Things are awkward in the morning. Scully should have expected that they'd be, but part of her had hoped they wouldn't. But she knows it won't be as soon as she sees Mulder, slumped over at a table in the dining room when she comes down for breakfast, glasses on his nose, stifling yawns behind his hand. He looks like he barely slept. He offers her a stiff smile when she enters, motions her over, but he doesn't have much to say. He checks his phone a lot, articles that she catches snippets of the headlines from.
Scully just eats her breakfast quietly. She doesn't know what else to do.
Sheriff O'Connell calls them after a while, asking them to come down to the police station. They snatch up the opportunity quickly; Scully can tell that Mulder is just as relieved for the potential distraction as she is. If she's being honest, Scully still isn't sure why they're there, but she's willing to throw herself into it just so she doesn't have to think. That was the whole reason she agreed to come back to Willoughby; she would've been fine with staying away, but she wanted to come so she could concentrate on something else for a while.
O'Connell and Deputy Jacobs are waiting in O’Connell’s office. Jacobs has crutches, which are leaning against the chair he's sitting in, his leg encased in a cast propped up on another chair, and he greets Mulder and Scully with more enthusiasm than O’Connell does. “Glad to hear y'all are back in town,” he says, closing the file on the desk and nodding politely.
The sheriff motions to the file with a wave of his hand. “I’ve got Kenny looking at the original Caruthers file, seeing if he can find anything new,” he says. “He was on the original case, and is much more tuned into the… supernatural aspect of things. So I'm hoping he'll have an epiphany or something.” He clears his throat. “In the meantime, I was thinking that maybe we could go check out the crime scene. You've been there before…”
“We have,” says Mulder, “but I wouldn't mind a second look.” He's got that sound in his voice, the one that gives it away: he's interested in this. He wants to fully understand it.
Scully is looking at the file on the desk. “Are the original autopsy reports in there?” she asks. Jacobs nods. “I’d love to see that, make my own observations,” she says, nearly without thinking. “Maybe I should stay back with Deputy Jacobs.”
She looks over at Mulder out of the corner of her eyes, and sees that he is nodding. “That sounds like a good idea,” he says, and she wonders if he's eager to get rid of her. “Scully’s a pathologist, a damn good one, so she's likely to see anything that was potentially missed,” he explains to Jacobs and O'Connell.
“Oh, that's good.” The sheriff nods politely. “So… you would rather stay here, Agent Scully?”
“I'd like to see the autopsy results, yes,” Scully says awkwardly, looking away from Mulder. (She wants to make this right, but she has no idea how. And going along with Sheriff O'Connell to investigate a crime scene they've already been to does not seem like the right method, not right now.)
“Sounds good.” The sheriff reaches for his keys, the metal jangling between his fingers. “You want to head on out there, Agent Mulder?”
“Sure.” Mulder's hand brushes over the small of her back, and Scully jumps. She hadn't expected him to be ready to touch her so soon. It’s not unwelcome, but it’s certainly startling, and she looks at him sheepishly.
His eyes are apologetic when he looks at her, when he says, “See you in a few?”
“Sure,” Scully says, swallowing hard. “Good luck.”
Mulder nods as he turns to follow the sheriff out of the room. “You, too.”
There are the same bloodstains on the floor outside the Caruthers’ apartment, the ones he remembers, and Joe shows them to Agent Mulder with a flick of his hand. “Here's where they were found,” he says. He can still remember what they looked like, a shocking, horrifying picture: blood clumped in Marion's dark hair, Ian’s eyes open like marbles. He never knew them well, but he'd seen them around town. He'd thought their baby was cute, then, and thinking of Ryan now fills Joe with guilt when he thinks of Marion and Ian’s bodies. He certainly never pictured himself hiring that baby as a babysitter years later, and then firing him and wholeheartedly believing that the kid let his dog out. He wonders what Marion and Ian would've thought of that; he wonders if they somehow know.
“So they were stabbed here,” Mulder says. “Or were they stabbed inside and dragged out here?”
Joe shrugs. “Far as I can remember, they were stabbed out here.”
“Huh.” Mulder steps inside the threshold of the empty apartment, surveying the living room and then the hall. “So they could've been trying to run from the murderer,” he says, and Joe thinks of Jared Caruthers, always a year or two behind him in school. He'd been a little bit of a black sheep growing up, but they'd still never suspected he'd do this. Jared and Ian had always been close, had always picked on their baby sister; if you'd asked a younger Joe O’Connell which of the Caruthers siblings would murder another, he would've guessed Annie. And then he would've shaken his head in dismissive disbelief, because he never would've really suspected that any of the Caruthers kids could murder somebody. Never.
“Or,” Mulder adds contemplatively, “maybe Jared wanted to make sure the bodies were found, if he planned this.”
“He ran, though,” Joe says. He remembers that part well. “Why would he run if he wanted his victims to be found?”
Mulder shrugs. “Maybe he wanted to buy some time for some reason? Maybe he was worried about what would happen to his infant nephew if no one knew the parents were dead? Or maybe there was a specific reason they were killed outside the apartment. Did Jared Caruthers ever disclose the reasoning behind that?”
Joe shrugs. “Like I told you a couple months ago, Agent Mulder, Jared was obsessed with the Specter. Maybe he thought that murdering his brother and sister-in-law was the bad thing that the Specter predicted.”
Mulder scans the living room again, his brow furrowed in thought. “So Jared saw the ghost before the murders? There was a distinct premonition to the deaths?”
Joe shrugs. “I dunno. Kenny always figured one of the three of them saw the ghost, especially after Ryan's sightings went real public years ago. Made sense. But I don't know for sure.”
“I think the key here,” says Mulder, “is to figure out the Specter’s role in the murders. Why the Specter has been haunting Ryan all these years. Because I'm guessing that when this crime was investigated in 2002, no one considered the fact that Ryan Caruthers was going to be haunted because it hadn't happened yet.”
Joe shrugs. “That's true. That's one factor that's different.”
Mulder paces around the living room in a wide circle, as if considering its bareness. Joe remembers that night at the crime scene: Kenny so green that he turned nauseous at the sight, Joe himself with a year or two under his belt but understandably horrified by all of it. He thought of his girl, and how he wanted to marry her someday. How horrible it'd be if he and Bonnie turned out like this. A social worker had been carrying Ryan out, and that poor baby was bawling his eyes out. It was one of the saddest things Joe had ever seen.
“What did you all find inside the apartment that night?” asks Mulder, startling Joe out of his stupor. He turns to the older man, who's watching him contemplatively. He raises an eyebrow. “Anything out of the ordinary?”
Joe suddenly remembers the candlelight flickering across Kenny's spooked face, and he says, “Candles. Lots of them. And there was a Ouija board on the floor. And… crosses on the wall, I think. I remember someone commented on it, because Ian and Marion didn't go to church even though they lived right down the street from one. None of the Caruthers family went to church.”
Mulder's eyes are wide in astonishment. “Wait, there was a Ouija board at the crime scene?” Joe nods. “And you said that Jared Caruthers was obsessed with the Specter.” Joe nods again.
Agent Mulder crosses his arms. “Sheriff, I know you're hesitant to believe in this stuff, but I'm starting to think the Specter had more of a hand in these murders then you realize.”
The autopsy reports seem fairly straightforward: Marion and Ian Caruthers were killed by multiple stab wounds, largely to the torso. A few defensive wounds and scratches, mostly on the husband, likely as a result of trying to protect his wife. Jared Caruthers was found with scratches along his arms and face, bruises; some probably from the murders, others as a result of running through the woods. The baby was unharmed. No blood inside the apartment, aside from the murder weapon, dropped on the floor as if out of horror.
“Here's the crime scene photos,” Deputy Jacobs says to Scully, sliding the pictures to her. The hall is covered in splotches of blood; the living room is filled with large white candles, crosses hung on the wall and a Bible on the dining room table and a Ouija board in the center of a circle of candles. Scully can't tell if it looks more like the site of a seance or an exorcism, but she knows that Mulder would be all over it.
“Did the brother ever disclose what they were doing that night?” she asks, tapping the photos with one finger. She thinks the next logical step is talking to Jared Caruthers to try and find out; she's going to suggest that to Mulder when he gets back.
“Not that I know of. Remember, it's been a while,” Jacobs says. “I do think Jared was pretty upset about the whole thing. Didn't want to talk about it, wouldn't really give answers. I think he regretted what he did.”
Scully bites her lower lip, considering. She knows that she has been plagued with guilt over her sister's death for years, felt as if she was responsible, and she can't imagine what it would be like to have actually been responsible. Especially if you were close to your sibling. She has no idea about how Jared Caruthers felt about his older brother, but she knows what it's like to see your sibling dead and feel like it's your fault. (In the case of Jared Caruthers, it actually is.)
“Did you find anything you think could be important, Agent Scully?” the deputy asks.
She blinks out of her stupor. “Oh… I think there's a possibility these crime scene photos could be significant,” she says, tapping the images again. “Agent Mulder would probably know more about said significance, but I definitely think it could be important. I also would like to talk to Jared Caruthers if the opportunity arises.”
Jacobs strokes his beard in thought. “Sure, we could probably work that ou—”
But he never finishes. The walkie-talkie on the desk springs to life, a female voice coming through: “Sheriff, are you there?”
Jacobs scoops up the radio and says, “This is Kenny Jacobs, Winnie. Joe's out on assignment; what's up?”
“We've got a fire out on Church Street,” the woman says. “That abandoned Willoughby Woods Apartment Building is ablaze. The site of those murders in 2002? The fire department has been called, and Deets and I are responding to the scene…”
Something about that name seems familiar. Scully is muddling over it when Deputy Jacobs turns to her with saucer-wide horrified eyes, and she realizes. From the look on his face, she knows. “Mulder,” she says, her breath leaving her in a painful burst. She feels airless, like she's been hit in the stomach. “Is that where they…”
Jacobs presses the button on his radio too hard and says, “Joe's in there, Winnie. He and an FBI agent went out there to investigate the Caruthers murder.”
“Oh my god,” the woman says with horror.
Scully is already on her feet, rushing for her bag and her keys, her heart racing. Praying that he's all right, he has to be all right. “I have to get over there,” she blurts. The jagged edge of the keys bite into her palm. She clutches them harder.
“I'll come with you.” The deputy maneuvers himself onto his crutches with admirable mobility. His face is white and worried. “That's my best friend out there.”
Mine too, Scully wants to say, but he's so much more than that, and her ring is cold against her collarbone, and she doesn't want the last thing she said to him to be a fight. A refusal to come home. She doesn't want that to be the end of things between them, she has so many things she needs to tell him. So many things she needs to apologize for. You don't know that he didn't get out, she tells herself as she moves towards the door, trying to reassure herself. You don't know that he isn't okay. But she doesn't know that he is okay, either, and she needs to get to him. She needs to get to him, she never should've stayed back this way. She moves without thinking through the police station and out to the car, Jacobs’s squeaking crutches behind her. She climbs into the driver's seat and pulls out her phone, calls Mulder as she settles into the seat. Prays and prays for him to answer as Deputy Jacobs climbs into the passenger seat. It goes straight to voicemail. “Goddamnit,” Scully hisses, dropping her phone on her lap, throwing the car into Drive and pulling away.
She tries again and again, three times before they reach Church Street, shifting her eyes frantically between her phone and the road. No answer every time. Several discordant rings, his voice saying, Hi, you've reached Fox Mulder— Hang up, try again, pray that isn't the last time she'll hear his voice.
She can see the smoke in the sky, and fear is clogging her throat. “Damn it, Joe, answer,” Jacobs is growling at his own phone, and Scully's hands feel numb around the wheel. Please, some small part of her protests. Please don't let this be it. She wants to see him, she just wants to see him. She hits Mulder's contact again with the flat of her thumb, listens to it ring as they roll down the street. The sound of Mulder's voice—Hi, you've reached Fox Mulder—fills the car again, and Scully bites back curses, blinks back furious tears.
The building is really, truly ablaze, smoke and flames pouring out of the windows, and Scully's stomach twists painfully at the sight. Jacobs gets out of the car, frantically moving towards the firefighters clustered at the edge of the lawn (far enough from the fire to be out of danger), but Scully can't move. Mulder’s contact page is still pulled up on her phone. She drops it in the cupholder, reaches up unconsciously to touch her ring through her shirt. Offers up a quick prayer, some sort of plea. Lets her eyes slip shut briefly.
And then the firefighters emerge from the building with someone held between them, smokey and coughing roughly into his elbow. Scully can't see who it is, but she begins moving immediately: pushes the car door open and nearly falls to the ground, races towards the firefighters so fast that she practically skids to a stop, her shoes kicking up frosty grass. They're lowering the rescue onto a stretcher, placing an oxygen mask over his mouth, and by now Scully can see that it's Sheriff O'Connell. Not Mulder. She catches a fireman by the arm in a hard, gaspy motion, gasps out, “Mulder, where's Mulder?”
“Ma'am, I don't know what…”
Scully gathers her strength and manages to bite out an explanation: “There was another man in there. An FBI agent. Where is he?”
The man's face fills with regret as he meets her eyes. “Ma’am, we didn't see anyone else in there.”
It's like a punch to the gut, and Scully gasps a little as she lets go of the man's arm. O’Connell is unconscious, his deputy bent over the stretcher, and she can't even ask if Mulder is in there. If Mulder is gone, if she's lost him. A combination of tears and smoke sting her eyes as she bites out, “Y-you have to go back in, you have to look…” She's ready to pull rank, ready to spit at this man that she is his wife, that she'll go in herself to find him, that he can't be dead, she won't let this be the end…
The voice comes from behind her, a shouted question. She turns and she sees him standing on the edge of the lawn, cold wind biting her skin as his coat blows with it, his hair rumpled and not sooty and his eyes full of confusion, questioning.
She takes a shaky, desperate breath, like she can finally get enough air again, and starts to run. She moves towards him in an impulsive motion, throws her arms around him like they are young and stupid again and holds tighter now than she ever did then, her fingers clutching at his shirt, digging in. Questions satisfied, the firefighters move on behind her. Mulder's hand comes up tentatively to smooth her hair, his other hand against the small of her back, pushing her closer. Her face presses into his tie. “Jesus, Mulder,” she chokes out, leaning hard into him with the push of the freezing wind. “I thought you were in there. I thought you were dead.”
She wants to throw up at the thought of losing Mulder so soon after her mother, never getting a chance to apologize to him or reconcile, never seeing him again. She clutches him tighter under his coat, the smell of smoke muffled a little by his dress shirt.
“I'm okay, Scully,” he murmurs, his hand cupping the back of her head. His voice is trembling, too; he presses his mouth against her hair.
She pulls away as a firefighter approaches, telling them they have to get back so they don't get caught up in the chaos. She walks back with him, their fingers tangled messily together, until they reach the car. Streams of water hit the house. Deputy Jacobs is being helped into the back of the ambulance with Sheriff O’Connell; he waves at them and Scully nods back. She turns back to Mulder as they reach the car. “Where the hell did you go?” she asks softly.
“We didn't find anything of significance in the apartment, so I suggested we go see where the victims are buried, in the cemetery right down the street. Just in case there was anything there, any signs of paranormal activity. But just as we were leaving, the sheriff got this weird look on his face and said he had to go back in.” Mulder has a strange, contemplative look on his face. “He wanted me to come with him, but I said I’d rather just walk on down, meet him later. So I went on.”
“I called you three or four times,” she whispers, still not entirely out of the state of panic.
Guilt rushes over his face. “No reception out there. It's a dead zone.” He reaches out gently to touch her cheek, strokes it with the flat of his thumb. “I'm so sorry, Scully. I had no idea…”
“It's okay,” she says, and she's hugging him again, her face pressed into his neck. He's alive, he's not hurt, and that's all that matters. They have time. It'll be okay. “It's okay.”
He inhales sharply, maybe a little surprised, and then he's hugging her back, his arms wrapped around her waist. She sighs a little with relief, doesn't move. They stand together for a moment, frozen in the mix of December chill and heat emanating from the blaze, their arms tight around each other.
Joe is fine, and Kenny is more than thankful for that. Beyond relieved. He was really scared for a second there, more scared than he thinks he's ever been in the history of their career as cops. Joe is still unconscious when they arrive at the hospital, recovering from smoke inhalation, so Kenny calls Bonnie before sitting by his friend's bed until she arrives. He promises her that he'll stay with Joe.
Kenny has always believed in the ghost, ever since his grandma told him the story as a kid. When her cat died, and she swore to everyone that she had seen the ghost the night before, and he'd listened with wide eyes. He's always believed. And that belief has only strengthened since Rob saw the ghost, since he saw the ghost himself. And Joe… Joe never actually told Kenny that he saw the ghost a few days ago; Bonnie had been the one to let him in on that, and Kenny has tried to respect his friend's privacy. But Kenny's been nervous ever since Bonnie told him, about what was going to happen to Joe, or to his family. It'd been part of the reason he insisted on coming into the station to do desk work, some faux-noble sense of wanting to protect his buddy. He shouldn't have let Joe go alone to the house, but he'd figured the FBI agent could protect him better than Kenny himself. And besides, he hadn't know what the hell could happen there, hadn't expected a fourteen-year-old crime scene to be dangerous, especially in Willoughby…
Bonnie and Robbie show up, pale and tearful, and Kenny leaves them alone after giving them both hugs and reassuring that he's just a phone call away. He's intruded on too many family moments lately. “Call me when he wakes up,” he says, gives Rob another tight hug and then leaves. He takes the only taxi in town back to the station, and finds a group of deputies ready to go out to the site to investigate. “House burned to the ground,” Winnie, the deputy who called it in, says to Kenny, arms crossed over her chest. “They say it's gotta be arson. They don't know what else it could be.”
Kenny rubs his beard thoughtfully. He'd like to take a look himself, has his own theories, but there's no way he can get out there like this. “Hey, take me out there with you, wouldja?” he asks.
Winnie shoots him a disapproving look, fiddling with her hat. “C’mon, Ken. You know you're not supposed to be in the field.”
“I'll be careful,” Kenny says. He has a feeling about this, a thought that there's something important here. “C’mon, Winnie. This is barely even 'the field,’ anyhow. It's just a fire..”
Winnie sighs and gives in, takes him in her car. Kenny likes to think he's good at arguing his case.
At the scene, there's not much but ashy grass and grayed ruins, collapsed walls and piles of charred bricks. It's a little strange, the big empty space along Church Street, especially when the space is as famous as this one. The Caruthers house. It was apartments, but Kenny knows every Willoughby kid born after 2002 calls it the Caruthers house. It's Willoughby's tourist attraction, a popular Halloween destination by dumb teenagers trying to scare each other. Joe has said, before, that there was graffiti in the apartment that said something about the Caruthers family being cursed. Based off of that kid Ryan's history, and now this, Kenny is inclined to agree.
He's moving on his crutches along the ruins, around to the back, coughing a little and thinking of what could've happened to Joe today, if no one called it in. Thinking of the night they got called out here for the murders and saw it: the living room set up like an eerie movie, the kid crying as someone carried him out. And the blood; oh, god, the blood. He was so green, he almost vomited. He's thinking of Marion and Ian and Ryan, and even Jared and Annie. The poor cursed Caruthers. He's known them forever, they were all in school together. He and Joe right between Ian and Jared; they all played football together sometimes, they'd all go to the same parties or, earlier, play the same games on the playground. He never expected this.
And just as Kenny is recalling a memory from some-odd party he and Joe were at (where he saw Jared and Ian nastily drunk and nearly fighting each other, shouting, their faces red with fury), he sees it. The crumpled baseball cap on the ground.
Orioles cap. Ryan Caruthers's hat of choice.
Mulder and Scully aren't sure what, exactly, to do in the wake of this fire. They feel detached, uncertain. They eventually end up going to a restaurant, a little place that's slightly more high end than the diner. It feels like the best thing to do.
Scully seems distracted, staring blankly at her menu until the waitress comes and she blinks in surprise when the waitress asks what they want to eat. She keeps looking at Mulder like he's going to disappear, in a cautious, shielded way. Mulder thinks of the weight of Scully in his arms, the way she held onto him. Almost the same way she did outside of her mother's hospital room, but not quite. More panicky, more fearful. She was scared for him. She thought she had lost him, too.
“Hey,” he says when the waitress leaves, touching her hand across the table tentatively, like she might pull away. “I'm sorry I scared you today.” There's a lot he needs to apologize for, but he'll start there.
Scully sighs a little, brushing her fingers over his as she looks at him. “It's not your fault, Mulder. I just… I haven't gotten used to this again. The fear… the danger… I haven't experienced any of those feelings since 2012—” She bites off her words like she regrets them, looks at the top of the table.
Mulder squeezes her hand. He doesn't want to talk about 2012, because he knows a lot of what happened in 2012 is what led to the end of their relationship, but he's gotten to a point where he can talk about it without feeling the anger or fear or confusion he had then. He wants Scully to know that, but he senses that now isn't the time to bring it up. “I don't think you have to get used to it, Scully,” he says instead. “You shouldn't have to. Your life shouldn't be… a long string of fear and tragedy.”
“It's not, on good days.” She rubs her thumb over his knuckles, head bent in thought.
The scene from the night before replays in his head again—the things he said, the way she reacted. He pushed her, and when she didn't respond the way he expected, he lashed out. It's fucked up, and it's not what he deserved, and he's felt incredibly guilty about it. And he needs her to know. “Scully, I'm…” he starts, unsteadily. “I am so sorry for what I said last night. I wasn't being fair to you, and I never… I didn't want to drive you away like that. I wanted to be there for you. And I'm… I'm so sorry.”
Scully doesn't say anything. But she doesn't let go of his hand. She's looking right at their intertwined fingers, staring hard. “Do you remember what I said on the Monica Bannan case, seven years ago?” she asks finally. “When I said that chasing monsters in the dark wasn't my life anymore?”
He thinks about it constantly. “Yes,” he says in what he hopes is a neutral voice.
Scully pauses, her jaw working back and forth. “I think… I said it because I was scared,” she says finally. “I'm scared so often, Mulder, of so many things. I'm scared now. But I think… when I said that, then, I was just thinking about the monsters. And the fear, like the fear I felt today, when I thought I'd lost you.” Mulder’s chest clenches as she squeezes his hand tightly. “But, Mulder… this is my life again,” she adds. “And aside from moments like today… I don't hate it. I don't think I ever did. And the only reason I don't… the only reason I haven't walked away from this, that I even came back in the first place… is you.”
Mulder's eyes widen, just a little. Scully pulls his hand to her and brushes her lips over his dirty knuckles. She doesn't let go of it, either; she holds his hand against her chest, his arm stretched across the table. He lets her, his hand warm in hers. It almost aches.
She's still not looking at him, but she looks happy, he can see it behind the hair falling across her face. Not quite smiling, but the corners of her mouth lifted. Content. “I don't know, Mulder,” she says finally. “It feels like I'm always scared. Like I'm always… reacting because of it.”
It's an apology for last night; he can tell. The most of an apology she'll give because neither of them are very good at talking about things. He nudges her thumb with his, an old habit of theirs from years ago, his own quiet apology. “Take all the time you need,” he says. “I'll be here.”
They go to the police station after the diner, to give their statements about the fire. The officers who responded to the scene seem to belief that the fire was a result of arson, but they don't have a clear idea of who set it. Mulder confirms that he didn't see anyone in or around the apartment building during the time he was there, and they're more or less cleared to leave. “We’ll call if we have further questions,” says the deputy who takes their statements.
They go to the hospital next, to check on Sheriff O’Connell. His wife is waiting outside, asleep in a chair, but Robbie is sitting on the floor coloring. He offers them a small smile when they enter, and Scully smiles back gently. “I think Daddy's awake,” he says solemnly, selecting a red. “He says he wants to talk to you.”
“Thanks, Robbie,” Mulder says, offering a smile on his own. They enter quietly and find O'Connell sitting up in bed. He opens his mouth to greet them, but falls into coughing instead.
“Don't strain yourself, sheriff,” Scully says quickly.
O’Connell waves off their protests, wiping his mouth. “Are you okay, Agent Mulder?” he rasps.
Mulder looks startled. “Y-yeah, I'm fine,” he says.
The sheriff looks relieved. “I wasn't sure if you got out,” he says. “Or if you'd left, like we talked about.”
“You don't remember asking me to come back in with you?” asks Mulder carefully. “And me saying I'd meet you back there after I checked out the cemetery?”
The sheriff shakes his head, confused. “I can't remember anything after we left the apartment building, Agent Mulder. Last I remember, you had suggested going down to the cemetery to visit the Caruthers's graves. And then I was waking up in a hot, smoky room. I have no idea what happened in between.”
Scully's brow is furrowing, and Mulder is just as confused. “You suggested going back in, sheriff,” he says. “You don't remember that?”
O'Connell shakes his head, falling into another coughing fit. After a minute, he says, “But I do… I do remember this. The firefighters didn't find me where I first woke up. I saw the Specter.”
“You saw the Specter?” Mulder asks incredulously.
O'Connell nods. “I followed him out into the hall before I collapsed again, but the room I was in collapsed as soon as I left. And then the firemen found me,” he says roughly. He wipes his forehead, his mouth again. “I guess he is a sort of… good angel or whatever.”
Scully raises her eyebrows at Mulder, who shrugs. She says, “Well, we're relieved to hear that you were okay, Sheriff O'Connell.”
“Thank you.” The sheriff sags into the pillows, tired, coughing harshly into his elbow. “Well, I just wanted to tell y'all that, and also that I don't think there's any reason to stay unless you just want to. Seeing as how Kenny and I are both out of commission.”
Mulder exchanges a hesitant look with Scully. “You don't think this needs any more investigation?”
O’Connell coughs again, longer this time. “It's hard to say,” he manages, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “But… I know that you'll have a harder time without me or Kenny, considering the mindset of the people in this town. Besides, the fire being as destructive as it was… this may be the end of the sightings, at least for now.” He dissolves into hacking coughs once more.
“You should rest, sheriff,” says Scully quickly. “Don't strain yourself. You're lucky to be alive.”
The sheriff meets their eyes, a resigned sort of look in his eyes. A look Mulder hadn't seen the first time he met, when he hadn't exactly believed in the Specter. “I'm not sure it was luck, Agent Scully,” he says. “I don't think that it was.”
Mulder and Scully leave, simply because they aren't sure what else to do. They meet with Deputy Jacobs before they go, who seems distracted, like his mind is on something else. “I think people are going to be pretty preoccupied with the fire, honestly,” he says, his fingers drumming absently on the table. “The police department and the citizens. I don't think anyone is going to be thinking about the Specter much.”
So Mulder and Scully leave. “Maybe someday, something will happen here that causes us to spend more than one night at a time,” Mulder jokes as they drive out of town.
“I've said it before and I'll say it again,” Scully says. “I'm not sure if we could ever do anything here. I'm not sure what the case was. We didn't find the dog, we didn't save Sheriff O'Connell.”
What she's saying feels like a nice way of saying that this case was a waste of time, but Mulder is starting to agree. “It started out as a missing dog and ended up as a phenomenon that could be classified as a mania,” he says. “And a fire.”
She sighs, her head leaning against the window. “I don't know, Mulder. Confusion, fainting, or seizures are possible mental repercussions of smoke inhalation, but I've never heard of memory loss. Especially not the type that Sheriff O'Connell was describing.”
“It sounded more like a blackout to me,” Mulder says. “Which is impossible, because he was talking to me. He asked me to come back in with him.”
“Thank God you didn't,” Scully says with a sigh. She's fidgeting with one of the chains around her neck, but Mulder cannot tell if it's the ring or the quarter.
He has a sudden epiphany, a memory: the look in the sheriff's eyes as he announced that he wanted to go back in. It was strange, unfamiliar. “There was… something different about O'Connell during the time he can't remember,” he says out loud. “A… weird look in his eyes or something. He almost didn't seem like himself. He changed his mind so fast, and he wouldn't explain why.”
“That is weird,” Scully says. Her fingers move at her collarbone. “I'm starting to think Willoughby is just a strange town, period. But I don't necessarily think the… ghost, or the supposed phenomenon of the ghost, is dangerous. I mean, someone certainly could've died today, or gotten hurt much worse, but no one did. People died back in 2002, but the causes were perfectly natural. The phenomenon is certainly unexplained, but it doesn't seem like anything we could prevent, or interfere with.”
“I thought our purpose here was to explain it,” says Mulder. “To understand it. That was what I had hoped to do.”
Scully shrugs. Her hand falls away from the neckline of her shirt. “Some things are just unexplainable, Mulder. Sometimes we can't look any further because there's nothing to find. If the Willoughby Specter exists, it looks like it just warns people. Robbie O’Connell about his dog, Deputy Jacobs about his accident, the sheriff about the fire.” Her voice has sort of a dark quality to it, like she doesn't want to discuss it. “It seems like there's danger, but that the danger isn't exactly linked to said paranormal phenomenon.”
Mulder’s mind is fixed on Sheriff O'Connell in that moment outside the Caruthers apartment. He hadn't lingered on it before, but now he keeps returning to it: the unsettling look in his eyes. An almost eerie look. “Everyone says that the Willoughby Specter is a good spirit,” he says. “But all it brings is death and destruction.”
“Ryan Caruthers doesn't believe it's good,” says Scully, a surprisingly hard quality to her voice. “But who knows, Mulder? Who knows if it even exists. We may never know.”
“What do you think, Scully?” Mulder asks in a soft voice. “What do you make of all this?”
She shrugs. Her eyes are on the outside window, on the incoming clouds that suggest a storm in the near future. “I don't know, Mulder. I really don't.”
Case #X-29336, Willoughby, Virginia
Addendum to 2002 Investigation (Case #X-43187) by Agents Doggett and Reyes
December, 2015; Agent Fox Mulder, Agent Dana Scully
There is undeniably paranormal activity in Willoughby, Virginia. This activity is attributed to the legend of a spirit who warns citizens of the town of future misfortunes to come. In 2002, there were many sightings of this spirit and noted unfortunate events, one of which has been included here [the suicide of Holly Smith; reference: report by Agents Doggett and Reyes, May, 2002]. Such events transpired again in 2015. The events that we investigated [ref: Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully] are as follows: the disappearance of a dog belonging to the O’Connell family (preceded by a sighting by Robert O'Connell), a car accident (immediately preceded by a sighting by Deputy Kenneth Jacobs), a fire (during which the spirit was sighted by Sheriff Joseph O’Connell), many other sightings by various citizens [ref: see attachment], and multiple sightings between the years 2002 and 2015 by Ryan Caruthers. No official crimes were committed. The only injuries as a result of this phenomenon were afflicted on Kenneth Jacobs and Joseph O'Connell.
While there are no clear crimes in Willoughby and no clear perpetrator to be pursued [addendum: the crime of arson and possibly attempted murder being investigated by the Willoughby Police Department, but it is assumed this crime did not occur as a result of paranormal activity], it is clear that Willoughby is filled with unexplainable events. One of the three times we were called out to Willoughby was an attempt by the sheriff [ref: Joseph O'Connell] to contain said events to protect the citizens of Willoughby, as a similar series of sightings ended in the deaths of three people [ref: report by Agents Doggett and Reyes, 2002, ref: attached summary of the murders of Marion and Ian Caruthers,]. While there is no clear crimes being committed currently as a result of the Willoughby Specter, the potential is certainly there. It has happened before, and it may happen again. There is also the question of the ghost itself. Its sightings are unable to be interpreted; the citizens of Willoughby regard it as a warning, but the events it warns them of are never able to be prevented since the victims are never explicitly informed of what is going to happen. The morals and intentions of this spirit are pulled into question as well.
Case #X-29336 remains open, pending further investigation.
There is a case in Texas. There are younger, baby-faced agents that amusingly remind Mulder and Scully of themselves. Scully makes a joke that harkens back to the first time they'd met and Mulder smiles. He likes to think that they are healing, the two of them.
When it's all over, Scully comes out to the house for the first time since Tad O’Malley and his circus of conspiracies. It's a stunningly warm day for December, especially considering how cold it's been lately (“Global warming,” Mulder jokes when Scully shows up in a light jacket), and they end up hand in hand, walking out into the field together. They sit out in the tall stalks of dying grass, their fingers intertwined and their faces bent up towards the sky.
“So, Scully,” Mulder says in a soft voice, when the sun has sunk a little in the sky and they've fallen into a comfortable silence. “Why'd you decide to come out here?”
She traces over the length of his fingers. “No reason,” she says, her voice thick with casualness. She squeezes his hand again, leans her head against his.
He bumps his shoulder companionably against hers. “This is an awful long way to come for no reason, Scully,” he says, nudging her thumb. He doesn't know why he is saying this, why he is pushing her, but he wants to know. He won't push any further than the distance they've more or less established since Willoughby, but he wants to know this, at least. After her aversion to coming out here, her insistence that they stay at her apartment in Bethesda and her refusal to discuss coming home, he doesn't understand why she's come here now.
He's prepared for Scully to pull away, to close herself off, but she does neither of those things. She sighs a little, her head lolling against his shoulder, grips his hand in hers like an affirmation. “I just wanted to see you, Mulder,” she says, and he can hear the purposeful lightness in her voice. “That's all.”
He smiles, just a little. Lets go of her hand to wrap his arm around her shoulder. “Well, I'm glad you came,” he says, his hand rubbing warmth into her shoulder. And out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he can see her smiling.
They sit together in the field, watching the clouds move across the sky.