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An Acceptable Level of Happiness

4

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

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

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

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

“I’m tired. Did you have therapy today?”

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

“How is it going?” I can’t imagine there’s much left for them to cover.

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

“He doesn’t know how stubborn you are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Doggett.

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

“John,” I say warmly. “Merry Christmas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mulder, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Whatever. I’m tired.” He waves his hand towards me vaguely, without turning around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stammer, “I’m sorry—I just—you looked—”

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

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

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

“Mulder—love—that’s not true.”

“Too ugly for public viewing, too ugly for you to have sex with—”

“Mulder, stop.”

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

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

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

I whisper, “You’re beautiful,” and he sighs heavily.

“Don’t lie.”

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

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

I whisper, “Mulder. Please tell me what you remember. It’ll help you. Please tell me.”

“I can’t.”

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

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

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

He says in his lowest voice, “What’s there to tell? They tortured me. They let me go.”

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

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

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

He sighs again and whispers, “I don’t want to remember. I want to forget and I know I never will.”

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

“I’m so tired.”

“I know. Come to bed.”

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

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

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

“Yes.” I kiss his hair. “It’s perfect.”

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