In the weeks following the departure of those X-Files agents, Joe's faith is tested several times.
His insistent claim—to Kenny, to those FBI agents, to Robbie and Bonnie and all the townspeople who'd heard about his son's claims (sometimes Joe really, really hates living in a small town; news travels so fucking easy)—that the ghost isn't real is validated when he and Robbie find Bear while trick-or-treating on Halloween night. Robbie is more than overjoyed, and Joe is relieved as well. Based off of some cuts, and the leaves and briars stuck in his fur, it looks like Bear just ran off into the woods for a few weeks, which is what Joe tells Robbie. He still believes, personally, that Ryan Caruthers (that little shit) is the one who let Bear out, but Bonnie refuses to let him confront the punk. (“I will not have you tormenting that child and ruining my friendship with Annie just to prove a point,” she says sternly one night. Bonnie is firm on the subject of Ryan, having always liked him, and Ryan is about the only thing Joe and Bonnie actually fight about. Another reason to resent that kid.) But still, when the dog shows up, Joe truly believes it's all over: his son's insistence that he's seeing the Willoughby Specter, and the town's hysteria over it, and hopefully his association with Ryan Caruthers.
But this firm disbelief is shaken when more people begin to report sightings.
Joe is dismissive at first. This happened in 2002, he tells himself and Kenny: some people claimed they saw the ghost, and suddenly everyone wanted to become a part of it—and the next thing he knew, three people were dead. But he refuses to indulge it at first. It's mostly teenagers or college students, anyways, insisting that they saw the ghost when they were probably either drunk or high. A couple claim to have a video that spooks Kenny and screams hoax to Joe. Mark Johnson even shows up, more sober than Joe has seen him in years, and says he definitely saw the ghost this time, for real, he's sure of it.
Joe gets tired of it after the sixth claim. He asks the seventh person who comes in, “Why the hell is everyone reporting to me, anyway? This is hardly a crime, and it isn't like there's anything I can do about it.”
The girl, who can't be more than fifteen or sixteen, shrugs in a nonplussed kind of way. “I came because I heard you called in FBI agents last time. I figured that you'd do that again.”
Joe has no intention of calling those agents back again, of course; it was a hassle enough, and plenty embarrassing when they found nothing. But the sightings keep getting called in, and all of a sudden, there's bad things happening to accompany them, popping up all over town. Mark Johnson loses his job. An man who calls a sighting in calls again the next day, hysterical because his parakeet has died. There's an accident at the high school that manages to get rid of everyone's grades and test scores for the entire year. A man is abruptly evicted, and insists that he saw the ghost the night before and had thought nothing of it. The reports keep coming in, in the same frantic flurrying matter of 2002, and Joe begins to get worried all over again. The last thing he wants is for someone to end up dead again, because of this hysteria, or phenomena, or however you want to describe it.
He calls Kenny over to the house one night, wanting to talk the whole thing over, see if Kenny thinks they need to call the FBI agents back in. He's not sure what the hell they can actually do—the man as much as admitted that they didn't think there was anything here, and even if they changed their minds, what could they actually do to stop it?—but he's wondering if getting them involved will help everyone to calm down.
Kenny agrees to come over immediately. He's always been enthusiastic about this sort of thing, found it exciting; Joe knew he'd be willing to help. He says he'll be over right away.
Joe waits for him by the door; he doesn't intend for it to be a long wait, but there's a strangely empty period where he doesn't get any texts from Kenny or see any headlights in the driveway. It should take Kenny about five minutes to get over to Joe's house, but a half hour passes and he still hasn't arrived. Bonnie is giving him strange looks from the couch where she's watching a movie with Robbie, and Joe is trying Kenny's phone to see if he changed his mind and getting voicemail every time.
And then Joe gets a call about a nasty wreck, a car flipped upside down a block away. Kenny's car.
Joe rushes to the hospital immediately to wait for his friend to get out of surgery. After several more hours waiting anxiously in the waiting room, the nurses reassure him that Kenny is going to be fine.
He is relieved, immensely so, calling Bonnie thankfully to give her and Robbie the news, but a very small part of him can't help but wonder: is this related to all the bad things that have happened in the town lately? Kenny was the one who believed in the ghost in the first place, Kenny seems like a likely candidate to get involved in this stuff. Maybe Joe could've stopped him from getting hurt if he'd just listened, if he'd done something about the damn sightings sooner.
It takes another day for Kenny to regain consciousness, and when he does, he doesn't actually bring up the ghost, to Joe's surprise. Joe has to bring it up himself. When he finally mentions it, Kenny's face twists up, just a little bit, and he sighs wearily. “Was wondering when someone would bring that up,” he says, rubbing at his eyes with his palm.
“So you saw it?” Joe asks, knotting his fingers together on top of his knees. “The Specter?”
Kenny bites his lower lip, nods. “Just before I crashed,” he says, his voice unsteady. “I looked over at the passenger seat, and there he was. Scared me half to death. He kinda pointed at me, and then I think I blacked out or something. The next thing I knew, I was in my smashed car and I could hear sirens. Then I blacked out again.”
“Holy shit,” says Joe, who knows that Kenny wouldn't be making this stuff up. Part of him wants to ask if Kenny had done any drinking that night, but he knows Kenny wouldn't drive if he'd had enough to drink to see things that weren't there. And the rest of him can only steadfastly believe Kenny, because Kenny's his best friend, and he doesn't make things up. “Did it look the way Rob described it?” he asks, because those are the best comparison sources he has, his son and his best friend.
“Exactly like the stories, man,” says Kenny seriously. “Like how everyone's been saying. I think… I'm starting to think that… that this might be like what happened in 2002.” His face is halfway guilty as he looks away from Joe.
Joe sighs, rubbing his mouth. Considers the fact that someone has almost died. Whether it's a ghost or not, Kenny could've died, was seriously injured in relation to the Specter story. It hasn't escalated to the levels it did in 2002, this mania or haunting, but it easily could. If this is the same thing. Someone else could get hurt, or die…
“Ken, do you think… I should call those FBI agents back in?” he asks gingerly. “To calm people down? Or… to prevent this from escalating worse?”
“I'm not exactly sure what they could do, but it's worth a shot,” Kenny says quietly. “We need to try and make this stop. So it doesn't end like it did last time.”
Three things happen as a result of the were-lizard case Mulder and Scully take in Oregon a few days after they leave Willoughby.
The first is that Mulder regains whatever confidence he lost in Willoughby. It happens surprisingly, but it ends in a satisfying encounter where Mulder actually shakes hands with a friendly monster. Scully doesn't believe him, of course (or at least she pretends she doesn't), but he tells her that she has solved a case and caught a serial killer and should be proud of herself just for that. (“I didn't say I wasn't proud of myself, Mulder,” she says. “I said that were-lizards aren't real.” “My point is that we both accomplished things on this case,” Mulder retorts, sitting on the edge of her bed. Scully pats his knee as if sympathetic, but she's smiling, and that feels like something.)
The second is that Scully steals a dog. It's the dog who she bonded with at the animal shelter, she tells him, the one who reminded her of Queequeg. A little yippy brown-and-white puppy. The animal shelter was in such disarray after she caught the serial killer that no one noticed her taking him. Scully is holding the puppy in her lap as Mulder recounts all of this, scratching the top of his head, and Mulder is reminded of Guy Mann's story. “You know what's funny?” he says. “The were-lizard had a dog named Daggoo. Daggoo is a character from Moby Dick, right?”
Scully nods. “A harpooner. That's a strange coincidence.” She looks down at the dog with the affection she used to bestow on Queequeg, that little shit. “Maybe I should call this little guy Daggoo,” she says, petting his back, and Mulder smiles. Calls her a ruthless dog thief, and she sticks out her tongue in retribution, bumping her shoulder against his.
The third is that they start having dinner together. Not every night, not anything that they openly discuss, but it happens, likely as a result of the night they spend in Oregon after the case ends, sitting on Scully's bed in the new hotel (sans creepy animal heads and creepier owner), eating pizza and playing with Daggoo. (Scully is wearing his shirt, an ugly striped one that he hadn't even noticed was gone, for the second night in a row. Mulder dutifully pretends not to notice, but seeing her in it makes him feel warm from head to toe. He can't believe that she took it with her.) From then on, they eat together three or four nights a week. Mulder tries to pick nice places when it's his turn to pick. They aren't dating, not officially (they always go to restaurants because of the unspoken taboo on visiting each other's houses, broken only once by Scully during the Tad O'Malley incident), but it's something, and he wants to take Scully to the nice places he never took her all these years ago.
They are at one of these dinners when he gets the phone call from Sheriff O'Connell. He doesn't recognize the number and almost declines the call, but Scully notes, “Mulder, that's the Willoughby area code.”
He raises his eyebrows at her, impressed. “You have area codes memorized? That's impressive, Scully.”
“I saw O’Connell's number when he called you about the key to the Caruthers's apartment a couple weeks ago,” she says, raising her eyebrows matter-of-factly. “Go ahead and take the call, Mulder, it might be important.”
It's nearly shocking to hear Scully refer to a case that she repeatedly called a waste of time as potentially important, but he goes with it. He nods apologetically, unusually formal (as if he hasn't known her for nearly twenty-three years), and answers the call just as it starts to click over to voicemail. “Mulder,” he says, out of an age-old habit.
“Agent Mulder?” says a voice on the other end that he recognizes. “This is Sheriff O'Connell from Willoughby, Virginia.”
Across the table, Scully shoots him a questioning look, and he nods in confirmation. “Yes, Sheriff, I remember,” he says into the phone. “How can I help you?”
“Well…” The sheriff sounds uncomfortable, and Mulder can practically see him squirming with discomfort on the other end. “I’m sure you and your partner will be glad to know that we found Robbie's dog. He's okay, looks like he just ran off.”
“Oh, that is good news,” Mulder offers politely.
“Yeah, but…” There's an awkward pause in which Mulder can picture the squirming again. “Look, I know I said that this is a bunch of horseshit,” Joe says finally on the other end. “And I know you and your partner… kinda agreed… but weird stuff has been happening ever since you left town. People have been reporting sightings, and a bunch of bad stuff has been happening… an incident with the high school… my friend, Kenny—you remember Kenny?—was just in a bad car accident. He's all right, but he says… he says he saw the ghost just before he crashed.”
His eyebrows raise at that, remembering Deputy Jacobs's seeming fascination with the ghost. He doesn't know if he believes the story of the Specter, doesn't know if he can believe claims of a sighting from Deputy Jacobs anymore than from those kids, but he'll admit, he's intrigued. “I'm sorry to hear about the accident,” he says.
“Thanks.” There's another few beats of silence before O'Connell adds, “I don't know if there's anything you can do about all this. And I don't know if it's even a ghost doing any of this. But people are really riled up, and they've been asking me to call you in. Would you and your partner mind…”
“Coming down to take a look?” Mulder asks. He shoots Scully a questioning look, expecting her to resist, but she shrugs, resigned. She did say on their last case that she forgot how fun these cases could be; maybe the Willoughby Specter factors into that. “Sure, we could do that,” he says. “How soon would you need us there?”
It's oddly cold the morning they leave for Willoughby again. Mulder drives this time, picking Scully up at her house, and she turns the heat all the way up as soon as she climbs in the car. “There was a malfunction with the computer, or whatever it is that controls the heating in my apartment,” she says, clenching her teeth so they don't shatter, holding her hands in front of the vent.
“I guess technology isn't everything,” Mulder says, teasing and Scully makes a face at him. On an impulse, he grabs one of her admittedly chilly hands and presses his mouth against her fingers briefly. Reaches for the gear shift as soon as he lets go. Neither of them say anything about it, not a word, but Scully tucks the hand into her lap as they pull away from the curb. They drive to Willoughby with the heat turned all the way up.
Sheriff O'Connell meets them at the police station, mug of steaming coffee in hand. He looks like he hasn't slept in a day or two, stubble dotting across his jaw and circles under his eyes. “Agents, good to see you again,” he says, rubbing at his face and extending a hand to shake theirs. “I have absolutely no idea of how to handle any of this. Do you have any experience with cases like this?”
“Something like that,” Scully says in a nearly ironic voice.
“I’m assuming you want all this activity in your town to stop?” Mulder asks, and O’Connell nods earnestly. “I won't lie and say that I know exactly how to do that, but I think there's a way to figure it all out. A method of sorts. I'd say the next step is to get as much information on this spirit as possible and try to prove that it is, actually, a spirit that's involved. Maybe try to understand the spirit's warnings in the first place in order to stop whatever follows the warning.”
“But the spirit isn't causing these events,” O'Connell says. “Even if it is real, it's not an… evil spirit.” He looks slightly disgusted at himself for actually uttering these words. “My objective in bringing the two of you in is to calm down the public, try and stop the mania before it goes too far and someone else ends up hurt or dead.”
Scully is nodding. “I think that's wise, Sheriff,” she says. “And I think that Mulder's right, that we need to gather as much information as we can to understand the full picture. Why only one person has been experiencing this… mania… before now, and why others have been experiencing it recently. And how we can stop others from experiencing it in the future.”
“You're talking about Ryan Caruthers,” says the sheriff, “right? His involvement in this?”
Scully nods. “We'd like to talk to him, if you think you could arrange that.”
O’Connell shrugs, nods. “He never found out that I suspected him of letting Bear out. And there's some advantages to my wife being friends with his aunt.” He pulls out his phone and starts to type. “I'll see if she can arrange a meeting.”
O’Connell's wife does arrange a meeting with the kid, at their house later in the day. The three of them spend the morning picking through reports of other sightings—the ones from the past few weeks, and earlier ones from 2002 and further back. There doesn't seem to be any particular pattern, besides this: out of the ones on record at the police station, the only sightings that were not singular or very, very sparsely occurred in 2002 or 2015. The sightings accompanied by other many sightings.
Later, Scully and Mulder follow the sheriff back to his house in their car. Scully drives while Mulder reviews his notes in the passenger seat. “I just don't understand it,” he says finally. “Why have there only been two occurrences of repeated sightings? And why 2002 and right now? Why are those years significant over other years? What does a flurry of sightings mean?”
“We don't know that there have only been two… occurrences of this widespread mania,” says Scully. “There have only been two occurrences on record at the police station, but the lore is as old as the town itself. Who knows how many occurrences there have been?”
“Good point.” Mulder rests his chin in his hands contemplatively. “But I'm still not sure what Sheriff O’Connell wants from us, or how we're supposed to calm the public down. We could prove that the ghost is real, but what good would that do? Unless people want to try and understand it so they can stop whatever bad thing is coming.”
“It's a possibility,” Scully says, following the sheriff up a gravel driveway. She throws the car into Park behind his. “We've had a lot of nonsensical cases, Mulder. Why should this one be any different?”
“Because it somehow makes less sense than all the others,” Mulder says dryly as he unbuckles his seatbelt. “Or at least the cases that I remember.”
Scully makes a face at him across the console, as if to ask, Really? They climb out of the car and follow Sheriff O'Connell up the driveway, silently debating the coherency of their case history the entire way there.
Robbie O’Connell is waiting just inside, and he runs to his father first and hugs him tightly before coming to Mulder and Scully where they cluster near the doorway. “Hi!” he says, taking Scully's hand and tugging at it. “I want you to meet Ryan, he's super cool.”
Scully laughs, a little anxiously, and follows Robbie's direction. There is a woman and a teenager sitting on the couch, the woman eyeing them suspiciously, the boy ignoring them with a bored look on his face. “Ryan, Ryan, these are the FBI agents I was telling you about!” Robbie says excitedly, letting go of Scully's hand to run to Ryan's side. “They're super cool, like Men in Black.”
Mulder chuckles, says, “Actually, we sort of have to fight the men in black,” as he comes to stand by Scully's side. Robbie giggles with delight, and the kid who must be Ryan offers him an indulgent smile and a subtle fist bump, but continues ignoring everyone else.
The woman stands up and offers her hand. “Annie Caruthers,” she says, totally serious and straight-laced. “If you don't mind, could I ask what this is all about? I don't want to subject my nephew to unnecessary interrogations.”
“Ma'am, we just…” Mulder start to say as he shakes her hand, but Scully stops him with a raised hand of her own. “Ms. Caruthers, I completely understand,” she says, and she does. She'd only lived nine months with her son, but she'd seen what he could do and it terrified her, the thought of people wanting him for these unexplainable abilities. She thinks that seeing a ghost and making things levitate are probably pretty different, but she understands Annie's instinct to protect Ryan. She wouldn't want strangers interrogating her son, either, if he was still a part of her life. “Ryan isn't in any trouble, and he doesn't have to answer any questions he doesn't want to. We just want to ask him about some stuff.”
“About his experience with the Specter,” Mulder adds from beside her. “What he knows about it, stuff like that.”
The kid, Ryan, barks out a sharp, mocking laugh. “The FBI is investigating the Willoughby Specter? Seriously?”
“It's like I told you, Ryan, they're cool,” Robbie insists. Sheriff O'Connell appears almost immediately, scooping Robbie up and carrying him out, avoiding the gaze of Ryan or Annie Caruthers.
“We're an unusual unit,” Mulder says politely. “We're just trying to gather information, get the facts straight. But you don't have to talk to us if you don't want to.”
Annie looks hesitantly between them and Ryan. Ryan hunches up against the couch cushions, arms crossed, pulling the brim of his Orioles baseball cap down over his eyes. “Don't ask me about my parents,” he mutters. “I don't want to talk about them.” And Scully is involuntarily reminded of William, even though the circumstances are very, very different. She swallows dryly. Her throat hurts.
“That seems fair,” Mulder says. Annie nods a little, as if giving permission, and sits on the couch beside Ryan. Mulder and Scully each sit in a chair facing the couch, Scully pressing her hands into her knees in an attempt to focus.
Ryan shrugs, a little aggressively. “Okay, so, like… what do you wanna know?”
“Tell us about seeing the ghost,” says Mulder. “How long has it been happening?”
Ryan shrugs again. “I dunno. Since I was a little kid. It scared me, though, I used to have nightmares.” Annie nods like she is confirming this.
Scully suddenly remembers a detail from Robbie's story; she blurts, “You never felt… safe? Around the ghost?”
Ryan looks disgusted underneath the baseball cap. “No, I never felt safe. It was a fucking ghost.”
“Ryan!” his aunt scolds, but Mulder meets her eyes, silently thanking her for asking about that.
“We've heard reports of this ghost being… good,” Scully continues. “Likened to an angel, even.”
Ryan laughs. “Did Robbie tell you that? Look, I like the kid, and I'm glad he wasn't too scared, but, no. The Specter was never… angelic for me. Absolutely not.”
“How often did you see it?” Mulder asks.
The kid shrugs aggressively. “Every fall or winter. I dunno why. Maybe it's significant for the ghost or whatever.”
“Was there any routine to the sightings? Like a specific thing that would happen to bring it all on?”
“No, he'd just… appear. Follow me around. Freak me out. Like a Sixth Sense type thing.”
“He never… made any contact with you? Warned you about some ominous future?” asks Mulder. “Did you ever have anything unfortunate happen in conjunction with the sightings?”
“Nope.” Ryan crosses his arms again.
“Have you seen it recently?” Scully asks, and Ryan hesitates, pausing in the wake of her words, looking down at his shoes sheepishly before finally confirming—supposedly—that he hasn't.
“Do you have any idea why this is happening?” Mulder asks awkwardly, assumedly thrown by Ryan's irritable responses. “Why this specter is… warning people more often now? Or why other people are seeing him for the first time since…”
Ryan shakes his head bitterly. “Okay, first of all, we don't know other people haven't seen him since my parents got murdered. We don't know! I might just be the only one stupid enough to announce it to the world. And second of all, I don't know why this ghost does anything that it does. It's a ghost. Do you hear yourself? You sound ridiculous.”
“Ryan,” his aunt scolds again, sterner this time, but Ryan isn't finished. He says, “Nobody actually understands the stupid ghost, you know. I don't know why all this bad stuff is happening. Maybe this town has, I dunno, pissed off some higher power, and now they're paying penance for it.”
“Ryan, stop,” Annie says, holding her hand up. “I think this conversation is getting a little ridiculous, and I'd like to request we stop.”
“That's fine,” Mulder says quickly, although Scully is sure that he'd rather keep talking.
“We just want to understand this,” Scully adds, trying to sympathize. “It seems like people are upset, and we don't want anyone to get hurt.”
“That's Joe O'Connell talking,” Ryan says harshly. “He thinks I'm crazy. He thinks the ghost is just an excuse for other people to act crazy, and he brought you guys in to calm them down. I'm guessing you don't believe in the ghost either, do you?”
“Ryan, stop it! We're leaving, all right?” Annie stands at the same time Scully does, and reaches out politely to shake her hand again. “This is kind of a sensitive subject,” she says quietly. “I honestly don't know what is going on with this town—although I know it tends to go off the rails a little when a good ghost story comes into play—but whatever it is, I honestly doubt my nephew can help you with whatever it is you're gonna do to fix it.”
Ryan's already halfway out the door. Annie calls a strained goodbye to Mrs. O’Connell, wherever she is in the house, and follows him.
“Well,” Mulder says as soon as they're alone. “That was… interesting.”
“It's understandable, Mulder,” says Scully. “I'd be protective if I had a child who was… unique.” And I did, she adds silently—and unnecessarily, she deduces, from the look on Mulder's face. She rushes to add, “I'm still not sure what we can actually do here, Mulder, besides try to calm people down. And I'm not even sure how to do that.”
“Maybe we're here to try and explain why this is happening,” says Mulder. “Maybe even to stop it. Certainly to try to understand it.”
“But who knows if there even is a way to understand it,” says the sheriff as he re-enters, his son on his heels. “I take it the discussion with Ryan didn't go well?”
“That's an accurate description,” Mulder says with a light chuckle.
O’Connell sighs wearily. “I figured that kid wouldn't be any help.”
Robbie pouts, tugging at his dad's shirt. “But Daddy, Ryan's nice.”
“Ryan is a troublemaker, Rob.” O’Connell ruffles his kid's hair again, looking at Mulder and Scully questioningly. “Agents? What should our next move be?”
Scully shrugs. Mulder says, “I think possibly interviewing people who have seen it. Recent ones, and then possibly the ones prior to 2002… Like I said to Agent Scully, I think our first step should be to try and understand this.”
The sheriff nods. “I might be able to set that up tomorrow.”
Mulder nods, too, reaches out and shakes his hand. “We'll be in touch.”
Scully takes a turn shaking his hand, waves goodbye to Robbie, and then they are leaving, walking out into the cold again. The temperature has dropped at least ten degrees since the afternoon, and dark gray clouds cover the sky in forewarning of an incoming storm. Thunder rumbles somewhere above them, and Scully shivers. Mulder draws closer almost unconsciously, his shoulder brushing hers through their coats.
It feels hard not to think of William in the wake of their encounter with Ryan Caruthers. William would be the same age as Ryan, and Scully silently wonders if he would be resentful in the same way, angry and sullen and haunted. She hears Ryan say again, Don't ask me about my parents, I don't wanna talk about them, and bites back a shudder. She is tempted to ask Mulder if he is thinking the same things as they climb into the car, but she can't get the words out, they're trapped in her throat. Mulder looks over at her from the driver's seat and smiles warmly, the same way he's been smiling at her since they got reassigned to the Files. She smiles back because she can't help it. There is so much they need to talk about, so much that needs to be resolved, but when he smiles like that, it makes her think they might be okay. It makes her want to move home.
It starts to rain before they get back to the hotel, lightning slicing across the sky, rain pounding the windshield. Like some odd warning, like a bad omen.
She's standing in her living room—not the one at the house she's living at now, but her living room, the one at her home—and William is there, and he is glaring at her. Why did you do this to me? he spits, his eyes fierce and furious.
I didn't do anything, baby, she tells him, pleading. Her eyes are wet. I just wanted you to be okay. I wanted to save you.
You threw me away because I wasn't perfect, William snaps. You gave me up. You're the reason I'm a fucking freak!
William, please, she says, nearly sobbing. Please, honey, I'm so sorry. I never wanted this for you. I love you so much, William.
You can't love me, he says plaintively, furiously, and he hates her, she can see it in her eyes. You don’t love me. You gave me up, you threw me away. You're the reason I'll never know my family.
She chokes out a pleading sob, stumbles away from his accusing eyes. She whirls around in a panic, runs for the door in a feeble attempt to escape, but someone appears in the door, a hulking, faceless shape with a black cloak fluttering in the air, and she tries to turn around and it raises white-gloved hands to her shoulders, clamps down painfully and pushes her roughly back into the room…
Scully wakes with a jolt, stifling her panicked yelp with a hand over her mouth. Shivering, her teeth chattering, her eyes wet, she rises up and surveys her surroundings until she remembers where she is. Mulder's hotel room. They'd ordered in takeout under the guise of working, but they are both much older than they used to be, much more tired. Scully thinks they fell asleep at some point after Mulder suggested they watch TV, after she got off the phone with her mom. She’s lying sprawled on the mattress, on top of the comforter, her hair mussed from the pillows. Mulder is curled up beside her, huddled against her as if to preserve warmth, his hand resting over her ankle. He is still asleep. The heater isn't on, and Scully's breath puffs out visibly before her, goosebumps rising on her bare skin.
As tempted as she is to just stay, crawl under the covers and cuddle up to Mulder for warmth while the terror of the nightmare leaves her mind, she knows she can't. She extracts her ankle gently out from under Mulder’s hand, wipes her eyes quickly, climbs off the bed and pushes the files aside before meticulously pulling the comforter out from underneath Mulder. He moves a little in his sleep, muttering something indecipherable, but he doesn't wake up. She covers him with the blanket, brushes some hair off of his face and quietly regrets her lack of courage. And then she flips on the heat, gathers her shoes and bag, her key card, and quietly slips out of the room.
The hall is pitch black, and Scully blinks in surprise; she could've sworn there were lights out here. It's just as cold out in the hall, and Scully buries the numb fingers of her free hand in her pockets as she heads down the hall to her room. It's just a few feet away from Mulder’s room, but she suddenly feels sluggish, unable to move more than a few inches at a time. Almost as if she is still dreaming. She blinks rapidly, shakes her head hard in an attempt to wake up.
There is a loud bang behind her, sudden and cacophonous, and Scully whirls, her hand flying to her waist where her holster should be and her eyes darting to the staircase. There is nothing there.
Heart pounding absurdly, Scully mentally scolds herself as she turns back to her hotel room. But the hall isn't empty anymore; at the end of the hall, there is a figure standing in dark clothes. His head is risen to face Scully, although she can't make out any features.
She offers a chilly smile out of politeness and fumbles for her key, inserting it into the lock. No click.
Her heart is still pounding too fast, and this is just ridiculous. Scully pulls the key out and reinserts it, jiggling the door handle in a frantic sort of matter. Nothing. She looks back down the hall, and the stranger has drawn closer. She still can't quite make out his face, but she can see that he is smiling. This strange man is grinning at her, and it doesn't feel polite. It feels almost menacing.
Her teeth are chattering again. How does a hotel get this cold? Scully turns back to the door and tries the key again. Nothing.
There are sounds like footsteps. She tries the key again and again. Nothing, nothing, nothing, until suddenly… There is a click, and Scully gasps in stupid relief, pushing the door open and stumbling inside. The door locks behind her.
The relief fills her entire body with a stunning warmth, and she turns up the heat immediately before changing into pajamas, the buttondown ones with one of Mulder's old shirts slipped overtop for extra warmth. She can't remember the last time she was this cold. She finger-combs her hair before crawling into bed, flipping out the light and burrowing under the thin quilt. She wishes she'd stayed in Mulder’s room. She wants to purge her mind of that nightmare, of William and his accusations and the horrible, consuming guilt that has stayed with her since the day she let that social worker walk away with her baby. She wants desperately to forget it, so she flips on the TV and curls up into a ball and tries to doze off. Lies shivering under the blankets, trying to concentrate on the voices on the TV instead of other, darker things.
She's almost asleep when she hears it: the heavy footsteps thudding outside of her door. The brief, faint glow coming from under the crack that she sees when she opens her eyes.
Scully isn't sure how long she sleeps. But she wakes up hours later when it is still dark outside, her phone buzzing loudly in her purse. Figuring that the only people who would call her at this hour—sometime after 3 a.m., she notes with a wince—are Mulder or her mother, she drags herself out of bed and fumbles through her purse for her phone, nestled up against her makeup case. The display reads William, and she blinks in rapid surprise, confusion. Rubs the sleep from her eyes. And then she sees that her phone says Mulder, and feels foolish for ever thinking it said William in the first place. Some leftover guilt from her nightmare. She swallows hard, her throat thick.
She answers just before it clicks over to voicemail and groggily answers, “Scully.” She’s still tired, still half asleep. This has not been one of her better nights, and she's guessing she'll be exhausted tomorrow.
“Hey, Scully, it's me,” says Mulder on the other end. “Sorry, I know it's early.”
“It's okay,” she says, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand.
“When do you leave last night? I don't remember…”
She presses the heel of her hand harder against her mouth, says sleepily, “Mulder, did you call me at three a.m. just to talk about that?”
“Oh… no.” He sounds slightly embarrassed. “Skinner called. There's a man dead in Philadelphia, apparently. Drawn and quartered. Apparently the detective that called said that he found something spooky about the crime scene.”
“But we're on a case right now,” Scully says with another yawn.
“I know, but Skinner asked us to go on and handle this one, considering that a man is dead.” Mulder sounds slightly miffed, irritable to be pulled off of one case and onto another. “I was thinking we could leave about… six?”
Scully rubs her eyes tiredly. “Sounds wonderful, Mulder.”
“Okay,” he says sheepishly. “So you can… get a couple more hours of sleep.”
“See you at six, Scully.”
In one heart-shock moment, Scully remembers the stranger from the night before, the cloaked and the strange smile, and she remembers Robbie's description of the ghost. Minus the lantern, the figure she saw feels too familiar, and she says, “Mulder, wait,” on an impulse.
“What's up, Scully?”
She hesitates for a moment, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. The more she considers it, it seems silly. There's nothing in particular that distinguishes that man as supernatural. She'd had a nightmare, she's being silly and paranoid, she should just forget about it. She backtracks quickly: “It’s nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive,” she says. “I'll see you at six, okay?”
Mulder sounds skeptical, but he doesn't push, and she is grateful for that. “See you at six.”
The phone beeps as he hangs up on the other end. When she was much younger, she used to feel insulted that Mulder never said goodbye before hanging up. Now, strangely enough, she thinks it might be one of the things she loves most about him.
Scully slips the phone back into her purse and goes back to bed. Sitting here, with Mulder's voice echoing in her ear, she feels perfectly grounded. Completely dismissive of the idea that she could've ever seen a ghost. It's not possible. For whatever reason, talking to Ryan Caruthers shook her up, but she's fine now. Just fine. They're going to work on a different case now, and she's going to forget she ever had this nightmare, and everything is going to be fine.
She curls up in bed and tries to drift off to sleep—a hopefully dreamless sleep—before they have to drive to Philadelphia.