I always feel like the theme from "Star Wars" should play every time you have to read one of these tedious pieces of boilerplate. But since I can't set that up for everyone (Hell, I can't even write the code to set it up for _me_...), you'll just have to hum. ROLL 'EM, SMOKEY!

TITLE: "The Road Not Taken 6: Typhoon"
AUTHOR: deejay
CLASSIFICATION: S, R/A (Story, Romance/Angst... and I _do_ mean ANGST!)
RATING: NC-17, for sexual situations (specifically, same-sex sexual situations) and adult language. If you're the kind of person who fainted at the sight of the Starr Report - and not because it read more like a Jackie Collins novel than a serious legal brief - then this story is not for you! Also, if you're under the age of 18, you're probably not supposed to be reading this, no matter _what_ you think of Kenneth Starr! Give us both a break, go somewhere else!
ADDITIONAL WARNINGS: * IF YOU'RE A 'SHIPPER: If Scully hasn't been "saved" during a night with Mulder on the floor of Skinner's office by _now_, it ain't gonna happen _here_! Save yourself the torture and go count how many MSRs Gossamer archived this month. You'll feel better, I'll feel better...
* IF YOU'RE A LONGTIME TRNT READER: Although there are aspects of the _other_ MSR (Mushy Scully Romance) in this story, please understand without a shadow of a doubt: When I mean "Angst", I mean ANGST! Check the summary if you don't believe me.
KEYWORDS: Slash, Scully/Other romance, Mulder/Scully friendship
SPOILERS: Terma.
SUMMARY: "The Road" goes on. Through a series of happenings, Scully's family finds out about her emerging sexual orientation. Their reaction forces Scully to make a decision about her relationship with Max, and her relationship with her family.
TIMELINE: Pre-diagnosis Season 4. Runs from mid-November to Christmas Eve 1996.
ARCHIVE: Submitted to Gossamer USA, xff and Scullyslash. This will also be part of a two-part submission to The Annex. All others ask me first before you do it, and please use only my _penname_!
CROSSPOSTS: If you're in charge of the archives I sent this to, please post to atxc!
FEEDBACK: Always welcome! Questions, comments, flames and fan mail to drjohn@wizvax.net. This story is open for discussion on atxc.
* Dana Scully (and all the other Scullys you see and hear), Fox Mulder, Walter Skinner, Holly, and the Man Smoke-Free Airports Love To Hate belongs to Chris Carter, 10-13 Productions, and FoxTV. I haven't made Dime One on this series so far, so why should I think I'm going to start now?
* Contrary-wise, Rebecca Maxfield, Bridgit Benedetto, the various members of The Coven and their consorts, and all other characters (not to mention the story itself) belongs to Night Tripper Productions and the author. Mess with them, you mess with your heartbeat. Any resemblance to real-life people, in this world or the next, is a complete surprise to me.
* "We'll Be Together," by Sting, is also excerpted without permission. You can find it on a tremendous disc called "Nothing Like The Sun", his second solo effort. The artist formerly known as Gordon Sumner may not have a great head for business, but he's a genuine genius when it comes to music and lyrics. There isn't a bad cut on this disc, and it's available at cutout prices. Don't delay, buy today!
* I also included a mercifully short (and without permission) excerpt from my least-favorite Christmas song. I won't tell you what it is or who it's by, to maintain shock value. If you like this song, hey, it's a free world. If you wrote this song, take heart in the fact that there are millions of people who call their favorite radio station and request it every Christmas season. Like the man said, it takes all kinds...
I've had this story running around inside my head for about a year and a half. Not to put too fine a point on it, I've avoided it like the plague, because I couldn't see it coming out any other way than this. Writing it was as painful as I expected it to be, and there's still more to do. I said this was going to be a trilogy, but Part 2 of this story is very different, in structure and subject matter, and should be about as long. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I'm turning this from a trilogy to... God, I don't know, a quadrilogy, I guess. A business teacher who will remain nameless would say I'm giving you a "value-added" experience. But since said teacher is a clueless twit, we'll call it a quadrilogy and have done with it.
Many thanks to my fellow travelers in the Slash/NoRoMo Conspiracy, the only people who make the Consortium look like a Rest Home Shuffleboard Team. SLASH-KETEER ROLL CALL! Stand as your name is called and wave to the throng:
* Jason Cleaver remains an avid cheerleader and sounding board. Hey, mate, _you're_ the one who wanted me to write more of this stuff! Just goes to show you should be careful what you wish for.:)
* Several people I'm proud to call my peers - Rad Hall, xf-stew, Erin Stone, Dana Starbuck (and her silent partner), Meghan, and eeyore, to name just a few - have not just kept me smiling with their encouragement and feedback. They've also inspired me with some truly terrific work, buoying my feeling that Scullyslash is the fastest-growing fanfic genre in the XF Universe. Take a bow, people! The Slash is out there because you guys keep it out there!
* A quick shout to Tamy D Pooh, Mistress Extraordinaire of the Scullyslash list. She deserves serious applause for creating a truly nurturing atmosphere for writers, potential writers, and fans of ScullySlash. You rule, Tamy, don't let anyone tell you different! To see what fantastic stuff has appeared on the list, go to: http://www.angelfire.com/sc/scullypage/LIST.html.
* Finally, props and pashes to my beta reader and "Double Dutch" collaborator Saundra Mitchell, without whom I'd trip over my word processor every other page. Keep on rockin' in the free world, girlfriend! They'll _all_ give us a quarter when it's over!
And I _swore_ I wasn't going to write another long-winded intro. Hey, what can I say? Mistakes were made. And anyway, it's the _definition_ of "long-winded intro" that counts... Oh, to hell with it! That excuse never worked before. With that on the record, Mr. Chairman...
Ladies and gentlemen... START YOUR ENGINES!

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>

"THE ROAD NOT TAKEN 6: TYPHOON" (1/15)
by deejay

____PROLOGUE: NOVEMBER '96____

The shot was possible, but difficult. Max would have to kiss the 8 ball with the cueball so it would drop into the side pocket. She braced her left foot behind her and leaned over the billiard table, lining up the cue stick behind the off-white sphere. The movement made her still-bruised ribs complain, but she kept a straight face. She'd taken two Advil right after dinner, and it took some time for the anti-inflammatories to kick in.

"No pressure," her eldest brother Jamie said from across the table.

"None at all," her youngest brother Mike agreed, standing next to him.

Max never looked up. "How would you like this stick in your eye?"

Jamie looked thoughtfully at Mike. "Good point."

*You gonna take it,* Max asked herself, *or are you just posing for the album cover?* She drew the stick back and hit the cueball. From the second she took the shot, she knew she'd hit it too hard. The cueball kissed the black billiard ball just right, knocking it home, but momentum sailed the cueball down the table and into the left corner pocket.

*Scratch.* Max put her head on the table. "Arrrgh."

"_Thank_ yuh, Jeezus," Mike said, holding his hand in the air like the latest convert at the gospel tent.

Jamie slid two quarters off the table and into his hand. "Our long national nightmare is over." The buffed-out high school football coach flipped one of the coins to the wiry internist, who caught it one-handed.

"Don't be a shitty winner, Toots," Meghan mildly admonished him.

"Yes, dear," Jamie said, his voice a quivering drone. The bespectacled English professor smacked her husband on the shoulder and gave him his beer bottle back, along with a quick kiss on the cheek. Meghan only came up to Jamie's shoulder, even though she was the tallest woman in the room at 5'6".

Max turned to Scully, who gave her a smile of support. "So much for the winning streak," Max said ruefully.

Scully waved her off. "That just means we'll have _two_ streaks when we leave." Max grinned, grazing Scully's hand with her knuckles.

"Oooooooh," Jamie and Mike said in mock-terror-driven unison.

Jane and her husband Pete came up to Scully & Max and took their sticks. "You shall be avenged," Pete said dramatically.

"You could wear my scarf on your arm, if I had one," Max cracked.

Jane nodded at Scully. "The way _she_ plays, maybe I ought to change partners." She gave Scully a quick wink.

"No switching teams," Mike said sternly.

"I agree," Pete said, sticking out his lower lip in protest.

Jamie moved around the table, pulling balls out of the pockets. "You're lucky we let Dana stay at _all_, Max," he said gruffly. "We don't allow hustlers in this pool hall."

Scully picked up her beer bottle off the table by the tired green couch. "Blame it on the Navy," she said. "Their rec rooms didn't always have pinball or air hockey, but pool tables were standard-issue. I was beating my brothers by the time I was 12."

"Your tax dollars in action," middle sister Chris intoned, her back against the wood-paneled wall. The black-clad architect was the only one in the room drinking wine.

"Don't mind her," Jane said, chalking up her cue. "She's a _Democrat_." Chris stuck her tongue out at her big sister.

Scully looked astounded. "Has she no sense of _shame_?"

The room was still in stitches when Rachel and Erica came down the stairs and into the converted basement. Rachel was carrying a light blue book as they walked up to Jane. "Mommy," she said plaintively, "will you read to us?"

Jane tried not to wince as she looked down at her twin 4-year old daughters. "Why don't you ask Grammie to put in another video for you?"

"We've seen them both _twice_," Erica informed her, her face flushed with the atrocity of it all.

"We're _bored_," Rachel added, her lower lip jutting out slightly.

Jane sighed. "This is what we get for not bringing the whole collection," she told Pete.

"We'd have to buy another van to haul 'em all," he pointed out.

Pete was trying to figure out how to tell his daughters that their mother ought to have a break at her own birthday party when Scully stepped up next to Rachel and pointed at the book. "May I see that, please?"

Rachel held it up for Scully's inspection. "Grammie gave it to us on our birthday."

"We have the same birthday," Erica piped up.

Somehow, Scully kept a straight face as she squatted down next to the two adorable blonde cherubs. "Really? _Wow_." She smiled at the cover illustration of Pooh, Piglet, and the rest of the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood. "I haven't read this in a long time. If I say 'Please,' will _you_ read it to _me_?"

"Dana," Jane began, "you don't have to-"

"We're only _learning_ to read," Erica sighed, implying it was a long and torturous job.

"We're just in pre-K," Rachel told Scully.

"Oh," Scully said, nodding judiciously. "Well, I tell you what: How about we go upstairs and _all_ read it, and you guys can help me with some of the words. How about that?"

"Okay," Rachel said enthusiastically, flashing a gap-toothed grin.

"Yeah," Erica agreed, nodding happily. "You're nice!" Each girl took Scully by a hand and started leading her to the stairs.

"Hey," Max said, broadcasting light outrage. "That's my partner you're kidnapping!"

"I'm sure the ransom will be negligible," Scully said, throwing a broad smile over her shoulder. "Call me when it's time to start winning again."

Max watched her nieces lead Scully out of the room and up the stairs. She bit her lower lip, grinning furiously. When she turned back to the room, every eye was on her. "What?"

Mike was fighting a losing battle against the smile taking over his face. "Jeez, Beck, if you stare any harder, you're gonna burn holes in the back of her sweater."

"Oh, fuck you," Max shot back, still grinning.

"Another good point," Jamie said, taking a sip of beer.

The room broke up again. Like most people, Max could feel herself blush. "Okay, okay. Anybody _else_ want to weigh in with an opinion?"

The question was said in jest, but there was a moment of silence after it. Finally Chris said, "Well, for one thing, she's an absolute _dog_."

Max looked at her sister like she'd spray-painted the international 'No' sign on the Mona Lisa. Before she could react, Jamie added, "Dumb as a post, too."

Jane shook her head sadly. "No personality. Can't carry on a conversation to save her _life_..."

"Hasn't got any fashion sense, either," Meghan chimed in. "I bet she buys all her stuff at Wal-Mart. On sale."

"And on top of all _that_," Pete concluded, "she's a shitty pool player."

The look Max gave her siblings and siblings-in-law was withering. "You're fucking with your life span. I hope you all know that."

The laughter filtered up to Scully as Rachel and Erica pulled her down the first-floor hall and into the living room.


Scully paused, listened. *Regular breathing, and they haven't asked a question in a while.* She looked at Rachel and Erica, snuggled on either side of her. They were fast asleep, legs dangling off the couch. Erica's mouth was open, but she wasn't drooling. Scully smiled and brushed a stray lock of hair out of the girl's closed eyes. She looked back at the color illustration of the party Christopher Robin gave Pooh for saving Piglet from the flood. One of Scully's first memories was of her mom reading 'Winnie-the-Pooh' to her and Melissa, late at night at the house in San Diego, Scully fighting to stay awake so she could find out whether Pooh and Piglet caught the heffalump...

"Down for the count."

Scully looked up. Jane was leaning against the doorway to the dining room, arms folded and smiling.

Scully smiled back, closing the book. "Milne will do that to you."

Jane came across the room as quietly as she could. "Grab that," she whispered, pointing at the multi-colored afghan draped across the back of the couch.

Scully shifted carefully around as Jane picked Rachel up. The little girl stirred, unconsciously putting her arms around her mother's neck. Scully got up slowly, making sure not to jostle Erica as she picked up the blanket.

"Whaaa," Rachel murmured.

"It's okay, Sugar Pop," Jane cooed, hugging her gently. "We're going home soon." She put Rachel down next to her sister. "You keep dreaming, okay?"

"Uh hunh," Rachel sighed, already falling back to sleep.

"Where's Dana," Erica asked muzzily.

Scully leaned down, putting her hand on the armrest for leverage as jane tucked the afghan around her two children. "I'm right here, precious," she told her, kissing the 4 year-old tenderly on the forehead. "You snuggle with Rachel, and I'll be right back."

"'kay." Erica's head lolled left, just touching Rachel's shoulder as both girls returned to slumber.

Jane smiled at Scully as she straightened up. "Looks like you're a hit across the board."

Scully's insides glowed at the compliment. She nodded at the sleeping girls. "They're terrific."

Jane gazed lovingly at her daughters. "Living proof angels do exist." She looked over at Scully. "You didn't have to take them off my hands..."

Scully waved her off. "It's your birthday. You should relax. Besides, I'm the designated reader for my younger brother's kids. He's got four. One of them turns two next month."

Jane suppressed a smile. "Good Catholic family?"

"How'd you guess," Scully deadpanned

"Experience," Jane returned; the cross around her neck was almost identical to the one Scully wore. They shared a quiet giggle. "Mom's made coffee. You want some?"

"Sounds great."

Jane led the way as they walked through the dining room towards the kitchen. Scully glanced at the long polished-wood dining room table. *You couldn't tell it was covered with twelve kinds of food two hours ago.*

Dinner had been long, comfortable, and occasionally raucous. Max' mother had created three divine pasta dishes and a salad big enough to keep everyone regular for a week. Everyone except Jane and Pete had brought some kind of food or drink; Scully only had a minuscule bit of everything, and she still felt like an overstuffed pillow. She got more questions about her medical background than she did about her work, and no questions about the X Files. She was relieved about the latter (*Nothing dries up appetites faster than a Flukeman...*), and chalked up the former to law enforcement being an over-used topic in the Maxfield house. She talked mostly about her family -- where she grew up, her life as a Navy brat. Mike had gone through ROTC to pay for his education, and was still a Medic in the Army Reserve, so they talked a little about military life.

Scully never felt like the center of attention - more like part of a multi-subject conversation that swung her way at random. Max sat across from her, trading barbs with her brothers like it was any old Saturday night dinner. Every so often, she grazed her foot against Scully's ankle. Scully nearly jumped out of her skin the first time Max did it; Max was purposely looking the other way at the time, so she didn't catch the evil eye Scully threw at her. Other than that initial shock, Scully had felt more relaxed than she'd been in some time. Relaxed, and accepted.

The smell of fresh-brewed coffee tickled Scully's nose as they walked into the kitchen. The refrigerator and gas range was relatively new, the cabinets and countertops looked original and very well cared for. Paula Maxfield was pouring coffee into cups laid out on a black metal tray. She smiled at Scully and Jane as they came in. "Just in time," she said. "Dana, how do you take it?"

"Milk, no sugar," Scully answered. "Can I help?"

Paula shook her head, pouring the last of the coffee into a large white mug adorned with the Red Sox' logo. "You did enough helping out with the dishes. Normally, we don't let guests work in this hotel." She put sugar and sweetener packets and a small pitcher of milk onto the tray. "Jane, would you take this downstairs, please?"

"Sure, Mom," her eldest daughter said promptly. She hoisted the tray and winked at Scully. "See you down there."

"Yup," Scully nodded to her as Jane walked carefully out of the room. Two mugs were left on the counter; Paula added milk to one from a plastic jug. Scully took a deep breath. *Here we go...*

Paula handed the mug to Scully and held her own mug with both hands. "I'm sure I asked this already, but did you get enough to eat?"

Scully laughed. "I don't know how anyone _couldn't_ have. It was all wonderful."

Paula beamed. "We've got some good cooks in this family." She looked at Scully over the top of her cup. "I'm very glad you could come."

Scully leaned against the opposite counter. "I'm glad I could, too." It had been a near thing; Mulder & Scully's plane touched down at National only forty-five minutes before Scully had planned to leave for Boston. *Thank God we flew into National, not Dulles or BWI.* "Thank you for having me," she continued. "Max has told me so much about all of you. I'm glad I got the chance to meet you in the flesh." *Don't gush _too_ much,* she chided herself. *You sound fake.*

Paula smiled into her cup. "I don't get many chances to show my children off. I'm very proud of all of them. " She looked off down the hall. "Sometimes I think Jane wishes she hadn't stopped working after she had the twins. She married late, the latest of all the kids. She still takes contract work from her old accounting firm, but... Well, there was a time when she talked about _running_ that firm..."

"Being a mom's one of the toughest jobs there is," Scully said firmly. "From what I can tell, she's done pretty well."

"Yes, she has," Paula agreed, picturing her youngest grandchildren, marveling again at how young they made her feel. "Jack and I, we never cared... No, that's not right. We _did_ care if our children were successful, in whatever they did. But most of all, we wanted them to be happy." She winced. "That sounds trite, doesn't it?"

"Not at all," Scully told her, taking a long sip of coffee. Good coffee was apparently a Maxfield family tradition.

Paula was looking into her cup again. "Rebecca hasn't had a lot of happiness in the last few years." Beat. "Not _personally_, anyway. She's done so well in the Department. Jack came close to busting whenever he talked about all she accomplished..." She sighed. "But she never had... oh, a lot of good fortune _personally_." Beat. "She was never really happy with Richard." Her smile wasn't rueful, but it _was_ faint. "Then we found out why."

"Max tells me you were very supportive of her." Scully put her cup down on the counter behind her. She stood with her hands clasped behind her back.

Paula's smile stayed the same size. "I don't believe the Lord wants us to live life in misery," she said simply. The battles with her late husband over her daughter's sexual orientation were a private matter. "Even so," she went on, "her time with DeeDee wasn't much better, in the long run. DeeDee was nice enough, but there was... an edge, I guess. To us. To Rebecca..." She turned her back to Scully, opening the coffeemaker and pulling out the filter. "In the end, it wasn't much better than it was Richard."

"So I understand."

Paula opened the cupboard under the sink and tossed the filter into a small garbage can. Then she took the coffeepot and began to rinse it. "I hope you' ll also understand why I'd be concerned about my daughter being head-over-heels about someone she didn't even know two months ago."

Scully kept her voice even. "You don't want her to be hurt again."

Paula put the pot into the sink to drain and turned the water off. She looked chagrined as she turned around. "I admit that was what went through my mind." She smiled again. "That's why I'm glad I got the chance to meet you. See you with Rebecca. What you two have..." She shook her head. "I'll be honest. I'm afraid I still don't understand it. My upbringing was very strict, very... specific, I suppose you could say..."

"I think we might have had the same upbringing," Scully said softly.

Paula smiled at Scully's cross. "So I see."

Scully looked down at the floor. "I'm still a little shocked at this myself," she admitted. "Not only did I not know your daughter two months ago..." She took a breath. "...but all my previous relationships had been with men."

Surprise appeared on Paula's face. "You'd never..."

Scully shook her head firmly. "Never _ever_," she said, still addressing the floor.

Paula digested this, then shook her head herself. "This life is full of surprises."

Scully's laugh was whisper-quiet. "It surely is." She looked up at Max' mother. "Max tells me you grow roses."

Paula frowned, taken off-guard by the change in subject. "Yes. I'm sorry you weren't here a few months ago. This year's batch was stunning."

Scully knew this, too. During her enforced medical leave, Max had gotten two pictures of Paula's roses professionally framed; it was going to be her mother's Christmas present. "Would you say sunshine and water are necessary to a rose's survival?"

Paula cocked her head, still trying to figure out where Scully was going. "I'd say they were essential."

Scully nodded. Swallowed. Cleared her throat. "Max... is sunshine and water for me." She looked off, not seeing Paula's reaction to her words. "I'm usually very... deliberate about my life. Especially about my personal life. I don't get involved with someone without a great deal of time and thought." She swallowed again. "But even though I've only known Max a little more than a month... I know that life without her... is impossible." For a split second, Scully was back in the bullet-pocked living room of the South Shore Women's Center, hovering over Max' prone form, frantically searching for any sign of life, terrified there would never be any. She dismissed the memory, though not without difficulty. She looked back at Paula, whose eyes were misty. "Your daughter is very special, Mrs. Maxfield. And I love her very much."

Paula sniffed. Her smile was warm and kind. "Like I said," she finally said, her voice husky, "I'm very glad you could come." She held out a hand. "I think Jack would have liked you very much."

Scully took her hand and squeezed it, sniffing back a tear herself. *I know this is only half the battle, but thank God it went this well.*

A light tapping broke the tableau. Max was peeping around the doorway to the dining room, looking decidedly hesitant. "This a private party, or can anybody crash?"

Paula held out her other hand to Max. "Come on in, darling." Max walked over to her mother, who wrapped her free arm around her youngest daughter. "We were just finding out how much we have in common."

Max hugged her mother back and winked at Scully. "You put mustard on Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches, too?"

Scully laughed. "That sounds good."

Max looked happily disgusted. "Is _not_! Ruins the flavor of the cranberries!"

Paula kissed the top of Max' head. "You _want_ all your children to be perfect," she sighed dramatically.

Max gave Paula a quick buss on the cheek. "Chris just found 'Hard Day's Night' on one of the movie channels." Paula brightened noticeably. She had loved the Beatles from the first note, as her record collection testified. Max grinned at Scully. "And Jamie and Mike want to know if we want to _try_ and take the title back."

Scully's eyebrow took the express elevator. "Your emphasis or theirs?"

"Theirs."

The Mulder Smirk came naturally to Scully. "Them's fightin' words."

"I'll leave you two to plot your revenge," Paula chuckled. "I have to go moon over George Harrison." She gave Max a hug and Scully a hand-squeeze, and walked out of the kitchen.

Scully and Max embraced as soon as she had gone, Max' head on Scully's chest. "You look like you feel much better," Max said softly.

Scully stroked Max' hair. "I'd ask you to dance, but there's no band."

"Losing the weight of the world does tend to make you light on your feet." They both giggled. Max looked up happily, hugging Scully a little tighter. "They love you."

"They _like_ me," Scully corrected her. Then she smiled. "But it's a good start."

Max' dimples were deep as twin oil wells. "_I_ love you."

Scully stroked Max' cheek. "What a coincidence."


<<MAX MAKES A DELIVERY>>

Bridgit Benedetto was used to people giving her the once-over. She came from a very handsome gene pool: The Homicide detective known as 'B Squared' was 5'7" in bare feet, with the sleek build of a swimmer, a sport she lettered in at St. Thomas Catholic. Her curly dyed-blonde hair just touched her shoulders, she needed no makeup to improve her features, and she made any clothing style look like it was designed especially for her.

Her looks were certainly one of the reasons why she was getting stares as she sat patiently on the hard wooden bench. The main reason, though, was a tearful young African-American teenager named Shawndelle Wilson. Shawndelle was handcuffed to Bridgit's left wrist so she wouldn't take flight; they were sitting in the lobby of DC Police Headquarters, so the murder suspect's flight instincts were running on all cylinders.

"Why you doin' this," Shawndelle sobbed.

"It's why they pay me the big bucks," Bridgit sighed. She'd lost count of the times Shawndelle had asked that same question.

Shawndelle voice dropped to a whisper. "They ain't come down yet! _She_ ain' t come back yet! We can still get _away_..."

Bridgit's expression fell somewhere between humor and pity. "What, are we Thelma and Louise now? We're a long way from the Grand Canyon, honey. And I left my T-Bird in my good purse."

Shawndelle's eyes squeezed shut, pushing more tears down her cheeks. "They gonna give me th' _neeeeeduhhhhhhhllll_..."

"Bullshit." Bridgit was trying not to get fed up. "Think a little, Shawndelle! You didn't blow up a busload of nuns! You killed a _drug dealer_! They're not real popular with juries to start with, you understand? And you've been tellin' us all the way down from Boston how shitty MoonDogg treated you. How he beat you. How he threatened to turn you out if you didn' t jump when he said 'Frog.' You tell that to your attorney, he writes a song-and-dance about it, and the only needle in your future is the one you use to darn your socks." She looked away. "Maybe you even get off, you never know."

*Unless you get a Public Defender who's more interested in pleading out so he can beat the lunch rush at McDonald's,* Bridgit thought, acceding to reality. *Girl needs _some_ hope, though...* She gave the 19 year-old a sidelong look. Shawndelle wasn't looking hopeful but she wasn't crying as hard.

Max walked up them, hands in pockets. "How we doing here?"

"_I'm_ fine," Bridgit answered, nodding towards Shawndelle. "_She's_ buggin'."

"She's got the right," Max declared quietly. She took a packet of tissues out of her raincoat pocket and squatted down in front of Shawndelle. "Hey, c'mon, girl!" She pulled out a Kleenex and wiped the tears from the girl's cheeks. "We can't turn you over looking like this! They might think we made you listen to us _sing_, or something!"

Bridgit nudged Shawndelle. "'Sides, these guys we're waiting on might look like Denzel and Wesley. You gotta look _good_!"

Shawndelle held still while Max wiped off her face. "Prolly look like that fat white guy from TV," she said flatly.

"_Both_ of them?" Max looked appalled at the concept.

"A fate worse than homework," Bridgit put in earnestly.

That got a giggle and a short smile from Shawndelle. The smile quickly faded when two stone-faced men came down the stairs and walked towards them. Neither of them looked like Dennis Franz. *They're not Denzel and Wesley, either,* Max thought wryly, sizing up the two pasty-faced, semi-rumpled Homicide detectives.

The older of the two came up to Max. "Detective Benedetto?"

Bridgit stood up. "That'd be me," she sighed.

The younger detective did a mild double take. "_You're_ Benedetto?"

Bridgit produced her ID. "That's right," she said listlessly. She was well aware she didn't look like a Benedetto. She'd been reminded of this all through secondary school, where the kindest nickname she got was 'Zebra.'

The older cop moved on, ignoring his partner's faux pas. "Sergeant Shanahan, Detective Mankoff." He nodded at Shawndelle. "Is this her?"

"No," Max said off-handedly. "She won a contest on MTV. First prize was a weekend in the DC Jail."

"Second prize..." Bridgit began.

Shanahan finished the sentence, flashing an indulgent smile. "Is _two_ weekends in the DC Jail. You got papers for me to sign?"

Max handed him the transfer papers. Shanahan sat down on the bench and signed them with a black ballpoint, using the bench as a backstop. Bridgit uncuffed Shawndelle's wrist; Mankoff took the wrist and pulled it behind Shawndelle's back. Then he took her other arm and cuffed both wrists together. Shawndelle sucked in a breath.

"Easy," Bridgit admonished. "She's not Squeaky Fromme."

Mankoff wasn't apologetic. "She ain't Princess Di, either."

Shanahan offered paper and pen to Max. "Your turn." Max sat down next to him and signed her name. "Good trip," he asked her.

Max didn't look up. "Beats busting up home invasions." Shanahan gave the short laugh of a Homicide old-timer. Bridgit made an indeterminate sound. Mankoff was too busy making sure Shawndelle wouldn't escape to add a comment.

Max checked the paper one more time to make sure everything was signed, initialed and dated. She tore off the original as she stood up. She handed the pink copy to Shanahan; they shook hands. "Thanks for your help," he said, almost sounding genuine.

"Any time," Max said neutrally.

"You hang tough, Shawndelle," Bridgit told her former charge. Shawndelle didn't answer, but she didn't cry as she was led away.

Max and Bridgit watched them go, then they picked up their bags and headed for the door. "What do you think," Bridgit asked.

Max shrugged. "She gets a good PD, she might come out okay."

"There's no such thing as a good PD," Bridgit said glumly, holding the door for Max.

"Oh, I've known a few," Max said, remembering the time DeeDee tore the Bear to ribbons on the stand.

The light snow was still coming down as they came out onto M Street. Bridgit turned up the collar of her waist-length sheepskin jacket. "Well, that's _our_ good deed for the day. Wanna get some _real_ food?"

Max shook her head. "I've got a ride coming."

"You get a hold of your Feebie friends?"

"One of them," Max nodded. "He's picking me up in a few." She adjusted the black wool beret so it sat at the proper angle. "You want a lift? I'm sure he won't mind..." *Shit, his eyes'll fall out of their sockets when he sees _you_...*

Bridgit shook her head. "Gotta keep my proficiency up on the Metro. There's a stop right near my mom's place. When do you want to head back?"

Max shrugged. "How long can you deal with your mom?"

Bridgit's expression hardened. "My _ mom's_ cool. It's my _sister_ that'll drive me to drink. It'll be a miracle if I can get through lunch tomorrow without strangling her in mid-monologue." She shook her head. "If I'd known Micki was gonna become the brains for a Republican congresscritter, I'd have smothered her in her crib."

"Ahh, you're just bummed 'cause we're in charge now," Max said lightly, always ready to tweak a Democrat.

Bridgit pointed at her. "Hey, I wouldn't care if _aliens_ were running things. I just don't wanna hear how Micki is so _important_ to the whole process! God sakes, Wynton Marsalis doesn't blow his own horn as much as she does!"

Max felt for Bridgit. Sometimes it was hard to remember everyone did not get along as well with their siblings as Max did with hers. "It's just _lunch_..."

Bridgit was unmoved. "Yeah, but it'll piss me off for the rest of the day. Then Mom'll ask me for the millionth time why I can't get along with my little sister, and yadda yadda yadda..."

"Not good," Max observed. "Tell you what: I want to try and check out an exhibition at the National Gallery. How 'bout we meet at the shuttle counter around 6 tomorrow night, and we'll catch the next flight back. Deal?"

Bridgit seemed to think about it. "I can _probably_ keep from killing Micki 'til then."

"Well, don't sweat it." Max' eyes turned mischievous. "If you succumb to the urge, you've got friends in DC Homicide."

That broke Bridgit up. "Yeah, right."

A horn beeped twice. "Somebody here call a cab?"

The two women looked. Mulder sat behind the wheel of a slush-splashed blue Taurus, leaning over so he could yell out the open passenger window. He blithely ignored the outraged horn blasts of the beat-up taxi behind him. The cab driver gunned his vehicle around Mulder, flashing him the finger and yelling at him in Greek as he went by.

Max grabbed her bag. "My fairy Godmother never lets me down."

Bridgit pursed her lips. "You've been holding out on me."

"Jeez, B, he's just a _friend_," Max chided.

Bridgit didn't leer, but she came close. She leaned over to whisper in Max' ear. "With friends like that, who needs vibrators?"

Max rocked with laughter. "_Sure_ you don't want that ride, now?"

Bridgit picked up her hanging bag. "Why should I impinge on _your_ pleasure?" She slung the bag over her shoulder and held out a pinkie finger. "See you tomorrow."

Max locked her pinkie to Bridgit's and tugged, the Homicide ritual handshake. "Don't stress too hard," she advised.

_Now_ Bridgit leered as she walked away. "You neither," she called over her shoulder.

Mulder had popped the trunk release while he was waiting. Max threw her gym bag in the trunk and jumped in before Mulder annoyed any more cab drivers. "How you doin', partner," she said, giving him a quick buss on the cheek.

Mulder put the Taurus in gear and pulled away from the station. He caught a glimpse of Bridgit in his side-view mirror. *I'll buy _that_ for a dollar.* "You should have offered your friend a ride," he said innocently.

"Already did." Max put on her seat belt. "She didn't want to play Third Wheel."

"Am I providing cover fire," Mulder asked, Smirking merrily.

"I don't do that shit," Max said dismissively. "I told her you were just a friend, but she ran with the assumption."

Mulder snapped his fingers dramatically. "Curses. Foiled again."

"Get your _own_ dates, Cassie Nova," Max laughed. She squeezed his leg. "You still haven't told me how you are."

The Smirk lessened. "I can hold the wheel with both hands."

Max frowned at him. "Mom," she called into the back seat, "Mulder's talking in non sequiters again!"

"I'll explain some time, preferably when we're able to get really, _really_ drunk." He fished his cellular out of his coat, pulled up the antenna with his teeth, and handed it to Max. "Hit 'Power,' press 'Memory', press 6, and order what you want. I'm buying."

<<SCULLY GETS A VISITOR>>

On the rare occasions Scully took a Personal Day, Catholic Guilt insisted she do something other than lie around in sweatpants and a T-shirt contemplating the ceiling. (That behavior was reserved for Sick Days.) Today she had broken her own record for compulsive behavior: She paid her bills, balancing her checkbook to the penny. Five loads of laundry were folded and put away. She put pictures in the frames she'd bought on the way home the night before, arranging and re-arranging them with her other photos until the display was perfect. She even did a fast maintenance-clean on the kitchen and bathroom, though neither room looked like it needed it. Her actions were mundane as hell, but Scully needed mundane in the worst way that day.

Now she paced around the living room like a caged tiger. She hadn't been sitting down more than five minutes when Mulder called. An X File had dropped on his desk as he was leaving the office, and he just _had_ to go over it with her tonight -- something about sightings of lights in the Florida Keys, and eviscerated alligators showing up on the same stretch of beach. Too complicated to talk about on the phone, too hot to wait until Monday. *I need to explain the word 'weekend' to Mulder,* Scully fumed. She was one of the most career-driven people she knew, and she had been a full partner in Mulder's quest for the truth for quite some time. And yet, there were more than a few days where Scully wished she didn't know the X Files existed.

Not being able to reach Max made things even worse. A Red Ball had reared its ugly head a week ago. Five Juvenile Hall rejects were trying to break the Greater Boston record for home invasions, leaving dead, broken bodies in their wake. The entire squad was working the case, and Max had been practically living at the station since then, making long drawn-out phone calls difficult, and phone sex out of the question. *Hell, even if we _could_ talk, she's never at the station when I call.* Max had left messages on Scully's machine, but she refused to call Scully in the field because she might interrupt her at a crucial moment. *I'll get her a pager for Christmas,* Scully decided. She smiled in spite of her anger with Mulder. *We can set up a signal system: One if by hand, two if by...*

The doorbell rang, bringing Scully's ire back. She pushed herself off the couch and stalked over to the door. *Mulder,* she thought as she undid the locks and opened the door, *if this even _feels_ like a wild goose chase, I swear I'll-*

"Capitol Pizza. Unlike Congress, we deliver. One large Veggie, extra mushrooms?"

Scully's brain stalled out, causing her jaw to fall free. Max was standing in the hallway, a red gym bag slung over her shoulder and a large pizza box in her hands. Beads of melting snow glittered her black beret and charcoal raincoat. Her grin was that of someone who'd played a really neat trick on someone.

When Scully hadn't done anything but look flabbergasted, Max said, "Ohhhhkay, let's try something a little more traditional." She did a short dance, looking like a leprechaun who really needed a restroom. "Surprise?"

That snapped Scully into action. She grabbed Max by the wrists and pulled her into the apartment. Dropping her bag by her side, Max giggled at Scully' s manic movements; Scully locked the door, plucked the pizza out of Max' hands, practically threw it on the dining table, and pulled Max into a ferocious hug.

"Easy, easy," Max laughed, surprised at the force of the embrace. "Think of my little shell-like spine..." She stopped laughing when Scully started shaking, then started sobbing. "Honey, what is it?" Max laughed once, quietly. "Shit, if I'd known you wanted Chinese instead, I would have asked Mulder to..."

"I love you so much," Scully whimpered. The declaration brought on a fresh torrent of tears.

Max rubbed Scully's back. "I love you too, baby. Please don't cry..."

Scully's voice was high and small. "I'm sorry... So sorry..."

Max wiped tears away with her thumbs. "Girl, what's wrong?"

"I screwed up... I'm so sorry..."

Max took Scully's head in her hands and pressed her forehead to her lover's. "Damn it, Scully, tell me what's _wrong_!"

Scully opened her mouth, but nothing came out. In her mind, she was back on the catwalk, an arm around her throat and her own weapon pressed against her head. She was going to die because of her own carelessness. And she would never see Max again.

Max looked quickly around the apartment. She got a glimpse of Scully's bed in a dimly lit room off the dining area. Max led Scully into her bedroom and laid her down on the bed. The diminutive Homicide detective shucked out of her raincoat and jacket, dropped her shoulder holster on the pile, and kicked off her sneakers, thankful she hadn't worn her boots today. She would have smiled at the Renoir over Scully's bed, but she didn't have time. The only light in the room came from a lamp on the bedside table. Max faced it as she crawled onto the bed and took Scully in her arms. If anything, Scully's grasp was stronger than before. She cried piteously, holding Max like a sailor clinging to a raft; Max stroked Scully's hair and whispered soothing phrases until Scully was able to talk.

It took a while, but Scully was able to get through it without too many more tears. Max was glad Scully kept her head on Max' chest. Max could control her breathing as Scully told her tale of the mystery man who killed several handfuls of people, led Mulder and Scully to a Canadian oil refinery, and nearly killed Mulder when the bomb in his truck went off. But Max had to keep her eyes shut tight when Scully told her about the catwalk, biting her lip to keep her own tears back. The Homicide detective had to put herself in that detached place she went when hearing a particularly shocking confession, or reviewing an especially grisly crime scene. It was the only way Max could fight off the horror that Scully could have been taken from her.

When it seemed Scully had finished, Max took a deep breath. *Hang tough. You have to be strong for her.* "You said this guy was Russian?"

Scully nodded against Max' chest. "He said something that _sounded_ Russian, anyway. It could have been Czech, I guess. The rock came from Russia, so it makes sense he'd come from there, too."

Max looked up at the ceiling. "You think he was... I don't know, KGB, or whatever they call themselves nowadays?"

"He definitely wasn't an ordinary tourist. He broke into a secure facility to steal the rock and murder that doctor."

Max gave a little shrug. "Maybe this guy was the Russian James Bond."

"He had to be in his 70s..."

"So's Sean Connery, and he could still probably do the job."

Max clutched Max' gray turtleneck shirt. "Then why didn't he kill _me_?"

"Maybe it was like he said. His work was done." She stroked Scully's hair again. "Or maybe the Goddess decided it wasn't your time."

Scully looked up at her; her eyes were bloodshot and her face was puffy. "But I _put_ myself in that position. I was careless! I didn't see him because I moved too fast..."

Max tried to sound reasonable. "Girl, did you ever consider that you didn't see him because he didn't _want_ you to see him? If this old man _was_ some kind of Russian super spy, he might have been good enough to fool you, no matter _how_ hard you looked!"

Scully was unconvinced. "I told you that you have to be safe. You have to be careful. I promised that _I'd_ be careful. Safety first." She looked like she was ready to cry again. "And then I run headlong into..."

Max cut her off before another torrent started. "Baby, listen to me. When you pulled Mulder away from that burning wellhead, did you ever give it a second thought?"

"No," Scully admitted after a moment. *In fact, that was what got me moving again. Otherwise I'd probably still be there, recovering from the shock...*

Max cupped Scully's cheek in her hand. "Sometimes, in this business, we _can't_ take time to think. Because someone might _die_ if we take that time." She paused, considering. "You left a message on my machine last night. I didn't call you back."

"I know you were on a Red Ball..."

"It ended last night. These fucking _animals_..." She swallowed, took a breath. "I told you about the Super Crew. Grew up together, got chucked outta school together, did Juvie together..." She shook her head. "They came a long way from spray-painting the principal's Datsun. Eight home invasions in ten days. Killed twelve, raped four, put three others in the Burn Ward at Mass General when they set fire to the house with the vics still inside..."

Scully watched Max talk, her chin on Max' chest. Max' tone wasn't flat, but it was matter-of-fact. "So we track down the sister of one of these mutants," Max continued. "She points us to their crib, this broken-down triple-decker in Dorchester. We get there, we hear screaming." Max swallowed again, revulsion flashing on and off her face. "They'd busted into a birthday party a couple hours before. They'd brought the birthday girl back for a party of their own."

"God," Scully breathed.

"Yeah," Max nodded. "I know." She sighed. "We couldn't wait for the TAC Squad or the Hostage Team. We had to go in right _then_." Scully clutched Max' shirt again. Max put her hand on top of Scully's. She could summon it up in a moment: The creaking back stairs, the girl's tortured pleas, the Notorious B.I.G. blaring from a boombox as they kicked the door in. "It was over in a minute, maybe less. Hegeman took one in the arm, MacKechnie got slashed by a switch." Pause. "We wasted two of the fuckers, though." Max' smile was small and cold. "One of the bastards who was doing the girl when we came in, tried to use her as a shield? He backed right into me and Bridgit. We _begged_ him to even _breathe_ funny."

Scully held on tight throughout the recitation, watching Max with frightened eyes; now she relaxed, if only a little. "And the girl's alive?

Max' face closed down. "Technically, yes. Catatonic. The docs had to give her a boatload of tranks just to get her to stop screaming." She sighed again. "She'd just turned 13. She watched her mom get shot, two of her friends get pistol-whipped. And then they took her and... did what they did."

Scully shut her eyes tight. "Beasts," she hissed.

"That's why we put 'em in cages." Her small smile returned, dripping irony at the edges. "Because the liberals won't let us put 'em down." She looked down at Scully. "The girl's a wreck. She may never get really right. But you see, if I'd hesitated, or I'd made the guys wait for the big guns, the girl might be _dead_ right now. And if _you'd_ hesitated, _Mulder_ might be dead." Scully shuddered, her eyes still closed. Max kissed the top of her head. "Like I said: Sometimes you gotta act first and think later."

Scully opened her eyes and looked off into the darkness. "So what do we do?"

Max looked up at the ceiling. "Do our best," she said eventually. "We owe it to ourselves. To our partners." She kissed Scully's head again. "To each other." Scully nuzzled her head against Max' chest. Then Max added softly, "And hope the Goddess isn't taking a long lunch that day."

Scully gave Max a long squeeze. "Yes."

"Hey," Max said lightly after a moment, "after all the times I've talked to Her about you, She'd _better_ not fall asleep at the switch."

Max could feel Scully smile. "You talk about me a lot, huh?"

"I'm probably the least religious person you know. Except for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, I haven't been to church in years, much to Mom's dismay." Max pressed her cheek down on the top of Scully's head. "But I don't think there's been a day when I haven't asked Her to watch out for you - keep you safe, make sure you're happy..." She paused. "When those asshole senators threw you in jail, I kept a running prayer going. It killed me that I couldn't get away, couldn't talk to you, couldn't give you support..."

Scully looked up and kissed Max. "You helped me get through it. Just thinking about you..." She kissed Max again. "I thank God every day for bringing me to you."

Max smiled wryly. "'God', huh?"

Scully shrugged. "I don't see God as male or female. Just as... a force, I guess. What guides us all." She looked at the wall behind Max. "When I pray, I see white light... Peace... A place I can rest..." *Like the place I saw...* Scully looked apologetic. "Sorry."

"Don't be," Max assured her. "It's what you believe." She thought a moment. "I guess I've always thought God was female. Sister Evangeline, she taught Sunday school? She always talked about God being love and forgiveness, and everlasting peace." Max shook her head. "Didn't sound like a man to me."

Scully considered that. "I guess it doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you _believe_."

"Yeah," Max said. She giggled. "_My_, but we're getting deep tonight."

"You bring out my philosophical side," Scully chuckled, nuzzling Max again.

Max' voice turned into the lecherous rasp of a dirty old man. "I love it when you talk existential to me, baby."

Scully laughed quietly as she looked up and kissed Max once. Twice. The third kiss was long and soft as their tongues slow-danced. When they broke the kiss, Scully said, "How long can you stay?"

"That's my line," Max said, doing a fair Mulder Smirk.

Scully rolled on top of Max; the heat in Scully's gaze could heat her apartment for a month. "My goal is to steal it from time to time."

"I love a woman with a plan." Max' answer won her a kiss on the nose. "Loot only gave us a day," she said, wrinkling that nose. "I've gotta meet Bridgit at National around 6 tomorrow night."

Scully's brow furrowed. "Have I met Bridgit?"

Max shook her head. "She's brand new, just came over from Sex Crimes." She sighed. "She's Mickey's replacement."

"Oh." That took some of the wind out of Scully's sails. But not all. "So she's your new partner."

*Uh oh.* "She _was_ paired with Hegeman. He's gonna be out til Christmas, at least. So she's sort of free-lance..." *Weak, Maxie. Really weak.*

Scully looked down. "What's she like?"

"Is that a little green monster I see on your shoulder?"

"Pay no attention to him. Just answer the question."

Max held back another smirk. "She's nothing to write home about. Smart. Funny. Looks like Tyra Banks, only without the tits..."

Scully's eyes narrowed. "I can break your neck quite easily from this position."

"...and if she were any more straight, she'd be a superhighway," Max finished. "She was with me when Mulder picked me up? One look at him, and her salivary glands went to Warp."

Scully came close to Smirking herself. "So you're saying she didn't actually _meet_ Mulder."

Max slapped Scully lightly on the ass. "Don't you diss my partner."

"He's _my_ partner, you..." Scully's burst of mock outrage got her a Smirk and a chuckle. Without thinking, Scully's hands dove down to Max' ribcage.

"AHH! You rotten, dirty..." Max screamed like a banshee; her ribs were fully healed, but that didn't make them any less ticklish. She grabbed at Scully's hands, but Scully kept them out of reach. Deciding the best defense was a good offense, Max dug her fingers into Scully's armpits, her lover's one weak point. Scully squealed, pressing her arms against her sides to ward off the counter-attack. That was all Max needed; digging her heels into the mattress, Max flipped Scully over with surprising ease. Max was on top of Scully before the FBI agent knew it, grabbing Scully's wrists and holding them over her head. Scully struggled, but couldn't get free.

"Say 'I quit,'" Max demanded.

"Never," Scully yelled defiantly. She tried to buck Max off her, but Max had her full weight pinned down, her legs clamped around Scully's left thigh. It was all Scully could do not to laugh.

Max bit her lower lip, her smile turning mischievous. "Ve haff vays uff making you kvit."

She leaned down and started nibbling Scully's ear. As she did, Max shifted so her left thigh rubbed against Scully's crotch. Scully sucked in air through gritted teeth, her eyes becoming hooded. Max' tongue traced the edge of Scully's ear.

Scully's mouth was getting very dry. "This... is against the rules... of the Geneva Convention..."

Max finished working on Scully's ear and began kissing her way down the jawline. "Fuck the Swiss," Max growled. "What have they done for _me_ lately?"

Scully started to laugh, but it turned to a groan as Max pressed down a little harder, stroked a little more, rained kisses on Scully's face, being careful to avoid her mouth.

Max moved back to Scully's jaw, only lingering a moment before dropping her mouth down to Scully's neck. Scully's body seemed to hum as Max kissed and licked and nibbled and sucked, working up to Scully's other ear with agonizing slowness. Scully's hips moved of their own accord, shifting to meet Max' leg. In return, Max clamped down even harder on Scully's thigh; Max could feel her clit pressing up against her jeans, the swelling making her dizzy.

When Max finally reached the ear, she stuck her tongue out and licked, causing a fresh flock of small animal noises to come out of Scully's mouth. "I can keep this up all night," she murmured, biting Scully's earlobe. "Can _you_?"

"Torture me all you want," Scully managed. "I'll never talk."

"Then I will." She shifted so they were nose-to-nose, forehead-to-forehead, eye-to-eye. "You are everything I want and need. If you were transferred to NASA and moved to Jupiter, that wouldn't change." She kissed Scully's nose again, soft and long and loving. "I'm not gonna screw that up by looking for something better. Because something better doesn't exist."

Scully looked up at Max through smoky eyes. She planted her mouth on Max' with lightning speed. Max moaned loudly as Scully's tongue dove between her lips. The pressure and the possible loss of the other had reached both of them. Max' hands trailed down Scully's arms, freeing her; Scully wrapped her arms around Max, grabbing at her shirt so she could pull it out of Max' jeans. It became a blur of arms and legs as they feverishly undressed themselves and each other, their clothes landing in various places around the room, their kisses breaking only in the time it took to undo a clasp or a button.

When they were naked, they assumed the same position, only this time Scully was on top, her legs clamped around Max' thigh, her left leg providing the delicious pressure now. Max could barely breathe, Scully felt so fine on top of her. Scully's eyes were closed as she ground her pussy up and down Max' leg, her juices slick on Max' bare skin. Max' hips rose to meet Scully's leg, the exquisite friction sending her reeling. Max leaned up and shoved her tongue in Scully's mouth, their moans increasing in volume as they Frenched and fucked each other. Lightning burst behind their eyelids as their nipples brushed and rubbed. Scully pressed Max back against the mattress, mashing the ultra-sensitive nubs together.

Lightning became chain lightning and moans became cries. Max grabbed Scully' s ass with both hands, wordlessly urging her on. Scully threw her head back, her red hair flying like the mane of a wild horse. Somehow Max opened her eyes; she simply had to see Scully. When she pried her eyelids apart, she found Scully looking down at her. Max marveled at the look on Scully's face - the heat, the rapture, the gratitude, the love. It filled Max with unspeakable joy. She brought her hand up to Scully's face and ran her fingertips over Scully's cheek. Scully braced herself on one elbow so she could cup Max' cheek in her hand. Max turned her head and licked Scully's palm. Scully turned her head and took two of Max' fingers in her mouth, sucking them unashamedly.

That was all they could stand. Max came first, if only by split seconds. Scully screamed around Max' hand as she went over the edge, somehow refraining from biting Max' fingers. Max put her head on Scully's shoulder, gasping for breath as her orgasm rolled over her in waves. Wrapped in a python-like embrace, the lovers rolled on their sides.

"Love... love... love..." Max panted.

"Yess," Scully sighed. "Oh yehhhhssss..."

When breath had returned and speech was possible, Scully put her cheek next to Max'. "How did I live without you," she whispered.

Max kissed Scully's shoulder. "The same way I lived without you." Her laugh was low and throaty, and remarkably seductive. "You settled for less."

Agency lore to the contrary, Scully had laughed at many points in her life. She'd even laughed in bed, though those moments were few and far between; except for Elliot Gardner and Jack Willis, the men she'd slept with had been so serious about sex. Like almost every other experience she'd had with Max, laughing seemed so much better. And laughing in bed was truly delightful.

* * * * *

<<MORNING BECOMES ELECTRIC>>

As a rule, Scully didn't listen to music in the morning. She didn't need music before work; she needed information -- what happened, what _would_ happen, what _might_ happen. Her clock radio was set to a music station, but it was turned off the moment she was fully awake. The radio in the kitchen was set to the local NPR outlet so she could listen to 'Morning Edition' while she bustled around, ate her usual spartan breakfast, and got ready to face the day.

Today was different. Today Scully was so happy, so relaxed, and her mood demanded more than filtered sunlight and fine coffee. This was why Sting's voice floated through the apartment as Scully doctored the cups - Equal for Max, skim milk for herself:

"I see me and you
 And all the things you do
 Keep turning round and round in my mind
 Forget the weather
 We should always be together
 And any other thought is unkind..."

Scully hummed along with the song, occasionally picking up a word or phrase. This was one of the first CDs she'd ever bought, but her years-long classical kick had put the disc far back in the rotation. She hadn't listened to it in months, and she couldn't remember why. *You haven't felt this _good_ in months, dummy,* her brain reminded her. Scully couldn't remember _when_ she'd felt this good. All she knew was she could get addicted to the feeling very quickly.

The shower finally stopped. Scully took a sip of her own coffee, picked up the other mug, and padded down to the bathroom door. "Knock, knock," she called out.

"What's the password?"

"Open the door before I give this coffee to charity."

"Close enough." The bathroom door opened, loosing a cloud of steam into the hallway. Max had a white bath towel wrapped around her midriff; her hair was still wet. "Hot damn," she said enthusiastically, taking the non-milked cup from Scully. "Room service!"

Scully waved the steam away with her free hand. "Is there _any_ hot water left?"

Max held the cup to her lips. "I left some in the thimble by your conditioner. Help yourself." She took a sip. "Mmmmm."

*Asshole,* Scully's look said, though it was said affectionately. "I love gracious guests."

"Told you we should have showered together," Max grinned. "Hot water wouldn' t be an issue."

Scully shook her head. "I haven't installed a safety railing yet. We don't want to make the local EMT's lives any more interesting than they already are."

"Why not?" Max put her cup on top of the toilet tank and stepped up to Scully, undoing the sash on her white terrycloth robe. "Aren't you wearing clean underwear?" Scully felt light-headed as Max parted her robe, exposing her naked body. Max stepped closer, tugging at the bottom of her towel. It dropped to the floor. "Ooops," Max murmured, pulling Scully's head down for a kiss.

"I haven't brushed my teeth yet," Scully said weakly.

"Didn't care before," Max whispered, reaching inside the robe to wrap her arms around Scully. "Don't care now."

She pressed her lips to Scully's, cutting off further objections. Scully moaned as she opened her mouth to take in Max' tongue. It was true; neither of them had cared about oral hygiene earlier that morning. Max had been between Scully's legs when the FBI agent woke from a warm dreamless sleep. Scully had tried to get Max to move up so she could reciprocate, but her lover stayed right where she was until Scully had peaked twice, the last time with loud and shattering force. Scully was grateful when Max sat on her face; after Max' oral assault, she couldn't have moved her body if she tried. Max' juices must have had some recuperative powers, because Scully's hands were all over Max while the undersized brunette rode her lover's tongue to a second orgasm. They were kissing when Scully felt herself drifting back to sleep, dimly aware that the sun hadn't even come up yet.

Scully snapped out of it when Max snaked a hand around Scully's waist and put it between her legs. "Oh no, you don't," Scully said, pulling away reluctantly.

Max looked disappointed, but amused. "Are we down to only once a day _already_?"

Scully put her hands on Max' bare shoulders. "_You_ are the one that has to be at the airport by 6 o'clock. _You_ are the one who wants to try and get into the National Gallery on a Saturday. And _I_ am the one with the stomach that is crying out for nourishment!"

"But you've eaten once _already_ this morning," Max pointed out gleefully.

"Protein! I need _protein_!"

"Well, that depends on your definition..."

Scully steered Max out of the bathroom. "Ham! Eggs! Toast! Orange juice, extra large! Coffee, cream, no sugar!" She picked up the fallen towel, shoved it in Max' hands, and slammed the door.

"Hey," Max exclaimed. "What about _my_ coffee?!"

"Mugs are in the cupboard above the stove, sweetener in the blue jar by the sink! Help yourself! I'll be out soon!"

Max put her mouth against the door. "If I hear any disturbing noises in there, I'm shooting the lock off!"

She only got laughter in response, so Max walked back into the kitchen, drying her hair with the towel. The curtains were closed, so she disposed of modesty for the moment. *Besides,* Max decided, *I feel so fucking beautiful this morning.* She shook her shoulders to the music's beat as she came into the living room:

"Forget the weather
 We should always be together
 I need you as my guide and my light
 My love is a flame that burns in your name
 We'll be together
 We'll be together tonight..."

Max walked over to the stereo and picked up the CD jewel case, nodding in approval at Scully's choice for wake-up music. She frowned when she saw the rest of her lover's CD collection. There were discs by Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac (*Does _everyone_ but me own a copy of 'Rumours',* Max wondered), but everything else was either classical or New Age. The closest thing to eclecticism was a collaboration disc by Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. *Well, we know she likes Sarah MacLachlan and Sheryl Crow,* Max told herself, smiling wickedly. *If she likes Sting, maybe I can get her into Beck or Dave Matthews. Got to get Christmas shopping going when I get back...*

She turned to face Scully's apartment; it was smaller than Max', but the high ceilings and pale walls gave it a sense of being larger than it was. Max couldn't stop smiling as she looked at the furniture, the floors, the pictures (*Especially _those_ pictures,* she thought happily, looking at her three favorites.), the sense of order that permeated every aspect of the apartment. *This place is so _Scully_*

Max looked around for her gym bag. It was still by the door when they sat naked at the table and ate pizza by candlelight the night before. It was not there now. The pizza box was gone too, though Max spotted it on top of the refrigerator after a few moments of searching. On a hunch, Max went back into the bedroom. The bag was sitting on the rocking chair by the window. Not only were her clothes folded on top of the bag, with her weapon and holster sitting on top of her beret, but Max' raincoat and tweed jacket were hanging in the closet. The bed was also made. Not straightened - made, with the extra blanket folded at the foot of the bed.

"Neat freak," Max giggled. *But she's _my_ neat freak.*

Max pulled fresh panties, jeans, a black 'Mean People Suck' T-shirt and a gray New England Blizzard sweatshirt out of her bag, replacing them with yesterday's clothes and her sidearm. She looked at the picture on top of the dresser as she stepped into the panties. K.C. had taken it during an impromptu Coven picnic in the Public Gardens last May. Max was barefoot in the picture, casually dressed and holding a glass of wine loosely in her left hand. She was a little smashed when K.C. took the shot, but the end result was better than a hundred pictures Max had posed and primped for. Scully had the picture in a silver frame that went perfectly with the black-and-white photo. Max wanted to jump up and down every time she looked at it. *She's got my picture in a frame. In her _bedroom_. That is _so_ _great_!*

The giddiness continued as Max dressed. When it came down to it, Scully and Max hadn't had a full day to spend with each other since the weekend their relationship began. Either Max had to work, or Scully had to travel, or they both had to work, or whatever. There was precious little time when they'd worked together on the Circle of Fire case. They hadn't seen each other since the morning after Janie's birthday party. Their nightly phone calls had been discontinued, though not by choice; the Super Crew Red Ball and Scully's jailing for Contempt of Congress hadn't given them many chances to touch base.

*Then there was what _might_ have happened,* Max thought, tucking the T-shirt into her jeans. *The Russkie could have decided one more notch on his gun made no difference. The Crew member I shot could have gotten to his Glock in time...*

"Fuck it," Max said aloud as she pulled the sweatshirt over her head. *What _might_ have happened doesn't mean diddly! What matters is _today_! And _today_, we are going to eat brunch, see pretty pictures, and put all the bullshit behind us.*

She rooted around inside her gym bag until she found her hairbrush. Scully had a full-length mirror mounted next to her closet. Max stepped to the mirror and started the daily process of taming her hair. After a few strokes, she pulled her hair behind her head and tried to picture herself with the short low-maintenance haircut Neesie always wore. Max snorted, shaking her hair loose. *_Neesie_ can wear that style. _I'd_ look like a 12-year old boy!*

Her fashion musings were cut short when Scully's doorbell rang. *Door _bell_,* Max noted as she went to the door. Max' apartment had a buzzer that evoked the image of a large, flatulent bee.

The only people who rang Max' buzzer on a Saturday were tagteams of Jehovah' s Witnesses bearing the newest line in leaflets; Max took great pains to be rude to them, but they kept on coming back. Max was geared up to do the same to the DC contingent. However, what she saw through the spyhole didn't look like a Jehovah's Witnesses. Instead, a striking middle-aged woman stood in the hall, wearing a long black topcoat over a tan turtleneck. A large paper Sears shopping bag sat at her feet. Max saw a Tupperware container peaking out of the top of the bag. *Maybe she's selling cookies for peace,* Max thought absently.

The woman was smiling when Max opened the door, but the smile faded into a look of mild surprise when the woman saw Max. "Hello," she said, curiosity evident in her voice.

"Hi." Max gave her a polite smile. "Can I help you?"

The woman looked past Max into the apartment. "Is Dana here?"

*I'm sure I've seen her before, but I'll be damned if I know where...* "She's in the shower at the moment. Can _I_ help you?"

The woman put on a polite smile of her own. "I'm Margaret Scully," she told her. "Dana's mother."

Max blinked. *Hello, Goddess? 911!*


Scully's head was under the shower spray when the doorbell rang, so she never heard it. Even so, Scully was too preoccupied to hear anything but her own thoughts. It was kind of like a Warner Brothers cartoon. Angel Scully was standing on one shoulder, saying she and Max had a fully-functional relationship that was not based on sex alone, while Devil Scully was jumping up and down on the other shoulder, kicking Scully in the head for not taking Max right there on the bathroom floor.

Sensible Scully decided the argument, as usual: *Split the difference. We're going to the Olympic for breakfast. That's three blocks away. If we can't take it, we're back in bed in ten minutes.* She twisted the 'Cold' knob for a few seconds, blasting away the yearnings that went with that last thought. *If she shoots the lock off, I'll lose my damage deposit.*

Scully toweled off and put on her robe. She was plugging in her hair dryer when there was a businesslike knock on the door. Max stuck her head in before Scully could answer it. "Gee," Scully said playfully, "I guess I didn't lock..."

"Scully," Max said casually, "your mom's here."

Scully gave her the fish eye. "Hilarious, Max."

Max' voice dropped to a whisper. "Who's being funny?"

Scully was about to answer that question when she noticed Max' eyes. Her expression was calm, but her eyes were broadcasting panic on all channels. *She's _not_ kidding,* Scully realized. A yawning feeling appeared in the pit of her stomach. She looked at the wall separating the bathroom from the kitchen area. *Oh, _shit_!*

"How is she," she mouthed.

"Cool," Max returned in the same fashion. "So far."

Scully blew out a breath. *Don't just stand there, Dana! _Move_!* She turned back to Max. "Five minutes," she whispered. Max nodded and ducked out without another word. Scully rarely used the 'High' setting on her blow dryer; it tended to frizz her hair out, so she saved it for when she was running late, or when an emergency came up. The current situation definitely qualified as an emergency.

Scully's mind flew like an eagle as she brushed out her hair. *It could be worse. She could have showed up half an hour ago, when we were still in bed. She could have showed up at sunrise, when we were... No, away with _that_ scenario! She's here _now_! How do we do this? Tell her now? This minute? Dana, are you _crazy_?! Max says she's cool. Max can handle her. Max can handle anyone. But how long has Mom been here? What's she said? What's she _asked_? Damn it, we're not _ready_! _I'm_ not ready...*

Scully gave her hair one more quick brush. *Calm, calm, _calm_! One step at a time. Get out there. See what's happening. Deal with it.* Scully grabbed the doorknob, took a deep breath, and opened the door. She was greeted by a burst of her mother's throaty voice.

"They are absolutely _adorable_."

"Aren't they?" Scully could hear Max smile. "Every time I see them, I want to sit 'em on the floor and play Scrabble with 'em all afternoon. Teach 'em words and stuff."

Margaret Scully was laughing as her daughter walked into the kitchen area. She was standing next to Max, leaning over the dining table. Scully had guessed right: Max was showing Mom a picture of Rachel and Erica. *Good call, Max.* Like most daughters, Scully thought her mother was beautiful, but no more so than when she laughed. It was a sound Scully didn't hear much from her mother in the last few years, and that made Scully sad. Still, Scully smiled as she came up behind them. "Hi, Mom," she said.

Margaret's smile changed imperceptibly when she turned towards her daughter' s voice. Scully had seen that particular smile several times in the past year. It said, *You're my daughter, and I love you. But I'm not sure who you _are_.* The hug she gave her daughter did not lack for warmth, though. "Hello, sweetheart," she said affectionately, giving Dana a long squeeze. Scully squeezed back, looking over her shoulder at Max.

Max made a 'Safe' gesture with her hands. "We were just comparing nieces. Mine and yours." She hadn't noticed Margaret's smile change; she was too busy being glad she'd survived the past five minutes.

Scully had noticed the change, though, and it stayed with her as she hugged her mother. *Don't be paranoid,* Scully ordered herself. *It's not written on your forehead.* "So I see." She pulled her head back and nodded at the display. "What do you think?"

Margaret looked at the array of pictures on the wall across from the dining table. "Oh honey, it's wonderful. I'm so glad you moved them out of your room."

The family photos were near and dear to both of them. Margaret's favorite wedding photo sat in the middle of the cluster, with Bill looking so wonderful in his dress whites. Billy looked equally impressive in _his_ dress whites, the very model of a modern Academy grad. Charlie grinned furiously as he stood on the flight deck next to his A-6 Intruder, mirrored sunglasses flashing and an unlit cigar in his mouth. Melissa was sitting on the rocks at Big Sur, looking wistfully out to sea while the waves crashed below. Single shots of Charles' four children beamed out of a multi-picture frame shaped like four connected hearts.

Scully beamed at her handiwork. "Well, I've always wanted to set them all up on one wall, like you've got them at home. I just never had the time."

"I'm glad you _made_ the time." Her smile took on something else as she pointed to the picture in the lower right hand corner of the display. "I'm also glad you're showing _that_ picture, as well."

Scully pursed her lips. *I _knew_ she'd bring that up.*

Max regarded the photo near the bottom of the display. Mulder & Scully were sitting at a round table, leaning close, looking at something off-camera. Scully was radiant in a black high-neck sleeveless dress with a thin strand of pearls, while Mulder looked almost respectable in a double-breasted gray suit with a faint pinstripe and a paisley tie. Mulder was saying something to Scully, his Smirk fighting to burst all over the table. Scully looked amused as she held a glass of champagne in one hand, her elbow on the table to brace her arm. Neither were aware they were being photographed. "It's a great picture," Max said. "Wedding?"

Margaret nodded. "Daughter of a family friend. My late husband served with the father of the bride."

Max stepped up and examined it. "Did you take this, Mrs. Scully? It's very good."

Margaret made a dismissive gesture. "I just aim and shoot. Sometimes I get lucky." She gave a mock-hurt look to her daughter. "I was wondering if I'd have to put this up _myself_ to get you to show it to anyone."

"Great photo, great frame," Scully said equably. "It deserves to be shown. I just never got around to it til now." Her mother had given a copy of the picture to Mulder last Christmas, with an identical frame. Mulder had teased Scully about it for a week.

Margaret demonstrated the Scully Raised Eyebrow. She turned to Max. "I'm trying to get my daughter to see her co-worker in a different light."

Max had to dig her fingernails into her palms to keep from laughing. "Is that a fact?"

Scully shot a look at Max: *Don't encourage her.* "Were we supposed to have lunch today, Mom," Scully asked, trying to change the subject. "I'm sorry, I completely forgot..."

Margaret shook her head. Her laugh had a nervous tinge to it. "Actually, I'm playing Meals on Wheels." She nodded at a point behind Scully. "I took the chance you had the weekend off."

Scully looked behind her. Tupperware containers of various sizes sat on her kitchen counter. Scully's smile stretched to Jack-o-lantern proportions. "Thanksgiving dinner?"

"Candied yams, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, gravy, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and turkey with plenty of dark meat." She smiled that smile again. "Just the way you like it."

Scully hugged Margaret hard. "I have the best mom in the world!"

Margaret patted Scully's back. "Well, I didn't want you to miss Thanksgiving _entirely_."

Scully winced. "I'm sorry about that."

Margaret pulled back. "You had to do what you had to do," she said simply.

"It was necessary, Mom," Scully said evenly.

"I'm sure it was," Margaret said quickly. It was said to reassure, but the reproach was still there. Her tone brightened a little as she turned to Max. "I'm the one who should apologize. If I'd known you had company, I'd have brought more leftovers."

Max looked sheepish. "It's Scully's weekend for surprise visitors. I had to ferry a fugitive down to the DC Police. My plane doesn't leave until 6 tonight, so Scully was nice enough to save me motel money and lend me her couch."

Margaret gave Scully a 'Mom' look. "I keep telling you, Dana, you have to get an apartment with a guest room."

Scully laughed once. "When am I ever home to entertain?"

"You're home _now_," Margaret told her. Her smile returned, but it was laced with something else. "And Fox _does_ stay over from time to time..."

"Mother!" Scully gave Margaret a mortified look.

Max' eyebrow went up now. "This is news to _me_."

"Mulder got snowed in here once." She held up one finger for emphasis. "_Once_! And _once_, he stayed when we worked late on paperwork." She pointed the finger at the couch. "And he slept on that couch both times. The _last_ thing I need is Mulder getting any more comfortable here."

Margaret gave her daughter a knowing look. "The _last_ thing?"

Max folded her arms. *I can't resist.* "Methinks she doth protest too much."

Scully gave them both a dirty look. "If I'm going to be made a figure of fun, I'm going to get dressed."

Max and Margaret laughed. Margaret took her daughter's hand. "I'm sorry, honey." *Though I wish you weren't so reticent about Fox,* she thought for the nth time. *You two look so _good_ together.* She threw another glance at Max. "Anyway, I can't stay. I just wanted to drop off my care packages before I went to the museum..."

Max' ears pricked up. "Museum?"

Margaret nodded. "There's a traveling exhibition of portraits by John Singer Sargent at the National Gallery. The show isn't coming to Baltimore, so I thought I'd come down and see it, since I have a free day..."

Max' laugh cut her off. "Great minds think alike." Margaret looked at her curiously. "I missed the exhibition when it came through Boston," Max explained. "Scully and I were going to check it out after we got something to eat." A lightbulb lit in her head. "Would you care to join us? I'm buying the brunch."

"Since when," Scully sounded amused, but the look she gave Max was anything but. *Is this wise?*

"Hey, you provided the roof," Max shrugged. "The least I can do is feed you." *May as well,* her eyes said. *If she gets to know me, that might help.*

Margaret looked quite uncertain. "I wouldn't want to impose..."

Max waved her off. "Don't be silly. It's no trouble." The imp appeared in her voice and smile. "Besides, I'd be crazy to pass up a chance to hear embarrassing stories from Scully's childhood."

"Some friend _you_ are," Scully said flatly. She squeezed Maggie's hand, putting on an encouraging smile. "Seriously, Mom, please come. It'll be fun. We haven't spent time together in a while." *And Max is right: If you get to know Max better, maybe this'll be easier.* "Please?"

Margaret bit her lip, considering. If it had been just Dana, she would have agreed immediately. They had drifted apart in so many ways these last few years, but after losing Melissa, Margaret tried to spend as much time as she could with her only remaining daughter. Still, she didn't want to impose on Dana and her friend. *I'm imposing _already_,* she thought. *I feel it. But imposing on what?* She dismissed the thought. It was silly. "I'd love to come," she finally said, smiling at both of them.

"Cool," Max said. She looked very pleased.

Scully kissed her mother on the cheek. "I'll just be a minute."

*Rules are made to be broken,* Max thought. *Especially in times of need.* "I put the pillow and the blanket back on the bed," she called after Scully. "I hope that was okay."

"You didn't have to do that," Scully said over her shoulder.

Max couldn't repress her smile. "I want to be a gracious guest."

The smile Scully gave Max was casual. The look she gave Max said, *Don't push it.*


<<A MOTHER CAN TELL>>

Max leaned between the seats and said, "You can just drop me off at the terminal."

"You sure?" Scully cautiously navigated the Saturn through the interminable construction endemic to National Airport.

"Yeah," Max said, leaning back. "I'm not sure how long the wait's gonna be, and it looks like parking is just as fu-_fouled_ up here as it is at Logan."

"It's no day at the beach," Scully admitted. She was both disappointed and annoyed - disappointed she couldn't walk Max to the gate, annoyed she wouldn't get the chance to see what Bridgit looked like. *That's probably a plus,* she reminded herself. *Of all the times to work yourself into a jealous rage, this is definitely the worst.* She tossed a sidelong look at her mother, who was looking out the window at the darkening scenery.

At least, that's what it looked like. In point of fact, Margaret Scully was looking out the window, but she wasn't seeing anything. She was too busy thinking about a time-honored phrase that wouldn't get out of her head:

*A mother can tell.*

There was no real reason to feel as unsettled as she did. The day had been quite pleasant. The diner Dana had taken them to made the best Western omelet Margaret had ever tasted. The exhibition was lightly attended (*People must have been scared off by the weather report,* Margaret reasoned.), so the women could move around the gallery without being jostled. Sargent's work was just as beautiful, just as striking as the first time Margaret had seen it, on a high school field trip to New York. Dana's friend Rebecca (Somehow, Margaret couldn't bring herself to call her 'Max.') had made her and Dana laugh with her direct assessment of Madame X, arguably Sargent's most famous work: "You could split a cinderblock with that profile."

Dana had laughed a lot today, more than Margaret had seen her do in a long time. Her daughter had seemed more relaxed than usual, too, with less of the weight of the world on her shoulders. She smiled a lot more. She seemed to take pleasure in her surroundings, despite the cold temperature and the long process of finding a parking space within easy walking distance of the National Gallery. She seemed... happy.

*And why should that be a _bad_ thing,* Margaret asked herself.

*Because something is different.*

*A mother can tell.*

The music was the first thing. In the five years Dana had lived in that apartment, Margaret had only heard three kinds of music there - classical, Christmas, and that electronic Celtic music that was so mournful, it could make you cry if you let it. (Margaret was always on the lookout for new classical recordings; they made good, safe Christmas presents.) But the music Margaret heard coming from the apartment as she came to the door this morning sounded like something Dana listened to in high school - not as loud as the rock & roll Melissa had loved, but very different from the concertos Dana seemed to treasure. ("Grown-up Music," Melissa had called it one time, teasing Dana when she tried to study to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons.")

Then there was this car. Margaret knew Dana's last car had been destroyed in an accident; she found that out the night she returned from the Caribbean. Today was the first day she'd seen the Saturn, and it raised an eyebrow almost immediately. It was very nice, seemed very responsive, and Margaret was glad the insurance settlement covered the down payment... *But it's not a _Dana_ car. It's too flashy, not sensible enough...* When Margaret asked Dana why she didn't buy another Ford, her daughter simply said, "I needed a change." *Not like Dana. Again.*

Then there were the pictures. Margaret _was_ glad Dana had put them up, and she was especially glad she'd put the picture with Fox up, too. It was a new set of pictures that gave Margaret pause. They were in another multi-picture frame, this one made of wood stained light brown. The three photos were from another wedding, taken quite recently if Dana's hairstyle in the photos were any indication. Dana was standing next to Rebecca with the bride and her bridesmaids. One photo was posed smiles, another was hysterical laughter, and the third had all five women wearing sunglasses, arms folded and looking very serious. Margaret had asked about the other women at breakfast; it turned out they were friends of Rebecca's - the bride was an environmental lawyer, the bridesmaids a newspaper photographer and an advertising executive, respectively. They all sounded perfectly nice. By her reactions to little tidbits of news Rebecca told her at brunch, it was obvious Dana felt some affection for these women, too.

And that made Margaret even more bewildered. It was easy to know who Dana's friends were, because sometimes it seemed like she didn't _have_ any friends. She had lost track of her college roommates, both at Cal and at Maryland; Margaret didn't even ask about them any more. Dana didn't spend any time with anyone at work but Fox, and that time was usually work-related. (*More's the pity,* her mother reflected.) Now Dana not only had a new friend, she had a _circle_ of friends that didn't even _exist_ a few months ago.

And then there was Rebecca. *'Max.' What kind of woman lets herself be called 'Max'? Encourages _other_ people to call her 'Max?'* It wasn't that Margaret disliked her. *What's not to like,* she'd asked herself twice already. *She's friendly, polite, and personable. Has a good sense of humor. A little too aggressive, perhaps - she reminds me of some of Charles' aviator friends. But I guess she _has_ to be aggressive in her line of work...*

*But Dana's basically in the same line of work, and _she's_ not like that. And yet, they seem to get along like a house afire...*

This was not like Dana. It did not make sense. Something had changed.

*A mother can tell.*

"Mom? Hello?"

Margaret realized Dana had said something to her, but she hadn't caught it. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," she said, turning away from the window. "What did you say?"

Scully was looking at her, eyebrow raised. "I asked if you flew out of here when you went on your cruise."

Margaret blinked. "Oh!" She shook her head as if to clear it. "No. The cruise line has its own airline, and it only flies out of Baltimore."

"That was convenient," Scully remarked.

"Mmmm," Margaret said, turning back to the passing lights. She didn't see the additional look of concern Scully gave her.

A yellow taxicab was pulling away from the US Air Shuttle terminal just as Scully got there. She slipped the Saturn into the vacant slot, pulled the hatch release, and got out of the car. Margaret started to undo her seat belt.

"Don't bother," Max assured her, pushing the driver's seat forward. "I can get out Scully's side."

"Careful of the traffic," Margaret warned, ever the mother.

"No doubt." Max clambered out, put the seat back, and held a hand out to Margaret. "Mrs. Scully, it was really great to meet you."

Margaret took the hand and applied a polite smile. "It was nice meeting you too, Rebecca. Have a safe flight."

"I'll tell the pilot you said so," Max said lightly. She squeezed Margaret's hand. "Take care."

Margaret Scully watched Max walk behind the car. The diminutive woman seemed to bounce when she walked, like she didn't have a care in the world.

*I wish I could say the same.*


<<MOTHER/DAUGHTER TALK>>

Most of the discussion on the ride back centered on plans for Caroline's 2nd birthday party. Margaret Scully's only granddaughter was born six weeks premature, with a cornucopia of health problems; her first days were spent in an incubator, with Charles living in the hospital around the clock. Two years later, she was bright as a button, babbling like a brook, and in danger of breaking the land-speed record for crawling. Next Friday's fete wasn't so much a birthday party as a celebration of Caroline's survival. Billy's new assignment forced him to leave for San Diego the day after Thanksgiving, but his wife Tara had stayed behind to help Charles and Karen organize things.

Margaret watched Dana work through the gears as she came off the highway. Her daughter's face was a study in concentration; Dana nodded in satisfaction when she made it through the intersection without a missed or ground gear.

"You did that very well," Margaret said encouragingly.

"Thanks," Scully said, her pleasure evident at the compliment. "I think it's finally coming back to me."

Margaret smiled. "Do you remember that Volkswagen Bug we had in San Diego?"

"Herbie," Scully laughed. "I think we turned the odometer over twice on that car."

"I kept expecting it to... I don't know, blow up or something," Margaret remembered fondly. "But somehow you kids kept it running."

"It was the only way Dad would let us keep it," Scully reminded her. "I thought he was going to keel-haul the CPO who sold it to Billy. Herbie was the first car I ever worked on by myself."

"You learned to drive in that car too, didn't you?"

"We had to," Scully nodded. "The high school only had one car for Driver's Ed class. If we wanted to get behind the wheel more than once a week, we had to make our own opportunities."

Margaret looked down at the center instrument column. A tape of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No.3 was playing. The piece did not have the soothing effect it usually did. "With all the city driving you do, I'm surprised you didn't get an automatic transmission."

"This model only has a 3-speed automatic," Scully informed her, gunning the coupe through a yellow light. "I didn't like the way it shifted when I test-drove it. The manual's more fuel-efficient, too."

"Oh." *That sounds a _little_ more like Dana.* They rode in silence for a block or two before Margaret spoke again. "Rebecca seems very nice."

*That didn't sound _too_ forced,* Scully observed. "Yes. She is."

Beat. "Didn't you tell me she was married?"

"I told you she'd _been_ married," Scully mildly corrected her. "She got divorced three years ago. She was married to a State Police officer," she added, trying to cut down the list of questions that was sure to come.

Margaret nodded again. Paused again. "How long were they together?"

"Three years," Scully said patiently.

Beat. "Were there any children?"

Scully successfully suppressed a sigh. "Nope."

"That's a shame," Margaret finally said. "Children can strengthen a marriage."

Scully shook her head. "It wouldn't have worked in this case, Mom. Max' marriage was a war zone, for the most part. That's a terrible environment to raise a child."

Margaret examined her lap. "You've become very good friends with Rebecca, haven't you?"

*I am _not_ ready for this.* "Yes, I have."

"And you've become friends with her friends."

Scully gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. "And that means what?"

"Well," Margaret said cautiously, "you were in some of her friend's wedding pictures. You have those pictures hanging on the wall, next to pictures of your family..."

"Mulder's not _family_," Scully said, biting back additional comments.

*But he _should_ be,* Margaret nearly said. "Even so..." Margaret stopped, then started again. "You didn't even _know_ these people a few months ago. Now you're putting their pictures on your wall...?"

*And on my dresser. And Thank God you didn't come into the bedroom...* "Mom, haven't you been telling me how I need to get out more? Make new friends, meet new people...?"

"I meant someone _here_."

Scully's knuckles were turning white. She missed a shift turning onto a side street, nearly stalling the car. "Mom," she sighed, "when do I have _time_ to meet someone here? Or anywhere? When I'm in town, I'm working. When I'm _out_ of town, I'm working. This was the first non-work-related trip I've taken since I left Quantico. I met great people on that trip - people I like, who like me, and who have nothing to do with the Bureau. What's _wrong_ with that?"

"Nothing! Nothing's wrong with making new _friends_! But..." Margaret wanted to scream with frustration. "Dana... you're not meeting anyone _special_."

"Don't you mean I'm not meeting any _men_?" *Don't yell at her. She's your mother. She's worried about you.* Scully mentally rolled her eyes. *If she's worried _now_...*

"No," Margaret said bluntly. "You're not."

"Yes, I am, Mom. I'm meeting them at work. And _through_ work. And I told you before, I'm not going to get involved with _anyone_ at the Bureau..."

"Why not?! You've done it before!"

Scully nearly missed the red light. She had to brake hard to avoid going into oncoming traffic. "Yes! And look how _that_ turned out!"

Margaret closed her eyes tight. She felt like a fool. She had liked Jack Willis, though she thought he was much too old for Dana. She knew how watching Jack die had effected Dana. She knew how shattered Dana was when she returned from New Mexico, convinced Fox was dead and it was her fault.

She reached over and put a hand on Dana's shoulder. Dana put her left hand on her mother's. "I'm sorry I yelled," Dana said penitently.

Her mother squeezed her shoulder. "I shouldn't have said that. Please forgive me." Dana squeezed her mother's hand. The light changed and Dana turned onto her street.

Margaret put her hand back in her lap and stared at her daughter sadly. *I know it's hard to hear these things, Dana. But I only want the best for you.* "Dana," she said softly, "you are a wonderful daughter. I've... _We've_ always been proud of everything you've done. You're a beautiful, intelligent woman. You are the strongest, most self-sufficient person I know." She took a deep breath. "But _no one_ can go through life _alone_. Honey... you need someone to call your own."

Scully couldn't have looked at her mother if she tried. *"Do you have anyone to call your own?" Max was sitting close when she asked me that. "Don't you get lonely?" And then she reached over and turned my head, and her lips were so soft, and I was so scared...*

"Mom," she said haltingly, "when you and Dad were first together... how did you know he was the one?"

Margaret looked out the front windshield. Over thirty years later, she could still call up the first time she saw Bill Scully, a trim young ensign in dress whites standing across the room at one of the chaperone dances the town held every summer. He was so formal, so polite, not at all like some of the officers who acted like uncaged wolves as the night went on. He didn't even kiss her good night that night, the first night of many. He just sort of bowed and left her standing on the front porch, wondering if she'd done something wrong until the roses were delivered the next day...

"I want to say I always knew," Margaret finally said, "but that would be wrong. I just woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and... I just _knew_. I couldn't tell you _when_ that was, or _how_ I knew. It was long before he proposed that day on the dock, I know that..." She laughed softly. "I'm not being much of a help, am I?" Scully didn't say anything. A miracle had happe ned; she had found a parking space next to her building, right in front of her mother's car. She pulled up in front of it and started backing in. "All I can tell you, Dana," Margaret concluded, "is when it happens, you _will_ know it."

Scully parked the coupe without much adjustment and cut the engine. She had never skydived before, but now she understood the sensation: She felt like she was about to leap from a great height, and was unsure whether the parachute on her back was going to open. She cleared her throat twice before she turned to her mother. "I already have, Mom."

Margaret Scully's face went through a slow change, like a cloud being blown apart by a gust of wind: Blankness, then confusion, then realization. The last expression was more alarming than anything Scully could imagine. Margaret looked away quickly. "Don't be ridiculous, Dana."

"I'm not being ridiculous, Mom," Scully said softly. "I'm being honest."

Her mother opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She was struggling with her thoughts, and none of them were helping the process. Finally she said, "Dana, that's... I... Sweetheart, you like _men_..."

"Yes, Mom," Scully sighed. "I like men." Her mother turned to her, hope starting to flash in her eyes. Scully held up a hand. "But in the last few months, I've found..." Scully dropped her eyes. She could feel herself blush from her toes to her hairline. "They aren't all there is."

Margaret Scully was thunderstruck. The shock she'd felt when Dana announced she was joining the FBI was a tap on the shoulder compared to this news. This was a blow to everything the Navy widow thought she knew. She fought to remain calm. She looked out at her blue Escort station wagon. "Dana," she said awkwardly, "you have been through so much in the last few years. Your father's death. Missy's murder. Your... disappearance. You were in a terrible accident less than a month ago..."

Scully put her hand on Margaret's thigh. She felt a slight tremor. *Oh my God, she's _scared_ of me...* "Mom, look at me." When Margaret kept looking straight ahead, she added, "Please." Margaret took a deep breath and turned to her. "Have you ever known me to do _anything_ without thinking it through? Without having a good reason for _why_ I do it?"

"No," Margaret said, shaking her head. *That's what's so frightening.*

"I have thought about this, agonized about this, more than anything that has ever happened to me," Scully said, her eyes pleading. "About what you'd think, about what Billy and Charlie would think. About what _Dad_ would think, if he were here..."

"He'd say it was wrong," Margaret blurted.

She squeezed her mother's leg, shutting her eyes tightly. "I _know_ that. There are days when the ramifications of it all scare me witless. But I can' t deny what I _feel_. And I can't lie to you. I could never do that." She had to bear down to stop from shaking. When she opened her eyes, they beseeched Margaret to listen. "Mom... I'm in love. For the first time in a long time. Maybe for the first time _ever_. I look at Max, and... and I feel peace I haven't known in _so_ _long_. She touches my soul like no one else has. I _know_ Daddy would say it's wrong. I'm sure _you_ think it's wrong..."

"Dana..."

"But it feels so _right_," she insisted. "I feel like... like we were _supposed_ to meet! Like everything that's happened these last two months was _supposed_ to happen! This is not a fling, or a phase, or some unconscious attack on you for something you did to me as a child. This is _real_! _Please_ believe that, Mom! Please believe... that this is real."

Margaret started two sentences before she came up with one she could finish. "I have to go." She started to turn, then found she was still belted in.

Scully put her other hand on Margaret's leg. "Mom, we have to talk about this..."

"No..." Her mother popped her seat belt and reached for the door handle.

"Mom, wait," Scully implored.

Margaret wrenched around in her seat, taking both of Scully's hands. "Dana, it's... I can't. Not now. It's... it's too much. I have to think about..." She tried to speak, then shook her head rapidly. "I just _can't_ right now." She dropped Scully's hands, opened the door and climbed out of the Saturn.

*Oh, no. Oh, please. Please, God, don't let her hate me...* Scully undid her seat belt and jumped out of the car. A red Jeep Cherokee went by, spraying her with slush. "Mom," she called frantically.

Her mother was at the driver's side door of the Escort, fumbling for her keys. "_Please_, Dana. Please let me think about this." She got her keys out and unlocked the car. Her hands were shaking. "I'll... I'll call you. Soon."

"Mom, I love you," Scully said, desperation strong in her voice.

Margaret looked back at her. "I... I love you, too." Scully thought her mother was going to cry, and that made her throat close up. Margaret practically jumped into the Escort, started the engine with much revving, and pulled away in a fishtail of melting snow.

Scully watched the car until it turned at the end of the block, then ran into her building wiping her eyes.

* * * * *

<<MULDER IN THE MIDDLE>>

Robert Novak was saying something pompous about Clinton's second term when Mulder let himself into the apartment. He put the shopping bags on the kitchen table, walked over to the remote, and muted Eleanor Clift's vacuous retort. Mulder would never be accused of keeping a neat living space, but he was quite meticulous about leaving any appliances running when he went out. He chalked up leaving CNN blaring to the restlessness and frustration that had permeated his senses since the Senate hearing. People had died, and Mulder had nearly won a permanent role as the One-Armed Man in this latest failed attempt to prove life existed outside this planet; the inaction that followed said none of those sacrifices - be they real or potential --mattered at all. *As if it ever does,* Mulder thought morosely.

He went back to the kitchen table and pulled a bottle of Saranac Golden Pilsner out of one of the bags. He'd only meant to get beer when he went out, but some deep-seeded domestic instinct made him do a full shop. In Mulder's case, a "full shop" translated to six Budget Gourmets, four boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, two large bags of Baked Tostitos, two large jars of salsa (Hot, of course), a pound of ground French Roast, three half-pound packages of deli meats, a loaf of whole wheat bread, and a box of strawberry frosted Pop Tarts. *I'll never get my own cooking show, but at least I won't be eating out of Styrofoam boxes for a few days...*

He took the bottle opener off the refrigerator and popped the top off the Saranac. The bag from Screen Saver Video sat near the table's edge. Mulder had spent an hour in the store, annoying the clerks as he picked up one choice, then put it back and went in search of another, repeating the process numerous times. None of his usual preferences seemed to fit the mood he was in. A trained psychologist, Mulder finally decided he needed more than entertainment; he needed catharsis.

He picked up the bag and walked over to the television, pulling out the two hard plastic carrying cases as he went. Mulder dropped the bag on the floor and put the video case on the coffee table; he wanted to be deep into the six-pack before he watched 'Dr. Strangelove'. Then he opened the other box and took out a CD jewel case. His Playstation tastes usually ran to 'Mortal Kombat' or an equivalent, but he had played the updated version of this particular game a few months earlier; he had been quite taken with 'Nuclear Strike', despite its ersatz 'Apocalypse Now' ambiance. Today was the first time 'Soviet Strike' had been in stock. Mulder took that as a sign and snatched up the case before a delinquent-looking 11-year old beat him to it.

He opened up the Playstation and was fitting the CD into the player when the phone rang. Mulder made no move to answer it, closing the player and pulling up his office chair. He had decided to screen all calls this weekend, and would only pick up in the event of a miracle: Cancerman begging to admit everything on the Letterman show, or Sharon Stone declaring her undying lust. He noticed there was one message waiting already. *Better check that. Sharon might have finally broken down...*

BEEP. "Mulder, it's me. If you're there, _please_ pick up..."

Mulder would have picked up for Scully anyway, but the ragged edge in her voice made him pick up faster. "I'm right here. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she sniffled. "My life's just falling apart. No problem."

*Christ, she's been crying...* An awful thought took hold. "Please tell me you two didn't break up."

Scully made a sound that could have been a laugh or a cough. "I'd be calling a suicide hotline if that was the case. No, we're still together..." She sniffled again. "I told Mom."

Mulder sat down in the office chair. "Uh oh."

"Yup. She came by this morning, bearing Thanksgiving leftovers. She met Max, we went out, spent the day together..."

"She didn't catch the two of you..."

"Bite your tongue!"

"Sorry, sorry. Please go on."

"Thank you." Sniff. "Anyway, after Max left, Mom started grilling me about her. It led to the 'You're not meeting anyone' speech." Another sniff. "I couldn't stand it. I had to tell her the truth."

He already knew the answer, but asked the question anyway. "How'd she take it?"

"Are you familiar with the Hindenburg disaster?"

Mulder closed his eyes. *Son of a bitch.* "I'm really sorry, Scully."

"It might not be _that_ bad," Scully said doubtfully. "She didn't disown me, or anything. She said she had to think about it. Maybe when the news settles, we can talk more, but..." Her voice caught. "Mulder, she looked so... _terrified_! I mean, I expected surprise, shock, even anger, but... I _never_ expected _fear_!"

"She's just had thirty years' worth of image changed on her, Scully," Mulder counseled. "That kind of thing tends to be hard to swallow."

Scully was losing any sense of calm. "I shouldn't have said anything. I should have just told her what I usually tell her, that I wasn't meeting any interesting men, and..."

"Scully, Scully, Scully," Mulder said soothingly, trying to calm her down. "After all this time swimming in the sewer with me, you _know_ how damaging lies can be. Even little white ones. Besides, the main reason the truth is better than lies is you don't have to _maintain_ the truth. You couldn't have kept Max a secret _forever_..."

"Maybe not _forever_," Scully conceded. "But I could have waited until Mom was..."

"Ready for it?" Mulder was incredulous. "Were you going to wait until she bought a bumpersticker that says, 'Straight but Not Narrow'? Your mom's a great lady, Scully, but somehow I can't see that scenario unfolding any time soon."

Scully made the laugh/cough sound again. "Y'know, Mulder, I need you to be more supportive than right at this moment."

"I'm a talented guy. Why can't I be both?" He was trying to think of another joke when there was a knock on his door. "Hold on a sec." He put the phone in his lap. "Who is it," he called.

"Maggie Scully, Fox." Her voice had more rasp than usual.

*I don't _remember_ ordering any psychodrama.* Mulder put the phone to his ear again. "She's here," he whispered.

Scully gasped. "My _mother_?"

"No, Madeline Albright. Yes, your mother. What do you want me to tell her?"

"God, I don't know. That I'm not a pervert?"

Mulder couldn't stop himself. "I'll only say things I can swear to."

"I shot you in the shoulder last time, Mulder," Scully said, her voice deadly quiet. "Want me to try for center mass?"

"Better get me with the first shot. Hang in there. I'll call you back." He hung up without waiting for an answer. After giving the apartment a quick look for any dirty laundry, he steeled himself and went to the door.

Margaret Scully's eyes were red enough to double as traffic lights when Mulder answered the door. She seemed to have shrunk inside her favorite overcoat. "If I'm interrupting, I'll..."

"No, no, no," Mulder said quickly. "Sorry I took so long. Some telephone solicitors just won't give up." *That's not a lie. It's a statement of fact.* He opened the door wider. "Please, come in. Excuse the mess."

By Mulder's usual standards, the apartment was immaculate, but he knew Scully's mother could beat Martha Stewart when it came to domestic hygiene. Margaret did give the apartment a cursory once-over, but if she disapproved of it, she didn't say. "May I sit down," she asked politely, her hands still in her pockets.

"Please," Mulder said, indicating the couch behind her. "Umm, would you like a drink? I've got..." He paused when he realized he didn't have a great variety of beverages to offer. *I don't know how old the milk is, and she doesn't seem like the type to drink bourbon...*

Margaret nodded tentatively at Mulder's Saranac bottle as she sat. "Do you have another one of those?"

"Sure," Mulder said, a little surprised. He'd seen her drink wine at dinner, and an occasional brandy after dinner; she seemed less likely to drink beer than she did to drink bourbon. He went to the bag and pulled out the rest of the six-pack. "Let me get you a glass..."

"That's all right. In the bottle is fine."

Mulder nearly had a Roger Rabbit Moment. *Man, this _did_ hit her hard.* Mulder put one bottle on the counter, put the rest in the refrigerator, popped the cap off the bottle and wiped the top off with a paper towel. He walked over to the couch, gave her the bottle and picked up his own. "Cheers."

Margaret clinked her bottle to his and drank a short swallow. She made a face. "That's good."

*She's a lousy liar.* Mulder looked apologetic. He sat back down in the office chair, pulling it forward so his knees almost touched Margaret's. "I' m sorry I don't have any brandy or..."

"No, that's all right. This is fine." She looked around the apartment again, stopping at something she saw on the wall next to his desk. "Have you had that up long?"

Mulder turned the chair to see. It was the picture of him with Scully at that wedding last fall. Scully had asked him to accompany them, mostly at the insistence of her mother. The ceremony was long and winding, but the reception had been a blast. "I put it up right after you gave it to me. It's a great picture," he added lamely.

Margaret smiled at it. "Yes. It is." She started to tear up, but pulled herself together after a wipe of her eyes. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be troubling you like this..."

"It's okay..."

"...but I don't know who else I can talk to. I can't talk to the boys. I can't talk to my friends..."

"Sssh, it's all right," he assured her. "If I can help, I'd like to." *That' s _definitely_ not a lie.*

Margaret nodded distractedly. She pulled a Kleenex out of her coat and wiped her eyes again. The crumpled tissue had obviously performed this task recently. "Fox..." She cleared her throat, sniffed. "I love my daughter. I want her to be happy..."

"I know that," Mulder said gently. "And she loves you, too." *Easy. Let her set the pace for this.*

Margaret nodded, though the information didn't seem to help. She gathered her thoughts before she went on. "There's this... Well, you know her, don't you? You both worked with her last month in Boston. The policewoman..."

"Max," Mulder put in, nodding.

Margaret looked at the space between them. "Max..." She shook her head. "That' s not a name for a woman."

"It's just a nickname," Mulder said, as neutrally as possible. "It doesn't mean anything."

"But I don't know... I mean... She seems like such a _nice_ woman..."

"She is," Mulder informed her. "I like her a lot."

"Really?" That seemed to befuddle Margaret even more. "Dana just..." She shook her head. "I still can't believe she said this..." She cleared her throat and leaned forward, lowering her voice. "Dana told me that she and... she and Rebecca... are... Well, they're..."

It was painful to watch her struggle with it. "Together," Mulder said gently.

Margaret looked up. "You know?"

"Yes," Mulder affirmed.

Her reaction was immediate. "Did you try to stop it?"

Mulder frowned. "No."

"Why not?"

*Because I couldn't have stopped it if I tried. Because I would have lost her, both as a partner and a friend. Because most of her unhappiness is related to the X Files, and I blame myself for that...* "It's not my place," he said simply.

She couldn't believe it. "But it's... it's _wrong_! It's a _sin_..."

Mulder looked hesitant. "I'm probably not the best person to talk to about that. My feelings on what sin is have changed radically in the last few years."

Margaret was flabbergasted. "And you're not angry? Or even _concerned_?"

It was Mulder's turn to focus on the space between them. "I admit I _was_ concerned when Scully... when I first found out." *Too late, Mulder. Another cat's out of the bag.* Now Margaret knew Scully had told Mulder first. He glanced up at Scully's mother; her eyes communicated another layer of disappointment, maybe even betrayal. "I am _still_ concerned," Mulder added hastily. "We work in a profession that's less than enlightened, no matter who's in the White House. It could cause Scully trouble if the wrong people found out." *And that's just the normal pabulum-brained bureaucrats. Then there's a certain scum-sucking nicotine addict...* "But I'm _not_ concerned about Max."

"Why not," she asked again, desperate to understand.

*One reason the truth is unpopular is because it hurts.* "Because I don't think you could find someone who cares as much about Scully as Max does."

*"I've been waiting all my life for her, Mulder. Words haven't been invented to describe how much I love her...."* Mulder remembered the look in Max' eyes as she sat across from him at Friendly's. He would have needed a bathysphere to traverse the depth of feeling, in her statement and her eyes.

Mulder's last sentence seemed to dumbfound Margaret. "But... But I thought ... I'd always hoped the two of you would..." She gestured helplessly at the picture on the wall.

Mulder looked at the picture and sighed. *I've never told anyone there's no Santa Claus before...* He turned back and took Margaret's left hand in both of his. "Mrs. Scully, I love your daughter very much. She is..." He thought for a moment. "As close I'm probably ever going to get to having a sister again." For a moment, he was flooded with anguish; that was as close as he'd ever come to admitting he'd never be able to bring Samantha back. He pushed the feeling down and patted Margaret's hand. "But as far as anything beyond that... it's just not meant to be."

Margaret shook her head firmly. Denial flowed out of her. "You've been her friend, her protector. You've fought for her, searched for her, _saved_ her..."

"She's saved my life as much as I've saved hers," Mulder pointed out. "Even so, that doesn't mean we're supposed to be _together_."

"How is that possible," Margaret wanted to know, her voice high and choked. "You and Dana aren't supposed to be together... but Dana and this woman _are_?"

Mulder looked out the window. "I'm the last person I'd expect to say this, Mrs. S. But some things just can't _be_ explained. Some things just _are_."

Margaret closed her eyes now. She didn't cry, but she didn't speak. Mulder waited, knowing something would come out sooner or later. Ultimately, she said, "I don't know what to do. We... It's a terrible clichŽ, but it's true. We raised her differently than this. Dana's a _good_ girl. She knows right from wrong..."

"Yes," Mulder agreed. "She does." He squeezed her hand. "So if she knows right from wrong, and is _still_ doing it, what does that say to you?"

"Fox, it's not that simple..."

"Yes, it is. You can't believe how much thought Scully has put into this. She knows the risks. She knew this might cause you pain. And you _know_ she would never deliberately try to hurt you."

"No, she wouldn't," Margaret said, shaking her head slightly. She looked at her barely touched beer bottle. "So you don't think this... will go away. That this... this is real." Her voice picked up. "She said she still likes men. Maybe if she meets someone..."

Mulder shook his head solemnly. "Mrs. Scully, this is not a teenage crush. Your daughter knows that this is what she wants." He had a thought. "You say I've been Scully's protector. I guess that's true, though she's more than able to protect herself. Would I trust _Max_ to protect her? Guard her life, her safety, her feelings?" He nodded. "Yes. Without a doubt."

Margaret's eyes never left the bottle. "She's... She's a good person?"

"You've met her. Talked with her. What do _you_ think?"

Margaret considered the question. "I don't know what to say _now_. I liked her. She seemed so..." *Normal.* She stopped herself, recognizing that was too hackneyed, even in her present mental state. "She was funny, intelligent, easy to talk to. We were having a nice time..."

"And none of that has changed, just because now you know she loves your daughter. And she _does_, Mrs. Scully. Take my word for it."

She took another sip of beer. She didn't seem to like the second sip any more than she liked the first. "So what am I supposed to do now? Accept her? Accept this...this...?"

"I can't tell you _what_ to do, Mrs. Scully," *Much as I'd like to, and much as Scully would like me to...* "All I can say is... I know Scully would want your support. This is as big a step for her as it is for you." He reached out and squeezed Margaret's shoulder. "You are such a large part of her life. It would kill her if she lost you. Over this, or anything else."

Margaret seemed to think about that. After a time, she put the bottle down on the table and stood up. "I should go," she said quietly.

Mulder stood up with her. "I hope I've helped, if only a little."

"You have. A lot. But..." She stuffed her hands back into her pockets. "This is something only _I_ can really help _myself_ with." She held out her hand, which Mulder took. Then Margaret said, "Ohhh..." and wrapped Mulder in a fierce hug.

Mulder returned the embrace loosely. It wasn't like this was a new experience; Scully's mother had hugged him before -- at Christmas, and at the end of the Scully family dinners he'd been invited to. But this was different. He had known for too long that Margaret Scully wanted him standing by her daughter's side as the priest took them through the wedding vows; now she knew that day would never come, and Mulder knew how much that hurt.

Mulder walked her to the door, his hand in hers. He stopped before he opened it. "She's still your daughter. She's still the same person you love. That hasn't changed, either."

"No, it hasn't..." She looked up at him, her eyes cloudy. "But it _has_." She gave him a smile of thanks, opened the door herself, and walked out. Mulder closed it after her and put his forehead against the door. *Shit. Shit. Shit, shit, shit...*


<<SIBLING FIREFIGHT>>

Scully rubbed her eyes with her free hand. The bone weariness from the bumpy flight seemed to increase while she listened to the message:

"Dana, it's Billy. I _hope_ you're out on the job, and you're coming back in the near future. Call me as soon as you get in. I don't care how late." Beat. "I don't know what you're trying to pull, Sis, but if you think it's funny, you're _sadly_ mistaken!" Click. BEEP.

Scully ran her fingers over her scalp. *At least there's only _one_ message, and he hasn't been calling since I left Monday morning...* She tried not to be angry at her mother. *She probably couldn't carry it any longer. Still, I would have _liked_ to break the news to the boys _myself_...*

It had been five days since Scully told her mother her true feelings for Max; the few times Scully had been able to call Margaret from the road, she had gotten the answering machine. *No, that's not right. Tara picked up the phone last night, but Mom was out then, too. At least, that's what Tara _said_...* Scully picked up her hanging bag and lugged it into the bedroom. *Come on, don't be paranoid. She was perfectly friendly. Tara's _always_ perfectly friendly...*

The doorbell rang long and hard. Scully emitted a low growl. *Can't I sit down, at least, before I get pilloried?* She strode to the door and looked through the spyhole. "Fabulous," she said under her breath.

Charles stood at Parade Rest in the hallway, bundled against the weather in a dark blue watch cap and a blue hooded parka. He bounced on the balls of his feet, looking more impatient than angry. To Scully's dismay, Anger waited until she opened the door before it showed itself.

"Have you lost your mind," Charles asked rhetorically, pushing past her into the apartment.

Scully felt her ears getting warm. "I'm fine, Charlie. A little jet-lagged from the flight, but otherwise..."

"Don't try to be smart," Charles said quickly, using one of their father's favorite lines. "Close the door."

"Do you want to talk," Scully asked sharply. "Or do you want to scream?"

Charles waved a hand at the open door. "Will you close the damn..."

"Unh unh," Scully said, shaking her head. "No way. You want to holler, you can serenade the neighbors. You want to talk like socialized life forms, I' ll close the door."

"Do you want the whole _building_ to..."

"_No_, Charlie, I _don't_. So if you want to talk, that's fine. You want to chew me out? That's fine, too. But you do it in a civil tone of voice, or the door stays open. Or I close it after you leave. Your choice."

Charles smoldered for a moment, then nodded quickly and waved at the door again. Scully turned to close it. She didn't want to alienate either of her brothers, but she was damned if she was going to be yelled at in her own apartment. She had hoped she'd have less of a battle with Charles than with Billy. A month after she told her parents she was joining the FBI, Charles informed them of his intention to go into Naval Aviation, instead of climbing the same ladder to Command their father had climbed, and Billy was already climbing. Charlie's news was received only a little better than Dana's news (Their father referred to Navy pilots as "sideshow acrobats."), so 'the two mavericks' had done quite a lot of commiserating. The night before Dana left for Quantico, Charlie told her his decision was inspired by her decision to go her own way.

Charles didn't look like he was in Scully's apartment to commiserate. He pulled off his watch cap, dropped it on the side table, and unzipped his parka with a flourish. "I don't know where to begin here."

Scully leaned against the door and folded her arms. "How about by telling me when Mom told you."

"_Mom_ didn't tell me. She wasn't going to tell either of us. But she told Tara late last night. Tara called Billy, he got it out of Mom."

*Tara,* Scully thought darkly. *Who's always got a kind word for everyone.* Scully got along well enough with her older sister-in-law, but sometimes she was too much of a California ex-cheerleader to live. *At least Mom _tried_ to keep it to herself...* "'Got it out of her,' huh? What'd Billy have to use? Thumbscrews? Scopolamine? Cat'o'Nine Tails?"

"What do you expect? You think she was bursting to tell us this _wonderful_ news?"

"I'd _expect_ you to respect her wishes, which were probably to let _me_ tell you. Something I was going to do after Mom and I talked some more..."

Charles glared at her. "Talked some _more_? Why the hell did you tell her in the first place?!"

"Because she asked," Scully shot back.

Charlie could raise his eyebrow at a moment's notice, too. "She asked you if you were sleeping with a woman?"

"She was doing everything _but_," she maintained. "She'd met Max. She was asking about her..."

"Max?" Charles shook his head like he had water in his ears. "Her name is _Max_?"

"Her name is Rebecca Maxfield," Scully sighed. "Her friends call her Max."

Charles snorted. "Yeah, well, Max _would_ be a more _appropriate_ name..."

Scully walked toward him, eyes flaring. "You're pushing the envelope, Charlie."

"Hey, excuse me if I'm a little abrupt," Charlie retorted. "Christ on a crutch, Dana! You're _not_ _queer_!"

Coming from her younger brother's mouth, the word 'queer' was jarring in the extreme. Scully didn't back down, though. "I'm not _straight_, _either_, Charlie."

"Oh, that is _such_ a fucking hedge..."

*That's what I always thought. But I'm not telling _you_ that!* "It happens to be the _truth_!"

"Oh, Jesus," Charles snarled, turning away from her. He looked out the window at the headlights below. "Damn it, did you _have_ to tell her?"

Scully spread her arms out. "What was I _supposed_ to do? Lie to her?"

"Yes," Charles said immediately. "That's _exactly_ what you should have done!"

"Really? That's very interesting, Charlie. And how long was I supposed to keep this up? A week? A month? A year? Til she _dies_?"

"As long as it takes!"

"As long as it takes for _what_," Scully said, completely exasperated.

Charles spun around. "For you to come to your _senses_!"

Scully pressed her fingers to her eyes. *Give me strength!* She held out her hands. "Charlie, I am not under some _spell_ here. This is not a... a _whim_, or a _caprice_..."

Charles held his ground. "It is not _you_!"

Scully lost it. "How the hell do _you_ know what I am?! Up until six months ago, you were living in Italy and patrolling the Mediterranean! I haven't seen you more than three times since you were transferred to Norfolk..."

Charlie shook his head rapidly. "I don't need to _see_ you to know that what you're doing is _wrong_!"

"Is it wrong to be miserable, Charlie? Is it wrong to not let yourself _feel_ anything? Because that's the way I've lived my life the last few years! I've had to be Mount Everest, hard as a rock and just as cold, even when it hurt so bad, all I could do was sit in the shower and cry!" She stabbed a finger into her own chest. "Well, I'm _not_ made of stone! I have needs, just like everyone else!" She advanced on him slowly, reaching out to him again. "Charlie, for the first time in years, I'm _happy_! I've found someone who _cares_ for me..." Charles shut his eyes and turned away, unwilling to hear any more. The look of disgust on his face cut through Scully like a Ginsu knife. She raised her voice, words leaping from her mouth. "I'm not asking you to approve, or even accept it. But damn it, can't you _understand_ how I could..."

Charles exploded. "Understand? _Understand_? I'm supposed to understand that my sister is in love with a fucking _dyke_?!? How-"

Charles' head snapped right. He hadn't seen his sister wind up, much less launch the slap that cut off his diatribe. She had always been strong for her size, and the stinging blow let him know that strength had not diminished one whit. He put a hand to his cheek and ran his tongue along his gum line, searching for loose teeth. He gave Dana a sidelong look; the hand that had slapped him was now clamped over her mouth. Her eyes were wide with emotion, but that emotion wasn't fright.

The words came out of nowhere. "I don't want you at Caroline's party tomorrow."

Scully's eyes nearly popped out of her head. "What?"

"You heard me," he heard himself say. "Until you make some decisions about yourself, I don't want you around my kids."

"For God's sake, Charlie," Scully cried out. "I'm not _contagious_..."

"I don't know _what_ you are. Like you said." He went to the side table and snatched up his watch cap. "But until you decide to live like a normal person again, that's the way it's going to _be_." He stuffed the cap in one of the parka's huge pockets and started for the door.

"Charlie, wait!"

Charlie stopped, his hand on the doorknob. He turned to his sister, staying blank with all his might. Dana stood by the window, fists balled at her sides. Charles said nothing, waiting. Suddenly his sister ran into her bedroom. He was going to leave when he heard paper rustling furiously, like Dana was searching for something. Curiosity was about to get the better of Charles when Dana stormed back into the room, marched up to her brother, and stuffed a glossy yellow gift bag into his hands. A pink card envelope stuck out of the top.

The look Scully gave him would have turned lesser men to stone. "You can have it sterilized if you want," she said sarcastically. "But it'll mat the fur."

Charles looked into the bag. The yellow rain hat all Paddington bears wore peeked out from behind pink tissue paper. The bag was heavier than a teddy bear should have been. *She must have gotten her the book, too.* He looked up at Dana, started to speak, then just opened the door and strode out.

Scully didn't react when Charles belatedly slammed the door behind him. She just stood still, staring at the space where Charles had stood. The phone began to ring; Scully did not move to answer it. Her machine kicked in after five rings, as usual. When the message ended, the machine made its usual obnoxiously long beep. A caller's voice had a metallic sound when it came out of the speaker:

"Dana, this is Billy! You'd better not be ducking my calls..."

Scully started to shake.


<<LIQUEUR AND SYMPATHY>>

*Scully has way too many glasses for one person,* Mulder reflected, taking two small snifters out of the cupboard and placing them on the counter. He squatted down and opened the cabinet where Scully kept the booze. Mulder was about to grab the Jim Beam when he spotted a familiar brown bottle; he grinned despite the circumstances of his search. He uncorked the bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream as he stood, pouring a generous amount into each glass.

Scully was in the same position Mulder had found her when he let himself into the unlocked apartment. She lay on the bed facing the far wall, her knees hiked up in the fetal position. He paused in the doorway; she looked very small, and he could almost see the pain radiate from her. "You've been holding out on me."

"How's that?" Her voice was as small as she looked.

He walked around the bed, keeping his Smirk to a minimum. "You've been keeping the good stuff for yourself."

He held one of the snifters out to her. Scully smiled weakly when she saw what was in it. "I just thought you were a bourbon man."

"A likely story. Sit up. I didn't bring a straw."

"You just blew your tip," she muttered. She rolled onto her back and hiked herself into a sitting position, accepting the snifter with a slight nod of thanks. They touched glasses and sipped. The thick liqueur went down as smooth as silk. "My father loved this stuff."

*Ooops.* "Bad choice?"

She shook her head, taking another sip. "It's a very _peaceful_ drink. Peace is what I need right now."

If Charles' visit had been bad, Billy's phone call had been an absolute nightmare. Not only wouldn't he listen to reason, he wouldn't listen to anything else; he shouted down every objection, ignored every plea. He dressed her down like an Annapolis plebe, blaming her entirely for the tearful state their mother was in when Billy finished interrogating her. His final comment was akin to a direct order from a commanding officer to the lowliest of subordinates:

"I don't want to hear from you until you've ended this... _relationship_... and apologized to Mom. When that's done, you will never mention this again --not to Mom, not to me, not to _anyone_. And Dana, I swear to God, if you want to stay in this family, you will _never_ do something like this again!"

He'd slammed the phone down without waiting for a response. Scully couldn't have given him one, even if he'd been willing to listen to it. By the time Billy had hung up, she was sitting sideways on the couch with her knees against her chest, shaking like a leaf, her cheeks soaked with tears. It took her a good ten minutes to pull herself together enough to call Mulder, and another five to get up and go into the bedroom.

Mulder sat on the edge of the bed and looked his partner over. Her cheeks were dry now, but her eyes were still puffy and red. She needed a hug, among other things. "Do you want to talk about it?" Eventually Scully nodded, but she didn't speak. Mulder stuck with his psychology training. "Tell me what you're thinking."

Sculy took a sip, then another. Finally she said, "I'm thinking about how stupid I am." She shook her head slowly. "I knew the boys would react badly. I _knew_ that..." She was shaking again. "But I wasn't prepared for how... how _angry_... how _hateful_..."

"You couldn't have known," Mulder told her gently.

"I know this happens," Scully maintained, her voice shaking now. She brought her knees up to her chest again, wrapping her arms around them. She nearly spilled her drink. "There was a girl in my dorm at Maryland, Julie..." She sighed and shook her head when she couldn't think of the girl's last name. "She was going to be an ophthalmic surgeon, like her dad. Great girl. Always made you laugh in Pathology class when you got too green. She..." Scully took another sip. "We came back from Christmas vacation, and the RA was helping her move her stuff out of her room. Her parents had pulled her out of school. She'd told them..." Scully started to tear up again, her voice becoming progressively strangled. "They'd shut her out of the house, closed her bank account. She had no money and only the clothes on her back. We gave her what we could, but she had nowhere to go. The RD wouldn't even let her sleep on the floor in one of our rooms..."

Mulder held out a hand. Scully took it, squeezing tightly as she cried. He couldn't think of anything else to do, so he fell back on humor. "Good thing the lease is in your name."

Scully snorted. She amended the snort by saying, "It's not funny, Mulder."

"No," he said quietly. "It isn't."

He let go long enough for her to dry her tears. When she'd finished, she sought out his hand again. They drank in silence, sipping their Bailey's and holding hands in the dimly lit room. After a while, Scully said, "I am sohhhhhhhh... _furious_..."

*That's a good sign.* "Why?"

She took a long sip before she spoke. "You told me I haven't had much of a life since we started working together. But if I'm going to be honest, I haven't _let_ myself have a life. I haven't let myself _feel_. I didn't think I was _entitled_ to feel, I guess. I had to be strong, because that was my role. And that's the way I lived my life... until I met Max." She sniffled. "And now that I've found her... now that I'm _letting_ myself feel something..." Her voice rose, her words spoken through gritted teeth. "I'm being told I have to _stop_. That I _can't_ feel the way I do, because it's not _right_, it's not _me_, it's not _allowed_! Because I don't _really_ feel this way, I just _think_ I do..."

"They're looking out for your welfare," Mulder said neutrally.

"Then why did Billy act like the only reason this happened was because I wanted to hurt Mom? It was a given he'd play Patriarch; that's been his role since Dad died. But how could he even _think_ I could do that? Why is it _his_ decision whether I'm _allowed_ to be part of the family? And Charlie... Suddenly I can't come near his children - near my _Goddaughter_ - because I' m in love with a woman?" Her voice started to rise. "If I was in love with a no-good son of a bitch who belittled me in public and abused me in private, would it be okay as long as it was a man?" Scully clasped his hand so hard it hurt. "If _that's_ their idea of looking out for me, let them look out for _themselves_!"

The vehemence of Scully's statement made Mulder want to lean back. He was torn; while he thought her brothers had acted deplorably, he knew how important Scully's family was to her, and how important she was to her mother. "Have you tried to talk with your mom again?"

Scully shook her head. "I think Tara's playing gatekeeper. Mom hasn't returned any of my calls. That's not like her."

"She's still shook up..."

"Sure, after Billy re-enacted the Spanish Inquisition!"

"Then she's probably embarrassed. I think your guess was right: That she wasn't going to tell them, that you'd want to do it yourself." Mulder shrugged, a smile playing with the corners of his mouth. "Besides, _nobody_ expects the Spanish Inquisition..."

He would have done the whole Monty Python routine, but Scully let go of his hand and threw a pillow at him. He ducked, but the movement made him fall off the bed with a loud thump. Scully put her glass on the night table and clambered to the foot of the bed, anger replaced by concern. "Mulder, are you all right?"

Mulder was on his back, leaning on his elbows. His snifter was on its side, but he'd finished most of his drink, so nothing had spilled. He Smirked up at her. "I'm not worried any more."

Scully blinked. "About what?"

He red-lined the Smirk. "About you shooting me. If you can't hit me with a pillow at point blank range, how are you ever gonna put a bullet in me?"

Scully's response was immediate. "I'll just wait til you open your mouth. I can't miss a target _that_ big."

Mulder just chuckled. Scully put her head down on the bed and laughed quietly. She put a hand on Mulder's knee, and he put a hand over it. The phone rang, causing Scully to start. She looked over her shoulder at the white trimline next to the radio on the night table. After the second ring, Mulder said, "You could screen it."

Scully considered the suggestion. "I could stay in this apartment with the doors locked the rest of my life. I'm not going to do that, either." She crawled up the bed, took the phone off the stand, and switched it on. "Hello?" Her uncertain expression melted into one of relief. "God, am I glad to hear your voice."

Mulder didn't need a crystal ball to know who it was. He got up and tiptoed out of the bedroom, grabbing his snifter as an afterthought. "I'll be out here," he mouthed to Scully.

Scully propped herself up against the stacked pillows. "Thank you," she mouthed back.

<<DECISION POINT>>

Max kept meaning to get a cordless phone, but she never found one she liked at a price she could afford. As a stopgap measure, she bought longer cords for both her phones. The ones on the living room phone let her pace the floor or sit on the couch, which was a fair distance from the phone table in the foyer.

She paced for most of Scully's description of her brothers' respective pronouncements. Max had been racked with sorrow when she heard about Margaret Scully's reaction to her daughter's new relationship; now Max was as far from sadness as she could get, particularly when it came to Lieutenant Commander William Scully Jr.

"I'll kill him," she said, her voice quivering with rage.

"Max..."

"I'm serious. I am _dead_ serious. That miserable bastard better get his teeth cleaned, 'cause they're gonna need dental records to identify him when I'm through with his low-rent self..."

"I appreciate the sentiment," Scully said quietly. "But when I come up to see you, I'd like to meet somewhere other than the Visitor's Area at Walpole."

"Who says I'd get caught? I've seen every mistake a perp could make! I could waste Captain America and no one would be the wiser..."

"Max, how many cases have you closed where the perp was _sure_ he'd never get caught?"

Max ran a hand over her face, remembering her second case in Homicide. The OneBank vice-president (*What was his name? Donnelly? Donofree? Donofree, yeah. John Patrick Donofree...*) had almost succeeded in making it look like his wife Patricia had left him for another man; his girlfriend had left Patricia Donofree's Lexus in the Long Term lot at Logan and bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles using Patricia's credit card. *Even made herself up to look like the guy's wife. Too bad she used _her own_ credit card to buy dinner on the way to San Francisco.* Donofree looked truly stunned when the Bear slapped the cuffs on him. "Okay, okay," Max muttered. She plopped down on the couch. "Can I neuter him, at least? I'll make sure the samurai sword' s good and sharp..."

"Mom wants more grandkids to play with. Sorry."

"You're no fun any more." She blew air out her nose. "All right, fine, he lives, and we don't make him a soprano." Beat. "But if he talks to you like that again, I will nuke him til he _glows_. I swear I will!"

Scully sighed, wishing she could hug her lover. "I've never had anyone defend my honor before."

"Get used to it." She leaned back so the base of her skull lay on the top of the couch. Her voice softened. "What _do_ you want to do about this?"

Scully was silent. Max never thought silence could be so loud. "They want me to end it. They want me to go back to the way I was. They want me to shut down..."

"I realize this." *Keep breathing, Maxie.* She fixed her gaze on a cobweb on one of the ceiling beams. *That's gonna go condo if I don't sweep it off...* "Do you want to go covert? Fly low, avoid the radar...?"

"You mean lie."

"I know how much they mean to you, girl," she said quietly.

"Yes," Scully said slowly. "They mean a lot to me. But up until now, I was supposed to mean a lot to _them_, too. I mean, we weren't just brothers and sisters, we were a _team_! We _always_ backed each other up, no matter _what_ the situation. Now they tell me none of that matters, and I can only be part of the family if I live my life the way _they_ want?" She took a deep breath. "They should be careful what they wish for."

Max leaned forward until her elbows rested on her knees. "Baby, I don't want to drive a wedge between you and your family..."

"_They're_ the one's doing the driving, Max," Scully said evenly. "I think they should live with the wedge for a while. See how they like it."

*Oh, my ears and whiskers...* "Woof!" Max' usual declaration of disbelief had none of the starch it usually held.

"There is an element of strategy here, Max," Scully explained. "Mom hasn't talked to me at all since she found out about us. Now, maybe Billy's wife is keeping her away from the phone, or maybe Mom's hoping this will go away if she ignores it; she's always done passive-aggressive really well..."

"Or maybe she's just still freaked out," Max put in.

"Maybe," Scully acceded. "Whatever the reason... If I do this, maybe I can get her to talk about this some more... maybe get her to understand..."

Max longed for a drink; her mouth was dry as dust. "And if she _doesn't_ understand? Or if she sides with the Brothers Grim?"

Scully was amazed at how calm she sounded. *The Ice Queen cometh.* "Then I guess Charlie's kids won't have to bunk with him and Karen this Christmas. Because my room will be vacant."

Max swallowed hard. "You are the strongest person I know."

Scully's voice was as flat as it got. "I won't walk away from you, Max. I won't lie to my family, but I won't walk away from you. I _can't_."

For the first time in her memory, Detective First Grade Rebecca Maxfield was utterly speechless. *She's willing to give it all up. For _me_. Oh, Goddess, I love her so much. Please don't make her hate me for doing it...*

When Max didn't speak, Scully said, "Say something."

"Sorry," Max croaked. "I'm polishing my imitation of a stunned person. Gimme a minute."

Scully's voice sharpened. "Would you walk away from _me_ if your family laid down the law?"

"Ain't gonna happen. Mom thinks you're a hot ticket. Mike says he wants to have you cloned, so he can have a girlfriend as cool as mine..."

"But _would_ you?"

The thought of her family ostracizing her, for any reason, made Max sick with horror. But she didn't hesitate. "I'd rather French-kiss Ross Perot on 'Larry King Live.'"

"See," Scully returned. "You _do_ know someone stronger than me."

The laughter exploded out of both of them. Max felt tears run down her face. "Mike's right. I _do_ have a cool girlfriend."

By the sound of Scully's laughter, she was probably crying, as well. "You too, huh? Aren't we lucky?"

*Lucky... I couldn't have this much luck again if the Goddess gave me _two_ lifetimes!* "Oh, baby... Oh, Jesus, I do love you so."

"Me too, you," Scully managed.

"So, ummm... it's you and me. Forever, and all that good shit."

"You and me," Scully whispered. "Forever."

Max pounded the couch softly. *Yes. Yes. Yes.* "Then can I ask a question?"

Scully gave a long sniffle. "Shoot."

"Would you like to see how the Maxfields do Christmas?"

"I would love that," Scully said, smiling through more tears. "I would love that a lot."


<<COFFEE AND CONFESSIONS>>

Max waited until the waitress took their coffee order before she said it again. "'Who the fuck are _you_? Th' Spice Girls?'"

It broke both of them up for the tenth time. "Ohhhhh, he was _so_ tough," Bridgit chortled.

"Tougher than a pit bull at a cat show," Max agreed, the giggling making her quake. She pulled two plastic-covered menus out of a standing metal clip and handed one to her partner.

Red and white Christmas lights blinked above their booth. The last notes of "The Little Drummer Boy" floated out of a radio behind the counter. When the last "rum pum pum" pummed, an unctious voice reminded whoever was listening that there were "only _five_ shopping days til Christmas, and the stores are _packed_! So if you haven't bought your presents yet, better get out the crash helmet and the elbow pads and _get going_..."

"How much time did we put in on that son of a bitch," Bridgit wondered. "Including paperwork?"

Max tapped the menu lightly, calculating. "Hour at the crime scene, maybe another hour canvassing the neighbors. Fifteen minutes to find the bar our boy was in..."

"Wasn't it _nice_ of him to drink locally," Bridgit cracked.

"Sure made _my_ night easier." Max' tongue peeped out the corner of her mouth. "Ten minutes for a blue-and-white to show up?"

Bridgit considered the question. "Closer to fifteen."

"Whatever. Three minutes to haul his half-drunk-and-nasty ass out of there. Twenty minutes to get a raft of shit and no real alibi time from his fellow lush-life devotees. Fifteen minutes for transport. An hour in Interrogation breaking him down..."

"You said it'd take _half_ an hour," Bridgit reminded her, her eyes gleaming.

"I was right, though, wasn't I," Max maintained, trying not to sound defensive. "He was a crybaby. We had him bawling for his mama when they took him..."

"You _said_ it'd take _half an hour_."

"This is why I'm buying breakfast," Max admitted, still slightly sour. "Twenty minutes re-living the experience with the rest of the shift, and an hour on the paperwork." She looked blank, then sighed in frustration. "I lost track. How much is that?"

Bridgit looked sour now. "_Way_ too much time and effort to spend on a cockroach like that."

"Hey, sometimes even Dunkers take a little work," Max shrugged. "At least we got him nailed before the end of shift. If I have to fight the Powers That Be for overtime, I'd like to do it on a case that offers a little challenge."

"Perfectionist," Bridgit observed dryly.

Max had a mild retort, but she held it back when the waitress brought their coffee. She ordered pancakes with wheat toast and orange juice; Bridgit almost ordered the biggest item she could find, but she spared Max' wallet and settled for a cheese-and-mushroom omelet, "dry rye toast, hold the home fries."

The still-half-asleep waitress nodded and went away. Max grabbed some Sweet' n'Lo and dumped the contents in her cup. She laughed at her actions. "Lord love a duck!"

"What's the matter," Bridgit asked, pouring cream into her own cup.

"We just worked from Midnight to 8. We don't _have_ to stay awake any more. _Why_ are we drinking more caffeine?"

"I can't speak for _you_," Bridgit answered, holding the cup below her lips. "Personally, I'd kind of like to be able to make it home without wrapping my Neon around a lamppost."

"Good point," Max allowed. "Seeing as you're giving me a ride, and all." She took a sip. It was better than squadroom coffee, but not much. "So. You feel any better than you did when you came to work?"

Bridgit thought about it. "Not a whole lot. I guess I'm still adjusting."

Max felt sorry for her, but that emotion only went so far. "No offense, B, but if you're gonna go out with married men..."

"Mark was separated," Bridgit said into her cup.

"Oh, puh-leeze," Max groaned. "I'm sorry, B, but I've had this exact same conversation with my friend K.C.. Twice, as a matter of fact. Until they sign the dotted line and set up the alimony schedule, they are _still_ _married_, no matter _what_ they say their intentions are."

Bridgit waved her off. "Yeah, yeah, I know, I know." She took another sip and put her cup back in the saucer. "But for Christ's sake, Max, it's hard enough finding _single_ guys that are worth a shit in this town! I swear, except for Mark, I haven't had a date that was worth following up since I moved back here! They're either Momma's Boys or misogynists. They all dress like male models, but their minds are in jeans and t-shirts. I take one look at the proto-Yuppies lined up at the bar at Friday's, and I just wanna _run_!"

"Can't fault you there," Max said sympathetically.

"And I sure can't date anyone at _work_," Bridgit went on. "That's a disaster I can live without..."

"Tell me about it," Max grumbled. "I've got the divorce papers to prove it."

It was Bridgit's turn to look sympathetic. Then she looked off and sighed. "Maybe I ought to just quit, you know? Get an unlisted number and a subscription to 'Playgirl'. At least with a _virtual_ sex life, nobody breaks up with you."

"Depends how dysfunctional your brain's fantasy function is." Then Max snickered. "Besides, I can't see you being satisfied with the sound of one hand typing." She rolled up her eyes and started panting frantically.

"Will you _stop_," Bridgit giggled, looking over her shoulder. "Shit, I can' t take you _anywhere_!"

Max brought her demeanor back to normal, pleased she could do something to bring her partner out of her funk. "Well, I'd hook you up with that Feebie I know, but K.C. already has first dibs if he ever comes back to town."

Bridgit gave her a dubious look. "You dealing reconditioned boyfriends now, Max? I don't know who to call, Bunco or Vice..."

"Mulder's not my _boyfriend_, B," Max sighed.

"I guess not, if you're fobbing him off on poor unsuspecting..."

"He's just a _friend_. Nothing happened between us. Nothing's _going_ to happen between us."

"Why the hell not? All that gunfire didn't bring you closer together? It's been known to happen..."

*You don't know the half of it.* Max searched in vain for the waitress. "Believe me, B, you just don't wanna know."

Bridgit's smile looked almost sinister. "Ohhhhh, _now_ you've done it. Now I'm _intrigued_." She leaned forward and folded her arms on the table. "What' s this guy Mulder's problem? Is he kinky?"

"Drop it, B," Max warned.

"No chance. Come on, give it up. He likes handcuffs and leather? Whips and chains? Does he want you to put on a halter top and an Afro wig and re-create scenes from 'Cleopatra Jones?'"

"The problem is, it's not _his_ problem," Max said quickly. "It's _my_ problem." She lowered her voice. "I'm in love with his partner."

"You mean the woman wasn't his regular partner?" Bridgit whistled. "He must be a serious babe if he's better than the guy I saw."

Max took a deep breath, like someone who was about to dive into the deep end of a swimming pool. "The woman _was_ his regular partner, B."

Bridgit blinked, them blinked again, then smiled. "Come on-You're bullshitting me, right?"

Max looked her partner right in the eye. "No shit. Dead serious."

Bridgit blinked some more as the smile faded. The waitress arrived, loaded down with plates. The two detectives silently held each other's stare while she arranged their respective breakfasts on the scarred table. Max waited until she went away before she shrugged. "Told ya you didn't want to know."

The lanky dyed-blonde dropped her eyes to her breakfast. "Ummm, yeah," she finally managed. "That may have been too much information."

*Oh, great. Isn't _this_ special...* "I take it you don't approve."

Her partner looked up, but her gaze went over Max' right shoulder. "It's not that I don't _approve_..." She paused, then shook her head. "I just can't _relate_, I guess..."

"Okay," Max said carefully. "That's fair..."

"And..." Bridgit seemed to be struggling with something; this surprised Max, who found her partner did not lack for the ability of self-expression. Finally, she said, "I had a bad experience..."

"I'm sorry..."

"I mean, _I_ didn't have it," Bridgit said quickly. "It was... Well..."

"If you don't want to talk about it, don't," Max said, unable to sound anything but curt. "It's okay."

"No." Bridgit shook her head. She kept her voice low, too. "I want you to understand where I'm coming from." She took a deep breath. "I told you I was a jock in high school, didn't I?"

Max took a bite of toast. "Swimmer, right?"

Bridgit nodded. "Swimming, lacrosse... and a little bit of track. Hurdles, long jump..." She took a sip of coffee. "Anyway, one afternoon after practice, I was on my way home, when I realized I left my watch in my locker. It was a new watch, I'd just gotten it for my birthday, so I wasn't used to wearing it yet." She sighed. "So I go back, and the gym isn't locked, which was weird, because practice had ended, like, an hour before." Her eyes dropped to her plate again. "I get my watch and I'm about to leave, when I hear the shower's running. I go over, figuring someone left it on, and solid citizen that I am, I'll turn it off..." She took another deep breath, closing her eyes for a second. "One of my friends, our star sprinter, was in there... with the Girl's Track coach."

"Jesus," Max hissed.

"They were... engrossed."

Max' eyes were as wide as the saucer her coffee cup sat on. "What did you do?"

"Bolted. Got on my bike and burned rubber home. Nearly got hit by a car when I crossed an intersection against the light. I quit the team the next day..."

"You turned her in, right?"

Bridgit looked confused. "My friend?"

"No, dipshit," Max snapped in a whisper. "The coach!"

Bridgit's expression was unreadable. "You think I should have?"

"Yes, of _course_ I think you..." Then Max translated the expression. "Oh, come _on_, B! _Please_ don't tell me you buy that 'recruiting' bullshit! You've got a _lot_ more sense than that..."

"Okay," Bridgit said evenly, gesturing for Max to go on. "What would _you_ call it?"

*Don't scream. Wait til you get home.* "I call it pedophilia!" Bridgit started to object, but Max rode right over her. "It doesn't _matter_ that the perp's a woman! For fuck's sake, _you_ were on Sex Crimes! You know that shit's not about _sex_! It's about _power_! You don't _know_ what you are at that age! You only know what you're _told_! Anyone who takes advantage of that oughta be strapped to a satellite and launched into deep space!"

"I'm glad to hear you say that..."

"What did you _think_ I was going to say? Did you think I would _approve_?"

An enraged Max was not a fun thing to look at, even if it was a quietly enraged Max. "I'm sorry," Bridgit said penitently. "That was stupid."

"_Real_ stupid," Max declared. She grabbed her fork and savagely cut into her pancakes.

Bridgit picked up her fork and cut off a piece of omelet. Nothing was said for some time, until Bridgit meekly spoke up. "I always knew."

'Skeptical' didn't begin to describe Max' expression when she looked up. "_Always_."

Her partner didn't hesitate. "From the second Arnie Lingenfelder kissed me outside the Boylston Street Burger King."

A smile flirted with Max' mouth, despite her fury. "Arnie Lingenfelder?"

"Don't laugh," Bridgit said, wagging a finger at her. "For a sixth-grader, he was a fox. Imagine Fred Savage without the chipmunk cheeks."

That got a short giggle. Max was considering the possibility of calming down. "So did you guys... progress to the next level?"

Bridgit's eyes narrowed. "We would have if I hadn't found him kissing Melanie Brigham in the video arcade behind the Plaza."

"Oh, shit," Max said gravely. "What'd you do?"

"Kicked both their asses, and ran home thinking the world had just ended."

Max grimaced. "They call it a crush because it hurts that bad when it lands on you."

"Yup, yup, yup." Beat. "What you said before... Was it like that for you?"

"What?"

"You know," Bridgit shrugged. "Not knowing... what you were?"

"You did Catholic school," Max pointed out, biting off another piece of toast. "Did they give _you_ any options besides marriage and kids?"

Bridgit snorted softly. "Not a lot."

"That's the way it was for me." Max put her fork down and picked up her orange juice, though she didn't drink it. "I did the full routine: Dating, boyfriends... even went to the Senior Prom, meringue chiffon dress and the whole nine yards. I got along with guys. I _get_ along with guys." She toasted the air. "Everywhere but in bed."

"That must have sucked."

Max rolled her eyes. "Did wonders for my self-esteem."

"I'll bet." Bridgit leaned forward again. Her tone was inquisitive, not accusing. "Why'd you get married, then?"

Max sipped some OJ before she spoke. "Because Richard was sweet in a big-lug kinda way. Because we got along better than most folks did. Because he was going to be a cop, too, and I figured he'd understand what I'd be going through..."

"_Big_ mistake," Bridgit put in.

"Yeah," Max admitted. *It ain't slander if it's true.* "My parents liked him. He and my dad watched football games together..." Pause. "He said he loved me. I thought... No, I _did_ love him." She sighed. "And the sex was mediocre instead of terrible, and I thought that was the best I could expect..." She displayed a textbook example of an ironic smile. Bridgit could see the sadness in Max' eyes, even though it had dulled with the years. "People have gotten married for _worse_ reasons. Right?"

"Oh yeah," Bridgit said dryly. "My first roommate at UNC. She got married the middle of junior year, never got her degree. Boy was the heir to some tobacco kingdom. Grantham was a half-witted Ken doll, but you would've thought she'd landed Prince Charles. She's a Tarheel born and bred, and Big Tobbacky can do no wrong in that state."

"Did she smoke?"

"Like a shoe factory working three shifts. I had to air out the room every day." Sense Memory brought the smell of it back to Bridgit. It made her want to wash her hair.

"Daddy must've _loved_ her." She gave her partner an appraising look. "Is this going to be a problem?"

Bridgit dropped her eyes again. "Not as long as you stay on your side of the table."

Max closed her eyes. She felt incredibly tired. "You're not my type, B."

The rampantly hetero mixed-race woman surprised both of them. "Why the hell not?"

Max couldn't help but laugh. "If you're not interested, why do you want to know?"

Bridgit looked around the diner, wondering where her last statement had come from. "I don't know," she finally admitted. Then she said, "Maybe Mark's given me a thing about rejection."

"See why you shouldn't go out with married guys?" Max laughed a little more, then said, "Well, aside from being too tall, and a cop - a cop who happens to be on the same squad I am, which would be another nightmare in and of itself..."

"You ain't lying," Bridgit agreed.

The laughter faded. "...your name's all wrong."

"Excuse me?

She almost whispered it. "It isn't Dana Scully."

Respect appeared in Bridgit's eyes. "She hits that hard, huh?"

"All that and a raspberry lollipop," she said, picking up her coffee and finishing it.

*God damn,* Bridgit thought. *I think I'm actually _jealous_...* Outside of high school, which was not the real world, Bridgit had yet to find anyone with whom she could have that depth of feeling. The closest she'd come was the prematurely gray stockbroker who went back to his wife the afternoon before. She changed the subject, for a number of reasons. "I want to keep being your partner."

Max looked at her suspiciously. "Why?"

Bridgit blinked. "'Why?' I thought you wanted..."

"I just want to make sure you're not doing it to be a good liberal Democrat."

*She's got a point. And she's got the right to ask, after the mule-ass stupid way I acted.* "There," she said after a moment. "_There's_ a reason. You're the first Republican I've ever been able to talk with without reaching for a blunt instrument. My sister would be so proud."

"Hell of a basis for a partnership," Max said, faintly whimsical.

"Okay, how about this." She looked Max right in the eye. "You don't treat me like I'm three days out of the Police Academy, with Cream of Mushroom soup for brains. I _know_ Hegeman has twenty more years on the job than I do. But God damn it, I was police for five years in Charlotte before I moved back here. Most of it was uniform, sure, but I did two years in the trenches with Robbery, and _three_ years here at Sex Crimes before I got kicked up to Homicide. I'm not a fucking _rookie_..."

"No, you're not," Max assured her. "You're a good cop, and your gonna be good Murder Police." Bridgit's usual devilish grin made a comeback. Max held up a hand. "But you've got to understand. Homicide's like Major League Baseball: It's as high as you can go. The veterans will make you prove yourself, no matter what you've done at other levels. The Bear did it to me, to the point where I was ready to shoot it out with him in the middle of Copley Square." She made an accommodating gesture. "Though I will admit Dave lacks Bear's bewitching vibe..."

"Hegeman's about as _bewitching_ as a rhino with PMS."

"You're such a phrasemaker." The two women broke up, giving each other real smiles, friendly smiles. "Okay," Max finally said. "Partners."

"Partners," Bridgit nodded. Her smile shrank and her head turned, like she expected a blow. She looked at Max out of the corner of her eye. "Friends? Even if I do say stupid shit from time to time?"

Max waved her off. "I say stupid shit _all_ the time. Why should the rest of the world have all the fun?" Bridgit laughed, her relief evident. Max held out her little finger. "Friends."

Bridgit touched it with her own pinkie. "Excellent."

* * * * *

<<THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS>>

Scully saved the document to hard disc and floppy, went to the pull-down menu, and clicked on 'Print'. She checked her watch (*Three minutes to spare,* she noted with satisfaction.) and looked up from her finished report. Mulder was squinting at the screen as he laboriously typed, the letters reflected in the wire-rim glasses he'd taken to wearing when he worked at the computer. "Didn't they offer typing classes where you went to high school," she asked dryly.

Mulder never took his eyes off the screen. "Sure they did," he smiled. "It was a great place to meet girls."

Scully threw a raised eyebrow at him. "Which explains why you're typing with two fingers, at approximately twenty words a minute."

"Some of the great writers of history were hunt-and-peck." Mulder said placidly.

"Name three." She leaned back in her chair with her arms folded.

Mulder clicked on a typo and wiped it out with a touch of the 'Delete' button. He was damned if he was going to backspace it away during this conversation. "Stephen King. Admitted as much in an interview."

"That's one."

He thought a moment. "Morley Safer."

Her eyes became hooded. "The guy from '60 Minutes?'"

"He did a piece on the Orient Express years ago. They showed him typing copy in his cabin. Two fingers, on a Royal typewriter. I joined the school newspaper the next day."

"I hope you were better with deadlines back then," Scully commented.

"I _always_ meet my deadlines." Before Scully could hoot, he added, "And then I wave at them as they go by."

Scully rolled her eyes. "Okay, I'll give that one to you. One more."

Mulder stopped typing, pondered a little bit more, then said, "Chaucer."

Now _both_ of Scully's eyebrows were reaching for the sky. "Chaucer?"

He Smirked at the screen as he began to type again. "Why do you think it took so long to write 'The Canterbury Tales'? He got all those stories in a long weekend. It just took years to pound 'em all out."

His partner was about to make an acerbic comment when Mulder's watch alarm went off. He looked chagrined as he turned it off. "Time," Scully said, a ghost of a smile on her face.

Mulder seemed inordinately interested in his watch. "Well, are you finished?"

Scully pointed at the humming laser printer. "What do you think's happening over there? Are _you_ finished?"

He sat back in his chair and folded his hands on his stomach. "Define 'finished'."

"'Finished' means _my_ expense report was done before noon." She stood, straightening her jacket as she did. "_Your_ expense report, on the other hand, is still in the conceptual stage..."

"Good fiction takes time..."

"...which means _you're_ buying lunch. Let's go."

"I hear there's a great special at the cafeteria," Mulder said hopefully, gnawing at his lip for a moment.

Scully would not be denied. "K Street Deli. Grilled Reuben, coleslaw and fries, bottomless glasses of iced tea, and a dill pickle the size of a zeppelin. I've been dieting three days for this. Come on, get your coat. The line at the counter's probably out the door as it is."

Mulder sighed, saved what he'd accomplished, and closed the file. "Don't they feed you on the shuttle?"

"Aren't you the one who said airports installed food courts so people could have a chance of experiencing actual _food_ while traveling? Besides, the flight's not long enough for anything but beverage cart service. A Diet Coke and a bag of pretzels only goes so far."

"That's for sure." He opened the bottom drawer of his desk. "Well, before we go, I'd like to get _this_ done first." He was smiling as he pulled out a shopping bag, gaily decorated with holly and ivy.

Scully brightened for the first time in two weeks. They hadn't discussed exchanging presents today, and Scully hoped to surprise Mulder at lunch. For once, she was pleased he'd beaten her to the punch. She pulled a flat square box out of her briefcase and presented it to him. A card was taped to the red-and-gold wrapping paper. "You go first."

Mulder grinned exuberantly as he took the package from her. "Well, I guess it's not 'The Complete Shakespeare.'"

"It could be on CD ROM," she pointed out, giving him a taste of his own Smirk.

Mulder just chuckled as he tore open the package. The head of a demonic clown cackled at him from the top of a hurtling ice cream truck. Mulder's grin doubled in strength as he turned the jewel case over in his hands. "'Twisted Metal 2,'" he said, his voice almost reverent.

"The salesperson at CompUSA insists this version's better than the original." Her tone was dry, but her smile was genuine as she sat on the edge of his desk. "I thought a man with your driving habits ought to have the game."

"So I can keep my skills polished?"

"So you can work them out in a virtual environment. It'll save the taxpayers the cost of all those crumpled rent-a-cars. Are you going to open the card?"

"One thing at a time," Mulder admonished her. "Don't tell me you _never_ opened a present without reading the card first."

"Not in front of the person who gave it to me," she returned, unmoved by his argument.

Mulder laughed quietly as he tore open the beige envelope. The card was had a Monet print on the front - a snow scene, with a crow sitting on the fence of a farmhouse. Mulder opened the card to read the inscription; two pieces of hard rectangular paper fell into his lap. When he picked them up and saw what they were, his grin went beyond boyish. "Knicks-Wizards tickets?"

Scully smiled, pleased at how much he was pleased. "I tried to get tickets for the Bulls, but those games apparently sell out approximately two minutes after they go on sale." Mulder picked up the other ticket, examining them both like they were made of platinum. Scully nodded at them. "They're up a little high, but I've been assured they're center court."

Mulder opened his mouth to speak, then grabbed the card with his other hand and read the inscription, written in Scully's always-perfect penmanship:

*I can't count the times you've puzzled me, angered me, infuriated me, made me feel like the world is a place that's yet to be defined. But without this partnership, my life would be a drive across Nebraska - never changing, ever boring. Thank you - For your support, for your friendship, and for teaching me that Chinese take-out is one of the four basic food groups. Merry Christmas! Scully.*

Mulder bit his lip as he smiled. *I may have to install a fireplace in the apartment, so I have a mantle to display this.* "Thank _you_," he said, looking up at her with great warmth. Scully just smiled back at him; she didn't need to say anything else. He pushed the bag forward. "Your turn."

Scully pulled it towards her and looked inside it. She frowned. "_Three_ presents?"

"The rectangular box is for Max," he explained.

Her left eyebrow took the express elevator. "Really?"

"I think she'll like it," he said, smiling shyly. "It's a subject we both enjoy."

Scully took note of the shape of the box. "You're not sharing your video collection with her, are you?"

"Not the part _you're_ thinking of," Mulder chided her. "It's a tape of Game 6 of the '75 World Series. SportsChannel played it during the strike."

"If the Red Sox are in it, I know she'll love it." She touched the wrapped videotape with her fingertips. "I'm really glad you two like each other."

Mulder leaned back and stretched. "Hey, she's the kid brother I never had." Scully started to give him the Fish Eye, but he quickly added, "And she cares for you. That goes a long way with me." Her expression softened, her smile touched with gratitude. He nodded at the bag. "Go on. Open _your_ stuff."

She looked at him a moment more before she put her hand in the bag, pulled the bright red envelope off the biggest gift, and opened it as slowly as she could. Mulder looked amused at the display, but did not comment. As Scully expected, it was a Far Side Christmas card; he made sure to give her one on Christmas and birthdays. The cartoon strip was one of her secret vices, and Mulder knew what she thought about the state of the Comics page since Gary Larsen retired. She beamed at the familiar image and opened the card. Mulder's handwriting was not nearly as neat as hers was; she considered it a major victory she even knew how to decipher it:

*At heart, I'm lazy as hell. I only work hard on things I like to do. But you make me work more, think more, and go that extra mile. You said you've become a better agent working with me. That goes both ways. I owe you for that, and for so much more. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. No one deserves it more than you do. Cheers! Mulder.*

"I come out of this office with red eyes," she said huskily, "and people are going to talk."

"They're _already_ talking," Mulder said, feigning unconcern. "You just have to look at it from a philosophical standpoint."

She snorted. "And your philosophy is?"

"'Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.'"

Even though she knew he took "the Never Ending Rumor" more seriously than he let on, Scully couldn't help but giggle. She reached into the bag again and pulled out the biggest package. It was light but bulky, and poorly wrapped to boot. The thought of Mulder wrapping Christmas presents rocked her with silent mirth. *Maybe he could get the Gunmen to help next year,* she thought as she opened the package carefully. *If I videotape it, I could market it as 'The Four Stooges Do Christmas'...*

The wrapping wasn't even close to perfect, but the oversized black T-shirt inside the wrapping was folded quite neatly. "I'M SORRY, DID I BREAK YOUR CONCENTRATION?" was written on the back in white silk-screened letters. The logo for 'Pulp Fiction' was on the front, just about where a breast pocket might have been sewn.

"Your favorite film," she commented, trying not to sound too sarcastic.

"Not my _favorite_ film," he corrected her. "My favorite film is my favorite Christmas film."

She cocked her head. "And that is?"

He looked at her like the answer was obvious. "_Lethal Weapon_."

Scully closed her eyes and shook her head. "Boy, it's fun working with kids."

"Come on, W.C.," he laughed, nodding at the bag. "Open your other present."

Scully draped the shirt over her left shoulder and pulled the smaller package out of the bag. This one was in a different paper, obviously professionally wrapped. Inside was a white unmarked gift box, and it had decent weight. She gasped when she opened it and moved the white tissue paper aside. The cranberry glass candleholder wasn't very ornate, but the simple etching on the side showed great care. She took even greater care taking it out of the box. Even though it was wrapped in cellophane, she caught a faint scent of vanilla from the candle inside it.

Mulder focused on her expression, holding his breath. *Did I call it? Does she _really_ like it?* "I thought it might look good on your dining table," he said off-handedly.

"Mulder, this is beautiful," she said softly, holding it up to eye level. "Where did you get it?"

"Store in one of the malls in Alexandria," he told her, letting the breath out quietly. "Pearl Gram Something-or-other."

Scully had a flash-quick Roger Rabbit Moment. "Pearl Grant Richman? How do _you_ know about that store?"

"A little research, and a little skullduggery." He looked excessively pleased with himself. "I ran into Holly from Information Systems in the cafeteria last week. I told her I was having problems finding a gift for my cousin in Nantucket. She suggested the store."

She gave him a low-level Fish Eye. "'Ran into her?'"

He bobbed his head sheepishly. "Well, maybe it could be called a 'calculated near-miss.'" He shrugged. "Hey, she sat with me for lunch. That's a start."

She shook her head again. *There are days when I don't have to wonder what he was like in high school.* "Better be careful you don't get a high heel in the head."

"I'm a lot more charming than Skinner," he purred.

"If you insist," she deadpanned. He put out his lower lip in an act of hurt. She reached down and took his hand, squeezing it gently. "Thank you," she said, her voice just as gentle.

He squeezed back and smiled. "Merry Christmas, Scully." She was about to answer him when she ducked her head and looked away. "What," he asked, concerned.

"I'm sorry," she rasped, putting down the candleholder to wipe away a tear. "I promised myself I wasn't going to do this."

Mulder wanted to hug her, so he got up and did it. She returned the embrace loosely, sniffling against his chest. "You're reacting naturally. You said you've never been away from home for Christmas, even when you were at Maryland and the rest of the family was in California."

She nodded, then shook her head. "You know what's funny," she said into his MFA tie. "_You_ still could have gone." Her tone clearly said it wasn't funny at all.

"I think your mom was just being a good hostess by telling me the invitation was still open." Her partner shook his head. "I wasn't going to go, anyway. No matter what I think of their behavior, getting in a fistfight with your brothers is not my idea of a holly jolly Christmas."

Scully laughed once, and very softly. "That _would_ tend to put a damper on things."

He kissed her forehead, let her go, and went back to his desk. His suit jacket was draped over his chair. "Besides, I do passive-aggressive pretty well myself. I've already told her I support you. If I do this, too, maybe it'll put the point across a little more."

Scully picked up her presents and put them back in the bag, including the wrapping paper. "So you didn't tell her you weren't coming because of me?"

"Not straight out, though I know she got the subtext. I told her some old friends from out of town were visiting me, and we were going to do Christmas together." He put on the gray jacket, not bothering to button it. "It's _technically_ true. Glenn and Claudia Thompson _are_ in town, spending the holidays at her parents' house in Williamsburg. I've seen Glenn once in three years, and I haven't seen Claudia since their wedding. We're meeting for drinks and general merriment Christmas Night."

She went over to the coat rack and got her trenchcoat. "Mulder, if I find out you spent Christmas Day in front of the TV, eating peanut butter sandwiches and playing Playstation..."

"First, I won't spend _all_ day playing Playstation." Beat. "There's a bowl game or two I want to watch." He ignored the wilting look she threw at him over his shoulder as he came over to retrieve his own trenchcoat. "And as for the festive board, I've got a reservation for the one-o'clock sitting at the Parkwood in Arlington. All-you-can-eat buffet with turkey and all the trimmings, $15.95."

Scully pursed her lips. "Maybe I'd better call them. Warn them about the oncoming locust swarm..."

"It's in their ad - 'All you can eat.'" He made a helpless gesture, Smirking all the while. "It's a legal contract. Don't let anyone tell you different."

"Be sure to mention that to the paramedics on the way to the hospital."

He slipped into his trenchcoat. "Don't forget your presents."

She stepped over to the desk, picked up the bag, and nodded at the tickets and the video game. "What about yours?"

Mulder held the door for her. "They can stay. I've got to come back and churn out more fiction."


<<CHRISTMAS EVE>>

The fire hadn't burned down, but it was starting to abate by the time Billy came back into the den with an armful of logs. He put his burden in the carrier by the fireplace, pulled the screen back, and tossed three logs on top of the glowing remains. The wood was quite dry, so it only took a little work to get the flames roaring again.

Karen Scully watched her brother-in-law from the other side of the room. Her eldest son Daniel and youngest son Pete sat on either side of her; they were too engrossed in "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" to care about what their uncle was doing. Tara Scully watched Billy prod the burning logs with a poker. She always watched whatever Billy did, usually with the rapt expression Navy wives were supposed to master. Karen thought Tara looked a little too much like Nancy Reagan at these times.

"I know you guys live in California now," Karen cracked. "But your blood _can't_ have thinned out _that_ much yet."

Billy smiled into the fire. "A good ship's captain has to be cold-blooded."

Karen tried not to roll her eyes. "I didn't know Mom's den doubled as a dry steam room."

Billy replaced the screen and stood up. He still stared at the flames. "We always have a fire on Christmas Eve," he said, as if that settled everything.

"Looks great, babe," Tara said approvingly. Karen smiled thinly but said nothing. She threw a glance at the doorway. Her middle son Steven wasn't back from the bathroom yet.

Billy turned and grinned at his wife. "Thanks, hon." His gaze flicked over to Karen. She wasn't her usual bubbly self. He knew why, but he kept to the Rules of Engagement. *Or No Engagement, in this case.* "Where's Charlie?"

Karen watched the Grinch stuff the Christmas tree up the chimney. "Putting Caroline down."

The Scully Raised Eyebrow had been inherited across the board. "Really?"

Karen fixed him with a steady gaze - not quite a glare, but within shouting distance of one. "He _likes_ to do it, Billy. Ever since he came back from the Med, he's tried to do it as much as he can."

If Billy's smile wasn't condescending, it sure did a good imitation. "I'll have to get some pointers from him, so I can help Tara when _our_ son comes along."

"You'll be great, Billy," Tara said from the reclining chair. She held out a hand to him. "I know you will."

Again, Karen refrained from comment. Although they were usually a little stiff, she liked her in-laws. She'd been an only child, so being part of a big family was a joy to her. *Except when they start being asinine. Like this Christmas. _Help_ Tara. Oh, you're gonna be a _great_ dad...*

Billy squeezed his wife's hand. "I don't know about you," he said to the room at large, "But building a fire is thirsty work. Can I get anything for anyone while I'm up?"

"I'll take a cup of cheer," Tara said immediately. "A _weak_ cup," she added quietly.

"Aye aye." He turned back to Karen. "How about you, sis-in-law?"

Karen had moved her attention back to the television. "No, thank you, Billy."

Her two boys either hadn't heard him or didn't care. "That guy's taking all the presents," Daniel informed the room, an aghast expression on his face.

"He _is_, isn't he," Karen said, feigning great disbelief.

"Better lock th' doors t'night," Pete said levelly, his head against his mom's side. The adults all laughed, and Karen gave her son a big squeeze.

There were always two containers of eggnog in the Scully house on Christmas - Strong and Weak. Both were pre-mixed and kept in separate, well-marked, easy-to-monitor containers. The Weak was your typical eggnog, doctored with cinnamon and vanilla extract. The Strong - also known as Seaman's Eggnog - was four parts eggnog and one part Jim Beam. "Goes down like an enemy warship," Billy had heard his father say one Christmas Eve. Billy got his first glass of Seaman's Eggnog on his first Christmas home from the Academy.

Margaret Scully was sitting at the kitchen table when Billy came in from the den. The stereo in the living room was on loud enough so you could just barely hear Nat King Cole croon 'The Christmas Song.' She had a glass of red wine in front of her. Her expression was neither happy nor sad.

"No eggnog," he asked, striving to sound light.

She gave him an unconvincing smile. "I think it's a little too powerful this year."

"Really?" Billy frowned. He always tried to do things as well as his father. "I can make you a glass of your own..."

"That's all right, Billy," she assured him, picking up her wine. "This is fine."

Billy nodded, though he was disappointed he couldn't do that small task for his mother. Christmas had been quieter since his father died, despite Billy' s best efforts to keep the traditions going. This Christmas was the toughest, even tougher than the first Christmas without Melissa, and he was not pleased about it. Charlie had been all right, and the kids were terrific, now that they all knew about Christmas. But Mother was obviously depressed, and Karen had been barely polite with him. Any other time, he would have called her on it, but Charlie had given him a heads-up and a request: "Don't make waves."

They hadn't fought, exactly, but the conversation that followed was remarkably tense. "Who's in command down there, Charlie," Billy had asked sharply at one point.

"Just don't get into a surface battle with her while we're at Mom's," Charlie had asked him, ignoring Billy's barb. "I've asked Karen to hold fire, too. You two want to butt heads about Dana, fine. But do it after the holiday. For the kid's sake, and for Mom's. Okay? Please?"

Billy's mouth was in a tight line as he pulled both of the eggnog bottles out of the refrigerator and poured two glasses - Strong for himself, Weak for Tara. He didn't like family battles. It was one of the reasons why he loved Tara. Except for their seeming inability to make a grandchild, their marriage had been strife-free. He felt she'd done right by telling him what Mom had told her, even if it was said in confidence. Dana's behavior could not be allowed. It was as simple as that. Billy had made a decision, one that he thought Charles had made, too, and one he didn't feel he had to defend, to his sister-in-law or anyone else. And by God, he was going to stick to that decision, no matter what she felt about the matter.

He remembered his father's advice, given a long time ago during one of those great conversations they had about being in the Navy. *"A commander has to make difficult decisions, son. Some of them can hurt feelings. Some can lose friends. Some can even cost lives. But _whatever_ decision you make, never look back and say, "What if..." Because it's already happened. "What if..." doesn't matter worth a damn."*

He put the eggnog away and picked up the glasses. When he turned back, he saw his mother looking at the phone on the wall. His mouth tightened even further. "If she wants to call, she'll call," he said, attempting to sound gentle.

Margaret didn't look at him. "I know. She said she'd call on Christmas." *Christmas _Night_. After you've gone.*

"Then that's when she'll call." Billy wanted to comfort her, but like so many times before, he just didn't know how. "She made her own choice, Mother. If she wanted to be here, she'd be here." *Instead, she's with... God, I don't even want to _think_ about it...*

His mother's tone started to harden. "She didn't want there to be any battles."

"Like I said," Billy said, resolute. "That was up to her. She knows she has a decision to make." Then he added, "It's for her own good."

Margaret got up slowly and turned to her eldest son. If he hadn't been standing next to the counter, he would have backed up. His mother kept her voice low, but her eyes were pure fury. "Is that why you told her she couldn't be part of this family if she... continued the way she is? Because it was for her own good?"

"Mother..."

She stopped him before he started. "Billy, I love you very much. I know you thought you had the family's best interest at heart. But I am _still_ _your_ _mother_," she said, deadly quiet. "I am _still_ the head of this family. And if..." She paused, then sighed. "If a decision like that _has_ to be made... then _I_ will make it. It will not be made _for_ me, without even asking me a question. Is that understood?"

"Mother..." *Don't whine, damn it...*

"_Is_ _that_ _understood_, William?"

Whenever she called him 'William', Billy felt about two feet tall. His eyes dropped to the parquet floor. "Yes, ma'am."

Margaret stared at Billy. She had never hit her children, agreeing with her husband that a firm word did more than a quick slap. When her children did something wrong, they knew it, and their parents' disappointment was more than enough reprimand. She always wanted to hug her children after disciplining them, but soon learned that this was counter-productive to the exercise. She felt no urge to hug her child now.

"So _there_ you are," Karen's voice floated in from the living room. "And what do you think _you're_ doing, young man?"

"I'm just _looking,_ Mom," Steven's raspy voice answered.

Margaret and Billy came out of the kitchen. Karen was kneeling in front of the Christmas tree with Stephen. Wrapped presents of all shapes and sizes were clustered around it. There would be more presents tomorrow, and that made Margaret Scully smile. Christmas was better when Santa Claus was involved in the equation.

"Better be careful," Billy said solemnly. "You don't want Santa to find out you're peeking at your presents."

"He's left the North Pole already," Stephen informed him, in that tone children get that says, *Don't you know _anything_?*

"He could have a satellite uplink in his sled," Billy pointed out. "He's a high-tech guy."

"And even if he doesn't," Margaret added, "he can still _see_ you." *Billy's being cute, but Santa's better if he has some magic.*

Stephen looked unsure about these two divergent concepts. Since he didn't understand either of them, he changed the subject. "Mom, I found presents from Aunt Dana!"

Billy felt his mother stiffen beside her. Dana had dropped them off the day she left for Boston, along with a present for Margaret from Mulder and a hastily scribbled note. She had been at the store when Dana came by, and found the presents in a bag on the porch. Margaret cried harder reading that note than she did when her daughter informed her of her revised holiday plans, and of Bill's attempt at Tough Love.

"Well, of course," Karen told her son. "You don't think she'd forget to give you guys presents, do you?"

"No... But... how come she's not here? We got presents for _her_."

An awkward silence would have dropped on the room if Billy hadn't spoken his mind. "Your Aunt Dana's very sick."

Karen's head whipped around. "Jesus, Billy," she hissed, forgetting her rule about swearing in front of her children. Margaret held her tongue, but the look she gave her son was withering.

"Oh," said Stephen. He turned to his mother. "Can we bring her chicken soup? You give that to me when _I'm_ sick."

Karen Scully hugged her son hard. "You are so great, Stevie." Stephen couldn't understand why Mom was crying, why Grandma left the room so fast, and why Uncle Billy had that weird look on his face. *Mom's hugging me, though, so I guess it's all right.*


<<CHRISTMAS EVE NIGHT>>

The night air was clean and crisp as the crowd bubbled out of Sanders Theatre. They were a true cross-section of Boston: Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, student and professional, Brahmin and Boomer. They were children and parents and grandparents, strangers and lovers and friends, gathered together to call out the words that signaled Christmas in Boston, and anywhere else the Revels were held: "WELCOME, YULE!"

The Coven's seats were in the next-to-last row of the balcony, so they were some of the last people to make their way out of the Harvard landmark. Rose and her children were in the lead, Scully & Max bringing up the rear. The group was like everyone else who had attended the Christmas tradition -smiling, laughing, a spring in their step, a tune in their heads.

Scully knew Max could make her smile, but when she got on her shuttle flight earlier in the day, she still felt low enough to believe laughing would not be an option on this trip. She had been proven wrong in spectacular fashion - first at a rowdy Christmas Eve dinner with the Coven and Neesie's new husband Chris, then with the Revels. Celtic music rang in her ears as she stepped into the chill. "That was _far_ too much fun," she enthused, buttoning her coat.

"Wasn't it just?" The marble steps tended to be slick in the cold, so it looked perfectly natural for Max to take Scully's arm. "I've gone every year since I was three. Turned these guys on to it as soon as I could."

"_I_ knew about it before," Neesie admonished her friend. "They do it in New York City."

"They do it in DC, too," Scully added. "Every year at Lisner Auditorium."

"Did you ever _go_," Max asked them, using the tone she saved for a perp who'd made a mistake during an interrogation.

"No," Neesie said after a moment, adding quickly, "But I heard about it."

Scully ducked her head, mildly chagrined. "I've always _wanted_ to go, but I either had other plans or was too busy with work to get tickets."

"You snooze, you lose," Max said sagely. "We take turns standing on line the morning the tickets go on sale. It's the only way you can get seats for Christmas Eve."

"'Take turns,'" K.C. whooped, blowing on her ungloved hands. "That's a laugh! I've done it three years in a row!"

Rose kept her eye on her kids as the group walked toward Harvard Garage. "Serves you right for getting the short straw every time. Harry, don't run! Stay close, please!"

"Yes, Mom," her eldest son groaned.

"Did you think last year's show was better, Max," Chris asked over his shoulder.

Max considered. "Well, the cast was better this year. Last year was the original show, though, so that kind of gave it a historical push."

"I keep promising myself I'll try out," Chris said. "But the time commitment is a bitch."

"You can _try out_ for this," Scully asked, surprised.

"Oh yeah," Max nodded. "The only difference between the Revels and regular Community Theater is the public radio broadcast."

"I couldn't do it," Rose declared. "I'd take one look at that crowd and melt into the stage."

"Rose," K.C. cried, "your choir just did 'The Messiah' three days ago, and there wasn't an empty pew in the church!"

"That's different," Rose insisted. "_That_ wasn't Sanders Theatre, and I was hiding behind the rest of the alto section. There's no place to hide on that little stage. The audience is practically on top of you."

The cars were parked on a side street within half a block of each other, the Boston equivalent of a Christmas miracle. After a long round of hugs and kisses, Scully & Max followed K.C. to her Volkswagen while Rose piled her kids into Neesie's Volvo station wagon. "You can tell we're getting old," Max cracked. "We've got to break up the car pool into two groups."

The convertible top of K.C.'s Cabriolet had been patched twice with duct tape, but the makeshift repairs didn't stop the drafty conditions that prevailed thruought the winter. Scully & Max piled in the back while K.C. got behind the wheel and started the engine, bringing the radio to unfortunate life:

"Grandma got run over by a..."

The three women screamed as one. "NO!"

K.C.'s hand shot over to the radio and switched off the offending noise. "Serves me right for having Christmas songs on when we parked."

"It's better than the Barking Dogs," Scully said firmly.

"That's like saying Michael Bolton's better than Neil Diamond," K.C. said derisively.

"We're just lucky we're not riding with Rose," Max laughed. "Her kids love _both_ those songs!"

"They'd have an alibi if Mulder was in the car," Scully said, snuggling close to Max to ward off the chill of the car. "It's his favorite Christmas song.

"Maybe you don't want to meet this guy after all, K.C.." Max took Scully's hand with both of hers and rubbed it to get it warm.

K.C. revved the engine in an effort to get the heater going. "Much as I love Danny and Harry, I still say cats are better than kids. Cats don't outgrow clothes. Cats don't crack up your car. Cats won't turn on you when they become teenagers. And cats..."

"Always want to snuggle with you, no matter _how_ bad you look," Max chimed in. She'd heard this rap before. "Meanwhile, your apartment smells like a litter box, and your furniture looks like the Tasmanian Devil's been snacking on it."

"A small price to pay," K.C. maintained. She put the Volkswagen in gear and moved off.

"You're gearing up to be one of those weird old neighborhood ladies, K.C.," Max kidded her. "Lives in this beat-up house with eighteen cats. The grass hasn't been mowed in who knows when, and there's two years worth of newspapers stacked up in the living room."

"Better be the Globe. I'll need something to line the litter box." The staff photographer for the Boston Herald American drowned out further debate by turning the radio back on and pushing a cassette into the tape deck, filling the car with the techno beat of Republika.

Max' street was only a few minutes' drive from the Harvard campus. K.C. pulled up in front of it and turned back to her passengers. "Okay, when should I expect you?"

"Mom says we should get there about eleven," Max told her. "Figure on us knocking on the door about... ten thirty?"

"Works for me." Max and K.C. exchanged a hug and a kiss. K.C. took Scully's hand as Max got out of the car. "I'm really happy you're here, Dana."

Scully smiled and nodded. "I am, too."

The former BU women's basketball player's eyes shone in the Cabriolet's interior lights. "Anything I can do, even if you just need another ear, you call. Yes?"

The FBI agent bit her lower lip. *These women haven't known me more than two months, and they're treating me like a long-lost relative. I'd forgotten what it was like to have more than Mulder as a friend.* "Yes. Thank you." Each gave the other a kiss on the cheek. "See you tomorrow."

"Wouldn't miss it," K.C. enthused. She looked out the open back door as Scully climbed out of the car. "Later, Max!"

"Drive friendly, sweetheart," Max called out. Scully closed the door and K.C. sped off towards Mass Ave.

Scully waved at the receding taillights. "She's great."

"Always has been," Max agreed.

"Does she always come to Christmas dinner?"

"Ever since junior year," Max informed her. "Mom kind of adopted her."

Scully lowered her arm. "Am I being adopted, Max," she asked quietly.

Max' mind was fast on its feet. "No chance," she said lightly. "You have to _sleep_ your way to the top in _this_ town, sister!"

Away went Scully's melancholy. Every time it had tried to encroach on the evening, it had been slapped away, and Max was usually the one wielding the backhand. Scully took Max' hand. "Ooooh," she chortled. "Lucky me!"

They grinned at each other, and then Max pulled Scully into the middle of the road. "Come on. Let's look at it again."

"If you insist," Scully said amiably, allowing herself be led across the street. She wanted to see it again, too, but was glad Max said it.

They moved between parked cars, climbed over small snowdrifts, and stepped onto the sidewalk. Max turned to face her building first, looking up with a smile. "Ohhhhh yeah," she sighed.

Scully stood shoulder to shoulder with her lover. "Isn't that pretty?"

The tree stood on a table just below one of Max' living room windows. It was only about three feet tall, which was why it needed a table to be visible, but Max had loaded it with small white Christmas lights and strands of gold stars. It gleamed out at the night from the darkened apartment, a vision of holiday spirit.

"That is sohhhhhhhhhh cool," Max whispered. She put her arm around Scully's waist.

Scully returned the gesture without hesitation. "Is that where you always put your tree?"

"I guess," Max said, shrugging. "I've never had a tree in that apartment."

Scully's head turned in a flash. "_Never_?"

"Nope." Max shook her head.

"Why not?" *She goes to the Revels every year, but never had a tree in her own apartment?*

"Well, for one thing, I didn't have any ornaments. The only ones Richard and I had were his. Then after we divorced... Well, I just never had a reason to get any for myself." She turned into Scully's grasp, got up on tiptoe, and kissed Scully on the nose. "Until now."

Scully gave her a gentle buss on the forehead. "I'm glad I could give that back to you," she said, putting her head on Max' shoulder.

They were hugging now, Max' gloved hand running through Scully's hair. "Are you okay, Scully? I mean, really?"

Scully's hands ran down Max' back. "I won't deny I don't miss my family, Max. I won't deny I'm sad they've... been the way they have." She raised her head to look at her lover. "But I'm not sorry I'm here. Seeing the girls again, being with you..." She still hadn't put on her gloves, so she could feel how cold Max' skin was as she stroked her cheek. "I've had so many good things, and I haven't even been here a day. It's like, every time I'm with you..." She looked around, like she was searching for the proper words. "I have another life. One that's warm, and safe, and full of love. It... It reminds me what I've been missing in my life." Max closed her eyes as Scully kissed her nose. "Until now."

Max kissed Scully's hand and pressed it to her cheek. "I'm glad I could give that to _you_." They stared and smiled until Max looked up at the window again. "You think the tree's too bare?"

"_Bare_?" Scully scofed. "Max, you've got about two hundred lights on a three-foot tree! If you lived near the airport, you'd get a 747 through the window!"

"Yeah, but there's no _ornaments_, you know? Shit, I was lucky to get _white_ lights! The only other lights I saw were _amber_!" She stuck out her tongue like she'd tasted something terrible.

"After Christmas Sales," Scully said promptly. "Ornaments for half-price. We sleep in, go in the afternoon after the initial carnage has run its course. Works every time."

Max grinned up at Scully, loving the energy coming from her. "That's what you do, huh?"

"I used to decorate my dorm room, lights and everything. Drove my roommate crazy. I had to throw out the old cardboard box I kept my ornaments in. The duct tape wouldn't hold it together any more. They're all in this big purple Tupperware thing about the size of K.C.'s car. If I ever have to move, I'll need a fork lift to get it out of the building."

"You have a _big_ tree, right?"

"Six-foot Doug fir. I keep it up until February."

Max put her hands together, as if in prayer. "Teach me the ways of after-Christmas ornament shopping, Obi-Wan Canoli!"

Scully laughed with delight, but she stopped when she saw Max' expression. It had gone from joy to concern to near-horror in about three seconds flat. "What's wrong?"

Max stepped away and took Scully's chin in her hand. "Put your head back," she said, pushing it back for her.

"Why? What's wrong?"

"You can't feel it? You _must_ be cold." She was searching through her pockets. "Damn, I don't have any Kleenex. C'mon, let's get you inside." She took Scully by the hand and led her over the snowbank.

"Max," Scully said, totally confused. "What is going on?"

"Girl, you've got a nosebleed."

<<PAUSE>>

Dana Scully will return in...

"THE ROAD NOT TAKEN 7: TSUNAMI."

Be there. Aloha. Questions, comments, flames and fan mail to drjohn@wizvax.net.