Fox Mulder hated Christmas. He hated everything about the Season - the crowded stores, the gaudy decorations, the blinding lights, the trite music blaring from speakers everywhere he went. The same music that seemed to have been playing non-stop since Labor Day. He stalked through the corridors of the Hoover building, glowering at everyone who had the nerve to wish him a Merry Christmas. Stepping into the elevator, he jabbed at the button for the basement and glared at the speakers as they disgorged a tinny variation of "Silent Night", muttering dire imprecations under his breath.
"Afternoon, Mulder," Scully said cheerfully as he entered their office. "How did the budget meeting go?"
He scowled as he sat down in his chair. "About how you'd expect - no one was paying attention to anything but the clock, wondering how early the offices are going to shut down today. You'd think that getting a day off for the holiday would be enough for these people without them wanting to stretch it into another day."
"The nerve of them," Scully said, rolling her eyes at her partner's grumpiness.
Mulder glared at her but the phone ringing interrupted any other comments. He snatched it up and barked into it. "Mulder."
"Agent Mulder." Mulder winced - Skinner sounded a little surlier than usual. "The offices are now officially closing, and the Christmas party is beginning in the cafeteria. Would you please inform Agent Scully?"
"Of course, sir."
"I know better than to ask if you'll be attending the party, Agent Mulder," Skinner said with a sigh. "However, you will be leaving the office early today and will not return till Monday."
"But - "
"That's an order, Agent Mulder. Oh, and Merry Christmas."
Mulder hung up the phone. "Merry Fucking Christmas to you, too, sir." He glared over at his snickering partner. "What are you laughing at? Don't you have some egg nog to go spike?"
Scully smiled and stood up. "Come on, Mulder. It'll be fun. It's Christmas."
"Why should spending an hour drinking and socializing with people I can't stand be any more fun today than any other time of the year?"
"Fine. Suit yourself." Scully paused in the doorway. "I’m going to leave afterward – got some shopping to do still since I’m playing Santa to Charlie’s kids.”
“Aren’t they a little old to believe in Santa still? What are they – six? seven?”
“Since when is anyone too old to believe?” Scully asked, raising her eyebrow. “You’re always encouraging me to believe in things.”
“Unexplained phenomena, Scully. That’s a lot different than believing in something drummed up by a soda company and adopted by merchandisers so they can increase their revenues.”
“You’d have me tell Charlie's kids that there isn’t a Santa? Ruin their Christmas?”
Mulder shrugged. “They’re going to learn that the world isn’t magical someday. They might as well learn now and get accustomed to disappointment.”
Scully sighed. “Right. Well, I’m going on upstairs. Oh, in case you’re not here when I get back, Mom wanted me to remind you that you're still invited over for dinner tomorrow afternoon."
"Tell your Mom thanks but no thanks."
"All right, Scrooge. Merry Christmas."
"Bah, Humbug," Mulder muttered under his breath, turning back to the files on his desk.
He was absorbed in a case involving a possible poltergeist when suddenly the lights in the office went off. Startled, he looked up into the blackness and groped in his desk drawer for a flashlight but it seemed to be missing. He swore and got up to try to find Scully's desk, but the sound of the door opening made him swing around and stare towards it.
"Scully? Is that you?"
A strange sound came from the hallway and he stared towards the open doorway, his heart starting to race. An unearthly sort of glowing light seemed to be coming closer, along with a soft moan and the sound of some object on wheels approaching. As he watched, a slight figure in a white hospital gown came through the open door, one hand grasping a tall metal pole from which a drip bag hung. With a start, he recognized the figure as his partner, but she bore little resemblance to the woman who had just left the office. This woman was thin, gaunt faced and pale white, with dark circles under her eyes, and her thin hand seemed unequal to the task of holding her upright as it clutched the pole.
"Scully?" he asked hesitantly. "Is that - is that you?"
The ghastly figure drew in a deep breath and said, with a flatness of tone, "In life I was your partner, Dana Scully."
"What do you mean 'in life'? You're not - Scully's not dead."
"Part of me died," the ghostly Scully said, moving closer to him and he backed away uneasily.
"OK, Scully, I fell for your little joke but you can take off the costume and make up."
She ignored him. "You will be visited by three pairs of spirits, one from the past, one from the present, and one from the future."
Mulder’s mouth twisted and he leaned back against his desk, crossing his arms. "Of course. This script has been done, Scully - and much better than this."
Scully's specter glared at him and he reflected that even as a specter, her Look was deadly. "Listen to them, see what they have to show you, and learn from them. In this way alone will you be spared."
"Spared? Spared from what?"
The figure shook her head and moved back through the doorway. "More I cannot say. Farewell, Mulder."
"Scully? What in the hell - come back!" The door swung shut behind her and, a moment later, the lights came back on. He ran to the door, jerking it open and running into the hallway. The specter or prankster or whatever it was no longer was there.
Slowly, he walked back into his office and sat down in his chair, frowning. Someone's idea of a joke, he thought. Scully had gotten the Gunmen in on it, no doubt. They were probably having a big laugh at his expense right about now.
Mulder picked up the file he had been working on and tried to concentrate on the words, but they seemed to blur before his eyes. He put the file down again and rubbed his eyes, realizing for the first time how exhausted he was. He thought that he would close his eyes, just for a few minutes, to give them a rest before getting back to work.
Within minutes, he was sound asleep.
Drifting up from a fog of sleep, he was vaguely aware of two male voices in his office, apparently in the midst of a disagreement.
"I don't know, Master. I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Relax, Obi-Wan, and concentrate on the moment."
"At the moment, I'm considering that this mission will be impossible. Have you seen the condition of this room? If the man’s mind is even half as disorganized as his office, we'll have little hope of reaching him."
"Do not be concerned with external appearances, Padawan. We are concerned with his soul, not his environment. After all, we are Jedi Knights, not Jedi Housekeepers - or miracle workers."
Mulder opened his eyes and then wished that he hadn't. A young man wearing some kind of RenFair garb with an even stranger haircut than his own was prowling around his office poking into everything. In the middle of the room, an older man wearing similar clothing was apparently meditating - while hovering about three feet off the ground in the lotus position. Mulder nearly fell off his chair in surprise.
The older man seemed to have heard him for his eyes opened and he smiled at Mulder. "Ah, you are awake, Mr. Mulder. Good. We have much to do and little time."
"Who the hell are you?" Mulder demanded. "How did you get in here?"
"I am Qui-Gon Jinn, Jedi Knight, and this is my apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi," the elder man said, floating down to the floor and fluidly rising to his feet. "We are the first of the spirits that have been foretold you."
"You are the Ghosts of Christmas Past?" Mulder asked in disbelief.
"Well, technically we're Spirits from a Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Away so we don't have your custom of Christmas," Qui-Gon Jinn said with a shrug.
"But from a certain point of view, you are correct," added the younger man. "We've come to help you examine your innermost feelings, to learn why you hate this particular time of the year."
"I can tell you why I hate it," Mulder growled. "All the commercialization, all the noise, all the phony expressions of love and caring. I hate it all."
"But it wasn't always so," Qui-Gon said and waved his hand. "There was a time when you loved Christmas."
Mulder felt his brain fogging and murmured, "Yes. There was a time when I loved Christmas."
Obi-Wan scowled at the older Jedi. "Master, that's cheating. Master Yoda said specifically that you weren't to use the Jedi-Mind-Trick on this mission. We're supposed to convince this man by showing him scenes from his childhood."
Qui-Gon sighed. "But that's been done before."
"Oh, all right, Padawan," the older Jedi said grumpily. "But, just for arguing with me, you can forget about the mind-blowing sex tonight when we get back to the Temple."
Mulder blinked and shook his head. No, he couldn't have heard that right. On the other hand, as he watched as the younger man rubbed himself up against Qui-Gon and look up at him through his eyelashes, he thought that maybe he had.
"Well, maybe just once. But oral sex is definitely out."
"Yes, Master," Obi-Wan purred. Qui-Gon waved his hand again and the three of them were suddenly standing on a snowy hilltop. Mulder blinked and looked around him, dazed.
"Tell me, Mr. Mulder," Qui-Gon said, "Do you know this place?"
"Know it?" Mulder asked, looking around him, bewildered. "Of course I do. I was a boy here."
“You were very fond of Christmas at that time.”
Mulder shrugged. “I was a kid. All kids love Christmas – no school, eating candy till you’re sick, lots of presents. Of course, there were the stupid gifts like socks and underwear from my aunt – “
“I know all about stupid gifts,” Obi-Wan muttered, glaring sideways at Qui-Gon.
“It wasn’t only those things that made Christmas special,” Qui-Gon said hastily, avoiding his apprentice’s eyes. “Look!”
Laughter rang out through the air, children’s laughter, and several small figures appeared over the top of the hill towing sleds behind them. The tall boy in the middle of the other children was laughingly fending off “firsties” demands as the smaller ones hopped up and down in excitement.
“That was you, I believe,” Obi-Wan said, gesturing towards the boy. “You were very popular it appears.”
Mulder smiled a little in memory. “They liked me to push them off so they’d go all the way down the hill.” He watched in silence for a few minutes as the young Fox got each child settled on their sleds and gave them a push.
“My turn, Fox,” a little pig-tailed girl demanded, hopping on one foot. “I want to go next.”
“All right, Sammie,” the boy laughed, sitting down on his sled and making a place for the smaller girl in front of him.
“Samantha,” Mulder murmured, his throat tight.
“Your sister,” Qui-Gon said softly. “You were very close, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” Mulder said hoarsely, his eyes locked on the pair as the young Fox tightened his legs around the smaller girl and pushed them off. Peels of laughter echoed back at him and he watched the sled skim down the hill before coming to rest at the bottom. The smaller figure jumped up with demands to go again and he smiled mistily. “She wouldn’t ride with anyone else, only me.” He watched the pair climb back up to the top, the little girl dancing in her excitement, talking the whole time.
“You’re sure he’ll come tonight, Fox?” the child asked anxiously. “Cross your heart and hope to die.”
“Cross my heart,” Fox replied. “Of course, you have to be in bed sound asleep or Santa won’t leave any presents.”
The little girl looked anxiously at the sky. “Is it going to be night soon?”
The boy laughed. “Hours and hours yet, Sammie. You want another ride?” She agreed and off they went again.
Mulder could feel the younger Jedi’s eyes on him and heard him ask, “Isn’t she a little old to believe in Santa Claus? What is she – seven?”
“Six,” Mulder said softly.
“And you encouraged her,” Qui-Gon added. “You knew that there was no such thing and you lied to her.”
“It wasn’t a lie. I just encouraged her to keep believing in something that made her happy.”
Obi-Wan shrugged and said mockingly, “She’s going to learn that the world isn’t magical someday. She might as well learn now and get accustomed to disappointment.”
Mulder flushed, hearing his words parroted back at him. “Do we have to stay here? Don’t you have some Sith to go fight somewhere?”
“You’re right,” Qui-Gon said briskly. “Our time grows short and we have one more scene to show you.”
“Don’t go to any trouble on my account,” Mulder said hastily. “In fact, you can just drop me off at my office and be on your way.”
The older Jedi ignored him, waving his hand. The snowy landscape changed around them and Mulder found himself inside a building. More specifically, inside his old dorm room at the boarding school he had attended in Boston after Samantha’s disappearance. His stomach tightened in a knot.
“Why are we here?” he demanded. “The place is deserted – everyone’s gone home for the holidays.”
“No, not everyone,” Obi-Wan said, gesturing towards the window where a lone figure sat. “There is one child that remains behind.”
“I don’t want to see this,” Mulder said tightly. “Take me home.”
Qui-Gon walked over to the boy, placing his hands on the thin shoulders of the child staring wistfully out the window at the children playing on the hill. “Abandoned by his parents who are too wrapped up in their own problems to see their son’s unhappiness, forgotten by his friends, he sits here alone.”
“He deserves to be alone,” Mulder said harshly.
“No one deserves to be alone,” Obi-Wan said softly. Mulder thought that the two men’s eyes met across the room but he couldn’t be certain in the dim light.
“I screwed up. I let them take my sister.” Mulder closed his eyes tightly against the sudden pain in his heart. “Samantha was crying out for me and I froze.”
“You must not blame yourself,” Qui-Gon said, turning away from the boy and suddenly they were back in Mulder’s office. “You did the best you could. Your sister would not want you to feel this way.”
“My parents blamed me,” Mulder said bitterly. “My family fell apart after that. Nothing was ever the same again.”
"That wasn't your fault either, Mulder," Obi-Wan said gently and Mulder looked up to see that the young man had aged into an old man with white hair and a beard. Looking around, he saw no sign of the other spirit although he thought there was a faint blue outline of a figure behind Obi-Wan. "Your parents made their own choices, and their failures are not your own."
Mulder sat down in his chair, suddenly exhausted, and closed his eyes. "I wish I could believe you."
"Believe me. But more than that, believe in yourself. Trust your feelings, Lu - I mean, Fox." He patted the younger man's arm. “We will be with you – always.”
Mulder managed to nod his head before burying it in his arms and drifting back into sleep. And through his dreams rang the merry laughter of children.
Mulder was trying to ignore the voices pounding their way into his head. There was no ignoring one of the voices, though, an enthusiastically cheerful voice that was going a mile a minute in ecstatic comment about one of the articles on his board.
"This is just so cool, man! I've heard about sightings like this but I've never actually seen one. You know, some of the natives in the Andes have oral traditions stretching back hundreds of years about people coming from the stars - "
"Easy, Professor. We're not here on one of your academic side-trips - we're supposed to be helping this Fed get his life straightened out. Although why we should bother is beyond me. Look at this place - it's worse than your office."
"That's low, Jim. And a disorganized office is a sign of a creative mind."
"Yeah, well I'll give you that one, Chief. You're definitely creative."
A soft laugh tickled Mulder's ears. "Yeah? I didn't hear any complaints about my creativity this morning. If I remember correctly, all I heard were moans and begging - "
"I was not begging, Sandburg."
"Oh, you were definitely begging, Jim. And you screamed."
"Okay - but at least it wasn't a girly scream."
The other man laughed. "You are so full of shit, man."
Mulder propped his head up on his hands and stared at the two men standing on the other side of his desk. One was taller with short hair and muscles and reminded him of his boss, and the other was shorter with long hair. Both were locked in an embrace that looked like its purpose was severe oxygen deprivation. He cleared his throat.
"Excuse me - but who the hell are you?"
They separated, reluctantly it seemed, and the taller man said, "Detective Jim Ellison, Cascade P.D., and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg."
"We're the spirits of Christmas Present," the younger man said helpfully. "And I've got to tell you that this is just about the coolest thing I've ever done."
Mulder rubbed his temples. "And you're going to do what? Drag me all over town and show me what I'm missing due to my lack of Christmas spirit?"
Ellison shrugged. "That's the general plan. You got a problem with that, Agent Mulder?"
"Yeah. What if I don't want to go? What if I like things the way they are?"
"Look, friend, I don't make the rules, but the rules say that we have to do this. You don’t like it, you take it up with the guys in the Head office."
"Whoa, Jim," the other man said, moving between the two men and holding up his hands placatingly. "Just settle down. I'm sure that Agent Mulder here is just a little confused - well, who wouldn't be, right?" He turned and smiled at Mulder, holding out his hand. "Hi. Blair Sandburg. Look, I know you have, like, a million things to do that are way more important than this, but the thing is that none of us has much of a choice. So why don't you just relax, let us show you the sights, then we'll all go our separate ways and everyone is happy, right?"
Mulder frowned, trying to follow this conversation with an aching head. "Um - "
"Headache? This spirit traveling will really do it to you," Blair said in a confidential tone of voice. "I've got something here that will help. Drink this." He produced a glass of something that looked revolting.
"Um - no, thanks." He found himself holding the glass and took a cautious sniff. "What is this stuff?"
"An algae shake. Guaranteed to take care of that headache. Go on - drink it."
Mulder drank, trying not to breathe while he did so. Surprisingly, after the first swallow he realized that it didn't taste half-bad. He drained the glass, realizing that he felt lighter and somehow happier than he had before drinking. "Hey - what is this stuff?" he asked, bemused.
"Christmas Cheer," Blair said with a grin. "Been a while since you had some, huh?"
Mulder drew in a deep breath, savoring the sensations that flowed through him. "About thirty years." He knew he should be sad at that thought but somehow he just couldn't be. In fact, he suddenly wanted to giggle.
"Sandburg - "
"Relax, Jim - there aren't any illegal substances in it. Some herbs, some spices, a little laughter, a lot of unselfish thoughts, a touch of kindness. Standard recipe."
Mulder sat on the corner of his desk, holding out the glass. "Can I have more?"
"One glass to the customer," Ellison said, hauling him off the desk. "We've got a lot of ground to cover. All right, Sandburg, do your thing."
“Okay, everyone close your eyes and breathe deeply. In and out. Just relax. And – we’re here.”
Mulder opened his eyes to find that he was standing in the middle of the Scully living room. In front of him was a beautiful tree, decorated with lights and ornaments and tinsel. Piled around the tree were gifts and three small bodies were stretched out on the floor in front of the tree, staring at the packages as if by sheer will power they would be able to see through the paper to the presents below. From the kitchen behind him came a multitude of delicious scents all piled one on top of the other and from the fireplace came a heat that seemed to fill him with warmth from his toes to his head – or maybe it was a residual effect of the algae shake.
The patio door burst open with a whirl of cold air, and a tall redheaded man entered laden down with armloads of wood. He dumped his burden in the log rack beside the fire and quickly shed his coat. Mulder didn’t recognize him but the family resemblance made him think that it must be Scully’s brother Charlie.
“Mom! I’ve brought in enough wood to last till next Christmas. And I’m starving,” Charlie said plaintively. “Are we almost ready to eat?”
Mrs. Scully came out of the kitchen, smiling and shaking her head. “It’ll be another hour. We have to wait for Dana – she’ll be here shortly. Here’s something to hold you over till then.”
She held out a plate of gingerbread and the man’s face lit up like a little boy’s as he helped himself. “Is she bringing her partner this year?” Charlie asked. “You know, as much as you guys talk about him, I have yet to see him – I don’t think he exists.”
Mulder grinned at that, remembering that he had thought the same thing about Charles Scully. At that moment, the front door burst open and Scully came in with an armload of packages.
"Merry Christmas, everyone!" she called out, surrendering the presents to Charlie.
"Aunt Dana!" Three little bodies hurled themselves at her. "Aunt Dana, he came! He came just like you said he would!"
Scully went down on one knee, cuddling the little bodies. "Of course he did! Would I lie to you?"
"Can we open them now?" the little girl asked eagerly. "Can we?"
"You'll have to ask your grandmother that," Scully laughed. She stood back up and went to hug her mother. "Hi, Mom."
"Dana." Mrs. Mulder embraced her warmly. "I was starting to worry - the roads are getting bad. You may have to stay the night."
"I threw in an overnight bag, just in case." She let go of her mother and hugged her brother. "Charlie, it's so good to see you. Where's Jean?"
"In the kitchen finishing up the pies," Mrs. Scully said. "And I need to get back in there, too. We'll open the presents after lunch, children." She ignored the collective groans from the younger ones. "So Mulder decided not to come again this year?"
"No," Scully said with a sigh as she perched on the back of the couch. "I hate the thought of him alone in his apartment, year after year, but what can I do?"
"Give up," Charlie said practically. "You're never going to change his mind and he's bound to get mad sooner or later."
She shook her head. "No, I won't do that. I mean to keep asking him each year, whether he likes it or not. He may swear at Christmas until he dies, but I won't give up on him."
"Well, you inherited your father's stubbornness, at any rate," said Mrs. Scully with a laugh. "And we'll keep asking Fox to join us." She disappeared back into the kitchen.
Blair looked over at Mulder speculatively. "Sounds as if they mean it, Mulder. You gonna to keep turning them down?"
"Don't pester the man, Sandburg," Ellison said, crossing his arms as he leaned against the wall and studied Mulder. "Why should he spending hours drinking and socializing with people he can't stand during the rest of the year?"
"It's not like that," Mulder protested. "I like Scully's mother a lot."
"You have a funny way of showing it, Mulder," Ellison said dryly. "She's been asking you for the past five years, and you've turned her down every year."
Mulder flushed. "I'm not very good company at this time of year."
"Hell, they're not asking for a stand-up comedian, Mulder," Blair pointed out. "They want you. Warts and all."
"Well, they're just about the only ones that do - "
He blinked. The world had shifted again and he stood in another living room, a different one. Mulder looked around him, puzzled. "Where am I now?"
Ellison was still leaning up against the wall. "You don't recognize the place? You've been here before this."
Mulder looked around and realized that he was standing in Skinner's apartment. "A.D. Skinner's apartment. What are we doing here?"
"Wait and see."
Mulder looked around, surprised at the sight of the small Christmas tree in the corner of the room in front of the patio doors. Somehow he hadn't pictured Skinner as celebrating the holidays, not since his marriage ended. He moved closer to the tree, touching the old-fashioned ornaments hanging there, smiling to himself at the precise orderliness of their placement. Unbidden memories sprang to mind of the Mulder family tree, decorated in a haphazard way by two enthusiastic children and enhanced with hand-made decorations brought home from school. He glanced over at his two spirit companions and, seeing that they weren't paying attention to him at the moment, rearranged some of the ornaments.
A step on the stairs drew his attention away from the tree, and he looked around to see Walter Skinner enter the room. A low whistle escaped his lips as he took in the full picture of a freshly showered Skinner sketchily attired in pajama bottoms and nothing else, and something stirred deep within Mulder. Memories of another time, Skinner half-dressed, a glance between them that might have been shared feelings if only there hadn't been a third party, an enemy, present. He had gone away to spend the night on his couch, jerking off to the image of a half-naked Skinner. Desire reared its head, a desire that he was all too familiar with but which he had ruthlessly suppressed for years, and made his suit pants suddenly tight.
"Nice, huh?" asked Blair with a grin. "Ow!" He turned his head and glared at Ellison. "What was that for?"
"You're taken, Chief," Ellison growled back.
"Yeah, well, just because I'm committed doesn't mean I'm blind."
Mulder barely heard them, his whole attention focused on the man moving through his apartment in an obvious locking up ritual. Doors locked and chained, windows checked, coffee machine set up for the morning - all the little rituals that he could have predicted. Handgun carried over to be locked into its drawer and more memories flared up. He almost missed seeing Skinner pull something out of the drawer, a picture of some sort. The older man stared at it for a long moment before sighing and putting it back into the drawer, locking both it and the weapon away.
Skinner continued on his ritual, turning off the lamps and then the tree lights. Mulder watched him pause, frowning, and put the disordered ornaments back into their places. He grinned to himself and turned back to his spirit guides.
"Okay, where now - " He stopped as he realized that Blair was following Skinner up the stairs with Ellison behind him. "Guys, come on! What has watching Skinner sleep got to do with Christmas?"
"We're not going to watch him sleep," Blair said, gesturing towards the bed. Time had somehow collapsed and Skinner was already in bed. The older man was lying on his back, sheets and blankets thrown back, one hand stroking lazily across his chest while the other moved downward -
"Shit!" Mulder turned his back on the bed and its occupant, feeling his face heat up. "We are not going to stand here and watch Skinner - um - "
"Masturbate?" Ellison asked, a wicked gleam in his eyes as his voice taunted Mulder. "Choke the chicken? Grease the pole?"
"Don’t you guys have rules about this sort of thing?"
"We're spirits, Mulder," Blair explained patiently. "Not angels."
"This is perverted!"
"You know, in some cultures it's perfectly natural for men to masturbate in public," Blair said, gearing up to give an academic spiel.
"This isn't one of those cultures!"
"Lighten up, Mulder," Ellison said, leaning against the wall and drawing his partner back against his chest. "He doesn't know we're here. Besides, that kind of equipment deserves a public exhibition."
Draw against his will by that comment, Mulder turned his head to take a quick look and then couldn't turn away. The older man's skin glistened with sweat in the low light, his head thrown back and his breath coming in gasps. His hand moved rapidly over what Mulder had to agree was an impressive erection. It was the most beautifully erotic picture Mulder had ever seen, making everything in his extensive collection of videos look cheap by comparison. Walter Skinner was certainly anything but cheap. He was fire and earth, he was passion incarnate, he was a sensual god worshipping his body in a way that made Mulder want to drop to his knees and offer to be the man's acolyte for life. Then the man was at the crest of his passion, arching into the intense sensations, crying out in his release with one word that spoke of lust and longing and love.
Mulder was out of the room and down the staircase in a flash, and when his companions joined him he was rattling the locked table drawer, trying to force it open. He glanced at them, his expression fierce as he snapped, "Open it! I want to see that damned picture! Open this now!"
Ellison's eyes met his for a long moment, ice blue meeting molten green, and then the spirit made a gesture. The drawer popped open and Mulder pulled it wider, grabbing the picture inside and turning it over. It was a picture of himself, caught unaware in a rare moment the previous summer when Scully had dragged him to the damned office picnic. His head was thrown back and he was laughing at something with an unlit cigar in his mouth, looking years younger and almost carefree.
"Mulder? Come on, Mulder, come back to us. Follow my voice."
He looked up, dazed, and saw the younger man leaning over him, concern on his face. It suddenly registered in his brain that he was sitting on his ass on Walter Skinner's living room floor, clutching a picture to his chest while tears streamed down his face. He drew in a deep, ragged breath, and dragged a sleeve across his face.
"You okay, man?" Blair asked in concern.
"Sorry," he murmured. He pushed himself to his feet carefully, feeling as if a sudden movement might make him crack in two. Ellison took the picture from him and closed the drawer again, and Mulder found himself talking to the big cop. "I never knew," he murmured. "He never said - there was never any sign. I mean, he's this big ex-Marine - "
Ellison nodded, his face reflecting understanding. "Yeah, well, don't believe everything you see on the surface. Sometimes it's the big, tough guys that need to be loved the most." He glanced over at his partner and his face softened perceptively. "And you can take that from one who's been there."
Blair slid an arm around his partner, his face serious as he spoke to Mulder. "Things can change, Mulder, but only if you want them to change. You'll have to make the first move. But I promise you, it's worth taking a little risk." He grinned. "Just open yourself up to extreme possibilities."
Mulder blinked, hearing the voices echo around him as suddenly the world shifted again. He was back in his basement.
This time when he heard the next voices, he was awake but staring broodingly at his file cabinet. The room was suddenly filled with an odd humming sound and when he looked around he saw two men emerging from the light like mist solidifying. He stared and swallowed hard, forcing himself to stand up.
"Are you - " His voice was shaky and he cleared his throat, trying again. "Are you the third set of spirits that I was told to expect?" The two men exchanged a look and the taller, blond-haired man nodded slowly. "You are the - Spirits of Christmas Yet to Come, then?" The other man, dark haired with an unusual mark on his forehead, nodded once. "You are going to show me images of things that haven't happened but which might happen?"
The blond man shrugged and gave him a half-grin. "That's the general plan. So let's get on with it - I've got a hot date between some cool sheets."
"Tom," the other man said, reproof in his voice. "I don't think this man is interested in hearing about our personal life."
"Oh, God, not you two, too?" Mulder groaned, collapsing into his chair. "Are all the spirits gay?"
The two spirits exchanged puzzled looks and then the blond said, cautiously, "Well, not all of them are particularly joyous but for the most part they're pretty content."
"That's not what I mean," Mulder said impatiently. "I meant - you know - light in the loafers." As he saw them look down at their boots with perplexed expressions he snapped, "Oh, never mind! If we're going to do this, let's get going, all right?"
"Of course," the dark haired man said. "I'm Commander Chakotay, and this is Lieutenant Tom Paris."
"Right," Mulder said skeptically. "And I'm Spock."
Chakotay frowned. "No, you're Agent Fox Mulder."
"You don't have the right skin tone for a Vulcan," Paris said helpfully. "Not to mention the pointed ears."
"I had them as a child," Mulder murmured, as another memory rose to the surface of his mind. "Before Samantha - "
The two men exchanged another look and then the blond said, "O- kay." He stepped closer and ran some kind of whirring gizmo up and down in front of Mulder, then turned to the other man and shrugged. "No evidence of recent trauma. Maybe shock from all the traveling he's been doing tonight."
"Is he up for more?" Chakotay asked. "I don't want to lose him halfway into the mission."
"I think he'll be okay. Let's just get this over with so we can all get some rest."
Mulder sighed and stood up. "All right. I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Lead on, spirits."
"If you will join us over here, Mr. Mulder," Chakotay said, gesturing towards a spot.
Mulder stood where indicated muttering, "Beam me up, Mr. Scott," and, for a moment, the world seemed to slide out of focus around him. When he could focus again, he found he was in a dark room where the odor of smoke hung heavily in the air. He coughed, trying to breathe. "Where are we?"
"In one of two possible futures," Paris said briskly. "What you are seeing now is what will happen if events in your life remain unchanged."
Mulder looked around the unfamiliar room. "I don't know this place - " He stopped as a very familiar voice came from another room, and then the smoking man entered, talking into a cell phone.
"No, I don't know much about it. I only know he's dead." He drew on his cigarette, listening to the other person. "Last night. No, I don't know from what - the report hasn't come in yet. I only know that we didn't do it." He listened again, grinding out his cigarette in an overfull ashtray. "What does it matter - surely our job is easier now without his interference." The smoker moved back out of the room and Mulder started to follow him, only to find that his world had shifted again. He tripped over his own couch and fell heavily onto the seat, rubbing his bruised shin.
"What the hell - "
"What should we do with these?" came a voice from the back room, the bedroom that he used for storage instead of sleeping. Langley came through the doorway carrying a box in his arms.
"Just set it on the floor - we'll go through that stuff later."
Mulder turned to stare in surprise at Frohike, sitting at his desk going through the drawers and their contents methodically. "What the hell is this?" he demanded, getting up. "Why are you going through my stuff?"
"They can't hear you, Mr. Mulder," Chakotay reminded him. "You're just a spirit."
"The kitchen is all packed," Byers said, coming into the main room as he dried his hands. "I guess those boxes will go to one of the charities, unless you think she might want them." He jerked his head in the direction of the back room.
"Should we ask?" Langley asked.
Frohike shook his head. "I don't think she can handle it right now. You know, I didn't think she cared one way or another, but seeing her like this - "
"Yeah," Byers said. "Have you talked to Scully today? How's she holding up?"
"About like you'd think." Frohike sighed. "The funeral is tomorrow."
"Whose funeral?" Mulder demanded, turning to the two spirits. "What in hell is going on?" The two men were silent.
"I'll go talk to Mrs. Mulder, take her back to her hotel," Byers said, walking towards the back room. "You think you can finish without me?"
"Sure," Langley said, looking around. "Not much left to do."
"Yeah," Frohike said with a muffled voice. "And that's a hell of a thing to say about anyone's life."
Mulder followed Byers into the back room and was surprised to see his mother standing there, an open box before her. He moved closer and saw that it was pictures and clippings from his Oxford years, and he watched her touch the memorabilia with tentative fingers. As Byers entered, she looked up with a tremulous smile and brushed her eyes with her hand.
"The light - hurts my eyes," she said softly.
"Yes, ma'am," he said respectfully. "Mrs. Mulder, you've been at this for a long time. Why don't I take you back to your hotel? Get you some lunch and you can rest for a little bit."
She didn't appear to have heard him. "He was always such a curious little boy. Into everything and asking a million questions. He had to know the answer to everything." She looked at Byers again, tears in her eyes. "We - we won't ever know why, will we?"
"No, ma'am," he said gently. She began sobbing then, and Byers put his arms around her, letting her cry on his shoulder.
"Mom?" Mulder whispered, bewildered and shocked by the sight of his mother weeping over him. "Don't cry, Mom. It's okay - I'm right here." She kept sobbing, leaning on Byers as he led her out of the room.
Mulder swung around to face the spirits. "Tell me the truth - is this what will happen or what might happen?"
Chakotay's voice was even, almost expressionless, as was his face. "If events remain unaltered, then what you see here will come to pass."
"If they remain unaltered," Mulder said quickly. "Then there's a chance to change things, isn't there?" He swung towards Paris. "You said that this was one of two possible futures. The other one - surely it must be a happier one than this. Show it to me, I beg you!"
There was a humming all around him and the world fell apart again. When he came back to awareness, Mulder found he was standing in the middle of an unfamiliar living room. One end of the room was dominated by a large fireplace where a fire crackled merrily. Heavily laden stockings hung from the mantelpiece defying gravity. In front of a large picture window stood an enormous Christmas tree with a mountain of gaily wrapped packages under it.
“What the hell – “ He swung around and found Chakotay sitting on a large sofa. “Where am I?”
“Your house, several years from now in an alternate future,” Chakotay replied.
Paris appeared from around the other side of the tree. “Nice layout. And a lot of these have your name on them. Someone must like you a lot.”
The doorbell rang and a voice from the back of the house called out, “Fox? Can you get that? I’m finishing up the punch.”
I know that voice, he thought with a frown as his tired brain tried to place it.
"Fox - that's you," Paris said helpfully as the doorbell rang again.
"But you said that these people couldn't see me - I'm a spirit like you."
Chakotay shrugged. "Slight change in the script. You've switched spaces with the Mulder of this time temporarily - you're in his body and everyone will see you as him."
Mulder blinked, frowning. "Why can't I remember who that voice belongs to?"
Paris shrugged. "An effect of the transfer process. One of our fellow spirits calls it the 'Swiss-cheese effect'."
"Oh, boy," muttered Mulder, rubbing his head and wishing he had more of that Christmas Cheer. He had a feeling he was going to need it.
The doorbell rang again and the deep voice bellowed, "Fox! Door!"
He sighed and walked over to the door, opening it. He was stunned to see his mother standing on the front step.
This was a totally different woman from the devastated one he had seen just a moment ago. She looked healthier than he could ever remember and she smiled at him and leaned forward to kiss his cheek. “Merry Christmas, Fox. I’ll just put these under the tree. Where’s Walter?”
He gaped at her, trying to come up with an answer, and heard a soft laugh behind her.
“If I know my son, he’s in the kitchen still.” A tall, white-haired woman kissed his cheek. “Merry Christmas, dear. You look exhausted - has he had you polishing the silver since dawn?” Before he could say a word, she followed his mother into the living room. “Walter?” she called, “are you abusing poor Fox again?”
“He likes to be abused, Mother,” came the reply and a tall, balding man emerged from someplace at the back of the house carrying a large bowl of punch which he carefully set down on the large buffet table. He smiled over at Mulder. “Don’t you, Fox?”
Mulder felt like an extra in a Twilight Zone episode. Walter Skinner, that was the man's name, but he was almost sure that he had never seen Skinner looking like this before – no glasses, casual clothes, and a genuine smile on his face. And why was the man calling him Fox? “Um – yes, sir.”
Skinner raised an eyebrow. “You okay, Mulder?”
Before Mulder could reply, a solid weight barreled into his legs. “Uncle Fox!” He looked down to see a dark-haired boy clutching his legs in a death grip. “Did he come? You said he would – did he?”
“How can your uncle talk if you don’t give him a chance?” The tight grip eased, reluctantly, and Mulder swung around to stare at his partner as she entered the house with another load of packages. “Merry Christmas, Mulder.”
Behind him, he heard a squeal of delight as Skinner swooped the little boy up and tickled him. “Stop, Uncle Walter! Stop!” he giggled. Skinner complied and the boy threw his arms around the older man’s neck, hugging him. “Did Santa come like Uncle Fox said?”
“Yes, he came, Tiger, and I think some of the packages have your name on them. Where’s your mom?” he asked as he set down the boy.
“Here,” said a voice from the doorway and Mulder swung around to see a dark-haired woman enter carrying a small girl. “We had a sleepy little girl this morning.”
Skinner crossed the room to take the little girl in his arms. “Here’s my little princess. Are you ready to see what Santa brought you?”
Mulder didn’t know what to gape at more – Skinner practically cooing over the toddler or the familiar-looking woman smiling fondly at them. “Samantha?”
She smiled at him and held out her arms. “Merry Christmas, Fox.”
He hugged her tightly, feeling tears come to his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
She laughed as she hugged him back. “Me, either. Tommy’s been talking non-stop since we left home.”
“Can’t imagine who he takes after,” Scully said dryly. She touched Mulder’s cheek, concern on her face. “You okay, Mulder?”
He drew in a deep breath as he released Samantha, nodding. “Just a little – overwhelmed.”
He felt a warm arm slide around him and a kiss was pressed against his hair. “You know Fox – he gets more excited at Christmas than the kids.”
His whole body seemed to ignite wherever Skinner touched him. “What can I say?” he managed to say. “I’m a kid at heart.” He looked over the assembled group – his mother and sister, Skinner’s mother, and Scully looking on with amusement as the little boy began sorting through the treasures in his stocking while the little girl sucked on a candy cane through its wrapper. He was aware of a deep feeling of contentment and happiness and it brought tears to his eyes again.
A second arm was wrapped around him and a soft voice said, “Penny for your thoughts.”
“Did you ever think how lucky you are?” he managed to say through a tight throat. “Do you ever wonder what it would be like if things were – different?”
A soft chuckle. “You mean if you hadn’t shown up unexpectedly that Christmas Eve and seduced me in my living room?”
“Yeah.” He hazarded a comment. “Took you long enough to catch on.”
Sharp teeth nipped his earlobe. “Give me a break, Mulder. One minute you were admiring my tree, the next you had your tongue down my throat. Of course I was stunned – but it didn’t take me long to get you naked and in my bed.” The mental picture of that made him gasp and he could feel his body respond. So could Skinner apparently and he said in a teasing tone, “I see I have another present to unwrap – later.”
“Uncle Walter, are you two going to do that mushy stuff all morning,” the little boy said disapprovingly. “Or are we going to open presents?”
Skinner chuckled and gave Mulder a last squeeze. “Well, if your Uncle Fox wouldn’t keep standing under the mistletoe – “
“Time to return, Mulder,” Chakotay’s voice called.
“Not yet,” Mulder muttered and turned in the arms holding him. He pulled the other man's face to his own, kissing him with all the desperation of his lonely heart. After a moment of surprise, Skinner returned his kiss and Mulder could hear his blood pounding, feel the warm mouth under his.
“Mulder, it’s time to go,” Paris said.
Mulder clutched at Skinner, unwilling to let go, nearly sobbing as he felt the other man become insubstantial under his fingers. “No! Not yet! Please!”
“Mulder – “
“I don’t want to return yet!” he protested.
“Wake up! Come on, Partner – time to rise and shine.”
Mulder sat up and blinked his eyes and found he was once more in his office. He looked around him vaguely, not sure where or when he was. “Where’s Paris?”
“In France, last time I checked,” his partner’s voice said dryly. “Come on, Mulder. Time to go home.”
“But – but they were here a minute ago,” he said in confusion.
“Who were here?”
“Spirits. And you were here, too. Only - different.”
Scully rolled her eyes. “Didn’t we already do this scene? If you tell me you love me, I will slug you this time.” She held up a coat. “Come on, Mulder. You need to get some sleep – at home, not on your desk.”
Mulder silently slipped on his coat and followed Scully out into the hallway, watching her lock up, thinking about all that he had been through. Suddenly the idea of spending the holiday in his cold, empty apartment was less tolerable than ever. They rode up in the elevator in silence and then, as they left the building, Mulder said, “Scully, is that invitation for tomorrow afternoon at your mom’s still open?”
Scully turned to look at him in surprise. “Of course, Mulder. Then you’ll come?”
He nodded. “Okay if I bring someone with me?”
Scully had started towards her car but now she stopped dead. “You mean a date? You’re seeing someone, Mulder?”
“Not yet,” he said, giving her a half-smile. “But there’s a good chance that’ll change tonight.”
Scully looked at him in concern, touching his forehead with the back of her hand. “Mulder, are you okay? You didn’t hit your head, did you? Eat or drink anything strange?”
Mulder laughed and pushed her hands away. “Just a little Christmas Cheer, Scully. See you tomorrow afternoon. And Merry Christmas, partner.”
Mulder stood in the hallway, his heart hammering in his chest, feeling oddly lightheaded. The door opened and Skinner stared at him in surprise.
“Merry Christmas, Sir.” He held out the gaily wrapped and beribboned box. “A little present for you. My way of saying thanks for everything you do for us.”
Skinner looked at him, obviously perplexed, but took the package and gestured for him to come in. Mulder wandered into the living room, glancing at the desk with a brief smile before going to stand in front of the tree. He heard Skinner unwrap the box and turned to see the older man staring at the bottle in its velvet bag.
"Scotch is your favorite, isn’t it, sir? The clerk said this was the best single malt.”
“It is,” Skinner said, his voice stunned. “It’s – Mulder, this is too much – “
“Not for you, Walter,” he said, moving closer. “Although maybe you should set it down so it doesn’t get broken.”
“Why?” Skinner said suspiciously, setting it down. “What are you going to do?”
“This.” Mulder pulled the other man closer, his mouth moving to claim Skinner’s. After a stunned moment, he felt the response in the large, warm body he clutched, felt those warm arms encircle him. This kiss was even better than the first one, heady and intense and completely real.
It was the need to breathe again that made him release Skinner, and he heard the man draw a shaky breath.
Mulder grinned. “Yeah?”
“What the hell is this about?”
The words may have been gruff but Mulder could feel the other man’s pounding heart and the hardness of the groin pressed against his. “I’m thanking you for my Christmas present.”
“But – I haven’t given you anything.”
Mulder leaned back and smiled at the puzzled man. “Oh, yes, you have – you just don’t realize it yet.”
Skinner gave up trying to understand and pulled Mulder back against him. “Merry Christmas, Mulder.”
“Merry Christmas, Walter. And God bless us every one.”