He’s certain she’s been there before. Of course, she has. He imagines her leaving a neatly scribed comment in the visitor book. Some quote or succinct observation. He looks across at her. Behind, the crimsons and golds of the Hudson Valley glow with the same intensity she does.
“Are you taking me to the Witch’s Hole Falls, Mulder?”
He is struck by an image of her, a 17th century version, wild red hair tumbling around her face as she shucks off her undergarments to swim naked in the whirling water. “I can if you like,” he says.
Her response is to tuck her chin in with the glimmer of a smile on her lips. Just a flicker, then it’s gone. She’s so contained, so practised, even more so since…that he feels the dread of failure rolling around his guts.
“I never properly thanked you for the baseball tickets, Scully. It was a good choice.”
She chuffs. “I’m just sorry that I didn’t put as much thought into your surprise as you clearly have in mine.”
Shit. Is that the impression he’s given? Ever prone to the dramatic, he thought he had pitched this as a romantic gesture, not self-aggrandisement. He tries not to sigh, but it slips out. Perhaps a little theatrical. “It’s not a competition, Scully.”
“Then what is this? A weekend, Mulder. I gave you a couple of hours. You’re giving me a couple of days. It doesn’t seem very balanced to me.”
He drums the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. “It was the best two hours of my life,” he says, honestly.
It takes her a few seconds, but then she lets out a ripple of giggles. Her cheeks pinken. Her eyes wet. She rubs her hand over his knee and he feels the tension leave his body in a rush. His shoulders soften. Maybe it’ll be okay. Even if she has seen it before. They can see it together this time. He’s seen hundreds of ballgames. But the few he’s seen with her always stand out. It’s funny, but he can’t remember the box scores for those games as clearly. But he does remember the weather, what they ate and drank, their seat numbers, what she was wearing.
She’s stopped laughing. And he misses it already.
The Airbnb is a two-bedroomed cabin nestled in the Valley. Scully checks the rooms, opens the cupboards, inspects the cutlery. She leans against the kitchen drawers, ankles crossed, an earthenware mug hooked over her thumb as she waits for the jug to boil. She looks at home in her white jeans and oversized hoodie.
“Mulder, this is….”
He’s hoping for a great or a lovely or even a beautiful. Because it is. He can’t tell her how long he spent scouring the web for this place. He can’t tell her how he nearly chose a one-bedroomed tiny house, hovering his finger over the mouse too long before his conscience took over, and he can never tell her how sorry he is that he chased her away with the stark truth of his demons.
“…too much,” she finishes.
But it isn’t nearly enough, he wants to shout. Dana Scully deserves everything. Every fucking thing. He takes his chin between his finger and thumb, trying to massage away the doubt that’s bubbling under his tongue.
“Sorry.” It’s all he can think of to say. He is sorry. He doesn’t want her to be uncomfortable. They’ve been making such good progress, agreeing to weekly dinners out and then to these surprise dates. And now he’s leapt ahead as usual, jumped on the moving train.
Her fingers winding through his warms his heart. “I don’t want to hear that word any more,” she says, leaning up to kiss his cheek. When she steps back, she’s smiling. She folds her arms and regards him, tilting her head. Time rushes backwards and they’re in the basement; him ready to whack some wild theory out the park, her ready to pitch facts at him. “Besides, you’ve always been too much, Mulder.”
The steam whistles out of the jug’s spout, fogging the window that looks out to a forest trail. Fall colours muted.
“You used to put blank slides in your slideshows – all those dramatic pauses in your narrative. You deliberately went to the Bermuda Triangle. You ate evidence on regular basis. It’s one of the reasons I…”
She doesn’t finish. But it’s enough that she started. It’s enough, the coquettish tone, the tongue raking over the lips, the long inhalations and exhalations through her nose. These are just a few of the reasons why he…
She remains silent in the car all the way to the house but he knows that she knows where they’re going. He couldn’t care about the surprise now. He’s been sated by her deep kisses last night, from her head heavy on his shoulder as they sat in front of the fire in comfortable silence, from her cold feet on his ass in the early hours. She slid into his bed in the midnight hour, ethereal, quiet but seemingly as hungry as he was. He hadn’t dared hope. That wasn’t the plan. She came to him. And it wasn’t too much at all. It wasn’t nearly enough.
“I am going to guess that you’ve been here before, Scully,” he says, guiding her through the doorway to the living room.
“Are you a trained investigator, by any chance, Mr Mulder?” She’s still flirting and his chest breaks open, letting his heart pump large.
“I have another surprise,” he says.
She stops in front of the bookcase. It’s a grand feature built around a window and stacked with rows of hardbacks. The room is elegantly dressed, dark wood panelling on the walls, floral-patterned armchairs and white linen draped over occasional tables. Scully fits right in, with her dusky rose silk blouse skimming the waist of a flowing navy skirt he hasn’t seen before.
Turning, there’s a sense of interest in her voice bordering on anticipation. “And what would that be?” Her hands are clasped behind her back and she swings her shoulders, smiling.
He reaches into his pocket. Her eyes widen. Her cheeks flush. Freeing her hands, she reaches out to cover his, holding it firmly in place. Now there’s fear on her face. “Mulder, no.”
He wants to chuckle, but she’s almost panting and he slides their joint hands into his pocket so she can feel the slip of paper there. She pulls it out, eyes flicking to the right where a family has entered the room. She licks her lips, rushes out an apology then unfolds the paper.
“A painting workshop,” she reads, then adds, “Oh.” She looks away, forces breath in and out. He rolls his hand over her shoulder and she presses a finger along her mouth. “Sorry, Mulder, I thought…”
He tucks away the idea of proposing. Twenty-five years is clearly too soon. “Hey, that word’s banned, remember?”
She takes stock for a beat. “Painting, Mulder?”
“Do one thing every day that scares you, Scully.”
“The perfect place to quote Eleanor Roosevelt,” she says as they follow the directions to the grounds outside Stone Cottage. “Why do you think painting would scare me?”
He doesn’t. Not really. But it would a creative challenge for them both. To break open something intimate inside of them both. “You’ve spent your life in brightly-lit, sterile labs, working between rigid parameters. Science demands you to find the evidence, to examine the details, to use your knowledge and experience to draw conclusions. Painting is kind of the opposite. I thought it might offer you a sense of, I don’t know, freedom?”
“I thought you were the opposite?” She smiles up at him as they walk. “You’ve done so many rash things over the years, I’ll be interested to see the differences in our styles.”
“Degas vs Pollock, is that what you think?”
She pecks his cheek. “Just don’t eat the paint, Mulder.”
Easels are standing in a semi-circle, overlooking the lake. Birdsong is high. A gentle breeze ruffles the gold and green canopy beyond. They listen to the tutor, they paint. From the corner of his eye, he watches Scully in long moments of contemplation, brush handle pressed against her lips, portrait-perfect.
At the end of the time, he swings his painting around first. He was surprised at how gentle and considered his strokes were, as he captured the view with a soft palette.
She beams. “That’s pretty good, Mulder.”
“Better than you expected, or better than you hoped?” She wouldn’t remember the reference, but he does. He remembers the small giggle, the loose jacket, the earnestness of her in that first case, something that has never quite disappeared. He’s buoyed by her reaction and can’t resist a suggestive line. “I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours, Scully.”
She’s coy, hesitating a while. “You said painting is the opposite of science, but I beg to differ, Mulder.”
Of course she does. He wouldn’t expect anything different.
“I looked closely, I picked out the details, I worked to the parameters of this canvas, I drew some conclusions based on the evidence out there.” She nods to the lake. “This is the what I see.”
Her painting is a surprisingly bold kaleidoscope of colour and texture. In it, he can see the house behind them, the lake, the trees, but it’s an interpretation, not a true representation. Her head is tilted and she’s still dabbing at small spots, lines deepening between her eyes as she concentrates. She looks like she could do this all day and he’s sorry when the tutor lingers, silently asking them to pack up.
Later, in front of the fire, her legs draped over his knees, feet in fluffy socks, wine glass balanced on her stomach, she thanks him again.
“How did you come up with this idea, Mulder?”
“You told me once that if you could be anyone else for a day, you’d choose Eleanor Roosevelt. It stuck with me.”
“I think I told you I’d be me,” she says.
“This weekend has been a combination of both answers then.” Turning to her, he draws a foot into his hand and massages gently. God, he’s missed this closeness. Missed her.
She taps her nails against the glass so there’s a pleasant chink. “I’ve been thinking, Mulder.”
His heart skips, and he feels a rush of adrenaline fire through his body. He feels the tendons in his neck tighten. “About how I’m too much and you can’t possibly beat this?”
The fire snaps, laughing at him. Her hair is aflame in the glow. “I can’t beat this,” she says gently, picking lint from the arm of his sweater. “And you are too much, but I’ve been thinking about one of my favourite Eleanor Roosevelt quotes. It’s very apt.” She takes another sip of the wine and he thinks about the painting she created, how the wildness of it surprised him, when he should have learned by now about Scully’s depths and her capacity to astound.
“What’s the quote?” Her toes wriggle in his grasp and he shifts closer. It’s all he can manage, to not free her foot of her sock and kiss each tiny nail.
She puts the glass down on the side table and twists herself upright, sitting next to him. She turns his chin to her, kisses him slowly.
"The greatest thing I have learned is how good it is to come home again."