"Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blizten." Mulder ticked the names off on his fingers, maintaining tenuous contact with the steering wheel with his palms. "That's eight, Scully, not counting Rudolph."
"And your point?"
"So why, whenever they showed them pulling Santa's sleigh, were there only ever six in harness? Couldn't those people count?"
"It was a TV show, Mulder." Scully was feeling churlish, unwilling to concede the point and admit he was, for once, completely correct. The Rankin/Bass claymation holiday production from her childhood had featured only six reindeer - seven counting Rudolph at the head of the hitch - in all the crucial sleigh shots.
It wasn't that he was right. It was that she'd had this exact argument dozens of times with her siblings, had viewed the long-awaited seasonal TV special with less wonder and more scorn once she'd learned to count and realized she and every other good child was being gypped out of two flying reindeer.
And what kind of person got that upset over a television program? Bad enough that she'd sat, arms crossed and lower lip stuck out, each year as a child when she, Melissa, Bill and Charles had been plonked down in front of the set to watch "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Waiting for the disappointment. Knowing that whatever magic lay beneath the unevenly decorated evergreen behind them, she still had to suffer through the distress of seeing how adults could ruin everything by something as simple as miscounting Bambi's more talented cousins.
That it bothered her as much now that she'd passed thirty as it did when she was five was something she didn't want to think about. But for heaven's sake, the whole point of the show had been the damn song; you'd think someone would have noticed the animators were two reindeer shy of a full load. Didn't anyone in Hollywood care about accuracy and continuity?
No, Scully wasn't about to give Mulder the satisfaction of learning that he'd unwittingly hit upon a secret sore spot from her youth. She hadn't seen the show in years, hadn't even thought about it until the Johnny Marks hit came on the car radio and her partner had made his usual disconnected leap from discussing the merits of the case just finished to the glaring error in a 1960s Christmas program.
"It's just a TV show," she repeated firmly.
A little too firmly, apparently. Mulder turned his head slightly toward her, a faint, superior grin hovering just out of reach. "Oh, really?"
"Yes." Scully kept her gaze fixed on the dark road unwinding in front of them. Nothing but snow and trees on either side of the two-lane highway. They hadn't seen another car for over an hour.
"You're saying this never bothered you? Never made you angry?"
"That's precisely what I'm saying." She felt her fingers cramp inside her gloves and realized she'd laced her hands together in a prim little knot on her lap. She tried to relax them before Mulder noticed.
"Scully, you know what liars find in their stockings on Christ- mas morning, don't you?"
She had her retort loaded and ready for launch, but got no further than the first syllable when a dark shapeless something sprang from the left side of the road and darted in front of their car. Scully's riposte melded into a shout of alarm, a bizarre warning of, "Gookout!"
Mulder understood the garbled message anyway; he'd caught the motion from the very edge of his peripheral vision as well. He stomped on the brake and the car slewed sideways on the icy surface.
They spun around twice and landed with a resounding thump against the snowbank lining the right side of the road. Whatever had flashed across their path was gone, had vanished before their headlights could capture it a second time during one of the their rotations.
"You okay?" Mulder sounded suitably strained, his gaze belatedly aimed dead ahead, elbows locked as he braced himself against the wheel.
Scully carefully unclamped her hands from the dashboard; she'd instinctively grabbed it in anticipation of a collision. Their skid had been fairly mild and the contact with the snowbank hadn't been forceful enough to trigger the airbags. The car was still running; they'd even ended up pointed back in the proper direction.
She realized she hadn't responded and that the only reason he hadn't yet grabbed her was that he was afraid to look and see if she was hurt. "I'm fine, Mulder. Are you all right?"
"Yeah." Now he turned back to face her, clearly relieved to see her unharmed in the eerie green glow from the dash lights. "Sorry. I guess I should have been watching out for the earth-bound reindeer on a road like this instead of worrying about the flying ones."
"At least we didn't hit it. Is the car still driveable?"
"Let's find out." Mulder cautiously shifted into gear and pressed a gentle toe down on the accelerator. They lurched forward out of the snowbank and back onto the macadam easily enough but their elation was short-lived. Ten bumpy feet later Mulder stopped again, got out and reported back what Scully had already suspected from the definitive list on her side of the car.
Flat tires. Two of them, passenger side.
Her partner stood outside the car, staring disconsolately at the ruined tires. "I don't suppose the Lariat elves put a spare spare in for us, did they?"
"Considering what we've done to some of their vehicles in the past, I'd be surprised to find they even gave us one. Let's just call for help and hope they get here before we freeze to death."
Mulder returned to the car, letting in yet another cold blast of air, and set his hands firmly back on the steering wheel before he addressed her again. Or rather, before he addressed the steering wheel, because while his words were spoken for her benefit, they were delivered in the direction of the horn rather than at her. "Call how?" he inquired softly.
"Dare I suggest using your. . . oh."
"Damn." Scully slumped down in her seat, angry at herself for having forgotten that, thanks to the case just completed, they were both currently traveling without the benefits of cellular communications.
She hadn't actually seen what happened, but she considered her partner's explanation of storm drain trolls as nothing more than his latest euphemism for, "I dropped my cell phone down the sewer." Scully's phone had met a more prosaic fate; she'd left it in her jacket pocket while doing the autopsy on the latest victim and an enterprising night watchman at the morgue had spirited it away, taking with him other early Christmas presents in the form of the coroner's wallet and a laptop from the front office. The perpetrator had been apprehended, but the goodies were gone.
So here they were, stranded in the back of nowhere with the clock hands edging past nine p.m. on Christmas Eve.
"Don't suppose it's going to rain sleeping bags, is it?"
Scully glanced through the foggy windshield at the sharp, clear stars. "Not a chance tonight, anyway. How far back was the last exit?"
"Too far to walk. It's below zero out there with the wind chill factor."
"So we stay here until someone drives by?"
"If you have a better idea, Scully, by all means, now is the time to share."
She smiled. "How about seeing where that light is coming from?"
Mulder jumped. "Light? What light?"
"There." She pointed off to the right, through the trees where the animal had disappeared. Something twinkled faintly in the distance, too steady to be a reflection off the snow.
"I don't believe it."
She buttoned her coat and shrugged. "It's Christmas Eve, Mulder. Miracles happen. Come on, we can't stay here and run the car anyway; we've got less than a quarter of a tank of gas left. Let's hope whoever they are, they have a phone."
It was neither a long walk nor a difficult one, but Scully had packed for a business trip, not a snowy cross-country trek. What were shin-deep drifts on Mulder were knee-deep to her, and she floundered more than once trying to keep her balance in heels that were a poor winter substitute for her old Sorel boots. Normally she packed for every eventuality when on duty with Mulder, but when they'd been assigned this case there'd been absolutely no indication it would take them slogging through the hinterlands.
By the time they reached the light source, she was soaked from the knees down and shivering. Mulder, huddled inside his own coat, looked equally miserable. At least her hair was long enough to shield her ears a bit from the wind.
What they found was a very small farmhouse, warm yellow light spilling out of all the windows.
"Looks like someone's home," Mulder said gratefully, lifting one reddened fist to bang on the door.
From the looks of the sturdy dwelling, they were expecting to be met by an elderly couple, or perhaps a single individual. Surely no family could live so far out in the woods, especially with no visible road or driveway leading back to civilization.
The plain oak door swung open.
"Where on earth did you two come from? You must be freezing! Come in, come in, quickly!"
And the little nun who had answered the door grabbed them both by the wrist and pulled them into the living room, calling out, "Reverend Mother! We have guests!"
Suddenly they were surrounded by a dozen or more nuns, all wearing identical simple outfits and identical expressions of concern. "They're shaking!" "I'll get some tea." "Bank up the fire." "Let me take those wet coats for you."
The group bustled into purposeful action, and five minutes later Scully and Mulder were ensconced in comfortable chairs pulled close to the fireplace, wrapped in blankets and sipping hot tea laced with honey.
Scully tucked her cold toes more firmly into the blanket while she explained their predicament. "So although the car isn't damaged, we can't drive it."
"You said something ran in front of you?" one of the nuns asked anxiously.
"Yes. A deer, I think. I didn't really get a good look at it."
The Reverend Mother turned to look at the other nun. "What is it, Sister Maria?"
"Lily. It must have been Lily," Maria said miserably. "When I went to feed everyone a few minutes ago she was outside of the pen. I didn't think anything of it; I just thought perhaps she'd jumped the fence. She was just standing there by the gate, so I thought that's all she'd done. But she must have been out since earlier this afternoon. I'm so sorry. It's my fault for not fixing that low place on the far side."
"Who's Lily?" Mulder asked.
"We're a small order, fairly self-sufficient," the Reverend Mother explained. "We keep a few farm animals. Cows, goats, sheep, some chickens. We even make our own cheese. Lily's a special case. She's a llama that Sister Maria bought from a circus that was going out of business. She's a charming pet, but she does try our patience at times. Unfortunately, it seems likely that she was the cause of your car accident."
"There's no real harm done," Scully hastened to assure them. "If we can just use your phone, the rental company can come take care of it and we'll be on our way."
The Reverend Mother sighed. "I'm so sorry, but our telephone lines have been down since the snowstorm. I'm sure they'll be fixed by tomorrow, but I'm afraid we can't get you any help tonight for your car. We'd lend you the spare tire from ours, but I doubt it would fit."
"What kind of a car is it?"
The Reverend Mother smiled ruefully. "Would you believe it's a Gremlin?"
Mulder laughed, delighted. "A classic!"
"Yes, it's sufficient for our needs, but hardly helpful to you now. And we haven't been plowed, so we can't even drive you out ourselves. I fear you're stuck with us for the night, although we consider it a blessing to have company on Christmas Eve."
"We'd be delighted to accept your hospitality," Scully replied, "and very grateful. Believe me, sharing the holiday with you is a much more appealing option than freezing in the car waiting for morning."
"Agent Scully can have my bed," volunteered Sister Maria, "since it's my fault they've been stranded here. I'll take the barn."
"And Agent Mulder can have my couch," chimed in another voice.
"Wait, wait, we certainly don't want to put anyone out," protested Scully. "Really, if it's anyone's fault it's ours, because we weren't watching the road."
The Reverend Mother looked dubious. "Well. . . this is very awkward. We don't usually have overnight guests; in fact, I don't think we've ever had overnight guests. This house is tiny, and we're cramped as it is."
"We're not taking your beds," Scully replied firmly. "Sleeping on the floor is not a problem. Agent Mulder and I have slept in far worse places on some of our normal case assignments."
"Unfortunately, child, you'd be hard pressed to find a place even on the floor. At the risk of sounding cliched, there is no room at the inn where travelers lodge. But there is room in the stable. Or rather, our little barn. It's not heated, but the animals give off amazing amounts of body heat, there's plenty of straw for insulation and we do have extra blankets. Tonight someone will have to sleep out there, regardless of whether it's you two or Sister Maria and Sister Josephine. But if you don't mind feeling like Mary and Joseph for the night, the place is yours."
Mulder, who had remained silent throughout the exchange, smiled and said, "Reverend Mother, I assure you there's no place I'd rather sleep on Christmas Eve."
* * *
"Oh, admit it, Mulder. You were dying to make some kind of joke about rolling in the hay with me."
He spread out his blanket across the straw with exaggerated care. "Actually, Scully, my first instinct was to go with the more obvious ones about virgins."
"I can't take you anywhere."
"Hey, was I charming with them, or what?"
True, he had been. Through the hastily assembled meal of cheese omelets, toast and egg nog, through the Christmas carols sung at the old upright piano in the corner of the room, through the evening prayers, Mulder had been on his best, most professional behavior. All in all, it had been one of the most pleasant, relaxing evenings she'd passed in a long time. Certainly the loveliest Christmas Eve she could remember since childhood.
Mulder burrowed down under the pile of straw and blankets. "'Night, Scully," he murmured. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Mulder."
She didn't know how long she was asleep, but the soft something gently nudging her cheek woke her up. She blinked, thinking Mulder must have rolled over in his sleep and bumped into her, and prepared to cuddle back under the warmth of her own blanket.
The velvety touch brushed her face again with more insistent pressure, and Scully sat up, annoyed now. "Mulder, stop it."
"Don't yell at him, it's me."
She turned around, expecting to see one of the nuns; as far as Scully knew there were no middle-of-the-night duties for women in the service of God, but her experience with religious Sisters had been limited to a few Catholic school teachers, not those who lived on small farms tending animals.
But the soft brown eyes staring down at her didn't belong to the Reverend Mother, Sister Maria, or any of the other hospitable women who'd offered them shelter.
Lily the llama stood next to their straw bedding, eyeing her mildly.
Slowly, Scully turned back to look for Mulder. A few stray shafts of moonlight lit the barn well enough for her to see her partner, cocooned in his blankets and buried in the straw, only a few tufts of dark hair sticking out to distinguish his resting place.
"I'm sorry, Dana. I'm not trying to scare you. But I wanted to talk to you."
Merry Christmas, Scully. For your first present, you get a hefty dose of insanity. Just what you always wanted.
"Please. I won't take up much of your time. I promise. Just listen to me, okay?"
Listen to the llama. Riiiiiiiight.
Still convinced that Mulder was, despite his motionless posture and the faint snoring sound she could detect above the rustling of the other animals, somehow throwing his voice to tease her, she carefully twisted around again to face Lily.
The llama pawed delicately at the ground with a two-toed foot. "Thank you," it said. "I know this is hard for you."
If it was a trick, it was a damn good one, because the llama's lips were moving in exact synchronization with the words. Dream, then. Had to be. Only explanation.
"No, it's not the only explanation."
Great. She was dreaming about a psychic talking llama. That made it a bad dream. A very bad dream.
"It's midnight on Christmas Eve, Dana," Lily said. "Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Yes, but that story about the animals being able to talk was a legend.
"It's Christmas, Dana. Miracles do happen."
She finally found her voice, ignoring the absurdity of talking to an animal that seemed capable of responding in kind. "What do you want?"
Lily shifted her feet. Her thick white coat shimmered in the dim light. "Normally, on this night all the animals here would discuss the secrets of our owners."
"And why aren't you doing that?" Why aren't you doing that and letting me sleep, oblivious and happy about it?
"Our owners are nuns, Dana. They're wonderful people. They not only treat us with kindness, they set out food for the squirrels, woodchucks, beavers, and even the weasels. They do charitable works for the poor in the village below. They give unstintingly of themselves; if there'd been an extra inch of space in the house, believe me, they would have squeezed you in there." Lily paused, then said, "But they don't have secrets. What you see is what you get; they don't hold anything back, particularly love. There's nothing new to talk about in regard to them. Oh, I could say that Sister Josephine has been hiding the key to the liquor cabinet, but that's only because she's saving a special bottle of wine as a surprise for Christmas dinner. You can't exactly classify that as a secret."
"So why are you talking?"
Lily bobbed her head in the direction of Mulder's huddled form. "Your partner has secrets. He keeps things from you to protect you."
Scully frowned. "I'm aware of that."
"He does it out of concern for you. To spare your feelings."
Scully stared down at her hands. "Yes."
"You despise it when he hides the truth from you. Even though he does it out of love. You continue to insist that he stop, and he continues to ignore you."
"Are you going somewhere with this?" Scully demanded. Anger was not an emotion she wanted to feel on Christmas. Especially anger fueled by a nightmare about a psychic talking llama.
Lily stepped closer to Scully. "Your partner has been keeping a secret from you for seven years, Dana. Again, he has done so to spare your feelings, to shield you from the hurt it might cause."
"And I suppose you think it's your duty to tell me what that secret is?"
"Yes. Otherwise why else would I be granted the ability to speak tonight? As I said, there is nothing about our owners that warrants discussion."
Scully was silent.
"Do you want to know the secret? I can only tell you if you wish to hear it."
Did she want to know? She glanced back at Mulder's slumbering form, wondering what else he might have kept hidden from her since the beginning of their partnership. The possibilities were endless.
And potentially devastating.
"Tell me," she croaked.
Lily nodded, apparently pleased at the decision. "He tried to get a desk for you."
"What?" Scully had been braced for a horrifying revelation about alien colonists, her abduction, the true origins of the Smoking Man, Skinner's real allegiance, or even Diana Fowley. Certainly nothing so mundane as her quest for her own personal nook to store her pens and paperclips in the X-Files office.
"Every year, Dana. Every year, at the beginning of November, he filed a requisition for another desk. And every year Office Services turned him down. They said his division was only entitled to one desk due to the small number of staff and the fact that said staff spent more than fifty percent of their time in the field. But he tried every year all the same. He has all the requisitions with the red 'REQUEST DENIED' stamp on them in an envelope at his apartment. He can't bear to throw them out, but he wanted to make sure you never found them. He didn't want you to know that some pencil-pushers and bean counters didn't feel you were important enough to the X-Files and to the Bureau to justify a desk of your own. He wanted to spare you that pain, because he knows you love your job, that you'd die for your work, that you're more honorable and loyal than any idiot doling out file cabinets and typewriters could ever imagine."
Lily paused and nudged Scully's face again with her nose. "Dana, take your hands down and stop crying. It's Christmas, and you're supposed to be happy."
"I am happy," Scully sobbed.
"I hope you can look a little more convincing at it in the morning, because right now you look miserable."
It took almost fifteen minutes to regain control of herself, to wipe away the remains of an emotional outburst so uncharacteristic that it shocked her even more than holding a coherent conversation with a South American pack animal did. "I'm sorry. I'm not usually like this," she apologized.
"I know." Lily winked one ridiculously long-lashed eye. "You bottle it all up inside. You keep too many secrets yourself, Dana. You should try to let a few of them out sometime. You don't have to hide everything from him; he is your partner."
"I'm not going to burden Mulder with my problems."
Lily shook her head in exasperation. "Good grief, Dana. You don't have to hand him the key to your innermost thoughts. But there are plenty of harmless, simple things about you that he'd just be tickled pink to find out." She stamped a foot for emphasis. "Think about it."
The lecture was apparently over. The llama wandered back to her stall and lay down inside, nodding once more in Scully's direction before closing her eyes.
And the next thing Scully knew the morning sun was streaming through the cracks in the barn, blinding her with its brilliance.
She rolled over, sat up and stretched, enjoying the cold, crisp air.
And suddenly the events of the night came flooding back and she snapped a slightly frantic look toward the llama's stall. The animal was still dozing. Was it her imagination, or did Lily's lips seem to be turned up just a bit?
No. It had to be just the natural shape of the llama's mouth, the same way dolphins always looked like they were grinning friendly grins. Surely she hadn't really talked to Lily last night.
Still. . . .
"Merry Christmas, Scully." Mulder crawled out of his bedding, also yawning and stretching like a bear fresh from hibernation. "Sleep well?"
"Merry Christmas. Yes. I did. You?"
"Like a rock."
"Mulder. . . ."
"What?" He ran his hands through his hair, the end result looking even more spiky than his bed-head had.
"Yesterday, when you asked if it bothered me that there were only six reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh in the TV show. . . ."
"What about it?"
She glanced over at Lily again before continuing. "It did. It bugged me no end as a child. In fact, it still does." The confession, stupid as it was, felt oddly liberating.
Mulder laughed, his voice still rough with sleep but warm and pleased nonetheless. "I knew it! I knew it did."
"How did you know?"
Her partner cast his own glance toward the front door of the barn, which opened as Sister Maria and Sister Josephine came in to milk the cows and let the rest of the animals out into their snowy field. The nuns waved a greeting; the agents waved back. "Well, Scully, you may find this hard to believe, but I'm pretty sure a little squirrel told me."
You'd be surprised at what I might believe today, Mulder, Scully thought, watching Lily kick up her heels with a frisky bounce as the llama trotted out into the bright sunshine. Sometimes miracles do happen.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Author's notes: Happy holidays and warmest wishes to all the Sisters and Brothers of OBSSE. You all light up my Christmas tree brighter than any ornaments ever could. And I really hope I'm not the only one who had continuity issues at an early age and yelled, "Hey! There's only six reindeer behind Rudolph! Where's the other two?" while watching "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *