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PART ONE

 

one.

May 20, 2002

Willoughby Daily Press; Willoughby, Virginia

MARRIED COUPLE FOUND DEAD IN APARTMENT BUILDING OFF OF CHURCH STREET

Last night, responding to a 9-1-1 call from a house on the corner of Church Street and Humphrey Avenue, police found Ian Caruthers (34) and Marion Caruthers (32) reportedly stabbed to death in the hall outside their apartment in the Willoughby Woods Apartment Building.

The Caruthers’s infant son was apparently found unharmed in his crib inside, and has since been released to family.

Neighbors say that the couple was spending time with Ian's brother, Jared Caruthers (27), the night of the attack. There was no sign of Jared at the scene, although it is believed that he made the 9-1-1 call. He is currently missing. A second 9-1-1 call was placed when the Caruthers's neighbor returned home and ran into the brother in the hall, who was reportedly covered in blood.

The Willoughby Police Department is currently searching for Jared Caruthers. WPD declined to comment on whether or not Jared being considered a suspect.

Anyone with information on Jared Caruthers's whereabouts should contact the Willoughby Police Department immediately.

---

Reports of appearances by the Willoughby Specter have come sporadically since its famous appearance in the eighteenth century. Some of the more famous sightings include local farmer George Brown seeing the Specter just before the highly public destruction of his harvest in 1834, or World War I soldier and Willoughby native John McNeeley reporting a sighting prior to the loss of his arm in France—albeit miles from the usual site of sightings. But however, wherever, or whenever the sightings occur, one thing remains clear: the Willoughby Specter is a warning, a harbinger of misfortune. And anyone who sees him is likely to experience such misfortune, in whatever form it may come.

— Excerpt from Folklore of Rural Virginia, written by Tabitha Cooper

---

october, 2015

Sheriff Joe O'Connell has never been a superstitious man.

He's heard the story of the Willoughby Specter a million times throughout his life, but aside from a strange string of uncertainty-striking events in 2002 when he was just a deputy at the Willoughby Police Department, he hasn't believed in the spirit since the second grade. He's had no reason to. The legend remains a believed part of Willoughby's history, but few people actually believe in the ghost anymore, and most of the people who do are under the age of ten. The best example is Joe's son, Robbie, who is six and has preached his belief in the Willoughby Specter since he first heard the story at age four, but he's a kid, and Joe is sure that he'll shed the belief when he grows up.

Or at least he's sure until he finds the family dog missing one morning. The back door is hanging open when Joe goes downstairs, teeth chattering with the October chill, and the dog, Bear, isn't where he usually sleeps in the living room. He searches the house, jogs around the neighborhood in the chilly morning air calling the dog's name, but there is no sign of Bear anywhere.

Robbie is devastated, bursting into tears when he finds out and clinging to his mother. Joe feels a pang of sympathy for his son, tousles his hair and promises that the dog will turn up eventually. He's planning to dispatch a deputy to search for the dog if things aren't busy (which they never are, their town is too small for much crime to occur outside of minor disturbances and petty neighbor squabbles), but at the moment, he's stuck on how the hell Bear actually got out. None of them are sleepwalkers, and his wife swears that she closed and locked the doors last night before she went to bed. There are no signs of anyone breaking in, no signs that anyone took the dog on purpose, so either someone inside the house made a mistake… or someone from outside let the dog out.

Robbie gets off the bus the police station that afternoon, the way he always does, his eyes red and his sweater rumpled. He climbs up onto Joe's lap and sits there for a while, sniffling and refusing Joe's offers of an afternoon snack. Joe tousles his hair absently as he talks on the phone. He's been calling around the town to see if anyone's seen the dog to no luck. He's sent his best deputy, Kenny Jacobs (his best friend for years and practically an uncle to Robbie), out to drive around and look for the dog, but he hasn't heard anything from him.

When he hangs up the phone, Robbie tugs at his shirt in an impatient sort of way. “Daddy?” he mumbles, rubbing his face against the pocket of Joe's jacket.

“What's up, bud?” asks Joe, rubbing his back. “Do you want me to call Mom to come get you?”

“I knew that Bear was going to run away.”

Joe blinks in unabashed surprise. “What?” he asks, startled. Robbie nods, his lip jutting out, looking like he has just confessed to murder.

The door to Joe's office opens as Kenny enters. “Hi, Uncle Kenny,” Robbie says, instantly distracted, wiping his nose and waving at him.

“Hi, Rob.” Kenny sits in front of the desk, giving Joe an apologetic look. “No luck, Joe. Sorry.”

“We'll talk about that in a minute, Ken. Son, look at me for a second.” He puts a finger under Robbie's chin, tipping his head towards him until the boy is looking him in the eye. “Did you let Bear out, Robert?” he asks carefully, a little sternly.

Robbie shakes his head furiously. “No, Daddy, I wouldn't do that! I love Bear!”

“But you said that you knew Bear was going to run away,” Joe says with confusion. “How did you know that? Did someone tell you that?”

Robbie looks a little nervous; he looks between Joe and Kenny, scans the room quickly like he's checking for something, and motions Kenny closer, who leans across the desk. He says to the two men in a low, confidential whisper, the words slurring through the gap in his front teeth, “Cause I saw the Willoughby ‘pecter last night.”

Dumbfounded, Joe says nothing for a few beats. “What?” Kenny says incredulously, and Joe is suddenly reminded that Kenny is a superstitious man. (He's never forgotten about what happened in 2002. He brings it up once or twice a year, whenever the Specter spectacle inevitably comes up again.)

“Uh-huh,” says Robbie proudly. “Just like in the stories! He was a glow-y guy with a creepy beard and a black cloak and an old hat, and he looked reallllllllly old-fashioned. And I was really scared, but then I remembered that everybody likes the ghost! Well, everybody except Ryan.” His face twists up thoughtfully.

(Ryan is their former babysitter, hired by Joe's wife, Bonnie and fired by Joe himself, and Joe is suddenly reminded of why he dislikes that kid so much. Filling his boy's head with nonsense.)

“When did you see him?” Kenny asks, completely serious.

“Last night. I didn't know why until Bear was gone. But the ghost warned me! He came ‘cause of Bear!”

“Robbie, buddy,” Joe says slowly. “Did Ryan tell you scary stories the last time he came over?” It was less than a week ago, and that entire encounter did not go well, ended in an argument with Ryan and an argument with Bonnie and general awkwardness all around.

Robbie shakes his head. “I bet the ghost is going to tell me where Bear is! What do you think, Daddy? Uncle Kenny? Do you think the ghost's come again, Uncle Kenny?”

Kenny's mouth gapes open, like he doesn't know what to say. Joe holds up his hand to halt the conversation. “Son, I think I'm going to take you on home. I'll drive around and look for Bear on my way back, okay?”

“Okay.” Robbie rubs at his eyes and jumps off of Joe's lap, slapping Kenny's hand in their routine high five. “Maybe you'll see the ghost, Daddy,” he suggests.

Joe pats his son's head indulgently. “Go wait outside, bud.” Robbie nods and goes running, the door slamming behind him.

Joe grabs his keys and hangs it around his thumb. “Can you hold down the fort, Kenny?”

“Sure, boss.” Kenny is standing, too, arms crossed over his chest. “Do you… think there's something to what he's saying? Robbie?”

Joe shakes his head, jaw set.

“Cause if it's true, then that'd be the first time in thirteen years. Except for… you know…”

“I seriously doubt it, Kenny.” Joe starts towards the door, swinging his keys absently from his thumb, more than ready to let the subject of the Willoughby Specter go. (Not likely, with Robbie, but he can sure try. Maybe some ice cream on the way home will help.)

“Cause… if it was… you remember that unit of the FBI?” Kenny asks, rubbing thoughtfully at his beard. “Those agents who came and investigated?”

“I heard that unit was closed down years ago.” Joe opens the door and turns back. “It's nothing, Kenny,” he says. “Robbie’s imagining things. Don't let your imagination run away with you.”

And then he leaves, letting the door slam too hard behind him.

---

Of all the unexpected things that have happened in Scully's life, this goes up pretty high on the list, if not at the top. She never expected to be reassigned to the X-Files, especially not after years of being on the run with a federal fugitive, and over a decade spent out of the FBI completely. She thought she was done with all of that when she left DC in 2002, thought it was over again in 2008 when they worked the Monica Bannan case. She certainly didn't think she'd be entering the X-Files again with Mulder after their separation. She's been genuinely taken aback by all of this, Tad O’Malley and Sveta and Mulder's renewed obsession, insisting that this is important. Her own insistence that they needed to protect Sveta, to stop the people who have been doing this to innocent civilians for years. It's all happened so fast that her head is spinning. She never expected to be working with Mulder again.

She has to meet with several people to be recertified, make sure she fits the Bureau’s new qualifications. It takes the better part of a day, exhausting and working her way under her skin, but she aces every requirement. Every bullet she fires hits the target; she fires out out of pure muscle memory, she doesn't have to remind herself how. She'd forgetten the feel of a gun in her hand, the click of the trigger and the smell of gunpowder; it's stunningly satisfying, achingly familiar. She never really thought she'd want this part of herself again.

When Scully gets out of her meetings, she finds an unread text from Mulder. He's already been here a couple days; he got recertified a few days ago while Scully was clearing up her leave of absence at the hospital. (She had no idea how long she'd be at the FBI when she asked for leave, whether it'd be a few months or a few years; she honestly isn't sure what to hope for.) Mulder had called her the night before, grim and solemn, to inform her of Sveta's death, and Scully had been filled with a weary anger that she hasn't quite felt in years. Thinking of that girl's fear underneath her smugness; she can relate to what Sveta has been through, even if Sveta hadn't thought so, and she knows Sveta didn't deserve to die. To be murdered. Another innocent woman fallen victim to these men's evil.

Now, Mulder has texted her telling her that he's at the office for the day and he's just gotten a case offer. He offers to discuss it on the phone with her, or discuss it tomorrow at the office. The message exudes politeness, a courtesy that the earliest days often lacked, and it makes her want to smile. He's been so gentle with her since she agreed to come back; cautious, as if he's afraid he'll scare her away. He went from inviting her along to meet Tad O'Malley to not inviting her along to his stupid little conspiracy rendezvous to agreeing to work with her again. Navigating this new stage of their relationship—living apart for two years, in a perpetual state of separation and resentment and fear and affection—is strange, and Scully barely knows how to do it. The most they'd talked before this Tad O'Malley mess was the phone call on Mulder's birthday a couple weeks ago that inexplicably lasted nearly an hour.

Instead of responding to Mulder’s text, Scully slides her phone into her pocket. Goes into the elevator and hits the button for the basement. She feels twenty-eight again, stupidly young and nervous. She hasn't been down to his office in years, and the last time she was there, it belonged to someone else. This feels like a strange new beginning.

The door is half ajar when she reaches it, no nameplates on the door. She can see Mulder inside, sitting at a haphazardly-placed desk with a pile of files and what looks like a phone system sticking out from underneath it. He's distracted, flipping through a file. The rest of the office looks like a mess, papers scattered all over the place, pencils hanging from the ceiling. She smiles a little before catching herself, taps on the door jamb before entering. Holds back the urge to make a crack about the FBI's most unwanted.

Mulder looks up, and a smile spreads over his face that makes her heart flutter a little like she really is twenty-eight again. “Scully, hey,” he says, knocking over a flurry of files in his attempts to stand. “I didn't know you were here.”

“I had to get recertified,” she says, standing awkwardly in the doorway like an unwelcome guest. “I just now saw your message.”

Mulder nods, a little awkwardly, and motions to the half-finished office. “We're a little bit of a work in progress here,” he says. “I haven't cleaned up in here much, and, uh… they've only delivered one desk, and no computer yet.” He motions to said desk. “I'm gonna call up for another one. Another… desk, that is. For you.”

Scully smiles smally again, and this time it is completely involuntary. After all this time. She'd be lying if she said she wasn't touched, just a little. “Thank you,” she says quietly, and he nods, watching her carefully. So much has changed; it's been almost twenty-three years since she first walked into this office.

Scully's eyes scan the office briefly before they land on a familiar image, crumpled and peering over the top of the trash can. “What happened to the poster?” she asks, astonished. That poster, although not the original copy, has been in their office forever; it even made it through the years without Mulder, Doggett and Reyes dutifully leaving it up.  

Mulder follows her line of sight before he realizes what she is referring to and laughing a little sheepishly. “Oh, uh… a little unbridled rage. The poster was a victim.” He pulls it out of the trash only for Scully to see that it's been ripped in half.

“That's a shame,” she says lightly, pretending that statement (unbridled rage) doesn't worry her. “I've always liked that poster.”

Mulder nods grimly, letting the top half of the poster fall back into the trash again. “Me, too.”

They stand in silence for a few seconds before Scully speaks up. “You said you've got a case? Already?”

“Oh, right.” Mulder rummages in his pile of files for a moment before coming up with one and holding it out. “Do you remember the case in Willoughby, Virginia?”

She blinks in surprise. “Should I?”

“I don't know. It was after my time.” He passes her the file, tapping the top of it with his index finger. “May, 2002. Agents Doggett and Reyes signed off on it. I didn't know if they ever talked to you about it, or…”

“Oh.” She doesn't want to mention that May was the setting of the aftermath of her decision to give up William. She hadn't worked many cases then out, of an attempt at self preservation, and John and Monica hadn't asked often. But either way, she doesn't remember Willoughby. “No, I don't remember if either of them mentioned it to me. It was thirteen years ago.”

“Right.” Mulder clears his throat uncomfortably, looks away. “Well, I've been looking over the file since I got this call, trying to get a full understanding of the original case.”

“The case you got a call about today is in Willoughby?” She's admittedly never heard of Willoughby, on the X-Files or otherwise.

“Yeah, looks like some kind of recurrence of the case that popped up in 2002,” says Mulder. Scully flips open the top and sees that it's classified under Hauntings. “The alleged perpetrator is a ghost, a local legend that seemingly warns townsfolk of future misfortune to come. A sort of premonition. Doggett and Reyes's report is a little hard to follow, but it looks like they were called in to investigate a string of hauntings and an apparent suicide that may have occurred as a result.”

Scully flips the file closed, lets it fall on the desk. “So why have they called you now? Is it related to the same suicide?”

“The suicide didn't come up, but the ghost did.” Mulder drums his fingers on the table, a nervous habit she instinctively recognizes. “Apparently a deputy at the local police department—one Kenneth Jacobs—called in response to a missing dog.”

Scully laughs. She can't help it. “A missing dog? That cannot possibly fall under the Bureau's jurisdiction, Mulder.”

“It may not fall under the Bureau's jurisdiction, but it does fall under the X-Files's,” Mulder says sheepishly. When she shoots him a look, he clarifies: “The dog belongs to the local sheriff. His six-year-old son apparently saw the Willoughby Specter the night before the dog disappeared.”

“The Willoughby Specter? Mulder, you can't be serious,” she says. “This is the big, triumphant return you want to make to the X-Files after thirteen years—no, fifteen years for you… After all this time away, this is the case you want to take? A missing dog and local lore? A ghost with a name like the Willoughby Specter?”

“Don't tell me you don't believe the legend, Scully,” Mulder says, pushing his pen around the table. She can't tell if he's teasing or not.

“I don't,” she says matter-of-factly, “but that's hardly the point. It'd be different if a human life was in danger, but this is a dog. It's a ridiculous case!”

“The X-Files investigates the unexplainable, the paranormal. What would you classify this as?”

“A waste of time,” she says bluntly.

Mulder doesn't respond to that. He's looking at his desk, rummaging through like he's looking for something, and Scully begins to wonder if she's being too harsh. She adds gently, “Besides, Skinner will never sign off on it. You know that. He’ll agree with me on the jurisdiction.”

“Might as well find out, right?” Mulder looks up at her, raising his eyebrows playfully, and he doesn't look upset. He looks better than he has in months, just for one brief instant. “I've got a meeting set up with Skinner in the morning. Now that you're recertified, we can just ask Skinner if the case is worth looking into. If he believes—as I do—that a simple case is the best avenue to help us adjust to being back in the field, then we'll take it. If not, we'll look for another case that's less of a waste of time. Sound good to you?”

“Sure,” she says, and just barely manages not to roll her eyes. Mulder smiles.

Scully's stomach rumbles, reminding her of how late it is; she checks her phone for the time and sees that it is after 5:00. “It's a little later than I expected,” she says, “and I'm starved. I'm headed out for the night. Are you coming?”

Mulder seems to hesitate, looking down at the files again. “Mulder,” Scully adds, gently prodding. “It's past five. You're not going to stay late and work, are you? You shouldn't overexert yourself.”

Mulder looks back up at her, and she can't read his look, can't tell if he's neutral or resentful of her for trying so hard to take care of him when she's the one who left. She doesn't dare ask. “Lost track of time,” he says, reaching for his laptop bag, and she resists a sigh of relief. “I should head home; those country roads are awful at night, remember?”

She remembers. She offers him a small, slightly tense smile before turning and leaving, him on her heels. The two of them walk down the familiarly cramped hall together until they reach the elevator; Mulder presses the button for the parking garage and she mumbles a quick thank you. The elevator begins to rise.

The quiet is near stifling, so Scully makes a grab at conversation. “What did you say that ghost of yours does, Mulder?” she asks.

Mulder perks up, just a little; he has always loved to tell a good story. “I need to do more research, but best I can tell is that it warns people of bad stuff in their future,” he says. “It appears before a death or an accident or a…”

“Runaway dog?” Scully offers, and he chuckles. “You don't really believe in that, do you?”

Mulder shrugs. “I've got no reason not to. We've run into some ghosts in our heyday, remember? The haunted house on Christmas Eve?”

“Oh, god, don't bring that one up,” Scully groans as the elevator reaches their floor. Mulder laughs again, quietly. They step out of the elevator together, shoulder to shoulder like the old days, nearly in sync.

“It's strange to be back, isn't it?” Mulder asks over the echoing of their shoes on their pavement. “To be doing this again, after all this time.”

“It is,” she agrees wistfully. She reaches her car and stops, and it takes Mulder a few more paces to realize she isn't with him. He turns around in confusion.

Keys already out, Scully motions to her car awkwardly. “I'm parked here,” she says. There's still traces of the message Mulder scrawled to her on her back windshield: Don't give up. The same thing he'd told her after Monica Bannan, the first time she almost left him. That feels like an eternity ago.

“Oh.” Mulder hovers awkwardly in one place, like he's considering whether to step forward and kiss her cheek goodbye (which is how he'd said goodbye in their last parking garage meeting) or shake her hand like a stranger. He seems to decide not to move at all, lifts his hand in a sad little wave and says, “See you tomorrow, Scully.” And then he turns around and heads down the row of cars, his hands stuffed in his pockets and his shoulders hunched up. He misses her.

“See you tomorrow,” she calls after him, and is surprised to find she's glad that's true. She's missed him, she misses him.

As soon as she gets home, she logs onto Amazon to buy the office a new poster.

---

She really is sort of expecting Skinner to just sign off on the case—because truthfully, Mulder is right about the simple case being an easier adjustment, as much as she wants a challenge, something to occupy her mind—but the next morning, before their meeting with Skinner, they're being called out to Nugenics to investigate the suicide of one Dr. Sanjay.

Mulder seems to think there's more to this case than just a suicide—which is why he snatched the case up—which Scully is inclined to agree with, based off of the Department of Defense blocking their efforts at the crime scene. (A small part of her can't help but think, Here we go again. Plunging into conspiracies, pissing off government agencies, tumbling right into trouble.) She finds something written on the victim's palm: Founder's Mutation, in reference to Dr. Goldman (also known as the Founder), someone who Sanjay worked for and who Mulder wanted to interview in conjunction to Sanjay's death. They end up searching Sanjay's apartment by the end of the day, finding a wall full of photographs of kids who could be classified as experiments. Sanjay, Mulder tells her, fears that these children were dying.

Scully looks at the photos and thinks, with a pang, of her own children and the experiments they had seemingly been. Emily, who was dying, and William, who she's always been afraid would never be able to escape the intentions of the people who wanted him born. With her past, it's hard not to think about them in this situation.

But she has no time to linger on that, because the police are entering the apartment and Mulder is falling to his knees, his hands flying up to his head in pain. Panic rises up in her throat like bile, memories of his half-frozen form in the snow, of his frightening headaches that lead to a fucking brain disease flooding her mind. She falls to her knees beside him, but the chaos of the whole situation takes over. Her worry for Mulder—her panic at seeing him in distress, unable to talk to her or explain what is wrong—has to be pushed aside in order to explain things to the police.

Her explanation takes a good ten minutes, most of which she spends casting nervous looks at the room she left Mulder in, but once they are good and convinced that Mulder and Scully do, in fact, have a right to be there (which they don't, but Scully isn't going to linger on that), she nearly rushes back into the room to find Mulder, her heart thudding hard in worry that he'll be badly hurt.

But Mulder seems to be fine, by all definitions; he's rummaging through Sanjay's desk, pulling out files from drawers like he wasn't in pain at all. He looks slightly exhausted, maybe a little off-balance, but otherwise fine. “Are you okay, Mulder?” she whispers in confusion, going to his side, raising her hand to touch his head and then lowering it.

He nods, teeth clenched in his familiar headache habit, forehead furrowed. “I'm fine. Help me get these files, Scully,” he says, his voice slightly pained but hard with determination.

She reaches out to touch his arm, gently, and he motions to the files again. Scully can't tell if it's because he's become hyper focused on the investigation, the way he did all those years ago, or because he has no interest in comfort from her. She sighs and proceeds to help him gather up the files.  “What are these?” she whispers. “Are they in relation to those pictures out there?”

Mulder nods distractedly. “I took a quick look at one, and it looks like the kids Sanjay worked with had serious genetic abnormalities. If Sanjay believed they were dying, this could go a long way to explaining why he committed suicide.” He chews his lower lip, gathering up files and gathering them together with a ball of loose rubber bands retrieved from the desk drawer. “And if I had to guess, Scully, I'd say the DOD is involved. I'd say these children are likely experiments.”

Scully nods a little, wearily. She thinks it's bitterly ironic that her first case back would involve experimented-on children, considering everything. “So these files…”

“We need to get them back to the Bureau,” says Mulder, “and make copies before the DOD takes them back.” He gathers up the files against his chest and turns towards the door, wincing a little as he goes.

“Are you sure you're okay, Mulder?” Scully whispers. There are still police outside; she lifts the side of Mulder's suit jacket to partially hide the files, falling into step beside him. “You seemed like you were in a lot of pain.”

He waves it off absently. “I'm fine, Scully. Seriously. Let's just go back to the office.”

She's guessing it's going to be another long night. She flashes her badge to the police officers again as they walk to their car, and climbs in the driver's seat. Mulder is rubbing his temples as he gets in, setting the stack of files on his lap, so she offers him a bottle of Tylenol and he mumbles his thanks. The pills rattle as she starts the car and pulls away.

“So,” says Mulder as they merge onto the highway, “what do you think? Is this better than a missing dog case?” His voice is grim, but not bitter, not exactly. She thinks that Mulder is more invested in this case than he'd be in the case in Willoughby, but she's guessing he's had the same thoughts she's had about this case. The untouchable subject of their son.

Scully grits her teeth, watching the road quietly. “Not sure yet,” she says softly, thinking of needles and hospitals rooms and all the time she's feared her son was an experiment. Of everything she wanted to forget. “I suppose we’ll see.”

---

They end up at the office most of the night dealing with this issue. (Mulder keeps acting like he has a headache and Scully watches him like a hawk, nervous, but neither of them bring it up.) The DOD figures out what they're doing and confiscates the original files, of course, but Skinner surprisingly and satisfyingly has their backs (while maintaining an outwardly stern appearance). The two of them keep digging, combing through security footage from Nugenics, and Scully is stunned by how natural this all feels, investigating; aside from having to adjust to all the new technology, her transition back into the FBI feels near effortless. Even working with Mulder feels as natural as breathing, if they ignore some of the awkward tension between them.

Mulder confesses that his ordeal last night in Sanjay's apartment was due to a sharp, high, painful sound he heard, along with words: Find her. Scully points out that Sanjay killed himself due to hearing some horrible sounds, suddenly upset at herself for not seeing the connection sooner. A letter opener to the ear to stop a sound, and why didn't she see that this could easily be happening to Mulder? “This is dangerous,” she says, and Mulder scoffs, a little playfully, “When has that ever stopped us before?”

It never has. They keep digging.

Scully takes Mulder to Our Lady of Sorrows in an attempt to get in contact with Dr. Goldman. They arrange a meeting with him for the next day, but that's not what ends up sticking with Scully. They also find a pregnant woman, Agnes, who is frantic and asking for their help. She says that her baby isn't normal. She says, “I changed my mind, I'm not giving it up,” and Scully feels a horrible familiarity wash over her. All she can think about is her own son, wherever he is, the possibility that people are using him the same way that they are using Sanjay's kids. That Agnes is being used the same way she was. First Sveta and then Agnes, endless reminders of her own ordeals.

Outside of the hospital, Mulder suggests that the women in that hospital might be tools of the DOD in their experiments, incubators, and Scully can't help it. All these dark feelings rise to the surface, the same fight they've been having for years, the reason they broke up. She asks Mulder, “Is this what you believe happened to me 15 years ago? When I got pregnant, when I had my baby?” It's hard not to wince at the words, the memories this is bringing up. “Was I just an incubator?” she adds softly.

“You're never just anything to me, Scully,” he replies, and she wants to cry from it all, the horror of everything that's happened to them and how long it has been since they spoke to each other like this. In a manner of comfort, of sweetness and love, rather than from stiff politeness.

He comforts her, tells her that he thinks about their son, too, tells her that all they can do is keep looking. Suggests that they go home, because they didn't get any sleep last night and they can't exactly do anything until their meeting with Goldman tomorrow. Scully agrees, maybe because she really is tired. She feels drained, and she feels like some of that can be attributed to the day she's had. She lets Mulder drop her off at the Bureau before she drives her way out to Bethesda.

She sleeps for a few hours, tangled up in blankets, but it is unfortunately not a dreamless sleep. She dreams her usual dreams of William, the good dreams: beautiful scenes of a life she and Mulder have created for their son together that gradually turn nightmarish. She wakes with a start hours later, covered in a cold sweat and tangled up in her blankets, the image of William pleading for help still vivid behind her eyes. She stumbles to her feet quickly and pads out into her living room, collapsing in her desk chair.

Almost dizzy, she rests her head on her forearms, letting the images of her daydream leave her. She can still see that one part bright in her mind, the one where she took her son to school and kissed him goodbye. The most important thing to remember, she'd said, is that I love you. The thing she'd most like to say to William, the thing she'll never get a chance to.

She pauses for a moment, considering, hesitating, until she decides and reaches for the drawer where she keeps William's picture. It's small in her hands, glossy, and she strokes a thumb gingerly over the front in lieu of all the things she wants to say.

She never used to look at the picture. She never allowed herself to when she was living at home, actually used to get mad at Mulder when she saw him doing it. But she took this photo with her when she left, and now she does it enough to feel like a hypocrite. But she can't help it. There's something in her that needs this tether, the same part of her that keeps her wedding ring around her neck.

Her phone, which she'd deposited with her keys on her kitchen counter, buzzes. Scully gets to her feet and goes to check, sees Mulder's name lighting up the screen. You okay? the text reads.

Scully smiles a little, involuntarily. I should be asking you that question. Are YOU okay? How's your head?

I'm fine, doc, Mulder types in response, her phone buzzing merrily, and Scully shakes her head ruefully. His next message reads, I'm sorry about this case. I had no idea.

It doesn't matter, Scully types out before pausing. Even if it doesn't matter to her, the issue of William isn't her cross to bear alone; Mulder has been just as hurt by the whole thing. She deletes that message and sends, You didn't know, instead.

We should've taken the dog/ghost case.

Scully rolls her eyes automatically, although not without affection. You're never going to let that one go, are you? She can picture the way he'd be smirking with her if they were having this conversation in person.

I actually got another call from Deputy Jacobs. He says that another person has claimed a sighting.

And how many people know of the original sighting?

The deputy didn't disclose that information.

Scully is grinning unabashedly before she catches herself. It feels great to be discussing a case with Mulder, bickering back and forth about something that doesn't matter. It's almost a shock, how great it feels. But it feels just as strange to argue with Mulder over text instead of face to face. The smile slips away in a sudden, surprised motion, and she's left cradling her phone uncertainly.

It buzzes again. You know… that case is always an option. If this one gets too personal.

Scully bites her lower lip determinedly, types, No, thanks. I'm fine. She means it to sound light and casual and dismissive, but it's impossible to convey tone through text, and she's sent it by the time she changes her mind.

There's something of an awkward silence—if such a thing can exist in texts—where, if they were talking in person, Mulder would probably hurl a hurt, You're always fine. But they're not in person, and the one advantage of texting that Scully can halfway enjoy and loathe in the same breath is the ability to compose a sensible, well-thought reply. Mulder doesn't answer right away, and so she puts the William photograph back in her desk without letting herself look at it, picks up her phone and goes into her bedroom. She's changed and curled up under the comforter, her book resting in her lap, when her phone buzzes again. Mulder has said, Just let me know if you're not. Fair enough. She pretends she isn't relieved that it didn't come down to accusations.

Scully puts the phone on her bedside table and cracks open her book at an attempt at distraction. But her mind keeps returning to what Mulder had said before, in response to her asking if he ever thought about William. Yes, of course I do, he'd said with conviction, like he couldn't believe she had to ask. She'd seen Mulder looking at William's picture many times in the eleven years they'd lived together before she left, but somehow, she had never considered that he might think about William, too, at least in the way that she did. That he might imagine the life they could've had instead of what happened when they let go.

---

Goldman shows them a flurry of children who seem more or less miserable, who claim to have been there forever. Agnes is found dead, the baby gone; Scully performs the autopsy and feels like weeping the entire time. They find Goldman's wife, who tells a story Scully finds all too familiar: lost sons and daughters, experiments she couldn't save. “A mother never forgets,” she says in sympathy with the other woman, the ache in her chest that she knows Goldman's wife must feel.

The lead from Jackie Goldman leads them to Kyle Gilligan. Mulder falls to the ground again from the same horrible sound that Scully cannot hear, and her panic only increases; she tosses around angry convictions until they've arrested the perpetrator and Mulder is on his feet again.

Their arrest of Kyle Gilligan leads to a confrontation with Goldman that Scully largely doesn't see, blacking out briefly after she goes flying somehow, hits the wall hard and crumples to the hospital floor. She wakes up to Mulder kneeling beside her, his hand warm against her cheek, her forehead. “Scully?” he says softly, worry spreading over his face.

Scully's head is pounding, aching from the inside out. She groans a little, trying to sit up; Mulder grabs her hand in his and helps her sit against the wall. “Are you seeing clearly? Can you tell me your name?” His hands brush hair away from her forehead.

“Dana Katherine Scully, I'm fifty-one, and you're Fox Mulder,” she says impatiently. “We're at Goldman Technology investigating Augustus Goldman. My vision is just fine.” Mulder’s thumb grazes her cheek, and her irritability wilts, just a little. “I'm okay, Mulder. I don't have a concussion.” Although she's going to be sore as shit tomorrow; she nearly winces at the thought. “Where's Kyle?” She looks past Mulder, over his shoulder, and sees Goldman's mutilated body, winces on instinct at the bloody mess.

“Yeah,” Mulder says sympathetically, brushing hair out of her eyes. “Far as I can tell, they're gone. I'm not sure; I blacked out, too.” His hand moves down her arm to cup her elbow. “Do you want to try and get up? Have a doctor check you out?”

“I'm fine, Mulder,” she says, but it's half-hearted, and she lets Mulder help her up, lets him support her with an arm around her shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asks softly, her hand unintentionally pressed against his hip. Suddenly concerned by the fact that he says he blacked out, today; what happened to them?

His nose brushes her hair as he nods, a phantom kiss. She reaches up to touch his temple, a reflex of times long gone, and he catches her hand and lowers it gently, shooting her a gently chiding look. “You’re getting checked out if I am,” she says by way of rebuttal and he nods, tightening his arm around her shoulders. They move past the flurry of police officers and nurses and men in suits to an examination room where a nurse confirms that Scully doesn't, in fact, have a concussion, and neither does Mulder. And by then, the DOD and Skinner have arrived and the whole thing is pretty much over. Their involvement is severed.

They stand together behind the red tape, watching the whole thing go down, Mulder revealing a stolen vial of blood. He's concerned for her in a way that's absurdly surprising (and it shouldn't be surprising, not at all); he keeps touching her arm or shoulder. He backs off a little when he hears that she is all right, but he doesn't leave her side the whole time.

After they're dismissed, Mulder drives her home. It honestly surprises her, because (as she points out several times) it adds another hour to his trip, and because he's always avoided her house with a delicate staunchness, a stubborn refusal. But still, he drives her home, and she gives up trying to argue with him by the time they leave the city. By the time she's directed him to the silly smart house she can't quite believe she's still subletting (she hasn't heard from the doctor who technically owns the house in months), she’s thanking him quietly. “You really didn't have to do this,” she says as he parks, reaching for the door handle. “I promise I'm fine.”

“It's been a while since we've done this,” Mulder says, and for a minute, she thinks he means something different entirely until she realizes he's talking about the job. “Even if you don't have a concussion, I know you've got to be in pain. I wanted to make sure you got home okay.”

Scully looks down at her lap, her fingers tangled, and says, “Well, I'm grateful.” She is briefly disgusted with herself, that she can't even have a normal conversation with this man she's loved for years. That they've been reduced to near strangers.

Mulder brushes his fingers over her cheek again, and she shivers briefly, looks up at him. He's leaned a little closer, his eyes dark in this light, and they're almost nose to nose. “I'm sorry about this case,” he says softly. The same thing he'd said a couple nights ago.

Scully catches his hand in hers, gingerly, as he lowers it. “You don't have to be sorry, Mulder,” she whispers. “I know this case couldn't have been any easier for you than for me.”

He looks down at their joined fingers, squeezes her hand in lieu of an answer. She strokes the back of his hand with one tentative finger. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she is protesting that this is dangerous, that they shouldn't be doing this, but somehow, she can't stop herself. His palm is warm, and he'd tried to take care of her after she hit the wall, and she's tempted to ask him to come in, press her forehead against his and kiss the side of his jaw, his cheek. A near-insane part of her actually wants to discuss William with him; she's always avoided that topic with him in the past, but now, she honestly thinks it would help. But she is so tired, and the pounding in her head has increased to a steady ache, spreading down her back.

“You look exhausted, Scully,” Mulder says, voicing her thoughts. He squeezes her hand again before letting go, nudging her thumb in a familiar gesture from years and years ago before pulling back completely. “Get some rest, okay?”

She nods, head down, reaching for the door handle. Pauses briefly, and turns back to him. “Mulder,” she says carefully. “We can take that case in Willoughby if you want.”

Taken aback, Mulder says with surprise (but not with an inflection of amusement), “I thought it was a waste of time.”

“It is a waste of time. I think that's what we need right now.” After everything that's happened in the past couple weeks, she'd really love a ridiculous ghost story to distract her. She meets his eyes, questioning him wordlessly on what he thinks.

The side of Mulder's mouth lifts, the ghost of a grin. “I'll check with Skinner,” he says. He leans forward in one rapid motion and kisses Scully's cheek, a familiar gesture that catches her off-guard. “Goodnight, Scully.”

Her face warm, she opens the door. Offers him a lame little wave as she steps out onto the curb and says, “Goodnight, Mulder.” Like they're lying in bed beside each other, like they're holding each other as they fall asleep. Like they haven't been separated for two years.

She closes the door and watches him pull away from the curb before she goes inside.