DISCLAIMER: If itís not abundantly clear by now, I donít own the show or characters. I just take them out and play with them from time to time. The talented Chris Carter, 1013 Productions, FOX, and others whose names escape me are the owners and creators. I made no money from writing this, and wasnít even offered any holiday goodies in exchange for it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I literally have no idea what happened here or where this story came from. I started it with the intention of writing a short and sweet holiday story, a friendship story. And then all of a sudden in the middle of a scene, Dana had an unexpected epiphany. Well, maybe she expected it, but I sure didnít, and things got a whole lot more serious and slashy. Iím not entirely sure the end result works, but I decided to follow where the characters led. Constructive comments welcome. I hope you enjoy.
SPOILERS: Seasons 8 & 9, specifically; generically, any episode mentioning Danaís family.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

An Unexpected Gift
By ocean gazer

 

Dana Scully swore under her breath and stepped on the brake. Her car jerked to a halt, giving safe passage to a white cat as it finished its mad-cap dash across the street in a blur of fur. For a long minute, she just sat there, fingers curled tightly around the steering wheel as her heart rate returned to something approaching normal. When her breathing evened out, she had the presence of mind to be thankful about two things. One, that she'd seen the cat at all, considering the darkness of the street and her own fatigue. And two, that it was the middle of the night and there were no cars piling up behind her as she recovered from the momentary shock.

Shifting her foot over to the gas pedal, she got underway again, wanting nothing more than to get home as quickly as possible and get into some warm, comfy pajamas. The cat incident was just one more reason why she wished she'd pleaded illness and skipped her family's Christmas Eve get-together. From the time she'd left the house in the morning to the near-miss just now, her day had been a series of headache inducing moments.

The drive to her mother's home, which should have taken an hour at best with traffic, had taken two because of accidents and patchy fog. She'd arrived to find that her mother hadn't quite been upfront with her about who was going to be there; she'd expected the usual gathering of immediate family but also found miscellaneous cousins and second cousins and distant aunts and uncles. It made sense, she mused now, because there wasn't much left of their immediate family and her mother appeared eager to fill that void any way she could. But it had been a surprise nonetheless, and no little bit uncomfortable as well to spend the day making small talk with people she hadn't seen in a decade or more. Especially once she realized that her mother, and presumably her brother, had been gossiping about her personal life to these relatives – their questions had grown more pointed and inconsiderate throughout the day. Her brother avoided her as much as possible in a small house, and her mother seemed strained and distant.

Even though she knew it was a repercussion of her decision to give William up for adoption, it still hurt.

She'd expected her mother, of all people, to understand the need to keep him safe. Instead, her mother had turned it into a guilt trip for her work with the FBI, her work with Mulder. If she'd been a doctor the way she was supposed to be, she could have had a normal life. Left unsaid but clearly coloring every word was the implication that if she hadn't been so headstrong and followed such a precarious career path, her sister would still be alive and her son would be around for her mother to dote on. While Dana battled guilt over both Melissa and William, it was more the question of "Could I have done something more to save both of them?" not the question of "Were my life choices to blame for their fates?" It bothered her beyond belief that her mother, who had always been there for her, was so clearly resentful of her work with the FBI, not trusting that her daughter was doing something vital and important.

A blinking red light pulled her attention away from that depressing train of thought to re-focus on the road in front of her. Not that she really expected the cops to be cruising to give out tickets at midnight, but she came to a full stop at the four way stop anyhow. Looking reflexively to both right and left, she managed to chuckle at her own caution on the completely deserted road.

The chuckle quickly ebbed into a sigh, as her mind went back to the disastrous day. She'd gritted her teeth and suffered through the seemingly endless sniping disguised as concern. She'd made non-committal responses to the "Poor dear, I thought you'd had a healthy baby and yet he's nowhere in sight" and the "It must be hard to have a job that always calls you away from the things that are most important in life." She'd picked at her food since it seemed like half the dishes on the table were things she'd never liked. And she'd gone to Christmas Eve Mass with the family even though by then her head had begun to hurt and she wanted nothing more than to go home, make herself something substantial to eat, and escape an atmosphere that threatened to smother her. After all, Mass was important to her mother, and she respected her mother enough to do it for her sake.

The irony that her mother no longer seemed to respect her was not lost on Dana.

The original plan had been for her to spend the night, as she normally did, and be there for the holiday itself. But practically the moment she'd arrived for the family gathering, her mother had pulled her aside, explaining that they were running short on room for people to sleep. And then her mom had twisted the knife, saying, "I know you'd probably rather go to work tomorrow anyhow than be here, since clearly you don't want the responsibilities of having a family."

Just having the words echoing in her mind was enough to make her heart feel like it had been squeezed in her chest. Despite her talking for several hours with her mom to weigh the pros and cons of giving up William, despite crying on her mom's shoulder at the mere thought of letting go of her baby, and despite the reassurance that "You have a good head on your shoulders; you'll do what's best for your son," it was all too obvious that her mom's own pain made her see Dana as some kind of unfeeling monster.

The only thing that had kept her from turning around and leaving as quickly as she'd come had been the fact that Monica called her and offered a healthy dose of sympathy. That hadn't been the other woman's stated reason for the call; she'd apologized for encroaching on Scully's family time, but said she just wanted to ask a quick question about an old X-File report. As she thought about it now, with the half of her mind not concentrating on the drive home on practically deserted streets, that couldn't have been the actual reason for the call. Especially since, now that she thought about it, she'd never actually answered whatever question the woman had asked. Undoubtedly, it had just been one more display of her friend's uncannily good timing.

Whatever the real reason, she couldn't deny her gratitude. Somehow, talking to Monica always made her feel better, even when all the other woman did was listen and ask open-ended questions like, "What do you want to do?"

Just having someone around who didn't judge her for what she did or felt or thought was an amazing experience. It had been a rarity in her life, except with her sister. At times, she'd thought her mom offered her that as well. But now it was all too apparent that her mom hadn't really been as non-judgmental as she'd thought; she just hadn't voiced it openly. Mulder, for all his open-mindedness about the weirdest theories under the sun, often got exasperated with her inability to commit fully to his causes, with her need to look for scientific answers.

That was the reason she'd backed away when he asked her to run off to the desert with him. She'd already sacrificed her career and her son for him and his crusades, but she couldn't give up her whole life for someone who would never stop pushing her in directions she wasn't quite willing to go. At one point, she probably would have given up everything for him. That was when it was the two of them alone against the world, the pariahs of the FBI. But once Doggett and Reyes had come along, she realized there were people out there who were on their side, that she and Mulder had friends in places they'd never imagined. And once she'd had a child, her priorities had changed. It didn't matter that her son was gone, that she was once again responsible only for herself. She'd felt a missing piece of her life fall into place, one she hadn't known was missing until it was there. Simply put, she couldn't be content to spend all her time working, to have all her time focused on that one small piece of the world.

Mulder was different in that regard and she respected him for it. The world needed focused, passionate, dedicated people like him. But she wasn't one of them, not in the same way, and never had been no matter how much she'd put on the mask and played the role.

She sighed softly, her hands loosening now on the steering wheel as she made a right turn and realized with some surprise that she was a mere two blocks from her home. She'd only lived there a few months, so the surrounding streets weren't yet completely familiar. Finding herself unable to stay in her former apartment with its constant reminders of William, she'd dragged Monica house hunting with her. The other woman had patiently endured several walk-throughs, not saying much of anything about any of them. But when they'd entered the last one, the woman had been clearly excited, telling her, "This space was made for you. It's perfect." Dana, not all that excited about any of the homes she'd seen, had followed her friend's guidance, rationalizing that at least it was the least expensive of the bunch. Once she'd lived there a few weeks, however, she'd suddenly understood what Monica meant. The house was small and cozy, but felt light and airy with big windows and light wood tones. There was an aura of peace in it that she hadn't felt in any other place she'd lived, and she fell a little more in love with it every day.

And now, she was almost back in her safe haven. On cue, her stomach growled and she couldn't help but chuckle. She'd go home, scrounge up some food, sit down with a movie, and zone out for a while. As keyed up as she was emotionally, she probably wouldn't fall asleep for a few hours anyhow. And maybe tomorrow, she'd call Monica. They could have a nice, relaxing conversation, maybe even meet for coffee, and that would be enough to redeem her Christmas.

Satisfied with that mental arrangement, she mustered up a smile. Just the thought of being home, in her own space, helped ease some of the stiffness from her shoulders. It was no little disturbing that she'd be that tense after spending time in the house in which she'd grown up, with the people who shared her blood. Then again, her life and theirs had little in common, and sometimes those ties of common experience were stronger than biology.

She turned the corner, her house in sight. And of course, when she was tired and ill-tempered, the street just had to be jam packed with cars. Not that she was surprised; it was a holiday after all and at least two of her neighbors had warned her they were having big family gatherings. Luckily, she spotted a space only a couple houses down. And wonder of wonders, it was large enough that she could pull in easily. She got the car parked, climbed out and shut her door, then opened the back door to retrieve her purse and overnight bag. Sliding one strap over her left shoulder and the other over her right, she shut the door and locked the car, then turned and trudged towards her home.

Her stomach growled again and she started taking a mental inventory of her kitchen shelves and her refrigerator, trying to figure out not only what she had around that might still be edible, but also what would be easy to fix. Moving almost on autopilot, she unlocked her door and let herself in. Setting down her bags in the entryway, she shrugged out of her coat, hanging it up. She leaned over to pick up her bags, wanting them in hand before she opened the second door into the house itself, when a soft noise caught her attention and she froze.

She couldn't quite identify it and automatically reached for her gun, moving as slowly and silently as she could. Then she heard it again, coming from just on the other side of the door. It sounded like a cough...no...a clearing of the throat. The familiarity of the sound struck her, though she couldn't immediately put her finger on why. Then she heard the cautious, "Dana, it's me."

Forgetting her bags for the moment, she slid her gun back into its holster, opened the door, and walked into the living room. Sure enough, Monica Reyes sat on one end of her couch, feet curled under her, a book in hand. What in the world? It was twelve-thirty in the morning, for heaven's sake! She stopped short beside the couch, not sure how to interpret the tranquil look on the other woman's face.

"Why are you here?" The words were curt, her surprise at the woman's presence too real to mask. For a brief moment, when no response was immediately forthcoming, she thought maybe she should have said more...or nothing at all.

Then she heard the simple, "I thought you might need some company."

Dana blinked a few times, overwhelmed by how the matter-of-fact answer seemed to melt her defenses away. It still surprised her how well Monica understood her, knowing when to appear and when to stay away. She took a deep breath, walked around the side of the couch, and sat next to her friend. "Yeah, I guess maybe I do."

And that was all she said. She didn't really know what else to say, what else she wanted to say. Anger and hurt still burned in her chest, but she didn't really want to re-hash all the family bullshit right then. She needed to let it settle a bit, to get some distance and some perspective. Some of it – the stuff with her brother, the growing tension with her mother – was not entirely recent and she trusted her friend had already guessed some of the new directions the old patterns had gone. Ranting about her more distant relatives might help alleviate some of her lingering stress, but a good night's sleep would achieve the same end without raising her blood pressure in the process.

When it came right down to it, she wanted to figuratively wash her hands of the whole thing. She wanted to salvage what was left of this holiday break – the time she had off from Christmas to New Year's Day. Her familial duty for the holidays was done and she'd been more than polite under the circumstances. She'd done what she could to reach out to her mother and brother over the past several months, trying hard to meet them halfway, but neither of them would move forward. There was, realistically, nothing else she could do to set things right. The next move was up to them. While it didn't do anything to lessen the hurt she felt, there was a sense of relief in that realization.

She'd felt for years as though the burden was always on her shoulders in every aspect of her life. In her head, it had been up to her to keep her relationship with her family on solid ground, to make the leaps to meet Mulder on his ground while still deferring to their superiors – to be the perfect bridge in the gaps between one world and another. But now, it was time for someone else to fill that role, to be that person. She couldn't – wouldn't – do it anymore.

Feeling a tentative touch on her thigh, she abruptly pulled herself away from her woolgathering and looked over to find Monica watching her. She started to apologize, but a hand waved her off from doing so. Not that she was surprised. The other woman spent plenty of time inside her own head so was no stranger to the "lost in thought" phenomenon. Even so, she muttered something about her thought processes over the past few moments, something so garbled and unintelligible that she felt like the stereotypical babbling idiot.

Oddly enough, she heard a murmur of sympathy from the other woman and a soft, "You're right...what happens next is up to them...you've done your part." Either Monica was being psychic again, a claim the woman vehemently denied every time someone accused her of it, or she'd understood the jumble of words. Knowing the woman as well as she did, Dana knew it was the latter. She'd seen many things over the past nine years, and no longer could claim with confidence that psychic ability was not real. But she also hadn't seen demonstrable proof of those abilities in her friend. She knew enough to draw the line between telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, and empathy. Her friend was an empath, nothing more.

She managed a muttered "thanks" in return, grateful for both the understanding and the agreement with the realization she'd made. Not that she needed the affirmation per se; once she made up her mind about something, Dana didn't rely on others to tell her it was the right thing to do. Still, with a subject this emotionally charged, her friend's words were a helpful reminder that her thoughts weren't entirely subjective. Or rather, they were subjective, but not divorced from someone else's objective point-of-view.

And, once again, her mind was wandering. She nearly uttered an apology; the other woman had come over for the purpose of offering her support, and here she was, lost in her own head. Before she could open her mouth, however, her stomach growled. Loudly. Loudly enough that she actually laughed at the sound, at the same time that she became aware of a sharp ache in her belly. It shocked her that she hadn't even felt it up to now. Before she could even think of making some kind of wisecrack, she saw Monica jump as though she'd been poked with a sharp stick.

"I'm sorry, Dana."

Scully frowned at her friend, understanding the words as spoken but having no idea what they meant. "Sorry?" She put enough emphasis in her voice to make clear that she was asking what, not why.

Watching the woman intently, she saw the momentary confusion, but to her credit, Reyes was sharp. "Oh, it's that I forgot to tell you there's food in the fridge. I figured you probably didn't eat a lot since you were upset, so I brought some Chinese take-out with me."

If possible, Dana's stomach growled even more loudly at the words. She was acutely aware of her friend studying her intently for a moment. It was actually rather intriguing to watch the wheels turning in Monica's head and she almost literally saw the moment when the woman came to some kind of decision. "Why don't you go put your stuff away and get into something comfortable while I heat up the food? I'll bring it out here with some chopsticks and we can have a little post-midnight snack."

She didn't bother to answer in words. Offering what felt like her first genuine smile all day, she pushed herself to her feet. Holding out a hand, she helped Monica off the couch, then abruptly pulled the woman into a hug. She didn't have to be psychic to pick up on her friend's surprise at the gesture.

Dana Scully had a reputation for being, as the kinder souls put it, a non-touchy-feely sort of person. To those who were not so kind, she knew she was seen as a cold, hard bitch. She'd never cared all that much about any reputation other than professional, so as long as those who saw her as hard also saw her as competent, she shrugged it off. In many ways, the negative reputation had actually benefited her career because, despite her very feminine dress and appearance, no one doubted her ability to play hardball with the "big boys." But it suddenly made her sad to think that her reputation had caused her friend to feel the need to keep her distance.

Monica had been there for her through thick and thin, through some of the worst days of her life, and it saddened her to realize that she'd never really shown the other woman how grateful she was for her presence.

She hugged the woman a little more tightly, feeling a sense of peace flood through her, washing away some of the tension and hurt from her disastrous day. It suddenly struck her how cared for and how safe she felt in her friend's arms. There was a sense of compassion and understanding with the other woman and a sense of...of something more. She knew what it was but wasn't quite sure she was ready to acknowledge it, so she awkwardly pulled out of the embrace. It wasn't too surprising that the other woman let her go, sensitive as she always was to Dana's moods. And she wasn't entirely surprised to recognize the fleeting look of loss on Monica's face, though it disturbed her to realize now what it meant and to know she'd seen it before.

She murmured something about going to change, and then turned and went out to the entryway to get her bags. When she walked back through the door, she wasn't too surprised to find the other woman gone, presumably in the kitchen attending to the food. Her thoughts a confused jumble, she made her way to her room. Setting her purse on the chair by her dresser, she set the overnight bag on the bed. Methodically but mindlessly, she unpacked it, her thoughts on more important things than clothes.

Dana knew she was not the most emotionally literate person on the planet. Someone as rational and logical as she was didn't have quite the same kind of radar as someone like Monica. But neither was she stupid. Once an idea or a fact penetrated her consciousness, she didn't just ignore it or pretend it wasn't real because it was uncomfortable or inconvenient. And the realization she'd just had was both those things.

She loved Monica.

She wasn't quite sure in what way she loved her, whether it was the same kind of deep friendship she had with Mulder or something more; but she did love her. And now that she'd seen the look on Monica's face in the right context to understand it, she realized that her friend had feelings for her that went deep, but had tried to keep them hidden – unsure of them, unsure of her.

All these thoughts raced through her mind in the time it took her to empty the bag and change into her warmest, fuzziest pajamas. Despite the seriousness of her thoughts, she had to chuckle. Her sudden realization probably would look like the out-of-the-blue and out-of-character change-of-heart that was the hallmark of too many bad romance novels. She could just picture a theoretical reader thinking, 'Wait a minute, this is Dana Scully we're talking about, where did this come from?'

But the reality was that none of this had come out of the blue. The internal signs had been there for the better part of a year, now that she thought about it. She just hadn't been in the right place – mentally or emotionally – to pay attention to them. Her entire focus over the past two years had been external, her concerns centered on other people. She'd lost Mulder and spent months trying to find out what had happened to him. She'd given birth to their child under harrowing circumstances and then exhausted every bit of extra energy she had trying to keep him safe from those who would harm him…and them. She'd lost Mulder again – this time because she wouldn't follow him, wouldn't keep running. And in the spaces in between those all-consuming traumas, she'd dealt with family issues and work-related issues, not to mention the demands of both the X-Files and Quantico.

There had been precious little time or energy to focus on herself, on her life and what she wanted.

Only in the past two months had that process begun, and it had mostly been her mourning her losses so she could, eventually, move on. Through it all, Monica had been there and she'd leaned on the other woman more than she'd even been aware of. When she'd been preoccupied with everything and everyone else, it had been easy to take the friendship for granted, to see the other woman as just an integral part of her background fabric, nothing more. Now, coming home to the one person who made her feel ok about being herself, she could see all the things that had always been there, the things she hadn't time to see before.

It wasn't an abrupt revelation of something completely new; it was an epiphany. And what it would mean, for her, for Monica, she had no idea.

She padded back out towards the living room, not sure whether to pursue the topic with her friend or not. After all, she'd wanted nothing more than to come home and forget about awkward personal interactions and stressful moments. But the genie, so to speak, had escaped the bottle and she wasn't entirely sure she could get him back in. Maybe she needed to just ignore the revelation for a little while, deal with it in the morning after she'd gotten some food and some sleep. She normally didn't like to let things sit when they were important, preferring to tackle them head-on instead of waiting to be tackled by them. But this was different. It had waited this long to be seen – another day or three wouldn't do any harm.

Walking into the living room, she sniffed appreciatively. The food smelled incredible and she was starving. Plopping down on the couch next to her friend, she saw that Monica had a paper take-out container in one hand and chopsticks in the other. Dana followed her lead and grabbed a steaming container of General Tso's chicken. Picking up a piece, she blew on it, hoping to cool it down quickly. She didn't quite wait long enough, and hissed as she felt the burn on her tongue. Setting down the container on the coffee table, she noticed two glasses sitting there and didn't even bother to ask which was hers before picking one up and drinking quickly. She sensed Monica smiling at her and looked up in time to see the indulgent look on the woman's face. When she'd put down the glass, Reyes leaned forward and picked up a different container.

"Here. Start with the Mongolian beef; it's not as hot."

Wordlessly, Dana accepted the offering and settled back against the couch cushions. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched her friend put down the broccoli beef she'd been eating and pick up a container of pan-fried noodles. Turning her attention back to the food, she ate quickly, hungrier than she'd realized. Once about half the container's contents were gone, she leaned forward and set it back on the coffee table, took another drink of water, and picked up the by-now cooled chicken. Settling back, she once again glanced at the other woman. She wasn't quite sure what she expected to see, but it wasn't Monica staring blankly out the window as she ate. Fishing out a piece of the chicken and chewing on it, she watched her friend, really watched her.

A sense of awe struck her and she swallowed hard. It wasn't awe of the woman's physical beauty, though she noticed it now almost for the first time. It was something deeper. Something about the far-away look in the brown eyes, the shadows drifting over the lean face, resonated with Dana. She'd come to count on her friend's endless help and limitless comfort, had indeed come to think of Monica almost exclusively in terms of being supportive and caring. She'd forgotten about the woman's other layers – the almost mystical aura, the passionate intelligence, the impatience with injustice, and the optimistic spirit that belied the pain and weariness of someone who had seen and experienced some horrible things.

Suddenly, Dana felt almost unbearably selfish. She'd taken so much from her friend and had given her so little in return. And yet Monica still cared about her enough to come over in the middle of the night, bearing the twin gifts of food and presence.

As if her perusal had finally caught the other woman's attention, she saw Monica's head swing around and the discomfort in dark eyes at the scrutiny. Without being aware of it, she found herself blurting, "I'm sorry…I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I just was thinking how lucky I am to have a…to have someone like you in my life."

She'd started to say "to have a friend like you" but had cut the thought off in the middle, unable to keep lying to herself. Monica was more than just a casual friend to her – she'd realized that already this evening. She loved the woman; really, after all that her friend had done for her, how could she not love her? It was uncomfortable to admit that to herself, even knowing that it didn't necessarily change things, even knowing that love didn't necessarily mean anything more than close friendship. She loved Mulder dearly, had slept with him more than once, and that still hadn't translated into a life together. And with him, she'd known where things stood, that he was less able to make a commitment than she was. She wasn't entirely sure what would happen if and when she admitted her deeper feelings to Reyes, especially when coupled with the whole "I don't know if I can be anything more than your friend" addendum she'd have to tack on.

It abruptly occurred to her that the other woman hadn't said anything yet and she scanned her friend's face, not surprised to see a mixture of confusion and affection. She also saw about the last thing she'd expected: fear.

Deliberately, she set down the container and leaned forward slightly. This was not how she wanted to end an already difficult day, but she owed it to Monica. Especially since her friend could read her well enough to know if she was avoiding something. She watched as Reyes set down her container and sat back with a pillow in her lap, clearly aware that something was going on. The posture was subtly defensive, and Scully felt her heart go out to the other woman. Choosing her words carefully, speaking slowly, she began.

"Coming home tonight and finding you here made me realize some things. One of those things was that there's something special about you…about how I feel when I'm around you. You give me space to be my whole self."

She hadn't realized it quite so starkly until she said the words, but they rang with truth. "When I hugged you earlier and realized how I felt in your arms, I suddenly understood some of the looks and signals I've been getting from you…I saw them in the right context to understand them." She studied her friend carefully, wanting to know if she'd read things wrong, knowing she'd see the denial or protest on the woman's face if she had. Finding none, she continued.

"Monica, I love you. As a friend, definitely, but it feels like it might go deeper than friendship. And I know that you love me too. But what that means…I honestly don't know. It's not that you're a woman…even though I've never really been attracted to a woman before. It's…I don't know what it is." She looked down then, feeling a knot in the pit of her stomach, not quite sure if she'd said too much, not enough.

"I think I know what it is, Dana." The words were soft, barely above a whisper, and she found herself looking back at her friend. "For one, you probably are scared of losing the friendship by going outside those established boundaries. I know that's one of the things I've been scared of. But…I think it's more than that for you. You've been brought up in a world where things fit neatly into boxes. Love is either platonic or romantic…a relationship either friendship or marriage or a guilt-ridden affair."

Dana felt her heart beat faster at those last three words. She hadn't expected her friend to read her quite that clearly. Even her relationship with Mulder had held its share of guilt, despite the no-strings approach, because she couldn't shake the feeling that she was supposed to be a full-time girlfriend and give him more than she did. And that feeling only intensified once she discovered she was pregnant. She could see the sympathetic look in Monica's eyes at her discomfort, though it didn't stop the other woman from continuing.

"But love isn't like that, Dana. It's fluid. And there are lots of different types of love. It doesn't have to follow some set of rules and lead to some specific outcome. You're right in saying that I love you. And, more than that, I'm physically attracted to you and would love to explore what that means. But does that mean I have a full set of expectations for what would come next? Does that mean I have visions of a white picket fence and a dog and wedding bells? No. I can't make any promises to you any more than you can make them to me…except for this one. I promise that if we're meant to be just friends, then I'll be happy with that."

Of all the things Monica said, she supposed the last two sentences should probably seem the least significant. But they were what caught her attention, what threw her most off-guard. "How can you possibly mean that promise?"

She didn't miss the serious, knowing look on the woman's face. The answer was quiet, but echoed loudly in the room. "Because I love you…without conditions on what form that love takes. As long as you care about me…as long as I have a special place in your heart…whether it's as a friend or a lover or as a combination of both…that's what truly matters to me."

Without realizing quite how it had happened, Dana found herself starting to cry. She brushed angrily at the tears, not exactly sure what had prompted them. It might have been a sign of exhaustion after the day she'd had. It might have been that she was overwhelmed by the swiftness of both the revelation and the conversational turn. It might have been fear of the unknown, not having any idea where their friendship would go in light of their feelings, not having any idea what she was truly ready to offer or explore. And it might have been the raw power of Monica's promise, the sincerity of the woman's words.

Dana was enough of a skeptic to know that no one could make that shift from friends to lovers to just friends again without some degree of anger and/or pain. But she also knew Reyes well enough to know that the woman didn't make promises lightly. She also believed her friend was serious about it being the connection itself that mattered, not what form it took. And in that way, it was different than what she'd already explored and shared with Mulder. Their relationship had been no-strings because he wanted and needed it to be that way. But even so, he'd had a clear set of expectations about her, about them. He'd expected her to continue following him into new X-Files and ever-greater danger; he'd expected their destinies to run along the same path, with or without the romantic part of the equation. Monica didn't need freedom for herself, but wanted it for others because she'd never try to hold people back from doing the things that were right for them or that made them happiest.

She found herself crying harder at that realization and at the knowledge that Monica had already given her the freedom to act in her own time and her own way. The other woman had clearly felt this way for months, and yet had never once pushed her, had been content to be only her friend. The mere idea was so new that Dana didn't even know how to process it.

Feeling gentle fingers against the skin of her cheek, she leaned into the touch. Within moments, she felt Monica move closer and fold her into a one-armed embrace. She laid her head against the woman's shoulder, her tears abating with the comforting touch, and just sat there, letting herself enjoy being held. She didn't know what to say, where to start, and she felt her fatigue pulling at her. It had been such a long and draining day, and she didn't know if she had the energy to continue what they'd started.

And once again, if she hadn't known Monica was not psychic, she might have been convinced when the woman's soft voice reached her ears. "We don't have to figure this out right now. We don't have to do anything at all. The only thing that's changed is that things are a little more out in the open for us…you know what I'm thinking and vise versa. We can still be friends the way we have been up to now…there's no obligation to do anything else…to explore anything further."

The word flow stopped for a minute, then continued in an even softer whisper. "All I care about is whether you're happy and comfortable with whatever kind of friendship we have."

Dana hadn't planned on saying anything, but she pulled away from the embrace and looked up, searching the other woman's serious face. "And what about your happiness?" The sentence came out a bit more sharply than she'd expected.

To her credit, Monica didn't even blink at the question. "I am happy. It's…how do I say this? For me, happiness is not something I have…dependent on my job or on whether I'm single or in a relationship. Happiness is a state of mind for me. It's how I approach my life…that I'm doing what I want to be doing…that I'm following the paths that feel right to me even though I don't know where they lead or have a sense of what the outcome will be. My happiness is my journey, not arriving at a certain destination."

There was a long pause then and Scully thought about saying something, but had a feeling the other woman wasn't quite done. "I was serious, you know, when I said that what matters to me is knowing I have a special place in your heart. When you trusted me to take care of William…when I was the person you called when the walls seemed to be closing in…that meant more to me than you probably know. That kind of closeness is what means the most to me, having that emotional connection. And that's truly enough for me. The only thing that would make me unhappy would be if we weren't friends at all."

Dana wanted to let it rest there, to believe the reality of the woman's words. But she needed more, even as she felt ashamed for pushing. "What if Mulder came back tomorrow…and he and I picked up where we left off?"

And that, truly, was the real underlying anxiety, a big reason for her uncertainty. Her ex-partner was the proverbial elephant in the room. Her feelings for him were complicated and intense and weren't going to just fade away any time soon, despite knowing that they were on totally different paths and weren't suited for anything more than what they'd had. It wasn't like Dana had suitors beating down her door, wasn't like she'd had any serious feelings for anyone other than Mulder in the past ten or so years. The only other person she'd opened up to in that time, gotten close to, was sitting next to her on the couch.

She wasn't sure what reaction she expected from her friend, but she knew laughter wasn't it. The laughter was soft and held an ironic note somehow, and she pulled back even farther so she could have that extra distance to study Monica's face. The other woman shook her head slightly in seeming disbelief and met her gaze without hesitation.

"If Mulder came back tomorrow, I'd wish you the best of luck in your relationship. And I'd make sure to always have my cell phone with me, so that when you called in the middle of the night, needing a friendly ear after he left abruptly to follow some lead in Tulsa or Timbuktu, I'd be there for you."

And suddenly, the tension that had been building up in Dana's head broke. She began to chuckle, not only at the accuracy of Monica's prediction, but at the realization that there was no jealousy on her friend's part for what she and Mulder had. Well, why should there be? The woman had already stated clearly that she cared about the emotional connection, and there was no way in which Dana could see Mulder's return as any kind of threat to the connection she and Monica already had. In fact, as she thought about it, he'd probably be all too happy that she had such a close friend to talk to and spend time with so that he could run off to Tulsa or Timbuktu without thinking twice about it. She chuckled harder at the thought that he probably wouldn't even be jealous if she and Monica shared a bed while he was gone, so long as she shared some of the details. His predilection for porn – and threesomes – wasn't precisely a secret.

And somehow, in the midst of the laughter, Dana realized that if she were going to explore a relationship with anyone other than Mulder, Monica would be a good fit for her. She'd be able to be her own self and do her own thing without feeling the need to fit into a role. That was part of what had always doomed her past romantic relationships – that sense of needing to fit someone else's expectations. The same problem had plagued her familial and platonic relationships as well…everybody expected X, Y, and Z from her, even if she wanted to do Q. The only person who hadn't was her sister.

And who was the one person in the whole world who reminded Dana of her sister? The woman sitting next to her on the couch, with one eyebrow cocked in bemusement.

Oddly satisfied by the conclusion she'd come to, she curled back up against Monica's side, feeling the woman's arm drape around her and hold her close once again. And when she felt the other woman's cheek resting against the top of her head, it warmed her in a way she wasn't expecting. They sat like that for a long time, the food going stone cold on the coffee table, the room quiet except for the sounds of their breathing.

Dana just soaked in the sensation, relaxing into it in a way that she rarely allowed herself. Normally, her brain ran around in circles, pondering this, thinking about that. Even during her downtime, her subconscious was at work analyzing things, working to fit pieces together so that the puzzles would come together the next time she looked at them. But at that precise moment in time, she was content and her whole world was the circle of safety and comfort she found in Monica's arms.

Right then, love seemed the simplest thing in the world because it was just there; it was all around her.

She knew the complications would come later, when she tried to figure out "what does this mean and how should this work and what do I want?" But it was comforting to know that she didn't have to go through that process alone, because Monica would be there with her, asking the same questions. Just knowing that it wouldn't be one-sided made all the difference, made it seem like anything was possible. She snuggled closer, lulled by the soft breathing beside her, and her eyes slid closed.

Within moments she heard a whispered, "Dana, are you ok?"

It seemed like an odd question to her, until she realized she hadn't said anything at all after Monica answered her question about Mulder. And since her friend was no mind reader, there was no way for her to know where Dana's head was at, given the twists and turns of the conversation.

"Yeah, I'm ok…better than I expected, actually. It's a little scary to not know what's going to happen, but it helps a lot to know how you feel about it…to know that you're fine if we don't go any farther than this. I…I don't say things like this often, but you do have a special place in my life and I don't see that changing any time soon, no matter what." She wanted to try and find more words to express herself, better words, but was interrupted by a sudden yawn.

Feeling the woman shift slightly beside her, she smiled when a kiss was pressed into her hair. "Thank you…that…it means a lot that you said that."

For a long moment, she felt as though she needed to apologize for not being more emotional, not being more expressive. But she consciously squelched the urge quickly. There had been no accusation in her friend's tone, no sense of reproach that Dana was the way she was. Her reaction was a pattern formed over many years, through many relationships. With Monica, she might start finding ways to break out of it.

Before her mind could start wandering again, she yawned once more and this time heard a throaty chuckle. She felt the couch shift as Monica stood up and then offered her a helping hand. They stood side by side for a moment, awkwardly, before the other woman moved around to the other side of the table, bending over briefly to pick up a napkin that had fluttered to the floor. Dana just watched in silence as the woman straightened and fixed her with a sympathetic look.

"It's late and you must be exhausted after the day you've had. Why don't you head off to bed while I clean up in here? Do you mind if I just crash on the couch tonight? I think I'm probably too tired to try driving home."

The words were straightforward and innocent. Dana had no sense that her friend was fishing for anything. Still, she stiffened momentarily, feeling a bit at a loss for what to say after all that had come before. And there was a different kind of tension there; one that caused her to understand why danger and opportunity were sometimes seen as intricately linked. She heard a sharp intake of breath and somehow knew Monica was on the verge of apologizing for how her words had come across. She shifted abruptly on the couch, turning to face the other woman, catching her with mouth open and "I'm sorry" written across her face.

Holding up a hand, she said simply, "Don't. I know what you meant." She paused briefly, thoughts and feelings tugging at her, and when she spoke again, her words were slow and measured. "If you want, you can sleep on the couch. But I…I'd like it if you came and slept with me…I mean, went to sleep in the same bed as me. After everything…I just want to know you're here…if that doesn't sound stupid or selfish or anything."

She felt her heart hammering in her chest and wasn't sure if it was from the fear that Monica would say no or the fear that Monica would say yes. Allowing herself to be vulnerable had never been easy and this moment in time was no exception. Still, she'd already been vulnerable with Reyes, many times and in many ways, starting with the birth of William. And the woman had never once taken advantage of that or proven Dana's trust to be misplaced. There was no reason to think she'd do otherwise now. It wasn't that the other woman was some kind of saint – she did and said her share of stupid and hurtful things – but that she never acted out of malice. Even a confirmed cynic like John Doggett could see that; he'd commented more than once on how he didn't quite know what to make of his partner. So she knew her fear at that specific moment was irrational, that Monica would never intentionally hurt her, but it didn't make it any less real.

Changes were never easy; neither was opening her heart and letting it lead the way.

All these thoughts flashed through her head in the time it took Monica to come back around to her side of the table and reach out to gently touch her shoulder. "It sounds sweet, not stupid. I know this is gonna be a little awkward for a while, but I also trust that because we're friends, we'll figure it out together. As long as we're both willing to communicate, we'll be ok."

Dana let out a sigh at the matter-of-fact tone in her friend's voice, releasing some of her tension. The other woman's voice was light as she continued. "So…why don't you head off to bed while I clean up in here? And then I'll come join you so we can both get some sleep."

Before she could think better of it, Dana leaned up and gave her friend a quick kiss on the cheek. She was grateful when Monica didn't try to turn her head and turn it into a shared kiss, but simply let her move at her own pace and her own level of comfort. Pulling back, she managed a half smile and was glad to see the other woman mimic the gesture. And then, without bothering to affirm anything or define anything, she made her way out of the living room and into the bathroom, leaving Monica to clean up as she'd suggested.

Moving on autopilot, she brushed her hair and then her teeth. Scrounging around in the cabinet under the sink, she found three packaged toothbrushes, and took one out, placing it on the counter for the other woman to use. She wondered briefly if she should try to find something for the other woman to sleep in, but then her logic centers kicked back into gear as she realized that with the height difference, nothing she owned would be of use. Deciding not to worry about it, figuring that Monica would either sleep in her clothes or ask if she wanted to borrow something, Dana padded off to the bedroom.

Surveying her queen-sized bed, she decided that a few more pillows might be in order, and walked into the hallway and over to her linen cabinet. She took out two pillows and found some plain white pillowcases, carrying the armload back to the bedroom. Holding one pillow under her chin, she maneuvered it into a case, then did the same with the other one. Tossing them on to one side of the bed, she went over to the other side and crawled under the covers. A sigh of relief left her lips as she felt the comforting embrace of her bed. Arranging her pillows slightly and getting settled in her normal position on her side, she found her eyes sliding closed, despite her best intentions to stay awake until Monica joined her.

She wasn't entirely sure if she'd fallen asleep or if she was just on the verge of it, but she had the sensation of jarring into consciousness. Blinking in confusion, she recognized the sound of running water. Then she heard a soft footfall and realized Monica was coming from the bathroom into the bedroom, moving quietly in case she was asleep. She murmured, "S'okay, I'm not 'sleep," even though her slurred words suggested otherwise.

Managing to keep her eyes open for a few moments, she saw the other woman set a pile of clothes neatly on the chair. Watching the other woman, she sleepily thought that the sight of Monica Reyes in boxer shorts and a plain white undershirt was somehow far sexier than it ought to be. But that was a thought that would keep until later and she found her eyes drifting shut again even as she felt the dip of the bed beside her and the covers shifting while the other woman settled in.

Her back was to Monica and she thought that maybe she should turn over, so it didn't seem like she was avoiding the woman or anything. But even as her fatigue-fogged brain tried to process that, she felt a hand come up and rest against the middle of her back. It was a simple touch, nothing too familiar or overly intimate, but it washed her last thought away with a sense of reassurance she hadn't known she needed. Everything was okay. She didn't need to worry about anything or do anything except go to sleep.

She snuggled the covers more tightly under her chin and breathed deeply. There was no motion beside her, which she took to mean that her friend was settled comfortably as well. Monica's hand was warm against her back and strangely lulling. This wasn't at all how she'd expected her day to end, but she was glad it had taken this turn. On the verge of falling asleep again, she managed to whisper, "Merry Christmas, Monica."

The fingers against her back started a slow, reflexive massage and the woman's whisper was sleepy. "Merry Christmas to you too, Dana."

Something about the soft voice and the gentle massage relaxed Dana more than she could have imagined. She couldn't remember when she'd last felt this comfortable with anyone.

Her last coherent thought before drifting off to sleep was that Monica's presence in her life was the best gift she could have asked for.

The End

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