door, this time trying to decide whether or not to enter. Finally he pushed the door open. The room smelled faintly, a combination of peppermint; a light, citrus-scented lotion; and aftershave... the same brand of aftershave that Bill himself used.

The room had been designed to be a bedroom and, as such, a closet sat to Bill's left. The closet door was open, and four pairs of shoes were lined in a neat row on the floor: men's dress shoes and running shoes, a small pair of women's black leather boots, and a pair of high heels. A suit and dress hung there together, their sleeves intertwined.

Along the wall were a desk and several tall bookshelves. The room was half- filled by the couch that had been converted into a neatly made bed. There was an end table next to the couch-bed, and Bill paused to consider the contents of its half-opened drawer: a glasses case, a plastic tub of lotion, a flashlight.

Bill turned away and stepped lightly over to the crib that was set up against the far wall. It was old, and he recognized it from his childhood. It was where Dana and Charlie had slept, he remembered, and probably where he and Missy had slept as well, though he couldn't recall that far back. He leaned over the crib to see his nephew sleeping soundly. Liam was lying on his stomach, his knees tucked beneath him and his rear end in the air.

Bill smiled. As a baby and toddler, Matthew had slept in that same position. No matter how they laid him down, once he got old enough to turn himself over he would end up in that position, his face smashed into the mattress or against his stuffed shark.

Liam's red-gold hair shone in the wedge of light from the hallway. His tiny fingers were curled into fists next to his ears, clutching the white crib sheets. Carefully, not wanting to wake him, Bill laid his hand on the baby's back, feeling the soft, soft cotton of his Christmas print pajamas, and the rise and fall of his back as he breathed. Bill choked back a cough and tore his hand away.

Matthew was almost four, and Bill had almost forgotten how tiny babies were, how utterly helpless and hopeful. How new. Liam was already seven months old, but still... His skin was so pale, untouched by the sun, with a smattering of freckles, like Dana's.

Dana. Bill thought back to the scene downstairs, to the fading circle of a snake on his sister's back; to Mulder's shrug when Dana turned to him, uncertain and questioning; to Mulder's gentle rub of Dana's back and his sip from her beer.

The thought struck Bill suddenly and for the first time that maybe he didn't really know his sister after all. For years he had slept in the same house as her, just one wall separating them, but now it seemed that there was so much more between them than the miles from San Diego to Washington, miles that in a few short months would shrink drastically when he was transferred to Norfolk.

Bill loved her. Of course he loved her; she was his sister. But, standing there watching his nephew sleep, Bill wondered how he loved her. He was bound to her through their shared past as well as their shared genes and their shared mother.

But everything else between them had somehow vanished, disintegrated. His love felt hollow and inadequate: he loved her for being his sister, but could he love her for being Dana; for, he thought cautiously, being Scully?

Certainly not, Bill realized. He barely knew Dana, and wondered if he had ever even met Scully. It saddened him, but, before his shame could squelch the feeling, it also angered him. His sister had been sucked into this crazy life by that sorry son of a bitch. The birth of this baby had all but guaranteed that. Bill was certain that Dana would not be able to fight past Mulder and emerge out the other end. And he knew that she would not let her brother save her.

Just then Bill heard a creak on the floor behind him and spun around. Standing there was Mulder, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans. Embarrassed, Bill felt a scowl overtake his face; he couldn't help it.

Mulder nodded at the baby monitor sitting on the nightstand, and for the first time Bill noticed that the green indicator light was shining brightly. "We heard something. We thought it was Liam," Mulder explained.

Bill shook his head. "He's fine," he mumbled before pushing past Mulder and into the hall.


Dana

Scully settled into bed not long after. She watched as Mulder checked on Liam, who was still sleeping soundly, peacefully, then slipped into bed beside her. She scooted against him, needing to feel him close to her. The distance of the day had gotten to her, Mulder's leaving that afternoon and Bill's reaction, Bill's disappearance upstairs after she showed them her tattoo.

Not that the decision to show them had been made lightly. She had regretted it almost as soon as she had admitted its existence, then again as she stood and turned around, her back to them. But somehow it had felt necessary.

This is all of me, she thought as Charles peered curiously at her tattoo and Bill tried to pretend he wasn't doing the same. Her brothers knew so many things about her past, about her successes and her mistakes. But they knew so little about her life now. This is another part of me, she thought as she lifted the hem of her shirt. This is me.

It was, she realized now, a test. The same sort of test she and Mulder had been springing on each other, though less and less frequently, ever since he had moved in. This is me, she thought as she woke up beside him, bleary-eyed and sleep-crusted; as she scrubbed the dishes clean before loading them in the dishwasher; as she slowly undid the buttons of her sweater, unhooked her bra.

You knew part of me, but this is all of me. Are you still there? Can you still love me?

Mulder pulled her to him, fitting his arms around her and slipping his knees around hers. She settled her body into his, and they kissed softly, Mulder fingering her hair, until Scully pulled away, sensing that something was not right with Mulder.

"Are you okay?"

Mulder nodded. "Just thinking," he said.

"About what?"

"About your brother, actually."

Scully molded her face into a look of annoyance. "You think about my brother when you kiss me?"

He smiled. "Sorry," he said, "but he's just so damn irresistible."

Scully laughed. "Bill?" she asked, and Mulder nodded. "What about him?"

Mulder shrugged, then reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. "When I came up to check on Liam, after we heard noises on the baby monitor, Bill was up here. I'm sure you all heard it through the monitor." Scully nodded. "He was just standing there, watching Liam sleep."

Again, Scully nodded, this time slowly and almost painfully, and closed her eyes. Once more Mulder reached out to touch her, this time sliding his hand gently over her cheek. She opened her eyes.

"Two days," she said softly. "It's been two days, Mulder, and he hasn't as much as touched Liam."

"I know." Mulder pulled her body against his, holding her. "And I can't help feeling that I'm responsible for that," he said softly.

"You?"

"Mmm hmm," he said. "Bill doesn't hate you; he hates me. I'm the reason he's doing his best to ignore Liam's existence. Maybe I should've gone home instead of sleeping here tonight. Maybe it would've been easier for Bill to accept if it were just--"

Scully stopped him with a quick hand on his chest. "Stop right there," she said, tipping his head down to meet her gaze. "There is no choice between you and my brother. None." He nodded against her finger.

"You being in my life only adds fuel to Bill's fire; he was this way long before he ever met you." Mulder nodded again, and this time Scully was convinced. She trailed her hand off his chin and down his neck, bringing it to rest at his waist.

"I keep telling myself that in three days he'll be flying back to California, and we'll be back at home," Mulder said with a sigh. "Just three days."

"But that won't be the end of it," Scully insisted, pulling away so that she could look Mulder straight in the eye. "In a few months he'll be back on the East coast. What then?"

"I don't know," Mulder admitted. "But Norfolk is a three-hour drive from DC. It isn't like he'll be just around the corner. I doubt we'll start up a weekly card game and get together for a beer after work on Friday nights."

Scully smiled, the image of her brother and Mulder socializing, on purpose, was simply unfathomable to her. "Still, I'm sure we'll see him more often. I know Mom'll be overjoyed that two of us are so close by. I wouldn't be surprised if she set up a monthly Sunday dinner and expected us to join her."

Through their legs, which were still entwined, Scully could feel Mulder stiffen. "Oh," he said.

"Yeah," she said. "This is fine once or twice a year; I don't always like it, but I can deal with it. But I don't think I can do this every month. And I certainly won't subject Liam--"

"I understand," Mulder said. "And I can't believe I'm about to say this, but Bill *is* Liam's uncle. He's your family. Maybe he'll come around; maybe he won't. But I don't know if it would be worse to stay away and never let Liam get to know his uncle -- or his aunt and cousins -- or to let him know Bill and possibly be hurt by him."

Possibly? Scully wanted to ask, but said only, "It's unrealistic, I know. And I don't expect him to embrace us with open arms, but I wanted... I guess I wanted him not to hate you simply because I love you. I wanted him to love you as much as I do."

"Now that would be more than a little odd," Mulder said, and Scully smiled. Mulder grinned back at her. Mission accomplished, she thought.

"Seriously, Scully, I don't know what to say about Bill," he admitted. "I barely know the guy. But," he said, "I don't think there's anything we can do about it."

Scully nodded. "I know," she said. "I do know that. It's his problem if he wants to act like an ass; I'm used to it," she said, "and I think you're getting used to it, too." He nodded. "But how is Liam going to understand that his uncle doesn't love him?"

This time Mulder had no response, but Scully hadn't expected one. She simply allowed him to wind his arms around her and gently rub up and down her arm. There was nothing he could do about it, she thought, and nothing she could do about it. This time it was all up to Bill.


The clock read 2:14 when Scully awoke later that night. She turned in bed, clutching the too-small quilt over her chest. But the blanket caught on something, and, after slipping out from under Mulder's heavy arm, she propped herself up in bed, frustrated at, once again, having to steal back the covers from him.

But when she was upright Scully saw that Mulder was covered little more than she was. She reached down around their feet, fishing for the sheet, then covered them with it, but it wasn't enough.

Sighing, Scully got out of bed and grabbed her robe from where it hung on the corner of the crib. After a quick check to make sure that Liam was adequately covered and still sleeping, she padded over to the bedroom door. She opened it carefully, glancing back to the bed to make sure Mulder was still asleep, then slipped into the hall and down the stairs.

Scully noticed a light on in the kitchen as she made her way slowly, sleepily, downstairs. Suddenly her heart was pounding in her chest, and she was instantly awake, one-hundred percent awake.

Careful to stay in the darkness, she crept through the living room and towards the kitchen, towards the light. She felt suddenly naked, the small of her back empty without her Sig Sauer. Her eyes darted around the room in search of a weapon... until she heard it.

"Damn," the voice said. Then again, "Damn," this time accompanied by pounding footsteps and a sort of bouncy plastic sound.

"Charles," Scully said, finally stepping into the light of the kitchen.

He turned suddenly, his eyes wide with fear as he faced the intruder. Then, recognizing her, he visibly relaxed, his shoulders slumping and his head falling back and to the side. He closed his eyes and sighed. "Sorry, Dana. I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't wake me," she said, leaning back against the counter. "I was coming downstairs to get a blanket from the linen closet."

Scully surveyed the room as if it were a crime scene, from the empty plastic cup lying beneath one of the chairs that were scattered around the table; to the tabletop, which was littered with pads of drawing paper, half-chewed pencils, and a box of multicolored bits of charcoal; to the stack of books piled on the chair next to Charles.

"I guess you're wondering what I'm doing down here, huh?" he asked, finally opening his eyes, revealing a sadness so deep it frightened her. She gripped the edge of the counter with her fingertips, then nodded.

"I don't know, Dane," he said, sinking into a chair. He swiped his hand across the table, sending a box of pencils clattering to the floor. Several rolled out of the box and disappeared under the refrigerator, and sheets of paper floated slowly to the floor. Scully pulled a chair up next to her brother and sat down.

"I don't know what I'm doing. I couldn't sleep so I came downstairs to get some tea." He gestured to the teapot on the stove and the mug on the counter next to it. "But I... I couldn't find where Mom keeps the teabags, so I just ended up boiling water. And then I saw how beautiful it looks outside, with the snow and ice on the tree branches..."

He gazed longingly out the window, then slipped his fists under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Scully looked, too, but could only see her own reflection staring back at her, her disheveled hair shining and her skin glowing white against the dark face of the glass. She looked back at Charles.

"But nothing was right," he said softly, pausing to sweep another stack of papers on the floor. "Goddamn nothing was right." He slammed his fist onto the table, his thumb poking out of a hole worn through the cuff of his shirt.

"Charles," Scully began.

"Don't," he said. "I know what you're gonna say: Calm down, Charles. Don't get all worked up, Charles. Go back to bed and it'll look better in the morning, Charles." He narrowed his eyes at her, challenging her.

"That's not what I was going to say," Scully told him. In fact, she didn't know what she was going to say, so she just sat there, silent. Charles dropped his head onto his hands, then ran his fingers through his hair.

Scully stood and went into the cabinets, then pulled out two teabags from a Tupperware container. She took another mug from the cupboard and dropped a teabag into each one. She poured a stream of steaming water into each cup, then grabbed two spoons from the drawer and sat back in her chair, setting the mugs on the table in front of herself and her brother.

"Thanks," Charlie said, then wound the string of the teabag around his finger and dipped it, up and down, into the hot water.

"I'm beginning to think," Charles said, then paused. "I'm beginning to think that it was a mistake to come."

"No, Charlie."

"I think it was," he said. "Bill doesn't want me here. He--"

"He does," Scully insisted. "You know how he can get. He's just so stubborn. It's like we're all kids again, like we're playing a game and he's the only one with the rules. You know how he gets, Charlie."

"Still..."

"Still," Scully insisted. "Mom and I--"

"I know you and Mom want me here, Dana. I know that," he told her. "But maybe it's better when we're all in our separate corners of the country: me in Seattle, Bill in San Diego, you and Mom here in DC."

Scully shook her head. "Charlie, don't say that," she said, not letting herself think about Bill moving back East. "Forget about Bill; you have two nephews who don't know you. Look at Matthew," she urged. "He's almost four years old and you're meeting him for the first time."

They sat there in silence, sipping their tea, the steam rising and flushing their pale faces. Suddenly Charlie looked up, his gaze intense and his pupils large and dark in the dimly lit kitchen.

"Liam's beautiful, Dane," he said. "And I can tell that you're a good mother, and you've got Mulder now, and you and Mom are both living your lives..."

"But," Scully supplied.

But Charlie didn't continue. "I just can't get over her," he said finally.

"Her?"

"Melissa," he said, exhaling, as if he were letting her out, turning her free to race about the kitchen. Scully reached over and laid her hand on her brother's. His was large and its bones prominent, and she felt strangely inadequate to comfort him.

"She was the only one who ever understood," Charles continued. "Why I didn't get along with Dad, why I needed to go away... I know you and Mom try, Dana, but--"

You're wrong, Charles, Scully thought. She wasn't the only one who understood the chasm between you and Dad. For a long time that had been true, but not anymore. Scully, too, had come to know both sides of their father, the loving warmth when you had pleased him, and the cool, almost indifferent, separateness of having disappointed him. I understand, too, Scully thought, though I can't fathom how it had been for you, growing up on the wrong side of the Captain Scully.

But all Scully said was, "Missy understood. I know. Sometimes she knew things even before I told her. She had this connection."

Charles nodded. "A nexus," he agreed, his hand reaching out to touch the hollow of Scully's clavicle, and he fingered the tiny cross necklace that lay there, warm from her skin. She smiled, watching as Charles's inherited cross flickered in the light of the kitchen.

"And I'm mostly okay when I'm at home in my Apartment, going to work during the day and painting at night," he told her, pulling his hand back from her necklace. "But then, seeing all of you again and not seeing her... It's the first time we've all been together without her."

"I know," Scully said, looking again at her reflection in the window. If she unfocused her eyes she could pretend that it was Melissa sitting there at the kitchen table with Charles instead of her: Melissa whose red hair was disheveled and whose skin bore shadowy wells under her eyes from nights awake with a baby; Melissa who was living a life she had not very long ago considered a dream, instead of lying eight feet under the ground because of a gunman who'd mistaken her for her sister.

"Sometimes when I look in the mirror I can see her," he admitted in a strangled voice. "Her eyes look back at me instead of mine." Charles coughed, then took a sip of tea. "Those are the good days."

A shiver went down Scully's spine. She hadn't had any visions of Melissa since her death, though she had had several dreams of her, and, of course, had had those strange phone calls four Christmases ago in San Diego, leading her to Emily.

But Scully knew what Charles meant; she had had visions of their father after his death. The first was the most terrifying, awaking on the couch to see him sitting across the room and speaking to her without sound, before she even knew he was dead. But there were others, months, even years, later. He haunted her still. Scully decided to change the subject.

"Charlie, to tell you the truth, Bill and I aren't on the best terms, either," Scully said. "So I can't speak for him. But I do know that Mom and I are glad you're here. We miss you."

Charles looked up at his sister. "Bill's mad at you, too?" he asked, his eyes wide and almost hopeful.

Scully nodded. "He doesn't approve," she said.

"Approve?"

"Surely you've noticed," she choked out. "He's like Dad; he didn't agree with my decision to leave medicine for the FBI. When I was sick--" Scully stopped when her brother's hand covered hers.

"Dane, I'm so sorry about that," he said, locking his gaze with hers. "I wish I could've been here then. Mom called me and told me. But it was just too much. I couldn't-- I couldn't do it. Especially not with Bill there."

"I know," Scully said. "It's okay. I probably wouldn't have been very welcoming, anyway," she admitted. "I was angry with Bill for coming, for interfering. And he got all pissy when I decided to try a controversial treatment that he didn't agree with."

"But it worked?" Charles asked. "It worked, right? You're okay?"

Scully nodded. "My cancer's in remission. The treatment seems to have done the trick. And," she added, dropping her voice, "my pregnancy didn't affect it."

"Your pregnancy?" Charles asked. "What do you mean?"

Scully looked away, choosing her words carefully. "It's not always... recommended for cancer patients to get pregnant," she admitted. "Even if they're in remission. It's the changing hormone levels. Sometimes, if there are a few rogue cancer cells still lurking somewhere, a shift in hormone levels can trigger tumor growth. The risk wasn't as great for my type of cancer as it is for, say, breast cancer, but it can happen."

"And you knew that? Before?"

Scully nodded. "My doctor said it looked good," she said. She didn't want to go into detail about the controversial treatment Bill had disapproved of, but she was certain it was the chip in her neck that had cured her. And she had felt secure enough that the chip had completely rid her body of cancer, and that it would keep any further tumor growth at bay.

"The risk was worth taking," she said aloud, remembering Liam asleep peacefully in the crib upstairs.

"See," Charlie said, hanging his head. "That's what I mean. You're so brave, so strong. So much has happened -- and for you Melissa's the least of it -- but you keep going. You've got this life," he paused, and it dawned on Scully that she did have 'this life,' the life -- or some strange semblance of the life -- that she had been pining for when chance conspired to reunite her with Daniel Waterston a year and a half ago.

"I envy you, Dana," Charlie admitted. "I just wish..." He stopped and swiped his hand over his eyes, drying the tears that had spilled onto his cheeks with his shirt cuff. "I just wish I didn't have to feel it all so much, that it would all go away and I could live like a goddamn normal person."

"Charlie," Scully said with a sigh, and her brother leaned out of his chair and over to her. She put her arms around him and held him, patted his head. She felt almost as though she were comforting her crying son, but Charles shifted against her, bent his body to lean his head on her shoulder, and she was reminded that her brother was no baby.


Tuesday, December 25, 2001

"Two amazing secret agents. One diabolical madman. Conditions are dark. The forecast is deadly. Tea, anyone?" - The Avengers

"The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved -- loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves." - Victor Hugo


Dana

Scully awoke the next morning to a high-pitched scream and the creaking of the bedroom door as it swung open. She shot up in bed, her heart pounding through her chest. She cleared the contents of the bedstand as she reflexively reached for her gun.

Then she realized that she was at her mother's house, and that her gun was locked away in the drawer at home... and that their intruder was wearing footsie pajamas.

"Merry Christmas! Time for presents," Matthew shrieked, sliding on the polished wooden floor of the bedroom. He bounded across the darkened room, standing on his tiptoes to peer into Liam's crib. "Wake up, baby, it's Christmas!" He fit a finger through the slats of the crib, straining to touch his cousin.

Scully smiled, reaching up to run her hand through her sleep-tousled hair. She rubbed her hand over her neck, then massaged her shoulders, which had grown stiff from sleeping on the converted couch. She chuckled half-heartedly, remembering how, not long ago, she had slept more often on a hard motel mattress than in her own bed. She was getting spoiled, she thought as she became aware of the warmth radiating from Mulder's sleeping form.

"Knock first, Matthew." Tara's voice came from the hallway, stern in its warning but late in coming.

"It's okay," Scully called back, feeling Mulder stir in bed beside her.

Tara appeared at the door, framed by a shaft of light from the hallway lamp and an apologetic smile on her face. "Sorry about that," she said.

"It's okay," Scully repeated, but Tara just shook her head.

"Matthew, get over here," she said, and her son slinked away from the crib to stand at her side. "Now, I told you not to bother them. I know you're excited," she said in a softer tone, "but your Christmas presents aren't going anywhere."

She hefted Matthew into her arms with a loud "oomph," and the little boy giggled. "You're getting too heavy for Mommy to lift, Matty," she said, stepping into the hallway. "I'm so sorry, Dana," she apologized again.

"Really," Scully assured her, "it's okay." She nodded over to Mulder. "He's still sleeping anyway."

"Did he wake the baby?" Tara asked, letting go of her wriggling son, who dropped from her arms and scampered down the hallway.

Scully slid out from under the covers, shivering in the cool air. She grabbed her robe, pulled it over her shoulders, and stepped softly over to the crib. Liam stared up at her, his blue eyes open and alert. He smiled as she reached down and lifted him out of the crib.

"Merry Christmas, sweetie," she said to him, then turned to her sister-in-law. "It's okay, Tara. It's--" she paused to check the alarm clock still glowing brightly beside their bed. "It's already 6:19," she said with a smile, remembering the ungodly hours at which she and her siblings had woken their parents on Christmas mornings past. "He let us sleep in."

Tara shook her head. "Matthew!" she called into the hallway. "Don't wake your grandma." She shrugged at her sister-in-law, then took off into the hallway, shutting the door softly behind her.

"Gramma's already 'wake," came Matthew's voice from down the hall as the door closed.

Scully tugged Liam's diaper bag off the desk that was crammed near the foot of the fold-out bed. She pushed the covers from her half of the bed, then spread a changing mat on the mattress before setting Liam down. He gurgled happily, then called out, "Da da da," and grabbed for her hair as she leaned over him.

"Okay, kiddo," she whispered conspiratorially as she unsnapped his pajamas. "When I'm done changing you, you can wake him up." He smiled up at her, finally catching a strand of her hair in his fist.

She pried it out of his fingers, then snuck his dirty diaper from beneath him, wiped him quickly, and slipped on a clean diaper. She held him down with one hand on his bare belly while she folded the dirty diaper and dropped it into a plastic baggie.

"Go to it, sweetie," she said as she snapped up his pajamas. Scully set him onto the bed next to Mulder's face, which was half-covered with the blanket. Liam laughed, then reached out for his father's nose.

"Da da da," he called out, pulling back the covers before gently batting at Mulder's face. Scully watched as Mulder pried one eye open, then reached out for Liam, catching the baby's foot.

"Hey, you," he said as Liam tried to wiggle free. But Mulder scooped him against his chest and sat up, then kissed the top of the baby's head before smoothing down the red-gold fuzz on his head. "Merry Christmas," he said to her, running a hand through his own spiky hair.

She smiled at him. "Merry Christmas, Mulder."

Holding Liam against his bare chest, Mulder stood, then stretched one arm, then the other, in the air, before lifting Liam high up. The baby squealed gleefully, kicking his legs when Mulder held him aloft.

Scully smiled as she watched them, then leaned over to take Liam while Mulder got dressed. She watched Liam as Mulder changed, thinking that, no matter what was under the tree with her name on it, she had already gotten her Christmas present, seven months early. Then, she thought, gazing at Mulder as he hunted through their luggage for his jeans, she had gotten another present, one that was perhaps even more unexpected. She smiled, then looked back down at Liam.

He was a gift, every day a gift. She couldn't allow herself to forget neither the horrors they had seen nor the ones they had imagined for the future. But, here in her mother's house, Scully felt safe and warm and full of holiday cheer, despite Bill's disapproval, despite Charlie's struggles, even despite her worries about Liam.

She couldn't deny that she was concerned for her son. Ever since his birth she had been worried, waiting to see if -- when -- he would show a sign that something was not normal, was not right. Her fears were there, every day, from the moment she woke him in the morning to the moment when she set him down at night. Would this be the day things would change?

She knew this attitude was not healthy, but she couldn't help it. She had had a particularly difficult time the previous month, at Liam's six-month well-baby check-up, when his pediatrician announced that he was ahead of all of the six- month milestones. Scully had frozen cold, her stomach dropping to her toes.

"What?" she'd asked, feeling the blood drain from her face.

"He's doing great, Dana," the pediatrician had said with a smile. "Well ahead of where he should be. He's a very happy baby."

Scully nodded, trying to regain her composure, but the doctor sensed her unease. "Dana? You okay? Most parents are glad - overjoyed -- to hear their baby is so advanced."

"I'm sorry," Scully said as the pediatrician handed Liam over to her and Scully began dressing him. "I am glad," she said unconvincingly. "I'm just... he's okay, right? Nothing wrong, nothing... unusual?"

"No," the doctor said, patting her shoulder. "He's fine, Dana. Perfectly normal and happy. You have nothing to worry about."

Still, she'd called Mulder from her cell phone as soon as she stepped out of the doctor's office building. Skinner had called him in to consult on a case, something that looked promising but had ended up not panning out, so he hadn't been able to get away for the appointment.

She'd heard the panic in her own voice as she told him what the doctor had said. He had been glad, unworried, but he didn't miss her fear. So, instead of heading over to her mother's, as she had planned, she met Mulder in the lobby of the Hoover Building and together they went for some coffee and a few minutes alone.

He had surprised her with his calm, and reiterated the pediatrician's message, that Liam was perfectly healthy. Normal. He had reminded her of the genetic testing they'd done on him after his birth, how that hadn't shown anything unusual. And, eventually, he had calmed her.

Every day she was in awe at how beautiful Liam was, how smart and healthy and loving. And how happy. She was perhaps most proud of this last one... heaven knows she herself had had the most difficulty with this one, not to mention Mulder's struggles.

Mulder buttoned the last button of his shirt, then reached over for Liam. She handed him the baby, then turned towards the door.

"Scully, wait," Mulder said as she reached for the doorknob. "Don't go downstairs yet..." He sat down on the bed, arranging Liam on his lap. "Come here."

She let go of the doorknob and sat beside him on the bed. "What?"

He exhaled a short puff of air and concentrated on a point somewhere above her head, near the door. He was nervous, Scully realized. "What is it, Mulder?"

"Your gift from me isn't under the tree," he said finally, looking down at her. "I thought for a long time about what to get you." He glanced down at Liam. "So much has happened this past year," he said. "These past two years, really."

Scully nodded, thinking back to the New Year's kiss that had started everything, had finally jumpstarted a relationship that had been lying, dormant and hopeful, for over six years.

"For a while I thought... maybe an engagement ring." He looked up at her, testing the waters, but she held her expression, feeling as though her face was burning with the strain of maintaining control.

"I had this fantasy," he said. "Of me proposing and you accepting and us going downstairs and telling your family we were legit. Your mother would be overjoyed, of course, and Bill would stop sulking." He paused. "Well, maybe."

Scully allowed herself a smile.

"But then, I don't know," he said. "I don't think we need an engagement ring to be legit.

"I just don't want to do anything to ruin this," he said, and she studied his eyes, surprised at the depth of feeling she saw there. Mulder's emotions had always run strong, whether frustration, anger, or joy, but until recently all of had them seemed to have been focused on their work. Even when his concern was directed at her, it had been as a manifestation of their work, on Dana Scully, Partner, never on just plain Dana Scully.

"This is it for me, Scully," he said, again looking down at Liam, who was now sucking intently on the hem of his father's t-shirt. His gums were bothering him, Scully thought absently. "This is forever. I don't need to be engaged to know that."

"I know," she said softly, running a hand over Liam's silky hair. "It seems almost... unnecessary."

He nodded, his eyes betraying his relief at her agreement. "But I wanted to give you something to let you know that I'm not going anywhere, that this is it for me," he repeated. "You are it."

"For me, too," she said, reaching over to touch his knee. "It's been eight years. I know you're not going anywhere, Mulder. I know that." But she could see the worry in his eyes. "What?"

"I just need to make sure," he said. "After last year--"

"That wasn't your fault," she insisted. "You didn't choose to leave. I know that, Mulder."

He nodded. "I guess I just needed to know that you knew," he admitted. "I needed to tell you."

She nodded. "I know."

"So," he said and took her hand. Mulder held it open and leaned down to press a gentle kiss on her palm. He balanced Liam against his chest for long enough to pull a small velvet box from his jeans pocket. He dropped it into her palm.

Scully looked up at him, a half-smile on her lips, feeling the dense weight of the box on her hand. After that intro, she had been expecting, well, maybe not Superstars of the Super Bowl Part II, but definitely something along those lines.

He smiled back, then glanced away almost shyly. "Open it," he said, then lifted Liam up, standing the baby on his thighs. Liam bent his knees, squatting and jumping enthusiastically.

Scully cracked open the lid of the box. It was a ring.

The band was gold and thick, with a dark, deeply set ruby. On either side of the stone, also embedded in the band, were two square diamonds.

"It was my mother's," Mulder explained. "It had been in her family for years. I think her great-great-great-grandfather brought it from Russia for his wife," he said. "Or something like that." He smiled.

"Samantha always loved it. Mom wore it when she and Dad went out someplace dressy, and Samantha used to lie on their bed and watch Mom get dressed. When Mom put the ring on, Samantha would ask if she could wear it. Mom would let her try it on, and Samantha never wanted to take it off. Mom would tell her that, one day, it would be hers and she could wear it whenever she wanted."

A glimmer of engraving on the inside of the band caught Scully's eye and she removed the ring from its velvet perch. She tilted it until she could see the carvings, which she recognized as Hebrew but could not understand.

"What does it say?"

"Beloved," he said softly, his eyes locked into hers.

"Mom left it for me," he continued. "I didn't think... I never thought I'd have- -"

"Mulder--"

"I had it sized down," he told her. "I--"

"How did you know my ring size?" she asked. *She* didn't even know her ring size.

A wicked glint lit his eye. "I have my ways," he said, and she wondered if these ways involved the Gunmen; digging around God-knows-where to find out her ring size was right up their twisted little alley.

"I want you to have it, Scully," he said, running his thumb over the trio of stones. "Not as an engagement ring." He paused, his eyes searching hers. "As a promise."

Mulder slipped the ring from her fingers. He reached for her left hand, looking up at her, his eyes wide and questioning. Damn your incessant self-doubt, Mulder, she thought. Don't you know by now?

She simply smiled at him, nodded. "Yes," she whispered. Yes. It had always been yes.

"Yes," he vowed as he slid the ring onto her finger, the metal cold against her hand. Reflexively, her thumb rubbed along the back of the ring, testing its newness. Mulder slid the pad of one finger over the top of the ring, his skin meeting hers in the valley between her spread fingers.

"I can't promise you that normal life you've always talked about," Mulder said, and Scully could see doubt and guilt, his constant companions, resurface.

She smiled. "That normal life was a dream, Mulder. The reality is more than I could have ever hoped for." She thought of her cancer, their abductions, her pregnancy, their jobs. "And I can't promise that normal life, either," she admitted softly.

Mulder nodded. "Is this--? I hope this is okay," he said, fear again creeping over his face. "If an engagement ring -- or a wedding ring -- is what you want, I could--"

Scully pulled her hand from his and laid it on the hollow beneath his cheekbone, pressing the cool ring into his skin. "No," she said. "*You* are what I want."

He sighed, and his gaze deepened. "It's just-- I-- My commitment is to you, Scully. And to Liam," he said. "I don't need a church or government to sanctify it."

She nodded, slipping her hand up to his temple, and she leaned into him. Her lips met his, and she tried to keep it gentle, tender, but she couldn't stop her mouth from crushing his, her tongue from pushing past his lips and teeth. She snaked an arm around his neck, bringing it up behind his head to run her fingers through his hair.

"Ma ma ma ma," Liam called out suddenly, restless at being ignored. Scully pulled away from Mulder and reached out for her son.

"What did you say?" she asked, her face lit with a smile as she cradled him against her chest.

"He said it," Mulder marveled.

"Ma ma ma," Liam repeated, with a two-toothed smile at the pride and pleasure in his parents' voices and on their faces.


Downstairs the living room glowed with a rainbow of Christmas tree lights, despite the darkness that was still outside. Scully handed around the mugs of coffee she had poured, a special cinnamon Christmas blend that Melissa had always loved. She ran her finger over the sprig of mistletoe she had set on the tray in an uncharacteristic display of holiday cheer.

Scully had chosen these mugs carefully, deliberately. It was the entire set, six Christmas mugs. Six, she had thought, as she set down the final mug. Six mugs, the six mugs the Scully family had used every Christmas when she was a child, all the way until 1994, the first Christmas after her father died.

There had only been four of them that year, the same four that were there this year. Not only was their Captain gone, but by that time Melissa had taken off, too, not to return for months. It was just the four of them, but Scully might as well have been alone. It had been almost a year since her husband's death, but, spending her first holiday without him, Margaret Scully had been in a fog.

Scully had stayed over her mother's house on Christmas Eve night that year, as she did most years, and she remembered waking up early, maybe six o'clock in the morning. Scully had gone downstairs to find her mother wandering around the house, touching things at random, her eyes unfocused as if sleepwalking. She her watched her mother for almost half an hour, caught up in her own fog of sadness but knowing that she could not -- guessing that she could never -- understand the depth of her mother's grief.

And then there were Bill and Charles. Bill had tried to hide his emotions, tried to play the role of Big Brother and Protector. She had never been overly fond of Bill in that role, but that year it had made her crazy, her brother stepping into their father's place without hesitation, without respect. And Charles: Charles, who had never gotten along with their father; Charles, who had seemed more distraught at Melissa's disappearance than their father's death.

Scully considered each mug as she lifted it off the tray and passed it over. The Santa Claus mug had been her father's, Mrs. Santa her mother's. Both, especially her mother's, were well worn, having also been used for morning coffee during the month prior to Christmas. Then there was the elf mug that was Charlie's, the reindeer that was Bill's, and the angel that had been Melissa's. Scully held onto her own mug, tracing the outline of the snowman with the nail of her index finger.

Then she settled into an armchair near the tree, and Maggie placed a platter with apple and cheese Danish on the end table, and the family swarmed around the food and drink.

All but Liam and Matthew. Liam was crouched on the floor beside Mulder, with his palms on the ground and his bottom on his heels, rocking back and forth as though all he needed was a gentle push and he would take off across the floor crawling.

Matthew, however, had already taken off across the floor. He was skipping in a circle, coming inches from ricocheting into his father and the Christmas tree. "It's Christmas, it's Christmas," he sung loudly, breaking into an impromptu tune about presents and Santa Claus and his birthday.

"Here, Matty," Tara called out, patting the space next to her on the couch. "Come have some breakfast. Grandma has donuts. Chocolate sprinkles -- your favorite," she tempted. Yeah, Scully thought, like this kid needs sugar.

"Not hungry, not hungry," Matthew sang out gleefully, but Tara grabbed the waistband of his pajama pants as he streaked past her.

"Matthew William Scully," she said in a low voice, but with a smile that betrayed her amusement at her son's unabashed excitement. "Calm down." She held him on the couch next to her, but she couldn't control his excitement. Matthew kicked his feet against the couch.

"Presents, presents," he called out. "When do we get to open the presents?" His eyes were wide and glazed over as he stared at the gifts crammed beneath the Christmas tree. Tara let go of his waistband long enough to take a bite of donut, and Matthew rocketed off the couch and resumed his path around the room.

"Whoa," Mulder called out, scooping Liam off the floor just before Matthew's foot landed in the spot where the baby's hand had been.

"Matthew," Bill called, his voice loud enough to give his son pause. "Sit down." Matthew ducked his head and slunk over to the far corner of the room, next to the Christmas tree. He quieted down, but his eyes surveyed the presents, searching, Scully knew by memory, for the tags that bore his name.

"Why don't I play Santa?" she asked, scooting off her chair and joining Matthew on the floor beside the tree. "Come here, Matty," she said. "I think this one has your name on it."

The little boy slid over to her, his eyes bright with excitement. "It says 'Matthew'?" he asked hopefully. She nodded and pointed out the tag, and her nephew took the gift.

"To Matthew," Scully read. "Merry Christmas. Love, Grandma."

Matthew didn't need further prompting. He ripped off the paper and discarded the red bow, revealing a box of jumbo Legos. "Legos," he cried out, and Maggie nodded.

"I hope I got the right ones," his grandmother said, directing her question at Tara, who checked the box, then nodded.

"Legos, Legos," Matthew called out. "I can build a Lego boat now, just like yours, Daddy," he said. Matthew tore into the Lego box, his tongue poking out the side of his mouth as he concentrated on dismantling the box.

"Say 'thank you,' Matthew," Bill prompted, and Matthew echoed his father's thanks.

Scully took advantage of his distraction to choose a long, cylindrical gift from beneath the tree. "To Charles. Love, Mom," she read from the attached card before passing the present over to her brother, who was still nursing his coffee and trying to match the rest of the family's level of wakefulness.

He took the gift and looked quizzically at his mother, who simply smiled. "Open the card first," she said. He did, then paused to read it before looking up with a smile.

"Thanks, Mom," he said, rising to hug her.

"What is it?" Bill asked.

"Yoga classes," Charles said. "I mentioned to Mom on the phone once that there was this yoga class I wanted to take at the University, but it was too expensive." He held up a square of paper from the card. "She's signed me up for the next two quarters."

"What's that?" Tara asked, poking at the still-wrapped tube, which gave a little under her finger. Charles smiled, then tore the wrapping off.

"A yoga mat," he said, unfurling the spongy plastic mat onto the floor. "This is great. Thanks, Mom," he said again. Liam, who still sat in the small square created by Mulder's bent legs, scooted himself closer to the mat and reached out for it.

"Not for you, buddy," Mulder said, pushing the end of the mat towards Charles. "You might want to roll that back up," he said to the younger man, who nodded and began curling the mat back into a tight tube.

"Let's see," Scully said, hunting under the tree for a gift addressed to Liam, to find something to preoccupy the baby with. "Here you go, sweetie," she said, passing a large, square box over to Mulder. "Merry Christmas, Liam. From Uncle Charlie."

Mulder offered the gift to the baby, whose blue eyes focused intently on it. He grasped a corner of the box and pulled, and the paper tore when Mulder held it firm. "That's it, Liam," Mulder said with a smile. "Try again."

But Liam was more interested in the small square of paper he'd ripped off the box. He held it up in his fist and was aiming it into his mouth when Mulder intercepted it.

"Look," he said to the baby as he pulled off another strip of wrapping paper. "Help me." Eventually Mulder and Liam managed to remove the paper from the gift, revealing a plain brown box. Mulder lifted off the lid and brushed aside a layer of tissue paper to expose several large blocks. He removed one and tossed it over to Scully.

She examined the block carefully, running her hand over its smooth, almost plastic surface and marveling at its lightness. Each face of the block was brightly colored and contained a beautifully painted picture: a star, a baseball, a sun.

"I made them," Charles said as Liam lifted a block out of the box and stuffed the corner into his mouth. Mulder quickly pulled the block away, but Charles smiled. "It's okay," he said. "They're coated with a sealant, sort of like decoupage, but it's non-toxic. The guy who sold it to me said he used it to coat a plate he made for his daughter."

Mulder shrugged and let Liam go to town, sucking on the block, a satisfied smile on his face. "They're beautiful, Charlie," Scully said as Mulder removed another block from the box and passed it over to her. "Thank you."

"To Matthew," Scully read as she reached for another gift. "This one's from us, Matthew," she said, handing the little boy the box. Her nephew tore into the gift, ripping back the paper to reveal a large box, the front panel of which showed a group of children playing with puppets.

"Puppets?" the little boy exclaimed.

Scully nodded and smiled. Tara had mentioned on the phone several months ago that Matthew had been obsessed with puppets ever since she had taken him to see a puppet presentation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" put on for the children living on the base by the theater department of the local branch of the University of California.

Tara leaned over her son to inspect the box. "Three puppets, plus props and two scenery changes. Look at this, Matty," she said, pointing to the children on the box. "You can make up your own puppet show."

"Thank you, Aunt Dana," Matthew said, hugging Scully tight.

"You're welcome," she said, then kissed the top of his head. Matthew let her go, then, to everyone's surprise, threw his arms around Mulder's neck as well. Mulder's eyes shot over to Scully, and she smiled back at him. He tentatively patted the little boy's back, then Matthew sprinted away to examine the puppet set.

Scully looked up at Tara, who smiled slightly and shrugged, then over to her mother, who was grinning broadly. She chanced a glance over at Bill and was immediately sorry. He said nothing and, to someone who did not know him well, he might look non-committal.

But Scully knew better; she recognized his too-stiff posture and the corner of his lip that was crushed under his top teeth as marks of trouble. But it was Christmas, and Scully wasn't going to take any crap from Bill. So she darted her eyes away, focusing instead on the gifts still beneath the tree.

"Here's another one," Scully said, pulling a heavy rectangular box from beneath the tree. "To Charles, from Bill, Tara, and Matthew." She passed the gift over to Charles, who slipped the ribbon off, then tore the paper. It was a clothing box, and Scully had a pretty good idea what was inside it. Charles removed the lid and dug into the box, then held up a navy blue wool v-neck sweater that had Bill Scully written all over it.

"Nice," Maggie said, reaching out to finger the cuff of the sweater.

Bill nodded his agreement. "I thought you needed something formal," he told Charlie. "Something without paint on it." Charlie gave Bill a half-smile that told Scully that the new sweater would be shoved into the back of a drawer once Charles got back to Seattle, never to see the light of day again.

Scully reached back under the tree, then noticed a large, flat rectangular gift in the back. She slid it out from under the tree, then passed it to her mother after reading the tag. "To Mom, from Charles."

Maggie smiled over at her younger son, then tore the wrapping off impatiently, revealing another layer of paper, this one heavy and brown. She removed the brown paper and uncovered a beautiful framed painting.

"Oh, Charles," she gasped. "This is beautiful."

The painting was beautiful, Scully agreed when her mother held it up for the family to admire. It was unlike most of Charlie's art; it was not abstract or excessively cerebral. It depicted steady ocean waves lapping gently at a rock- lined beach. In the distance sailed a tiny, barely visible ship that Scully recognized as her father's.

Her mother pulled Charles into a hug. "This is very good," she said, and Charles smiled back at her, his pride evident in his shining eyes.

Scully spotted two other similarly shaped gifts also propped against the wall and slid them out. One was addressed to Bill and Tara, the other to her and Mulder. She passed the first to Bill, and Mulder motioned for her to open theirs. She and her brother slid the double layers of paper off their gifts to reveal their own paintings. Bill and Tara's also depicted a water scene, this one more turbulent, with waves crashing into rocky cliffs beneath a clouded-over sky. Another familiar Navy ship was tucked in the corner of the canvas.

But Scully and Mulder's painting was different, more like Scully had come to expect from her brother after years of viewing his art. It was a large square canvas painted in soft hues of blue and green, accented with touches of purple. The paint was thick and textured, and reminded Scully of a van Gogh exhibit she had gone to see while in college. The painting was more abstract, with thick, broad strokes and dark accenting streaks. It was decidedly sensual, though Scully couldn't exactly put her finger on what made it so.

And Charles had been surprised and excited at his gift from her and Mulder. They had used some of the considerable frequent flier miles they'd accumulated to get Charles an open-ended round-trip ticket from Seattle to DC. Scully knew that money had long been one of her brother's excuses for not coming to visit more often, so this year she had decided to call him on it.

He fussed over the cost, but she kidded with him that someone might as well reap the rewards of their extensive work-related travel. She hoped the tickets wouldn't go to waste, that Charles would come to see them in DC soon. The tickets had actually been Mulder's idea for Charles, and she had been a little hesitant, half-worried that her brother wouldn't use them, maybe wouldn't even want them.

But now she was glad that they had decided on the tickets. This visit had allowed her to remember how much she missed spending time with her younger brother, how desperately she wanted him not to be a stranger in her son's life.

Finally they were down to the final gift, and she knew who it was for even before she checked the tag. She passed it over to Mulder. "To Dana and Fox. Love, Mom," he read aloud, his gaze darting over to Maggie, then resting uncertainly at Scully. "You should open this, Scully," he said, holding the small gift box out to her.

She shook her head. She had opened their gifts from Charles, and Bill and Tara. Though they were addressed to both of them -- which, in Bill and Tara's case, Scully knew was her sister-in-law's doing -- they were obviously directed at her, considering neither of her brothers knew Mulder well enough to shop for him. But her mother's gift, that one Mulder could open.

He shrugged, then tore the paper from the box. He lifted the lid to reveal a rectangular envelope. Mulder opened the flap and read it carefully, then smiled and passed the gift over to Scully. "Thank you," he said to Maggie with a grin.

"Voucher for a weekend stay at the Goldengrove Bed and Breakfast on Chesapeake Bay," she read. The voucher was open-ended, and her mother had included a short handwritten note on a square of stationary, offering her services as babysitter.

"Thanks, Mom," she said, rising to hug her mother, who then reached over and embraced Mulder.

"I thought you two could use some time to yourselves," she said. "I'll take Liam for the weekend, just let me know in advance when."

"Thank you," Scully said again, unable to truly express her gratitude in words.

This was the same gift her mother had given Bill and Tara, but, to Scully, it meant so much more. It signaled her mother's acceptance, her support, of her relationship with Mulder. Scully caught Mulder's eye and smiled. Her grin broadened as Mulder tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic her single-eyebrow raise.


Mulder

That afternoon they lay sprawled around the Christmas tree, sluggish and sleepy and stuffed from an early Christmas dinner. Mulder lounged on the floor near where Liam was playing with his new blocks. He watched as Liam stuffed the corner of one large, brightly colored block into his mouth. He removed it, revealing painfully red gums, then repositioned it, sucking intently.

He needed a teething toy, Mulder thought idly, and had to gather his strength for a minute before he was able to rise to his feet. He stretched his arms over his head, yawned greatly, then turned to Scully, who was flipping through the introductory issue of Parenting magazine that Bill and Tara had given them -- her, Mulder corrected halfheartedly -- for Christmas.

Scully's eyes, half glazed over, watched him. Mulder nodded at Liam. "Teething toys still in the fridge?" he asked her, and she nodded. "Anyone want anything from the kitchen?"

He glanced around the room. Charles, who was curled up on an armchair in the corner of the room, didn't even look up from the thick paperback he was reading. Bill and Tara, who sat on the couch together, simply shook their heads, and Maggie, who was helping Matthew build something not yet identifiable out of Legos, said, "No, thanks, Fox."

So Mulder wandered into the kitchen, pausing to tug his loose-fitting socks up from where they had pooled around his ankles.

He had to admit that he was glad to get a break from the sleepy Scully living room. Mulder couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was something small and nagging in the air in that room. An odd undercurrent of tension ran through the family, spoiling the warm holiday feeling that otherwise reminded him of awaking up on a winter weekend morning to see snow falling out the window, to check the clock and see another hour to sleep before your son awoke, to pull the down comforter up to your chin and feel Scully's arm draped over your chest.

Then again, maybe he was wrong about the tension. After all, it had been so long since he had spent any time with a family. Maybe that was how siblings were, when they became adults: past, present, and future mingling and melding; teasing and fighting and pushing buttons that you not only knew but had probably installed. Friends and rivals and strangers at the same time.

Mulder smiled and swung open the refrigerator door and sifted through the foil- wrapped leftovers before finding the plastic zippered bag of Liam's teethers. Then he spied the half-filled carafe in the coffeemaker. From the draining rack in the sink he plucked the Santa mug he had been using that morning and filled it with coffee.

Mulder took a sip and smiled. Still warm. Just what he needed, a little jolt to wake him up. This was an important day; he didn't want to fall asleep at -- he checked his watch -- 4:39 in the afternoon and miss the rest of his son's first Christmas.

Mulder pushed past foil-wrapped containers of leftovers, pausing to steal a lump of cold mashed potatoes with his thumb, and found the milk. He was pouring some in his coffee when he heard a noise behind him.

"I thought I could use some coffee," Mrs. Scully said, smiling at him with sleepy, half-lidded eyes. She removed the Mrs. Claus mug from the draining rack and Mulder filled it for her. He set the carafe down and turned to face her.

"I wanted to thank you, Mrs. Scully," he started, but she waved him off with a flick of her wrist.

"You don't have to thank me, Fox," she said.

"No, I do," he said, thinking of the many forgettable Christmases he had spent alone in his apartment, watching sappy holiday movies and falling asleep to the buzz of an Ab-Roller infomercial. And there were other years, worse years, when he had spent holidays in his basement office, paging through Samantha's X-File, willing himself to remember something. Anything. "For Christmas and for the stocking and for--"

And for a family, he thought, but he couldn't say it. He and Scully had created their own family, but Mulder couldn't ignore Maggie's role. Not only had she given him Scully, and by extension Liam, but she provided some normality for their lives. As frustrating and combative and distant as the Scullys could be, and even though he wished he could throttle Bill, a part of Mulder treasured this, needed it.

Okay, he would admit it. He didn't just want this normal family for Liam, but for himself. Of course he wanted his son to have the happy childhood he had never had, but, Mulder also thought, just maybe he could share in that happiness. He could reclaim something he had lost with a flash of bright light and the rattle of a Stratego board.

"Nonsense," Maggie said, shaking her head. "I'm the one who should be thanking you for everything you've done for Dana."

Mulder shook his head. "The stocking, Mrs. Scully," he whispered. "You didn't have to--"

She stopped him with a gentle hand on his chest. "Of course I did," she said. "You're a part of this family now, Fox. I think maybe you have been for a while."

"Thanks, Mrs. Scully."

"About that, Fox," she said.

"Maggie," he corrected. For months she had been urging him to use her first name. "Sorry."

"No," she said. "Mom?"

Mulder froze. Was Mrs. Scully... Maggie... was she asking him to call her 'Mom'? "What?" he breathed.

She smiled up at him. "I'll understand if you're not comfortable with it," she said, "but if you are comfortable, you're welcome to call me 'Mom.' I'd be proud for you to."

Mulder didn't know what to say. To him, Teena Mulder was 'Mom.' Though their relationship had been riddled with regret and fraught with awkwardness, she was his mother. He loved her, maybe more, he feared, than she had loved him. How could he call someone else 'Mom'?

Mom. Mulder remembered the last time he had said it. He had gone to her grave, alone, her ruby ring in his pocket. He spoke to her aloud, his voice sounding small and scared as he told her about her grandson, as he asked her if she was proud now, proud of him.

Then he'd taken the ring box out of his pocket and slipped the ring out. He hadn't resized it yet, but it still only fit on his pinkie finger. He'd worn it, clenched it in his fist. I want to give it to her, Mom, he'd said. If she'll have it, if she'll have me.

And now hearing Maggie say that she would be proud... It was almost more than he could hope for. It had been so long since he had felt the pride of a parent or the uncomplicated love of a mother who was not plagued by her own suffocating guilt.

"Mom," he whispered the word, almost breathed it. He wondered if she had heard him.

She had. Maggie smiled slowly, held her arms out to him. He stepped into them, wondering what life would have been like with Maggie and Bill Scully instead of Teena and Bill Mulder.

Maggie's embrace was warm and secure, demanding nothing from him in return, yet it made him want to give her the world. Or at least his love. He leaned down awkwardly and set his head on her shoulder. She stroked his hair softly, and he remembered, as a child, waking in the middle of the night after a bad dream, running to his parents' room, turning the doorknob, tiptoeing up to their bed, crawling in next to his mother. His father hadn't been there -- maybe he was downstairs in the study or still at the office or out of town -- but he had clutched at his mother desperately, seeking solace that, even then, he knew she could not provide.


Dana

"We could always play a board game," Tara suggested as the family relaxed late that night. Liam and Matthew had long since been put to sleep, and the rest of them were trying to decide how to spend the remainder of the evening.

Scully raised an eyebrow at her sister-in-law. Board games? She hadn't played a board game with her siblings in decades, not since high school at least. Scully looked over at Mulder, who was sitting next to her on the couch. He shrugged and gave her a slight smile. Of course he'd be willing; he had never gotten in a fight with Bill over hotels on Boardwalk or cheating in Battleship.

Sure, Scully thought. Board games with her brothers was exactly how she wanted to spend the evening... The evening they had been planning to spend at home before the storm that had started on Christmas Eve had sentenced them to another night at her mother's house. The evening they had been planning to spend alone, with Liam in his crib and the two of them in bed. Their own bed.

Sure, Scully thought. Board games sound great.

"Let me see what I've got," her mother said, then disappeared into the hall.

"I don't know about this," Scully said when her mother was out of earshot. "I don't think we ever finished a single game of Monopoly the whole time we were kids. Someone always got mad at whoever was the banker for 'accidentally' miscounting the money."

"Come on, Dana," Bill said with a grin. "We aren't kids anymore. I think we can get through a game or two without shedding blood."

"Okay," Scully said, thinking, Don't say I didn't warn you when the game ends with someone crying. God, she thought, I sound just like my mother. 'One of you is going to end up crying,' Maggie Scully's stern voice echoed in her memory. Too often, she had been right. But not always; sometimes all four of them had ended up crying...

"Okay," her mother said as she emerged from the hall, boxes piled so high that only her eyes peeked out from over the dusty lids of the games.

They gathered around Maggie as she unstacked the boxes. Tara went into the kitchen for a handful of wet paper towels, and they wiped off each box top.

Scully grabbed the Game of Life, which had been so beloved, so often played, that the corners of its lid had needed to be reinforced with packaging tape, now yellowed and dry. Slowly she wiped off the years of grime and studied the illustration on the lid. A cluster of children crowded around the board, the tiny plastic cars and pink and blue pegs scattered indifferently along life's path.

Scully flipped off the lid and, ignoring the musty, unused odor she had released, sifted through the box's contents. She unfolded the game board, only to discover that the plastic spinner mounted to the corner of the board was mangled, one side chewed off by a puppy the family had once had.

"This one's no good," Charlie said, tossing the Sorry box aside. "The cards are all crayoned on."

Bill snorted. "Don't look at me," he said when Charles's glance landed on his brother. "You're the youngest... and the artist."

"Yeah," Charles said, "blame the baby."

Their mother laughed. "You're hardly a baby, Charles," she reminded her youngest son.

"Well, this one's all here," Tara said. "But the six of us can't exactly play checkers." She shoved the box over and Charles piled it atop Sorry.

"Mine's no good either," Scully said, adding the Game of Life to the pile. Not that she wanted to play Life anymore. Life was for twelve-year-olds dreaming of elaborate weddings and adventurous careers and decadent inheritances; she and Melissa had loved Life, but it wasn't quite the same when the marriage and job and children couldn't be shut inside a box and stacked back in the darkest corner of your closet when you wanted to play something else.

She turned to Mulder, who had been awfully quiet. "What do you have?"

He held the box out to her. "Stratego," he whispered. She gave him a sad smile. "It's all there," he added.

"Only two can play," she said softly, slipping the box from his grasp and piling it atop Life.

"Well, what do we have to choose from?" Bill asked, glancing over at the teetering pile next to Charles.

"LCR," Maggie said, holding up a plastic cylinder that fit in the palm of her hand. She popped off the plug stuck in one end and dumped a scatter of plastic chips, three die, and a folded-up instruction booklet onto the end table.

"LCR?" Tara asked. "How do you play?"

"It's a game of chance," Maggie told them, piling the chips together. "The letters stand for Left, Center, Right. We sit in a circle and everyone gets three plastic chips. When it's your turn, you roll the die." She held up a dice, each side of which was printed with either an "R," an "L," a "C," or a black dot. She passed it over to Charles.

"You roll one dice for each chip you have. If the dice lands on the 'R,' you pass the chip to your left and the 'L,' to your right. If it lands on the 'C' you put the chip in the pile in the middle of the circle, and that removes it from play. If you land on the black dot, you get to keep the chip," she explained.

"So the chips get passed around the circle, and chips are lost when you add them to the pile in the center. Whoever's holding the final chip is the winner. Does that make sense?"

"I think we can handle that," Charlie said as he dealt each of them three chips.


Three hours later they had moved the game into the kitchen after discovering that the die didn't roll well on the carpeted floor of the family room. They had also discovered that the game was exponentially more entertaining when accompanied by a beer or two... or four.

Two hours ago Charlie had suggested playing not with chips but with quarters, which they had dug into their purses and wallets to find. Maggie had discovered a stash in her bedroom, which she had graciously shared with the rest of the family before retiring to bed about an hour ago. The plastic chips that had come with the game had long ago been scattered to the corners of the kitchen island, forgotten.

Scully laughed lightly as she watched Mulder and Charlie battle for the money piled in the center of the island countertop. She ran her fingers through her hair, then hunted through her mother's junk drawer for a rubber band. Despite the wintery storm blustering outside, the kitchen was pleasantly warm, made so most likely by the alcohol they had been consuming.

Instead of a rubber band Scully discovered a stray hair elastic and snapped it around an impromptu ponytail. She resumed her place at the island next to Mulder, smiling when he, after winning the last round, tweaked her ponytail, sending it swaying from side to side.

Twenty minutes ago they had replaced their quarters with dollar bills, and Charlie, who had been on a roll for the past half-hour despite his recent loss to Mulder, was starting to hint at upping the stakes. Rather loudly, Scully noted as she took a sip of her beer. Tara, who had been trying to dampen their boisterous cheering and booing all night, set her hand on his shoulder in an attempt to calm him.

"Sshh, Charles," she urged. "Your mom looked exhausted when she went upstairs. We don't want to wake her, or Matthew and Liam," she said.

But Charles was not to be dissuaded. "Come on, Bill," he urged, collecting quarters and stray dollar bills into a pile next to his bottle of Guinness.

"No thanks," Bill said, pushing back from the table, his chair screeching on the floor. "Too rich for my blood."

"You're kidding me," Charles scoffed, smiling up at his brother. "'Too rich'? Come on, you must make twice the salary I do. At least."

But Bill just shook his head, then took a swig from his beer bottle. "You may be right, Charles, but I also have responsibilities."

"Yeah, well," Charles said, glancing around the table at Tara, Scully, and Mulder. Tara took a sip of her tea, then closed her eyes and wearily rubbed her brow. "So does everyone else here."

Bill barked out a cough. "Yeah," he said, shaking his head. "Right."

"Oh, I forgot," Charles said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "You have responsibilities, but Dana and Mulder don't?"

"Charlie, forget it," Scully said softly, her beer-induced fog starting to clear at the hint of an argument between her brothers. And please don't bring Mulder and me into this, she thought.

"No, Dana," Charles said, his voice raising. "I can't forget it. I'm sick of this holier-than-thou attitude he's been parading around all week. What is it you're getting at, Bill?"

"Charlie, please," Scully pleaded.

"Bill?" Charles pressed.

Bill set his beer bottle on the counter with slightly more force than necessary, and the glass smacked against the tile. "All I'm saying is that it's different."

Scully could feel Mulder tense beside her, and she prayed that he would just let it go. Bill was baiting him, baiting both him and Charles. Bill had been sulking all week, and now he was looking for a fight, looking to reestablish his familial dominance. She knew better than to think that Charles might resist Bill's provocation, but she prayed that Mulder would let it go.

"Different how?" Mulder asked. Scully slid her hand under the table and set it on Mulder's knee, squeezing gently. Please, she thought, please don't.

"Let's be honest here," Bill said, snapping the cap of his beer onto the counter. "Your responsibilities and mine aren't exactly comparable."

"Bill," Tara warned, shooting him a stern gaze.

But Bill was not to be dissuaded. "I have a responsibility to my family. To my son and to my wife," he continued, emphasizing this last word by training his gaze on Mulder.

"So that's what this is about," Mulder said, sitting back in his chair.

"This isn't about anything," Bill barked, "except to tell my brother that he can't compare my situation with yours."

"I don't know, Bill," Charles said, "from where I'm sitting, I think you can."

"Maybe you should keep your mouth shut about things you don't understand, Charles," Bill said.

"Bill, would you please--?" Tara urged.

"Hey, I just call 'em like I see 'em, big brother," Charles said with a challenging smile. "It's you who--"

"It's me who what?" Bill asked. "All I'm doing is pointing out what's painfully obvious to all of us, that some people have responsibilities and commitments..." He shot another glance at Mulder. "And others don't. It's easy when you can come and go as you please, and take off when the family thing gets old.

"Not that I expect any of you to understand," Bill continued, then turned to his brother. "Obviously not you, Charles.

"I forget," he said bitingly. "How long has it been since we've seen each other? Five years? Six? Dammit, Charlie, Matthew is almost four and you've never even bothered to meet him. How do you think that makes me feel?"

He paused for effect, and Scully braced herself. "Forget about us, though. You seem to do that pretty easily anyway. But how long's it been since you've seen Mom?"

Charles bristled, and Scully could feel him switching roles from aggressor to victim, the shift in his mood so sudden that she almost a cold wind blow through the room. She tightened her grip on Mulder's knee, this time more to anchor herself than him.

Charles looked down, refusing to meet his brother's accusatorial stare. He bit his lip until it began to bleed, a line of red appearing on the pink of his lower lip. He ran his tongue over it, wiping the blood clean, only to have it reappear a second later.

"Bill," Scully said softly. "Bill, please--"

"Dammit, Dana," he said. "Charlie's a big boy. He can certainly pick his own fights, and he doesn't need you to defend him. We aren't kids anymore."

"No," Tara said with a pointed glance at her husband. "We aren't."

But Bill ignored her. "So what about it, little brother?" he continued. "You want to talk about family responsibilities, bring it on. But make sure you're up to finishing what you start instead of letting Mom or Dana fight your battles for you."

Finally Charles met Bill's stare. "You don't know anything about me, Bill," he hissed.

Bill choked off a laugh. "Damn right I don't. And whose fault is that? I'm not the one who ran off. Just disappeared. How do you think Mom feels about that, Charles? She only has three children left; don't you thinks she'd like to see us together sometime?"

Low blow, Scully thought. But she wasn't surprised. Even as a little kid, Bill had always fought dirty. She had the scars to prove it, and she knew that Charles had at least as many as she did.

"I know she only has three children left," Charles said in a strangled voice. "God, don't you think I know that?"

"I wouldn't know," Bill said with an affectedly casual shrug.

"This isn't about me," Charlie said. "And it isn't about Melissa."

But Scully wondered if maybe it was, if maybe this all was about their father and Melissa. They had been there when she and Mulder arrived with their son, when Tara announced that she was pregnant and Bill announced that they was moving back East, when the family slid into the pew at church and when they opened their Christmas gifts.

And now, Scully thought, her eyes roaming the kitchen as if in search of her father and sister; Dad and Missy were there now, as they took up the battle lines that had been drawn so many years ago.

Bill shook his head. "I think it is. I think it's about Melissa, and I think it's about Dad. It's about how no one but me shows this family any respect anymore. You don't even show for your own father's funeral, Charles. Or your sister's, though you've done a hell of a job playing up the role of bereaved brother for the past six years."

"Bill," Scully started again, but wasn't sure what to say. She knew that Bill didn't understand Charlie, that he had never understood their brother. He was just like their father that way. And she also knew that he wasn't going to be able to start now.

"So don't you go lecturing me about responsibility, little brother," Bill finished. "Because you sure as hell don't know what you're talking about." He turned to Scully, then to Mulder. "None of you."

"Bill," Scully said again, immediately regretting having spoken.

But it wasn't his sister that Bill was aiming at this time. Or maybe it was, she thought as her brother focused on Mulder. "Certainly not you. You breeze in and out of this family whenever it suits you, and you leave my sister to pick up after your messes. Talk about irresponsible," he said with a crisp, forced laugh.

"I'm not blind, Mulder," Bill continued. "I can see through you, and apparently I'm the only one here who can. Apparently my mother can't; God only knows what she sees in you. And certainly my sister can't either, my only sister," he said in a purposeful tone.

Scully slid her hand up Mulder's knee and onto his thigh. She could feel the quick tense of muscle, could almost feel the wave of guilt wash over him. His misplaced guilt over her sister's death and over Scully's own health problems was strong enough on its own; it didn't need to be fed by Bill. Damn you, Bill, she thought. You know how to hit right where it hurts, don't you? First with Charles and now with her...

"Bill," Tara pleaded. "Bill, please."

"It's easy for you, isn't it? Destroying our family? Does it make you feel better now that you're not the only one who lost a sister? Coming and going as you please, using your work and now using a baby to keep her in your life, at least as long as you're planning on sticking around? But I doubt it'll be so easy for that baby when he gets old enough to ask where his father is..."

Bill narrowed his eyes at Mulder. "...*who* his father is."

The room was so silent, Scully thought she could hear Mulder's heart pounding through his chest, then breaking. Bill had found Mulder's bruise, and he was pressing on it with the greatest force. Scully clutched desperately at Mulder's thigh, feeling her anger burn through her blood. Her anger, Mulder's hurt.

Mulder was a grown man; he could take care of himself. But the image of their son sleeping helpless and defenseless in the crib upstairs...

"You aren't the only one with responsibilities, Bill," Scully said.

"Yes," Bill agreed. "You have the responsibility of a child... thanks to him," he said with a nod in Mulder's direction. "Apparently."

"Yes. Thanks to Mulder, I have Liam. I'll be thanking Mulder for that for the rest of my life," she told Bill. "And I would hope that anyone who cared at all about me would, too."

"Dana--"

"No," Scully said. "Before *you* talk about something you know nothing about, you should know that *I* wanted to get pregnant. Me," she said.

"Not that it's any of your business, Bill, but my pregnancy was not a mistake; Liam was not a mistake. And there isn't one thing I regret about having him."

She opened her mouth, knowing that she would later regret what she was about to say but unable to sit back and let Bill attack her son. Or his father. It was on the tip of her tongue, almost slipping out, she knew it would confuse the hell out of Bill, it would probably hurt him, it would shut him up...

We tried in vitro fertilization...

But the creak in the floor stopped her from saying a word. They all turned towards the doorway to see Margaret Scully, who stood in the dark of the hall, framed by the doorway. She was almost invisible, just the white of her robe glowing like a ghost in the darkness.

"What is going on down here?" Maggie asked in a low, even tone.

The room was silent, and Scully watched her mother's gaze drift slowly over her family. She and Mulder and Charles still sat at the table, piles of plastic chips and various coins strewn around them. Bill stood, stick straight, near the refrigerator, his back inches from the countertop, not touching it. Tara stood next to him, her shoulders sagging and a look of powerlessness on her face.

"I can hear you from upstairs," Maggie said finally. "All of you. And if I can hear you, I'm sure Matthew and Liam can, too."

"Is he awake? Is he crying?" Scully asked.

Her mother stepped behind her and set a hand on her shoulder. "He was fine when I checked on him," she said.

But Scully had to get out, and, with only a niggling of guilt, she used her son as an excuse. She dashed upstairs without a word.

She was able to hold back her tears until she reached the study, until she saw Liam lying there, sleeping peacefully, his knees tucked beneath his chest. His tiny mouth was open, barely, and she watched the gentle rise and fall of his back.

Ignoring the part of her that said not to wake him, she scooped her son out of the crib and held him to her chest. He was tiny and warm against her body, and he smelled sweet and clean after the bath she and her mother had given him earlier that night. Tears rolled down her cheeks and wet his flannel pajamas, and Scully cupped his head with her hand.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry, my baby boy."

Keeping your child safe was the job of every mother, every parent, but Scully had known ever since she discovered she was pregnant that this would be a more formidable task for her, whether or not Mulder ever returned. She had had nightmares about Liam being hurt, being taken away from her. Or worse. But she had never imagined that she would need to protect her son from his own uncle.

Scully heard a sound and spun around to face the door. She exhaled, relieved, when she saw Mulder standing there alone.

"I didn't mean to scare you," he said softly, and she nodded, then turned away from him, still somehow embarrassed for him to see her cry.

"Hey," he said, crossing the room to join her at Liam's crib. "Scully, it's okay. It'll be okay."

She shook her head, and he reached out, turning her to face him. He dried her tears with his thumb, which just made her cry even harder. "Please don't, Scully," he said, then pulled her and Liam into his arms.

She laid her head on Mulder's chest, feeling Liam stir. "I can't do this," she said in a whisper. "I've been fighting -- we've been fighting -- for so long, mutants and monsters and alien hybrids who wanted us dead, all three of us," she said. "I can't do this with my own brother."

He pulled away slightly and held out his arms for Liam, who was, by now, awake and beginning to make soft, confused noises. Scully shook her head, and thankfully Mulder didn't press her. His arms went around her again, and he rested his chin on the top of her head.

"Do you want to go home?" he asked. "Maybe the storm's cleared. I can check."

She nodded. "Please," she said in a small voice.

He stepped away from them, kissing both her and Liam on the tops of their heads before returning downstairs. Scully sat on the edge of the bed, holding Liam tight and gently rocking him back and forth.

"Sshh," she said softly, rubbing his back. "Go back to sleep. It's okay. It'll be okay," she said, the sickening sensation in the pit of her stomach reminding her that she could make no such promises.

She didn't know how long she had been sitting there when she heard the swell of voices downstairs. Not angry voices, but loud. She tensed, unsure of what to do. Liam was on the brink of sleep, not far enough gone that he would not awake if she set him down in the crib. She considered for a moment: stay up here with her son or take him downstairs with her?

"It's okay," she whispered again, standing and walking slowly out of the room and downstairs.

Everyone was in the living room. Mulder was at the door, his coat hanging off one shoulder, and her mother stood beside him, peering out the tiny window in the door. Bill and Tara and Charles were clinging to the edges of the room, none of them speaking or even standing near enough to touch. They all turned to face her as she descended the stairs.

"It's all iced over," Mulder told her. "The streets are a mess."

"Are you sure?" she asked desperately, unable to face sleeping another night in this house, waking another morning and knowing she would have to face Bill. "We could--"

"Dana, please," her mother said. "Come look outside." She held her arm out to her daughter, and Scully approached them slowly, pressing Liam tight against her chest. Her mother and Mulder parted, making room for her to see out the window.

They were right. They had received just a few inches of snow and it was only falling lightly from the sky. But her mother's street glistened with a thick layer of ice, and Scully watched the crystallized branches of the trees in the front yard sway in the wind. The cars in the driveway supported a light dusting of snow sealed over by a considerable layer of ice. Scully held her breath as a snow-thickened car crept down the street, then fishtailed and barely missed a telephone pole. There was no way they were going anywhere tonight.

"Fine," she said curtly, turning on her heel to head back upstairs.

"Dana, wait."

She stopped cold but did not turn around when she heard Bill's voice. "What?" she asked, but didn't turn to face her brother. She snaked her arm up from Liam's back and cupped his head against her shoulder.

"Dana, I didn't mean to hurt you," he said. "You know that. I--"

Finally she turned to face her brother. "I don't know anything, Bill," she said, tired and defeated.

She didn't care anymore. All she wanted to do was take her son upstairs and get into bed and forget this whole day had ever happened. She felt her ring turn around her finger as Liam wriggled against her arms. Damn you, Bill, she thought. Damn you for ruining what had started out as such a beautiful, hopeful day.

"I'm going to bed," she told them all before returning upstairs.

She could hear their voices as she walked slowly up the stairs and down the hall: Bill's frustrated grunt, Tara's soothing tone, her mother's offer to come upstairs and talk to her.

"No," Mulder said. "Let me."


Mulder

Maggie nodded, and Mulder took the stairs two at a time as he followed Scully. He had no idea what he was going to say to her, or even if he should say anything. All he knew was that his previous attempt to comfort her had been unsuccessful.

Stupid to tell her not to cry, he castigated himself. Why shouldn't she cry? Hell, he'd cry, too, if a member of his family had said the things Bill had said, if Bill were...

Mulder stopped, froze. Bill *was* part of his family. Well, sort of... wasn't he? What's mine is yours, he thought. They had never taken any formal vows, but hadn't Scully been fighting his family demons for the past nine years?

Mulder pushed the door to the bedroom open slowly and saw Scully sitting on the bed, Liam held tightly in her arms. Wordlessly he closed the door behind him, bathing the room in darkness. He crossed the room to sit beside her on the bed and was surprised when she immediately scooted against him. She burrowed into his chest, and they moved together until she was tucked in his embrace, sitting on his left leg with her folded knees fitting on his lap.

She was no longer crying, but she said nothing as he held her. So he remained quiet, unwilling to break this spell of calm, not wanting her to start crying again. He sat there and rubbed her back and her hair until her breathing grew slow and steady. After several minutes he pulled back slightly and saw that both she and Liam had fallen asleep.

Mulder gave a smile of gratitude and considered his options. He would love nothing more than to sit there holding her all night, but with the way she was sitting against him, his leg was starting to tingle uncomfortably. He shifted slightly and checked on her, but Scully remained asleep. So he slid them to the edge of the bed, then scooped both her and Liam into his arms. Mulder stifled a grunt as his biceps twitched under their combined weight, then he kicked back the covers with one foot, returning them gently to the bed.

He reached through her arms and carefully extracted Liam from her embrace. With some stroke of uncharacteristic luck, neither of them awoke during his maneuver, and he walked the baby over to the crib. Before setting his son down, however, Mulder watched him for a minute, trying to quell the helplessness he was feeling. I won't let them hurt you, he thought. He glanced over at Scully. We won't let them. He placed a soft kiss on Liam's head before setting the baby in the crib.

Mulder stood and glanced around the room, from Scully asleep on the bed to their son asleep in the crib. After pausing to cover Scully with the sheet and blanket, he quietly stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him. He went downstairs, not certain where he was going or whom, if anyone, he was looking for. But once he got downstairs, Mulder knew he had to get out.

He could still feel it, Bill's anger flooding the room, choking him. Mulder grabbed his coat from the closet and slipped out the front door. He didn't want to go anywhere -- not that he could if he wanted to; he was likely to break his neck simply walking on the iced-over front walk -- but he just had to get out.

But someone was already on the front porch, perched on the edge of the wooden swing, which was rocking back and forth with a rhythmic squeak.

"Sorry, Charles," Mulder said as the younger man turned at the squeak of the screen door. Mulder turned to go back inside; Charlie looked like he wanted to be left alone.

"No, stay," Charles said, patting the spot next to him on the wooden swing. "Unless this bothers you," Charles said, raising his left hand, which cradled a burning cigarette.

"No, it's okay," Mulder said, zipping up his jacket and taking a seat next to Charles. "I just had to get out of there," he said with a guilty grin.

Charles nodded, then snuck a pack of Morleys out of his jacket pocket. He shook the foil pack until the end of a single cigarette slipped loose, then offered it to Mulder.

Mulder shook his head. "I don't smoke," he said.

Charles exhaled a long stream of smoke. "Stick around this family long enough and you'll start," he said bitterly.

Mulder smiled. "Actually, I used to smoke," he said. "I quit a long time ago." Very long, he thought, long before he met Scully. It seemed like forever ago. Another time, another life, another man.

"Yeah," Charles said. "So did I." He tapped the ashes at the end of the cigarette onto the small metal astray that was balanced on the swing's elbow rest.

"You quit?"

Charles nodded. "It's the stress," he said. "I haven't smoked in years, but I bought a pack at the first newsstand I passed when I got off the plane." Charles took a slow drag from his cigarette, then continued. "I started because I thought it would piss off the Captain. But my mom was the one who was angry."

"Why's that?" Mulder asked, rubbing his hands together to generate some warmth.

"She used to smoke, back when we were kids," Charles said. "And she had a hell of a time quitting."

Mulder nodded and interlocked his fingers behind his head. "Do me a favor," Mulder said, "and don't tell your sister I used to smoke." It wasn't like he had tried to conceal that fact from Scully -- in fact, they had never discussed it - - but he remembered her reaction when hee'd bought that pack of Morleys after she'd treated him with nicotine to kill the tobacco beetles in his lungs. She hadn't been pleased.

"Why not?" Charles asked lightly. "Dana used to sneak the occasional smoke herself."

"What?!"

Charles nodded. "When she was a teenager. But she never got hooked."

Mulder was speechless; Scully, smoking? It didn't fit with his image of her. He was the one with the vices: junk food, the occasional drink, the long-ago-kicked smoking habit, the stash of videos he had donated to Frohike.

"She didn't think any of us knew," Charlie said, watching the burning red crawl up his cigarette, then snuffed it out in the ashtray. "Dana's always underestimated us."

Mulder didn't know what to say. He didn't really know enough about the Scullys to know whether Charlie was telling the truth -- or whether he was telling what had once been the truth but had since changed. But, from what Mulder did know of the situation, it was them -- her father and Bill -- who had underestimated her, who could not look past their little girl to see a capable woman.

He longed to ask Charlie how, why, he thought Scully underestimated them, but the nagging suspicion that this was none of his business was just too strong. But Charlie didn't need any prodding.

"She's always kept things to herself," he began, and Mulder had to give him that one; it was one of Scully's most annoying traits.

"Especially relationships," Charlie continued, and Mulder tensed. He and Scully had talked, a little, about their past relationships, but he knew there had to be things she hadn't told him. Certainly there were things -- insignificant things, but things nonetheless -- that he hadn't told her. And he didn't particularly want to hear them right then, and certainly not from Scully's brother, even if it wasn't Bill.

"When were you born?"

"What?" Mulder asked, lifting his head to look at Charles.

"When were you born? What year?"

"1961," Mulder said. "Why?"

Charlie shrugged. "A little young, but I guess that fits."

"Fits what?"

"I don't know what she's told you," Charles said. "But Dana's always had a... thing for older guys."

Mulder nodded; this he knew. He almost supplied Charlie with two names -- the only two Scully had shared with him -- but then thought better of it. Jack Willis and Daniel Waterston were Scully's past, her stories, not his. She had a right to share them or to keep them, even from her family. So he said nothing.

"Mom once said that Dana was born old," Charles continued. "Too mature for her own good. At the time I thought she was just trying to say that I was immature." He gave a strangled laugh. "Talk about immature, huh? Thinking that everything is about you." He shook his head. "I think I understand now, though, and I think Mom was right. Dana could use a little fun and a little less responsibility."

Charlie looked over at Mulder with a quirked eyebrow, and Mulder felt the tension coil in his chest. What was this, good cop, bad cop? Or, he amended, bad cop, worse cop? Was Charlie playing off Bill's argument, trying to hint that it was Mulder's fault that Scully didn't have any fun, that she had too many responsibilities? His breath caught in his throat.

"Hey," Charles said, pushing gently on Mulder's shoulder. Mulder jumped, half- afraid that Charlie was going to hurt him. Don't be stupid, Mulder told himself. This isn't Bill.

"Sorry," Mulder said.

"No, man, I'm sorry," Charlie told him. "I didn't mean that the way it came out. You're good for her, I think. Despite Bill's crap, I can't remember the last time I saw her smile this much. She's changed since she met you."

Mulder nodded, thinking of the green agent that had walked into his office and changed his life. God, he had changed her, but he wasn't sure that change was for the best.

Mulder shook his head. "I'd like to take credit," he said. They had been through so much together... if there only were a light at the end of their long, dark tunnel; if only something good could come from their struggle. "But it wasn't me. Liam changed her, I think," he said. "Liam changed both of us."

Charlie nodded, dug his toes into the porch floor to push the swing back and forth several times. Mulder gripped the armrest, digging his nails into the soft wood. He was beginning to feel a bit seasick. He hadn't had all that much to drink -- certainly he had has less than Bill and Charlie and maybe even Scully - - but he could feel every ounce of it slloshing around in his stomach.

"Jack Willis," Charlie offered, digging the toes of his sneakers into the snowy floorboards to stop the swing. Mulder's stomach gave one final lurch. "You ever meet him?"

"Not exactly," Mulder said, remembering the case Scully had worked with Willis, remembering his shock when Scully told him they had been involved when he was her instructor at the Academy.

"Me neither. Dana never even mentioned him to me," he said, his voice betraying his anger. Or was it hurt? Mulder wondered.

"It was Melissa," he said, answering Mulder's unasked question. "Dana told Missy, and she let it slip. Dana's always been secretive, but if she was gonna share something, it was with Missy. Only Missy."

They sat there in silence for another minute, accompanied only by the squeak of the swing's rusty hinges. This was a side of Scully that Mulder had never before seen, and he wanted to know more. He knew her in so many ways, as partner, scientist, friend, physician, lover, mother. But he only had a limited grasp of her as daughter, and even less as sister.

But he didn't want to push Charles, or to stick his nose where it didn't belong, or was not welcome. He needed at least one Scully brother on his side. So Mulder said nothing. But he didn't need to.

"Even in high school," he said. "Marcus. You know about him?" Charlie asked, giving Mulder an odd glance, a combination of challenge and curiosity. The slight raise of his eyebrow unnerved Mulder.

"I've heard a few things," Mulder said.

Charlie nodded. "He was in college when Dane was in high school. Even back then it was always older guys she was interested in. And them in her," he said. "Bill's friends sometimes. It pissed him off to no end. Especially Marcus. He wasn't Bill's friend, but he was a year or two older than Bill, and Bill couldn't stand the guy."

So he wasn't the only one; Bill hadn't liked Scully's high school boyfriend either, huh? Mulder smiled, feeling a strange affinity for Marcus.

"Even then, Bill had the big brother role down to a tee," Charlie said, pausing to light another cigarette. "Not that he had anything to worry about. Dana wasn't the big dater; that was Missy. Marcus was Dana's only real boyfriend in high school.

"Maybe that's what made Bill so mad," Charles mused. "Dana was picky, and she'd picked Marcus. Bill even tried talking to the Captain about it, 'man to man,' he said. Bill wanted to get him to forbid Dana from going out with Marcus, but the Captain never did."

Interesting, Mulder thought. He had been sure that he knew where this story was headed. Bill did his bit and got their father to restrict Scully's relationship with Marcus, making Scully want to see the boy even more. She would sneak out -- and probably not get caught, Mulder thought almost proudly -- and Captain Scully would never be the wiser.

"I think he liked Marcus," Charles said with a grin, "which was the last straw for Bill. But I think it was more than liking Marcus. Te Captain couldn't deny his baby girl anything," Charlie said bitterly. "Dana could do no wrong in his eyes. Of course, she was so good that it was hard to hate her, but she was always the Captain's favorite."

"Really?" Mulder asked. He had never gotten that impression from Scully, but he also knew that so much of her relationship with her father had been left unsettled after her father's death. She had thought that he disapproved of her decision to leave medicine, but, from what Charles said...

"Charles?" Mulder asked, and the man turned to face him.

"Hmmm?"

"Scully always said..." He paused. "Your father didn't approve of her decision to leave medicine for the FBI, did he?"

Charles smiled and leaned his head back against the cold boards of the swing, then nodded. "He gave her a hard time," he said. "He was afraid for her; he didn't want his baby girl in danger, getting shot at and chasing after criminals." Mulder suppressed a smile, betting that Scully's father would roll over in his grave if he knew just what kind of 'criminals' she was chasing after... and whom she was chasing them with.

"They argued about it," Charles continued. "He may not have agreed with her decision -- and it certainly surprised the hell out of him -- but he couldn't deny her anything. He was starting to come around, especially after she started teaching at Quantico... although I'm sure he would've been happier with her setting broken legs or removing gall bladders."

Mulder nodded. Hell, more than once he had thought Scully would be happier -- and surely safer -- doing just that. But it wasn't his decision to make. Somewhere along the line his quest for the truth had become hers, and she was exactly where she belonged, where she wanted to be.

Their crusade, he thought with a smile. There was something so noble and beautiful, he thought, about me and you against the world, and something just so lonely, he remembered, about fighting the fight on your own.

"He wasn't too pleased when she got assigned to the X-Files," Charles said, and Mulder tensed. "It brought back those same fears he had when she started at the Academy. But he would've come around. If he knew she was happy there, he would've come around. He wanted her to be happy," Charles said again, then took a long drag from his cigarette.

Mulder waited patiently, but Charlie said nothing else, just rocked the swing back and forth with his toes. Forward, backward, forward, backward. Mulder again began to feel slightly seasick, and he stood. He returned Charles's half-smile, then opened the door and stepped inside the house.


The house was dark and quiet, and Mulder cringed as the door shut louder than he had intended it to. He stood in the foyer for a minute, hoping he hadn't woken anyone. But there were no answering sounds, and he quietly slipped off his coat and boots.

The upstairs hallway was lit only by the bathroom nightlight, and Mulder crept carefully into the bedroom he and Scully were sharing. That room, too, was dark, and Mulder could just make out Scully's outline in bed. Her eyes were closed and her breathing soft and measured. She was asleep.

More careful this time, Mulder closed the bedroom door and walked slowly across the room, over to Liam's crib. The baby was also sleeping, his mouth gapped open, his knees tucked under his stomach, and to tuck the crib sheet around his son's tiny frame.

Mulder lowered the blinds and adjusted them to let in just a skinny slant of light, enough to bathe the room in a dim grayness. He aimed the light at the ceiling, and then he began to undress.

"You smell like cigarette smoke," Scully said, nearly causing Mulder to jump out of his skin. "Where were you?"

He paused, his fingers frozen halfway through unbuttoning his shirt. "I was outside with Charlie."

That seemed to satisfy Scully, and again she was quiet. Mulder thought that she had fallen back to sleep, if she had ever been asleep to begin with. After slipping out of his jeans, he heard a small noise. He paused over the crib to check on Liam once more, then pulled back the covers on his half of the bed.

"If Charlie's smoking again, Mom'll kill him," Scully said, and then rolled over in bed to face him. Her eyes were wide and alert, and he knew that she had not been sleeping when he came in.

"I don't think he's really started again," Mulder said, his voice low. "I think he's regressing. He's back home after all these years, stressed out about the holidays and the family, meeting his nephews and me, seeing for the first time that his brother and sister have grown up. I think, in trying to assimilate all that, he's regressed back to some sulky, rebellious teenage phase."

Scully smiled at him. "Is that your expert opinion?"

"Mmm hmm," he murmured. "I'll send you my bill."

She leaned into him. "If we didn't have a roommate..," she whispered, and he smiled.

They had grown used to having their own bedroom, after so many weeks with Liam's bassinet tucked next to their bed. Neither of them had ever felt completely at ease making love with the baby in the room, but now that Liam was getting older, they knew that the discomfort was justified. Plus, they had been looking forward to spending Christmas night at home, in their own Apartment, with Liam safe in his own crib, in his own bedroom.

Scully burrowed into his chest, and Mulder set his chin atop her head. Though he was now, too, beginning to smell the tang of cigarette smoke that clung to his skin, he could also smell Scully's hair, the lemony scent of her shampoo still sweet and clean.

In his arms she felt so small and fragile. Deceptively so, he knew, yet he hesitated. There was something he wanted to ask her, something that had plagued him ever since they arrived at her mother's house on Saturday -- even longer, if he was honest with himself -- something she would probably take the wrong way... Mulder craned his neck and planted a chaste kiss on Scully's temple.

"Scully?"

"Yeah?"

Mulder made his voice as soft and non-threatening as he knew how. "Scully, why didn't you tell your family that I'm Liam's father?"

He felt her tense, but she didn't pull away, and Mulder almost smiled. Even as recently as a few months ago, even after Liam was born, Mulder couldn't have imagined them together like this, him holding her and still having the courage to bring up a subject that could easily become an argument; and her allowing herself to be held, not pulling away.

"What do you mean?" Scully asked finally.

He decided to change tactics. "Last Christmas," he said quickly, not allowing the thought of her alone to penetrate too deeply into his brain. "When I was gone, where did you spend the holiday?" he asked.

"Mulder?"

"Just humor me, okay?"

"I spent it with my mother. Charlie couldn't be here, and Bill, Tara, and Matthew spent Christmas with Tara's family. Why?" she asked.

"So you've had a year to tell your family that I'm the father. Longer than a year, if you count back to when you found out you were pregnant. But you never did, not until Saturday, and even then you didn't really say it. You just told them that we'd given him my last name and let them assume the rest, knowing full well what they would think," he said. "Why, Scully?"

She lay still, and Mulder could feel the rapid beating of Scully's heart against his chest, below his own heart. "At first I was afraid," she admitted. "I told Skinner I was pregnant, and then I told my mom. I was worried that if they found out--"

"They?" he asked. "Your family?"

"They, the FBI. Whoever took you," she explained. "I was sure that if they found out, they would use it against me, to take the X-Files away. They would argue that a pregnant agent shouldn't be in the field, and, if they knew the baby was yours, I was certain they would reassign me. And then I would never be able to find you."

Her voice hitched and she pressed harder into his chest. Mulder tightened his grip around her. "I'm not going anywhere, baby," he said in a low voice. He found her left hand and rubbed his thumb against her ring.

His voice sounded almost foreign to his own ears. Baby. He had never called her that, never really called her anything besides "Scully" and "Dana," the latter so infrequently that he could probably count the number of occasions on one hand. He waited for her to object, to call him on the name that had slipped out unconsciously.

"I know," she said finally. "But I was afraid. I knew Skinner would suspect you were the father, so I let him. And my mom... My mom knew I was pregnant before I told her. She even knew that the baby was a boy; she said it was because of how I was carrying him, but that wasn't it, not completely. She guessed the sex before I was showing. So I thought she would know you're his father."

Mulder nodded, remembering Maggie Scully's premonition of her daughter's abduction. He let his hand move slowly up Scully's back, and he stroked her hair slowly.

"And I knew what Bill's reaction would be," she said sadly. "Bill is very predictable. I knew he would find out -- I knew Mom would tell him -- so I took the chickenshit way out and just let her."

He waited, but she said nothing more. Still... "What about Charles?" he asked, remembering the younger man's thinly veiled hurt at being left out of his sister's life.

"Charles... I'm honestly not sure," she said. "I never know what to expect from him. I love him -- he's my brother, of course I love him -- but sometimes he scares me."

"What do you mean?" Mulder asked.

"He's so intense. It's hard to explain; he has these amazing highs when he's kind and generous and fun, but then there are the lows... He gets depressed, stays in bed for weeks, and won't talk to anyone. He's always been emotional, but this... this moodiness didn't start until high school."

Mulder closed his eyes. He was no stranger to obsession and intensity, yet what Scully was describing... It sounded more like manic depression. He tried to fit Charlie's current behavior into the mood cycles of a bipolar patient, but, without truly knowing the man, he couldn't adequately evaluate his condition.

"I guess," Scully continued, "I guess I've always tried to go easy on him. As a kid I saw how hard our father made it for him, trying to shame him into competing with Bill, which of course he couldn't do. Even without the age difference, he could never..."

She shook her head. "Even though I've always been closer to Charlie than to Bill, I've held back from him. I guess I don't want to give him more than he can handle." Mulder smoothed Scully's hair off her face. "Why do you ask?" she asked.

"Charlie and I talked some outside on the porch just now," he said. "I think he senses... something. He knows you're not letting him in. He thinks you don't let any of them in."

"My family?" she asked, and Mulder nodded, enough so that she could feel the slight pressure of his chin against the top of her head.

She paused, then, "He's right," she said softly. "I think Missy... I was closest to her. We were different enough that it was easier somehow. And I didn't worry about her the way I do Charles. She frustrated me -- God, she frustrated me sometimes -- but she was easy to talk to. She got me to say things that I would never have told anyone else, not even admitted to myself.

"And I guess my mom," Scully continued. "I've gotten closer to her since my father's death, and since Melissa's."

Yes, Mulder thought, grateful beyond reason for Margaret Scully. Not only had she literally saved his life once, stepping between him and a crazed -- and armed -- Scully, but she had saved him so many times through Scully. Someday, he thought, he would have to thank Maggie for everything she had been to Scully, so different from his own mother, protecting her, caring for her, providing her with a touch of reality in an existence that was so often unreal.

Mulder didn't know how much Maggie understood about his and Scully's jobs or what they had been through because of them. He was sure that Scully had spared her the most gruesome details, but he guessed that she understood the danger they had been in and perhaps, probably, were still in.

Maybe, Mulder thought, that was why Scully's refusal to acknowledge his paternity to her mother felt like such a betrayal, both to him and to her mother. Over the years Maggie had always been there for them, as much as, though in a different way than, Skinner. She had always been so kind to him, so loving, even though he had put her daughter through hell.

"Scully," he whispered, afraid she had fallen asleep.

"Hmmm?"

Her voice was soft and wispy. Not asleep yet, but close. Maybe this wasn't the time, he thought. Maybe he should wait until she was more alert, give her a chance to disagree with him...

"You want me to tell my mom that Liam's yours."

"It's stupid, I know," he said quickly, almost embarrassed. He was glad that she had said it for him. "Self-centered and macho. I'm sorry."

"S'okay," she said, turning her face up to him. Her eyes were foggy with sleep, and she smiled ruefully. "I haven't been very fair to you, and I'm sorry. She knows -- I'm sure she knows -- but she'll be glad to hear me say it," Scully said, settling herself in his arms.


Wednesday, December 26, 2001

"Hope is a good thing -- maybe the best thing -- and no good thing ever dies." - Stephen King

"I'm very brave generally," he went on in a low voice: "only today I happen to have a headache." - Lewis Carroll


Dana

Liam grabbed his bottle from his mother's hand and quickly, awkwardly fit it into his mouth. Scully settled him on her lap, cradling her son under her left arm and her coffee cup in her right hand. The ceramic of the mug fit hotly in the cradle of her hand, and she curled her toes in the warmth of the fleece socks she was wearing.

Setting down her mug, Scully pulled her robe snug around her shoulders. The bedroom had been warm and the flannel sheets even warmer, but now she could feel the cold of the kitchen tiles through her socks and the chill of the wooden chair against her back, despite her pajamas and robe.

Scully didn't want to think about getting dressed and beginning the day, didn't want to think about finishing her coffee and Liam finishing his bottle. She didn't want to think past that moment, especially if it had to do with her brothers or last night's argument. But mostly she didn't want to think about getting dressed because she had no clothes to wear. She and Mulder had only packed enough for one night, not anticipating the surprise ice storm, both figuratively and literally, that had settled over the Scully house.

She took a slow, hot sip of the simmering coffee, then ran her tongue over the roof of her mouth, behind her teeth. Damn. Burned her mouth. Again. Ever since she had switched to decaf during her pregnancy and while she was breastfeeding Liam, her mouth had become particularly sensitive to coffee.

Pushing the mug away, Scully reached for the newspaper that lay folded in the center of the table. The house had been quiet and sleepy when she awoke to the cheerful babble that traveled from the old crib near the window. The only other audible sounds were the whipping of the wind against the window glass and the subtle scrape of a tree branch against the side of the house.

So she had slipped out of bed quietly, not wanting to wake Mulder, who lay facing her, his face smashed between the mattress and his pillow, his mouth hanging just barely open. She pulled on her robe, lifted Liam from the crib, and quickly and quietly changed his diaper before heading downstairs.

As she walked downstairs, through the early morning cold of the house, Scully had thought she was the first person awake. The lights were off, and the house was half-lit by the beginnings of daylight that streamed through the crystal coating of ice on the windows.

But someone had beaten her downstairs. Someone had made coffee and gotten the newspaper... and tracked slushy footprints in from the front door.

"Morning."

Scully turned to see Charles standing there, his coat slung over his shoulder and a thick gray wetness oozing from between the treads of his boots.

Charles tracked his sister's gaze down to his feet and shrugged. "I'll clean it up," he promised.

"Sure," Scully said and stood. Balancing Liam on her hip, she grabbed a handful of paper towels from the counter and knelt on the floor in front of her brother.

"Hey, I said I'd do it," he told her. Gladly Scully stood and held the towels out to Charles, who snatched them away. "You doubt me?" he asked with a lopsided grin, squatting down and mopping up his mess.

She shook her head. "Never," she said with a smile, sitting back down at the kitchen table and reaching for her coffee. She turned just as Charles stood and took a step towards the counter. Again he caught her eye as she glanced down to where his still-damp boots were about to leave another wet trail on the tile floor.

"Yeah, yeah," he muttered, stooping to untie his laces.

Scully smiled before taking another slow sip of her coffee.

"Hey, Dane," Charles asked.

"Yeah?"

"Would you do me a favor?"

Scully peered at her brother over the rim of her mug. Charles stood in front of the sink, his big toe sticking out of a hole in his gray sweat socks and the frayed hem of his jeans grazing the tile floor. Liam squirmed in her arms, and Scully took his half-drunk bottle from him. His hands free, Liam grabbed at her hair, then turned and stared wide-eyed at his uncle.

"Could I borrow your car?" Charles asked.

"My car?"

"Yeah," he said. "I'd ask Mom, but hers is parked in the garage, and then I'd have to ask Bill to move his van and..."

"Can I ask where you're going?"

Charles looked down at the toe that poked out of his sock, then back over to his hiking boots. He looked back up at her, but did not meet her eyes. Instead, he studied Liam, who had abandoned her hair and was smacking his palms against the top of the table in a syncopated beat.

Finally Charles looked over at his sister, his expression both frightened and hopeful. "I want to go to the cemetery."

Even Liam noticed the mood shift in the room, and he stilled his movements, one arm outstretched. Both his eyes and his mother's were locked onto Charles's face, identical cool blue gazes.

"Okay," she said as she stood. Charles held out his hand, palm up, as if he expected her to produce her keys from the pocket of her robe. Instead, she held out Liam, who promptly extended his arms to his uncle.

Charles arched his eyebrow at her and regarded his nephew with uncertainty.

"Mulder has the keys," she explained, Liam still hanging between them. The baby kicked his legs. "He's still asleep. I'll get them when I get dressed." She looked over at him, asking his permission. Charles nodded, then held out his arms for his nephew.

Upstairs Mulder was awake, standing with his back to the door and clad only in a pair of faded blue boxer briefs. He turned when he heard the door squeak open, a gray t-shirt dangling from his hand.

"I don't have any clean clothes," he told her.

"I told you to bring pajamas," she said.

He chuffed at her suggestion, as he had when she'd first made it, while they were packing on Christmas Eve morning. "I told you, I like to sleep--"

"I know," she said with a smile. "But you can't exactly go downstairs like that."

He looked down. "You don't think Bill would approve?"

She laughed. "I don't even want to imagine Bill's reaction," she admitted. "But besides that," she said, "you'd freeze."

"Where's Liam?" he asked, finally realizing that Scully's arms were empty.

"Who?" Scully kidded, and Mulder grinned. "He's downstairs with Charles," she said, stripping off her robe. Awkwardly, she tried to put on her bra beneath her pajama top.

"What are you doing?" Mulder asked her, sitting down on the bed to watch Scully's contortions.

"Trying to get dressed," she grunted, "without getting undressed."

He watched as she got her bra hooked and attempted to slip a t-shirt on without removing her top. Finally she succeeded and then took off her warm flannel pajama top. She shivered mightily as she grabbed her sweater from their suitcase and dropped it over her head.

"Very impressive," Mulder said with a leering half-grin. "I bet I could think of some way to put that talent to good use," he told her.

"I'll bet you could," she said in a low voice, giving him a quick grin before quickly slipping her pajama bottoms off and a pair of pants on. Scully traded her fleece socks for a slimmer pair that would fit beneath her shoes. She rifled quickly through the overnight bag, then turned to face Mulder again.

"Do you have the car keys?"

"In the pocket of my jeans," he told her, and she snatched them out of his pocket before tossing the pants over to him. "We going somewhere?"

"I am," she said, slipping her shoes on.

"And I'm staying here?" he asked, pulling on his jeans and buttoning the fly. "With your brothers?"

"Just Bill. Charlie's coming with me."

Mulder frowned and opened his mouth to object. Scully smiled. "Charlie and I are going to the cemetery," she explained.

"And you're leaving me here with Bill?"

"Don't be a baby," she said. "You won't be alone. Mom and Tara will be here, too. And Matthew and Liam," she reminded him. "I'm sure your seven month old son will protect you from my big bad brother."

"Don't mock," he told her. "I could use all the reinforcements I can get... Hey," he said, giving the underarms of his t-shirt a quick sniff before pulling the garment over his head. "You don't think Bill'll hit me if I'm holding Liam, do you?"

"He's not going to hit you," she said as she stuffed the keys in her pocket and opened the door.

"Promise?" Mulder asked, following her out of the bedroom and down the hall.

When they got downstairs the rest of the family was awake and making breakfast, though Scully noticed that each of them was preparing their own meal. Charles stood at the counter, stirring milk and sugar into his coffee with one hand and anchoring Liam to his hip with the other.

Tara, still dressed in her pajamas, was cutting the crusts off a slice of cinnamon toast. Bill, who was wearing a stiff white shirt that looked as though it had just been ironed, stood against the back door, the steam from his coffee cup fogging up the window to his right.

Also dressed, Scully's mother was lifting Matthew into his booster seat, and she paused when Mulder and Scully stepped into the kitchen. "Good morning, Dana, Fox," she said.

"Morning, Mom," Scully said.

"Mrs. Scully," Mulder echoed.

"Mama," Liam cried out after catching a glimpse of Scully, and Charles eagerly handed him over.

Tara and Charlie nodded their heads in greeting. Bill, however, simply crinkled his brow at them. "Are you three leaving?" he asked.

"Charlie and I are going to the cemetery," Scully announced, pouring her coffee into a travel mug. "Get my coat, too, will you?"

Charlie nodded and headed towards the hall closet. Bill glanced at Scully, then over at Charles's retreating figure. Scully could see that he was torn, that he wanted to come but wasn't yet ready to swallow his pride and ask if he could join them. His gaze continued to shoot between his brother and sister. Scully almost felt bad enough to ask him to come along. Almost.

She turned to Mulder. "We'll stop by the apartment and pick up some clean clothes on the way back," she said, handing him the baby. "Is there anything in particular you want?"

Mulder shook his head. "Anything clean," he said. "And warm." She smiled.

Charles returned wearing his coat and carrying a dark bundle. "This one yours?" he asked Scully. She nodded when he held up her black leather jacket, and he tossed it over to her. Then he held up the other jacket he'd brought and tossed it at Bill.

"Let's go," Charles said.


Mulder

"So stubborn," Margaret Scully said, shaking her head as she watched Bill, Charles, and Scully walk out the front door. She turned back to Mulder and Tara, who had both sat down at the kitchen table. "Especially Bill and Dana," she told them, concentrating her gaze on Tara and Mulder in turn.

Mulder smiled ruefully, quite familiar with the Scully family stubbornness. Apparently a dominant trait, he thought, glancing down at his son. He intercepted Liam's curious fingers, which were heading towards the coffee cup Bill had abandoned on the table.

Tara was also grinning. "At least Charlie's more easygoing," she said. "I can't imagine having three children so stubborn."

Maggie nodded. "Two was plenty," she said. "Melissa was my salvation. Bill and Dana were so competitive with each other, especially when it came to their father's approval. But Melissa was so easygoing, so sweet and loving."

"And Charles?" Tara asked.

"Charles," Maggie echoed. "Charles was the most difficult. They fought all the time, but Bill and Dana were quite independent. They insisted on doing everything for themselves, and it was easy to let them, with Charles to worry about. Charles was...

"Charles was different. Difficult. Moody and emotional. He cycled between depressed and withdrawn, and volatile and angry.

"But Missy was a big help; when Charles was a baby she was just the right age to help take care of him. And, by that time, believe me, I needed all the help I could get. Dana was too young, but Melissa was like a second mother to Charles."

Mulder nodded. In a small way, Charles reminded him of Samantha, both babied by their parents and older siblings. Strangely, he found himself sympathizing with Bill and Melissa. He, too, had been the oldest, had shouldered his parents' responsibility, especially after Samantha's disappearance when, at times, it felt almost as though he were the parent.

Liam began to kick at him, growing restless on his lap. So Mulder stood the baby up, allowing him to bounce up and down of his own accord. Liam stared up at the stained glass lampshade that hung over the kitchen table. He reached toward it, pushing against his father's thighs in an effort to get closer.

"It gets busier with the second child than you would think," Maggie told Tara. "You not only have a new baby to look after, but the older one, too. I'm sure it'll be easier for you and Bill, though. There was only a year age difference between Bill and Melissa."

Tara shook her head. "A year," she marveled. "I can't imagine. Matthew was still a baby at a year."

Maggie nodded, turning to Mulder. "Bill and Melissa were fourteen months apart," she said. "But it'll be easier for you two," Maggie repeated to Tara. "Matthew will be -- what? -- four and a half when the baby's born?"

Tara nodded. "Just about."

"That's even more than the age difference between Missy and Charles," Margaret said, "and that worked out well. Their father and I definitely got smarter as we went along. A year between Billy and Melissa, twenty months between Melissa and Dana, then three and a half years between Dana and Charles.

"Well," Maggie said after a pause. "I'd better get over to Mrs. Patrick's house." She grabbed the picnic basket from the counter and rearranged the food inside before she shut the hinged flaps to cover the basket.

"I should be back in an hour or so," she told them, grabbing her coat off the chair next to Tara and leaving through the back door.

Tara and Mulder sat in silence until Liam started whining. Then Mulder searched through the cabinets until he found a box of Cheerios and dropped several handfuls onto the table. He took a banana from the refrigerator and broke it into pieces, then caught the baby's attention and directed him to his breakfast.

Liam's eyes widened, and he reached out for a piece of banana. Mulder sat down next to the high chair, warming his hands with his own coffee mug. Mulder and Tara watched Liam carefully pinch Cheerio after Cheerio between his thumb and forefinger and fit them into his mouth.

"I'd better get to work," Tara said, rising from her chair and checking on Matthew, who was quietly playing with the remains of his cinnamon toast, waving his messy fingers in the air.

"Work?" Mulder asked.

"B-i-r-t-h-d-a-y C-a-k-e," she spelled, wiping her son's hands with a washcloth before lifting him from his seat at the table. "Okay, Matty," she said. "Why don't you go play with the train set in the living room?"

"But Daddy said he'd build a snowman with me," Matthew whined.

"He'll help you when he comes back, Matty."

"Promise?"

"I promise," Tara said.

But Matthew was not to be pacified. "But where did Daddy go-ooo?"

Tara sighed, and Mulder could sense her patience thinning. He wondered how much sleep she'd gotten last night. "He went to the cemetery, baby," she said, running her hand through his hair. "With Aunt Dana and Uncle Charles. He'll help you when they get back."

Finally Matthew gave in and went into the living room. But Mulder continued to watch Tara, who closed her eyes for a minute and sighed again, long and audible. Finally she stood and went to the cupboards.

After last night they were all worn thin. Mulder had felt it still when he woke up that morning, woke to find the bed empty and Scully and Liam gone. Last night's argument had not been Tara's -- had not been Mulder's, either, really -- but he felt out of sorts, especially after Scully left with her brothers and even more strongly since Maggie went over to her neighbor's house.

Of course Mulder was grateful that it wasn't Bill he'd been left alone with, but he didn't know Tara very well. She was friendly enough, and Scully seemed to like her, but Mulder wasn't sure. After all, she was married to Bill.

"What about you, Mulder?" Tara asked as she removed ingredients for Matthew's cake from the refrigerator and cupboards. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

Mulder stopped, his coffee cup frozen in mid-air. He had assumed that Tara knew about Samantha. Mulder himself had mentioned losing a sister to Bill once, when Scully was sick with her cancer. But Bill must not have told his wife, or must have forgotten it himself. Still, Mulder thought Maggie would have mentioned it...

"I had a sister," he said, setting his coffee cup down and helping himself to one of Liam's Cheerios. "Samantha. She disappeared when she was eight. I was twelve," he said.

"And you never...?"

"We never found her."

"I'm so sorry," Tara said, stopping and sitting next to Mulder at the table.

Mulder nodded, took a long sip of his coffee. "What about you?" he asked finally.

"Me? Oh, right. I'm the youngest. Two older sisters, and I always wanted a brother. In a way," she said with a grin, "I can sympathize with Charles, being the baby of the family. At times it was fun, but eventually you grow up and get frustrated when no one takes you seriously."

Mulder nodded. In a way, he knew what Tara meant. During his tenure on the X- Files he so often felt as though no one took his work seriously. On most days he could handle it, but at other times he had felt overwhelmed and underappreciated. Only Scully had believed him, had respected his views even though she usually didn't share them.

Mulder reached over and stole another Cheerio from Liam's tray. The baby had grown bored of his breakfast and had started to play with the cereal, most of which was now covered with a gummy coating of banana mush.

"Okay, buddy," Mulder said. "I think you're about done with your breakfast." Mulder wet a paper towel and wiped off the high chair tray, while Liam, who wasn't finished playing, began to whimper.

"Come here, sweet boy," Tara said, lifting the baby out of the high chair. Liam went to her eagerly, and she handed him his bottle. She held him on her lap, smoothing his hair and trailing her hand down his arm to his fisted fingers.

"You forget how little they are," Tara said, setting her palm flat against the tiny feet of Liam's pajamas. Mulder dropped the paper towel into the trash and sat back down.

"Enjoy this time, Mulder," she said, glancing into the living room, where Matthew was motoring the engine of the train around the base of the Christmas tree. "It goes so fast."

Mulder nodded, then took his son from Tara. He grabbed a handful of toys from the microwave tray near the window, then sat back down at the table and arranged Liam in his lap. The baby grabbed his favorite toy, the thick wand filled with water and glitter and small plastic fish.

Tara stood and went back to her cake recipe, and Mulder alternated between watching her, watching Liam, and sipping his coffee, as Tara measured out ingredients into a large mixing bowl.

There was a question, one question, that he was burning to ask Tara. As he watched Liam hold his bottle with one hand and repeatedly invert his toy in the other, Mulder considered the idea. Ask her, he told himself, watching the tiny plastic fish fall through a shower of glitter as Liam dropped the wand on the table. Ask her.

Mulder took a sip of coffee. "Tara?"

"Yeah?" she asked, searching through the drawers for a mixing spoon.

"Drawer to the left of the sink," Mulder told her.

"Thanks," she said, removing a large wooden spoon.

"Tara, did you ever meet Captain Scully?"


Dana

They took Scully's car, though both it and Bill's van were crusted over with a crisp, icy coating of snow. Scully tried the key in the keyhole with no luck. The locks were frozen shut. She brought the key to her lips and breathed several quick puffs of air onto the cold metal, then tried again. Success.

Scully was pushing her own seat closer to the gas pedal when she noticed Bill scooting his back before getting in. Bill could have driven, Scully thought; after all, he was approximately Mulder's height, and they wouldn't have had to change the seats.

But Scully wanted to drive. She started up the car, which chugged to life and sputtered several tentative puffs of cold air at them.

Scully reached in back for the scraper, but Bill beat her to it. He got out and chipped the ice from the front and back windshields and windows. Scully glanced to Charles in the backseat, but he just shrugged. "Let him," he said.

A penance, she supposed. Frankly, she didn't much care, as long as it meant she could wait in the car in anticipation of the heat starting up. She listened halfheartedly to the radio. Mulder had tuned it to a traffic report on their drive over two days before, and the station, which usually played an assortment of oldies, was offering a weather report. Cold, with a chance of snow.

Soon Bill was finished, and he folded himself back into the passenger side, dropping the scraper into the back seat. They were quiet as Scully pulled slowly out of the slick driveway, the snow crunching beneath the car's tires. The weather report ended, and a song started, an old Carole King tune Scully recognized but barely.

"Here I am, Carrying the child of our sweet love, And you're far away. That's how things go down. But I want to see you again."

Scully froze, and not from the cold. She willed Bill to turn the radio off or change the station; she was concentrating too intently the icy turns of the road to comfortably remove a hand from the wheel. But he simply sat there, his vision trained blankly at the end of Maggie Scully's street. It was as if he and Charles didn't even hear the music, or didn't understand its significance.

Finally Scully pulled onto the main road, which had been cleared off, and she reached out and turned off the car stereo. Silence engulfed the car, and Scully had to admit that she was surprised. She had expected maybe a lecture from Bill, who so often couldn't keep his mouth shut.

He had always been bossy, had been the one who, when they were children, chose what game they would play and who would go first, most often him. It was in following Bill's lead that Scully had become a tomboy. And it was from rebelling against Bill that Melissa, and later Charles, had not.

But that morning her brothers were silent, watching the road intently, holding their breaths as the car fishtailed when Scully turned onto an ice-slicked side street. But she quickly righted the car, thanked God for the practice she had driving under dangerous circumstances -- despite Mulder's frequent monopolizing of the wheel -- and the rest of the drive was uneventful.

The trip took almost fifty minutes, double the usual driving time because so few of the streets were plowed or salted. But when they pulled into the East entrance of the cemetery, Scully saw that the driveway was cleared and the parking spaces lining it nearly filled. Clusters of people huddled together around gravestones that rose, cold and imposing, from the white blanket of snow. Baskets of flowers dotted the landscape in pinks and blues and yellows, and Scully wished that they had thought to bring something for Melissa's grave.

Scully maneuvered the car carefully along the driveway, then pulled it into an empty space near Melissa's grave. She and her brothers got out of the car, testing their footing on the ice before taking a step. But both Bill and Charles held back, letting Scully lead them over to Melissa's grave.

It was then that she realized suddenly that not only had Charlie never been to the cemetery, but Bill had not either. At least not since the funeral. Anger welled up inside her, then quelled. Bill lived out in San Diego and didn't get back East very often. And when he did, it wasn't for long, a day's stopover in Norfolk or Annapolis. Who could blame him for choosing to spend that time with his mother instead of his sister's grave?

Scully trudged through the crusty snow, leading them to a gentle valley tucked between a pair of barren trees. She stooped to brush the snow from the headstone with a gloved hand. Melissa Scully, she traced. Bill and Charlie bent down next to her, and, together, they cleared off the rest of the stone: Beloved Sister and Daughter. 1962-1995.

Charles reached into his pocket and produced a large scarlet poinsettia blossom, which he set atop the grave. Then he sunk to his knees in the snow, leaning forward against the cold stone. "Oh, Missy," he cried in a strangled voice. "Missy."

Scully closed her eyes against her tears, turned away from her brothers. She knew she had imposed on Charles by coming with him to the cemetery -- she herself liked to come alone, so there might be no witness to her grief -- and now she wanted to give Charles what little privacy she could.

Scully stepped away from Melissa's grave, digging the toe of her boot into the snow. She surveyed the flat white landscape of the cemetery, dotted by solitary men and women in black coats and brown coats, and a small cluster of children in nylon jackets, puffy and bright, corralled by a middle-aged man with a hat pulled low over his eyes.

Graves in pink and gray granite peeked out from under the blanket of snow. So many of the graves rose in pairs, Scully saw, pairs like an open book. Like eyes, peeking over shallow hills and around sloping valleys. So many of the stones bore two carved names, husband and wife, together forever on black granite in Times New Roman.

Here lies Doris Julia Carpenter, 1926-1994, Beloved Wife, Mother, Grandmother. A Byzantine cross rested between the names of Doris and John, her dearly beloved. But John Stanley Carpenter, 1928-, was beside his wife in name only; John Stanley Carpenter was still walking this planet, alive and presumably well, his name holding his place next to his wife, waiting for the day when he joins her. Till death do us part.

Half of the headstone was cleared of snow, and Scully wondered whether John Stanley Carpenter had come recently to visit his wife's grave. She wondered whether he came often, whether he stood there with his children and grandchildren, thinking of Doris. She wondered whether his gaze lingered on his own name, his own birthdate, the smooth stone and cold earth ready to receive him.

Scully turned away from Doris and John, and searched for a small stone to leave on Melissa's grave. Finally she found one in the dirt at the edge of a freshly dug grave. She kicked the brown dirt with her toe, taking in the tiny wooden cross planted at the gravesite. To mark the life, mark the moment.

Slowly Scully wandered in a circle around Missy's grave, but she could do nothing to block out Charles's keening sobs. He rocked himself back and forth, touching his forehead to the cold stone each time he leaned forward.

"Missy, Missy, Missy," he called out.

Scully saw Bill several feet away, inconspicuously studying a grave decorated with a tiny flag planted proudly in the snow. After several minutes Scully stepped back toward Melissa's grave and reached down to set her hand on her brother's shoulder, fully expecting him to pull away.

Instead he latched onto her legs, like Liam did whenever she or Mulder tried to stand the baby up and urge him to take a few tentative steps. Charles laid his head against her thighs, and she reached down and stroked his hair.

Finally Charles stood, brushing the snow from the knees of his pants. Scully gazed up at him. "Are you okay?" she asked, and he shrugged.

"What's okay?" he asked, and she smiled, understanding.

"I'll be fine," he assured her. "I just needed to see it," he said, and she nodded. "I mean, I knew she was dead. Intellectually, I knew it. But somehow it wasn't completely real until I saw. Then I could believe..."


BILL

Dana's key chain rattled in the door to her apartment as the keys stuck in the lock. Finally they released and she pushed open the door, letting them follow her inside.

"Have a seat," she said, dropping her keys on a small table next to the door, then gesturing to the couch. "Let me just get together some clothes and some things for Liam, and then we can go."

Bill nodded at his sister's retreating back and watched as Charles plopped down on the sofa. He kicked his heels up on the coffee table and carefully considered the piles of books strewn on the table.

"Hmm," Charles said, "let's see." He flipped through several children's books, some of which Bill recognized from Matthew's collection. Then Charles reached the denser texts on the bottom of the pile and hefted two books off the table, placing one in each hand as if weighing them.

"'Criminal Profiling in a Politically Correct World' and 'Recovering Trace Evidence: Beyond the Y Incision,'" he read. "You need to work on the reading material here, Dane, or Liam's gonna be one seriously messed up kid."

Dana's only response was the swift slam of a drawer, and Bill grinned despite himself.

Charles abandoned the books and turned his attention to a pile of magazines. After digging through the stack, he picked out a slim volume. "Penology Review," he said. "Jesus, Dana, what have you got going on here?"

"This isn't a waiting room, Charles," came Dana's terse reply from the other room. "I'm sorry if the selection isn't to your liking." Charles just laughed.

Again Bill smiled, hoping his brother was just playing dumb, but he didn't sit down next to Charles on the couch. Instead, he wandered slowly around the room, investigating. Was this how Dana did it, taking everything in, trying to add up the clues and come out with some semblance of an answer? Some kind of truth?

Her apartment looked normal. It looked almost the same as it had the last time Bill had been there, except for the Christmas tree in the corner and the baby paraphernalia scattered around the room. Bill couldn't stop himself from smiling at the sight of all the baby clutter: neat-freak Dana had met her match, he thought with a satisfied grin, remembering how she and Melissa had once divided their bedroom in half, Melissa's side knee-deep in clothes and magazines and dolls, Dana's half clean enough to perform surgery in.

Ever since his mother told him on the phone that Dana and Mulder were living together, Bill had tried to imagine them in Mulder's Apartment, which of course he had never seen. But he hadn't pictured Mulder moving into his sister's place. He couldn't picture Mister Special Agent leaving his paranoid hovel to join Dana in the real world.

Bill had imagined a wrought-iron gate, maybe, or a high-tech security system that was password-protected and required a retina scan to gain admittance. Or maybe just a dog, a really big, hungry dog with sharp teeth. Bill could even picture Mulder in a cave somewhere, hiding out with a gun tucked in his sleeping bag and a telescope poised for a good view when the aliens landed.

Even besides the mess, however, this apartment surprised Bill. He hadn't expected this. He hadn't expected normal.

But that's exactly what their apartment was: Normal. Despite the unusual selection of reading material on their coffee table, the apartment could've belonged to anyone. Bill recognized most of the furniture as his sister's, so maybe he wasn't wrong; maybe Mulder had lived in an empty apartment before moving in with Dana, sleeping on the floor, ready to dash away at any indication of imminent alien invasion.

There was a bookshelf against the East wall, the books that filled it diverse. One shelf was filled with medical texts, the next with psychology books and journals. Another shelf was crammed with paperbacks, some beloved with broken spines, others shiny and new. Bill thumbed one well-worn book from the shelf: Stephen King's "The Dead Zone." Someone had obviously loved this book and read it more than once. Probably it was Mulder, Bill thought, not able to picture Dana reading Stephen King.

But when the cover fell open Bill saw that it was Dana Scully's name that was written carefully in pen on the inside front cover.

Bill himself had read the book his freshman year at the Naval Academy. Horror had never been to his taste -- no, he preferred historical fiction or the occasional military thriller; Tom Clancy had long been a favorite. But he had picked up "The Dead Zone" on his roommate's recommendation.

Bill had been surprised to find that he enjoyed the book, which didn't fit into his idea of typical King: no bloody massacres or killer zombies or possessed toys. Instead, the book had presented an interesting take on a classic dilemma: if you could travel back in time, would you kill Hitler?

Of course, the book hadn't presented the problem in exactly those terms -- King had to get some supernaturalism in there somewhere, with his everyman protagonist (named, appropriately, John Smith) gaining some mysterious prognosticant power when he touched someone. And then, at a political rally, Smith happens to shake hands with a man who, he sees, will someday become the President of the United States and destroy the world.

Despite the novel's fantastic element, Bill had been intrigued by its premise, intrigued enough to remember the book's effect on him so many years later. What would you do if you were an ordinary man in possession of extraordinary knowledge that would save the world? Would you risk your own life -- and your reputation as sane -- to save billions?

Bill liked to think he would, but he knew that every person who read that book probably thought the same thing. I would be brave like John Smith; I would risk myself for the greater good; I would devote myself to a cause I believed in. Bill replaced the book on the shelf, wondering when Dana had read it.

Then he walked over to the desk and chair that sat by the window. On the desk top, next to the computer, sat several framed photographs. One frame held two pictures, side by side. The first was of Dana and Melissa as teenagers, sitting on a dock, their feet dangling into the lake below. Melissa was wearing a pink bikini, her pale midriff begging for sunburn. Dana, ever the practical one, was wearing a t-shirt and a floppy hat that was folded up to uncover her freckled face.

The second photo in the frame showed all four of them: Bill, Melissa, Dana, and Charles, standing on the staircase of their base housing in some city he couldn't quite remember. Charlie had the top step and Bill the bottom, so the children were approximately the same height. Bill recognized the picture as part of a Christmas card they'd sent one winter, when he was about eight.

What struck him most about the photograph was how happy they all looked. Were they? He couldn't remember. He was also surprised by how much the four of them looked alike back then, especially Dana and Charles. Their smiles -- their real smiles, not the artificial ones they sported for poorly posed school pictures -- were the same. Down another step stood Melissa, who, with her red hair and pale skin, definitely looked like a Scully. It was eight-year-old Billy who was out of place, with darker hair and a stockier build, his eyes not as large and trusting as his siblings'.

Bill pushed the photo aside and turned to the other frames on the desk. The next picture Bill didn't recognize, a dark-haired boy and girl, probably brother and sister. The boy was older, and stood against a tree, grinning into the sun, his arms crossed in front of him. The girl stood next to him, also smiling, but her grin was more happy than squinty and sarcastic.

The boy, of course, was Fox Mulder. He had the grown Mulder's same smartass grin, the same cocky tilt of his head. Bill figured that the girl was Fox Mulder's infamous missing sister.

Bill picked up the third and final picture, which was of Dana, Mulder, and a newborn Liam, sitting together on the same couch where Charles now sat. Mulder was holding Liam, and Dana was sitting next to him, so close, Mulder's elbow pressing into her shoulder.

Bill recognized the picture even though he had never seen it before. He and Tara had one just like it on the mantle of their fireplace, in their own home, with their son as the focal point, held in Bill's arms, with Tara standing nearby. He remembered how she had urged him to hand over the baby when he got fussy, and how he had refused. You carried him for nine months, he'd said, it's my turn now.

Bill shuddered and set the picture back down, smacking it against the desk top. He had nothing in common with Fox Mulder, nothing. Well, he admitted, nothing except Dana.

At one time Bill had been confidant that Dana's partnership with Mulder wouldn't last. Surely she would continue up the rungs of the FBI ladder, leaving her crazy partner in the dust. But then Bill came to see that Dana wasn't going anywhere.

So, Bill revised, it would be Mulder. Mulder would be reassigned, or fired, or placed on an extended disciplinary leave that faded into forever. Mulder might have moved into Dana's Apartment, but surely it was just a pit stop; surely the man would up and leave whenever he caught wind of a new lead, a new conspiracy.

But now Bill didn't know. This week Mulder had been acting like he was there to stay. He had played nice with the rest of the Scully family... nicer than Bill had, if he was honest with himself. If Bill didn't know any better, he might suspect that Mulder was looking for their approval.

And he appeared to have found it. Bill could see that his mother and Mulder were closer than he had thought, and, by the looks of it, they had been close for a while now. When had that happened? Bill wondered. Maybe as far back as Matthew's birth, he thought, remembering his mother's relief at Fox Mulder's arrival.

Or maybe longer. Maggie always managed to weave Mulder's name into their weekly telephone chats. It was usually in the context of Dana's work, but Maggie also dropped in the occasional personal mention: she had had dinner with Mulder; he had stopped by on Mother's Day; she had to go shopping for his birthday present.

But mostly it was work, though he suspected Maggie understood little of her daughter's job. Bill knew from his own work, relatively safe and dependable as it was, that Dana's job was no picnic. Since she entered the Academy Bill had kept his ears tuned to any conversations about federal law enforcement. Not that his department of the Navy had all that much to do with the FBI, but he did try. At first he had simply looked for ammunition to get her out of the Bureau. He had even shared a few anecdotes with his father, hoping he would pass them on to Dana.

But, as he learned more and more about the X-Files, Bill listened in an effort to understand the danger she was in. It was a small thing, he knew, but it kept him in his sister's life. God knows she didn't share anything with him willingly. No, nearly all of his knowledge about his sister's life came from their mother, and it was through her that he came to know Fox Mulder as well.

Suddenly Bill was sure he could pinpoint when it was that Mulder had first insinuated himself into Bill's family: Dana's disappearance. Bill had been at sea and, by the time he learned what had happened, Tara said Maggie was coping well, that she had calmed herself down. So Bill had decided that him leaving the ship would not help anything. Though now he wondered whether it was someone else, someone named Fox Mulder, who had done the calming.

It had been that far back, Bill realized, that Mulder had begun to take his place in the Scully family. His father hadn't even been buried for a year, so obviously Maggie was looking for a man to rely on, though why she believed that man was Fox Mulder, Bill did not know. Lack of competition, he figured guiltily.

After not being there after her disappearance, Bill had taken a few days' leave from his commission when Dana's cancer landed her in the hospital. And Mulder was absent, though he certainly held enough influence to pull Dana from a family dinner just days earlier.

And then Mulder had reappeared, back from the dead -- the guy had a knack for that -- and slipped back into the number one slot in Dana's life. She had even agreed with his ridiculous idea that sticking some small piece of metal in her neck would cure her. If it were that easy, Bill thought, every patient in the oncology wards would be calling Mulder for one of those magic pieces of metal.

Bill remembered that day in the hospital with a crispness borne of reliving it every time he thought of his sister. Dana in bed, looking suddenly so old, looking as though she was holding back tears. Her doctor standing at the foot of her bed, not believing in Mulder's science fiction but not disagreeing either.

And then Bill and Maggie on one side of Dana's bed, and Mulder on the other. An appropriate position, Bill thought. Appropriate until his own mother had joined Dana on Fox Mulder's side. They were all on Fox Mulder's side, Bill thought. Mom and Dana and Charles and even Tara.

But Bill was no fool; he had noticed the shiny new ring on Dana's left hand. While it didn't appear to be an engagement ring, Bill didn't know what to make of it; he didn't know what to make of a lot of things. He sighed, feeling the pounding between his eyes, the beginnings of a headache.

"Dana?" he called out, wandering into the hall.

"Yeah?" she answered, and he followed her voice into the bedroom.

Dana was standing near the door, at a dresser against the wall, dropping something -- underwear, he soon realized -- into an overnight bag. He averted his eyes, but not before he saw that it was not hers.

"Do you have any aspirin?"

"In the medicine cabinet in the bathroom," she said, gesturing towards the bathroom. She resumed her packing without skipping a beat.

Bill stepped into the bathroom, carefully surveying the scene. Surely, he thought, there had to be *something* screwy about the place Fox Mulder called home. But the bathroom was just like the rest of the apartment: unobtrusive and unspectacular.

Bill popped open the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet and searched through its overstocked shelves. He cleared aside various bottles and jars, then finally Bill picked out the plastic bottle of aspirin. He shook out two gel-coated capsules, then took a third. Bill recapped the bottle and carefully fit it back onto a shelf. He jiggled the pills in his closed fist, glancing around the bathroom for a glass.

Bill gave up and went into the kitchen, considering the cupboard doors. He got lucky on his first try and took a plastic New York Knicks cup. He filled it with tap water, then gulped down the aspirin. Bill rinsed out the glass and placed it in the plastic dish drainer.

He crossed his arms, taking time to study the kitchen. Searching, searching, for anomalies, for signs that all was not well in his sister's apartment or her life. He thought he was prepared for anything: an alien tracking device, or some mysterious weapon, or a prescription for anti-psychotic drugs in Mulder's name. But what he found surprised him.

Sitting in the middle of the kitchen table was a menorah.

"Charles," Bill called out as he stepped into the main room of the apartment.

"Yeah," Charles said, looking up from the magazine that was open on his lap. "This Penology Review isn't so bad," he said with a grin. "Definitely not what I thought it was, though."

Bill suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. "Is Mulder Jewish, do you know?"

Charles shrugged. "You'd know better than I would. I didn't even meet the guy until this week." His brother turned his attention back to the magazine. "Why don't you ask Dana?"

Ask Dana. Of course. But he knew she would take his question as a criticism, even though it was not. Fox Mulder's religious affiliation didn't sway Bill's opinion of the man in any way. Really.

Charlie waited, sifting through several more pages, before again looking up at his brother. "Well?" he asked, but Bill merely shrugged. Charles rolled his eyes.

"Dana?" Charlie called out.

"Yes?" Dana came out of the bedroom carrying a small overnight bag.

"Is Mulder Jewish?" Charles asked simply.

In the pit of his stomach, Bill felt a twinge of jealousy over the ease Charles had with Dana. Even though they had certainly gotten along better in the past, Bill's relationship with his sister had always been precarious. If Bill had asked the question, Dana would have read into it some kind of judgment. But she gave Charlie so much more latitude with her exalted privacy; she always had. With Charlie asking, Bill knew that she would simply answer the question. And she did.

"His father was," she said, and Charlie nodded before slapping the sleeves of the magazine shut.

"You ready?" Charles asked.

"Almost," Dana said. "I've got to get a few things for Liam." She stepped back into the hall, and Charles stood and followed her. Bill glanced between the door, the couch, the kitchen, and his brother's retreating back. Finally he followed Charles.

Liam's bedroom, too, was unanomolous. The walls were painted a pale blue and decorated with a baseball-themed border. The room was crowded with a crib, a changing table, a small dresser, a bookshelf, and a rocking chair, which was where Charlie sat, pushing back and forth, coming inches from cracking his head open on the wall behind him. Bill stood in the doorway, his arms crossed, watching.

"His father isn't alive?" Charles asked as Dana packed a stack of diapers into the overnight bag.

"No," Dana said. "He was killed a year and a half after Dad died."

"And his mother?" Charles asked.

Dana dropped a pair of overalls and a tiny shirt into the bag. "She's dead, too."

Bill couldn't stop the twinge of sadness that rose in his chest, sadness for Fox Mulder, of all people. Damn it, Bill thought. He knew how difficult it was to lose one parent, and he didn't want to imagine losing both of them. Of course he knew that day would come, but Margaret Scully was relatively young and quite healthy, and Bill hoped he wouldn't be confronted with that situation for a very long time.

"No," Charles said. "I mean, his mother wasn't Jewish? You said his father..."

"No. His mother was... Protestant, I think," Dana said, glancing at Bill. She ran her thumb over her ring. "At least part of her family was. Mulder used to spend Christmas with them. But he and Samantha were raised Jewish."

"Samantha?" Charles asked.

Dana zipped up the bag, then turned to her younger brother. "Mulder's sister. She disappeared when he was twelve and she was eight." Dana again looked over at Bill, who was still perched in the doorway. "They never found her, and Mulder spent years looking for her."

Bill looked away. He had known about Samantha; he remembered what Mulder had mentioned when they met outside Dana's hospital room more than four years ago. Bill hadn't been able to get it out of his mind, the pathetic, puppy-dog look on Mulder's face; it had taken every ounce of his self-control not to haul off and deck the guy for his naked emotion.

What right did Mulder have feeling sorry for himself when it was Bill's sister who was dying in the next room? Mulder only worked with Dana. It wasn't like he was family or anything, and back then Bill couldn't imagine his sister being friends with the man, couldn't imagine *anyone* being friends with him. They were working partners, and that was all, Bill had told himself. What gall Mulder had to assume the position of bereaved. How dare he?

And, worse yet, all the bad things that had happened to Bill's family were Mulder's fault. Maybe the guy had had a rough childhood, losing a sister. Fine. But that didn't give him the right to destroy Bill's family, to pick them off sister by sister. It was Mulder's crazy searching that had gotten Melissa killed, had gotten Dana kidnapped, had maybe even given Dana cancer. If this guy had any shame, he would run away and never look back, especially after what he had done to Bill's family.

But of course, Bill thought as Dana grabbed a handful of baby toys from the bookshelf and stuffed them into the overnight bag, Mulder had not turned back. And, for some inexplicable reason, Dana hadn't had the good sense to dump her troublesome excuse for a partner either. No, Bill thought, his anger flaring up again, she had probably taken one look at that pathetic expression and those self-pitying eyes and agreed to follow Mulder to the ends of the earth in search for his truth.

Remembered rage burned through Bill, and he tried to calm himself. He had once believed that Dana felt some misplaced mothering instinct towards her partner, that she had wanted to protect and care for him.

It certainly fit; months after his sister's bout with cancer had ended, his mother had told him that Dana couldn't have children. Probably, Bill thought, it was from the chemotherapy or, more likely, that crazy chip Mulder had convinced her to put into her neck.

Now Bill wished that a misplaced mothering instinct was all it had been. Obviously there was something more going on here than the simple ticking of his sister's biological clock.


Mulder

"I met Bill's father once," Tara said, turning from the ingredients stacked on the counter to face Mulder.

"Bill was home on leave. We hadn't been dating for very long and I don't think he was planning on introducing me to his parents yet, but his leave was so short."

Mulder nodded, bending over to pick up Liam's toy, which had fallen to the kitchen floor. Tara abandoned the birthday cake batter and sat at the table next to Mulder.

"So the four of us went to dinner: Captain Scully, Maggie, Bill, and me. And it was..." She paused, traced a fingernail along the dark grain of the wood of the table. "It was very informative," she said finally.

"Informative?"

"Captain Scully had quite a presence, definitely the man of the house," Tara said. "But I got the impression that Maggie had more influence over him than he let on. I could tell just from that dinner how much he loved her."

Again Mulder nodded. He only knew Scully's father from what Scully had told him -- plus what little Maggie had mentionedd in his presence -- but that much he knew: the Captain had loved his wife.

In fact, for a while it had scared Mulder, thinking of the model of love that Scully had grown up with, so opposite the example his own parents had set. Scully's parents' love had survived weeks and months at sea, and Maggie often alone battling chicken pox and school bullies and broken curfews, times four. Mulder wondered whether it would have survived the loss of a child.

"They met at a mixer on the base when Captain Scully was on a break from the Naval Academy. She was still in high school and he went back to school a few weeks later. She wrote to him, just as friends at first, for months after that, and when he went to sea. And that was how they dated, on paper. They were married a month after his ship returned to port."

Mulder smiled. In a small, strange way, Maggie and Bill Scully's courtship had mirrored his and Scully's: starting out as friends, getting to know each other in a decidedly unconventional way, but somehow ending up together.

"They had this amazing give-and-take, interrupting and correcting each other. They joked a lot," Tara remembered with a smile, then her forehead crinkled.

"But only together. This I remember very clearly: Captain Scully's relationship with Maggie was so easy. But with Bill... Well, they were more formal. Probably the same father-son dynamic that played out in most American households around the time we were growing up."

Mulder looked down at Liam, remembering his relationship with his own father. He wasn't sure it was typical of the time, but certainly it was formal. Until the day of his death, Mulder couldn't remember his father initiating an embrace with him, couldn't remember the man initiating any physical contact at all, save the overly formal handshake that Bill Mulder passed off as a greeting.

Mulder shifted Liam on his lap, and the baby kicked his legs out in frustration. Probably he was tired, Mulder thought as his son ground his fists into his eyes. None of them had slept well that night, Liam included. Mulder held Liam up so that the baby was standing on his thighs, but he wouldn't be quieted. Instead, he leaned his head against his father's shoulder, and Mulder raised an arm to stroke the baby's back.

"Anyway," Tara said, taking her eyes off her nephew, "I think partially Bill was afraid his father would disapprove of me," she said with a shrug and a half- smile. "Bill was so nervous. His father's opinion was very important to him. I remember being afraid that, if Captain Scully didn't like me, Bill would break it off between us.

"Not that his father would've come out and suggested that -- or maybe he would've, I didn't know him all that well -- but I think Bill had--" She stopped, corrected herself. "--still has a great need for his father's approval.

"That part was a little scary," Tara admitted. "It felt like I was being tested: if the Captain approved, then it was smooth sailing," she joked. "But if he didn't, then... Abandon ship."

Mulder continued to stroke Liam's back, and he felt his son's breathing slow and his body relax. Thank God, Mulder thought. Liam always got fussy when his sleep schedule was interrupted, and he had been prone to angry outbursts recently. Once he had stiffened his back and limbs and cried out tortuously. Mulder had been afraid that the baby was having some sort of seizure or something worse, something they had been afraid to consider.

But, luckily, Scully had kept her head. She said Liam's behavior normal, the early beginnings of the infamous Terrible Twos temper tantrums. She had even consulted an old pediatrics textbooks she had saved from med school to allay his fears. So Mulder had relaxed, at least for the moment, reminding himself that Liam's reaction was normal, perfectly normal. Nothing to worry about.

"But, in another way," Tara continued, "that dinner was what made me fall in love with Bill. I saw how much like his father Bill is and how much Captain Scully loved Maggie..." She smiled almost shyly.

"It was like seeing a future version of us, the good parts and the bad. I saw how difficult being married to a Navy man would be: the transfers and the moving and the time alone when your husband is at sea. And I saw how tough it would be to be married to Bill, if he was anything like his father, and I could tell even then that he was," she said with a certain nod.

"But that was all I ever saw of Captain Scully," Tara said. "He died a few months later, while Bill was still at sea. He got a leave for the funeral, and I went with him. I thought it would give me a chance to meet Melissa, Dana, and Charles," she said, her voice trailing off.

"It didn't?" Mulder asked.

Tara shook her head. "I met Dana," she said. "And Michael, their cousin, the Captain's nephew. He was there with his wife and two little boys. But Melissa wasn't there, and neither was Charles."

Mulder didn't understand that. Despite his feelings for his father, it was one of his greatest regrets that he had missed the man's funeral, especially that he had allowed his mother to suffer through that ordeal alone, knowing he was missing and thinking him dead. At least Scully had been there, he thought with a warm feeling. Even that long ago Scully had been there for him, even for his mother, though Mulder suspected that Scully's feelings for Teena Mulder weren't completely complementary.

"I didn't understand it then," Tara said with a shrug. "And I'm not sure I do now. They're a complicated bunch, and I never did meet Melissa and barely know Charles. It was unfair, but I made more than a few snap judgments about them based on that day," she said. "And maybe about Dana, too."

Mulder cocked his head at her, wondering.

Tara blushed a bit and glanced away. "Going back to work the afternoon after the memorial service, leaving town especially," she said. "I didn't understand how she could do that. Of course, she looked like a saint compared to Melissa and Charles, but still..."

Mulder nodded, remembered trying to convince Scully to take some time off after her father's death and not dive right back into work with a case as emotionally trying as Luthor Lee Boggs. He'd even called her "Dana," something that had sounded so forced, so foreign, on his tongue, that Scully had given him her now- patented what-the-hell-Mulder? look.

Still, Mulder mentally finished for Tara, it gave the impression that Scully wasn't close to her father, that she didn't love him. But even back then Mulder could tell how important Captain Scully was to her, how much she valued his opinion. And knowing all that back then had just made Mulder admire her even more. She was so brave to stand up to him, to choose her own path despite her father's obvious disapproval, to not abandon her dream because of some misplaced sense of guilt after his death.

"Like I said," Tara continued. "It was a snap judgment, and an incorrect one. I could see that after I got to know Dana better. And maybe," she mused, "maybe my impressions of Captain Scully are misplaced, too. I only met him that once, and only for a few hours. But I saw so much that night, about Bill and about his dad. They're both tough on the outside, but inside... That night at the restaurant, I also saw how deeply Bill was capable of loving."

Mulder bit his lip and looked back down at Liam. The baby hadn't fallen asleep yet, but he was well on his way. His body draped against Mulder's chest, heavy and trusting. Mulder felt his own breathing fall in sync with his son's. Liam sighed gently and Mulder thought back to Bill Mulder, to the Bill Scullys, Senior and Junior. We won't be that way, he silently promised Liam.

Tara's voice dropped. "And Bill does love her," she said, and Mulder looked up.

"Scu-- Dana?" he asked.

Tara nodded. "It may be tough to see--" Pretty damn impossible from where I'm standing, he thought. "-- but that's why Bill acts the way he does. He thinks it's his job to be the family protector now."

Mulder stiffened. Scully doesn't need protecting, he thought. And if she did, he'd be the one doing it. He felt his muscles tense and hold, his frustration building. Liam's body stiffened and he whined none-too-softly into his father's chest, and Mulder tried to force himself to relax.

"He'd kill me for telling you this--" I'll bet, Mulder thought. "--but he's afraid he's not doing as good a job as his father. He feels responsible for Melissa's death and, I think, for Charles's estrangement from the family. Maybe even for the trouble Dana's been through."

Mulder furled his brow. "How?" he asked, not understanding how Bill could parlay his feelings of responsibility for his sister into blame for Mulder.

Tara shook her head. "Maybe he thinks it's his responsibility to take care of the family? I don't understand it," she said. "And I'm not trying to give him an excuse -- at times he's been so cruel to you and Dana -- but he does have his reasons."

Mulder nodded, though this wasn't what he wanted to hear. In a way, he wanted Bill to play the villain. His feelings of anger and hurt and resentment towards Bill were old and easy, and he could fall back into them without thinking. Casting Bill as the bad guy made it a no-brainer who the good guys were, Mulder realized. But maybe that wasn't exactly fair; maybe it wasn't exactly accurate, either.

He wondered how it would be when Scully, Charlie, and Bill came back from the cemetery. He knew how it would be if this were his family, not that he had spent that much time with his parents after their divorce. But he knew they would pretend nothing had happened. Even before Samantha's abduction they had been good at that. Dad doesn't show up for your birthday, well, just accept the gift he brings you in the plastic bag with the receipt still inside, and pretend he had been there all along, snapping photos as you blew out the candles on your cake.

Tara set her hand on Mulder's, and he almost jumped from his chair. He tried to temper his reaction, not wanting to jolt Liam out of his relaxation... and not wanting to scare Tara. Her hand was warm and small, though not as small as Scully's. She patted his hand twice, then reached out to run her hand over Liam's back, leaving a blush of flour on the back of Mulder's hand.

"Bill will come around," she said, stilling her hand on the baby's back and finally catching Mulder's gaze. "Babies have a way of doing that to people."

With a final pat of Liam's back, Tara stood, smiled, and stepped through the swinging door that separated the kitchen and living room. Mulder could hear her call out to Matthew, followed by the little boy's answering giggle.

Mulder stared down at the flour stain where Tara had touched his hand, realizing that he hadn't been touched that way in a long time. His mind reeled, thinking.

Of course Scully touched him, both like a friend might and like a lover might. Liam touched him like a child, purely and spontaneously. And Maggie Scully touched him like a mother might.

But it had been years since anyone had touched him like a sister might.


BILL

Bill watched the passage of time on the dashboard clock, the minutes clicking away with alarming quickness. He dreaded returning to his mother's house; returning to his wife, who likely still blamed him for the previous night's argument; returning to Fox Mulder.

Bill's thoughts traveled back to Dana's Apartment: to the photographs, to the menorah and the Christmas tree, to their bedroom and baby's bedroom. A single thought ran through his mind, through his heart:

I don't really know her at all.

He saw his sister not infrequently, mostly on holidays and the rare trips he took to Norfolk or Annapolis. She kept to herself, listening in on his conversations with their mother but seldom participating. Obviously it was Bill's presence that precipitated her silence. Bill knew that Dana talked to their mother, since it was through Maggie that he had learned of Dana's pregnancy; of Mulder's disappearance, apparent death, and subsequent rebirth; and of the baby's birth.

The baby. Bill didn't know what to feel toward his nephew, the child of a sister he loved yet did not know and a man he despised yet did not know. Clearly Mulder was Liam's father. No matter how strongly Bill wanted to believe the opposite, he could no longer deny the truth, not after spending these days with them and especially not after seeing their Apartment, their life in full glory.

Whatever he felt, Bill knew that it would get no easier when he, Tara, and Matthew moved to Norfolk. He knew his mother would be overjoyed at having two of her children nearby. She would insist on the family getting together for holidays and birthdays. And, for the first time, Bill would be able to attend these gatherings, not having his well-worn I'm-shipping-out excuse to fall back on.

One small consolation was that Bill probably wouldn't be seeing Charles for another, what, ten years or so. Or maybe not, he thought, remembering Dana's gift to their younger brother, an airline ticket to DC, open-dated and paid for with her frequent flier miles. Bill glanced over his shoulder, at Charles sitting in the back seat and gazing out the window.

The prospect of them all together again clawed at Bill. Of course he wanted it. He wanted Matthew to have a family. He loved his grandmother, and Bill wanted to give him the rest of his family, too, aunts and uncles and cousins. Sure, Matthew had that from Tara's side -- Tara's family who had always gotten along and who only argued over who would host the yearly fourth of July picnic -- but Bill wanted that same thing from his family, too.

Especially now that Matthew had a cousin. Bill glanced over at Dana, quickly so that she wouldn't catch him looking. He didn't know what to think of his sister's son, the baby Bill had initially believed had been named for their father, only to find out he had been named after Mulder's father.

That was something else Bill didn't understand -- how Dana, who had always been their father's favorite, who had always seemed to be so close to Captain Scully -- could have abandoned him and their faamily to latch onto Mulder. Their fathers had the same name, Dammit, why couldn't the baby be named after both of them? But no.

What most puzzled Bill was why. Why had Dana chosen this life and this man? Why hadn't she asked for reassignment years ago or even left the FBI? She could have had a successful medical practice, or even worked as a medical examiner if she wanted to stick with pathology, though Bill couldn't understand why she would choose this specialty out of all of medicine. Her job was dangerous, and, though she and Mulder were not assigned to the X-Files anymore, they were obviously still involved in those cases.

Why? Bill thought again. Why the FBI, why the X-Files, why the devotion to a partner who brought her nothing but trouble? And, perhaps more importantly, why Fox Mulder, why a child out of wedlock, why this self-imposed emotional exile from her family, from the people who loved her most?

Why? was the only thought in Bill's mind as the green pick-up in front of them shrieked to a stop and Dana's foot pounded the break. Why? Bill wondered as the car gave into centripetal force and spun, head following tail, off the road. Why? Bill thought as the car came to an abrupt stop and his head jerked to his right, came into contact with the side window, then rebounded onto his left shoulder.

The car was silent for a minute as Bill blinked through a flash of blackness punctuated with brilliant white spots. Then the world fished back into focus, and a jolt of nausea flashed through his body and dropped out through his feet.

"Everyone okay?"

Bill found it surprisingly easy to turn his head towards the sound of his sister's voice. "Fine," he said, his own voice sounding far away.

"Charles?" Dana asked.

"Yeah, I'm okay," came a voice from the backseat, even farther away. Bill tried to turn in his seat, saw the world waver for a second, and then could see his brother unbuckling his seatbelt.

"Guess these things did their job," Charles said with a smile. Yeah, he's okay, Bill thought. He turned to his sister, her face pale and scared and childlike.

"Bill, your head," she gasped.

"My head?" His hand found his chin, then his cheek, then his forehead. When he reached his hairline, he felt something thick and sticky, and he brought his hand down.

It was blood, and his hand aimed back at his head before it was intercepted by Dana. She set his hand on his lap, snapped off one of her leather gloves, and touched her fingertips to his forehead. Gently she surveyed his head, and Bill closed his eyes against the pain that flashed through his consciousness and out.

"Does that hurt?" Dana asked as her fingers skimmed down over his right eyebrow.

Bill shook his head, pleasantly surprised when the world stayed put. "I'm fine," he insisted.

"Track my finger with just your eyes," she said, and he obeyed. She scooted close to him, peering intently into his pupils.

Then she dug into her purse and produced a penlight. Dana snapped the flashlight on and waved it back and forth in front of her brother's eyes. Then she extinguished it, seemingly satisfied.

"Dana, I'm fine," he insisted.

She sighed. "You've got a pretty serious cut on your hairline. I need to clean it up and take a better look. Let me get my bag out of the trunk."

"Dana, I'm fine. You don't--"

But she had already turned off the ignition and stepped out of the car. Bill turned in his seat and watched her climb through the snow and open the trunk. She returned with a small nylon bag, already unzipped. She hunted through its contents, pushing a small glass vial and a handful of plastic-wrapped syringes out onto her lap.

"Here," she said, removing a packet of wet wipes. She ripped it open, setting free the mediciney aroma of ethanol, and removed one, then turned back to Bill. "Can you turn in your seat? I can't reach."

He turned and she dabbed gently at his forehead with the wipe. When she brought her hand down Bill could see that the small square cloth was soaked through with bright red. Panic rose in his throat, mingled with the bitter tang of adrenaline.

"Charlie, I need your help," Dana said calmly.

"Yeah, what do you want me to do?" he asked, kneeling so that he hung over into the front seat, his head between them.

"Reach into my bag. There should be a pack of gauze."

"Yeah," Charles said, grabbing the bag off Dana's lap. "Here," he offered her the thick paper-wrapped package.

"Open it."

He opened the packet and Dana pulled out a chunk of white gauze. She held it tight against Bill's forehead. "I can do that," he told her, covering her hand with his, brushing his finger against the cold metal of her ring.

She let go of the gauze. "Press hard," she said, and he did, then made the mistake of looking down at the bloody alcohol wipe. His eyes widened, and he pressed harder against his forehead.

"You're fine, Bill," she told him. "Head wounds bleed a lot. It looks worse than it is." He nodded against the pressure of his fingertips.

"Is he gonna need stitches?" Charles asked, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of his brother's forehead and the tinges of red on the edges of the gauze.

"It's borderline," Dana said. "Some doctors would give him a bandage and send him home, and another might given him a stitch or two."

"And what camp would you be in?" Charles asked.

"Considering I don't have a sterile needle or any Lidocaine, I'd have to favor the Band-Aid and aspirin stance, myself."

"So you don't think he needs to go to the hospital?"

"You can quit talking about me like I'm not here," Bill snapped at them.

"Sorry," Dana said, switching his bloodied square of gauze with a fresh piece. "No, I don't think you need to go to the hospital... But we do need to get out of here."

Bill looked past his sister, out the driver's side window, and saw that the car was resting in the small dip just off the shoulder of the road. They were off the road, not in danger of being hit by any passing vehicles, but they weren't so far from the street that a hefty push wouldn't put them back on track.

"I'll call a tow truck," Dana said, reaching into her pocket for her cell phone.

"That'll take forever," Charles said, sighing. "There are probably motorists stranded up and down I-95 in this weather."

"We hardly have a choice," Dana said. "I'll have to call Mom's house to get the number of a tow truck, though."

"Wait, Dana," Bill said as his sister's cell phone blinked to life. "The car's not far off the road. We could just push it back on and drive back to Mom's, no waiting."

"We?" Dana asked.

"Me and Charles."

She shook her head. "Oh, no, Bill. You've sustained a head injury. It may not be serious, but you don't need to aggravate anything by trying to push a car up a hill."

"It's not a hill," Charles put in.

Dana whirled around to face their brother. "Don't tell me you agree with him?"

Charles shrugged. "You said yourself that he's fine."

Dana shook her head. "Yes, he's fine to go home so I can clean up that cut for him, not fine to enter a Tough Man competition!"

"Come on," Bill said. "I'm fine." He removed the gauze from his forehead and was nonplussed to see that it was soaked with blood.

Dana stared pointedly at the gauze. "If you push the car, it'll get your heart pumping and your blood flowing faster, and you'll bleed more," she said.

"I'll be fine," he said.

Dana looked between her brothers, then settled her gaze on Charles. "Fine," she said coolly, snatching another square of gauze from her bag and holding it to Bill's head. "Charlie, there should be a role of cloth medical tape in there. Rip off two pieces."

She took the tape and affixed the gauze to his head, then Bill ran his hand over his makeshift bandage. "See, good as new," he said, smiling.

Dana nodded. "Fine, fine," she said. "Let's push the car."

"'Let's'?" Bill repeated. "I meant me and Charlie."

"What?"

"Charlie and I'll push the car. Not you," Bill explained.

"And why the hell not?"

"Come on, Dana," he said. Did she really want him to point out the obvious, the difference in their heights and builds and probable strengths, not to mention the fact that she was a woman.

"Because I'm a woman," she asked, not at all a question.

"Charles and I are stronger than you," he said. "And bigger. And besides, someone needs to steer the car back onto the street. And you're lighter, anyway; you won't add as much weight to the car."

"Oh, so now you're worried about not being able to push the car if it's too heavy?"

"Come on, Dane," Charles said, setting a hand on their sister's tensed shoulders. "It's not a big deal. Bill and I are bigger and it'll be easier if you stay in the car and steer."

"But--"

"Dana," Charlie said softly. "We know you're strong and capable, and can take care of yourself. Hell, you could probably push the car back onto the road all by yourself." She narrowed her eyes at his tone, which, Bill thought, was almost patronizing. Almost, but not quite. "So why don't you let Bill and me try to measure up to your hard-assed, over-achieving self by pushing the car back on the road?"

Dana smiled, shaking her head. "Fine, push the car," she said. "Knock yourselves out." She turned to look at Bill, then faced forward and turned the key in the ignition. The car roared to life.

"It seems to be running okay," Charles said as he climbed out of the back seat. Bill turned slowly, carefully, and also got out of the car, one hand steadying himself against the roof of the car as he and Charles went around to the back of the vehicle.

The car was stuck diagonally off the road, and Bill saw that he had been right, even though he was just guessing when he told Dana that they would need someone in the car to steer to make sure they made it back on the street.

"How's it look?" Dana asked, craning her neck to peer over the hood of the car at them.

"It's fine," Bill called out. Indeed, the car didn't seem to have sustained any damage. It was resting almost softly in the snow bank, its half-buried front headlights causing the snow to glow. They would need to dig enough snow from behind the car, Bill saw, so they would have room to push.

Working quickly, their breaths huffing small clouds of condensation into the air, Bill and Charles cleared the snow out from behind the car, making a small passageway where they could stand. Uncovered, the lights blared in Bill's eyes, and he motioned blindly at his sister, urging her to turn them off.

"Ready, Dane?" Charles called.

"Yeah," she said.

"Just make sure it's in reverse," Charles kidded.

Dana turned, stuck her head out of the car window long enough to give them a sarcastic half-smile. "It's in reverse," she said. "Ready?"

"Yeah," Bill called. He bent down, placed his hands on the car's front bumper, digging his heels into the snow bank behind them. Charles did the same, then, after a quick nod, they shoved at the car. Dana eased on the gas and, together, they managed to get the car most of the way onto the shoulder.

"You okay?" Dana called, sticking her head out the open window.

"I'm fine," Bill said, pausing for a minute to allow the image of the car to stop swimming.

"You sure?" Charles asked under his breath, staring, concerned, into Bill's eyes.

"I'm fine," he said, but brought his hand up to his forehead. Thankfully, he could feel no blood, and the bandage was still intact.

Charles nodded. "One more push?"

"Yeah," Bill said. "We're gonna give it one more, Dana," he called out. "You should be able to maneuver the car completely onto the shoulder."

They pushed, she maneuvered, and finally the car was resting half on the shoulder, half on the street. Charles headed for the back seat, but Bill paused for a minute, his hand again straying up to his forehead. He closed his eyes, took a quick breath of cold air, then followed his brother.

"You sure you're okay?" Dana asked again as he buckled himself back into the front seat.

"I'm fine," he snapped at her, then immediately regretted it.

She turned away from him, setting her gloved hands back on the steering wheel and checking her side view mirror for much longer than necessary.

"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to snap at you, but I'm fine. Don't worry."

She nodded but said nothing, instead pulled the car onto the street.

I am sorry, Dana, he thought. And not just for this. I'm sorry for Christmas night, he thought, and for making you feel like you had to hide yourself from me. I'm sorry, Bill thought.

He hadn't meant to make a scene, and especially hadn't meant to wake up their mother and drag her into all this. He had felt bad as soon as the family abandoned him downstairs, Dana fleeing for her bedroom and Mulder going after her. Charles had gone outside, slamming the door behind him, and their mother went back to bed, but not before shooting Bill a disappointed look.

Bill supposed he could have blamed it on the beer, on the forced togetherness, on all of them being expected to be a family again. In fact, he had blamed it on those things, the previous night as he puttered around downstairs for a while, not eager to go upstairs and face Tara. He had hoped she would be asleep already when he finally went upstairs, but she was sitting up in bed, waiting for him, when he slipped into the spare bedroom.

She said nothing, simply watched him as he closed the door behind himself and began to undress. Her eyes didn't leave him as he buttoned his pajama top and stooped to untie his shoelaces, and he could feel the tension building as he settled into bed beside her.

"Bill," she sighed, but said nothing else. She didn't need to. All he had to do was listen to the tone of her voice, and see the look on her face, never mind her body language, which was telling him that if he moved any closer to her, he would be switching beds with Matthew.

So he said nothing as he punched his pillow twice, then laid on his back, crossing his arms over his chest. He closed his eyes, ignoring the fact that Tara had not moved, had not slid down next to him, had not flicked off the lamp on her side of the bed.

He tossed and turned for several minutes, then surrendered and sat up again. Tara was still sitting there, bathed in half light, watching him.

"Fine," he said, sick of the anticipation. "Go ahead. Tell me I was an asshole. Go ahead."

But she only shook her head. "I don't need to tell you that," she whispered, ever mindful of Matthew sleeping just a few feet away. "You already know it."

He looked down at his lap and began tugging at a loose thread on the bedspread.

"I don't know what you were hoping to accomplish downstairs," she said. "But I know what you did accomplish." She reached out for his hand, and stilled its increasingly frantic movements. He looked up at her.

"You're going to drive Dana right out of your life," she said. "I know your heart's in the right place, Bill, but you're headed in the wrong direction. Charles... Charles might be a lost cause," she admitted.

"But we're going to be seeing a lot more of Dana when we move back East. Or, at least, we might," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if she and Mulder and the baby are already gone when we wake up in the morning, or if they don't come up with one excuse after another not to spend time with the family again."

Bill shrugged helplessly. Nothing he could do about that now. He wasn't about to knock on their door, wake them up, and apologize.

"Bill, I know you don't approve. Fine. But no one asked for your approval. Dana's a grown woman and she can make decisions for herself. Clearly she loves him. If you force her hand, if you're expecting her to make some kind of choice -- you over Mulder and Liam -- you're gooing to lose her forever," she told him.

Tara turned away from him slipped down under the sheets. Bill lay down as well, then finally Tara reached up and flicked off the light.

But it was at least another hour before Bill could sleep, long after his wife's soft susurration of breath faded into the measured rhythm of sleep. Tara was right; he knew that. He didn't expect Dana to make a choice between him and Mulder; everything he had seen these past four days indicated that he could not win that fight. But he did expect her to listen to reason and fact, to think logically for once instead of plunging into the deep end.

Would he really lose her if he kept pushing? Or would he help her see the truth?

Bill had already lost one sister, and he didn't want to cut the tenuous string that connected him to the other. But there were many ways he could lose Dana, and Bill knew that forcing her to chose between him and Fox Mulder was not the only one.


Charles

"Anyone home?" Dana called as they paused in the foyer to kick off their boots and hang up their coats.

"We're in here," Tara called and they followed her voice to the kitchen to find her and Mulder at the stove, mismatched aprons tied around their waists. Tara was chopping a stalk of celery, and Mulder stirred a large pot, one arm cradling a sleeping Liam against his chest.

"What smells so good?" Charles asked.

Tara and Mulder turned to face them, their gazes coming to rest on the piece of gauze taped to Bill's forehead. "What happened?" Mulder asked.

Tara dropped the knife and was at her husband's side in an instant, her hand hovering in the air just above his forehead. "What happened to you?"

"The car slipped off the road," he explained.

"You were in an accident?" Mulder asked, abandoning the stove and stepping over to Dana. His free hand landed on her shoulder, then traveled up and down her side to rest at her waist. "Are you okay?"

"We're fine," she assured him as his hand combed through her hair on the way to her uninjured forehead.

Charles glanced back and forth between Dana and Mulder, and Tara and Bill, feeling suddenly empty. Alone. He pulled back from the foursome, resting against the doorjamb, shoving his fists into the pockets of his jeans.

"An accident?" Tara asked frantically. "What kind of accident? What happened?"

"The truck in front of us slammed on its breaks," Dana explained. "And I tried to stop, but we slid off the road into a snow embankment."

"And your head?" Tara asked, standing on her toes to peer at Bill's forehead.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I must've cut it on something when we stopped."

"Shouldn't you be at the hospital?" she asked.

"Dana says I'm fine," he assured her.

"That was before you pushed the car out of the ditch," she said with a smile. "Now I'm beginning to wonder if you're suffering from brain damage."

"He did *what?*" Tara asked, turning to her sister-in-law.

"He and Charles pushed the car back onto the road," Dana explained.

"You could've called a tow truck," Tara pointed out, shooting a disapproving gaze at Charles before training it on her husband. Hey, don't blame me, Charlie thought. I wasn't driving and it wasn't my idea to push the car back on the road.

"That would've taken forever," he explained. "Anyway, Bill's fine; we're all fine. No harm done."

Tara sighed, but circled her arms around her husband's middle. "I'm glad you're okay," she told him.

Charles turned away to face his sister. Mulder had pulled her into a one-armed hug, the baby stirring as his body wedged between his parents'. "And you're okay?" Mulder asked again, softly.

"Fine," Dana insisted, "though I'm sure we'll all be a little sore tomorrow morning."

Charles looked back and forth between his brother and sister, both caught in the embrace of someone who loved them. He snaked his arms up to his elbows, holding them, holding himself. He diverted his gaze, feeling like an intruder, knowing he didn't belong.

"Daddy!" Matthew called, and Charles turned to see his nephew and his mother standing at the doorway. Bill pulled away from Tara and scooped Matthew into his arms.

"Hey, kiddo."

"Bill, what is that on your forehead?" their mother asked, approaching her son. "What happened?"

She looked over to Dana, then at Charles. She narrowed her eyes and rose her eyebrows, and Charles was reminded of a time when he was nine or ten years old, when he had broken a lamp while trying to teach himself to juggle.

"It was a car accident," Charles said bitingly, trying to keep the anger from his voice. Did their mother think he had done this to Bill? Charles almost laughed. He looked his brother up and down, his eyes resting on his broad chest and muscled biceps. Like Bill would be the one who got hurt if the two of them ever physically fought. Yeah, right, Charlie thought.

"A car accident?" Maggie echoed.

"We're fine, Mom," Dana assured her. "Bill's got a little cut on his forehead, but it'll be fine after I clean it up. It looks worse than it is."

Maggie nodded, and Charles noted that Dana didn't say anything to their mother about Bill and Charles pushing the car back on the road. Good, he thought. No need to worry her any more than necessary. Hell, he would've preferred not to tell her about the accident at all, but he supposed with Bill's injury, it was inevitable.

"What's for lunch?" Charles asked, steering the conversation, and his nose, toward the pot simmering on the stove.

Maggie paused, glancing between the three of them, then said, "Chicken rice soup. I had some leftovers, chicken from Monday's dinner, plus some vegetables from yesterday. I thought this would be an easy lunch."

"Daddy," Matthew said, tugging Bill's hand towards the back door. "Mommy said when you got back you'd make a snowman with me."

"I will," he promised. "After lunch, okay?"

"But Mommy said when you got back!"

"I know," Bill said. "But Grandma's making this delicious soup for us for lunch. We can play outside after we eat."

"'Kay," Matthew said finally, his voice defeated.

"'Grandma made'?" Tara kidded, smiling at her husband. "She wasn't the only one." She nodded down at the dirty cutting board in front of her, then over to Mulder, who still hovered protectively near Dana.

"Grandma and Tara, then," Dana put in, stepping around and behind Mulder. "Because I'm sure this apron's just for show," she kidded, tugging on the tie around Mulder's waist.

"Hey, there," he said, stepping out of Dana's reach.

"Fox has been a big help," Maggie said.

"He sure has," Tara added. "Keeping Matthew and Liam busy while we worked."

"Hey," Mulder said again, this time directing his mock outrage at Tara. Charles watched as Bill squinted at them, then the younger man shook his head. What, was Bill mad now that Tara and Mulder were getting along, were teasing like brother and sister? Or, Charles amended with a glance between Bill and Dana, like brother and sister *should.*

"Fox has been helping with lunch, too," Maggie affirmed as Dana leaned around Mulder to check on the baby. She held out her arms, and he carefully transferred his sleeping son into them.

"I left the overnight bag in the living room," she said, settling Liam against her chest. "Make sure you bring Liam's bag up, too. There are extra diapers and some toys in there."

He nodded as he slipped off his apron and tossed it over the back of a chair. "I'm gonna shower and change, then," he said, heading into the living room. He paused in the doorway, turning back to face them. "Oh, and, Scully, he's been fussy all morning. Every time I tried to set him down, he woke up."

She nodded as Mulder disappeared into the living room. Big surprise that the baby was fussy, Charlie thought. Bill might act all tough and detached, but Charles suspected that his brother had been as affected by the previous night's fight as the rest of them.

"Bill, why don't you let me take another look at that cut?" Dana asked. "I think I've got some antibacterial ointment upstairs."

As she left the kitchen, Bill called after her, "It's fine, Dana," but their sister said nothing.

Charlie wandered off into the bathroom, where he washed his face. He splashed handfuls of water against his skin, and it promptly pinkened in response to the cold. But it felt good, the coolness of the water against his overheated complexion. He still felt a little shaken up by their slide off the road, despite the fact that he wasn't hurt.

Truthfully, he had felt out of sorts ever since their argument the previous night... perhaps even since his plane touched down at Dulles. He almost felt like a child again, Bill playing the bully, Dana trying to keep things peaceful but unintentionally -- or maybe intentionally -- provoking Bill.

And the argument last night. Charles knew that had partially been his fault; he had egged Bill on, knowing right where to press, exactly what to say to get him worked up.

What Charles couldn't figure out was why. Why fight? It hadn't done any of them any good, certainly not Charles. As always, Bill, too, had known exactly what to say to hit him where it hurt. He had known that bringing up Missy and the Captain would cripple Charles, emotionally and verbally.

It had always been that way. Charles's two sore spots. A sister, loved and lost; and a father, lost, but, Charles wondered, loved? He had always been confused about the Captain's feelings for him, and his own feelings for his father.

Yes, Charles was sure the man loved him, the distant, requisite love that fathers felt toward their sons, he guessed. But the Captain had never loved Charles like he did Bill, like he did Dana. Certainly the Captain had not and, Charles was sure, would not love or approve of the man his youngest son had become. Probably, if he were alive today, he would be telling Charlie to get a real job, to go back to school, to settle down. To grow up.

Charles dried his face off with a hand towel and stepped out of the bathroom and into the hall. Bill and Dana stood there, Dana holding Liam against her with one hand and a tube of ointment with another, and Bill standing with his arms crossed, a tolerant, yet not completely unpleasant expression on his face.

They stepped into the bathroom after he stepped out, Bill sitting on the toilet seat and Dana flipping on both the overhead lamp and the lights surrounding the mirror. Charles headed back into the kitchen, but was stopped by his sister's voice.

"Charlie?"

"Yeah?"

"Could you give me a hand?" she asked.

"Dana, I said I'm fine," Bill insisted.

"Here," she said, setting the ointment on the counter and gripping the baby with both hands. "Hold him while I take a look at Bill's forehead?"

Charles felt a shot of panic at his sister's request, just as he had when she'd left the baby with him that morning while she changed for the cemetery. Gosh, he thought, it was only that morning. It felt like days, lifetimes, ago. "Uh," he said, stalling. "Bill could--"

Charlie glanced over at his brother, and was surprised by the look of discomfort on his face. Bill has his own son; surely he wasn't worried about holding a baby? What was his problem? Then Charlie realized that he hadn't actually seen Bill hold his nephew, hadn't even seen him interact with Liam. Strange, Charles thought. Why...?

"Just stand there and hold him," she said impatiently, already transferring Liam into her brother's arms. "I don't want to set him down and wake him up. He didn't sleep very well last night..."

Her voice trailed off, and Charles busied himself with adjusting the baby in his arms. He doubted any of them had slept well the previous night. Charlie himself had remained on the porch long after Mulder had gone inside, finishing his pack of Morleys and wishing he'd thought to buy another. So he'd played with his lighter, setting a chunk of rock salt on fire and watching it smolder and burn.

"Okay," Dana continued. "Let's see." She carefully removed the tape and gauze from Bill's forehead, and their brother winced as the adhesive stuck to his skin. Dana wet a washcloth and cleaned the cut, and Charles could see that his sister was right: it did look worse than it was. For all that blood, he'd expected a gash halfway across Bill's forehead. But the cut was small, and most of the bleeding had stopped.

After cleaning and drying it, Dana slathered a layer of antibacterial ointment on the cut, then searched through her mother's medicine cabinet. She found a carton of Band-Aids but, when she dumped the box out onto the bathroom counter, all that fell out was a small tube of ointment.

"Sit tight," Dana said as she stepped out of the bathroom. "Mom must keep the band-aids in the upstairs bathroom."

Charles listened to her feet tick gently against the stairs, then heard the squeak of the bathroom door opening and the resultant shout of the shower spray. The cabinet door smacked shut, and Charles heard a husky chuckle and lilting giggle before the bathroom door creaked shut again.

Then Liam squirmed slightly against his chest, and Charles looked down at the baby. His head was cradled against Charles's shoulder, and his arms hung limp at his sides. He was so trusting, Charlie thought as his nephew sighed gently in his sleep. So fragile.

So scary, Charlie thought. Scary that this baby was relying on him to do everything right, to hold him tight, not to drop him, not to touch that mysterious place on his head that, Charlie had heard, would give him brain damage.

Was there such a place? he wondered. And how did you know if you touched it? Maybe you didn't know until it happened, until your child grew up and became strange and misunderstood and unlike the rest of your children. Charles wondered how many parents had inadvertently touched that spot on their babies' heads, how many siblings, trying to be gentle, had bumped it accidentally-on-purpose.

"Okay," Dana said as she stepped back into the bathroom, her face slightly flushed. She smiled over at Charles as she ripped open the band-aid and fixed the plastic strip over Bill's cut. Charles smiled back when he finally made out what was printed on the band-aid: Big Bird.

Oh, boy, Charles thought. He didn't want to be around when Bill saw that... though, he supposed, she could have chosen Oscar the Grouch.

"I can take him," Dana said, and Charles carefully shifted the baby into them. "Thanks, Charlie." She nabbed the ointment off the counter, then headed upstairs. Charlie turned to follow, to maybe help his mom and Tara with lunch, when Bill grabbed his wrist.

"Hey," he said, and Charlie turned back to face his brother.

"What?"

Bill's gaze darted away, focused on the floor tiles. "You, uh," he stumbled before regaining his composure. "Uh, thanks." On his brother's surprised expression, he continued, "with the car. Pushing it. You know. And not telling Mom."

Charlie nodded, feeling like a kid again. Why are you thanking me? he wondered. We pushed and Dana steered, and we got the car back on the street. What was the big deal? Unless, Charles thought, Bill was trying to say something else completely.

But all Charlie said was, "Sure," before he turned and headed into the kitchen.


Dana

"Dana? You need some help in there?"

Scully turned to see her mother standing in the doorway.

"No, I'm almost done," she said, rinsing the last soapy soup bowl with water, then placing it in the dish rack. She turned off the faucet, then held her wet hands over the sink. "Though I could use a towel," she said.

Her mother snagged one from the handle of the refrigerator and held it out to her daughter. Then she stopped, staring, and the towel dropped slightly.

"Mom?" Scully asked, holding out one dripping hand.

Her mother recovered and handed Scully the towel, then looked over at her daughter with a big smile.

"What is it, Mom?" Scully asked.

Grinning, Maggie waited while Scully dried her hands, then she reached out and gently touched her daughter's ring, straightening the ruby so that it lay in the middle of the milky white skin of her finger. "And what is this?" she asked.

Scully looked away, cursing her fair complexion as she felt a blush creep over her cheeks. "It's not what you think," she said.

"And what is it I think?" her mother said with a smile.

"It's not an engagement ring."

Maggie quirked an eyebrow at her daughter. "It's not?"

Scully shook her head, though she knew how it looked with the ring on her left hand ring finger. "It's hard to explain," she said.

"Try me," her mother said gently.

"I need to tell you something first, Mom." Maggie nodded.

"Mom..." This is stupid, Scully thought. She already knows what you're going to say, she told herself. Still, she felt her heart pound against her rib cage, and her throat ran dry. She felt as though she were in the confessional at church. Bless me, Mother, for I have sinned...

"Mom," she said. "Mulder is Liam's father."

Her mother nodded, waited patiently. That's all, Scully wanted to say. Isn't that enough? I have sinned, she thought, sex outside of marriage, conceiving a child out of wedlock. She waited for her benediction and her penance. She hoped for forgiveness.

But Maggie only smiled. "Of course he is."

Scully sighed. "I know you knew, but I wanted to tell you."

Again her mother nodded, apparently understanding. "Now you've told me," she said, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "So what about this?" Maggie grasped Scully's hand from where it hung at her side, taking her daughter's hand in her own.

"It's..." She needed to confess it all, to lay with her head in her mother's lap and let out everything she carried, all of the worries and all of the fears. All of the love. She wanted to tell her that even though it wasn't the promise of a wedding, it was so much more. It was the promise of a life. "It's hard to explain," she said.

"Try me."

Scully dropped the towel on the kitchen table, then took a seat beside her mother. "I can't say that I haven't thought about marrying Mulder," she admitted. "I have thought about it. And I know he's thought about it, too."

Scully looked at her mother, stared intensely into her eyes as if willing the older woman to understand, to accept. Suddenly, inexplicably, it meant everything to her that her mother accept this. Scully didn't understand why and was almost embarrassed about this sudden need for approval. But, nevertheless, there it was. She knew her mother's patience had been pushed to its limit. Nevertheless, just one more thing, Scully pleaded. Please just accept this one more thing.

"But it's not going to work that way with us," she said finally. "We're the same people who kept a professional partnership -- and a friendship -- for almost seven years before we let it to go further." Scully paused to twist the ring on her finger.

"I know that parenthood changes people -- and it's changed us, too -- but it didn't turn us into people we're not. What we have now is good, and it's working. Why change it?"

Scully paused, anticipating her mother's objections. Anticipating a defense of the sacred covenant of marriage, of the security of the love of one man and one woman, till death do us part.

And Scully agreed: that kind of security was a wonderful thing. She -- and, she knew, Mulder -- just didn't think that marriage was a prerequisite for forever.

The image of Teena Mulder popped into Scully's mind, Teena Mulder standing alone at her ex-husband's funeral, Teena Mulder referred to as "the mother of William's children." As if that were all they had ever been to each other. Marriage did not mean forever, Scully thought vehemently. Mulder had lived a life that proved the very opposite.

"When I tried to imagine us getting married..." Scully shook her head. "It just felt wrong. I couldn't think of one reason to do it. We love each other, and we love Liam. Getting married isn't going to make that any more real."

Scully waited, bracing herself for her mother's disappointment. Maggie had been robbed of a wedding -- of the dream for a future of any kind -- for one daughter, and Scully knew that her mother had thoughts of rose bouquets and champagne toasts for the only daughter she had left. But there wasn't going to be a wedding, and Scully prayed for her mother to accept that. Please, God, she thought.

"So what does this mean?" was all Maggie Scully asked, again touching a finger to the gold band.

Scully replayed her conversation with Mulder. She remembered every word, every gesture, every emotion; but what she didn't know was how to do was explain it all to her mother.

"It is a commitment." Her voice broke, sounding like a little girl's. "It's Mul- - It's our commitment." She had almost ssaid that it was Mulder's idea of a commitment, but it wasn't just Mulder. The truth was that she was grateful to him for broaching the subject, and it wasn't just Mulder who wanted the commitment without the trappings of a wedding.

Scully had never been one of those girls who dreamed of walking down the aisle with every eye trained on her, admiring her. Frankly, it made her more than a little sick to her stomach. She was unlike Melissa in that way, in so many ways. Melissa had chosen the dress she would wear, the song to which she would dance with her new husband, the exotic locale where they would honeymoon, and all before going on a first date.

You know me, Mom, Scully thought. You know that none of that is me. Please tell me that you understand that, she thought, afraid of the possibility that she might have succeeded so thoroughly in keeping her emotions to herself that her own mother might not understand her. Scully could feel her pulse twitching in her neck as she waited for her mother's response.

"I'm very proud of you, Dana," her mother said.

Scully shook her head. Now her mother was proud of her. Now. Not after graduating at the top of her classes in high school and college, not after attending medical school and the FBI Academy.

"All I did was have a baby," Scully said, but she couldn't help smiling. That wasn't all, Scully thought, but you know that, don't you, Mom? "Thousands of women do it every day."

"Not just for that," Maggie told her. "I'm proud of who you've become. I know your dad would be, too," she added.

Scully's eyes glassed over and she turned her face away from her mother. But Maggie took hold of her chin and forced their eye contact. "No, Dana, listen to me. Your father was so proud of you. You may not have chosen the path he would have picked for you, but he loved you very much."

Dana closed her eyes against the tears, and Maggie nodded, then slid her fingers into Scully's. She squeezed her daughter's hand and gave it a tug, pulling Scully into a hug.

"Your father would have loved Liam," she said. "He always was partial to little redheaded babies," she laughed.

"I know he was," Scully said with a smile, laying her head on her mother's shoulder. Maggie held her daughter's head against her, gently stroking her hair.

"Don't worry so much, Dana," she said into her daughter's ear. "After everything you've been through..." She shook her head, holding Scully tighter. "All I've ever wanted is for you to be happy."


Maggie

Margaret Scully stood at the window, her breath puffing condensation onto the ice encrusted glass. She traced her fingernail along a lace of frost as she watched the activity outside her window.

The rest of the family was playing in the snow, clustered in small groups: Fox and Liam. Bill, Tara, and Mathew. Charles. Maggie watched Fox set her grandson carefully on the ground. The baby reached out a mittened hand, poking at the cold white fluff, a look of bemusement on his face. Fox laughed, bending down to scoop a handful of snow and mold it into a ball.

He tossed the snowball in the air and caught it, then caught sight of Dana, who was trudging down the snow-covered steps to join them. When she approached them, Fox pulled her toward him, sweeping her briefly off her feet before setting her back on the snow. Dana bit back a smile, darting her glance from one brother to the other, finally allowing a smile when she saw that no one was watching them.

Maggie grinned along with her daughter. Let go, Dana, she thought. Maggie rubbed her wedding and engagement rings around her finger, puzzling over the fact that they no longer felt out of place on her right hand, where she had moved them just recently. It wasn't a conscious decision. One day she had simply stepped out of the shower and reached for them and slipped them onto her right hand. It had been so easy it almost scared her.

Maggie glanced down at her rings, then out the window. She turned and watched the family play, separately, in the snow. Tara had joined Bill and Matthew, running alongside the sled; Charles was attempting an as-yet unidentifiable snow sculpture; and Liam was rolling in the snow like a puppy, with Fox keeping a watchful eye.

Maggie smiled. In many ways, Fox Mulder was a son to her, more than Tara had ever been her daughter. Of course she loved her daughter-in-law, but Tara didn't have the same raw need for her love as Fox did. Tara had grown up in a loving home, with parents who were devoted, both to her and to each other, and sisters whose most significant contribution to Tara's life had, perhaps, been their simple and sustained presence.

But Fox was different, reaching out for her love even as he thought himself undeserving of it; much the same way, she supposed, as he did with Dana.

Fox Mulder was not anyone Maggie would have ever imagined herself drawn to. Sure, she had befriended several of her children's friends while they were growing up. She had always encouraged them to bring friends home, trying to assuage her worry that the family's frequent moving would hurt their ability to make friends. But she had never seen a child who needed a mother's love and protection as much as Fox Mulder did.

Maggie felt a protectiveness for each of her children, a protectiveness that had, at times, even turned on her husband. She remembered her husband's angry reaction to Dana's decision to join the FBI, their argument and Dana's unexpected yet steadfast insistence on attending the Academy.

Later That Night, after they had retired to their bedroom, she had confronted Bill, defending her younger daughter with the ferocity of a mother lion, a ferocity unexpected by both Bill and herself. He would never hurt her like that again. He would try to be understanding and supportive. He would tell her that he was proud of her and interested in her work. And he would do all these things because he was her father, and because he loved her, and because she needed to hear them.

Bill had listened without responding. She supposed he was feeling guilty for arguing with Dana. But Maggie knew better than anyone that Bill Scully's guilt had no connection to Bill Scully's apology. Bill would be wracked with remorse, but he would say nothing to Dana. He would continue to beat himself up, but his kind of self-abuse left no mark, no indication to Dana the extent of his contrition.

Bill had always had difficulty apologizing. More than once, when both she and their relationship were young and she still believed she could change him, she had apologized for him, hoping he would pick up the habit. Not that it happened all that often, but when Bill was wrong, well, that knowledge was available only to her, and only because she had gotten good at reading the signs.

Maggie turned her attention back to her family outside. Several feet away from Dana and Fox, Charles lay spread-eagled on the snow. His arms fell away from his body and his legs kicked as he made a careful, perfect snow angel. He finished but did not stand. He lay there so long that a seed of worry began to grow in the pit of Maggie's heart, an admittedly irrational fear borne of mothering four children and losing one.

Then Charles moved, just the toe of his boot, but it was enough. Silly, Maggie thought, but Charles had worried her for so long that fear was nearly omnipresent in their relationship. And she had always been closer with Charles. He had been one of hers: him and Melissa, just as Billy and Dana had belonged to Bill.

Charles had always needed her more than the others had, more even than Melissa. He craved her attention; her constant reassurances of her love for him, her pride in him, her belief in him. So Charles became hers, and, Maggie supposed, Bill had been uncomfortable with that. Bill figured that, since Charles was a boy, he would be his father's son. But Dana's yours, Maggie felt like retorting whenever Bill returned from sea and tried to toughen the boy up.

But Maggie knew this division in their family hadn't started with Charles. It had begun when Melissa was born, just fourteen months after Billy. Bill had been away, leaving her with two babies to care for, but when he returned, it had been easy for Maggie to pass Billy on to him while she cared for baby Melissa. The two of them had such a natural closeness anyway.

So Billy was his and Melissa was hers; then Dana became his and Charles hers. Now Maggie wondered whether she had failed her youngest son. Would he have been better off as one of Bill's? Certainly Bill's average was better than hers. Billy had been an easy victory for his father, and Bill had proven to be a success with Dana as well; he was batting two for two.

But Maggie... Maggie was in such a deep slump that she was afraid of being yanked from the line-up. She had struck out with Melissa, who had always struggled against her parents, even before disappearing. Melissa had never been afraid to stand up to her father, a trait that had gotten her grounded more times than Maggie could remember.

And Charles. She was in the hole with Charles, no balls, two strikes, but he was hanging in there, valiantly fighting off pitch after pitch. He was still alive, still swinging; Charles still had a chance. She had to believe that.

On the other side of the yard, Bill was tugging Matthew through the snow on a sled, stopping frequently to remind the little boy not to reach out or lean over too far. Tara now stood near the porch steps, waving at Matthew and watching the cluster of birds hovering around the feeder that hung from a maple tree in the corner of the backyard.

Maggie had always considered Billy a victory. He was their golden boy, breezing through school, choosing a career on his first try, getting married and having a family. He had taken the path of ease that Dana had forsaken when she left medicine. But now Maggie wondered whether she had failed Billy as deeply as she had Charles. Maybe Billy should have been hers, she thought, and Charles should have been his father's.

That had been the first thought in her mind the previous night, when she heard Bill's voice boom through the house. Of course she was hurt by the things he had said to Charles and Dana, and to Fox. She was their mother, and she and their father had made them into the people they were. Especially she, who had been almost a single parent for the long months when Bill was at sea. Any failings on the part of her children were failings on her part, and she felt both the hollow self-righteousness of the aggressor and the stab of pain of the victim.

It had killed her that Bill could be so cruel, and to his siblings. Perhaps worst of all, he had masked his thoughtlessness in concern for her. He acted as though she were the one who was disappointed by Charles and Dana. But her own hurt was quickly put aside as Bill continued. It had taken every ounce of her willpower to keep from stomping downstairs and breaking up their argument as though they were the children they sounded like.

But she had waited, hadn't come downstairs until she couldn't take it anymore. Her stubbornness to let her children work it out was overcome by a fierce instinct to protect them, even if from each other.

"All you have is each other," she said softly, now.

Maggie didn't want to think about what will happen her family when she, too, is gone. Was she all that kept her children together? Had she failed to teach them the importance of family? She had thought all their moving around would make them closer to each other, since she knew it had made long-term friendships difficult. Clearly, though, she had been wrong.

Maggie was young for her age and healthy, and she had had her babies early, so she had a realistic hope that she would be around long enough to see her grandchildren grow into adolescents, perhaps even into adults, despite the fact that Bill and Dana had waited to start their own families.

But Maggie was also a realist. She knew that someday the three of them, surrounded by their own families, would stand at her grave. It will be hard enough, she remembered, thinking back to her own parents' deaths. Don't you see that you three could be a comfort to each other?

Outside, Matthew tumbled off his sled and scampered over to his aunt. He tugged on her hand, pulling her through the snow to his mother. Tara was bent over, rolling an oversized snowball that soon grew to snowman proportions. Dana joined her, rolling a smaller ball, and the two of them, with Matthew's help, formed a half-snowman. Fox scooped Liam off the snow, then joined Matthew, Tara, and Dana.

Then Charles crawled over to them on his hands and knees. But he didn't work with them on the snowman; instead, he sat next to Liam, rolling a smaller snowman for the baby. This snowman was soon joined by another, and another, until a small village of snowmen surrounded the little boy.

Maggie turned her attention to Bill, who still stood separate from the rest of the family, the sled hanging over his shoulder by its rope, the yellow and red of his Sesame Street band-aid visible even from where Maggie sat. Bill watched the rest of the family, his face expressionless, before turning and heading into the garage.

Oh, Bill, Maggie thought. Just walk over there and help them. It shouldn't be this hard. But, like his father, Bill was stubborn. Even if he was sorry -- and, sadly, Maggie had no indication of this -- apologizing had never been his strong suit. He was like his father in that way. Maggie hadn't heard him apologize to Dana or Charles, but she hoped he had said something to them when they went to the cemetery. She knew better than to expect Bill to apologize to Fox.

Watching Billy disappear into the garage, Maggie wondered whether she and Bill had failed all four of their children. Perhaps, she thought, instead of divvying them up into His and Hers, they should have shared.

This was the thought running through Maggie's mind as Bill emerged from the garage without the sled. He walked slowly through the crisp white snow until he approached the rest of the family. Wordlessly he reached into his pocket and stuck two two-liter soda bottle caps into the snowman head. Next he jabbed her orange-handled gardening trowel beneath the eyes, and Maggie smiled at the tool's resemblance to a carrot nose.

Then Bill reached up and pulled his scarf from around his neck. He handed the tartan wool to his son. Matthew jumped up and down in excitement, and then Bill lifted him up, allowing the little boy to tie the scarf loosely around the neck of the snowman.


Fifteen minutes later, Charles was kicking his snow-covered boots against the railing of the deck, and Maggie was heading upstairs. From her bedroom she could hear him open the back door and unzip his coat. She heard the soft floosh of the jacket landing on a kitchen chair, then the swoosh it made when it slipped off the chair and onto the floor.

By then Maggie was sitting on her bed, and she could hear were the creaks of the floorboards as Charles walked through the house. Bathroom, she thought as the door closed and then the toilet flushed. Wash your hands, she thought before the pipes groaned as the hot water rushed to the downstairs bathroom. Don't go back outside, she thought as the bathroom door groaned open and Charles's footsteps disappeared into the hum of the heat cycling back on.

Maggie smoothed her hand over the shiny wood of her bedstand. She ran a fingernail along the seam and into the knick that had appeared there, mysteriously, one day perhaps thirty years ago, each of the children professing ignorance. Of course I wasn't in your room snooping, Mom. How could you think...?

She pulled open the shallow drawer of the bedstand, then dipped her hand inside, fishing for the dog-earned corner of the leatherbound Bible she had received on her Confirmation day. She lifted the book from the drawer and set it on her lap. The edges of the pages were cottony soft, and as she flipped through the thick text, the pages ruffled gently. Such a comforting sound.

Maggie skimmed a fingernail over the tops of the pages, snagging the faded blue placemarker ribbon. She flipped the book open and ran her hand down the page, catching her middle finger on the ring tied to the bottom of the ribbon. Her eyes scanned the open pages, coming to rest on a single underlined phrase.

She had many favorites, and this was one of them. She smiled as she read it. Hebrews, Chapter eleven, Verse one: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Yes, Maggie thought. Indeed.

With one hand, she untied the ribbon from the ring, which fell loosely over her knuckle, thick and gold and heavy. Maggie brought it up to her mouth, pressed the cold metal to her lips.

Keeping a finger on the size-ten band prevent it from sliding off, she set the Bible back in the drawer and closed it. As she stood, she slipped her hands into the pockets of her wool sweater, clutching at the folded Kleenex tucked there.

Slowly she padded downstairs and into the family room, where Charles was lying on the floor, one arm and the majority of his upper body crammed under the couch. His duffel bag rested nearby, stuffed full of dirty clothes and one brand-new navy blue v-neck sweater.

Charles slid out from under the couch, a balled-up sweat sock and a quarter clenched in his hand. Maggie cleared her throat and Charles craned his neck to look up at her, still lying on his stomach.

"Hey, Mom," he said, turning onto his back. "Your sock?"

She shook her head.

"Must be mine, then," he said with a half-smile. He set the quarter on the arm of the couch, then turned back onto his stomach. "There's probably another one under here, then..."

"Charles," she said, taking a seat. "Sit with me."

Charlie pulled his arm from under the couch and rolled over. He side-armed the dirty sock into his bag, then climbed onto the couch next to her. "What is it, Mom?" he asked. "Something wrong?"

Her hand still buried in her pocket, Maggie felt the ring slip around her knuckle. She shook her head. "Nothing's wrong," she assured him. "I just have something to give you."

"To give me?"

She nodded, then slipped her hand out of her pocket. The band slid off her finger and into her waiting hand. She held it tight, savoring its warmth for the last time, then took Charles's hand. Maggie smoothed her fingers over his skin, rough from stretching canvases and hammering frames. She turned his hand palm up and dropped the ring onto it.

"Mom?"

She nodded. "It was your father's," she said.

He looked up at her, his eyes wide. He looked almost frightened, she realized. "Mom, no," he said, shaking his head.

"No?"

"I couldn't," he said, pushing his hand at her.

But she pulled away from him. "I want you to have it," she insisted.

"But Bill..."

"Bill already has a wedding ring," she said, only half kidding. She knew Billy would have liked having his father's ring as his own wedding band. But she hadn't been ready to give it away yet when Billy had gotten married. It had been too soon after Bill's death, everything still too raw.

"Dana, then," Charles whispered. "I'm sure she and Mulder..."

She shook her head. Dana would have been the obvious choice. And Maggie might have considered it, if Dana's Christmas present had been an engagement ring.

But even then, Maggie thought. Even then, she doubted she would have given the ring to her daughter. While Dana would certainly have appreciated her father's wedding ring, Maggie knew that Charles needed it.

"I want *you* to have it, Charles," she said.

"Mom, I don't think..."

"It's yours," she told him. "You can wear it now or you can save it for your own wedding or you can put it in a drawer and never look at it again. It's yours."

But still his hand stuck out between them, the ring resting against a rather painful-looking callous on his palm. She closed his fingers over the gold band.

"You're his son, too, Charles," she said.


Charles

"Happy birthday, dear Matthew, happy birthday to you!" they finished as Matthew leaned over and blew out the four candles clustered in the center of the cake.

"Happy birthday to me," Matthew called out gleefully through the smoke drifting from the extinguished candles. Charles smiled, wondering what his nephew had wished for. Charlie remembered his own last birthday, his thirty-fourth, in July. He had celebrated with friends at his favorite bar in Seattle, a dingy artists' dive three blocks East of his apartment.

As he blew out the single relighting trick candle in his birthday Twinkie, Charles had wished for a fresh start. Traditionally, thirty-four was nothing special; his thirtieth had passed without incident, and his fortieth was too far off to consider. But he had decided that thirty-four would be his lucky number. Thirty-four would be a fresh start.

Charles watched as Bill plucked each of the four candles from Matthew's chocolate cake, setting them on a napkin. He slipped the knife into the cake and cut a piece for his son.

"Is there ice cream, Grandma?" Matthew asked as his father passed the overeager boy his plate.

"I think I've got a half-gallon of mint chocolate chip," Maggie said with a smile.

"Mint chocolate chip," Matthew said, his eyes lighting up.

"Your favorite," Bill said.

Mine, too, Charles thought, accepting a plate of cake from his brother. He waited behind Matthew as Maggie defrosted the ice cream in the microwave. She placed a scoop on each of their plates, and they took their cake into the dining room.

Charles took a seat across the table from Matthew, and he watched his nephew enjoy his birthday cake. His joy was unadulterated, pure and unabashed. He used his fingers to coax a clump of cake and a smear of frosting onto his spoon. The spoon entered his mouth upside down and lingered there while he worked the cake off it.

Charles smiled and speared a square of cake with his own fork.

He surveyed the small pile of unwrapped gifts at the end of the table, his eye catching on a large rectangular box. Charles recognized the box; it was nearly identical to those the Captain used to bring home for him and Bill when he returned from sea. The cover of the box depicted a circle of young boys huddled around the model of a ship, their father proudly offering pointers.

The scene was straight out of Charles's own childhood, him and Bill working on the model boat with the Captain dropping in the not-infrequent suggestion that all three knew the boys had better consider an order.

"No, no, boys, that's not how you do it. Try sanding those plastic ridges off the mast before you glue it to the deck."

"No, Charles, not like that. Watch Billy now. He's got the hang of it. Good job, there, son."

Charles remembered one occasional in particular. The Captain had brought home a tiny unassembled submarine, complete with decals and paints. They had, however, opened the box to discover that the small glass jars of paint had dried out. Quickly Charles had volunteered to bike to the hobby shop for more.

The Captain had agreed, passed him a five-dollar bill, and instructed him to make sure he got the colors right: gray with black trim, he reminded his youngest son. He even wrote down the manufacturer's color numbers for him: Gray no. 49, Black no. 1.

And Charles had fully intended on buying numbers 49 and 1. Really, he had. But when he got to the tiny hobby shop, he just couldn't resist the vivid rainbow of colors, golden yellows and vibrant blues and brilliant reds shining from the display case, beckoning to him. He had stood there, knowing what he was supposed to do and knowing what he wanted to do, jittery and nervous in his indecision.

He stood in line with the jars of Gray no. 49 and Black no. 1 clutched in his sweaty palm, but his eyes never left the display case. He saw a perfect shade of magenta, bright like something out of one of his most vivid dreams. Then he saw the violet, and his twelve-year-old brain decided that this was the perfect accent color for the magenta.

So he'd stepped out of line and exchanged the pots of paint, his heart racing. These paints were not numbered. Instead, the small pot of magenta was named Summer Sunset, and the violet, Beauregard.

It had taken him half the bicycle ride home to figure that one out. Beauregard, as in Violet Beauregard, of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" fame. Charles smiled. Melissa had read him that book once, and he remembered enjoying it. But what really got him was the title character's name. It was perfect; it was fate.

The Captain, however, did not believe in fate. He believed in order and discipline and keeping your word. *Especially* keeping your word.

So of course he wasn't pleased when Charles showed up with Summer Sunset and Beauregard instead of Gray no. 49 and Black no. 1.

"Son," he'd said. "I thought I told you to buy gray and black paint." Charles had nodded, his eyes downcast. He had known what was coming when he bought the paints; he was not surprised. "And didn't you promise me that you were going to get the black and gray paint?" Again Charles nodded his head. "Then why did you buy pink and purple?"

"They're Summer Sunset and Beauregard," Charles had blurted out before thinking.

"They're *what?*" his brother had asked.

"Why, Charles?" the Captain pressed.

"I thought the boat would look nicer like this," he explained. "Instead of gray and black. All the boat models are gray and black. They all look the same. They're boring and ugly."

"It's not a boat," Billy howled with laughter. "It's a submarine, stupid!"

"Now, Billy," the Captain had said. "We don't use that word." Then he turned to his younger son. "Charles, you know that a submarine has to be black and gray to blend in with the ocean so it's not detected by any enemy vessels."

Charles wished he had some gray and black right then, so he wouldn't be detected by any enemy vessels. But he just stood there; then, when the Captain was finished with his lecture, gathered up Summer Sunset and Beauregard in their paper sack, wheeled his bike out of the garage, and rode back to the hobby shop to exchange the paints.

Now, sitting in his mother's dining room, eating his cake and mint chocolate chip without tasting it, Charles wondered why he hadn't just bought the gray and black paint to begin with. It was what he'd ended up getting anyway, and he had known, even then, that he would be sent back to buy the right colors.

Was he trying to get his father to understand him? Or was he just trying to cause problems, to widen the divide between himself and the Williams, both Senior and Junior?

Charles knew it wasn't only him that the Captain didn't understand. He had never really connected with Missy, either. She had told him that so many times, especially when she was a teenager, after she got caught sneaking out late at night, dating a boy whom the Captain had pronounced too old for her, or wearing make-up before she was allowed.

"He doesn't understand us, Charlie," she'd said to him one night after the Captain had forbidden her to go out with a group of friends he considered part of The Bad Crowd.

The two of them were alone in the bedroom she shared with Dana, Melissa gazing into the mirror as she brushed her hair, and Charlie lounging on Dana's bed, taking advantage of her absence to prop his feet up on her bedspread even though he was still wearing his ratty old sneakers.

"What do you mean?" he'd asked her.

"I mean we're different," she told him. "We're different from Billy and Dana. It's hard to explain."

But he knew what she meant. He'd often felt that vague feeling of discomfort when the Captain returned from sea, but until that day he hadn't known why it was there. He'd simply tried to make it go away, knowing that he should miss his own father; he should want his father to come home. He knew Billy and Dana and even Melissa did, and so did the rest of the base kids.

"But we've got each other, kid," Missy had said, jumping on the bed beside him and shoving him over against the wall.

Melissa had always been perceptive, even back then. She had felt the Captain's unease around them, his tendencies towards Billy, whom he'd joking called "Billy the Kid," and Dana, whom he'd called "Starbuck."

At times, and despite his closeness to her, Charles had even felt a vague sense of jealousy towards his mother, whom the Captain so obviously adored. He was frustrated by this, by the way the Captain could love Maggie yet be so distant to him and Melissa, who were so much like their mother.

Charles focused on the oversized dish cabinet against the opposite wall of the dining room. The shelf of the cabinet was decorated with his mother's trinkets, a hand-painted vase bought while the family was living in Japan; a pair of gold candlesticks passed down from her mother, Charles's grandmother; and a small hourglass, its white sand all clumped together and collected at the top of the glass. Time stood still.

"Hey, Charles," Bill said after wiping his mouth with his napkin. "What time does your flight leave tomorrow?"

"Early," he said. "Seven-thirty, I think."

Bill whistled softly. "That is early. So you want to get to the airport at, what, six-thirty?"

Charlie nodded. "Something like that."

"We'd better get to bed early, then," Bill said matter-of-factly.

"Huh?"

"Tonight," Bill said slowly, as if he were explaining something extraordinary simple to Matthew. "We should all get to sleep early, if we're going to drop you off at the airport tomorrow on our way to Pittsburgh."

Charles nodded, dazed. He didn't know when Bill and his family were planning on leaving, but he'd just assumed that his mother was going to take him to the airport. Or else Dana, maybe.

"What time are you three planning on heading home?" Maggie asked Dana, who shrugged.

"After we're through here, I suppose," she said. "We don't have a long drive, but I, for one, am pretty exhausted."

"It's been a long day," Tara agreed, "for everyone."

"A long five days," Charles put in.

"And it'll be nice to sleep in a bed again," Dana added. "I appreciate you moving onto the couch for us, Charlie, but the pull-out in the study is--"

"A pain the ass?" he supplied.

"Literally," Mulder said, and they laughed.

"And I'm sure you'll both appreciate being back in your own Apartment," Charles said, "instead of this overcrowded house." He winked at his sister, and she pretended not to notice. But Charlie saw the twitches of a smile on the corner of her lips, and he grinned at her.

"So, Tara," Dana said. "How long a drive is it to Pittsburgh?"

"About four and a half hours," Tara said. "Not too bad."

"And your sisters will both be there?" Maggie asked.

Tara nodded. "Katie drove up from New York on Christmas Eve, and Gwen, who lives in LA, is flying in on Friday. She and her family spent Christmas at her in- laws' house in LA."

Charles slipped out of the conversation, letting his hand drop into his pocket and caress the ring buried there. It was thick and gold and warm, and when Charles pictured it in his mind, it was always on his father's finger.

Charlie hadn't been lying when he told his mother that he didn't want the ring. He knew she should give it to Bill or Dana, who had, after all, been so much closer to the Captain. They would treasure it like it should be treasured; they might even wear it, something Charles didn't think he could ever bring himself to do.

Charles knew he hadn't been a good son to his father; he knew he didn't deserve the ring. But his mother had given it to him anyway. You're his son, too, Charles, she had said.

Charlie fisted his hand around the ring, squeezing, feeling the bite of it in his palm. He kept squeezing, feeling the pads of his fingers dig into the flesh of his hand. Finally his hand started to ache from the pressure, and Charles unclenched his fist and let the ring rest easily in his palm. He toyed with it, passing it from finger to finger, but he did not slip it on.


Dana

"Dana?"

She knew who it was before she turned around and saw Bill standing in the doorway of the study. His arms were crossed over his chest, and the set of his mouth was stern, uncompromising. Scully wanted to climb in the crib in the corner of the room and curl up with her sleeping son. She remembered Mulder's crack about Bill not hitting him if he were holding Liam.

"D'you have a minute?"

She nodded, stepped away from the desk, where she had balanced the overnight bag she had just about finished packing. Their other bag, plus Liam's considerable baby gear, was piled next to the door.

"I don't want to argue with you, Dana," he said.

"So don't."

"Fair enough," he conceded, then waited for her to respond. Nuh uh, Scully thought, crossing her arms protectively in front of her. You want to talk, Bill, then talk. I'm not going to make this any easier for you when you've given me such a hard time. Scully knew it was immature, but by this point in the visit, she didn't much care anymore.

She looked up at him, and he was watching her, staring. She shuddered slightly, trying to hide the movement by rubbing her hands up and down her upper arms, warming herself. He was looking at her like he was seeing her for the first time... or like he was never going to see her again.

"Just how much do you know about Mulder?" he asked finally.

More than you ever will, Scully thought, but said nothing, just waited for him to continue. She knew Bill well enough to understand that this wasn't an innocent question; he was heading somewhere, and he had his plan all worked out in advance. He had probably even scripted her answers, Scully thought. The answers he wanted to hear.

"I have this friend in Naval Intelligence. He sometimes helps out this FBI agent, and my friend owed me a favor..."

Rage darkened her eyes. "You had Mulder checked out?"

"Just listen to me, Dana," Bill said, setting his hands on her shoulders. "He has a stack of discipline reports a mile high. Jesus, use your head. Be reasonable."

"Bill, half those reports have my name on them, too," she challenged, and Bill's eyes narrowed. She shook free from his grasp. "Plus a few others."

"What?"

"So you didn't have your friend in Naval Intelligence check up on me?"

"Why would I?" he asked, confused. "I know you. It's Mulder I--"

"Bill, you don't know very much about what we do," she said. "And that's fine. In fact, it's probably for the best. But please don't pretend you understand, because you don't." You can't, she thought. *I* can barely wrap my mind around it all half the time.

"Because you won't let me," he said, his voice raising. She looked pointedly over at the crib, where Liam -- she hoped -- was still sleeping. Sighing, Bill lowered his voice. "You won't let any of us. You never call; you rarely write, and when you do, it's to Tara. *I'm* your brother, Dana."

Scully closed her eyes, wishing Bill away. "Yes," she said, eyes still shut tight. "You're my brother, not my father."

Seconds passed, a minute maybe, and Bill said nothing. Finally Scully opened her eyes. He was still standing there, an unfocused look in his eyes. "What do you want from me, Bill?" she asked.

"I want you to talk to me. Tell me the truth," he said. You can't deal with the truth, she thought.

The truth was that Bill was trying to take their father's place. But no one could replace Ahab. I should know, Scully thought. Haven't I been looking, all these years and maybe even before he died, to fill the void he left in my life when I disappointed him by leaving medicine? To find another man who would guide me, who would control me? Daniel Waterston; Jack Willis; even, at certain points, Mulder. The truth was that no one could replace their father, and the difference was that she no longer wanted someone to.

"You don't want the truth, Bill," she said, trying to keep the bite out of her voice. "You want me to say something you can use against us." And I'm sick of being persecuted, she thought.

He shook his head. "I just want you to be safe."

She could reassure him, tell him that she was fine; of course she and Mulder and Liam were safe; don't worry about us. But even though she and Mulder would do everything in their power to keep themselves and their son safe, Scully also knew that the time might come when their power wouldn't be enough. But there was no use trying to explain things to Bill.

"I don't want you to get hurt," Bill said.

He's not the one hurting me, she thought, and, until she saw the expression on her brother's face, she didn't realize that she'd spoken aloud.

She looked away, embarrassed. She had broken the unwritten rules in her relationship with Bill: fight back, be tough, suck it up and keep going. And, for God's sake, don't admit that you have feelings to hurt or that he has the power to hurt them.

"I'm not trying to hurt you," he said in a low voice. "I want to be able to talk with you. We could have so much in common, Dana, with kids the same age and me being transferred to Norfolk... But I know that whatever I do will end up being wrong. I don't know what to say to you anymore."

She looked up at him, rolling her lips. "You could say 'Congratulations' or you could say 'I'm happy for you.' Or, if you can't manage that, you could try not saying anything."

Scully wasn't surprised when her brother chose the latter. She shook her head and and went over to the crib to see if Liam was still sleeping. He was awake, his round eyes staring at her almost hopefully.

I'm so sorry, she thought at him, and the little boy almost seemed to understand. His expression relaxed and his pouty lower lip -- Mulder's lip, she thought absently -- paused mid-quiver. Liam held his arms up to her, and she lifted him from the crib.

"You're hiding behind him," Bill told her evenly.

"And you're hiding *from* him." It was out of her mouth before she could consider what she was saying. But it was true. Bill had been hiding from Liam -- or perhaps hiding from the truth of what Liam represented -- all week.

"I am not," he insisted. But his posture, the clench of his hands around his biceps, the taught muscles in his neck and his jaw, told her otherwise.

She turned to Bill, Liam still in her arms. The baby was soft and sweet- smelling, so warm and trusting. A contented smile graced his lips, and his downy hair was slightly unruly from his nap. He gazed solemnly at his uncle, his eyes wide. Liam had her eyes, Scully knew, and through him she could see her own expression, like looking in a mirror. She wondered what Bill saw.

"I'm not hiding from him," Bill repeated, as if he were trying to convince himself.

Scully didn't know how to make Bill understand. She knew it was asking too much for him to comprehend her work with Mulder, or their relationship. But she didn't think she was asking too much wanting him to understand her love for Liam.

"Then here," she said, holding Liam out to her brother, who flinched almost imperceptibly. Panic crossed his face before he managed to plaster on a neutral expression that seemed somehow familiar and far away at the same time.

But he took the baby, holding him stiffly in her arms. Hurt burned through her, but Scully didn't say anything, didn't take Liam back. Dammit, Bill, she thought, you know how to hold a baby. Don't hold my son like he's a ticking bomb you can't figure out how to diffuse.

She turned away from her brother and resumed her packing. She considered, for a long minute, simply taking the luggage downstairs and leaving Liam with Bill. But there were too many bags for her to carry in one trip, so she turned back to her brother.

He was still holding the baby, which Scully considered at least a minor victory, and Liam had his hand out and was patting his uncle's chest softly. Bill gazed down at his nephew, and Scully could suddenly place the look on her brother's face. Those were their father's eyes staring at Liam; their father's eyes studying the baby, judging. Scully suppressed a shudder and waited for him to speak.

"You know, he looks like you." Bill's voice had softened into a whisper, and she had to strain to hear him.

"He looks like Mulder," she said, running her thumb down her son's cheek and over his chin. He smiled at the gentle caress and turned his face into her hand. Bill said nothing, but his eyes didn't leave the baby's face.

"Let's go," Scully said, picking up an overnight bag and the oversized travel baby bag. Bill nodded, lifted the other bag, and followed her downstairs.


Mulder

Scully came downstairs first, weighted down by Liam's bag and one of their overnight bags. Mulder took both bags and set them by the front door. He raised his eyebrows at her, holding up the baby's snowsuit.

Mulder followed her gaze to the staircase, watching until Bill appeared, Liam in his arms. Every muscle in Mulder's body tensed when he saw Scully's brother holding his son. A part of him -- hell, almost all of him -- wanted to sprint over and snatch the baby from Bill's arms.

But something stopped him, a memory of that first Christmas without Samantha, his father working -- trying to find her, he had said -- and his mother asleep, an orange pill bottle on the bedstand. Mulder hadn't understood why they weren't at his grandparents' house, where they always spent Christmas, and why they hadn't observed Hanukkah. Not only had he worried and wondered about Samantha's whereabouts, but he'd wondered about his grandparents and cousins. Did they miss him and Samantha? Were they thinking of the Mulder family, or was Christmas passing as usual for them, presents and stockings and his grandmother's egg nog?

So Mulder stood and watched Bill carrying his son, and he said nothing. There was hope there, in the tiniest gestures, a man holding his nephew. Mulder wondered what Scully had said to him upstairs; something had obviously happened for Bill to be holding Liam.

If only, Mulder thought as Bill stepped off the last stair and into the living room. If only he could see Liam the way that Mulder did. Not as a mistake, not as a regret, not as the product of a single lonely night. If only Bill could see Liam as the beautiful and hopeful child that he was, the tangible reality of a love that had been so patient, yet so persistent. An impossible dream, first Scully's and then his, in the flesh.

Bill stepped towards Scully, holding Liam out to her. But she stepped away, and instead took their coats from the closet. So Bill turned to Mulder, pulling Liam back into his body just slightly.

"Da da," Liam called out, smiling and reaching out for Mulder. Atta boy, Mulder thought, biting his lip to contain a proud grin.

His expression unyielding, Bill stepped close to Mulder, holding the baby out. Mulder maneuvered the snowsuit, and Bill fit Liam's legs into the leg holes. They worked together, slowly, to fit Liam into the puffy coat. Finally Bill transferred the baby into Mulder's arms. Then Bill stepped closer, too close. Mulder stood his ground, holding his son tight against him, waiting for Bill to speak.

But Bill said nothing, just stood too close and too still, imposing his height and bulk. His eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched, but Mulder just stood there, now knowing how to respond to Bill's unarticulated threat, for he had no doubt that was what it was.

But then Scully was beside them, Mulder's coat held out. Bill took his time stepping away from Mulder, his back stiff and stern as he walked away, leaning against the wall near the front door. Scully held his coat for him as Mulder slipped into it, juggling Liam from one arm to the next.

"Have a safe drive," Maggie said as she joined them in the living room, Matthew hanging off one hand and Charles and Tara following her.

"Thanks, Mom," Scully said as the two women hugged.

Maggie then turned to Mulder and Liam, and pulled them into her arms. "Thanks for coming, Fox," she said. "Merry Christmas."

"Thanks," he said softly. "Mom." Her grip on him tightened before she kissed the top of Liam's head.

"We'll see you next week, Mom," Scully said as her mother pulled away from Mulder and Liam.

"New Year's," she confirmed as her hand lingered on Liam's back.

"You'd better stay in touch, Dana," Tara said as she made the rounds, hugging first her sister-in-law, and then, quickly, Mulder and Liam. "And I expect plenty more pictures of that little guy."

Scully nodded and smiled, but said nothing. Mulder wondered what Bill had said to her before they came downstairs with their luggage. He hadn't heard any raised voices, so apparently things had remained civil, but Mulder could tell from Scully's demeanor that something had passed between them.

"Say good-bye to your cousin, Matty," Tara said, pushing the little boy forward. He hugged Scully, then approached Liam. Mulder squatted down to Matthew's level and held Liam out towards him. The little boy patted his cousin gently on the shoulder, then gave him a careful hug.

"Bye-bye, Lee-umm," Matthew pronounced.

"And we expect to see you before next Christmas," Scully said to Charles as she hugged him goodbye. "You can use those tickets any time," she reminded him. "The apartment may be a little crowded, but you're welcome to our couch anytime. And I can assure you that it's more comfortable than Mom's pull-out."

Oh, yeah, Mulder thought, quite comfortable. He bit back his grin. He and Charles exchanged a quick, back-slapping hug, then the younger man leaned down and kissed Liam softly on the forehead.

"Congratulations," he said to Mulder, who furled his eyebrow at Charlie. "For surviving Clan Scully for five whole days," he explained. "You deserve some kind of reward. Combat pay."

"Come on, Charlie," Scully said. "We're not that bad."

But Charles just smiled and shook his head, stepping away from Mulder and Liam.

"Yeah," Bill said, tossing a glare at his brother. "You'd think we were the Addams family or something."

"Well..." Charles said, smiling and shrugging.

"Goodbye, Bill," Scully said as she and Mulder made their way to the front door. Scully walked slowly, scuffing her heels against the floor. She slowed, digging her hands into her pockets. She unearthed her gloves and slowly, leisurely fit them onto her hands as she stepped towards the door.

Mulder knew what she was waiting for, and he knew that she would be waiting a long time. He stood at the door, propping it open with his shoulder, and a cool breeze blew in through the screen door.

"Bye, Dana," Bill said. He stood with his arms crossed across his chest, the rest of the family watching them. Bill rolled his lips, then caught his lower one with his teeth.

Finally Scully reached in the doorway, standing between Mulder and Bill. "Bye, Bill," she said again, and Mulder stepped onto the front porch. He turned to see Scully standing in the doorframe, stopped by Bill's hand on her shoulder.

The embrace was quick, and Mulder almost missed it. "Keep in touch, okay?" he heard Bill say softly, dipping his head to speak into his sister's ear. She nodded slightly before he let her go, and she walked away to join Mulder and Liam outside.


Epilogue

Thursday, December 27, 2001

"This is love, to fly towards a distant sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall every minute, finally, to take a step without feet." - Rumi

"Little things console us because little things afflict us." - Pascal


Mulder

Mulder slipped a clean pair of flannel pajama pants out of the dresser drawer and stepped into them, letting the drawstring hang loose. First he stepped quietly into Liam's room, smiling when he leaned over the crib to see his son sleeping soundly. Liam had fallen asleep on the drive home the previous night and hadn't even stirred as Scully lifted him from his carseat, changed his diaper, and slipped on his pajamas.

Then, quietly, Mulder returned to their bedroom. Like their son, Scully was still asleep, her hair shining in the early morning light. Mulder stood for a moment in the doorway, surveying the scene with a satisfied smile. The previous day's clothing was scattered around the room, Mulder's shirt hanging drunkenly from a chair, anchored by one arm. Scully's pants were draped across the foot of the bed, one cuff resting on the floor.

Mulder stooped to pick up the pieces of clothing that had been so casually, so impatiently discarded the night before. He snagged his shirt and Scully's pants, then located his own jeans in a soft heap near the door.

A few months ago, Mulder thought as he swept his cottony boxer briefs and Scully's silky bra off the floor on either side of the bed, he would have left the clothes on the floor, even if he was inclined to pick them up. He would've stayed in bed, waiting for Scully to wake first, and not just because watching her sleep was one of the most intimate things he'd ever done.

No, he would've waited until she got out of bed because he wanted to see how long it took her to pick the clothes up, how long she could stand to see them lying so sexily, yet decidedly disorderly, on the floor.

He would watch the light bathe her pale skin in sunny tones before she slipped on her robe -- or, if he was lucky and she decided it wasn't too dirty, his discarded shirt. Then she would pick up their mess. But even as he would squint, watching yet trying to pretend he was still asleep, the guilt would pick at him.

I shouldn't be doing this, he thought each time. She loves you; you know she loves you. She said it often enough, knowing he needed to hear it.

Intellectually, he knew her love. He could see it every day, as they tried to coax another bite of puréed peas past Liam's stubborn lips; as they poured through old files in Doggett's cold basement office; as they sat together on the couch at night, each armed with a red pen, wading through stacks of papers and quizzes.

Mulder left the bedroom, his gaze darting around the family room in search of Scully's shirt. Finally he found it, a puddle of light blue silk on the floor beside the couch, and draped it across his shoulder, still smelling her perfume.

He lifted their coats from where they hung over the back of the couch, then hung them in the closet. After snatching his boots up by the laces, he found Scully's shoes, one near the door, the other kicked halfway under the couch. Gathering everything into his arms, Mulder went back into the bedroom.

He eased the bedroom door closed behind him, smiling when Scully did not stir. Yes, Mulder thought, he had been certain of her love for him in the way that he was certain of his badge number and address, of his birthdate and his mother's maiden name. Facts but not feelings.

His ears heard the "I love you"s and his brain reaffirmed them, filed them deep down and inside, if -- *when,* he thought -- he needed to replay them later. But still, the reality of her love got stuck somewhere on its way to his heart, stuck there like a lump in his throat.

Mulder couldn't say for sure when it had happened, when his understanding of her love had changed, when he had started to rely on it instead of wonder when it would, of course, disappear. Maybe it was a process, a slow realization, moving at a glacial pace... just like the rest of their relationship. Rationally, his slow acceptance of her love made sense.

He understood why, both as a psychologist and as a man, that his feelings -- and his acceptance of her feelings -- had been so slow in coming. He had had just a few weeks to process everything when he finally returned to her. They had been lovers for so short a time when he had disappeared, and it had all been so overwhelming upon his homecoming.

When he awoke in the hospital to see her there, after luxuriating in her reassuring smile, he had been struck with the changes in her, first in her face, then in the rest of her body. He was almost afraid to look at her swollen abdomen; it so scared him how much everything had changed in what, to him, felt like a single day.

But her face frightened him the most. The expression on her face was infused with hope and love, with expectation. With need. He had never before seen Scully so needy, so vulnerable.

He could tell she wanted him to embrace this new life they had created, to embrace her; to substantiate the insecure devotion she had used to fuel her search for him.

And he did love her. He had loved her before he left, and that hadn't changed with his abduction or return. And of course he loved their child; how could he not love a part of her?

You love her, he had reminded himself; it'll be okay, it'll work out. She's wanted this for so long; don't dampen her happiness. But he had been so confused, caught up in a fog of changes, both professional and personal.

The days in the hospital had been almost unbearable for him, trying to catch up on the months he had lost, wondering if he still had an apartment, if he still had a job... if he still had a place in Scully's life. And wondering what, exactly, that place was, and whether he could fill it.

True to form, he had watched a lot of television during those days in the hospital, filling the quiet hours when Scully and Skinner, his only visitors, weren't there, and sometimes, shamefully, filling the silence when they were.

Late one night he had watched a Discovery Channel documentary about polar bears, which had come on after "Lost in the Bermuda Triangle: Secrets Revealed," when he couldn't summon up the strength to hunt out the remote and change the channel.

Mulder had watched a polar bear emerge from its seasonal hibernation. The Arctic winter had been snowy and cold, and the bear's icy den had long ago been buried in heavy whiteness. Six feet under.

But the determined bear had burrowed up out of its den, poking its fury yellowish head through the pristine white snow. But it did not push out further; instead, it rested its furry chin on the snow, watching, figuring. Trying to see what had changed in the months of its hibernation.

Mulder wanted to explain this to Scully, to reassure what he had said to her, that he just needed time to process everything. He wasn't trying to hurt her or worry her or add to his distance from her, either geographically or emotionally; he had just needed time to catch up.

But Mulder knew he couldn't explain it, not even to her. Despite Scully's abduction, it was difficult for him to put into words his feelings of disconnection, his overwhelming fear and the tenacious niggling of guilt over having gone to Oregon, having stepped into that energy field after seeing what it did to his hand. He knew he should have turned around and called Skinner over. But instead he had stepped into the energy field.

Scully might have been taken, but he had gone willingly.

Of course, he wouldn't have gone willingly, perhaps wouldn't have gone back to Oregon at all, if he knew that Scully's dizziness and chills were symptoms not of the flu but of early pregnancy. I wouldn't have gone, he reassured himself. Of course I wouldn't. I wouldn't have left her like that.

Sometimes he could almost convince himself that were true.

It was guilt, he realized now, that had kept him testing Scully. Was she with him just because of their child? Or had she so built him up during the months he was missing, making him into a loving father and a devoted partner, into a good man? Now that he was back, was she afraid to admit that she had been wrong about him? Maybe he couldn't fulfill the dreams she had had while he was missing, dreams of a normal life with a man who was anything but.

After his return Mulder had learned, while reading the Post in an attempt to catch up with current events, that polar bears are cannibals. It was not uncommon, scientists had recently discovered, for male polar bears to eat young, helpless cubs.

Mulder could not remember whether these males killed the young cubs themselves, or whether they waited, patiently, for an accident or an illness to claim the cubs before cannibalizing them.

He wondered whether they ate the cubs they themselves had sired before remembering that the males didn't even know which cubs were theirs. They were not involved in raising their own offspring; male polar bears were loners, hunting and fishing in desperate solitude while their mates and cubs fended for themselves.

Nature was cruel, Mulder thought, shivering in the warmth of the apartment, not only for the female polar bears and their cubs, but for the males, who spent their lives wandering alone in the snowy arctic, without the comfort of their families, the only contact with other members of their species a teeth-baring, testosterone-fueled death match. Or cannibalism. Or intercourse.

Scully stirred in bed, and Mulder stood and watched her for a moment, her red hair, longer now than she had worn it in the years he'd known her, splayed across the white pillowcase. One bare arm was tossed over her head, framing her hair.

Mulder smiled, then got to the floor on his hands and knees, and pulled his socks and hers from beneath the bed. He ran his arm through the darkness, searching for her underwear, the only article of their clothing he hadn't yet unearthed.

But he found nothing, unless he counted the dust bunny that had skimmed across the floor when he pulled his socks from under the bed.

Mulder jumped when the phone rang, almost banging his head against the sturdy wooden bed frame. He scrambled to his feet, nabbing the cordless phone from the bedstand and stepping quickly into the hallway. He pressed the talk button, but said nothing until he had closed the bedroom door behind him.

"Hello?"

"Mulder?" a male voice answered. Familiar, Mulder thought, but he couldn't place it. In the background he could hear the bustle of a crowd and the disembodied voice of a loudspeaker announcer.

"Yes?"

"Hey, Mulder, it's Charlie," the voice said.

"Charlie," he said, wandering down the short hallway. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah, I'm sorry for calling so early," he said. "I hope I didn't wake the baby."

Mulder stepped into Liam's room and crept over to the crib, smiling gently when he saw the baby's arm bent awkwardly above his head, just like Scully's. "Nah, he's still asleep."

"That's good," Charles said. "Can I talk to Dana?"

"She's sleeping," Mulder said. "Do you want me to wake her?"

Charles paused, then said, "Uh, yeah. Could you?"

"Mmm hmm," he said, cracking open the bedroom door. He held the phone against his chest and sat beside her on the bed. "Scully?"

"Mmmm," she said, turning away from him and pulling the blankets up over her shoulders.

"Scully." He smoothed her hair away from her face and she turned back to face him, her eyes squinting open.

"Wuzzit?" she asked.

"Phone," he said, offering her the receiver.

She sat up, holding the sheet against her chest, and took the phone. "Who is it?" she asked, now almost completely awake. "What's wrong?"

He just shook his head. "It's Charlie."

"Charles?" she asked frantically into the receiver. "What is it? What happened?"

Mulder scooted over to sit beside her. She leaned her head against his shoulder and balanced the phone in the valley between them. Charles was shouting into the phone, trying to hear himself over the buzz of the crowded airport.

"Nothing's wrong, Dana," he assured her. "I'm fine."

"You're fine," she said softly, sighing as she looked over her shoulder at Mulder. "What is it then?"

"I'm sorry I woke you."

"It's okay, Charlie," she said. "What is it?"

"It's... It's just, Dana, I know I told you that night that it was a mistake and I shouldn't have come."

"Yes," she urged.

"But I'm glad I came. I'm sorry I haven't kept in touch, Dana, I'm so, so sorry about that, and I'll be better about it now, I promise."

"Okay," she said, turning away from the receiver to stifle a yawn.

"Really," he assured her. "I'm gonna use that ticket you gave me. I don't know when, not yet, but I'll let you know, I promise."

"I'm glad, Charlie," she said. "I hope--" But her voice was drowned out by the crackle of the loudspeaker and the boarding announcement for a United flight to Seattle.

"That's me, Dane," Charles told her. "I gotta go."

"Have a safe flight, Charlie."

"Thanks," he said. "Love you, Dane." Then he hung up the phone.

As the dial tone buzzed in their ears, Mulder lifted the phone from its balance on their shoulders and pressed the disconnect button, then dropped the receiver onto the bedstand.

"Wow," Scully said, running her hand through her hair and unconsciously letting the sheet slip a few inches down her chest, revealing the soft curve of her breasts. Wow, indeed, Mulder thought.

"What?" he asked.

"Did you hear what he said?" she asked, turning her face against the pillow to face him. "He said he loved me. He hadn't... I can't remember the last time I heard that from him or Bill," she admitted.

"You know they love you," he said, thinking of what Tara had told him the previous day. He found her left hand under the sheet and interlaced his fingers with hers, feeling the warm gold of her ring between his fingers.

"I know," she said, squeezing his hand, "but sometimes you just need to hear it."


Maggie

Maggie tried to get back to sleep after the rest of her family left that morning, but she found it next to impossible. She lay in bed for another thirty minutes, tossing and turning, slightly uncomfortable in the sudden return of quiet to the house.

Finally she gave in to her wakefulness and got out of bed, showered, and dressed before heading downstairs. She popped an English muffin into the toaster and set the coffee pot brewing. As she waited for her breakfast to cook, she wandered through the house, checking to make sure no one had forgotten anything. Just when she was about to rejoice in the miracle of her children's memories, she found a teething toy of Liam's in the refrigerator when she got out the margarine to spread on her English muffin.

Oh, well, she thought, fingering the cold gel-filled ring. She would be seeing Dana again next week, for New Year's, if not sooner. At least she needn't pack anything up and ship it to Seattle or San Diego.

Finally her English muffin popped up, and Maggie snatched it out of the toaster, buttering it thinly. As she ate she spotted the remote control to the stereo on the counter, and flicked it on. The radio was set to an all-talk AM station, and she flipped idly through the channels, unable to find anything to her tastes.

She clicked on the CD player, trying to remember what discs she had left inside. Ah, yes, she thought as the first familiar strains of "Yesterday" filled the empty house. She had been on a Beatles kick for the past few weeks, perhaps seeking some comfort, perhaps preparing herself for the arrival of her children.

The Beatles had always reminded her of the time her family had spent in Japan, when she had sometimes turned on the radio just to hear the familiar sounds of the English language. The songs from those years were ripe with memories for her, Eleanor Rigby's lonely people and Penny Lane in her ears and in her eyes.

Maggie set the remaining half of her muffin on her napkin and went into the living room, where she surveyed the Christmas decorations. I should take them down today, she supposed. Bill had always insisted on dismantling everything immediately after Christmas, eager to restore order to the house. Old habits die hard, Maggie thought.

She snatched candy canes off the drooping branches of the tree, collecting them in a small pewter jar on the mantel. Then she slipped each of the stockings from where the children had rehung them, empty and loose, on Christmas morning. She stacked the stockings on the couch, thinking that, at this time next year, they would need another stocking. Maggie smiled as she ran her fingers over the new felt of Liam's stocking.

She finished her breakfast and headed into the attic to retrieve the plastic snap-lid boxes she used to store the holiday decorations. She set the stockings in their box, then detoured into the kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee before plucking ornament after ornament off the tree and wrapping it carefully in tissue paper.

The familiar piano chords of "Let it Be" filled the living room, and Maggie smiled. This was one of her favorites, having consoled her through so many long, lonely nights in impersonal base housing while the children slept soundly upstairs.

"For though they may be parted, There is still a chance that they will see. There will be an answer. Let it be."

Maggie snagged a familiar ornament off the tree, hanging its faded yarn tie on her index finger, letting it dangle around her wrist. It was an ornament all four children had helped to make, a plastic globe covered in shiny metallic threads most likely bought at one of those Secret Santa shops the elementary schools used to run. Maggie wondered whether they still had those, or whether they had been disposed of in the interest of political correctness and failing school levies.

She fingered the single word on the ornament, "MOM!" that her children had painted on using their own tiny thumbprints. It was a clever idea, she thought, though it would have worked better if there had only been three of them, the exclamation point necessary for Charles to have something to contribute. Sequins, now half lost, decorated the vertices of the "M"s and formed the dot of the exclamation point.

Maggie gazed over at the numerous photographs that decorated the east wall of the room. She and Bill stood together on their wedding day, Bill in his dress uniform, her in a satiny white gown, her veil billowing behind them in the wind. In the frame next to their wedding photo was another picture from that day, Maggie with her three sisters, her bridesmaids, huddled together on her parents' porch swing.

Another photo showed a newborn Billy, a photo taken just after his birth, his pink face swaddled in a blue blanket, less than an hour after Maggie had bestowed upon him his father's name. Next to the picture of her firstborn were her other children, taken as newborns in the hospital, taken to send to a father at sea.

To the uninitiated, the babies in these pictures might look identical, their red faces wrinkly and bothered, their fingers scrunched into fists, their nails impossibly tiny and sharp. But to Maggie they were so distinct: Billy's dark hair peaking out from beneath his cap; Melissa's eyes, wide and bright blue, looking almost stunned; the tiny scratch on Dana's face, which was already dotted with freckles; the perfect roundness of Charles's head, her one baby who had been born by caesarean.

Another picture showed Bill, Tara, and Matthew, taken on Matthew's first birthday. A large cake sat in front of him and his tiny, clenched fist was poised to enter the cake. Indeed, the next photo on the roll had showed Matthew's frosting-covered fist jammed pleasantly into his mouth. Maggie smiled.

"I know you, you know me. One thing I can tell you Is you got to be free. Come together Right now Over me."

The next photograph in the row depicted Charles's high school graduation. Each of the children had been in attendance, and they stood next to their brother, Melissa smiling and tweaking the tassel on his crooked cap. But Charles was smiling formally, despite his bright yellow high-top sneakers and the clashing neon-green necklace he wore along with his honors cords.

"Got to be good-looking Cause he's so hard to see, Come together Right now Over me."

Maggie turned her attention back to the Christmas tree, and removed the remainder of the ornaments, setting the breakable ones in their own boxes and tossing the children's ornaments, her favorites, in a larger container. Then she removed the strings of popcorn and cranberries, her fingertips aching at the memory of stringing them, and set them aside to toss outside for the birds.

She decided to take a break before tackling the lights. The tree looked beautiful like this, half-naked and twinkling merrily. The sight was almost hopeful, and, if she squinted, Maggie imagined that she was putting the tree up, instead of taking it down, that she was anticipating her children's arrival instead of beginning to miss them again.

"Little darling, It's been a long cold lonely winter. Little darling, It feels like years since it's been here. Here comes the sun."

Cradling her coffee mug in one hand, Maggie peered out the window. Indeed, the sun was peeking out of the considerable cloud cover, though the snow had yet to begin to melt. They were forecast to receive another few inches before the weekend, she knew, but nothing as severe as the holiday ice storm.

Good, Maggie thought. They had planned for her to spend New Year's at Dana's Apartment, and Maggie didn't relish the idea of driving into DC in a blizzard. Too, her daughter's Apartment, though spacious for a woman living alone, was now crowded by the addition of Liam and Fox, and Maggie hoped not to have to spend a night on her daughter's sofa, even if Dana did claim that it was more comfortable than Maggie's pull-out.

"Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting. Little darling, It seems like years since it's been clear. Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. And I say it's all right."

Maggie turned back to the wall of photographs, hunting out one of Dana. There were several, she saw, but none of Dana with Fox and the baby. Somewhere, she knew, she had the pictures she'd taken of Liam as a newborn, of his puffy pumpkin Halloween costume and of the Thanksgiving she had spent with her daughter's family. She would have to choose one with the three of them to frame and squeeze onto her ever-crowding wall of pictures. Plus the photo of Liam and Matthew on Santa's lap, Maggie remembered.

She hoped they would all be together next Christmas. Maggie knew it had been difficult, and the holiday hadn't exactly gone as she had planned. Yet they had all survived those five days, survived them and perhaps were the better for them. At least Maggie hoped so.

And she dared to hope that she would see all of them together before next Christmas. Maybe in the spring, when Bill, Tara, and Matthew moved back East, or in the summer, when Tara had the baby. Was she being greedy wanting Bill and Dana to find some peace, to accept each other's choices and each other's limitations?

Was she asking too much to hope that Charles might use the plane ticket Dana had given him to again come East to visit them? That he might have seen something in the family this week that he loved, that he needed?

Was it asking too much to hope that they had all seen it?


"Our parents are never people to us, never, they're always character traits, Achilles' heels, dim nightmares, vocal tics, hot tears, all handed down and us stuck with them. Our dilemma is utter: turn and look at this woman, understand and pity her, like and talk with her... There is only room in the lifeboat of your life for one, and you always choose yourself, and turn your parents into whatever it takes to keep you afloat." - Anna Quindlen

"I want to love you without clutching, appreciate you without judging, join you without invading, invite you without demanding, leave you without guilt, evaluate you without blaming, and help you without insulting. If I can have the same from you, then we can truly meet and enrich each other." - Virginia Satir


End Notes: Big thanks to Holly and Carrie for beta reading for me (especially Holly, who isn't even much of an X-Files fan). Big thanks also to my mom for helping me out with details about seven month old babies and four-year-old boys, for letting me know when I let the characters get overly sentimental or overly cruel, and for helping me (hopefully) humanize Bill without going overboard.

I started writing this in October, intending to be finished in December, not realizing it would grow to epic proportions... well, I guess if Scully can be pregnant for a year on the show, then a Christmas story can be sent out in February and March. So I thank everyone who read this out-of-season tale, especially those who sent me feedback. This is only my second X-Files story and the encouragement was very much appreciated. It's reassuring to know, when you send out a story that's like a part of you, that it's going somewhere safe and loving.

The End

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