Hang a Shining Star
Through the years we all will be together
if the Fates allow,
Hang a shining star upon the highest bow...

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas -- H. Martin & R. Blane

Hang a Shining Star
By Dawn

I'm humming again. It's the third instance in less than an hour--a truly embarrassing statistic. Even worse, this time I actually broke out into a few "fa-la-las" before catching myself. I automatically glance over my shoulder to check for Scully, though she isn't due home for at least another hour. Instead I find blue eyes, a toothless grin, and a pair of chubby, upraised arms.

Lucky for me, the only witness won't be able to talk for at least another year.

"We'll keep this our little secret, all right, Spud? No sense giving Mommy any more ammunition."

Will whimpers low in the back of his throat and sticks out his lip, both hands opening and closing furiously. Not being made of granite, I scoop him out of the contraption Scully calls the "exersaucer"--a gizmo that looks like a combination baby seat and snow saucer.

Yeah, saucer. Ironic, huh?

"I know, I know. It's torture to be trapped in that thing when there's lint and crumbs begging to be harvested from the carpet." My lips brush the silky fuzz on the crown of his head and I gently pat his back.

Evidently not in the mood to bond, Will responds by lunging across my right arm, nearly pitching himself onto the floor in his eagerness to reach the true object of his affection--the Christmas tree. Guess Dad's just the means to an end.

I shift him onto my hip and move closer to the tree, mesmerized by the reflection of colored lights in his Scully-blue eyes. I haven't put up a Christmas tree in.... Well, it's been a very long time. Another casualty of Sam's abduction, I suppose. Decorating the tree was our job and one of the things we loved most about Christmas--second only to opening the presents. We'd squabble over who got to hang the favorite ornaments and wind up with more tinsel on the floor than the branches. Still, every year when we'd finished and turned the living room lights off, she'd look at me with shining eyes and pronounce, "It's the prettiest tree ever. Don't you think so, Fox?"

Mom insisted on helping me decorate the tree each year after Sam was gone, but we were just going through the motions. Christmas was no longer a time of joy and magic, but another painful reminder of what we'd lost. Once I got out on my own it didn't seem worth the effort to pretend differently.

Until now.

The pure wonder in Will's eyes rekindles a flame I'd believed irrevocably quenched. The warmth spreads, tightening my throat and reducing the tree to a brightly colored blur. Damn it. If I'm not humming, I'm crying. Who is this stranger, and what did he do with Fox Mulder?

Will's contentment to just look ends, a pudgy fist darting out to latch onto a branch. The shock of prickly needles and rough bark on soft baby skin discourages him at first, but the lure of the ornaments proves irresistible. Soon he's fingering a chubby Santa with a fuzzy beard, probably working on a plan for getting it into his mouth.

Scully usually puts up an artificial tree--a five-foot Norwegian pine that almost looks like the real thing once you add tinsel and ornaments. It even smells real--well, sort of. I used to wonder how a fake tree could smell like that until one year I caught her spritzing the branches with something. "Christmas in a Can," maybe--who knows?

I asked her why she didn't just buy a fresh tree if she likes the scent so much. She rather sarcastically pointed out that artificial trees don't need to be watered, and therefore won't drop all their needles when you're called out of town to investigate killer cockroaches from outer space.

Like I said, Scully doesn't need more ammunition.

I watch Will manhandle a blue satin ball embroidered with gold stars, indulging his curiosity until he grows bored and sets his sights on a twinkling red light. With reflexes honed by years of dodging mutants and alien replicants, I lurch back far enough to place the tree out of his reach.

"Sorry, Spud. Noho on the rojo."

The look of shocked outrage he gives me is humorous. The full-volume, mad-as-hell wail is not.

Thanks to my admittedly rusty tree-decorating skills, it took me nearly an hour to get the lights just the way I want them. One good yank from that pint-sized fist and I'll be back to square one. I harden my heart to soulful wet eyes and hiccuping sobs, pulling out every toy in Will's considerable arsenal as a futile attempt at distraction. Ten minutes later rattles and stuffed animals are scattered across the floor like land mines but his sweaty, flushed face and increasing decibel level indicate he's not yet begun to fight. Despite that angelic face, Will possesses the tenacity of a pit bull when he wants something.

I think he gets it from Scully.

I eventually go for the big guns and heat a bottle. Normally I try to hold him off so Scully can feed him, but I chalk up today as a lost cause. A hefty dose of sunshine and fresh air as we searched out the perfect Christmas tree, followed by the excitement of watching me set it up in the living room, have him more than ready to nap. His eyelids flutter, his small body turning limp and heavy in my arms. His sucking becomes sporadic, then ceases, the nipple barely caught between slack lips curved in the barest hint of baby bliss.

I should get up off this couch, tuck Will in his crib and straighten up the apartment before Scully gets home. The tree is meant to be a surprise, after all, and I'd hate to have the effect spoiled by the chaotic jumble of toys and boxes.

You see, Scully is the epitome of the Christmas spirit. She floods the apartment with nonstop music (basically the same fifteen carols redone by every artist known to mankind), scours malls for the latest and greatest gifts for her nephews, and makes cookies--even if they're only the slice-and-bake kind in a tube. Her Christmas tree goes up the day after Thanksgiving and doesn't come down until Epiphany.

This year, however, has been challenging. Hurricane Will blew into our lives, turning them upside down, and the dust still hasn't settled. Oddly enough, I think adjusting to parenthood has been harder on Scully than me. After all, my life has never been particularly routine. As a child, threads of instability and upheaval wove their way into the fabric of my daily existence--Sam's abduction, my father's downward spiral into alcoholism, my mother's emotional withdrawal.

Working for the FBI hasn't helped. As a star profiler in the BSU, I kept a spare suit and an overnight bag in my trunk at all times, never knowing when I might be dispatched to view a crime scene on a moment's notice. There were occasions when I couldn't have told you if it was day or night, let alone what part of the country I was in.

And the X-Files... Well, the Files opened the door to a rarely perceived world that lurks beyond the ironclad barriers of science and nature. A place where rules no longer apply, where reality can't be classified, categorized or easily referenced. Where nothing is definitive or immutable. Not even death.

I guess what I'm saying, is that I've learned not only to survive, but to thrive on a lack of stability. Scully, on the other hand, craves constancy and order. It doesn't even have to be big things. Little ones will do: a hot bath at the end of a stressful day; a mug of tea to sip while she types up an autopsy report; dragging out the Christmas decorations on the day after Thanksgiving.

The past year hasn't exactly been conducive to preserving that sense of stability--for either of us. Scully is struggling to create equilibrium between her career, our marriage, and Will. I can't say I've given her much help. I've been more than a little self-absorbed, still coping with the emotional baggage from my abduction while adjusting to the fact that I'm now unemployed and a father. Considering the circumstances, it's hardly surprising that less than a week before Christmas we still didn't have a tree. In fact, it had never even crossed my mind until last night, when I saw Scully eyeing the box.

She'd had a particularly grueling day at work and Will, in the throes of cutting his first tooth, was cranky and miserable. After countless lullabies, globs of Anbesol, and cold teething rings coupled with a marathon session in the rocking chair, we'd finally coaxed him to sleep and tucked him in bed, too tired to consider anything but the same for ourselves.

Yeah, I remember sex. I think.

I'd stepped into the closet to grab a tee shirt, startled to see her standing in the very back where she stashes the Christmas tree box under a shoe rack. Even with her back turned toward me, I saw her look at it for a long moment, then sigh and reach for her pajamas. I ducked out before she noticed me.

And decided that come hell, high water, little green men, or teething babies, Scully would be sipping hot chocolate in front of the Christmas tree tonight. Not one from a box, but the real thing, filling the apartment with that green woodsy smell you can't package in an aerosol can.

I ease the bottle out of Will's mouth and shift until I'm lying on my back, the baby draped bonelessly across my chest. I carefully turn my head to look at the tree, one hand rubbing absently up and down Will's back to soothe his tiny, mewling sound of protest. There are a few dead bulbs that need to be replaced, and the garland is a bit lopsided in spots, but all in all? It's not a bad job from this rookie. I picture Scully as she walks through the door, and in my mind I can clearly see disbelief blossom into a delighted smile.

Scully-smiles, at one time a rare commodity, come more easily these days. Amazing, considering she has to deal with Will and me on a daily basis: an infant who treats her like the deli around the corner ("Open 24 hours! Immediate seating!") and a once driven, now drifting husband. Two pretty high maintenance guys for a woman who has always valued privacy and personal space.

And there's the stress of a new job. She's teaching Forensics full time at Quantico, turning green agents greener with each slice of her scalpel. She decided to transfer out of the X-Files while still on maternity leave, and she carried out that decision in the inimitable Dana Scully style--without indulging in self-pity or remorse.

I couldn't help fearing that the latter would eventually find her, like a bloodhound sniffing out an elusive quarry. That Scully, a gifted investigator, would come to regret settling for the security and stability of a teaching position. Until last week, when Will and I dropped by unexpectedly to take her to an early lunch. Watching unobserved as she fielded her students' questions--some with passion, others with humor--I experienced an epiphany.

Scully loves teaching. Furthermore, Scully is a wonderful teacher. A truth displayed in her quiet air of confidence and authority; reflected in her audience's rapt, attentive faces. Returning to the classroom has nothing to do with settling. She isn't sacrificing her gifts, just channeling them in a new direction.

Scully is happy. But what's mind-boggling, the most extreme of possibilities, is....

Someone's fingers sift through my hair. Mmm, feels nice. Until the gentle stroking is punctuated by a sharp tug. I gasp and blink up at the blue eyes hovering just above my own.

"Hey, Scully. I was just about to put this guy in bed."

I'm treated to the eyebrow. "You were sleeping, Mulder."

"Nope. I was meditating on a few of life's great mysteries."

She runs her index finger across the corner of my mouth and I'm suddenly aware of a damp spot beneath my cheek. "Do you always drool when meditating?"

"A sign of my ability to ignore the physical body as I attain a higher state of consciousness."

"Uh-huh. And I suppose that snoring I heard was a mantra."

Before I can compose an equally smartass retort, she has me in a liplock, her tongue practically tickling my tonsils. When she eventually breaks the kiss--to the outraged screams from certain portions of my anatomy--she tips her head in the direction of my masterpiece.

"Thank you."

I sit up slowly, careful not to jostle Will, who sucks reflectively on his tongue for a moment and then resumes drooling on my shirt. Must be genetic.

"You're welcome."

Scully slips off her shoes and jacket before joining me on the couch with a soft but contented grunt. She leans over and kisses Will's cheek, murmuring barely audible endearments into his ear, then settles back with her head nestled against my shoulder. She smells faintly of shampoo and the cold winter wind, and even rumpled after a long day, she looks sleek and sexy in a black skirt that hugs all her curves. I'm suddenly acutely aware that these jeans have seen better days and my tee shirt smells of sweat and sour milk.

We sit in peaceful silence for several minutes while I enjoy Scully enjoying the tree.

"Agent Reyes called me today."

"Really. What did she want?" I'm a little amazed to find I don't have to fake ambivalence.

"They just filed a 302 on a case that sounds remarkably similar to an X-File we investigated a couple years ago. She had a few questions about our suspect, since he was never apprehended." Scully pauses, giving me a chance to ask the question. When I don't take the bait, she adds, "Greg Pincus."

Ouch. Now there's a memory for you.

"I'd love to have heard that conversation." I can feel Scully's eyes dissecting my expression, but I keep my own on the tree.

"Actually, she was hoping to speak to you. She just wanted to know if you'd be receptive to the idea."

"What did you tell her?"

"That I've never known you to be reticent when it comes to discussing an X-File."

I can't help grinning. "But Sculleee. I don't have my slide projector."

"Improvise. We both know you're good at that." Her voice drops into a low, deliberately sultry tone that has me calculating how much longer Will might sleep.

"Do you miss it?"

Way to kill the mood, Scully.

"Do you?"

"Flying all over the country at a moment's notice, fleabag motels, trips to the emergency room..."

"Wait a minute. We weren't injured that often."

"Mulder, I exchange Christmas cards with several nurses from Georgetown Medical."

"So you don't miss it."

"I didn't say that. It's true, there are aspects to working on the X-Files that I'm just as happy to put behind me. Working with you is not one of them."

"Nice save, Scully."

"Nice job dodging the question, Mulder."

I'd be happy to give her an answer--if I had one.

When I was released from the hospital after doing my Lazarus imitation, I hit the ground running. I had no clear memories of what had happened to me during my abduction, but the occasional flashbacks scared the hell out of me. I didn't want to think about steel hooks embedded in my face and metal rods driven through the bones in my arms. And I certainly didn't want to mull over the implications of spending three months in a coffin, six feet underground. For my own sanity, I forced myself to focus without, not within.

Scully's pregnancy. Alien replicants. Corruption within the Bureau. Oddly enough, it was safe ground.

After Will's birth everything caught up with me. It might have been caused by something as big as my terror during the moments when I felt certain I'd lost them both. Or something as small as holding my son in my arms. Whatever the catalyst, the backlash from the previous six months knocked me off my feet. I'm still struggling to stand up and dust myself off.

I don't know what I want anymore.

Can you believe it? Fox Mulder--obsessive, single-minded, driven--doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up.

What I do know is that my highest priority is no longer preventing alien colonization or unmasking government conspiracies. I won't endanger Will, or have Scully destroyed by the loss of her child. Not even for my precious truth.

So for now I've found an unexpected peace in bottles and diapers. In seeing my son's smile when I walk into the room and hearing his squeal when I push him on a swing. And I'm trying hard not to feel guilty as hell about it.

Scully plucks the hand from Will's back and wriggles her fingers between mine. "You know, Mulder, it's all right to be happy. Remember what you said to me in Bellefleur? We've both paid our dues."

Not just a crack investigator, the woman's a mind reader, too.

I turn my head toward her, so close my nose nearly brushes hers. "You think?"

She chuffs, her laughter whispering across my cheek. "I know. Just like I know you won't be content to do the Mr. Mom routine indefinitely. The truth will still be out there, Mulder. It's not going anywhere."

She stands and stretches, exposing a tantalizing amount of thigh through a slit in the side of her skirt. "I, however, am going to the bedroom to change my clothes. And if the lack of activity in the kitchen is any indication, I'll be calling my friend, the pizza man." She bends over and kisses Will, then me. "If you manage to slip him in bed without waking him, there'll be pizza for two by the Christmas tree."

"Most people drink hot chocolate by the Christmas tree, Scully."

The eyebrow again, as she heads for the bedroom. "We've never been most people, Mulder."

Can't argue with that logic.

And if I'm really lucky, Will just might sleep through the night. Then Scully and I could share more than a pizza in front of the Christmas tree.

Walking my son to his crib, I realize I'm humming again. This time I go with the flow.


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