Title: An X-Mas Carol
Author: catwings
Written: 1998
Standard Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the television program "The X Files" are the creations and property of Chris Carter, Fox Broadcasting, and Ten-Thirteen Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
SPOILER WARNING: N/A; assume "Christmas Carol" and "Emily" are moot points as far as family gatherings go; also, please temporarily waive the fact that Mulder may very well be Jewish. For the context of his story, please render him either a lapsed Christian, or of mixed religious heritage, wherin the Mulder family would possibly have celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah. CONTENT WARNING: MSR-UST
Rating: PG
Classification: MSR/UST

Summary: Mulder was drunk, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. But whether that explains the three visitors - four, if you count the mortal one - to his apartment that Christmas eve is yet to be determined...


"I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it." - Charles Dickens


"And there were in that same country shepherds, dwelling in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord appeared before them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid."

Mulder made a noise deep in his throat, something between a groan and a growl, and hit the mute button on the television remote. Linus Van Pelt, in his spotlight with blanket in tow, preached on, voiceless. Mulder let the empty bottle slip from his fingers with a glassy clatter and rolled to his back, staring at the ceiling, watching the flickering light of the television screen play across it.

*Pathetic, Mulder. Utterly pathetic.*

Getting drunk alone in an apartment on Christmas Eve wasn't so terribly pathetic, of course. A bit melancholy, perhaps, but not pathetic. But getting drunk alone in an apartment while watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" - that, yes, THAT was most certainly pathetic.

*But what am I complaining about? It's as damned close to a Christmas tradition as I've got...*

He glanced back to the screen. Linus had been joined by the rest of the Peanuts gang - the grandparents, penny-clean and shiny, of the South Park anti-children. Somehow, this was the only Christmas programming he'd ever been able to stomach... and the words of good ol' Blanket Boy remained in his mind, though Mulder had set his thoughts free from tether.

"The angel of the Lord appeared before them, and they were sore afraid..."

*Damned straight they were afraid.* The blinding light, the sudden sound, the beings descending from on high - visible and shining, making day out of night, and the men below frozen where they stood...

*If it happened today, the boys upstairs would have it on my desk before the Pope finished midnight mass at St. Peter's... or they would have, once.*

And they were sore afraid. Well, who wouldn't have been? They couldn't do anything, either, those simple folks. Working class, dirt-under-the-nails, they were always the ones visited. And sure, they were afraid, and rightly so... it could have been the Angel of Death come for them, the wrath of heaven, the sword-hand of an angry god. Destruction or salvation? Glad tidings or final judgement? All they could do was wait... and watch. Helpless, unmoving, unable to make a sound... and who would have heard them, even if they had screamed?

Fear not, the angel had said.

*Good advice... for those who can take it.* He'd have to bounce that one off Scully one of these days... if he remembered to. *With any luck, I won't even remember watching this damned program, let alone remember to tell Scully about it.* Mulder chuckled to himself, a sound without humor, and reached for another green bottle gone iridescent in the television glow.

Across the room, the telephone rang, but he made no move to reach for it. His limbs felt too heavy for that, and he didn't particularly want to hear another human voice. He should have turned the ringer volume off. He'd already heard his mother phone in... sounding more chipper than in past years, as she was spending the holiday in St. Augustine with an old friend's family. That narrowed the field down to four people... and he'd sent Langly, Byers, and Frohicke off with the directive to go Christmas carolling at the local synagogue earlier that day. So...

"This is Fox Mulder. Leave a message. Ho ho ho."

"Mulder, it's me... if you're screening, pick up." Bingo.

*Right on cue, partner o' mine. Too bad I couldn't move if I wanted to.* Mulder stayed put, closing his eyes, listening to his partner's voice. She had paused, waiting for him, as though sensing his presence through the telephone wire.

"I'm not picking up, Scully..." he called to the machine.

"Mulder, I know you're there. Pick up." She sounded muffled... irritated, maybe. Or tired. Poor Scully, Mulder thought distractedly. Poorer me. He rolled his head in the direction of the phone.

"I'm here, but I'm drunk..." He regarded the bottles on the floor accusingly. "Or trying to be."

"Mulder..."

"Scully..." He giggled at the two one-way conversations, imitating her tone exactly. Talking to an answering machine. Scully might even get a kick out of it, if only he could tell her about it. But then, that would require him to pick up the phone. It would also require him to determine what the hell was so funny...

*I'm not half drunk enough for this...*

"Okay, Mulder... listen. I just wanted to call... let you know that we're doing midnight mass at St. Jude's, if you change your mind." Another pause, and now he could hear noise in the background. "Okay. Well... that's it. Call me if you need to, Mulder. Or... well, merry Christmas."

The recorder clicked off, and Mulder half-raised his head. The call wasn't so funny anymore, for some reason. That lingering tone in Scully's voice... the disappointment there. The finality of that hang-up click. It made something inside him ache, and that made him want another beer. Christmas guilt, and he wasn't even Catholic...

He should be with Scully right now. She'd asked him, and he knew she'd wanted him to come. Her family would be at her mother's... the first real family Christmas since the death of her father, and her sister. He couldn't understand why she'd asked... hadn't wanted to question the invitation. Christmas was for family... didn't she know that?

So he hadn't questioned... just turned her down, and turned his back. She'd seemed to understand.

He'd left the office and wandered vaguely for a while... it didn't feel like Christmas, despite the decorations, the carollers, the too-thin Santas on every street corner. Silver bells, silver bells, it's Christmas time in the city... but the bells were the only thing that was silver; the sky had been blue and without a cloud, and the December-busting heat wave had made a light jacket comfortable wear. The only snow about was the sort sprayed out of a can.

Turning, he'd made his way down three blocks to the Smithsonian, and wandered through the nearly-empty galleries, and had a Merry Christmas wished to him by at least fourteen well-intentioned people. He'd almost taken to replying, "Shalom" - but feared wishes for a happy Hanukkah. When he'd at last hailed a cab and turned for home, he'd found a copy of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" on the seat. Turning it in to the driver, the man had grinned broadly.

"No, no, no..." he'd said, his voice a Middle-Eastern tenor. "It is mine. I have placed it there, in honor of the season. For people who are desirous of reading while they ride. Go ahead. Read through. God bless us, everyone."

He'd wanted to suggest that "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" would be more suitable reading material, given the levels of literacy in the nation's capitol. Instead, he'd tipped the driver generously... then walked the three flights of stairs up to his apartment, opened his fridge, and proceeded to get quietly drunk.

Now, he turned his attention back to the television. The network had launched into what appeared to be a musical version of "A Christmas Carol" - starring Jim Henson's Muppets. God bless us, everyone... bah, humbug. Mulder clicked the remote again, dropped it among the empty bottles with a rattle, and stared into the dark until his eyes slid closed.


"Fox... wake up."

Mulder stirred, groaned, and drew his arms up to shield his face. Waking up was not something he was particularly inclined to do... but the voice, light and female, was insistent.

"Fox. It's time. Wake up."

Now Mulder made a more lucid verbal protest, slurred profanity mixed with petulant complaint. He did, however, open his eye a crack. Scully. It was just like Scully to come down and decide to drag him off into the land of Christmas cheer. It it had been anyone else, he'd have a few choice words for her. But still... "Fox?"

He squinted into the gloom. Nothing. He couldn't even see a silhouette in the faint light of the window... the darkness was all but absolute. Across the room, his clock declared it to be 10:26... the night was barely started, let alone over. He rubbed his eyes and forced himself to turn to his side, scanning the shadows for his partner, forcing his irritation down.

Scully was not in evidence, but the voice spoke again.

"You better move, mister, or I'm telling Dad."

That voice.

That... voice.

Mulder was suddenly awake. Fully awake, if slightly nauseous. He sat up.

That voice was NOT Scully's voice.

"Good. It's about time you got up, big brother. Now come on."

Slowly, he turned his eyes to the head of the couch. The small figure there glowed faintly, as though incandescent, lit from within. The nightgown was white cotton... the hair still pulled into brown pigtails. Mulder blinked... it was a familiar sight, of course. Samantha still walked into his nights every now and again... coming as a visitor in the darkness, standing by his bedside. But she rarely spoke to him... and when she did, it was always an entreaty. A plea, terrified, echoing. Just like that night...

"You gonna move it or not?" But now, his sister looked distinctly perturbed, holding out her hand to him. Mulder felt his lips move... his voice, amazingly, worked.

"Samantha..." He reached out to her, but hesitated, afraid to dispel the illusion. It had to be an illusion. "But you... you're..." He tried to stand, tripped on a rolling bottle, and went down on one knee, cursing roundly.

"Nice language." his sister said. "Mom would wash your mouth out with soap. And drunk on Christmas, too. You're getting more like Dad every year." She took his hand firmly, as though tired of waiting for him, and it was cool and smooth... and tingled, somehow. "Listen, Fox, we've got a lot to do... and I'm only the first one coming. You've screwed this up for too long, you know."

"I don't like Christmas." He murmured, staring down at their clasped hands. "Sam... I can *feel* you. I never could before... Sam..." He shook his head, eyes wondering at her, and his voice failed him.

"I missed you, too, Fox." The little hand squeezed around his, the voice suddenly compassionate. It was real... it had to be real... but... it couldn't be.

"Does this mean... I'm dead?" He hadn't drunk anywhere near enough for that, and he knew it. Even now, the haze of drinking was starting to clear...

"No... and don't ask if I am, Fox. It's a long story, and we don't have time right now." She began to tug him, gently insistent, towards the window. "Come on."

"Wait." He stopped, planting his feet. "Wait. You said... we've got a lot to do. That you're the first one coming?" Sam nodded... and Mulder felt disappointment surge upwards, though the figure of his sister did not vanish, as it typically did, with comprehension. "Then you're not Sam. Not my Sam."

"Fox..."

"No." He pulled his hand free, backing up. "I... I know what this is, now. You're not Sam. I had too much to drink... it's Christmas... and somehow, I ticked off someone in the... the subconscious department and now I'm reliving Dickens. And you're part of that. Some ghost, or spirit, or something. Right?"

He shook his head, trying to clear it. *I'm in hell... at least it isn't Muppet ghosts, like on TV...*

"Fox, don't be stupid. You're supposed to believe in this sort of thing, remember?"

"Believe in it? I'm not even AWAKE, for all I know. This is all just some... dream. That's all." And he turned, moving back to the couch, and sitting down. "So let me guess. Okay. I read this in, what, eleventh grade? You're who... Marley?"

"You're being way too literal, buttmunch."

"Scratch Marley, then. He didn't go anywhere, anyway. So. First ghost. Ghost of Christmas Past. Right?"

Sam sighed, folding her arms across her chest and frowning.

"Fox. We can do this easily, or we can do this the hard way. You're coming with me. If you want to say I'm the ghost of Christmas past, fine. Whatever you want. Just make my life easier and play along... okay?"

"Where are we going?"

"You're going to have to trust me, Fox."

Mulder glanced down. The empties were still scattered under the sofa. Well, if this was a dream, it was a dream. Samantha - or the spirit - was waiting for him, hand extended. He hesitated for only a moment.

*What the hell. It's Christmas.*

Their hands met and clasped... and then, the world faded around him.

Cold.

Not a cold of the body, for the room was warm enough when reality faded in once more... but a cold from the inside out shook him, and Mulder drew backwards instinctively. At his side, the Samantha spirit glanced up at him. She knew this place. He knew this place, instinctively. Instantly. He knew it all too well.

Mulder shuddered.

Every corner, even in the blue-shaded moonlight, was familiar to his eyes. The Indian Guide manuals and nature books on the bookshelf, side by side with Tom Swift, The Hardy Boys, and dusty leather-bound volumes of Jules Verne, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle. The baseball glove discarded in the corner, and a faded pennant on the wall - the Boston Red Socks. A desk, strewn with notebooks, school texts, pencils. On the windowsill, carefully reconstructed skeletons of small animals, delicate bones touched with strengthening resin... the Visible Man model he'd received for his ninth birthday. All seemed surreal, frozen in the cold winter light that streamed in through the unshuttered window... nothing moved in all the room.

Until the shriek pierced the night-stillness, and Mulder jumped despite himself.

In the corner, where the twin bed was pressed firmly into the furthest wall, a blanket-wrapped figure jumped as well. The sudden movement caught Mulder's eye, even as the voices filtered in, leaking in with the faint hallway light around the tight-shut bedroom door...

"... can't you see? I can't do it, can't do it. William, damn you, how can you ask me to..."

"Keep your voice down, woman! You'll wake him... for God's sakes, don't you think I feel it too?"

"I don't know what you feel! I don't care what you feel! All I know is that my baby is gone, and I just can't face it anymore..."

"Pull yourself together, for God's sakes... for the boy's sake..."

A sound of weeping tore at the grown man hiding in the shadows of a young boy's room... then the sound of footsteps pounding down the hall, and the front door slamming... a moment later, the bedroom door opened, not more than a crack, and a woman's figure clung heavily to the door frame as the figure in the bed froze, curled in its blanket, unmoving.

"Pretending to be asleep." Samantha said, eyes dark with shadows and sympathy. "You did that a lot. Do you think she knew?"

Mulder licked his lips, nervous. His heart was throbbing an aching, uneven cadence, his eyes torn between his mother's silhouette and the bed. He shook his head, not looking to his side.

"I don't know. I just didn't want..."

The door closed softly, not quite shutting out the sound of weeping from the hall beyond. It was not quite a heartbeat before the sob was echoed, muffled, from the bed.

The wash of memory came on like an icy rain on bare skin. The loneliness. Fear. Confusion. Grief. Too familiar, through so many years. And even with the passing of years, in this setting, not one carefully-wrought shield or barrier could block the sound of that disconsolate sobbing. Mulder took one step forward, hesitating, then another. He'd walked these floors in his dreams more times than he could remember... it seemed that this room, at this time, was all that more real to him, having left it behind.

"You didn't want her to see you crying." The spirit made no sound as she kept pace beside him, halting at the bed, gazing down.

The boy was curled, fetus-shaped, around his own pillow... eyes tight-shut, but not blocking the tears, cheeks blotchy, snuffling for breath like a five-year-old. His arms bound tightly around the wad of bedclothes, hugging them fiercely, as though that hold might ease the tremors that wracked a too-thin frame. Mulder stared, transfixed, unable to break off.

So many times, he'd been called upon to crawl into the mind of a suspect, a witness... it was part of the job, to think as a stranger thought, to feel what they felt, to wrestle with demons he could only half-see. It was part of the job, and he was the best at what he did. If he tried, he could ease himself in, and immerse himself in that stranger personality. It was a relief, almost, to step outside himself for a bit...

*Can't do that now...* The emotion was all too willing to be touched, triggered, and he had to fight to keep the tears from welling up. *Not gonna break down twenty some-odd years of healing because of a bad dream...*

"This was the first Christmas after it happened." Samantha said, her voice soft, though inaudible to the boy that was her brother. Immersed in his false slumber, he was blind to anything but his own grief... Mulder knew that.

The solitude of the room had been the worst. On the front of the door, the "No Trespassing" sign still hung. Sam had consistently ignored it, and he'd raged at her for that violation... but towards the end, almost as if she sensed what was to come, she would come tiptoe in the night, and curl on the foot of his bed, pressed against his feet until he woke and sent her on her way. If the shouting beyond the door was too loud, too frightening, he would wordlessly pass down a pillow... and she would stay there, trembling, but comforted by his presence. They never spoke, during those long nights of trying not to listen.

And that was what he'd missed most of all. Not the tree, not the decorations, not the presets. The isolation crept in on him like a tangible cold, and his pillow had been almost constantly damp with tears. It would have been pleasant to call out, to welcome his mother, his father, into his circle of private grief, to find some comfort in parental arms...

*But you can't... not fair to them. Gotta be strong, you're all they have now, and it's your fault to begin with, don't want to remind them of that...* The words were chanted in his adult voice, but they were the words of a boy, trembling, crying, alone. The agony of the empty room... he'd buried it, grown used to it. It had gotten easier with the years... though as soon as he was out of his childhood home, he'd found an aversion to sleeping in any sort of a bedroom, on any sort of a bed. Sleeping alone, that is. It was the only concession he'd made to the trailing memories he could never entirely shake.

"We didn't even try to put up a tree." Mulder replied, forcing his voice to remain steady. "Mom... she just couldn't. I don't think any of us really noticed..."

"You noticed." Wide brown eyes gazed up at him. "You noticed, and you kept noticing. You never really had Christmas after that, did you?" Mulder shook his head, shaking the ghosting emotions.

"It all... fell apart, after that. Mom, Dad..." He turned from the bed then, pacing the perimeter of the room, idly lifting and examining various tangible mementos, forcing the distance to return... a dream, he reminded himself, it's nothing more than a dream.

"But that's another holiday story. They split by Easter. So. Since I'm guessing you don't play Easter Bunny... going to haul me off to Oxford, next? Had plenty of miserable Christmas memories there, too. Granted, most of those were my own fault..." Ah, that wonderful thing called British beer... "Still, I'm game for a trip down memory lane. There was that one year Pauline brought me to her place... that's got to rank up there..." And he grinned at the solemn, white-clad form.

"You're pathetic." Samantha informed him disparagingly. "I told them it would never work."

"Them? Come on. You're not really going to shlep me through the whole Dickens routine, are you? Can we just skip to the 'God bless us, every one' and I wake up and it's Christmas morning?"

"That's up to you, buttmunch." And Sam crossed her arms across her chest. "After all, it's your dream, isn't it? You're the Oxford grad. You tell me. If this is a dream, wake yourself up..."


Mulder sat up too quickly, feeling his stomach roil in protest as the world tipped precariously on its axis, then spun in a whorl of night-shades. Mulder heard himself groan aloud, wanted to lie back down, but as his balance reasserted itself and he could assure himself that he would not vomit all over his couch, he braced himself on one arm and rubbed sleep-bleary eyes.

"Sam?"

No reply, no hint of a white-gowned little figure, no snort of sisterly disdain. Mulder sighed. So much for the Dickens flashback. Well, he'd told her as much, the little dream-figure... and that was all it was, a dream. And perhaps he still dreamed, lingering in an alcohol-induced stupor, and this was a dream within a dream. Or maybe he was just dreaming that. The thought made his head hurt, and he forced himself to sit up the rest of the way and glance across to the clock.

10:42. The red digital face seemed to frown at him, though it was a vague sense of anthropomorphism, and Mulder blinked. Well, maybe he had been asleep, then. Genuinely asleep, and now he was awake. Morning, he realized, would be a long time in coming.

"Thanks a lot, Sam..." he muttered, dropping his face to his hands. "I'm worth thirteen minutes, after twenty years? Merry Christmas to you, too."

"Don't go blaming your sister. You sent her away." The voice from the shadows was gravelly, harsh, but not unfeeling. Mulder found himself on his feet, swaying slightly, as though jarred with electric shock. The voice chuckled. "Always were a stubborn one, boy, weren't you. Are you going to tell me that I'm just a dream, now?"

The shadows in the corner swirled like gauze curtains in a breeze, then parted, allowing the figure to step through. He was smaller than Mulder remembered him... frailer... but was that how all sons felt about their fathers, upon reaching adulthood? That wirey strength, however, still carried the frame, and the eyes still burned with a deep conviction, though one shrouded so that only their keeper knew what that conviction was. Mulder felt all the blood drain from his face.

"Dad?"

"Stand up straight, Fox. I won't have my son tottering all over like the neighborhood drunk." And his father spoke crisply, bright eyes studying his junior's rumpled clothes and disheveled hair. Mulder felt himself stiffening, shoulders back, and wishing for a moment's leave to smooth away wrinkles, to make some repairs. "Better. Not good, mind you, but better. It's good to see you, boy."

"Good to see you, too, Dad." Considering that the last time I saw you, you were dead. Well, we were both dead... but still. "You're looking good."

"For a dead man, eh?" Death had softened the familiar features... he didn't recall his father smiling so readily in life. "Well, then. Move your feet, boy. We've space to travel before we're done. And don't give me that 'only a dream' nonsense. I never approved of those files of yours, Fox, but I'd think that you were in your element now. So not a word from you... understood?"

Even from beyond the grave, parental authority retained its ability to make a man of thirty feel like a toddler just out of diapers. Mulder nodded mutely, and glanced at the window. He began to mouth the question, but it had no time to form.

The living room glowed with light as though from a fireplace, but there was none to be seen, and probably too warm for a fire by half. Mulder took a breath, closed his eyes to stop the spinning and pounding of his brain. It was, as near as he could see, an instantaneous transference... and the words of a children's book leaped into his mind's existence: "By the way, there IS such a thing as a tesseract."

It would be something to discuss with Scully, to get her scientific mind moving, at least.

He turned his eyes about the scene. Not an apartment, but a home... a large living room, decorated liberally for the Christmas holidays, photographs smiling out of frames, trinkets from years of Christmas decoration collected on the end tables - snow globes of crystal, small elf figurines, poinsettias in brilliant reds and whites. A dark-haired woman, only just beginning to gray, was bustling between rooms, all smiles, an air of cheerful hustle about her as she toted boxes and called instructions to the kitchen... Mrs. Scully.

Mulder warmed slightly, felt himself smile. He liked his partner's mother, her matronly patting of his arm, the way she called him "Fox" despite her daughter's protests. She was an incarnation of his own mother, in a way, before things had all gone wrong...

In a corner of the room, the live Scotch pine swayed and bounced, listing first to one side and then to the other, and seemed to have sprouted two arms and a voice that slipped into a round sailor's oath as a branch snapped back, catching someone by surprise, then fell over.

*Timberrrrrrr...* thought Mulder, and muffled laughter seemed to echo the thought. Bill Scully rose from behind the tree, both hands wadded full of lighting wires, their multicolored bulbs mostly lit.

"This tree..." Bill informed two much-amused observers. "Is possessed. I don't know how Dad did it every year."

"Let me give it a try." And that was a familiar voice. Scully, clad in a long dress of crushed green velvet, its collar enticingly scooped, set a glass of wine on a coaster and stepped towards the fallen pine, helping her brother to set it to rights. The color was perfect for her, Mulder thought... so deeply emerald that it might be black... and she looked beautiful. "After all, if it's possessed, that's my department, isn't it?"

It was a jibe that did not go over well with her older brother, apparently. He frowned mildly. "Let's not do this on Christmas, Dana."

"Pass me the lights." Scully said, letting the comment go. Her sister-in-law, visibly pregnant, joggled a toddler on one arm, stepping closer to watch.

"Arrrrghhhh..." But now the brotherly growl, more like a pirate's, was jovial. "Avast there, wench... stringin' the lights be a man's work!" And this time, Scully giggled.

"Wench?" she asked, eyebrows arching. "Bill, if you keep this up, we'll be here until next Christmas..."

"Charley, you'd better get in there..." That was the motherly voice from the hallway, raised to give notice of a new arrival. "Or your sister will be fortifying a rebellion."

"Never!" Mulder turned, surprised by the young voice. "Charley" was in his late twenties, it seemed, as red of hair as his sister, with the same open face and blue eyes. Unwinding a too-long scarf from his collar, he allowed himself to be tackled by his sister, who had launched herself at the arriving figure with a most un-Scullylike squeal of delight.

"Charley, I thought you couldn't make it this year!" The last words were forced out in a grunt as her brother returned the bear hug. "Why didn't you TELL us? You must have driven all day..."

"Hey, it wouldn't be a real Scully Christmas without a surprise or two... Bill, don't let her near the tree. I'll be over as soon as I introduce the next surprise." Charles had managed to shed his coat, and had half turned back to the entryway. "Hon? Come on... no time to be shy."

Two more figures had come up the hall, followed by Mrs. Scully, now toting coats and scarves and hats. The woman was older than Charles, perhaps in her mid-thirties, but the observing Mulder sensed that it was more the wear of years than the passage of time that made it visible. She had long blonde hair, green-gray eyes, and a tentative expression as she regarded the roomful of strangers. A whimper, and a boy of five or six clung to his mother's thigh while a girl who was likely his twin hovered just beyond. Charles had his arm around the woman, and kissed her briefly, tenderly, before turning to his siblings and mother.

"Folks, I'd like you to meet Rebeccah Johnson... soon to be Mrs. Charles Scully." And a delighted gasp followed that declarative. "And this, of course, is Samuel, and Maggie."

The room was in sudden motion, and the newcomers were swept into embraces and back-patting, and everyone seemed to be talking at once. Mulder, suddenly glad of his intangibility, turned his eyes about, seeking his father.

"A regular Norman Rockwell painting, huh?" he asked, offering a lopsided smile when his eyes found his guide. The older man was watching the scene with obvious pleasure.

"You could have been a part of that." was his only comment. Mulder shrugged, turning his back to the room.

"I don't belong here." he said quietly. "Christmas is for family." He paused, glancing to where the two brothers were now busy with the tree, and the womenfolk were cooing over the children, or helping to unpack a box of tissue-wrapped ornaments. "I'd just have made things awkward for Scully... especially with this."

"Would you?" And his father's tone was sharp, the question piercing. "Are you telling me that, or yourself?"

Mulder turned away, the comment stinging. A hundred replies echoed in his mind... memories of other Christmas Eves, and of lonely houses, and... he banished the thought, but it simply settled in his stomach, rock-heavy and cold.

Beyond them, the tree jiggled and chuckled, and finally burst into light. Cheers sprang up from the assembled. The tree lights shone for a long moment, then began to blink in a rhythmic pattern - on, off... on, off. Scully grinned impishly from where she was curled catlike on a wing chair, sipping at her wine.

"Are they supposed to be doing that?" she asked innocently. "They've never done that before..."

"Well, they're doing it now." Her brother Charles said, a trifle grimly. Then, placing himself before the tree, he spread his arms in benediction. "The tree be lit, the lights doth blink. Now let the trimming begin!"

Mrs. Scully settled herself on the sofa and began distributing ornaments all about... a new ornament first, as was family tradition, one for each grown child and family. Even gruff Bill seemed pleased, his round face smiling, as he held his one-year-old up to place the first ornament on the tree. Shy Samuel was enticed from his mother's side with the offer of a round, giggling snowman, his sister already frisking about the tree and drawing smiles from each adult who glanced at her, and Charles seemed to be taking great pleasure in explaining the custom to his bride-to-be. Scully was stirring herself as well, but seemed, to her partner, reluctant to partake in the festivities.

Her mother looked up, catching her daughter's eye, and smiled as she offered an ornament. Scully took it, then held it up to examine it, her lips curving slightly... it was a Hallmark ornament, a small cartoonish fox dressed in snow cap and scarf, wielding a snowball and a garbage can lid shield.

"I really thought he'd come this year..." she said softly, then chuckled. "Mom, this is darling. He'd have hated it, but it's darling...thank you."

"We'll call him tomorrow." Her mother replied, her tone even, cheerful. "We'll invite him to dinner. I'll talk to him myself. I never did meet a man who had the wherewithal to refuse a someone's mother." And Scully smiled. "Help decorate the tree, honey."

"Is that the partner of yours Bill's been telling me about?" Charles glanced at his sister, grinning. "Maybe we're lucky he bowed out. From what Bill's said, he'd have gone around telling the kids that there's no such thing as Santa Claus."

"William Scully!" That was Mrs. Scully, interceding on Mulder's behalf. Bill glowered at his brother.

"I didn't put it that way, and you know it."

"No, the way you said it, I'd have thought..."

Mulder turned his eyes to his silent partner, who had perched the fox on an upper branch, then stooped for another ornament. She straightened, glancing once at Bill, then at Charles.

"Actually..." she said, her lips quirking into a smile. "That just shows that Bill doesn't know Mulder very well. He'd have organized everyone under four feet tall into skywatch patrols, passed out video cameras and tape recorders, and Bill would have had to get into Dad's old Santa suit and go stamping around on rooftops, making reindeer noises..."

Mulder Sr. made a noise that might have been a laugh, then glanced at his son. "I like her," he said, eyes twinkling.

"Yeah, she's a real barrel of laughs." Mulder agreed, a trifle sourly. "With friends like these..."

The trimming progressed to its culmination, with Mrs. Scully herself settling the angel atop the tree, and the revelers took a moment of silent appreciation, gazing at it. Mrs. Scully sighed, finally, looking to each of her children in turn.

"Your father would be proud," she said, smiling, though her eyes glimmered at the edges. "All his children, home for the holidays." She paused, touching a framed portrait of a dark-haired young woman. "All home, or home in spirit. Merry Christmas... and God bless us, every one."

Bill, his arm around his wife and child, raised a glass of wine in a toast to family Christmastimes. Other glasses followed suit, and Mulder paced slightly, glancing at his father.

"If this is supposed to make me regret my decision, Dad," he said. "It's not going to work. You heard them... family Christmas. Family."

"It's not supposed to 'make' you regret anything," his father replied evenly. "Boy, you've done a lot of growing, and you've turned into a man a father can be proud of. But sometimes, Fox, you're a damned jackass. I can't make you change your mind... but I'm telling you that your heart isn't in a dark apartment, drinking yourself into a stupor."

"No, it's not... is it, Dad?" And now Mulder's voice found its edge. "We had so many family Christmasses, I should know that, shouldn't I?"

His father gazed at him, jaw tightening, but unmoved. "I won't apologize for the past, boy. You're not the only one with memories, even if you seem to think you are. I'm here tonight to try to put some things to rights... but if you don't want to see that, you're not going to. Just take a good look before you go, boy, and be sure that you know where your decision's taken you."

"Fine."

Obediently, Mulder turned. The faster he took that "good look," the faster he'd be gone. He didn't need that odd, cold twinge in his chest old memories brought. He didn't need guilt from beyond the grave. Scully's offer had been kind, but she didn't know how it was, didn't need her partner hanging about the periphery of her family time. He glanced about.

Something was missing.

There was Mrs. Scully, her first grandchild in her arms, beaming at her assembled family. There was Charles, the newcome brother, surveying the scene at his older brother's side. Scully wives and wives-to-be chatted as the twins scampered around their feet, speaking, no doubt, of children, and coming births. Mulder's eyes roved over the gathering once more... and he knew what was missing.

He had to move to the hallway to find his partner. She'd taken herself away from her family, placed herself in the hall, standing beside the portrait of her father in full Naval dress uniform. She, too, was watching the now-crowded room, watching her family, her brothers. Nobody seemed to notice.

Nobody visible, that is.

She seemed very small there, and very much alone, and wore an odd expression on her face... something mixed of regret, and memory, and something he could not name. Mulder closed his eyes against it; the look in his partner's eyes tugged at him. Even in a dream, he did not need that. Not tonight.

Closed eyes did not prevent him from hearing the soft sob, muffled, hidden from the happiness just beyond. When he opened his eyes, Scully's hand was on her father's image, and her eyes were closed. Her cheeks were dry, but in that moment, her grief surged like a wave to include the invisible watcher... the longing for that paternal presence, the sense of not belonging, even here, where the heart-fires were said to burn. Her mother came to her then, drawn by parental instinct, and took her daughter in her arms. Mulder turned away.

"I want to go now." His voice was low, and he did not look at his father. The ache in his chest had returned. "Now."

"If that's what you want, boy." If there was genuine regret in his father's voice, Mulder chose not to hear it. He did not see the room about him fade, but he gratefully accepted the darkness when it came to swallow him whole.


His head hurt.

It had to, considering the amount he'd been drinking since his eyes had opened again, reasserting his empty apartment all about him. It had to, considering that it seemed that sleep would not find him. The red-eyed clock glared half-past eleven. Mulder sat in the flickering gray light of the television set, watching the soundless images move across the screen. He wanted to sleep, but had resigned himself to his fate. Two down, one to go.

"I wish you'd get the hell on with it..." he said, too loudly, into the empty apartment. A shifting foot knocked the empties over yet again, clinking and rolling by his feet. "I wanna sleep sometime tonight. This is s'posed to be a holiday, you know."

No voice answered. He wanted to lie down, to sleep, to give himself over to what dreams might come... but he knew better. He knew his Dickens. One more spirit yet to come, all garbed in black and death's head mask, the most silent and terrifying of all... to try to put the fear of God, or the spirit of Christmas, into his sorry soul.

Sorry soul, indeed. Twice he'd reached for his phone... once, he'd halfway dialed her number. But something in him rebelled at the thought of his partner seeing him this way. No sense spoiling Scully's Christmas, too.

Her voice returned to him, that very afternoon, in their office. She'd allowed him to help her into her coat, turned those blue eyes on him, smiling up. She'd touched his hand.

"I don't suppose it's any good asking again?" she asked softly. There was a look on her face he couldn't place... something behind her eyes she was trying to hide from him, but not quite managing. Disappointment, maybe. Or hope.

"Scully...." And his own voice had been a growl. "You don't want me to come to Christmas. Really. Mr. Grinch ain't got nothing on me. I'd... I'd steal all the presents, and hide the roast beast."

"I'd be willing to risk it." But she hadn't pressed the matter, reaching instead for a small, wrapped package. "Well, in that case... here, Mulder." She'd pressed it into his hands, then rose on tiptoe to kiss him swiftly on the cheek. "Merry Christmas."

He'd stared at the package in undisguised dismay. "Scully... you really shouldn't have. I... I didn't get you anything."

"I know." And now her grin was impish. "You can change your mind. That'll be a present."

"I make it a policy not to give presents you can't return."

He'd smiled to take the sting out of it, then bent to return the kiss, one hand stroking her cheek in farewell. "Merry Christmas, Scully. I'll see you after the new year."

Now the package lay, untouched, forcibly cheerful in its wrapping, on his television set. A reminder that, even if he did change his mind, it would hardly be a present Scully would want, or should be given. He was better off on his own... always had been, come Christmas. Always would be.

"Spend enough Christmas Eves alone, and you think you'll get used to it." Though he'd been waiting for the voice, expecting it, Mulder still startled. It was deep, rolling, cheerful... and the figure, suddenly visible at the foot of the couch, made no attempt to hide itself.

Not that it could. Dress Navy whites, immaculately pressed, could hardly blend into the shadows of a darkened room.

"But you don't." The spirit continued, broad face gentle, kindly, hardly a death's head visage. "No matter how many you have under your belt, son, you don't ever get used to it."

Mulder tried gamely to hide his perplexity... the face was familiar, somehow, but he was certain, or as certain as his sleep-deprived and beer-muddled brain could be, that he'd never met this stranger. Well, it was the ghost of Christmas yet to come, if he was following things correctly. Perhaps it was someone he hadn't met... yet.

"No, we haven't met, son, though we probably should have." That was the second time the man had called him 'son.' Mulder tilted his head politely, not objecting, and the spirit continued. "In this life, you run into too much all at once, sometimes... and you say to yourself, I'll do it next week, next month, next year. You try to parcel it off. But then, before you know it... the clock stops ticking, and then there's no more time left for any of it. The name's William Scully, son. I believe you know my little girl."

Mulder gaped. It was falling into place, somehow... piece by piece. The uniform bore the insignia of a captain, and the stance, the hat tucked neatly under one arm spoke of a lifetime in the military service. The older man nodded as realization began to spread across the younger man's face.

"You're... Scully's father?"

"Pretty much puts the idea of dreaming out in left field, doesn't it?" the captain grinned. "Dreaming of your family, sure... but I'm thinking you're fairly confused right about now, and that's as should be. Son, we've got to shove off... but you should know that it's partially on account of my Starbuck I'm here at all. There isn't nothing I wouldn't do for my little girl... and she wanted somebody to be looking out for you tonight." He winked. "And the black robe and scythe were at the cleaners, in case you're wondering."

Mulder, unable to speak, found that somehow the most logical statement of the evening, and when the older man extended his hand as if in greeting, Mulder took it without protest... and the world dimmed around him.

He could almost feel the little girl bouncing on his lap, though yet again he was simply an observer. All of three years old, all smiles and rosy cheeks, she held the oversized picture book opened wide, and pressed to the sides of his future self, Mulder counted no less than three other children, all of varying ages. The eldest seemed to be the twins... Samuel and Maggie, wasn't it? And the younger boy, that must have been Scully's nephew... but there was no sense of time lapse, and he could not discern any physical changes as his doppelganger, his future self, sat in the midst of an undersized throng.

"Weed!" The tot on his lap begged, patting the pictures. Apparently, this had been going on for some time. The couch-Mulder smiled, glancing at the other children.

"Okay, okay... I'll 'weed.' But I do this under protest, you know." The older children giggled. "Santa looked out the door, and the fog was thick... thicker than soup, thicker than stew, thicker than a snowman's bath water. 'Oh no!' he said. 'The storm is worse than ever. We'll never get through.'" The page flipped. "At that moment, a voice piped up from the back of the workshop. 'I can help, Santa, I think...'"

He stopped reading, frowning visibly, eyes twinkling. "Y'know, that little guy over there in the corner looks familiar. I think I remember a case, a few years ago..." The children groaned gamely, but their eyes were laughing. "Really! It was just before Christmas... now, I just wish I could remember who that four-legged guy with the red nose is..."

"Rudolph!" young voices chorused.

"No, no, that's not it. Can't be. He was a little guy, though. Looked like a deer. And he could fly. Looked just like that, really... big red nose and all... But I can't remember the name..."

"RUDOLPH!" his audience cried again, giggling.

"I'll have to get your aunt to remind me. Getting old... memory's going..." He feigned disgruntlement, raising his voice to call into the next room. "Scully! Who was that funny looking kid with the big red nose... you remember. Christmas case. The one with the antlers?"

On his lap, the toddler squirmed, then turned herself about, and raised herself to her knees. Now at eye level with Mulder, she placed one chubby hand on each cheek and squeezed.

"Iz WOO-DOFF!" She said, in a tone that brooked no nonsense. The other children giggled.

Mulder, his cheeks firmly pressed, his lips now squished forward and somewhat resembling a goldfish, nodded, his entire attention now focused on this small, intense personage.

"Woo-doff." he assented. An adult face poked around the edge of a nearby doorway, studied the scene, and disappeared; female voices laughed softly beyond.

"Yesh." And the little one released Mulder, sliding back into the accommodating lap. "WEED."

Mulder obeyed.

From across the room, the watchers absorbed the scene playing out, and Mulder felt a chuckle rising in him. Woo-doff indeed. Scully Senior, in parade-rest stance, glanced at him.

"Cute li'l things," he said. Mulder glanced about... this was not the Scully homestead, but it was homey nonetheless. Beyond the window, the moon turned a snowscape blue in the gathering dusk. A fire crackled in the fireplace, and a nativity scene was spread in peaceful tableau beneath the shining tree, presents stacked neatly all up and down each side.

He felt a pang at the apparent perfection, the image of a darkened room asserting itself. Mulder shook off the feeling of growing contentment... it wouldn't last. It was nothing but a dream. Nothing more than an illusion.

"Guess I'm in for another Very Special Christmas?" he hazarded. Put some emotional distance in here... remember, it's just a dream. Even if it IS a good dream...

Before his guide could reply, Mrs. Scully swept into the room, ushering the children off the sofa, bidding all and sundry to ready themselves for church.

"You'll have plenty of time for stories later..." she admonished the groans of regret, and winked at the tallest figure on the couch. "I'm sure."

A stampede of small feet, the smallest swept up into motherly arms and toted off, and the illusion's Mulder was left alone in the room... the scent of baking vanilla and roasting turkey wafting in, soft music just audible from some stereo, and he closed his eyes for a moment, leaning back into the couch.

Into this scene stepped his partner, peering from around the corner to ascertain the location of any persons of munchkin height, before making her way into the room with two glasses of wine. She smiled down at her Mulder, settling herself at his side, nestling companionably close, and reached up to peck his cheek, passing him a well-deserved glass. This dress was of the deepest burgundy, lace and beadwork, and once more the observing Mulder found himself unable to take his eyes from her. To his amusement, his twin was having the same problem.

"You're a hit, I think..." Scully was saying. "How does it feel to be the most popular man in the house?"

"If your brother would lay off the alien autopsy cracks..." Mulder replied. "I'd feel like I was." One hand found Scully's, and squeezed. She smiled, looking away to the fire.

"You know how Bill is," she said. "And it's been hard for him, after the divorce. I appreciate your patience... and he will, too. Eventually." Mulder snorted.

"Yeah, well, I've got my revenge." And he waggled his eyebrows, leaning close to his partner's ear. "I just make sure you're strategically placed under the mistletoe whenever Billy-boy is in eyeshot..."

She batted at him with one hand, laughing and holding her wine away as her partner leered closer, eyes twinkling, hands sliding around her small waist. "Mulder, you're evil. Leave my poor brother alone..."

"Evil is my middle name... Evil and Spooky, that's me..."

"Hey, hey, you two..." The voice from the doorway startled the two into separate corners of the sofa, and Charles, arm around his wife's waist, chuckled. "Save it for after mass. Come on."

As the figures began to disperse from the living room, and small figures now dressed in their Sunday best reappeared, Mulder forced his gaze away, looking to Scully Senior, who seemed entirely pleased with how the scene was playing out.

"Is this... ah... far future?" Mulder managed, his face slightly flushed. The older man half-turned.

"Who knows? Future is as future does, son. There's no definites when you're dealing with time that hasn't happened yet."

"So none of this is..."

"Written in stone?" A broad gesture, sweeping the room. "The future? No, I'm afraid not. Contrary to what those who believe in destiny would tell you, there's an infinite number of destinies floating about. Some are more likely than others, mind, but there's close to anything possible." He winked. "Doesn't mean you can't point yourself in the direction you fancy, though."

The future Mulder returned to the room, shrugging into a suit jacket, and allowed his Scully to straighten his tie. The toddler scampered into the room paces ahead of her mother, squealing, and clung behind his legs. She found herself lifted bodily and settled, Tiny Tim fashion, on one tall shoulder. Scully beamed, and someone snapped a picture.

"So... in this possible future... are we... I mean, Scully and I..." Mulder found himself stumbling over the words, and his face felt warmer than ever. It was like having your girlfriend's father walk in on your first kiss, only to realize that he'd known about your surreptitious affair from the beginning. "Are we... well..."

"Married?" The older man offered, then chuckled again, his full attention on his discomfited charge. "Involved? Lovers? Partners? Just the best of friends?" He paused, eyes dancing. "Darned if I know, son. If you two can't figure it out, how do you expect an old sailor to have any answers?" He regarded Mulder with a sudden, clear gaze. "Does it matter?"

"I... I don't..." And Mulder felt his palms going moist. This was worse, somehow, than a first-date grilling... and for a brief, flashing moment, he thought he might prefer the grim reaper Scrooge had rated. He drew his breath, uncomfortable with this line of questioning, though he was warming swiftly to his partner's father. There was, he realized, a growing awareness that he wished he'd known the man in life... or in some reality outside of a dream.

But that was, after all, what it was. That was all it was.

A dream.

"Not to sound... unappreciative, sir..." Yes, the honorific was appropriate, he decided. "But... well, it's not that I'm not enjoying these Hallmark card versions of my future... but I'm afraid I really don't see it happening that way." He glanced around the room. "It's no reflection on Scully. Really. It's just that... even with all this..."

"You don't like Christmas." A nod, a frown, but both were deeply sympathetic. Understanding. "Or... well, not to put too fine a point on it, it scares you. Son, I've seen that on you from the moment I set eyes on you. You don't feel a part of Christmas, and so Christmas isn't a part of you. I was hoping, I suppose, that this might make a difference... matter, somehow. Offer up the honey before the castor oil, so to speak. Starbuck, she'd have wanted it that way."

"I'm afraid I'm not following you."

"Son, Christmas will come and Christmas will go, and whether or not you choose to accept it, it's going to keep it up. And even though this is one possible future... there are others, and one of them is bound to be yours. It's not fated... it's not preordained... but if you don't make a choice, and follow the path you want, one of those paths will be chosen for you."

And this is where we start following Dickens, Mulder hazarded. The cheerful slide show past, it was time to face the grim reaper. Well, even pleasant dreams didn't last forever...

"Well..." he said, turning his back to the fire-glow, not without some regret. "I guess we'd better take a look at one of those other paths, then."


This time, there was darkness... then light. Then the light faded into gray. Pre-dawn gray, or just after sunset... the faintest of sourceless light illuminating the steel colored cloud ceiling, enough to see the bare-bone tree branches, almost black with the dampness. The world, it seemed, was black and gray, slick with December rainfall... even the muted tones of the grass, the carpeting for the orderly rows of granite monuments. A cemetery.

"Not to sound disrespectful..." Mulder drawled softly, glancing at his companion. "But I guess I saw this coming three chapters back. Another alternate future?"

"Not for me to say, son. Same as before." And the senior Scully was reserved now, gazing straight ahead. "But you know the drill, then. No sense putting it off. Right over there." He nodded, and Mulder followed the motion to a grave slightly apart from the rest, angled away from him. He could not read the chiseled words that he knew must be there... etched in stone.

He sighed... best to end the dream now, and get it over with. He stepped forward, expecting Scully Senior to be at his side... and turned, surprised, to find that the older man had not moved. The naval officer's eyes were deep with some emotion he could not read, and he shook his head at Mulder.

"I'm afraid this is as far as I go." he said, and there was no small amount of regret in his voice. "Some walks, a man's got to take on his own." He turned, as though to depart, then paused, glancing back. "Just remember, son... there's some that he doesn't, though." A sound of a car engine behind them, approaching, then stopping. The older man nodded once more. "Best to follow it through, now."

A door slammed, and Mulder turned out of habit... it was an unmarked sedan, pulled up parallel to the lonely grave, a figure standing beside it, shoulders hunched, its back to him. He glanced back to his guide, question on his lips... but he was alone.

"Figures..." Mulder muttered, and drew himself up, eyes turning back to his destination. *This is it, then. Walk up to the grave, read my own name, my own memorial there, unmourned, think oh my, how awful, and wake up again. Christmas morning, and I've been taught the error of my ways.* He sighed. *Well, let's get on with it.*

The figure by the car moved before he did.

It was a bit of a shock to see its face... and Mulder stumbled over a half-step, halting, gaping.

The lone figure was... himself.

He watched himself leave the car on the gravel path, moving with slow purpose through the wet, neatly-manicured grass, black topcoat open despite the damp chill to the air. He scanned his own face from several paces' distance... searching for tell-tale signs of age, for some indicator of year, date. Nothing. The other Mulder was as clear as a mirror image, at least from a distance.

"Let's hear it for artistic license..." he said, to no one in particular. Odd, though... his dream-self was carrying a bouquet of flowers and, as he'd begun to expect, stopped before the grave and placed them gently before it. The gesture, the tender misery of it, beggared the question...

A suspicion had formed in his mind even before he'd had time to put it to words, and suddenly he was moving forward... eyes not on the grave, but on the face of his twin. It was utterly barren of emotion... almost desolate. That expression, or lack of one, sent a palpable shudder through him. As fast as he walked, however, he could not seem to bridge the distance... and as the dream-Mulder reached into his pocket, he increased his efforts. It was more a premonition than a clear thought... something he knew, not guessed...

The gun did not gleam in the dimness. Black gun in a pale hand, held up by a black-sleeved arm. Mulder saw the gun, and lurched into a run. He could not cover the ground. It was like being on a treadmill... progress forward was impossibly distorted, as though time and space had ceased to function in tandem... and Mulder stopped running, feeling all the blood drain from his face.

He watched himself put the gun to his own head, squeeze his eyes shut, and pull the trigger.

He felt, rather than heard, the shock of the report... his body jolted, every physical sense going numb, and then he was there, standing over the fallen body, not looking at the shattered remains. He knew what he would see. Instead, his eyes were drawn, inexorably, to the headstone, now marking two deaths...

And his heart stopped beating.

In cold, clear letters, its rain-shiny surface etched with infinite care, the memorial spoke to him.

"Dana Katherine Scully, beloved daughter and sister. The spirit is in the truth."

The date made no sense after the words settled into his mind. The words themselves ceased to have meaning. An irrational loneliness surged up, roaring like a vast tidal crest, and drowned him. He was unable to look away, even as he felt himself falling, dropping to his knees. He heard himself make a noise, muted in his ears, but as the light faded around him, he was not certain whether it was a shriek, a sob, or a moan...

He felt the breath rasping in his chest, felt his limbs twitching, heard the sound of his own muffled whimpering... it was all coming as if from a great distance. The coldness inside, intense, numbing, was entire and absolute. The loneliness, too... he did not want to wake, if waking would intensify the sensation, but there came a sudden shock, like the jolt that wakes the falling sleeper seconds before dream impact, and his eyes were open.

He was alone. All about him, the world was one vast soft-edged shadow - all but the window, faintly illuminated by exterior streetlights, casting what light existed through cold-frosted panes, and the television screen, still flickering, painting all in its light cold and lifeless. It was surreal, in its own way - the world entirely composed of gray, blue, and black - and he was floating in it.

Then he heard the sigh.

Out of this dream Scully came to him, moving softly out of the darkness like any other spirit, half-lit by the flickering light of the muted television screen. She was wearing that same crushed velvet dress he'd seen, and in the odd light seemed all creamy skin and faintly burnished silken hair. She stood for a moment watching him, before kneeling to look into his face, tenderly brushing hair out of his face, before settling herself at the foot of the couch, perched like some lovely bird in a Christmas song, ready to take flight.

Interior cold thawed into a sort of weariness, and with weariness, irritation. Anger, even. Three... he'd had three spirits already, and dammit, he was too tired to face any more. On any other day of the year, fine, let them come. He'd be the goddamned Ghostbusters, he'd play Spooky Mulder to the teeth. But now...

"If the others couldn't change my mind..." he said in what he hoped was a steady voice, though to him it was slurred and heavy with weariness. "What makes you think you can?"

She turned to him, unspeaking, eyes questioning. The light from the television made her glow, almost as Samantha had. God, she was beautiful. And it was so good to see her, so good for her to be there, after he'd stood before her grave. The memory was too fresh. Mulder relaxed into the surreality of it all.

"It's not that I don't appreciate it," he murmured. "I mean, normally, I'd love to talk with the spirit world, or the astral plane, or whereverthehell you people are from. Reach for the other side and all that. But three ghosts is enough. Wouldn't want to break up a set. Dickens would be rolling in his grave. So you can go. Poof. See you next year, maybe."

Still the spirit-Scully stared at him, visibly perplexed by his narrative. What was she waiting for, anyway?

"Unless you're dead," he said, after a moment's thought. "I mean, really dead. If you're dead, you can stay."

"If I'm dead, I can stay." They were the first words she'd spoken to him, and somehow, the spirit sounded more amused than perplexed. "You'd rather I was dead? Or is that a prerequisite to a holiday visit?"

"Hell, no..." he growled, waving a heavy hand dismissively. "Want you dead. Shows how much you people know. But if you**are**dead, you can stay, since when I wake up from this goddamned dream, I'll find out, and I'll wish you did."

"So let me see if I follow this, Mulder. If I'm dead, I can stay here, because you don't want me to be dead. But if I'm alive, I have to go."

Something in her words was stirring a response in him, but at the moment, Mulder wasn't entirely sure what that response was. For now, he managed to nod.

"Yeah. God, I hope you're dead. If you're staying here, I mean. Wouldn't want the real Scully to see me like this."

"Guess you'd better keep hoping, then." The spirit reached out to him, her soft smile fond, and infinitely tender. She lay a small, warm hand on his cheek. "Mulder, what am I going to do with you? You're a cute drunk, I'll give you that much, but really..."

He stared at her for a moment longer, feeling his skin warming under her palm. Realization stirred, then leaped to life, and with it came first anxiety, then shame. He sat up too quickly, groaned, and put both hands to his head, cursing. He was wide awake now. Wide awake, cold sober, and in excruciating pain.

Scully had jumped a bit at the suddenness of his movement, and now watched him with eyes round and full of concern. She put out an arm to steady him, but he could only gape at her blankly.

"You're here." He managed that much, his mind whirling in readjustment. "You're really here. You're YOU."

"Mulder, you're starting to worry me." And she was telling the truth, reaching out to feel his forehead, his neck. "You're not feverish. Are you all right?"

His eyes flashed around the apartment, and he only half heard her speak. He batted away the hand that was trying to urge him back down, to lay back, and found the clock, steadily red-numbered, displaying the time.

12:00.

"Scully." He did not, could not, take his eyes off the clock. He knew his voice was shaking. "Scully, what time is it?"

His partner regarded him curiously for a moment, then checked her watch. "About midnight... give or take."

"So they weren't here." He glanced at the television (hadn't he turned that off?) then back at the clock. "They couldn't have been. It was just a... Oh, hell. What am I saying? Lost time. UFOs do it. Aliens. Why not ghosts?" He chuckled, but it was a rather frantic sound. "God help the skeptics. You're starting to rub off on me, Scully..."

"I hope not, Mulder. You're making no sense. If I didn't know better, I'd say you weren't drunk - you're delusional." She regarded the strewn floor and the flickering, voiceless screen, still in the throes of Dickens - animated, this time. "Beer and Dickens," she intoned solemnly. "Can be a pretty potent combination."

"I'm fine, Scully." Oh, sure, fine... if you waive the fact that I've just spent most of an evening that didn't seem to happen in the company of three Christmas-spirit wannabes, one of which being your dead father, who I never met...

Scully regarded him, utterly nonplused.

"So. What brings you here, Scully? Shouldn't you be at church or something?" He sat back, trying to slip into some fa=E7ade of normalcy. His partner stared at him for a moment more, not buying into the mask but apparently willing to play along.

"You didn't answer your phone," she said. "And I was worried. And..." Now her face shifted into some other emotion, something familiar, somehow... "Well, I guess all the family stuff got to me this year. I figured I'd be better company for someone who hates Christmas, than have my family hovering over me, asking what was wrong..."

Loneliness. That was the expression, exactly. He'd seen it in her hallway... read it on her face that afternoon. Not the nagging yearly pang he'd been brushing off, the icicle-point ache where his heart should be, but loneliness of its own sort. He searched her face, though she had dropped her eyes, then nudged her with a foot.

"What was wrong, Scully?" And she chuckled, eyes on her lap, clasped together. After a moment she looked up, clear-eyed, half-smiling.

"I was going to ask you the same thing." When he didn't speak, she shrugged. "I don't know, Mulder. Bill was there, and his wife... she's pregnant, again... and the little one. Just starting to walk. And Charley. My other brother, Mulder. You haven't met him. He came, and it was a wonderful surprise, with his fiancee and her kids. And..." She glanced out the window. "And it just hasn't been the same, not since Dad and Missy... well, I guess I just got 'familied out.' So I told my mom I was worried about you... and here I am."

She lapsed back into her own thoughts. Mulder watched her, bathed in the television light, light that could be made of icy water. As before, in her own hallway, she suddenly seemed very small, very solitary, very alone. Something seemed to poke him from behind, like a small, cold, insistent finger.

"I'm sorry I didn't come with you, Scully." It was his own voice, he knew that, but he didn't recall speaking the words. Scully looked at him, reached out a hand to squeeze one of his.

"Mulder. You don't have to be. You were... honest. That's all. And I guess I forgot that other people might not care too much for the holidays, either. So it's okay. I'm sorry, too."

Wrong. That was wrong, somehow, for her to say. He knew that, and tightened his hold on her hand, looking down at their twined fingers. Scully tilted her head, reading something in his expression, visibly unsure of how to answer.

"Mulder?"

"It was never Christmas," he said slowly. "After Sam... went. There just wasn't any life in it anymore. And after my parents split, I guess there wasn't much point even in trying. Dad didn't celebrate Christmas... Mom couldn't. I guess I just kept up the family tradition. And that's what it was. Christmas... it's for family." He glanced around the apartment once more, a humorless smile playing on the corner of his mouth.

"And you see where that got me. No family... no Christmas." He tried to make it sound light, as though it didn't matter, but glancing over, his quick grin died as he saw the tears brimming in his partner's eyes. "Scully, I'm sorry. I didn't mean... "

"Mulder." And her voice, cutting him off, was whisper-soft, and he could see the muscles tight in her throat. "Mulder, you have me..."

She let the statement trail off, turned away with something like a gasp for breath, or a sob, but she was laughing ruefully to herself. "God, that sounded bad. Mulder, I..."

"No." He found his voice, startled out of him by the earnest honesty in her eyes, her voice. He reached out for her, touched her shoulder, dipping his head to catch her eyes. His own voice was hard to manage, thick, soft as the night-shadows. "No, Scully. It didn't."

He coaxed her chin up with two fingers, meeting her troubled eyes with his own, then drew her close to him, folding his arms around her, holding her tight. His breath caught, and he felt his partner's arms winding about his waist, his shoulders. Something within him shuddered, and the ache in his chest sharpened at that touch. His mind flashed the image of a rain-slicked headstone, and he forced it back, clinging to the present.

She was warm, and velvet-soft, and she smelled faintly of strawberry bath gel, and the barest hint of perfume. He burrowed into that comfort, and somewhere, deep inside, a too-thin boy sobbed... but this time was comforted, drawn into the safety of nurturing arms. He knew he was holding on tightly to that, perhaps too tightly; he was trembling, and his breath came in ragged gasps. Scully held him, small hands stroking him, soothing him, and if she was at all surprised, she said nothing... only hushed him, and held him.

When he finally forced himself to release her, to pull back, he could see that her face was tear-etched... but the telltale wetness around his own eyes, the heat of his face, told him only that they were a matched set. Scully's hand was still holding the nape of his neck, and when she looked up at him, she laughed, and he grinned. He bowed his head, meeting her forehead, and dared a quick kiss to her snuffling nose. She giggled, and brushed his own tears back.

"Mulder," she said. "What am I going to do with you?"

"I could give you a list," he teased. "But you already got me a Christmas present."

She slapped at him, pulling back into herself, and rose, brushing at her dress skirt. She was still holding his hand, exerting gentle pressure.

"Mulder... come home for Christmas."

He looked at her for a moment, pausing, but not hesitating. Then, very slowly, he made his way to his feet, and allowed himself to be led to the door. He glanced back at the television, where Tiny Tim was now perched on the shoulder of a doting Uncle Scrooge.

"Bah." said Mulder. "Humbug." But his partner, still holding his hand, shook her head.

"If that's how you want it, Mulder." she said. "I prefer, 'God bless us, every one.'" Mulder smiled, shrugging into his jacket.

"Tell me about your father." He met her surprised glance, one arm on her back, ushering her into the hall.

The door closed with a click behind them, and the apartment was once more silent. In that silence, as though sensing its solitude, the television noiselessly turned itself off.

-The End-


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