The case in Philadelphia is cut short when Scully gets the call that her mom is in the hospital. Mulder tells her to go and see her mom without hesitation, because he'd never ask her to stay in a situation like this, but because he's also thinking of his mom fifteen years ago, the way she called him while he was on a case and he ignored it, and the next thing he knew… He hopes that Maggie isn't dying, desperately hopes so, but whatever the case, he's not going to keep Scully from her mother. He's so distracted by the whole thing, by watching Scully leave and wishing he could go with her, that it takes him a few moments to gather himself, to focus on the case.
The case is intriguing, but he can't focus. He's distracted, constantly checking his phone for news from Scully. When he gets out of a meeting with someone running tests on evidence, he has a text from Scully: Mom changed her living will. She didn't want to be kept on life support. Mulder knows the history behind that will, and it's enough to keep him from hesitating anymore. He gets into the car and drives straight back to DC without a second thought.
Scully is there, tearful and nervous, clutching a quarter that her mother was wearing around her neck. But she seems immensely relieved to see him. When she exits the ICU, she immediately hugs him hard, arms wrapped tightly around his waist, face pressed into his neck. He hugs her back wordlessly, his chin resting on her shoulder. He can see Maggie in the hospital bed, over her shoulder, and his breath falters a bit. Scully holds him tighter for a moment more before letting go.
It's overwhelming, being there. He tries to hold it together, tries to reassure Scully the best that he can, but he can tell it's too late. He doesn't know what to say to Scully, so he just tries to be there. He sits with her outside the ICU, sits with her by Maggie's bedside. Hears the voice over the phone of the one Scully relative he's never met, and monitors Maggie's vitals. He's right there when she slips away.
Before Maggie dies, she speaks to Mulder and Scully directly. “My son is named William, too,” she says, her frail hand clasped in Mulder’s, and he feels the same pang of loss and regret he's felt for years. Guilt and grief rising in his throat. All he can do in the moment, however, is shove those feelings down, go to Scully and hold her and try to comfort her. He holds her close, rocks her back and forth the same way she did for him after his mom died. When she pleads with him to let her work, tells him that she needs to work, he's nearly powerless to stop, unable to talk her out of it.
He drives her to Philadelphia, takes her hand when she reaches for his over the gear shift and holds tight. She cries quietly for most of the ride up there, her forehead against the car window, and he holds her hand. He doesn't try to talk to her, doesn't prod her; he just lets her cry.
She seems to have calmed down a bit by the time they've reached Philadelphia, her grief sharpened into determination. As soon as Mulder stops the car, she yanks hard at the door handle, trying to get out nearly before he's turned the car off. He catches her arm, whispers, “Scully, hey…” and she freezes, one hand still on the door handle.
She doesn't protest when he leans across the center console and wraps his arms around her. She leans into it a little, sniffling so softly that he almost can't hear it. “I'm fine, Mulder,” she says, her voice soft.
He smooths a hand over her hair gently. “I know,” he murmurs, letting go and leaning back.
Scully yanks the door open as soon as he's drawn back and climbs right out. He doesn't protest this time.
They solve the case, and they go home. They go to the funeral, and he doesn't leave her side. He sits beside her at the funeral and try to avoid fights with Scully's brothers, offers his condolences, shakes Bill's hand politely. He takes her hand when she reaches blindly again, rubs soft circles on the back of it in an attempt at comfort. He drives her to scatter her mother's ashes because she whispers, “Please, I don't think I can do it alone.”
She bares her soul to Mulder at the site of her mother's final resting place, and he listens because it seems to be the best thing he can do, to just be there for her. She laments her grief, her fears about William—all the questions she'll never have answered. She says that she'll be there when he finds the answers to all of his mysteries (and he looks at her in a stunned sort of surprise, not quite able to believe it, shocked at this level of commitment), but she'll never find the answers to her own mysteries. She calls him Fox, her voice trembling on the brink of sobbing. He can't remember the last time she called him that. Tears are welling in his own eyes; he holds Scully while she sobs quietly on the chilly beach. Watches the blue, blue water lap at the shore.
He'd do anything she asks right now. He wraps his arms around her and tries to hold her up, holds her for as long as she needs, until they're both shivering with cold as the sun goes down. Takes her back to her house when she asks him to, and doesn't leave when she asks him to, one hand curled possessively, desperately, around the hem of his dress shirt. He holds her on her bed, a bed he doesn't recognize, while she sobs into his chest. He cries with her, because Maggie was the only family Scully had left, and aside from the moments where he'd felt resentment from her, she had always, always been welcoming to him. She was the closest thing to family he had, outside of Scully. And he aches for Scully, for her loss, for her grief. Whatever happens now, he doesn't want her to be alone.He holds Scully and rocks her back and forth, thumbing away his own tears, and whispers the words he'd said to her in the hospital: “I'm here, I'm here.”
He doesn't leave Scully's house for days after Maggie's death. He holds Scully for hours until she falls asleep, a tangle of limbs in his arms, and he slips out of bed in the morning, trying to decide if he should respect Scully's previous wishes and leave or respect Scully's current wishes and stay. He decides, more or less, to make a cup of coffee and figure it out (he didn't sleep very well the night before), but he can't figure out half the stuff in this ridiculous house. Scully told him years ago that she was subletting from a friend, and that's about the only way he'd believe she lives here, in this electronic-crazy place. He spends ten minutes hopelessly rummaging around the house, trying to figure out the coffee maker, before Scully comes out, eyes red and clothes rumpled, and he immediately feels immense remorse for waking her up, for being so fucking thoughtless.
“Scully?” he asks tentatively, instantly feeling guilty, but she doesn't say a word as she approaches him, her eyes blank of any discernible emotion. She wordlessly takes the mug from Mulder and makes his coffee, fixes it the way he likes it, retrieving milk and sugar from the fridge. When she hands him the mug—a shiny, new mug that Mulder doesn't recognize because she left everything at the house when she left—he's a little dumbfounded. He feels horrible. “I'm sorry,” he says softly. “Scully…” He doesn't know what else to say. He holds her mug in both hands, staring at her with a blank sort of confusion, of apologeticness.
Daggoo wanders out of the bedroom at this moment—he’d slept on the edge of the bed the night before, curled dutifully around Scully's feet—and licks Scully's ankle excitedly, then Mulder's. Scully ignores him. She curls a fist around the hem of Mulder's shirt, a desperate hold. Her eyes now full of pleading. “Don't go,” she says softly, her voice still full of tears.
And so he doesn't.
The sightings of the Willoughby Specter continue, but they don't escalate as badly as they did with Kenny's car accident. Joe tries calling the X-Files unit again, to see if they've finished with the case that pulled them away from Willoughby, but Agent Mulder politely explains that they're taking some time off work because of a death in the family. (When Joe repeats this to Kenny, he says, “I knew they were married or something,” and Joe rolls his eyes. He admittedly hadn't thought about it very much.)
So he's started treating the sightings as another routine part of his job. Tells people not to panic, to remember the legend and that the Willoughby Specter is supposed to be good. He doesn't know what else he's supposed to do besides try to reassure people. He still isn't sure if he really believes in the Specter or not, but he knows that freaking out will only add to the mania. He remains nervous, on edge, but he tries not to cause a panic by expressing these feelings to others.
Kenny comes home from the hospital about a week after the FBI agents leave, hobbling around on crutches. Joe brings him back to his house so that they can help him out—he feels partially responsible for the whole ordeal, after all. Everyone is perfectly fine with this arrangement; Bonnie and Kenny have always been good friends, and Robbie adores Kenny. The four of them settle into a strange little daily routine—one that feels so idyllic, it visibly contrasts with the chaos of Joe's work.
Thanksgiving comes, and then Christmas time. The O'Connells get a tree and Kenny offers suggestions on how to decorate it from his perch on the couch. He starts moving Robbie's Elf on the Shelf around, although his crutches clatter around so much that Joe swears he's going to blow it. Robbie switches from the Willoughby Specter to Santa. The sightings slow down, going from four or five a week to one or two. It seems like things are slowing down, Joe and Kenny agree; it seems, briefly, like everything might be okay.
It's a completely normal night when that changes, when everything seems to shift. To be right on the verge of falling apart.
Joe's favorite activity with Bear is to take him for runs in the local walking park. Bonnie is consistently after him to try and do it before dark, but with Joe having taken over half of Kenny's responsibilities at the station, and the days being shorter anyways, he doesn't have a lot of daylit chances. It becomes as much of a routine to get Bear every night after work and go for a run as it is to help Bonnie with dinner every night, or to read Robbie a bedtime story.
One night in mid-December, he picks Bear up from the house and takes the dog to the park as the sun sinks over the horizon. They do five laps in the December chill, Joe running them so hard that sweat coats his face. Bear is left panting with the exertion, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his stride slowing. By the time they're finished, it's almost completely dark. When the two of them reach the car, Joe lets Bear hop in first before climbing in himself, leaning back against the seat and closing his eyes with exhaustion. He's completely content to just sit there for a moment while the car warms up.
His phone buzzes with a text from Bonnie, and he looks down to answer it, reassuring her that he'll be home soon. Beside him in the passenger seat, Bear begins to growl low in his throat. “Oh, hush,” Joe scolds, dropping his phone back in his pocket. He looks back up through the windshield, the night pitch-black, and flips on his headlights, and it instantly becomes clear what Bear is growling at.
A man stands before the car, illuminated by the headlights, a man that looks exactly the way his son described, exactly like the drawing in the folklore book at Joe's parents’ house, the one Robbie likes to look at. Tricorn hat pulled over his eyes, black cloak fluttering in the wind. The headlights flicker briefly before going black, as if the bus had rapidly died, but a flame springs to life before him, contained in the lantern held in the man's hand. Bear switches from growling to frantic, furious barking.
Joe can't breathe. He fumbles desperately for the gear shift, but he can't take his eyes off the thing. The Specter. He thought it was impossible, but here he is, it's real. Jesus, he should've believed Robbie and Kenny. The ghostly figures smiles at him, and a wave of happy feelings wash over Joe, but it doesn't feel good. It feels like being drugged.
Joe manages to curl his hand around the gearshift, and yanks the car frantically into Drive. Bear is going insane next to him, claws skidding on the dashboard, and all Joe can think about is getting home to Bonnie and Robbie and Kenny. Wondering what the hell the Specter is here to warn him about. Wondering if he'll even get home, or if there's anything to go home to.
The Specter disappears as the car lurches forward, plunges into the space where the figure was, and Joe bites down hard on his tongue to stop himself from screaming out loud. If the Specter was a solid form, it'd be on his windshield right now. His hands shake as he steers them out of the parking lot.
He speeds home, breaking every single Willoughby speed limit and praying one of his deputies doesn't stop him, his hands clutching the wheel too hard. He should probably drive more carefully—he doesn't want to end up crashed like Kenny—but he's terrified of what he'll find: his family hurt, dead, his house ransacked or burned down. But when he gets home, barreling up the porch steps and trying to unlock the door so hard and so quickly his key almost snaps, he finds nothing but Kenny and Robbie in the living room watching Elf. He gasps a little as he stands in the doorway, stupid with relief and confusion and fear.
“Hey, Joe,” Kenny says, surprisingly cheerful for a guy with a broken leg. He's absorbed in the movie, not noticing the fear all over Joe's face. “Rob and I decided to watch Christmas movies and give you and Bonnie a break. She's upstairs, I think. Y'all take some time for yourself.”
“Hi, Daddy!” Robbie says, waving wildly, his eyes on the TV too. “Uncle Kenny likes Elf, too!”
Bear huffs tensely, flopping down on the couch beside Robbie, laying his nose on his thigh, baring his teeth just a little, like the Specter is going to come in and snatch Robbie away.
Joe gasps out a few breaths, beads of sweat along his forehead. His heart is still pounding too hard, his hands are still quivering. “Hi, son,” he manages. “Hey, Ken.”
Will Ferrell shoves spaghetti in his mouth onscreen, and Joe smiles stiffly at the enraptured audience. Waves a little and goes upstairs, still quivering, thanking God that they're all still okay. For now, they are okay.
Bonnie is lying on the bed reading a book, glasses sliding down her nose. “Hi, honey,” she says, lying the book down on her stomach as he enters. “How was your run?”
Joe can't answering, frozen in the doorway. Relieved to see that everyone is okay, and terrified of what is going to happen now that he's seen the ghost. Terrified of the fact that he can't stop it. He goes to the bed stiffly, clenching his hands into fists to hide the trembling.
Bonnie sits up, sudden concern spreading over her face. “Honey? What's wrong?” she asks softly, scooting to the edge of the bed to touch his arm. “Are you okay?’
Joe gulps in air, takes several deep breaths before speaking. “Bonnie? You know how I've always said that the Willoughby Specter legend is horseshit?”
A bit of a nervous look passes over Bonnie's face. She's always been a bit more superstitious compared to Joe. “Yes,” she says warily.
“Well, I'm starting to think it might not be,” he says softly. The image of that lantern and that fucking malevolent smile is burned into his brain, lingering just behind his eyelids, and the feeling of dread that accompanies it is incredible.
On a morning near the end of his second week staying at Scully's, Mulder comes back into her bedroom after a shower to find her awake in bed, leaned back against the pillows, staring blankly at the ceiling. “Scully?” he asks softly as he climbs into bed beside her. “Are you okay?”
She looks up at him with an expression somewhere between surprise and familiarity. Her eyes are rimmed red again, but she looks happy to see him. “Mmm, hey,” she says, reaching up and sliding her fingers through his damp hair. She rises up on her elbow and kisses his jaw. “I was just thinking,” she says softly, her cheek falling against his shoulder.
“About what?” His hand slides down between her shoulder blades, rubbing the length of her spine.
“About Mom.” Her voice trembles a little, but it doesn't break. “And William,” she says with a sigh. “I've been thinking about them both a lot lately. I… I had a dream about them the night before Mom passed.” She pauses, her breaths uneven, adds nearly reluctantly, “A nightmare, really.”
Surprise, and maybe a bit of understanding, course through Mulder, and he wraps his arms around her tighter. “Oh, honey,” he murmurs, kissing the top of her head. “I'm so sorry.”
Scully looks up at him, her eyes wet. “I had no way of knowing what was going to happen with Mom,” she says softly. “But… in the dream… William asked me why I gave him up. He said that I was the reason he'd never know his family. And then… with what Mom said to us about William, I couldn't help thinking…” She breaks off, eyes shifting away from Mulder towards the corner.
“Scully, no,” he whispers, understanding instantly. He thumbs hair behind her cheek, tips her chin in an attempt to get Scully to look at him, to reassure her. He's not sure that he ever really knew Maggie Scully very well, but he knows this, knows that she forgave Scully a long time ago, that she's tried all these years not to hold it over her head. That Maggie wouldn't throw it in her daughter's face on her deathbed like that. “What she said to us… there was no resentment there,” he tells her gently, looking her right in the eye. “That was reassurance. She wasn't accusing you, she was… she was encouraging you to find peace. To find the answers to your mysteries.”
At the funeral, she'd told him that she would never have the answers to her mysteries, and he can't believe that. He has to believe that Scully will someday be relieved of these burdens, that she'll find her answers the same way he has. Her mysteries are his mysteries, and he hopes they'll find the answers someday. (Still selfishly hopes, sometimes, to see his son again.)
Scully sighs a little, thumbing away a tear in the corner of her eye. “I don't think that… what she said to us before she passed was malicious,” she murmurs. “But I know she resented me for what I did to William. To her. I know she did. And now I'll never have a chance to make up for it.”
“It's not your fault,” he tells her, his thumb tracing the line of her cheek. “It was never your fault.”
“She resented me, Mulder. William probably resents me. And you…” She's looking away again, her shoulders hunched up. “You resent me for it, too. Don't try to tell me you don't.”
“It's not your fault,” he says again, sterner. When she says nothing, he presses his nose to her cheekbone, kisses her cheek, her forehead. “It's not,” he whispers. “And I could never resent you, Scully. Ever. Not for that.” She's stiff in his arms, and he hugs her tighter, tries to make her understand. “You did everything you could, Dana,” he whispers. “It's not your fault. I don't blame you, and neither did your mom.”
She's still not looking at him, but she presses her palm to his cheek gently. Mulder kisses the side of her head softly, thumbs tears off of her cheek. “I'm glad you're here,” she whispers, her voice wavering, and he feels his stomach twisting at that, emotion rising so high in his throat that he wants to cry. He squeezes her close again.
All of a sudden, his phone comes to life on Scully's bedside table, the ringtone echoing through the room, the buzzing sound discordant against the wood. Scully's chin nudges his shoulder as she scoots backwards. “I don't know why you don't put your phone on vibrate, Mulder. It's much more subtle,” she says dryly, sniffling a little. She shoots him a look that he thinks might be an attempt at teasing.
“Because you can't hear it that way,” Mulder says in response, reluctantly reaching for the phone. The display reads Willoughby Sheriff, the contact name he'd given Sheriff O'Connell a couple weeks ago. He shoots Scully a questioning look, ready to decline it, but she nods pointedly at him, motioning to the phone. He presses Send and says, “Mulder,” into the speaker.
“Agent Mulder? I'm sorry to call so early. I know this is becoming a habit with us.” O’Connell is on the other end, embarrassment littering his voice.
“That's okay, Sheriff. I do feel bad that Scully and I had to run out on you before the case was over.” They would've had to go anyway, but there's no point in disclosing that. Might as well keep things civil and polite.
“How are you doing?” the sheriff asks politely. “I was sorry to hear about your loss.”
He looks over at Scully, who is watching him curiously, her eyes still red from crying. He knows she can probably hear what Sheriff O'Connell is saying. “Thank you,” he says, reaching out and rubbing her knee comfortingly with one hand. “We're doing fine. Not to cut to the chase, but… have there been more sightings? Is that why you've called?” He wants to give Scully space to recover, and he's sure chasing a ghost isn't involved in that.
Sheriff O’Connell hesitates again, silence over the line. “You believe in all this stuff, don't you, Agent Mulder?” he says finally. Almost reluctant, definitely uncertain. He sounds like making this call took a lot of convincing. “Ghosts and shit. The Specter.”
Mulder begins to understand. “Yes, I do,” he says.
“I didn't,” says the sheriff. “For years, I did. Robbie and Kenny made me wonder, but… I didn't really believe until I saw it for myself.”
Scully, who can hear every word from how close she is sitting, raises her eyebrows at him curiously. Mulder shrugs, unsure of what to make of this; he's intrigued, but he's not sure he wants to rush down to Willoughby and investigate. “You saw the ghost?” he says into the phone.
Another pause before the sheriff answers. “Yeah,” he says. “I did. And I hate to… ignore a problem til it's staring me in the face, so to speak… but I can't just sit by and let something bad happen to me or to my family. Or to this town. I'm trying to see this as a wake-up call, as some sort of sign that I need to do something before this gets out of hand and someone else gets hurt, or worse. I think we need to try and stop this again… if you all can come back and help out, that is.”
Mulder meets Scully's eyes, silently asking her the same question he's asked before. Trying to reassure her that they don't have to go, that he's more than fine with that. She nods emphatically in response, her eyes full of determination.
“We’ll be there as soon as we can,” he says into the phone.
Mulder is certainly concerned about taking Scully on a case so soon after her mom's death, but Scully has always been the type to throw herself into her work to hide her grief. He knows this, knows she did it after her father and after Melissa, and—according to various reports from Skinner and Agent Doggett—after he was presumed dead. He also knows how badly she's wanted to work, how badly she wants a distraction, and this seems like a safe one to take. (Not a lot of danger, not a lot of complications, just a ghost story and a series of superstitious townsfolk.) They drive to Willoughby a few hours after O'Connell's call, at Scully's insistence.
They drive largely in silence, Scully in the passenger seat, absently fiddling with her mother's quarter from where it hangs around her neck, watching the countryside go by. There's a sudden flash of gold between her fingers and then her cross slips out from under her shirt, accompanied by something else: the ring he'd given her a few years ago when they got married.
Mulder swallows roughly, looks away and stares straight out the front windshield. Pretends there isn't a lump in his throat. He didn't know she still wore that.
He will do whatever Scully needs him to do without question, and that includes staying with her, acting like nothing ever changed between them. But he knows he can't do this forever, not without eventually discussing what happens next. This hardly seems like the time to discuss this sort of thing, and he'd barely know how to bring it up anyway. He'll be there for her because he can't do anything else besides that, but he doesn't know what to do when this is all over. He doesn't know how to ask the questions he needs answered. How to ask her to come home.
He drives down the highway, and tries not to think about his ring, sitting on a shelf in the bathroom. Where it's been since he took it off, three months after she moved out. It used to belong to her father, and it feels bizarre that he has it; it probably should've gone to Bill or Charlie, especially in the wake of what's happened. But she gave it to him. He wishes he was wearing it. He drives, and he doesn't protest when Scully turns on the radio to fill the silence in the car.
They get to Willoughby in the mid-afternoon, go to the diner they remember from a couple of months ago to meet the sheriff. The front window has replaced the Halloween decorations with paper Christmas trees and Santa Clauses and reindeer, and the waitress recognizes them. Sheriff O'Connell waves them over to a booth towards the back, tucked behind the counter. He stands to shake their hands before they sit. “Thank you so much for coming,” he says.
“We were glad to,” Scully says, shaking the sheriff's hand and sliding into the booth.
It feels like something of a lie, at least on Mulder's end, but he lets it slide. After all, it isn't as if he has no interest in what's happening in Willoughby. “What do you think our next move should be?” he asks as he sits down beside Scully.
O’Connell shrugs. “I’ve been thinking about what you said, Mulder, about how we should try to understand the ghost. Why it does what it does, if there's any way to interpret the warnings. I've been examining the reported sightings, and I can't find anything out of the ordinary.” He pauses, adds apologetically, “Or… out of the ordinary for a bunch of ghost sightings, whatever the hell that is.”
Mulder nods knowingly. There's pretty much no normal in this line of work.
“So I think our best course of action,” O’Connell says, “is probably to further investigate Ryan Caruthers and his parents’ murder. Out of all of the sightings, I think it's safe to say that those are the most unusual.”
The waitress appears them, pitcher of coffee in hand and with the usual nosiness Mulder has seen time and again in small town citizens. She jumps right into the conversation like she's been invited. “You talking about Ryan, Joe?” she asks as she refills the sheriff's mug. “That kid is trouble. I thought he actually might be a pretty good kid a while back, when he was little, but have you heard what he's into now?”
“What is he into?” Mulder asks, immediately curious. Scully nudges him disapprovingly.
The waitress leans in and says in a confidential, gossiping whisper, “Aside from him visiting that no-good uncle of his in prison? I heard he's going to Sunday School, acting all weird and sitting in the back and taking the stuff they give out to all the kids. That family doesn't go to church, but now he is? There's something going on there, for sure.”
“Maybe he has a new interest in religion,” Scully offers sensibly.
The waitress dismissively shrugs off that theory. “Well, my friend Madge has always been suspicious of the fact that the boy sees the Specter so much. Says the Specter must've known something wasn't right, and is watching over him to try and steer him towards the light.”
“Thank you for the coffee, Teresa,” the sheriff says suddenly, in what Mulder recognizes as a polite attempt to get her to leave. The waitress nods, offering Joe a big lipsticky smile, and walks off. As soon as she's gone, the sheriff rolls his eyes and says, “I dunno about all of those rumors. But I will say that Ryan has been acting unusual lately. And I think that he's connected enough to the Specter that it's worth looking into.”
“Do you want to interview him again?” Scully asks.
“No, I don't really think that'd go down well. I'd like to dig into the 2002 murders, really examine them.” He rubs at the back of his neck, looking between Mulder and Scully. “I was a deputy on the force back when the murders were called in, so I remember a little, but not a lot. And I'd like to see what you two think of the case. I can pull the files, and we can take a look tomorrow, if you think that's a good idea.”
Mulder and Scully exchange a quick look; Scully shrugs her agreement. “What should we do in the meantime?” Mulder asks.
“I've pulled some sighting files, if you want to take a look at those, look for patterns or whatever,” the sheriff says. “I have them out in the car.”
“Sounds good,” Scully says, her voice the neutral drone she's used to respond to most things since her mom. She nods in confirmation.
“I'll go and get them for you. And then I guess I'll call you in the morning?” O'Connell asks, getting to his feet.
Mulder nods. The sheriff unfurls some bills from his wallet and sets it on the table before standing. He jogs out of the restaurant, retrieving car keys from his pocket.
“Do you want to stay here and get some food, look through the files?” Mulder asks, brushing his fingers over her knee.
“Sure, that sounds good,” Scully says quietly. When Mulder shoots her a concerned look, she offers him a shaky but sincere smile. “I'm fine, Mulder. Distractions are just what I need right now.”
He smiles a little, reaches up to squeeze her shoulder. “I'll be right back,” he says, and goes after Sheriff O’Connell to get the files.
On his way out the big glass doors, he almost runs into Ryan Caruthers. He starts to say hello, wondering if he can start up a conversation about the Specter, but Ryan uninterestedly shoves past him, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. As he goes, Mulder sees something that strikes him as unusual: something that looks like washable tattoos of crucifixes on the back of Ryan's hands.
He goes out to the squad car, where O’Connell is rummaging inside the backseat. “Did you see Ryan back there, Sheriff?” he asks.
O’Connell nods absently. “I'm still not convinced he didn't let out Bear, you know. I definitely still think that kid is up to no good.”
“He had these… temporary tattoos on the back of his hands,” says Mulder. “Of crosses.”
O’Connell pauses, considering, before lifting the files and turning. “That's weird. But no weirder than anything else he's done, I guess. But it doesn't really matter. I don't care what Bonnie or Robbie says, we're not hiring him to babysit again.”
“I don't blame you,” Mulder says absently. His mind is on the tattoos, trying to figure out what they could mean. He accepts the files, holding the stack against his chest. “So what time should we meet you tomorrow?” he asks conversationally.
“I'll call you,” the sheriff says with a nod. “Let me know if you find anything important.”
“We will,” Mulder says. He nods politely to O’Connell before turning and going back into the diner.
Scully's still in the corner booth, and she's ordered them both coffee. “I didn't get decaf because I figured we'd be here a while,” she says as he sits down.
“Thanks.” He picks up the mug and takes a swig. She's gotten it the way he's been getting it for years, the way she made it that morning last week, and it feels silly to want to cry at his estranged wife (who has known for years now) getting his coffee right, but he does want to cry. His eyes fall on the ring, the top of it just visible under the quarter in the V of her shirt, and he immediately looks away.
“Did you see Ryan?” Scully asks, quiet this time. She motions to a seat by the window, where Ryan is flipping through a thick book, jaw jutted out in an irritable sort of way.
He nods. “Did you see the…” He motions wordlessly to the back of his hand.
She nods. “I’d wondered if it had something to do with the Sunday School attendance that the waitress mentioned.”
“But what the hell does it mean?” asks Mulder. “Something to do with his parents?”
Scully shrugs. “Who knows? Maybe he is religious now. Or maybe it's just some sort of joke. I'm not sure it's relevant to this case.” She nudges at the stack of files with one finger. “Should we get started?”
They spend the better part of two hours going through the files, which feel a lot like X-Files but with less attention, less experience. They're dictated with a level of annoyance and detachment that even Scully has never displayed towards the cases she was the most skeptical of. “These seem to be as commonplace as traffic accidents in this town,” Scully says in reference to the files that predate 2002, stabbing a leaf of lettuce with her fork. “Or at least… commonplace enough that they weren't noted as strange until the sightings stopped for thirteen years.”
“I'm still surprised we never got called out here back in the day, Scully,” says Mulder. “What with all the ghostly activity.” He waggles his eyebrows at her like they are too young and he is flirting with just enough detachment because he doesn't think he'll ever get the courage to kiss her.
Scully laughs quietly, rolling her eyes. “I think it's probably because no one was in any actual danger, in most cases,” she says, sounding better than she's sounded in a while. “Or maybe people didn't think to call the FBI.”
“Maybe.” He shrugs. “This has been a pretty unconventional situation, compared to other cases we've worked.”
“You're telling me,” Scully mutters in a husky voice. “I feel like a Ghostbuster.”
Mulder snorts into his coffee, in the same surprised, delighted way he always does when Scully surprises him with a joke. She smiles, a little slyly, and he wants to wrap his arms around her, wants to promise her the world.
He says instead, “You mean you haven't always felt like a Ghostbuster, Scully?”
“No. But don't ask Robbie O’Connell. He'll tell you that we are Ghostbusters.” Scully smiles wider, her fingers wrapped around her mug.
Mulder drums his fingers on the table, looks down at his mostly empty and admittedly cold coffee. He bites back a yawn, says, “I don't know about you, Scully, but now that we've established that I'm a middle-aged man—” Scully rolls her eyes, and he bites back a grin. “—I think I might need to adhere to middle-aged stereotypes and get to bed soon.”
“Oh.” Scully raises an eyebrow at him. “Really.”
He shrugs. “The caffeine didn't work, Scully. I'm still tired.”
“Glad to hear you're not an insomniac anymore.” It could be an insult, but she says it good-naturedly as she reaches for her wallet to pay the bill. “Are we headed back to the Willoughby Old Fashioned Inn?”
“They say the Specter haunts its halls,” Mulder says in an attempt at an eerie voice, and Scully's head shoots up in surprise. She looks taken aback at that, stunned, like his words are a slap in the face, so he backtracks. “Yeah, uh, unless you're feeling brave enough to conquer Bedbug Manor.” He can see the tension in her shoulders, and guilt blossoms in his chest; he reaches across the table and covers her hand with his.
“I'm all right,” says Scully, recomposed. She holds his gaze reassuringly. “Let’s just brave the Inn.”
“Deal.” He grins at her, puts his hand over her wallet. She pushes it away in that same stubborn battle they'd had a million times in the new millennium once they started eating off of the Bureau's dime. “C’mon, Scully, we have a Bureau credit card again,” he says, trying to push her wallet away again. Jesus, when did they start this awkward dance again. They have a marriage certificate and over twenty-two years behind them, and they're still fighting over who pays the bill.
“Maybe we do. But we've eaten so many meals in Willoughby with such little amount of concrete evidence that I'm afraid we'll make them suspicious.” Scully raises her eyebrows at him gently. “Come on, Mulder. I want to buy you dinner.”
That’s about all it takes. He lets her pay the damn bill.
Outside, the air is chilly, and Scully shivers, draws closer to him as they walk to their car. “Mulder, I was wondering if I could… ask you a favor,” she says, her voice low again. Quivering. Her cold fingers intertwine with his.
He forces himself to be calm, rubs some warmth into her fingers. (Scully has the coldest hands he's ever seen, it's ridiculous and he loves it.) “Of course,” he says, suddenly unable to tease.
“I was wondering if you'd mind if I… stayed with you tonight.” Her voice is quiet, almost embarrassed. He hates that she has to feel embarrassed. He hates that this isn't second nature, the two of them sharing a hotel room.
“Of course, Scully,” he says immediately, squeezing her hand. He looks down at her, and she isn't looking at him, but she has a look on her face somewhere between relief and contentment. She squeezes his hand back. They walk to the car together, hand in hand.
It happens in a blur, the whole thing. Driving back to the hotel, asking for a room (Yes, one room, he has to clarify to the woman at the front desk, and Scully's cheeks turn pink at that), going upstairs and settling in, Scully getting in the shower. Everything that follows.
He's sitting on the bed when she gets out of the shower, her hair wet and pulled away from her face. It's a familiar sight after staying with her for so long, and it still makes his heart race. She climbs onto the bed beside him, pulling the covers over her knees as she leans against his shoulder. “It's cold,” she murmurs, burrowing into his side.
Mulder wraps his arm around her, presses his mouth to the top of her head. “You're cold,” he says, playing with the damp ends of her ponytail. “You're always cold.”
“Am not,” she says petulantly, nestling into him, her back almost against his chest.
“You are.” He wraps both arms around her, squeezes her close. “You always keep three or four huge blankets on your bed; I always wake up covered in sweat.”
“Mm. Poor you.” She leans further into his shoulder, tips her chin back and kisses him softly on the mouth.
It's not the first time she's kissed him, really kissed him, even recently. But despite the fact that he's been staying with her since her mother died, he doesn't think she's kissed him since that first night, her fingers fumbling to unbutton his shirt, to unknot his tie, her mouth hot and furious and needy under his. This is different. Softer. His arms are around her, and her neck is bent at an angle that must be killing her, and she's kissing him with a gentle familiarity that makes him want to cry. He loves her so much it hurts.
She breaks off the kiss after a few minutes, her forehead against his cheek, the ghost of a smile on her face. Mulder nuzzles her hair with his nose, the damp wayward strands, and then he's saying it on impulse, before he can even think about it. “Come home.”
She stiffens in his arms, immediately, and Mulder realizes too late that this was a bad idea. “What?” she asks softly, her voice chilling.
He wants to take it back, to apologize and say, Forget it, but he finds he can't. “Come home,” he says again, rubbing her hip through her shirt. “I've missed you so much, Scully.”
“Mulder, no,” she says, and she's pulling out of his arms, crawling across the bed. She sits back to face him, her eyes serious, all of the affection leached out of them.
He doesn't try to touch her again. He says softly, “Is it because you… aren't ready? Because, Scully, I don't…”
“This wasn't a good idea,” Scully says, and she's climbing off the bed, she's retrieving her jacket where she draped it over a chair and putting it on over her pajamas. “I'm going to go and get my own room.”
Guilt washes over him in a way, and he fumbles to get down from the bed. He can't believe he's driving her away like this—especially now, of all times. “No, Scully, you don't have to do that…” he protests.
“I think I do.” She tugs at her coat, slides her feet into her shoes. She turns to look at him, almost apologetic. “I can't… I can't do this, Mulder. Not right now. I can't,” she says firmly.
“I can get a new room, Scully, you can…” he tries, nearly pleading.
She shakes her head firmly, stubbornly. She looks strange in her pajamas coupled with her coat; she is beautiful, and he curses his stupidity. He never should've pushed her, but he doesn't understand, doesn't see how she's okay with him staying at her apartment and with staying in his hotel room, but she won't come home. But he shouldn't have pushed. He's a goddamn idiot. “Scully, I'm sorry,” he says. “You don't have to… c’mere, and we'll talk about this. If you don't want to stay with me, then let me get the other room…”
“I can't do this, Mulder,” Scully says roughly. “I just can't.”
He knows he shouldn't say it, but he does anyway; it just slips out. “Why do you have to leave just because I asked you to come home? How is that different than me staying with you?”
Scully's jaw tightens, and he's cursing himself again, hating himself for being this cruel. “I'm sorry,” he tries again, but she's already turning around.
“I'm sorry, too,” she says quietly, and Mulder can't tell if she's angry or upset. He's not sure which would be preferable. She shoulders her bag and opens the door. “I'll see you tomorrow, Mulder.”
The door shuts sharply behind her, nearly slamming.
Mulder buries his face in his hands in defeat. He can't believe he ruined this. Can't believe he drove her away, fucked up like this when she's vulnerable and mourning, when he should be supporting her. Can't believe the things he said. He's cursing himself for being so stupid, for taking this all for granted. He's holding out for the hope that they'll eventually be able to get this right, but he starting to doubt they'll ever be able to.
Scully goes to get her own room, ignoring the slightly smug and slightly suspicious reaction of the woman at the front desk. She moves quickly, takes the key and goes upstairs and sheds her jacket and combs her hair and climbs into bed mechanically so she doesn't have to think. Doesn't have to dwell on the fact that she's alone, alone for the first time since her mother's death, alone in the same hotel she was in the night before it happened. Where she had a strange nightmare that led to some sort of hallucination, whoever or whatever she saw in the hall that had spooked her so much. It's childish, but part of the reason she'd wanted to stay with Mulder is because she was scared. Childishly scared, not wanting to have another nightmare. Scared to have to face the fact that she is alone.
She hates that she started the fight with Mulder, on top of everything, but she can't do this yet. She can't. Things have been so easy between them lately, so easy, and she doesn't want to ruin that. She should've kept him at arm's length, let things happen more naturally, but she needed him. Needs him. She shouldn't have left, but she can't come home. And she doesn't know how else to do this besides re-widening the gap. Besides pushing him away again until she is ready.
She misses her mom. She wants to call her mom. Nearly every night since, she's instinctively gone to call her mom, and nearly every night since, she's had that horrible moment of realization. She just wants things to go back to normal. She doesn't want to be alone anymore. She misses her mom so much.
Her phone buzzes in her purse. It's a text from Mulder. I'm so, so sorry. I never should have said that. And then a second one: I'm always here if you need me, okay? She ignores them both. Drops her phone back in her purse and forces herself to ignore them.
Scully turns out the light, forces herself not to turn on the TV for the extra noise. (It's silly, looking for comfort in that, she is a grown woman and a nightmare shouldn't shake her up that much.) She burrows under the blanket and tries to sleep. Fails to sleep. She can't get warm, she's gotten used to another warm body under there with her: Mulder holding her, the way he talks in his sleep and steals all the covers. Scully lets her cheek fall against the pillows, closes her eyes and orders herself to sleep. This is silly, she's been sleeping alone for years now. Years. (And sleeping with him for longer. It's a hard habit to break, missing Mulder. She's missed him nearly every night for two years.)
She keeps her eyes shut, levels her breathing, tries not to think about Mulder or calling her mom on the phone or strange figures at the end of a dark hallway. Just focuses on her own breathing, steady as the tide. She does this until she finally dozes off.
But she's unable to avoid the nightmares. It's not about her son, not this time, or about her mom. It's about Mulder. He's standing inside the house, the door open, and he's turned away from her, and she's calling his name but he doesn't answer. She starts towards him, going up the stairs of the porch, but she can't get to him, she can't cross the threshold. A hand closes down on her shoulder, hard, and she looks up to see the man in the cloak, his hat pulled down over his eyes and a lantern in his hand, and he is smiling cruelly at her…
Scully jolts awake sometime after one, breathing sharply. Hair falls into her face as she sits up, shivering a little in the room. It's too dark, odd shapes taking on the form of figures, and she fumbles desperately for the lamp, breathes a sigh of relief when light floods the room and reveals it to be empty.
Just a nightmare, she tells herself firmly. It's being back in this place, it's hearing these stories all day, it's your fight with Mulder, it's losing Mom. Just a nightmare. That is all it is. But her mental mantra sounds unconvincing at this time of night, being back in this place alone. A part of her regrets leaving Mulder's room.
She gives in and turns on the TV. Starts to reach for her phone on instinct, to see if Mulder is still awake, before she remembers herself. She sets the phone down on the bedside table, and turns over in bed so that she's not looking at it.