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An Acceptable Level of Happiness

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have to be at Mom’s by two.”

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

“Noon or so.”

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

***

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

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

“Are we getting old, Scully?” Mulder murmurs.

“Yes.” I grin at the ceiling. “Just wait until he’s two.”

“Oh, boy. Toddlers. Scully, we’re going to have a toddler.”

“One stage at a time and we’ll be fine, I promise.”

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

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

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

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

“He will. We just have to engage his interest.”

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

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

“You know what would cheer you up?” Mulder says.

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

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

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I take it you approve.”

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

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

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

“I’m sure. Dinner is going to be huge.”

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

“Later,” I whisper, and he smiles back.

“Promise?”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All they’re going to do is ask when we’re getting married.”

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

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

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

“I want them to love you,” I say, holding Malcolm tight. “I want them to think that you’re wonderful and perfect. I don’t want to have to choose between my family and you—”

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

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

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

“They know you’ve been badly hurt.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t look where you were going, did you?” I say.

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

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

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

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

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