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An Acceptable Level of Happiness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Yes. I really don’t know. My fiance isn’t too keen on the idea.”

“Dana,” he says gently, “your son’s spiritual life is just as important as your fiance’s wishes.”

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

“I’m worried about you, Dana.”

I give him a quick, tight smile. “Thank you. But we’re okay, really.”

“You look overtired.”

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

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

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

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

“And that,” I tell Malcolm, “is proof that your daddy still hasn’t lost his inner geek.”

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

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

“It’s open.”

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

“Hey. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Just thinkin’. How was Mass?”

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

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

“I told him we’d talk about it after the holidays.”

“Hm. Would they let him be baptized?”

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

“But you do want to have him baptized.”

“I don’t know, really.”

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

I scowl. “That’s the last reason I want to do anything.”

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

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

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

“Why?” I say but step closer.

“Wanna come in? The water’s fine.”

“It’s Malcolm’s dinner time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you having a good Christmas?” he whispers eventually.

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

“I’m enjoying myself, oddly enough.” He rubs his cheek slowly against my shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t bear the thought of losing him.”

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

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

When our pajama-clad baby is asleep in the crib, I shut the bedroom door, my heart pounding. I run my hands through my hair, which is damp and curling at the ends. I feel like I should put something on, a dab of perfume between my breasts or one of those nightgowns Mulder hasn’t seen for over a year. But I only retie the belt of my robe and sit on the sofa, to wait for Mulder to come out of the bathroom. He’s been busy while I took care of the baby: there is a makeshift, soft-looking bed on the floor between the tree and the fireplace, and he’s lit the fire. The room is bathed in a soft golden glow from the fire and the Christmas tree lights. The room smells warm and homey, of pine and cinnamon.

After a few minutes I hear the bathroom door open, and he says softly, “Close your eyes, Scully.”

Obediently I close them, inhaling in anticipation. I hear him approach me from behind and he puts his hands on my shoulders. He rubs my shoulders through my bathrobe until my head starts lolling from side to side, and then his hands slip inside my robe and massage my shoulders and neck.

“Mm . . . Mulder,” I whisper. “Can I open my eyes yet?”

He chuckles. “Not yet. Is the floor okay? I couldn’t think of anything else but the couch.”

“The floor’s fine . . .”

He whispers, “I have one more lesson for you.” His hands slide down further to cup and squeeze my breasts.

“Mulder, no lessons. I want you.”

“Tree ornaments, Scully. Tree ornaments. Look at our tree.”

I force my eyes open and look at the softly glowing tree. It’s beautiful, even graced by the U.S.S. Enterprise with its windows blinking on and off.

“Ornaments,” Mulder whispers, “originated with the Germanic tribes. They would tie fruit and grains into trees as an offering to the earth goddess, so that spring would come. You know what I’ve noticed, Scully?”

“Mm . . .” I just want his hands, his mouth, his tongue, not lectures.

“These pagan rituals, they were mostly about two things: birth and rebirth. Isn’t it interesting how religion, stripped to its basics, is about healthy children, healthy crops and life after death?”

“Fascinating. Kiss me now.”

He chuckles low in my ear. “So I went with fruit, Scully. For us.” He kisses my shoulder. “For life after thinking I was dead.” He kisses my neck and I reach back to thrust my hand into his hair. “For a houseful of children.” He kisses my earlobe.

My eyes open wide again. “Children, Mulder?” This is the first he’s said about that.

“Scully . . . if you want . . . I’d really like to have another child.”

“Are you serious?” I want to turn around and see his face but he’s still holding me, his big hands cupping my breasts and his mouth igniting patches of my skin with kisses.

His voice is so low it echoes through me. “It’s up to you. You do the hard part. But children need brothers and sisters. It teaches them socialization . . . dealing with group dynamics . . . friendship . . .” How he can talk so calmly when my body is on fire for him is beyond me. “And we should do it soon if we’re going to do it at all.”

“But Mulder . . .” I’m trying to think rationally but it’s so hard when all I want is to pull him onto me. “Mulder . . . I can’t make such a big decision right now. There’s so much to consider. I just want you, I want you.”

“I have condoms,” he whispers, which is, strangely, one of the sexiest things I’ve ever heard him say. “You let me know when you want me to stop using them.”

“Give me time to think,” I murmur, lolling and arching under his hands like a well-petted cat. “Tonight just make love to me, Mulder. I want you to make love to me.”

“Not yet. I want to ask you something m

“Mulder,” I almost whine, arching my back to push my breasts further into his hands. My legs open of their own volition and I tug at the sash of my robe.

He grabs my hands, leaning over the couch to reach them, and whispers, “Wait. I want you to be certain, okay?”

“Mulder, believe me, I’m not going to say No to you now.”

“Scully,” he says seriously, “you haven’t seen me.”

“Yes, I have. When you were first in the hospital I examined you. I had to see—I had to know what they’d left you with.” Among several dozen other things, I had been afraid that he had been castrated or that his testicles had been crushed, but his genitals appeared unharmed. I was surprised at how relieved I felt.

He covers my eyes for a moment and I close them. His hands leave my body and he comes around the couch. He whispers, “Okay. Open your eyes.”

I open them, looking up at him expectantly, and my loving words die on my lips. He’s wearing plastic Mickey Mouse ears on his head, and a fuzzy Santa Claus hat on his penis. I open my mouth and then shut it, terrified I’m going to burst into giggles. Mulder raises his eyebrows, waiting, and puts his hands on his hips.

“Merry Christmas?” he tries, and I give up and start laughing. He nods, rolling his eyes, and takes off the mouse ears. “Okay. Distraction was a failure.”

“No—just—I mean—you were so serious—” I gasp for breath, wiping my eyes.  I do love his sense of humor but sometimes it gets the better of him.

“I’m perfectly serious,” he says in a perfectly serious tone, but it’s hard to listen to him when the Santa hat is bobbing in front of my face like a dirty joke waiting to happen.

I press my lips together, tamping down my laughter. “So am I,” I say, matching his tone, and I grasp the tassel of the hat. I watch his face as I gently pull the hat off: his eyelids lower and he licks his lower lip, and a flush rises in his cheeks. I love his naked body. It’s even more precious to me now, scarred and thin, fragile as a dried flower.

Mulder watches me as I hold his penis in one hand and ease the other up his stomach. There is only one long scar here, but I can’t put out of my mind what they might have done. I move forward on the couch to sit on the very edge, and lean towards him to kiss the scar. I trace it with my tongue, and smile, pleased, when he groans.

“I think,” I whisper, “that something you’ve never really believed is how beautiful you are to me—how beautiful you’ve always been. And now look at you. Healthy and whole and home with me. Do you honestly think you could ever repulse me? No matter what they did to you, I’d still want you as much as I do right now.”

Mulder closes his eyes for a moment and places one hand on my shoulder, the other on my hair. “Do you want me?” He’s not asking it to be coy—there’s genuine doubt in his voice.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes.” To prove it I slide forward further, off the couch and onto my knees, so that my mouth is level with his erection. I whisper, “Hello, old friend,” take his penis between my lips and ease him into my mouth.

He groans aloud and his entire body arches towards me. “Mm, Scully,” rumbles up through his torso. He caresses my hair and my cheeks, making low sounds of pleasure as I suck his penis and caress it with my tongue.

I am well aware that if I make him come now it will be quite some time before my own desire is satisfied, and it’s only this thought that makes me regretfully pull back. Mulder looks down at me with sex-addled eyes. “Mmeh?”

Holding his hips for balance I stand, smiling at him. “So you tell me something,” I whisper, squeezing my fingers around his knobby hipbones. “Have you had a good look at me lately?”

He takes a slow breath and lets it out. “Yeah,” he says cautiously. “Well, maybe not a *good* look. Not as good as I’d like.”

I let go of his hips and untie my bathrobe sash. I shrug off the robe and let it drop, and raise my eyes to his. “I could lose about ten pounds,” I say softly, running my hands over my own hips. “I feel out of proportion. I feel too big everywhere. I’m  sagging. I’ve got scars and stretch marks and I desperately need to shave my legs.”

“Oh, you’re just a little prickly.” He spans my waist with his hands. “You’ve still got that hourglass figure thing happening for you,” he murmurs. “I’ve always liked your hips. When I could see them, anyway. When you started dressing to show off your figure, I’m surprised I didn’t start foaming at the mouth. And do you even have to ask about your breasts, Scully?”

“They look all right to you?”

“They look fabulous to me. Perfect. You’re perfect. You’re beautiful.” He slides his hands up my sides and then cups my face. “Perfect breasts. Perfect legs. Perfect ass. Perfect skin. Perfect and beautiful—”

“And all yours,” I whisper, tracing the prominent veins in his forearms with my fingertips. His eyes meet mine. He lies onto the blankets first, and holds out his arms so I can lie down into them. I kiss his heartbeat and smooth his hair back from his face.

The strange thing about us—one of the strange things about us—is that even though I often feel we’ve been lovers a long time, the actual number of times we’ve had sex is very low. As we ease against each other, fitting my curves against his bones, I feel a little awkward, a little new at this. It’s been a very long time.

It all comes back as hands explore and lips touch. He remembers where I like to be kissed. I remember where he likes to be nibbled. He remembers where I like a rough touch and a gentle one, I remember when he prefers my fingers instead of my tongue. And when I pull onto me, feeling his weight on my body, all I can think is, I missed you, baby. Welcome home.

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