Title: An Acceptable Level of Happiness
Genre: Alternative universe, post-series 8
Summary: Christmas is the most stressful time of year. Fortunately, Scully has Mulder, and Mulder has solutions.
Notes: Author’s notes are at the end.
“He’s screening again,” I say when Doggett gets into the car, and stab the Talk button with my thumb. “I’ve left two messages for him and I still don’t know if he’s listened to them. How am I supposed to tell him I’m going to be late if he won’t answer the phone?”
Doggett’s mind is elsewhere than my domestic problems. “Why don’t you get caller ID?” He sits on the edge of the passenger seat, facing outside. He pulls off his shoes and bangs the soles together, knocking off drying mud.
“I guess it’s time.” This worries me more than I like to admit. It could mean anything when Mulder’s having one of his anti-social days.
Doggett regards his ruined shoes and sighs. “Tell you what. You drop me off at a Metro station as soon as we get back to the city, and I’ll take the train back to the office for my car. There’s no point in you driving all the way out there and then all the way back.”
“Thank you.” It’s been one of those days. The Roanoke P.D. called us in for help with what they’re afraid is an occult murder spree. Of course the bodies are in the woods outside of town, of course it’s been raining for three days so there’s no evidence to be found, and of course while I was talking to the witness who found the bodies I waited a little too long and stained my blouse with breast milk. Even Doggett, who is used to it by now, is having trouble looking me in the eye today. I just want to go home, and I know my long day isn’t over yet.
“There’s some things I want to do at the office anyway,” Doggett adds, which I know is meant to soothe my conscience even if it’s true. He pulls his door shut. “I’m ready to go.”
“All right.” I turn the key and my car rumbles to life. As the car warms up I take a moment to flip down my visor and press my fingertip to the photograph there, giving a brief kiss to Malcolm’s plump lips. Doggett turns his head away, smiling a little. “Sorry. I miss my baby.”
“Then take us home, Dana.”
“Right.” I turn in my seat to guide my car out of the campground parking lot, eager to get home where my son and my sweetheart are waiting.
When I arrive home my breasts are aching the way they do just before milk starts running everywhere—I have exactly five minutes to get Malcolm up and nursing before I make a mess of myself. Again. I could pump them again like I’ve been doing all day, but the fact is the breast pump irritates my nipples and I’m started to dread using it. There is no way to keep one’s dignity, even in front of a partner as unflappable as Doggett, when all you want to do is scratch itchy inflamed tissue on your chest.
There’s been a bitter wind for the past several days along with the rain. The air smells good, loamy and leafy, and I take a deep whiff as I hurry up the steps into my building. I feel a bit like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland: I’m late, I’m late . . . I fumble with the keys, my briefcase, and the cooler with my breast milk before I finally get the door open.
Most nights I come home to find Mulder and Malcolm watching ‘The Powerpuff Girls’, Mulder making commentary and Malcolm chewing his fist and making a few noises of his own. Mulder is convinced Malcolm has a crush on Bubbles.
But instead of my content little family watching cartoons, with the scent of dinner enlivening the air, tonight I am greeted by a wailing baby as Mulder paces back and forth across the floor, trying to soothe him with his soft, “Shh, shh, Big Mac. Daddy’s here. Mommy will be home soon.”
“I’m home,” I say, closing the door behind me.
“Oh, thank God,” Mulder says. “You’re late.”
“I’m aware,” I say dryly. I uncerimoniously dump my briefcase and the cooler on the floor, following them with my coat and blazer. “Gimme the baby.” I’m already unbuttoning my shirt.
Mulder watches my fingers with interest but hands over Malcolm without comment. Malcolm breaks off in mid-wail to latch onto my nipple, and we both sigh with relief.
“You could have called,” Mulder says.
“I did call. You were screening again.”
His mouth opens and shuts, and he goes to the answering machine. Sure enough, there’s a red glowing ‘2’ on the display. “Sorry,” he mutters. “You know how I feel about the phone.”
“I know.” I take a deep breath and let it out. I don’t like being angry at Mulder—it doesn’t help either of us—and this is just as much my fault as it is his. “Traffic was bad on the way back from Roanoke.”
He tries to look interested. “How’s the case?”
“John thinks vigilante, I think cult. There are some ritualistic overtones that don’t fit in with a crusade for justice, however twisted.”
“Uh-huh,” Mulder says, neutral. I can’t decide if Mulder likes Doggett or not. They tend to circle each other like wolves whenever they get within ten yards, but Mulder never makes so much as a snide remark to me about him. Doggett, of course, only asks about my personal life if I bring it up first. “Well. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Honest cop work and all that.”
“I really could use your input, Mulder.”
He shakes his head, going into the kitchen with the cooler. “No, thanks.”
I sigh and ease into the rocking chair by the fireplace, taking care that Malcolm’s mouth doesn’t break contact with my breast. Since his return, Mulder has steadfastly refused to even think about going back to the FBI. I can’t say that I blame him, but I miss his expertise. And his pencils in the ceiling. And his making fun of my lunches. And his sunflower seeds. And his imitation of Kersh. And his stealing kisses in the elevator.
“I was waiting for you to come home to start the rice,” Mulder says as he puts the milk away. “Everything’s ready, I just need to start the cooking part.”
“I’m sure it’s wonderful, whatever you’ve concocted.”
He shrugs and smiles. “Just chicken and stuff. Half an hour?”
“Sounds great. How’s your stomach been today?”
“Fine. It’s all written down.” He slouches in the entryway to the kitchen, watching us. “Ritualistic overtones?”
I smile despite myself and say, “The arrangements of the bodies. There’s something very peculiar about them and almost familiar but I can’t place where I’ve seen them before.”
“Arranged like how?”
“The files are in my briefcase.” I look at him expectantly.
He starts towards the case, then shakes his head again. “You don’t want me horning in.”
“I don’t mind. Have a look.” I smooth my fingers over Malcolm’s head. His eyelashes twitch against his cheek and he suckles vigorously, as if he hasn’t eaten for a week. His weight in my arms, however, proves otherwise. My Malcolm is a big boy.
“Not before dinner.” Mulder gives me an uncertain smile and goes on watching us, his hands in his pockets.
Finally I say, “What?” and he smiles at me.
“It just gets me right *here*,” he says, pressing his hand to his chest, and then he grins at me again and turns to the kitchen to finish making dinner.
I look down at Malcolm, who is floating blissfully on the high only a fed and warm baby can feel. “He’s still learning,” I tell him, and Malcolm’s hand pulses against my breast.
Mulder’s latest campaign is Christmas. Before that it was getting married, though he seems to be content with my wearing an engagement ring. But now he wants a full-blown old-fashioned Christmas. He says it has to be special, it’s our first Christmas as a family – and, he told me just last night, “We’d be really sucky parents if we didn’t do anything special for Big Mac’s first Christmas,” ignoring the fact that no matter what we do, Malcolm won’t remember a thing and will have to trust the pictures.
It’s just ten days before Christmas and we don’t even have a tree. I don’t have the energy to go shopping for one and Mulder can’t go without me. He can’t renew his driver’s license yet. His reflexes and eyesight haven’t improved enough. His body, at this point, is trim and increasingly stronger from all the walking, but it irritates him that he’s confined t
o the neighborhood.
I’m just grateful he can walk at all. When they returned him he was suffering from exposure, malnutrition, blood loss, infections. His muscles were atrophied. His head had been shaved. His corneas were damaged. The admitting doctor stopped counting his injuries at fifty-two.
Mulder won’t admit he remembers anything. He doesn’t say he can’t remember. He doesn’t say anything about it at all. I know he has nightmares – I’m awake anyway, I hear them. Sometimes when he’s holding Malcolm he cries and he won’t say why. His therapist can’t tell me what they talk about, of course, but in our few conversations it has sounded like he’s having no more luck getting anything out of Mulder than I am.
There are many things I know we’ll tell Malcolm when he’s old enough to understand. I’ll tell him, “Your father was taken away from us during most of the time I was pregnant with you.” I’ll tell him, “Your father wept against my belly when he learned about you.”
But I don’t know how I’m going to tell him, “When they took you out of my body your father started screaming, ‘Don’t hurt her! Stop hurting her! You bastards! God! I’ll do anything you want, just stop hurting her!’ and they had to restrain and sedate him.”
I don’t know how to tell Malcolm that. I don’t know if I will. Of all the things we don’t talk about, Mulder’s abduction is the biggest elephant in the living room.
When I finish feeding, Malcolm I burp him and change his diaper. He coos and babbles at me, patting my cheeks and tugging on my hair. We have a strange relationship, my baby and I: because I’m at work all day he’s not as exclusive with me as most babies are with their mothers. Mulder, after all, is the one who feeds and cuddles and plays with him all day, so when Malcolm is scared or uncertain he looks to Mulder for reassurance. Still, Malcolm knows and loves me, and I adore him. His drooling smile and dimpled hands are worth every second of the difficult pregnancy, the pain of the c-section, the worry and the fear.
I go into the bedroom and sit Malcolm up against the pillows at the head of the bed so I can change my clothes. Sweats and an old sweatshirt with the neck cut out are a welcome relief from pantyhose and wool. I leave my bra off as well, and the soft fleece of the sweatshirt feels soothing against my sore breasts.
For a moment or two I stand in front of the mirror, inspecting myself. My body is slowly recovering, but it’s a fact: I am never going to be as slender as I was before Malcolm was conceived. I’m all hips and breasts right now, like one of those Stone Age fertility figures. Not quite so much ass, though.
“So,” I ask Malcolm, “what do you think? Should I admit defeat—accept the effect of age and gravity and childbearing?” Malcolm blows on his lips and holds out his arms, wanting to be held. I pick him up and kiss him. “I’m glad you’re so non-judgmental,” I tell him and kiss him a few more times, stroking his soft dark hair. “I’m glad you don’t care that I’m exhausted and fat and bad-tempered. And I am glad that you love me, sweet baby boy.” I sigh as he tucks his head into my neck. I whisper, “I wish I could stay home and play with you all day,” and close my eyes, swaying slightly to rhythm of my baby’s breathing.
I hear soft footsteps on the carpet. “Hey,” Mulder says as he puts his arms around me, and I nuzzle my cheek against his chest without opening my eyes. “Dinner’s ready.”
“Can I join this dance?” His voice rumbles beneath my ear.
“Of course.” All three of us sway together, me in Mulder’s arms, Malcolm in mine.
“What are we dancing to?”
He chuckles softly and kisses the top of my head. “That’s true,” he whispers. “It doesn’t.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Mulder says over dinner.
“Oh?” I fill my fork with mushrooms, rice and chicken and take a bite. Mm. Bliss.
“What if I did Christmas?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll take care of it. I’ll do everything, the baking and the shopping and the wrapping and the decorating and the whole . . . whatever.”
“You want to bake?” I look at Mulder in amazement, watching him spread peanut butter onto a celery stick.
“Sure. I’ve been watching a lot of the cooking channel. I’ve learned tricks I never dreamed of.” He eats his celery and licks peanut butter off his fingers, raising his eyebrows at me. “I can eat gingerbread, can’t I?” He’ll eat plain rice and skinless chicken, but only with several sighs and resigned looks.
“I—you want to bake?”
“My mom used to make this gingerbread cake with lemon sauce. God, it was good. That’s the flavor of Christmas to me. That’s what I want to make. Since I can’t have any other good stuff,” he adds with a pout.
“If you want to spend every night throwing up, go ahead and eat anything you like,” I say mildly, and get back to the subject at hand. “Do you even have a recipe?”
“I’ll find one. It’s got to be on the Internet somewhere.”
“But aside from the gingerbread cake,” I say and sip my milk. “Aside from that, you want to do the whole thing. A tree and stockings hung by the chimney with care and toys for Malcolm and the whole thing.”
“The whole thing. I want to give you the best Christmas you’ve ever had. I know you hate this season and I don’t blame you for it, but if I can make it better—”
“I don’t hate it.” I amend at his look, “I don’t *completely* hate it.”
“Okay, but you don’t like it. That’s been fairly obvious for several years now. But if I can make you like it, if I can make it less painful for you . . .” He shrugs, running out of steam. “Then let me.”
Malcolm sits beside me in his high chair, alternately banging plastic cups against the tray and dropping them on the floor. I reach over and play with his hand, and he works my fingers with his gums. I’m constantly stunned by his tiny fingernails, his strong grip. “Don’t make it about me,” I say quietly. “Do it for Malcolm if you have your heart set on it. Christmas is more for kids anyway.”
“It’s about loving people, I thought.” He helps himself to another chicken breast. This is good. He needs more flesh on his bones.
“Well, that too. Look: you do whatever you want to do, whatever you find necessary, and I’ll watch. I’d love to see your version of the best Christmas ever, in fact. But do it for Malcolm, do it for yourself, even, but don’t do it for me. In fact I’d rather just stay out of your way.”
“Ho, ho, ho, Scully,” Mulder says dryly.
“Bah, humbug,” I answer with a tiny grin, and Malcolm adds his two cents with a long string of vowels and spit bubbles.