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two.

october, 2015

Skinner signs off on the Willoughby case, to Mulder's surprise; he'd expected more argument, but it's been a long time since they've done this and he suspects that their boss just wants to get them away from all the DOD attention. He and Scully leave two days after the closure of the Goldman case, and nearly a week since he'd gotten the original call from Deputy Jacobs of Willoughby.

Willoughby is about a ninety minute trip from DC; no sense in flying to somewhere that close. Scully drives. Mulder sits in the passenger seat and fiddles with the radio, tries to figure out how to connect his phone to the Bluetooth, offers tidbits on stories he's heard about this particular ghost. “I'm surprised we never ran into this ghost story back in the day,” Scully says dryly at one point. “Sounds exactly like the kind of cases we used to get all the time.”

“Sounds like it happened just a couple years too late,”  Mulder says in the same dry tone, and then mentally winces. He has a lot less resentment for Agent Doggett now than he did fourteen years ago, but he and Scully have had a lot of pain and resentment over those lost years in the past, and the last thing he wants to do is bring that pain back. (He hasn't ever blamed her for those lost years, anyway, not really; how could he? Any resentment he had for her insisting he leave back in 2001 has long faded. They've both suffered enough.)

Scully hums absently in the back of her throat, not commenting on that. “So what's your theory, Mulder? What are you thinking?”

He shrugs a little, casually. “I don't know that I have one yet. I mean, it sounds like the ghost probably exists, seeing as how our colleagues investigated it all those years ago. They must've been called in for something.”

“It could've been a hoax of some sort,” Scully points out. “People capitalizing on a local legend to manipulate people, or… gain publicity…”

“I doubt we would've heard from law enforcement if it were some kind of hoax,” says Mulder. “Besides, how does a missing dog contribute to that theory? Deputy didn't say where the kid saw the dog, but he did mention that the kid was only six, remember? In my experience, kids that age can't lie very convincingly. And I doubt that kid was in an easily accessible place when he saw the ghost, one where he'd be susceptible to a hoax from an outside source. And how could the supposed trickster know about the dog unless they were the one who took it?”

“Who knows,” Scully says with a sigh. “I think we might be overthinking this, Mulder.”

“Oh, I dunno.” He smirks a little at her from the passenger seat. “A lot of simple things we've seen turned out to be more complicated than we expected. You never know.”

“I know about this one,” Scully says at length, halfway annoyed, but she's smiling a little. Just a little as she watches the road, and Mulder feels it in the pit of his chest.

“We'll see,” he says slowly, fiddling with the radio again. He's missed this. He's missed her.

Scully fully smirks and shakes her head. Static bubbles through the speakers as he flips through stations, and they drive on. Mulder thinks he may never want to leave this moment, just he and Scully in the car, driving off to investigate some great mystery. Sitting here now, it almost feels as if nothing has changed.

---

Willoughby is the kind of sleepy little country town that they've both seen a thousand times. A few main streets, lots of farms and suburban houses among the rolling green hills. They pass an old stone church next to a forest, surrounded by houses and small apartment buildings. Mulder leans closer to get a better look and spots a cemetery full of ancient, weathered tombstones. “This town is old, Scully,” he says delightedly. “Perfect setting for a ghost.”

If the ghost is real.” Scully flips on her turn signal, coasting to a stop at a stop sign. “Which is doubtful.”

“Same old Scully,” Mulder says haughtily, and is relieved to hear her amused scoff from behind him. He watches quaint little Virginia houses flit by until they reach the downtown and the police station.

Inside, they find a receptionist sitting before a cluster of desks and police officers. “Can I help you?” she asks politely.

Scully flashes her shiny new badge. “Agents Mulder and Scully from the FBI, here to see Deputy Kenneth Jacobs.”

The receptionist raises her eyebrows in surprise. “Kenny?” she calls over her shoulder, a tad suspicious.

A bearded man in a uniform rounds a corner and waves a little at them. “Agents Mulder and Scully?”

Mulder nods. “That's what they said,” says the receptionist.

The man steps forward, reaching out to shake their hands. “Kenny Jacobs,” he says by way of introduction. “Glad you could make it—although I've gotta say, I don't remember you from 2002.”

“You're thinking of Agents Doggett and Reyes, the agents assigned to the unit at that time,” Scully says. Her tone is unreadable; Mulder scuffs his shoe against the floor and tries to ignore it.

“Oh, yeah. What happened to them?”

“I'm not sure about Agent Reyes, but last I heard, Agent Doggett is living in Florida. They left the Bureau years ago, but we have plenty of experience ourselves.” Scully offers Jacobs a polite smile.

“I’m Agent Mulder, we spoke on the phone,” says Mulder, reaching out and shaking his hand. “You said there'd been several more sightings since the original one you called me about?”

Deputy Jacobs motions them towards a desk with two chairs pulled up to it. “Yes, sir. Two more, to be exact.”

“We'd like to talk to the people who have seen… it,” Scully says a little awkwardly. “If that's all right. Would the sheriff mind if we talk to his son?”

“Joe? I mentioned that I called you, and he wasn't thrilled—he’s not a big believer in this stuff—but his son, Robbie, got all excited, convinced you all could find his dog. I tried to tell him not to get too excited, but he's all wound up, and Joe agreed to talk to you because of that. They'll be over as soon as Joe picks Robbie up from school.”

They both nod as they take a seat at the desk. “So, Deputy,” Mulder says, mostly out of curiosity. “Have you ever seen the ghost?”

“Can't say that I have,” Jacobs says almost automatically, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “I’ve heard the stories all my life, but I've never seen him. I will say that people who claim to see him usually have events coinciding with it pretty soon after. My grandma once said she saw it the night before her cat passed away.”

“And what does this… specter look like?” Scully speaks stiffly, awkwardly. “Based on the stories?”

“It’s supposed to be a colonial man in a cloak with a lantern. People say it 'lights up the truth’ or whatever. Like I said, I've never seen it, but I really think there's some truth to the story. There's been sightings every now and then throughout my life, and in 2002, there were at least thirty sightings that ended in three people dead. The reason those other agents were called in.”

“And you don't think any of that could be the result of some sort of mania?” Scully asks. “A psychological response to bad luck? A follow-the-crowd mentality?”

“No, ma'am,” says Deputy Jacobs. “I'm inclined not to. There's an entire history of the Willoughby Specter… It's actually part of some book on folklore in Virginia, if you want to check it out.”

“I did a little research and went over the case from 2002, so I'm a little familiar with the phenomenon,” says Mulder.

Deputy Jacobs nods a little in response, his eyes shifting over their shoulders. “Hey, Joe, over here,” he calls out, waving at someone behind them. Mulder turns around to see a man wearing a sheriff's star walking in, holding the hand of a boy in a Spider-Man t-shirt.

“These the FBI agents?” the sheriff asks as they reach the desk. The kid is looking up at them shyly; Scully smiles, the genuine smile she usually gives kids, and waves a little, and he hides behind his father's leg.

“Yes, I'm Agent Mulder, and this is my partner, Agent Scully.” Mulder stands and shakes the man's hand. “Deputy Jacobs said you'd agreed to talk to us?”

“Yeah, let's get this over with. We can talk in my office.” The sheriff motions his son towards a door at the back of the room, and Mulder and Scully follow them into the room.

Inside, the sheriff scoops up his son and places him in his lap. “I’m Joe O’Connell, and this is my son, Robbie,” he says by way of introduction, patting Robbie's back.

“Hi,” Robbie says quietly.

“Hi, Robbie,” Scully says, and Mulder finds himself thinking of Goldman's kids behind glass panels, little girls with the face of Scully's dead sister and babies cradled in her arms. He swallows back the memories, forces himself to focus.

“So, Kenny mentioned he called you in, but he didn't spend a lot of time explaining why. Something to do with my dog and the Willoughby Specter?” Sheriff O’Connell's voice is full of a skepticality that Mulder finds more than familiar; not exactly unfriendly, but not exactly friendly, either.

“Yes, Deputy Jacobs mentioned that Robbie had seen the Willoughby Specter the night before your dog disappeared,” Mulder says, drumming his fingers on his knees.

“I did!” Robbie says excitedly, seeming to perk up at the mention of the ghost. “It was really cool.”

“Do you want to tell us about it, Robbie?” Scully asks gently.

Robbie looks up at his dad, who ruffles his hair and nods. “Go ahead, buddy, it's okay. Tell them the whole story.”

“Okay.” Robbie screws his eyes shut in concentration, before beginning to talk rapidly. “Okay, so cause it's gonna be Halloween at the end of this week, my mommy and I watched the Snoopy Halloween movie the night I saw the ghost. And it wasn't very scary at all. I like Scooby-Doo better. But anyways, we watched Snoopy Halloween, and then Mommy took me upstairs and took me to bed. She made Bear—that’s our dog!—stay downstairs cause he's not supposed to sleep in my room. She tucked me in and said goodnight and turned on my nightlight. And then I went to sleep.” Robbie folds his hands in his lap, serious as Mulder has ever seen a six-year-old, and continues. “I woke up a little later, and then I was looking at my nightlight. It's orange, like jack-o'-lanterns, so it was the right color for Halloween. But it went out! Mommy says the bulb burned out. But there was still a light, like a yellow one that was moving around a lot. It was coming from behind me.”

Entranced in the story, Mulder absently looks up at Sheriff O'Connell and sees that his eyes are wide with astonishment. Not quite belief, but at least astonishment. “You never told me all this, son,” he says. “About the light…”

“You never asked,” Robbie says simply, and Mulder has to hold back a knowing laugh. “Anyways, I saw the light from behind, and so I turned over, and that's when I saw him.”

“You saw the Specter?” Mulder asks. Robbie nods. “Was he scary?”

Robbie starts to nod again, but then changes his mind and shakes his head. “At first, he was. His eyes were really black, and he was wearing a black cape and hat, and his lantern was scary. Like the Headless Horseman! My teacher has a picture book of George Washington stories, and I saw the Headless Horseman, and it's really scary. He was on Scooby-Doo, too. The ghost looked like that, except he had his head. And I was scared at first, and I was gonna scream for Daddy—cause Daddy's a cop, and he's very brave, and I knew he could protect me—but then I kind of felt okay. My great-uncle Theo told me all about the ghost, and he says the ghost is nice. Like an angel! And I said, everyone says he looks scary, how is he an angel, and he said that angels from the Bible look scary, too—” Out of the corner of his eye, Mulder sees Scully purse her lips in a way that makes him think of nephilim and seraphim and her lost daughter. “—and I guess he was right, because the ghost made me feel real good, like an angel. Even though he looked scary. But he wasn't.” Robbie nods confidently.

Scully clears her throat awkwardly. “And… and what happened next, Robbie?”

Robbie's face twists in confusion. “I… I dunno. I think the ghost disappeared, then I fell asleep. And then Daddy woke me up asking if I'd seen Bear.” His lower lip juts out in a pout. “I miss Bear. The ghost is cool, but I wish he hadn't made Bear go away. Can you find Bear for me?”

Mulder blinks, taken aback; he probably should've expected this, but somehow, it had never crossed his mind. “Well, Robbie,” Scully says awkwardly, “we don't really…”

“Cause Uncle Kenny said you were like the Ghostbusters, or the Men In Black. I bet they could find my dog!” Robbie grins, kicking the side of his father's desk.

Sheriff O'Connell bounces his knee up and down and tickles his son's side, sending Robbie into wild giggles. “Hey, Rob? Why don't you go sit at Uncle Kenny's desk and play Angry Birds on my phone? You wanna do that, bud, so I can talk to the FBI agents?”

“Okay!” Robbie jumps down and grabs his father's phone off of his desk. He starts to leave before pausing, turning to address Mulder and Scully. “If you wanna find the ghost, and maybe my dog, you should really talk to Ryan.”

“Ryan?” asks Mulder. “Who's Ryan?”

“He's my babysitter. He sees the ghost every year! Usually when it's cold.” Robbie leans forward and whispers confidently to Scully, in a too-loud rasp, “He's the only one who sees it anymore. No one besides Ryan has seen it since before I was born! Except me. Just me and Ryan.” Robbie grins excitedly. “So he'd probably know. But I told him I saw the ghost, and he wasn't excited. He's the only one in town who doesn't think the ghost is awesome! It's so weird.” He turns around and runs out of the room, clutching the phone in his hand.

Scully turns to Sheriff O'Connell as the door slams behind Robbie. “So, Sheriff,” she says. “What do you make of all this?”

O’Connell rubs at his forehead contemplatively, maybe a little wearily. “I dunno, Agent. I really don't. I've never really believed in the ghost, like most people in this town anymore. The only people who do anymore are the old-timers, the superstitious, and kids; everyone else is sensible. I always thought Robbie would snap out of it, but that Ryan kid wasn't helping anything, filling his head with these stories. My boy doesn't lie, and when he does, he's not good at it, so I don't think he made up that story. I think it might have been a nightmare; the only things that match up are the burned-out lightbulb and the fact that our dog did disappear.” O'Connell grimaces, rubbing a hand over his stubbly face again. “Honestly, agents, I'm starting to think my dog might be dead, or holed up with some other family. He's been gone for a week now, and I know he knows how to get home. I wish Kenny hadn't called y'all in and made a big deal out of nothing.”

“I don't want to give you a false impression, Sheriff, so I'll be straight with you,” Mulder says. “We work on a unit that investigates paranormal phenomenon. That's largely why we're here. Deputy Jacobs mentioned that there'd been other sightings, and we're here to look into those as well.”

O’Connell blinks blearily at them. “I remember a little bit about your unit. Gotta say, I don't see the point in investigating an urban legend.”

“I have to say, I share your sentiment,” Scully says, and Mulder resists the temptation to roll his eyes.

“We just wanna dig a little further,” he says lightly. “Sheriff, can you tell me about this Ryan kid?”

Sheriff O'Connell clears his throat. “Ryan is Willoughby's local celebrity. He's got a tragic past for sure—his parents were murdered by his uncle back in 2002, and everyone around here knows it.”

“2002?” Mulder asks. “Was the crime in conjunction with the multiple Specter sightings?”

“Supposedly—it came up at the trial—but I don't believe a word of it. The uncle, Jared, used his widely known Specter obsession to try and get off. Should've pled guilty by reason of insanity. He's in prison now.”

“Could this Ryan be using his family's past with this alleged Specter for attention?” Scully asks. “How old is he?”

“He's fourteen, and I doubt it. He's supposedly been seeing the ghost since he was four or five. The story got out when his aunt took him to a psychiatrist. Annie Caruthers—nice lady. She's his primary guardian now, and probably the best turn out from that family. Anyway, as a child, Ryan reportedly had horrible nightmares every winter, and told her that he saw a ‘glowing man’. When the story got out on accident, everyone went wild. Said that the boy was being guarded by the ghost cause of what happened to his family. And Ryan insisted the story was true as he got older, so he's gradually gotten more and more famous. 'Cept the kid claims that the ghost is evil, which goes against every version of the legend around here. Pisses people off.” The sheriff has a knowing look on his face, his eyebrows raised. “I don't know that they think the ghost is protecting him anymore.”

“And he's your… babysitter?” Mulder asks.

“Not by my choice. My wife works with Annie, and Robbie was so excited that we hired the kid—loves ghost stories. He seems nice enough on the outside, but, you know. I've never liked the kid. He's good with Robbie, but he seems disrespectful. And between you and me, he's been visiting his Uncle Jared in prison lately. That's a bad influence if I've ever seen one.” O’Connell nods as if convicting the boy. “I told my wife I had a bad feeling about Ryan, so we fired him a couple weeks ago. Amicable enough. We sent our apologies to Annie. But then, my dog disappears and my son starts talking about seeing the Specter?” The sheriff leans closer to add quietly, “Between you and me, our door was standing wide open the morning Bear went missing, and my wife swears she locked everything. So unless Robbie has taken up sleepwalking, then someone unlocked the door from the outside and let our dog out. And Ryan never gave us back his key.”

---

“What do you make of this town, Scully?” Mulder asks as they leave the police station. Robbie waves merrily to them as they exit and Scully waves back, with the same sweetness she always has for kids. Mulder waves, too.

“I’m not sure,” says Scully. “It seems to me like the Willoughby Specter is such a well-known and worshipped phenomenon in this town, that everyone is obsessed with experiencing it.” She pauses decisively, pulling her hair back into a ponytail as they walk back to their car. “But then again, that theory of claiming sightings for attention and local fame really doesn't work in conjunction with the idea that this Ryan is the only one who's seen the ghost for fourteen years. It's possible that the kid is doing it for attention, but then again, why would others not capitalize off of that attention by also claiming sightings?” Scully pauses again, tightening her ponytail. “I don't think Robbie O’Connell is lying. Unless someone coached him—the sheriff being an unlikely candidate for that; I'd say Deputy Jacobs is a possibility, since he's clearly close to the boy, but I don't know what his motive would be… Anyway, there’s no way a six-year-old could concoct a story that complex.”

“Dana Scully,” Mulder says slowly, teasing, “are you saying that you believe in the Willoughby Specter?”

“I most certainly am not,” Scully says, bristling, but she's smiling again. “I'm simply going over the facts. Which aren't even facts, really—the only people we've talked to are Robbie, the sheriff, and the deputy. We'd need to talk to some other people before we make any conclusions.”

“Uh huh.” He makes a face at her.

“I still think the story is bogus,” Scully says defensively. “I just think that there must be something that these people think they're seeing. I don't know how to explain it, but I guarantee you, Mulder, that there is not a ghost haunting people before bad things happen to them.”

“Oh, sure, Scully. So what is your explanation for all of this?”

“I told you. I don't know.” She looks up at him with a certain defensiveness in her eyes. “But I'd say we should talk to the other witnesses and find out.”

Mulder shrugs a little, grins at her. “So we should.”

---

The other witnesses seem to play right into Scully's theory: that this ghost is not real. Maybe even that this is a case of herd mentality: someone besides this Ryan Caruthers claims to see the Specter and everyone else jumps on board. Either way, Mulder truly hates to admit it, but neither of the two people they speak to about seeing the ghost could be considered credible witnesses.

The first is a college student—kid by the name of Mark Johnson—who reminds both Mulder and Scully too much of the teenagers they'd run into on their second case together, or the stoners that had made appearances a couple times on cases they had in 1996 (one of which did involve a missing dog—a dog that unfortunately had belonged to Scully. Mulder hates that he can't remember its name). He speaks in a slow drawl, and stinks of weed so bad that Mulder either wants to laugh or flash his badge, just to freak the kid out. Scully can scarcely keep from rolling her eyes or conducting the entire interview with thick sarcasm; the conversation lasts all of five minutes before she's done.

The second is a girl—also college-aged, whose name is Emma Gibson—who admittedly seems more credible than the other witness, at first. But when she invites them into her self-proclaimed office, they see a paraphernalia of paranormal trinkets: posters of horror movies, a Ouija board on a shelf, the type of equipment Mulder’s seen on more than one paranormal investigation show, and a cluster of true ghost story books. This is the first clue that this witness is not quite reliable. The second is that her story is not very believable—it’s awkward and stilted, like she's coming up with it on the spot, and when she starts talking about the ghost physically dragging her into the woods past the old church and threatening to murder her entire family in a voice “kind of like Darth Vader,” Mulder is inclined to agree with Scully about the idea of follow-the-crowd mentality.

By the time they're finished with the interviews, it's late, already dark and chilly outside. Mulder takes Scully to one of the small-town diners they haven't frequented in years. There's a flurry of Halloween decorations taped to the big glass windows: paper jack-o'-lanterns and skeletons. There is a cartoonish ghost over their table, his oval mouth open in a ghastly black wail. Mulder taps it with his index finger. “I found the Willoughby Specter,” he says dryly, and Scully giggles.  

“That's uncharacteristically cynical of you, Mulder,” she says as they sit. “Those last two witnesses get you down?”

“Just a little bit.” He plucks the menu out of its holder and examines it. “I still think Robbie O’Connell had to have seen something. I'm just not sure that the other two did.”

“That's for sure,” Scully agrees. A waitress in an apron comes by and they both order their drinks. As she moves on, Scully adds, “Although I'm becoming convinced that whatever Robbie O’Connell saw was not what he thought it was. Remember, the sheriff said he suspects this Ryan of letting out the dog as revenge for being fired? He had access to Robbie's room. He could've set up some sort of prank.”

“It sounds to me like this Ryan kid is getting treated unfairly,” says Mulder. “Besides, what kind of prank involves a disappearing man in a black cape and lantern coinciding with a burnt-out night light?”

Scully shrugs. “A complex one? It seems like people today can do anything with technology, Mulder. Maybe there was a projector or something.”

“Wow, we are getting old, Scully. You've started throwing around the 'kids these days’ phrase.” She shoots him an annoyed look across the table, and he shrugs right back. “Whatever the case, I think we can agree that Robbie isn't faking. But I guess the question is, what do we do now? Talk to this Ryan kid?”

“Maybe,” says Scully. “But what the hell would be our explanation? Why are we here, Mulder, for that matter? To find Robbie's missing dog? To arrest a kid for stealing the sheriff's dog? To prove the existence of this Specter?”

“Honestly? I have no idea. Likely the latter,” says Mulder. Because he still believes it's real. Of course he believes it's real.

“Except I doubt either of us have any idea how to prove its existence,” Scully says.

“Hey,” he says, shooting her a fake wounded look, and she smirks innocently.

The waitress reappears with their drinks to take their orders, and by the time she's left, their conversation has lost some considerable steam. Scully clears her throat, pulls out her phone to check it and immediately starts to type something into it. “Sorry, just heard from my mom,” she says.

“Is everyone okay?” Mulder asks. He hasn't seen Maggie in months, but he's had some concerns, based off of some comments Scully's made about her ability to get around the house.

“Yeah, she's fine. Just wanted to check in on me.” Scully's fingers fly across the screen at an impressive speed, and Mulder wants to make another joke about kids these days, but he doesn't. “She misses Bill; he's off in Germany on assignment, and she's been taking it hard. Says she misses seeing Matthew. He used to fly up a couple times a year before they left, about a year ago.” The reason goes unspoken: because the other grandchild she was close to was given up just before his first birthday. Mulder swallows awkwardly, looks down at the table.

“But we try to keep in touch,” Scully adds. “We have dinner a couple times a week. I'll probably call her tonight when we get back to the hotel.”

“I'm glad you two are still close,” Mulder offers. (She hadn't seen her mother a lot in the years before he could come back to the surface, and he'll always feel guilty for that.) Scully nods a little, laying her phone face down on the table. Mulder tries a different subject, a pathetic attempt at conversation. “You were really good with Robbie today,” he offers.

He means it as a compliment, but Scully is silent for a few seconds after—just enough time for Mulder to mentally berate himself for bringing up the one topic that has been off-limits for most of their time together. But he's surprised to see a smile spread over Scully's face before she answers. “He was a cute kid, wasn't he?” she says. “Sweet kid. Kind of reminded me a little of you, isn't that weird?”

Mulder is taken aback, but he realizes that Scully must not think of William as a little kid like Robbie anymore. William is fourteen, wherever he is, likely a sullen teenager like this Ryan they keep hearing about. Growing up without them. He gulps anxiously, says, “Is it the proclivity for ghost stories?”

“That must be it.” Scully is grinning at him across the table, and it's one of the more startling things he's seen. (But also one of the most beautiful: Scully's fucking thousand-watt smile.) And then she says something that truly shocks him to the core: “You know, he kind of reminded me of William. Or, you know… who William might've been eight years ago.”

She is acknowledging the trauma between them that they mention so unoften, the heavily avoided subject of their son. It seems so incredible, after years of avoiding the subject, of her getting furious every time he brought it up. This feels like dangerous territory. He takes a deep breath before answering, “Me too,” in a tentative sort of way, because he had thought of William. He couldn't help it.

The truth is this: If it'd been Robbie on his own, he probably would've had some slight flickerings, fleeting thoughts about who William might've been. But seeing Robbie and Scully together, even in their brief interactions, Robbie confiding in Scully specifically, made it worse. Made him hyper-aware of what he could've had, all he'd lost.

(Mulder daydreams sometimes about what it would be like to find William. It's impossible not to. This last case with Goldberg, all those kids in the hospital, he couldn't stop considering the possibilities. What it would mean to Scully, what it would mean to him. Intellectually, he knows they will never get a chance to raise him, or anything like that, but he thinks it'd be enough to know that he was okay. Their son.)

“It's hard not to imagine the person he could've been—the person he is right now,” Scully says softly. “It's hard to think about sometimes, but sometimes I can't help it.” She looks down at the table, her hand flat on the table next to her phone. “Is it the same for you?”

Mulder's eyes stray to her hand. He'd like nothing more than to reach across the table and take it, but he has no idea how she'll react. He held her hand in the car the other night, sitting outside the home she's made without him. He can remember an encounter in a diner not too long ago when he took her hand and she pulled away. He doesn't want to push it. Doesn't want to push her away. He keeps his hands in his lap.

“Yes,” he says, though, a peace offering. The verbal equivalent of taking her hand. “It is.”

Scully smiles wobbily at him across the table. Slides her hand back to curl around her mug. He's tempted to keep going—to ask what she imagines, if she'd like to discuss it more, if she thinks they'll ever see him again—but he doesn't know how. This is dangerous territory. His fingers twitch, like he is longing to reach out and take her hand, but he doesn't move.

---

After dinner, they go back to the local hotel, an old-fashioned inn that looks considerably better than the sad little motel that probably has bed bugs they passed on the way into town. Scully asks for two rooms at the front desk, and Mulder reminds himself that he shouldn't expect anything different. They're not together. They haven't shared a bed in two years.

(He can't help but feel as if he's stuck in the nineties again, awkward and madly in love with his untouchable partner. Except they're both older and smarter and have more history between them. They're married, they lived together for a decade, they have a son out there somewhere. And she loves him, too, or she did once. She told him that she'd always love him. She told him once that this would only be temporary, that she'd come home someday. But he doesn't know what to think now. He wants to believe she'll come home. He wants to believe, but it's hard to know what to believe in anymore.)

(Two hotel rooms. Just like the old days. At least they're side by side.)

Mulder offers to carry her bag, and Scully politely refuses, jabbing him in the side and teasing him a little, and the receptionist winks at them from underneath her jaunty witch’s hat, waves as they walk together to the stairs. Their room is on the third floor, and Mulder is lamenting the lack of an elevator. And then they're standing between the doors of their room, and Mulder remembers how, twenty years ago, he'd make excuses for them to keep working or offer to split a pizza or snacks from the vending machine, just because he wanted to keep hanging out with her. He thinks about doing it now, but what excuse does he have? There's nothing else to investigate.

Scully smiles brightly at him, and it all feels stilted suddenly, like they're putting on a show. He's seen her go to bed angry so many times in the last year or two of their relationship, and it feels impossible that she could be this happy to be with him, here on this dead-end case. “See you tomorrow?” she asks, and he can hardly believe it. If this is the only way he can have her back, for now, he'll take it. The chance to drive into the unknown with her and share small-town diner meals and see her in the morning.

“Bright and early,” he says, unlocking his room. Scully chuckles quietly, and he raises his eyebrows questioningly.

She turns a little red, but explains, “It's just that… that's what you said to me the first time we met. Just before I left. That you'd see me tomorrow, bright and early.”

“How do you remember this things?” he asks in near disbelief, and she chuckles again. He chuckles, too, touches her shoulder, briefly, in some small attempt at intimacy, and starts to turn towards his room—he still has no idea how Scully feels about the way he said goodbye last time, and he certainly doesn't want to push his boundaries. But she surprises him yet again tonight by rising on tiptoes and kissing his cheek this time. “Night, Mulder,” she says in a husky voice. And then she's disappearing into her room, leaving Mulder standing halfway in and halfway out of his doorway with a stunned expression on his face.

Later, he'll be able to hear her pattering around in her room, turning on the TV, calling her mother. The walls in this hotel must be thin as shit. But whatever the case, he finds it comforting: to know she's there and she's all right. It almost feels like being home.

---

Joe O'Connell has never been superstitious, and he's remained un-superstitious throughout all this Willoughby Specter bullshit, as irritating as it all is. (He's not mad at his son, of course. He's mad at that kid Ryan and his fucking ghost stories, at Kenny for making a big deal out of something that was probably a dream or Robbie's imagination, at those two kids who claimed that they also saw the ghost and were probably lying. He's mad at the whole goddamn mania. But he's not mad at Robbie.) He wishes the whole thing would just die down. He resents that the FBI agents, whatever their names are, are here to give his son false hope. He's ready to accept that Bear is gone and just tell Robbie that so they can move on with their lives. Maybe he'll get the boy another dog for Christmas.

But this is before Robbie wakes him up at the crack of dawn the morning after the FBI agents arrive, jumping on top of his stomach and whispering frantically, “Daddy, Daddy, I saw the ghost again!”

Beside him, Bonnie grunts out a dim protest as she turns over; Joe grabs his son and sets him down on the edge of the bed, groaning a little at the pain in his gut. “What happened, Rob?” he asks in a soft voice.

“I saw the ghost!” Robbie is wriggling with excitement, oblivious to his parents’ desire to keep sleeping. “He told me where Bear is! Daddy, you gotta go get him!”

Joe groans, his eyes slipping closed. It isn't that he doesn't believe his son, but it's four a.m. and he'd rather not go on a wild goose chase this early. “Robbie, buddy, I dunno…” he mutters sleepily, ready to tell him to go lie down, and he'll take care of it in a few hours.

“He said it was an abandoned apartment building on Church Street,” Robbie says. “He says someone took Bear there and locked him in.”

And that wakes Joe right up.

Because he knows for a fact that the Caruthers lived on Church Street in a two-apartment building when they were murdered in 2002, and he knows it was put on the market but never sold. And it sounds ridiculous, considering the kid's history, but it seems kind of fitting to him that two members of the Caruthers family would choose the same building to commit their crime.

---

Mulder gets a call from Sheriff O'Connell entirely too early in the morning. He's called to ask a favor—apparently Robbie had another dream about the ghost, telling him where the dog is: an abandoned apartment building on Church Street. “Far as I know,” says O’Connell, “there's only one abandoned apartment building on Church Street. And it's the building that Ryan Caruthers's parents were murdered in.”

Mulder blinks blearily, rubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hand. “So you think…” he says slowly, not entirely awake yet and not completely following what the sheriff is saying.

“I know I said a lot of stuff about this ghost not being real, and I still think that, but…” The sheriff hesitates for a minute before finishing. “I really do think that little shit is involved,” he says. “Revenge for us firing him or something. And that'd be the perfect place to hide Bear if he took him, right? A building he knows is abandoned?”

“Bear?” Mulder asks in confusion.

“Bear,” says O’Connell. “The dog's name is Bear. I'd really appreciate it if you went and took a look.”

Mulder goes. Mostly because it's the best lead they have, and because he wants to know: are the claims legitimate? If the dog is there, than that means there is at least some truth to Robbie's story. It might even prove the existence of the Willoughby Specter, if the ghost just so happened to give Robbie the correct location. He goes, and he texts Scully several times to invite her along. She comes out eventually, her hair strangely wild and her demeanor familiarly sharp, blunted with the impact of being woken before seven o’clock. He pulls through a drive-through and gets them coffee as a peace offering, and her thanks is sincere, but her tone speaks volumes as to her perspective on the whole thing.

By the time they've reached the abandoned apartment building (Willoughby Woods Apartment Building) on Church Street (not entirely hard to find, Sheriff O'Connell had said; just look for the church), Scully has woken up a little more, looks a little less wild and angry. But her attitude towards the case itself does not seem to have improved. “We're out here chasing a dog, Mulder,” she says as they climb out of the car, shivering in the October chill. “Not a criminal. A dog. At six in the morning.

“What if it were that dog of yours, Quog?” Mulder asks, hoping he got the name right. He's somewhat annoyed with the case himself, at this point, but his annoyance is mixed with a genuine hope that they find something, some sort of evidence. That this isn't the pointless waste of time Scully said it was, that he's not foolish for believing the word of a six-year-old. Some hope that one of their first cases back isn't total and utter bullshit. “Don't you think that would be worth chasing?”

Scully shoots him a look. “His name was Queequeg,” she says, and Mulder grimaces. (He hadn't gotten the name right.) “And that's not the point, Mulder. How did the ghost tell Robbie where the dog supposedly is? How does that work?”

“I'll remind you that we had two ghosts tell us a lot of things, Christmas Eve of 1998.”

She makes a face at him, partly teasing, partly true malice. (He guesses the memories of the actual haunted house aren't exactly happy ones, although the morning that followed had gone much, much better.) “I'll remind you that whatever happened that night was not real. And this lead feels like a setup. It feels much too convenient.” They reach the front stoop of the apartment building, and Scully unlocks the dusty door with the key the on-duty officer at the police station had given them. It swings open, the hinges squeaking like the door in a haunted house.

Mulder flips on the flashlight and steps inside. “O’Connell said that the Caruthers's apartment was the one on the first floor,” he says, moving his beam down the dusty, decrepit hallway. There are two doors: one hanging half-open exposing the staircase, and another one with a brass 1 hanging upside down on the door. “Do you still think Ryan Caruthers is responsible? The sheriff suspected that he'd take the dog here.”

“I'm honestly not sure,” Scully says. They start together down the hall towards the apartment door. “I'm guessing you're hoping to find the dog here, though,” she adds. Maybe a little good-naturedly, maybe a little sympathetic.

Mulder throws her a thin, wry smile. He is hoping to find the dog, but he's certainly not looking for sympathy. Not on this subject. “You guessed right.”

The door to the apartment unlocks with the same key as the front door. Inside are bare, empty rooms, a kitchen catty-cornered off from a living room. A window towards the back is broken, a cluster of canned foods and an old blanket in a corner. “It looks like homeless people have been staying here,” Scully says, moving her flashlight across the shell of a home.

Looking down at his feet, standing on the threshold of the apartment, Mulder can see old bloodstains underneath the soles of his shoes and out into the hall, the wood turned pale from where someone tried to bleach it away. He almost shudders. The one thing he knew about home improvement for years, before he bought a house of his own and actually put effort into it, is this: bloodstains don't come up easily. This apartment looks haunted, and not by the Willoughby Specter. By the ghosts of a family torn apart right around the same time that his was. He grimaces, biting back another shudder.

He steps into the apartment himself, angling his flashlight down the hall off to the right. There’s something red-looking and bright on the walls; he jogs across the living room and into the hall to examine and sees jagged words spray-painted there. CURSED CAROTHERS!!! Caruthers is misspelled. “Looks like more than homeless people have been here, Scully,” he calls. He steps inside a large bedroom that must've belonged to the parents; there's more graffiti, some related to the ghost, some not. No dog.

The next room is sadder: painted baby-blue, a old crib on its side on the floor. It feels emptier, somehow. It absurdly makes Mulder want to cry, even though he knows the baby is the one who lived. He tries to stay focused: there's no dog, there, either.

He checks the bathroom and a room that must've been a study, and doesn't find the dog. He checks all the rooms again, even opening the closets, to no avail. Something of disgust is starting to build inside him, mostly aimed at himself. When he reenters the living room, he finds it empty, but Scully reappears a moment later, sticking her head through the front door. “I decided to run upstairs and check the other apartment,” she says, and Mulder is so relieved that she didn't have to see the abandoned nursery that he almost misses what she says next: “Dog's not up there. If he ever was here, he's gone now.” Her eyes are apologetic; there is definitely sympathy now.

Mulder sighs, shaking his head, some strange mix of disappointment and resentment clogging his throat. He probably should've expected something like this based on previous evidence, but a part of him had still hoped the ghost was real. But he supposes that this is the most obvious answer they'll get: it's not. It's a hoax of some sort, or a nightmare, or something, but it probably isn't involved in the disappearance of the dog. He feels foolish, sweat pooling under the wool collar of his coat. “I guess I'll go ahead and call Sheriff O'Connell,” he says. “Let him know we didn't find the dog, and that we're getting out of here. I'm pretty sure he'll agree that there's no reason for us to keep investigating.”

“We don't have to go home right now,” Scully offers half-heartedly. “We could… stay and talk to Ryan Caruthers if you want… We've only been here one night, surely there's still more to investigate...”

“No, Scully, we should go,” says Mulder, defeated. Whatever excitement he'd felt about this case initially is gone, replaced by a general feeling of dismay. The supernatural is less attainable, there is nothing to find in this little town, and his partner pities him. He flips off his flashlight and heads for the door. “You were right from the beginning: this case is a waste of time.”