SPOILER WARNING: The Ghosts Who Stole Christmas; Redux II; Christmas Carol; Emily
RATING: PG-13, for language and implied sexual situations
CONTENT WARNING: MSR; Bill jr./Tara; Charlie/other
SUMMARY: Post episode. What happened after the end of "The Ghosts Who Stole Christmas", or whatever the hell the title actually was.
NOTE: This story is not related to my other Bill Scully stories, nor is it a Silver Bracelet story.
DEDICATION: For Rachel Lewis, whose new Bill Scully archive made me want to write another one about that lovable curmudgeon.
Not a Hallmark Kind of Guy
by Brandon D. Ray
I haven't always been an asshole; I've had to really work at it. But work at it I have, and that explains why I'm sitting here on Christmas evening all by myself in my mother's kitchen, like an unwanted guest that no one quite has the heart to ask to leave. And the worst part of it is that I really have no one but myself to blame.
It all started early this morning. I'd been up about 45 minutes, and the rest of the family was there too: My mother; my brother and his wife and kids; and of course Tara and Matthew. In the old days Dad would have been there, as well, presiding over the festivities, but those days are over, and it's actually been long enough now that the hurt is down to a dull, almost subliminal ache rather than a sharp, stabbing pain.
The only one missing was Dana, but I wasn't too concerned about that. She was always the late sleeper in our family, and I assumed she'd probably slept through her alarm and would be showing up just a little late. It was only 6:15, after all; only fifteen minutes past the scheduled starting time.
I actually know exactly what time it was when things started to go to hell: 6:18 a.m. I know this because I happened to be looking at the clock when it happened. Mom was sitting on the sofa, talking to Tara and playing with Matthew. Charlie had just stepped out to the kitchen to get himself another cup of coffee; his wife, Betty, was sprawled in the big easy chair, and their kids, my niece and nephew, were sitting on the floor at her feet, eying the Christmas tree and no doubt trying to figure out which of the gifts under there were for each of them. I remember winking at Mikey, and then glancing up at the clock to try to calculate when Dana might finally show up. And then the phone rang.
Mom reached out and picked it up. I wasn't especially trying to listen, but I didn't have any real reason not to. I was sitting there on Tara's other side, and Mom's voice came through clear as a bell, friendly and happy.
"Oh, Dana! We were just wondering where you were. Is everything okay?" A moment of silence while she listened to the answer. I wasn't too terribly interested, other than to find out just exactly how late Dana would be. Then Mother went on, "That's perfectly understandable, dear. How soon can we expect you?" She glanced up at the clock. "About an hour? That's fine." She hesitated just a minute, and her eyes flicked over to me and then away again. "Dana, does Fox have any plans for the rest of the day?"
I'm sure my jaw must have dropped at that moment. I don't remember it, but I'm sure it happened. What I do remember is thinking that this couldn't really be happening; my mother was NOT about to invite that sorry son of a bitch to join us for Christmas. Please, God, I thought, make it not be happening.
But it was. The next words out of her mouth, after listening to Dana for a moment, were, "Paperwork? What kind of an excuse is that? Let me talk to him." A brief pause, while I continued to pray. Then: "Fox, do I understand from Dana correctly that you are snubbing my invitation to join the family for Christmas?"
For just an instant I almost felt sorry for the poor bastard. When Mom gets into her determined mode -- as she was at that moment -- she can intimidate rear admirals with thirty years of service. I've seen her do it. But then after another pause she started speaking again and all my sympathy for Mulder evaporated. "All right, then; that's better. I'll see you both in an hour. Give my love to Dana." And she hung up.
# # #
And this was the point where I really started to get in trouble. I could have -- should have -- just waited it out. Sat there on the sofa next to my wife, watched my mother playing with her newest grandson, chatted companionably with my sister-in-law and brother, and tried to ignore the growing sense of panic I felt in the pit of my stomach.
Yes, panic. It's not anger that drives my behavior when Fox Mulder is around; it's fear. Panic. These emotions just happen to express themselves as anger because that's the way I've learned to compensate for such feelings. It's not a good adjustment, I know, and it's landed me in hot water on more than one occasion in both my personal and my professional life. But I can't seem to do anything about it, and I really have tried.
So what am I afraid of, you may ask. And let me tell you that this is a damned good question. Unfortunately, I don't know the answer; I just know that everytime I see that bastard I get this tight, constricted feeling in my chest, and when Dana's there with him (as she usually is) it's just ten times worse. Sometimes just hearing his name is enough to set it off, and this morning, knowing that he was on his way here, was one such occasion.
After a moment or two of this I got up off the sofa and went out to the kitchen, thinking if I could just get a few minutes alone I might be able to get my feelings under control, so I could at least act civil when Dana and Mulder got here. The fly in that particular ointment was that I'd forgotten that Charlie was already in the kitchen.
"Hey, Bro," he said, glancing up from the coffee maker as I stepped across the threshold. "Who was on the phone just now? Dana oversleep again?"
My brother knows Dana as well as I do -- better, in some ways. As the two youngest children they'd formed a sort of pact when we all were kids, and they're still close. A pity I didn't remember that at the time, or I might have handled the conversation that followed a little better than I did. Or maybe not.
"Yeah, it was Dana," I said. "I don't know if she overslept, but she's running a little late." I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. "And she's bringing her partner with her." I'm sure my voice would have been just as friendly if I'd been reporting that Dana was bringing a rattlesnake with her, but Charlie either didn't notice, or chose not to notice. More likely that latter; not much gets by Charlie.
"That's great!" he said. "I've been wanting to meet him for the longest time. How soon will they be here?"
"Seven thirty," I grated out.
Charlie slid the pot out from the coffee maker and poured himself a cup. He offered the pot to me, but I shook my head; the last thing I needed right then was caffeine. He put the pot back on its warming pad, then leaned back against the counter and looked at me for a minute. Finally, he said, "Sounds like you've got a problem with this, Bill."
"I guess you could say that," I snapped. There was more anger in my voice than I really had intended; this wasn't Charlie's fault, and in my heart I knew it. Unfortunately he happened to be standing in the line of fire. "I mean, Jesus! Isn't it bad enough that the family's scattered to the four winds? Do we have to have a stranger in the house on the first day in nearly five years that we're all actually together under one roof? Is that really necessary? Is it appropriate?"
Let me explain something about Charlie. He works in ONI, and he is one sharp operator. Even as a kid he had a way of peering into people and discerning their real thoughts and emotions, as distinct from the public faces we all choose to put on. He's been going up the ladder like a rocket, and I have little doubt that he'll have his flag before I do, although at the moment he's still one step behind me.
So it was no real surprise -- or shouldn't have been -- when he slipped his hands in his pockets and tilted his head sideways, and finally said, "I don't know, Bill. Are you sure those are your real objections?"
"Of course they're my real objections!" I said. "Isn't it enough? I thought this was supposed to be a family gathering!"
Charlie raised his eyebrows at me, but still he kept his cool. Charlie is a lot better than I am at behaving appropriately in a tense situation, and that's another reason why he'll make admiral before I do. He said, "I don't know, Bill. I guess it depends on how you define 'family', doesn't it?"
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means that Fox Mulder is probably closer to Dana at this point than any of us are. In a very real sense he IS part of her family." He smiled and softened his voice, and took a step towards me. "Come on, Bill; lighten up. It's only for a few hours, and it will make Dana happy. Isn't that reason enough?"
I should have taken his advice. I really should have. But I was on a roll, and I was having none of it. "The hell with that!" I said. "This jerkwad doesn't belong here, and how you can sit there and call him part of the family after the things he's DONE to this family is just...just....bullshit! That's what it is, Charlie, bullshit!" And then I said the thing that really sealed my fate. "And just for the record, who in the hell are YOU to be telling ME what will and won't make Dana happy? Where the fuck were YOU when she was dying last year? I'll tell you where I was; I was at her bedside, trying to comfort her! Where the hell were you, Charlie?"
Charlie's face went white and his lips compressed. I could see his fists clenching and unclenching, and for just a moment I thought he was going to hit me, and I was shocked to realize that part of me actually wanted him to do it. A knock down drag out with Charlie right at that moment would have felt pretty good in some ways, although another part of me knew even then that nothing good would come of it in the long run.
"You son of a bitch," he said softly. "You goddamned, cockfucking, son of a bitch!" He stopped for a moment, obviously fighting to keep his breathing under control. "You know just exactly where I was last year, COMMANDER. I was on the ground in Bosnia, doing liaison with the UNEF. And as you well know, I tried seven times to get compassionate leave -- seven fucking times. I even pushed one request all the way to CincLant. But my requests were refused, as you also well know." He took a deep breath, then let it out. "And I stayed there, COMMANDER, and I did my duty, and every time the goddamned phone rang I was sure it was you or Mom calling to tell me that Dana was gone. And there wasn't a fucking thing I could do about it."
We stood in silence for a moment, staring at each other. Charlie's body was starkly erect, in formal military posture, but his eyes burned with anger. I tried to think of something to say, I tried to find some way to undo what I had just done, but there just wasn't anything. I'd lost my temper and shot my wad, and I was going to have to pay the price.
Finally, Charlie said, "May I be excused, Commander?" And after the briefest of hesitations I nodded slightly, and he stalked out of the room.
# # #
So that was my first mistake, and it was a doozy, no doubt about it. A few minutes later I wandered back out to the living room. Charlie and Betty were nowhere to be seen, but Mikey and Sarah were still sprawled on the floor using their x-ray vision on the Christmas presents across the room, so I knew my brother and his wife hadn't left for good. Mom and Tara both looked at me as I stepped into the room; they had to know something had happened between me and Charlie, but neither of them said anything, and after a moment they went back to playing with Matthew.
I just stood there by the doorway for a few minutes, trying to collect my thoughts but not really getting anywhere. Mulder was still on his way, and he'd be there in less than half an hour, and I had no fucking clue how I was going to respond to this. Finally I went back over to the sofa and sat down next to Tara. She took my hand and squeezed it, and gave me one of her little smiles, the one that says she knows I'm having a tough time but she loves me and we'll get through it somehow. Amazing what you can say with just a facial expression. And I started to feel better, just holding her hand and looking at her smile.
After awhile Charlie and Betty came back and curled up together in the easy chair. I could tell Charlie was still pretty angry, both by his body language and because he refused to look at me, but at least he'd calmed down to the point where he could stand to be in the same room with me. I wondered for a moment how much of our conversation he'd told to Betty, and then I felt a sudden chill down my spine as I wondered if he'd said anything about it to Mom. I snuck a glance at her, still sitting over on the other side of Tara, but she looked completely serene and absorbed in playing with Matthew, and I relaxed a bit as I concluded that Charlie hadn't spilled the beans to her about our fight.
Finally the doorbell chimed, and Mom jumped to her feet and went to answer it. Sure enough; it was Dana and Mulder, and Mom was all over both of them, hugging them and passing out kisses on the cheek as if she were raising money for the USO. Finally she drew them into the house and shut the door, then took Mulder's hand and led him over to Charlie and Betty's chair, and Charlie was already climbing to his feet and putting out his hand, a genuinely cheerful smile on his face.
Mom said, "Fox, I'd like you to meet my younger son, Charlie, and his wife Betty. Charlie, Betty -- this is Fox Mulder, Dana's partner from work."
And then Charlie was shaking Mulder's hand and working that special charm he has. In fact, I could see that he and Mulder were actually charming each other, one of those chemistry things where two people just hit it off immediately. Sort of the opposite of how Mulder and I affect each other, now I come to think of it. And I thought to myself that that would just be too fucking perfect if Charlie and Mulder turned out to be best buds. It would really be all I'd need to make my day complete.
The introductions over, Mom turned to the rest of us and said, "Well, since our two lost little lambs are finally here, why don't we get started?"
I winced a little bit at her choice words, but after the argument with Charlie I'd promised myself I was going to be on my best behavior, and so I didn't say anything. I just got up off the sofa and started to move over towards the Christmas tree, ready to perform my duty as eldest male and hand out the presents.
Then Mom pulled a whizzer on me. I hadn't got two steps before she said, "Fox, since you're the guest, would you mind doing the honors by handing out the gifts?"
There was just a moment of awkward silence, as Mulder glanced at me and then back at Mom. I could see that he was about to refuse; it was pretty obvious to anyone paying any attention at all where I'd been heading before my mother's words stopped me dead in my tracks. But Mom could obviously read his intentions in his eyes, too, because she reached out and touched his elbow. "Please, Fox?"
What can anyone do in that situation? Again, for just an instant, I almost felt sorry for him. But only for an instant, and then once more the sympathy was gone, as Mulder said, "Sure, Maggie. I'd be happy to."
And that's one piece of information I would just as soon not have: This son of a bitch knew my mother well enough to call her by her first name. Thank you, Jesus; I really needed to know that.
Dana had been standing a little to one side up until this point; now she stepped forward and she and Mulder went over and sat down next to the tree, crosslegged, their knees not quite touching. Charlie's munchkins moved up to within striking distance, Mulder glanced at Dana inquiringly, and I swear I could almost see the silent conversation taking place as they looked at each other. And that's when I REALLY started to feel grim, because I suddenly realized that Dana was looking at Mulder just exactly the way that Tara looks at me.
I glanced at Charlie, and I could tell from the expression on his face that he was reading the situation the same way I was: These two were either involved with each other, or they were about to become involved. Of course the one difference between us was that Charlie had a fond little smile on his face, while I'm sure that my expression was closer to one of shocked dismay.
Finally Dana spoke aloud, and briskly informed Mulder of the procedure to be followed: Each person was to be given one gift at a time, and then those gifts would be opened sequentially, starting with the youngest and working up to the oldest. A Scully family tradition that dates back as far as I can remember.
Mulder nodded to her and got to work, and I have to say this for him: He was efficient. He had those presents parceled out faster than I probably could have managed it, and the next thing I knew the room was full of happy chatter and the floor was being progressively buried in wrapping paper. The kids made out like bandits, of course, but the rest of us all got some pretty nice stuff, too -- and of course, just receiving a gift from someone you love, and knowing that person put some thought into picking something out for you, makes a big difference.
Finally there was just one gift left. Mulder pulled it out from its position, way back under the tree, and took a quick look at the card. And then his eyebrows shot up in surprise.
Dana rocked forward onto her hands and knees and crawled around to look over his shoulder. "What is it?" she asked.
Mulder started to smile, and he looked up at Mom. I glanced at her just in time to see her return his smile, and she said, "It's for you, Fox. I intended to have Dana take it back for you in the morning, but I'm so glad you're here to receive it in person. It's always so much nicer that way."
Another thing I hadn't needed to know: My mother buys Christmas presents for Fox Mulder.
Mulder sat there for a moment looking at the package, looking like he was trying to figure out what it was, and I have to admit that my own curiosity was running pretty high, as well. It looked like a book -- not a regular book, but one of those coffee table sized books that people buy in B. Dalton's and then don't read, and I tried to imagine what sort of a book my mother would buy for this guy.
He glanced up at Mom again, and had the grace to say, "But I don't have anything for you, Maggie."
"That's okay," she replied. "I know you weren't expecting this. You can just get me two presents next year." Next year. Thanks a whole helluva lot, Mom. Her smile broadened. "Aren't you going to open it?"
Dana nudged his shoulder with hers, and said, "Go on, Mulder; open it. I'm dying to see what it is." And finally he gave in, and with a nervous smile on his face he carefully unwrapped the gift, and finally he held in his lap what was pretty obviously a photo album. He looked at the cover for a moment, then opened it and looked down at the first page.
Dana was the first to react, rocking back into a kneeling position and letting her jaw drop open. The expression on her face was indescribable -- a sort of mix of shock, embarrassment, and pleased surprise. She looked like someone who'd just kissed a frog and had it turn into a handsome prince -- still not sure it had been such a good idea, but pleased with the result.
Meanwhile Mulder was staring down intently at the book on his lap, carefully examining each page before turning to the next. Finally he paused, and looked up at Mom and grinned. "Maggie...I love it."
"I'm so glad." She was grinning too, looking like the Cheshire Cat.
"What is it, Mulder? Come on; give." That was Charlie, and he was already up out of his chair and crossing to kneel down next to Mulder. He look one look at the open book on Mulder's lap and gave an amused snort, then looked up at his wife. "Come over here, Betty; you've got to see this."
The next thing I knew the entire family, except for me and the rug rats, was gathered around Mulder, looking down at the photo album while he turned the pages. The curiosity was killing me, but I was damned if I was going to get up and join in with the rest of them. That would be just a little bit too much like I was accepting Mulder as a legitimate participant in today's celebration.
Well, if Mohammed won't go to the mountain... The next thing I heard was Charlie suggesting to Mulder that he relocate so that people wouldn't have to crowd around quite so close. And a moment later Mulder was being guided across the room, Charlie on one side of him and Mom on the other, and being forced to sit down again on the sofa right where Mom had been sitting, and Dana was taking the spot Tara had been in, and the rest of them were gathering around behind the sofa so they could look down over his shoulder. And finally I could see what all the commotion was about.
Pictures of Dana. An entire photo album devoted to pictures of Dana. Jesus, Mother; how could you?
The page he had open at that moment was labeled "1972", in Mom's simple but elegant handwriting. The individual photos were labeled, too, but I didn't need to read the captions; I recognized most of them.
Dana seemed to have gotten over her initial embarrassment, and was describing for Mulder the circumstances surrounding each picture, and I suddenly noticed that she'd linked her arm through his when they sat back down, and was sort of leaning into him, just a little.
"This one was taken at my eighth birthday party," she was saying. "That girl standing next to me is Joni Morgenstern; she was my best friend that year. We used to do everything together. I still hear from her occasionally, but it's hard to maintain a friendship when your father's in the Navy and you have to move every year or two."
This went on for quite awhile, with Mulder turning the pages and Dana narrating each photograph. I actually sat there, listening to this, grinding my teeth together and reminding myself over and over that this was Christmas Day and that people were supposed to be nice to each other, and give each other thoughtful, meaningful gifts. And boy was this present a doozy, and I had no fucking clue why it was making me so angry.
Okay, that's a lie, at least a little bit. Deep down inside I knew just exactly why it was making me angry, but I wasn't quite ready to share that knowledge with myself yet. No, that had to wait until I had a little privacy, and the perfect audience.
God help me.
And then we got to the really bad one. They'd gotten up to 1980, and Mom had had the remarkably poor judgment to include a picture of Dana in her prom dress. Mulder had just turned to that page, and he kind of drew in his breath and leaned back in the sofa for a minute, just staring at that photograph.
I have to admit that it was a pretty good picture, and Mom had really pulled out all the stops, having had it blown up to an 8x10 and gotten it matted before mounting it in that damned album. Dana had let her hair grow out in high school, down past her shoulders, and for prom she'd had it done up in a really sophisticated and elaborate style, soft little ringlets everywhere, and the tresses falling in waves around her face and down onto her shoulders. I remember that hairdo vividly, because when I saw it was the first time it had really hit home to me that my baby sister had grown up into a woman.
It was pretty obvious what Mulder thought of that picture. He just sat there, continuing to stare at it, and there was no denying the love and affection in his eyes. Finally, he gently reached out and touched the picture, as if he were stroking her hair, and said, "Scully, it's beautiful." Never mind that there were nine people in the room named "Scully"; we all knew who he was talking to.
And I'd finally had enough, and I jumped up off the couch and stormed out of the room.
You ever have one of those days when nothing goes right? Well, this was one of those days for me. I mean, if things had been going even a little well it would have been Tara who followed me out into the kitchen. She'd have sat me down at the kitchen table, and talked to me, and I would have poured out my conflicted feelings to her, and after awhile things would have been enough better that I could go back into the living room and be civil. And for just a moment, as I heard the footsteps approaching from behind as I leaned against the sink, I thought it was Tara.
"Bill? Is something wrong?" Mom's voice. I closed my eyes. I knew then that I was in deep, deep trouble.
I stood there for a pair of minutes, refusing to turn around and look at her, just staring down at the sink and trying to control my breathing. I knew that if I tried to talk to my mother right then I'd wind up losing my temper and saying things I'd regret later. And the worst part of it was that the demon part of me, the part that had wanted Charlie to take a swing at me earlier, was now whispering in my ear, urging me to really let her have it, and tell just exactly what I thought about her present to Mulder.
"Bill?" she said. "Bill, I know there's something bothering you, and I think I know what it is. You're upset because I invited Fox over this morning. Aren't you." It wasn't quite a question.
Fine, Mother. If it has to be, it has to be. I swung around on her, and snapped, "Jesus, Mother! How could you?"
I think I shocked her. I mean, everyone in the family knows I have a temper, and most of them have been subjected to it at one time or another, to my eternal shame. But it must have been twenty years, at least, since the last time I spoke harshly to my mother. At LEAST twenty years. So I think I shocked her. I know I shocked myself.
Unfortunately, my mouth wasn't done yet. Using short, clipped tones, I went on, "What could you possibly have been thinking when you invited that sorry excuse for a man over to our house -- to OUR HOUSE -- on Christmas Day? Jesus, Mother! Christmas is supposed to be for family, not for any bum off the street! And surely you remember what he did to us LAST Christmas! Do you think I ENJOY being reminded of that? Do you think TARA enjoys it? Or even Dana? Jesus, Mother; how could you?"
I know there must have been some logic in that speech somewhere, but thinking back on it now I'm having trouble identifying it. I'm not even going to bother to point out the all irrationalities, logical inconsistencies and hypocrisy in what I said; some things are just too humiliating, and it really isn't necessary, anyway; we all know what was really going on.
"And then there was that photo album," I went on. "Just what the FUCK did you think you were doing? Is Dana supposed to be some sort of, of pin-up girl, now? Is that why Dad sent her to medical school, so that some punk could sit in OUR LIVING ROOM and ogle her like she was Miss December? Was that why it was, Mother? Was that why?"
Mom just stood there for a minute, staring at me, and now I could see that I'd not only shocked her, but I'd actually hurt her. I was really batting a thousand -- first Charlie, now Mother. Maybe if I worked on it a little more I could reduce Sarah and Mikey to tears, and then we'd all be one big unhappy family together.
Finally, Mom shook her head, and I saw the pain recede, just a little, and she reached out and tenderly laid her hand on my waist. "Bill...." she started to say, and there was love in her voice. Despite all the things I'd just thrown at her, there was still love in her voice, and naturally that just made me even more angry.
"Don't say it, Mother," I said coldly. "Don't even try." I pushed past her and walked over to the doorway back to the living room, the anger just building and building inside me. I knew I had to get out of there, fast, or I'd say something really bad. It was kind of a race to see whether I could make it out the door before I lost control, and as you might guess by now, I lost. I got as far as putting my hand on the doorknob, and everything just fell apart. I stopped, spun around again to face my mother, and said, "What would Dad think if he were here to see this?" And then I turned again and stalked out of the room.
# # #
At this point the smart thing for me to have done would have been to leave. Just grab my coat and leave. Unfortunately the logistics for that were fairly complicated: There was the question of Tara and Matthew, for one thing. It would not have been easy to bundle them up, collect all our luggage and the miscellaneous junk you have to tote around with you to care for a one year old, and get it all out to the car.
I don't mean it would have been physically difficult; I mean it would have been awkward. Really, really awkward. I would have had to make too many trips back into the house in order to get everything out to the car, and I almost certainly would have had to listen to Tara apologizing to my mother and everyone else for running out on them unexpectedly. And then there would have been the problem of explaining to Tara just exactly why we were doing this, and I just couldn't face that; it would have been too humiliating.
And so I simply strode through the living room, not looking at anyone, and took the stairs two at time. I stomped into the room Tara and I were staying in, slammed the door, and threw myself on the bed, face down, and tried to calm myself.
This was bad. This was really, really bad. Now I had both my brother and my mother angry at me, and with good, sound reason. And for all I knew they were down there right now, telling everyone else just exactly what I'd done and said, and somehow I was going to have to face those people. I was going to have to look them in the eye, and chat politely with them and pretend to be a human being.
Down in my heart I knew that wasn't true; I knew that Charlie and Mother would not make a public spectacle out of me like that, no matter how much I might deserve it. Oh, Charlie probably had told at least some of it to Betty, in private, but that was different; she was his wife, and husbands and wives have to share stuff with each other. Even *I* know that. But at the moment all I could think about was my mother and brother telling the rest of them just how much of an ass I'd been, and the bunch of them sitting down there having a good laugh at poor old Bill.
I was dragged out of this self-pitying reverie by a knock on the door. I held my breath and waited, knowing it had to be Tara, and hoping that she'd have the good sense to go away. But she didn't; she knocked again.
"Bill?" I heard her voice, very soft, coming to me through the door. "Bill? Can I come in?"
I thought about that one for a minute. A short while ago, if she'd come to me in the kitchen, I truly believe that she would have been able to make me feel better and make things, if not all right, at least tolerable. Now I wasn't so sure. I had well and truly shocked myself when I lashed out at Mom, and I didn't know if I could trust myself not to unload on Tara if she tried to get too close. So I finally said, "I think it would be better if you left me alone for awhile."
"Are you sure?"
No, I wasn't absolutely sure, but I was sure enough. I said, "Yeah. Yeah. I really think it would be better."
There was a moment of silence while she apparently thought it over. Finally: "Okay. If you change your mind, please let me know. I want to help. I love you."
"I know." I struggled with myself for just a moment, then added, "I love you, too. I'll be down in a little while. I just need some time alone."
"Okay." And after another moment I heard her footsteps fading away.
# # #
It was the better part of an hour before I finally got up the nerve to go back downstairs. Everyone seemed to be having a good time: Charlie and Betty were still curled up in the big easy chair, and Dana was down on the floor playing some sort of board game with Mikey and Sarah, while Mulder lay sprawled on the sofa, watching them and occasionally offering advice. Mom and Tara weren't in the room; presumably they were out in the kitchen working on Christmas dinner.
I stood there at the foot of the stairs watching this quiet little domestic scene for a moment or two. It looked very warm and homey; very comfortable. Just a bunch of people lazing around the living room on Christmas Day, enjoying each other's company. Being a family. While I watched, Mulder sad something to Dana, and she looked up from her game at him and smiled a big, happy smile.
I shook my head, trying to figure out why I'd been acting the way I had. It just made no sense at all, and as I thought back I realized that Charlie had nailed the situation perfectly: It was just for a few hours, and it was quite obviously making Dana happy. And who was I to argue over that? Lord knows my sister has had enough hardship in her life the past few years; doesn't she deserve a little happiness for a change?
I took a deep breath, and headed on over to join the group.
# # #
The rest of the morning and into the early afternoon actually seemed to go pretty well. I played a few games with Mikey and Sarah, I chatted a bit with Dana and Charlie and Betty -- I even said a few pleasant words to Mulder. Everyone seemed to be willing to forgive and forget, and I was trying, really trying, to make a clean breast of things.
I should have known that things weren't REALLY all better. In fact, they were only destined to get worse. And again, it was all going to be my fault.
The next incident came during Christmas dinner. Actually, right BEFORE Christmas dinner, because we hadn't actually gotten to the eating part before I fucked up again.
After several hours of wonderful smells coming from the kitchen, Mom finally came out to the living room and announced that it was time to eat. We all gathered around the big dining room table, and after a few moments of confusion Mom had us each seated where she wanted us: Herself at the head of the table, and me at the foot, with Tara on my right and Matthew's high chair situated strategically between us. Charlie and Betty and their kids were on my left, and seated to Mom's left, in the chair of honor, was Fox Mulder, and right next to him was Dana.
Let me explain something. When I say "chair of honor" I am not using a figure of speech. When we were kids growing up there was a strict protocol at the dinner table: Dad sat at the head, Mom at the foot, and whichever kid had been the best behaved during the day got to sit on Dad's left. We called it the chair of honor, and believe me it was something we competed for. And at Christmas dinner the importance of being the one chosen to sit in that chair was magnified a thousand fold.
I don't know if Betty is aware of that old custom, and I'm almost certain that Mulder is not, but Charlie and Dana certainly know about it, and I could see the two of them exchanging glances as Mom gave Mulder his seat assignment. Charlie wore a look of tender amusement as he glanced at Dana, and Dana...the only word that comes to mind to describe her expression is "smug".
Finally we were all seated, and Mom asked me to do the honors and pour the wine. When everyone's glass was full -- well, Sarah and Mikey got grape juice, and Matthew had his usual safety cup -- Mom turned to Mulder, and said, "Fox? Will you start us?"
For a moment I thought he wasn't going to get it, but Dana must have tipped him off to the Scully family tradition of each person at the table offering a toast before Christmas dinner, because he just picked up his glass and held it up, a small smile on his face. "To iced tea," he said, and took a sip from his glass, and we all followed suit.
I'd be lying if I said I knew what his toast was about, but it obviously meant something to Dana, because her eyes got all soft and fuzzy looking. And then it was her turn, and I could tell she was struggling not to turn and address her toast directly to Mulder as she raised her glass and said, "To extreme possibilities."
Okay, I didn't get the meaning behind that one, either, but it was pretty obvious that Dana and Mulder were sitting there at the dining room table in my mother's house flirting with each other. And everyone else at the table was also getting it, at least the adults, because they all had that mushy, benevolent look that people get when they realize they're in the presence of young love. It was just absolutely perfect for Christmas dinner, like something out of Currier and Ives or Frank Capra, and the whole scene was making that panicky feeling I mentioned earlier come zooming right back into the foreground.
And then Tara picked up HER glass, and held it up, and in warm, friendly tones she said, "To love, both old --" and she turned and looked directly at Dana and Mulder "-- and new."
And I got up from my chair and fled from the room.
# # #
Once again I found myself standing in the kitchen, leaning up against the sink, but this time I knew better than to hope that Tara -- or anyone -- would come after me. NO ONE was going to be able to help me this time; the feeling of panic mixed with anger was just too crushing and overwhelming, and anybody who dared come within reach was liable to get an earful.
I think I mentioned that this was not a good day for me, and just to confirm that, as I stood there trying to get my breathing back under control, I heard Tara's footsteps approaching from behind. I turned around and opened my mouth, intending to warn her off, wanting to tell her to leave me alone, but she was already talking.
"Bill, what the hell is wrong with you today?" I stood staring at her for a moment with my mouth open. I'm sure it was a very comical sight, but I wasn't feeling very funny at the time. Tara went on, "You've been acting like a perfect ass all day long. Do you really hate Fox Mulder so much that you can't stand to be in the same room with him? Do you have any idea how juvenile that is?"
I wanted to defend myself; I wanted to point out that I'd just spent the entire fucking afternoon sitting in the living room with that asshole, and that I'd even exchanged a few sentences with him, but I knew in my heart she was right. No matter what kind of a facade I'd put on for a few hours, I really had no use for Mulder, and the idea of him actually being in a romantic relationship with my baby sister Dana just made me want to vomit -- and it wasn't helping matters any that the entire rest of the family, including Tara, seemed to think that it was a pretty nice idea for the two of them to be involved.
All of this flashed through my mind while my wife just stood there, glaring at me and apparently waiting for some sort of a response. Finally, I just said, "Sorry." Weak and pathetic; yeah, I know. But it was the best I could do, and the alternative was to get into a yelling, screaming fight with the woman I love most in the world.
"I should think you would be," she snapped. "Now do you think you can manage to go back in there and behave like an adult for the rest of the meal? Or do we need to bundle up Matthew and leave?"
Leaving sounded really good to me at that point, and looking back on it, I know it would have been the best way out of the situation. I know it would have meant I was running away from this problem instead of trying to solve it, but seeing as how I wound up doing a pretty shitty job of solving it, I think running might not have been that bad a thing.
But Tara was still standing there, glaring at me, and it was obvious from the anger blazing in her eyes that running away was not going to make my house a happy one, at least for the next little while. And so I just nodded weakly and said, "I'll try."
# # #
And so I went back to the dining room and sat down, and we proceeded to have dinner. Either the others had finished the round of toasts while I was in the kitchen, or they'd decided not to finish them at all; I never did find out which it was, and either alternative would be pretty bad. But then the food was served, and things seemed to settle down again for awhile.
Of course, by this point everyone was watching me out of the corners of their eyes -- everyone except Dana and Mulder, that is, who seemed to be spending most of their time watching each other. I couldn't really blame my family for wanting to keep an eye on me; my track record so far that day had not been good, and there had been that one period of several hours when I'd apparently fooled everyone into thinking I was okay, and then blown up again. So, as I say, it was understandable that they were all a little wary, but that didn't make me feel any less like a bug under a microscope.
Finally dinner was over, and for a little while we all just sat around the table chatting with each other and feeling pleasantly bloated. It was actually pretty nice, and once Tara even smiled at me, the comforting, reassuring smile she uses on me when I'm about to have to go to the dentist or a PTA meeting or something. And I remembered some of the reasons why I love that woman so much, and I actually started to feel a little bit better.
And then I suddenly felt much, much worse, because I realized that there was one remaining Scully family tradition that we hadn't yet experienced. The mistletoe.
Normally, the mistletoe is my favorite part of Christmas. I mean, who wouldn't look forward to an opportunity to stand up in front of his family and give a warm kiss to the woman he loves? Isn't that what it's all about, really?
But this year it was going to be different. This year I was going to have to stand there and watch Dana kiss that idiot with the big nose and the annoying grin, and I didn't think I was up to it. In fact, I KNEW I wasn't up to it. I desperately wanted to find a way out of this, but nothing was suggesting itself. I was just trapped, and it was going to be awful, and it was all just too damned bad.
I had just reached this miserable conclusion when Charlie jumped up out of his chair, a broad smile on his face, and said, "Come on, folks; time for the big moment!" Which is what Dad always used to say, and somehow having Charlie echo his words made me feel even worse.
Mom rose from her chair, her eyes glinting, and said, "Just give me a few minutes to stack the dishes and put away the leftovers; don't you DARE start without me!"
And so it was about twenty minutes later we were all in the living room, waiting for Mom. I could see from his face that Mulder hadn't caught on to what was happening yet, but everyone else knew, and they were all looking eager and happy -- well, Dana was looking kind of shy, but she obviously wasn't displeased about what was about to happen. She was now holding Mulder's hand as they sat on the sofa, and you would have had to have been blind or an idiot not to see the sparks flying between them.
Finally Mom arrived, and we all gathered around the Christmas tree, each of us holding hands with our respective loved one, with Mom standing next to the fireplace holding Matthew and looking at us all with nothing but joy and love in her eyes. The mistletoe was hanging in its usual place, in a corner next to the tree. We don't believe in ambushes in the Scully family; no one ever walked under that mistletoe without knowing exactly what they were doing. You get fewer nasty surprises that way -- and fewer disappointments.
For a moment we all just stood there, looking at each other. Mulder still looked puzzled; he had to have noticed that we had all paired off into couples, but he still apparently hadn't spotted the mistletoe. I saw Charlie eying me, and I knew that he and Betty and Dana were waiting for me and Tara to get things rolling -- by family tradition, the oldest couple goes first -- and I shrugged my shoulders in resignation and led Tara into the corner, and I took her in my arms and kissed her.
It was actually a pretty good kiss, but that's no big surprise -- Tara's always been a good kisser. This time she seemed to throw a little extra into it, and after a few seconds all my troubles seemed to go away, and for a timeless moment there was nothing in the world except for me and Tara. She had her arms wrapped around me, and she was softly stroking my back with her hands and moving her hips gently against me. I don't know if I've mentioned this, but I really love this woman, and the way she kisses me, just completely open and giving, is one of the many, many reasons for that.
Finally our lips separated, and I became aware of Charlie and Betty and Dana whistling and clapping and stomping their feet. Tara gave me an affectionate smile that promised we could continue this thought later, when we went to bed, and after giving me one more squeeze she let go of me and slipped her arm through mine as we stepped back out of the way for my brother and his wife.
Charlie and Betty really put on a show for us. I mean, Betty's always been aggressive, but this time she just grabbed Charlie's hand and literally dragged him under the mistletoe. She wrapped her arms around him and grinned up at him, and said, "I've been waiting for this moment all day," before sweeping him into a dip and pressing her lips against his.
And Charlie, to his credit, went along with her agenda. He stuck one leg out at an angle and started reflexively kicking it in the air. His hands clutched frantically at his wife's shoulder's and in a matter of seconds the two of them had us all -- including me -- roaring with laughter, and then he and Betty started laughing through their kiss, and they wound up collapsing on the carpet and just howling for a minute. Finally, Betty scrambled to her feet, her eyes shining, and reached down and helped Charlie get up, and they stepped off to the side, leaning up against each other and trying to control their chuckling and catch their breath.
And now, finally, it was Dana and Mulder's turn.
By this time, obviously, Mulder knew what was about to happen. And if he's as smart as everyone else in this family seems to think he is, he must also have worked out that Dana had known way back this morning when Mom issued the invitation that this moment would come, and had passed the invite along anyway. And if he still had any lingering doubts, the way she'd been acting towards him all day long and the fact that she was tightly clutching his hand and leading him over into that sacred corner must surely have laid those uncertainties to rest.
And then they were standing under the mistletoe, facing each other and still holding hands, and the look of awe and wonder on Mulder's face was surpassed only by the expression of open adoration on Dana's. And I realized, as I stood there looking at them look at each other, that this was about to be their first kiss -- their very first one. I knew I should have been moved by this realization, and I could tell from the silence that had suddenly fallen over the room that everyone else had also figured it out and that they WERE moved. But I just couldn't find it in me; I just couldn't make myself feel good about this moment, and may God have mercy on me as a miserable sinner.
They continued standing there looking at each other for just another moment, and I could tell that neither one of them was seeing or hearing or feeling anything but each other. Finally, slowly and tentatively, Dana took a step closer to Mulder, and she reached up with her free hand and lightly touched his cheek. He smiled, then, and slipped both arms around her and drew her in to him, and Dana rose up on her toes and closed her eyes.
Their lips met.
And I just couldn't stand to watch anymore, and I turned and stalked out of the room.
# # #
And so I here I sit in the kitchen, all alone. No one came after me this time; I guess they've all learned their lessons. After awhile I heard talking and laughter in the living room, but no force on earth could have made me go back in there and join in the fun and frivolity. Instead I just sat here at the kitchen table feeling sorry for myself and wishing that I was almost anywhere else.
It's quiet out in the living room now. Looking up at the clock I see that it's nearly eleven, and I've been sitting out here by myself for nearly four hours. I know I can't stay here all night, but I really can't think of anywhere to go.
Bed. That's where I need to go. I need to go to bed, and if I have any luck at all -- which is not at all obvious, the way things have gone today -- Tara will at least be willing to cuddle me, although I'm not kidding myself that the non-verbal offer she made under the mistletoe is still open. Then maybe I can go to sleep, and maybe, just maybe, I'll feel better in the morning.
I get up from the table and walk out the door, passing through the dining room and into the living room. I'm so absorbed in my own self-pity and self-abnegation that I'm halfway across the room before I notice that the TV is on.
Thinking that the kids must have left it on, I change course and step over to the set and turn it off. Then I turn around and glance briefly at the room, and that's when I finally realize that I'm not alone.
Dana and Mulder are lying curled up on the sofa together, both fast asleep. She's nestled in against him spoon fashion, and his arms are wrapped loosely around her waist. As I watch she stirs slightly, and snuggles back against him just a little closer, and then they're both still again, just lying there and looking absolutely adorable. Looking like they were made for each other.
Maybe they were.
With a sigh of resignation I step forward and pull the afghan off the back of the sofa. Gently and carefully, not wanting to disturb them, I spread it out over their bodies, and tuck the edges in under the sofa cushions. Then I step back and look down at them again for a minute.
Sitting out there in the kitchen and reviewing the day's events in my mind, I've actually managed to come to terms with some of this. I mean, I still don't like this man, not even a little bit, but Charlie was right all along: What really matters is that Dana is happy. It's been such a long time since I've seen her happy I'd almost forgotten what it looks like. And I am just a complete and utter asshole to have acted the way I did.
I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do to my family tomorrow, and a lot of apologizing, and I'd be lying if I said I was looking forward to it. But it's got to be done; when you make a mess of things you just don't walk away from it. Not in the Scully family.
I suppose that means I'll have to apologize to Dana and Mulder, as well, and that's something I'm really, REALLY not looking forward to. But again, I have to do it. Dad would expect it of me. Hell, I expect it of myself.
I take one last look at my sister and her partner. Even asleep, they seem to radiate love and affection for one another. It's almost enough to make me wish I had a camera -- this would make a perfect concluding picture for that photo album Mom put together for Mulder. But I'm just not a Hallmark kind of guy, as you may have noticed. And after another moment I turn away and go on upstairs to bed.