Title: Upon This Tree
Author: Gina Rain (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Spoilers: Nothing major. A few small ones preseason 7.
Disclaimer: The X-Files belongs to CC and Company. Is that a shocker, or what?
Summary: Lights . . . mistletoe . . . action! Special thanks to: Mary Beth. If it weren't for her providing much needed computer help last week, they would be fitting me for a padded room with complimentary shock therapy treatments by now. Thank you so much!
And once again: Thank you, Sybil, for your great (and very funny) beta. I am using the original title of the story in your honor (and because the alternate title sucked).
She would have paid cold hard cash for a moment like this. Instead, Santa decided to give her an early Christmas present. The sight of Mulder trying to get a stray branch of pine needles away from his mouth, while not dropping her tree, was far more precious than silver, gold or commemorative space flight key chains.
"Do I go in first, or do you?" he asked, as he paused by the front steps of her apartment building.
"You do. Otherwise we'll be going against the direction of the branches and I'll end up with a very tall twig in my living room."
"Well," he said as climbed the stairs backwards, holding onto the trunk of the tree, "I thought I should ask in case the magical laws of Christmas trees contradicted those of common sense."
He laid the trunk of the tree against one upraised knee and held out his hand. She lay the top of the tree down on the step, pulled out her keys and tossed them up to him. He made an impressive one-handed catch, managed to open the door, and they both made it up to her apartment without losing too much of the tree along the way. That was teamwork in action.
After storing their outerwear, stopping Mulder from scrubbing the sap off his hands with a Brillo pad and setting up the lights and the boxes of decorations in neat piles, they got down to the real work.
"No, Mulder. You have to really slam the tree down against the stand. It needs to be embedded on those spikes."
"It's not. It's wobbling."
"Only because you haven't tightened the screws."
"I know I haven't tightened them. It's because the tree is not embedded on the spikes. If it's not, the tree will fall even if the screws are tightened."
He held on to the middle of the trunk and let out a huff of air. "I thought I was here for fun, not tree torture."
"It will be fun. Right after you get over the frustration of getting the tree in the stand."
He slammed the tree down as hard as he could, peppering Scully's hair with green needles.
"That's more like it," she said, approvingly, as she got down on her hands and knees and started to tighten the long screws against the side of the trunk.
"That's an older model, isn't it?" Mulder asked, as he held the tree straight.
"Of what?" she asked.
"The tree holder."
"Oh, yes. I guess so. My parents had a spare stand and, when I moved out, I took it with me."
"When was that? 1982? And the stand was probably 20 years old then. I now know what to get you for Christmas: a new stand that doesn't mutilate the bottom of the tree and elevate my previously perfect blood pressure."
She smiled to herself as she finished up. She liked hearing him complain. His slightly raspy voice made Mulder in whiny-mode more amusing than annoying.
"So, Scully, how did you manage to get your trees put up before you invited me here? I mean, I'm trying to picture you simultaneously holding, slamming, embedding and screwing. Frankly, the idea is surprisingly un-sexy and downright unsettling. Did you borrow some burly guy like-- oh, say Skinner to come here, strip down to the waist and do it for you?"
Scully resisted the urge to try and remove some of the sap from her hands by rubbing them against her jeans and gestured for him to follow her into the kitchen.
"Skinner has not been prancing around my apartment in his skivvies, Mulder. Without your company, I paid the young man who normally delivers the trees a little extra and he helped me." She reached in under her sink, removed a bottle of paint thinner, put some on a rag and gently worked the sap from her hands.
"Shirtless?" Mulder asked.
"Are you trying to tell me something here, Mulder? Do you have a need to go topless? Because I have to tell you, the sap removal from your chest hair might be a little more complicated."
He smiled and took the container from her.
In a few moments, they were back to the business of tree trimming. Scully stopped Mulder as he attempted to string the lights on the tree and did it herself. It was a delicate operation and she knew if she left it up to him, she would have a thousand lights in one spot with the rest of the tree in darkness. Mulder made himself useful by sitting on the couch and removing the wrappings from the ornaments. As he carefully pulled off each paper napkin from each decoration, he put it on a pillow that he had laid on the coffee table.
Scully worked in silence and then stopped. The room was too quiet. She turned to Mulder and saw him sitting back and looking at the pillow covered with ornaments.
"What?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I'm just looking at this little collection. I've seen your trees before but I never paid that much attention to them. The tree you are decorating here is not exactly the type of tree I would expect you to have."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, first of all, you're very practical. A 'real' tree is not at all practical. It's messy. And, you are also kind of," he stopped himself. She could see the wheels turning as he tried not to verbally 'step in it,' as they both knew he was about to do. "Well, let's just say I would expect you to have a tree that had only white lights on it, with Christmas balls that were all the same color, or maybe two colors--tops. Instead, you have this real tree, with multicolored lights and these no-two-the-same ornaments. It's just not the first thing I'd expect from you."
She didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted that he pigeonholed her in such a bland way. Still, the qualities behind the pigeonholing were qualities she possessed, and she supposed it was good that he noticed and appreciated them.
Yes, a woman loved being admired for her sturdy qualities.
"The trees I had grown up with were all real. I love the fragrance. It's part of the holidays for me. And as far as the ornaments, my Grandma Scully once told me that a tree is more than a tree. It's a reflection on your own life more than anything else. I could buy glass balls that mean nothing to me, or I could hang up my little collection of ornaments, each of which tells some sort of story."
Mulder leaned forward and picked up an ornament. It was an ugly, neon pink spray-painted circle made up of old aluminum pop-top tabs tied together with wire.
"Tell me this story," he said.
Scully laughed. "My mother subscribed to Family Circle. That decoration was in the craft section. It was so beautiful in the magazine. Melissa and I went on a non-stop soda-drinking binge for two weeks. Our results were far less impressive but it's managed to survive for the last quarter of a century. Not improving with age, I might add."
She could see the fleeting grimace cross his face. She knew what he was thinking. The ornament survived, Melissa did not. Sooner or later, he would come across the little whale that reminded her of her father and a similar thought would spring to mind.
Mulder picked up a beautiful, blown-glass heart. It was a glowing red with a sprig of glass 'evergreen' on top. "And this?"
She frowned. She wasn't sure she wanted to tell that story. Well, what difference did it make? It was a life: her life. And she made the commitment to share part of it when she invited Mulder to join her in her little two-person tree-trimming gathering.
"I bought that one about thirteen or fourteen years ago. I was still in school and thought I was in love. During Christmas shopping I saw these decorations on one of those sample trees they have in the department stores. At the time, I thought they were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Even though they were expensive, I bought two of them, one for me, and one for him. I was 'giving him my heart,' as corny as that sounds."
"And was he touched?"
"He had no clue. He looked at it as if I had given him something horrifying and just thanked me. I saw him the next day and asked if he put it on his tree and he told me that he had stuffed it in the pocket of his pants and it broke. He more or less implied if I hadn't bought such a ridiculous gift, it wouldn't have happened. Which, of course, is true."
"And yet you kept your ornament. It's not the greatest memory."
"Yes. As I said, it's a life: good, bad and ugly. And the heart is intact and in my possession; not broken in some guy's pants."
Mulder laughed and went back to unwrapping the ornaments. Scully finished with the lights and joined him. She smiled as she uncovered one of them.
"Look. You're represented on my tree," she said, as she held up a little green, glow-in-the-dark alien.
"Aw, Scully," he whined.
"Yes, I know. It was in my early, unenlightened days. Back when I didn't know aliens are actually gray." The alien reminded her of something important. She excused herself and left the room for a moment.
She quickly went into her bedroom and pulled out a small box from her dresser. She took a deep breath and left the room. After a quick detour to her closet, Scully returned to the living room with an ornament in her hand.
"This year's new addition," she held up a small porcelain dove. It was white with a beautiful face and eyes that were focused upwards.
"It's beautiful," Mulder said. "And what does it signify?"
"Well, the dove traditionally symbolizes peace and love. But it's also a symbol of the spirit and soul. A dove in flight is free, yet it's on a journey: a search for something bigger and greater than itself. It's flying but very much tied to everything it believes in."
"That's kind of a nice sentiment for this time of the year. I approve of your choice," he said.
Mulder stopped unwrapping, and looked at her. His look was one of pure curiosity. It almost made her uncomfortable. Whatever he was about to ask was not going to be easy to answer.
"Scully, why did you invite me here? I mean, I'm not objecting but why now? You've done this on your own for years. You've hired burly boys with no shirts to pound your tree. You don't exactly need me. You've been taking care of all this holiday stuff yourself for a long time."
Maybe it wouldn't be so hard to answer. Not if she shut off her internal censors and stuck to the facts. "Yes, but I realized I don't have to. I told someone once that loneliness is a choice. And maybe it's not the right choice for me anymore. I mean, last year, I think what I learned from our 'ghostly' encounter was I did want to be with you. Maybe even needed to be with you that evening. We never have the opportunity to celebrate holidays with each other. We're either working, or I'm out with my family--and that's important to me. But if I were going to be completely truthful, I would want to spend the holidays with you. So, if we can't do it on the day itself, I thought we'd have a minicelebration a little early. Besides," she said
with a small smirk, "the naked boys you talked about were not available this year."
Mulder got up and walked over to the tree. "Tell me where you want these to go," he said as he picked up a couple of ornaments.
They worked steadily and, once again, fairly silently for the next hour. After every ornament was placed on the tree, Scully brought out a tray holding a plate of cookies and large mugs of hot chocolate garnished with peppermint sticks. She replaced the overhead lights with those on the tree, and sat next to Mulder on her couch, watching in amusement as he stared at the stick.
"You use it to stir the chocolate, Mulder. It gives off a light taste of mint."
"I figured as much," he said, giving the mixture a perfunctionary stir.
Scully removed her own peppermint stick out of her drink and licked off the chocolate before putting it down on the tray. Mulder watched her and followed suit, smiling a bit as he took his time completing his task. He laughed softly as he put the stick on the tray. "Actually, one of my videos began this way. That was pretty much the entire plot with 'mmmmmm' being the only dialogue. It was from the Holiday Classics Collection."
Scully laughed in response.
He leaned back against the cushions and took a sip of hot chocolate. The playfulness of the moment before disappeared and the silence stretched out until it was almost uncomfortable.
Scully would have sighed but didn't want to draw any more attention to their awkward situation. They didn't do casual moments well and they certainly didn't do lighthearted celebratory moments at all. Well, not planned ones, anyway. She put down her drink and sat looking at it for a moment. Should she say something that gave him 'permission' to leave early? She glanced at Mulder. His cup was on a side table and he was staring intently at the tree. He suddenly turned toward her.
"You tree of life is very full, Scully. But the stories behind a lot of what's up there just bring back sad memories. I know they are part of life but in your season of ho-ho-ho-ing, I'm not sure they'll get you in the right spirit."
"If I took off everything that reminded me of something sad, I'd have to go out and buy those practical ornaments you spoke of, or sit here with an empty tree. No?"
"I guess. Life is kind of cruel that way, isn't it? The older you get, the more even the happy times are tinged with the bittersweet."
Great. Perhaps that double suicide their ghostly friends were trying to talk them into last year was one year early.
She looked at him again. She had spent quite a few moments looking down during the last half- hour or so. "What?"
"If it was in my power at all . . . " he trailed off and looked down. When he looked up, there was pure, and yet very complicated, emotion in his eyes. "Well, you know what I'd wish for you."
She smiled. She wished him the same: a tree full of happiness with the sad or bittersweet just silent counterpoints in the background.
Scully moved closer to him. There was one way of dispelling the darkness. She had thought of it often, especially during the past few months. It was one moment of happiness she no longer wanted to deny herself. She stood up, sat back down on the couch on her haunches, and put her left arm on his right shoulder and turned him to her. Then she slid her arms around his neck and moved even closer to him. She almost laughed at the expression on his face. It was that shocked look she was pretty sure she had worn almost a year and a half before. A moment in time in his hallway that was a mixture of welcome surprise, exquisitely sweet anticipation, tinged with a bit of fear. They were thinkers. That was their problem. No moment went un-contemplated.
She looked up at the ceiling. "Mistletoe," she said, hoping a simple explanation would stop his thought process.
But he needed proof. He looked up. "There isn't any . . ."
"Must have fallen," she said and then kissed him before he could think of anything else to say to delay the moment. She kissed him with a soft, sweet press of her lips against his. She locked her arms behind his neck to keep his face close and felt his hands grab her waist and his fingers softly press into her sides. She moved her head back after that first long kiss and moved back in for another. This time, her lips were slightly parted and he took full advantage of it. She knew he would. She wanted him to.
She stood up on her knees and he wrapped his arms around her waist, both still locked at the lips, tasting chocolate and mint and the sweet victorious fulfillment of a thousand separate moments of yearning. But this wasn't about total fulfillment. They weren't ready for that. Not yet, anyway. She pulled away and rested her head against his cheek. She felt his soft lips move over to her neck and softly nip at the skin there. His grip on her had loosened. He understood.
She looked at the tree. "Mulder?"
"Look at the tree."
He reluctantly lifted his head from her skin and looked. She saw the lights reflecting off the light in his eyes and saw a small smile reach every portion of his face. "It seems brighter, somehow."
"That's what I thought, too."
"Maybe we're looking at things from a different perspective," he mused.
"Maybe. Or maybe it's just a power surge."
"I told you you're a practical woman," he sighed. "I really should go."
"Yes. If you don't, I might just forget I'm a lady," she teased.
He narrowed his eyes and looked down at the tray. "I'm pretty sure I could do a mean reenactment of the peppermint stick scene from my movie."
She laughed and went over to the closet. In a moment, she helped him into his jacket.
"Thank you for helping me with the tree, Mulder."
"Thank you for asking me."
They stood by the door and he leaned down and gave her one more kiss. One more kiss to brand her lips with his softness. When they pulled away from each other, she looked up over her door. "More phantom mistletoe?"
"Yes. I see it, don't you?"
"Me? I don't need proof. If you believe it, it's good enough for me."
"Where is a tape recorder when you need it most?" He said and started walking backwards down her hallway. At the stairwell, he gave her a goofy little grin and was gone.
Scully walked over to her tree. It was a life. A life in all its colors and hues, all its memories and moods, all its laughter and sorrow.
And all its dreams.
She touched her newest ornament and the dove swung on the branch. She was free to fly as high as any being could and yet had a purpose to her flight. And she had a partner to soar the deep blue skies and starlit nights with.
It was a life that, in spite of everything, was good; a life that made a lovely tree.
One hour later
The hallway outside of Apartment 42
Mulder stopped in the middle of the hallway on his floor. He softly touched his lips and smiled. It took a year or so but the actions started so long before had been completed. And the wonderful part was, it was just the beginning. And the really wonderful part was, if it was just a 'holiday greeting' type of thing, New Year's Eve was just around the corner. And, hell, it wasn't just a run of the mill New Year's Eve. It was the turn of the century, the dawn of a new millennium. That was worth another kiss or thousand kisses.
He reached into his pocket to get his key. He felt something there; something small and square. He pulled out the box and opened it. Inside was an ornament matching the one Scully had bought.
He noticed his fingers shake slightly as he unfolded the tiny note tucked inside. "This can mean whatever you want it to, Mulder. I'm either giving you my soul, my dreams or simply a porcelain dove to signify my wish for world peace. Whichever way you interpret it, it's a gift given with love. Scully."
It was a gift received in the same way. And a gift he would wrap in phantom gossamer and keep safe, protected and very, very cherished.
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Gina Rain
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