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six.

january, 2016

A week or two after Christmas, Mulder is running late to work. There's an unexpected traffic jam and he's stuck on the expressway for a good thirty minutes. He's expecting to find Scully waiting for him in the office, maybe ready to discuss the email they'd gotten from a detective in Boston about a series of strange videos of some sort of monster in a park pond.

But the office is empty when he enters. Or seemingly empty—when he rounds the desk, he finds Scully unconscious on the floor, pale and still. A trickle of blood dripping from the corner of her mouth.

His chest clenches painfully as his breath leaves his body; he falls to his knees by her side, checking her pulse. It’s there, a little muted but beating steadily. He gasps a little with relief, fumbles to press a hand against her cheek. “Scully,” he whispers, his voice breaking. “Scully, it's me. It's Mulder.” He smooths her hair, strokes her forehead with his palm. Her skin is cool under his. “Can you hear me?” he says, almost pleading. “Scully?”

She's unresponsive. She's still silent, sweat at her hairline and her eyes fluttering, like she is dreaming. There's blood on her face, and it's too easy to think of bloody noses, Scully's pale face behind a red tissue, hospitals and saline and the fear that he'd never see her again every time he left her room.

Mulder stumbles to his feet, going for the phone on the desk. He hits his hip hard on the corner of the desk in his attempt to get to it, bites back a curse, but he barely feels the pain. He calls 9-1-1 frantically, clenches his jaw to keep from shouting at the operator. The operator promises to send an ambulance straight away.

Mulder hangs up and rushes to kneel beside Scully, brushing hair off of her face, taking her hand in his. Praying that the cancer isn't back, praying that he isn't going to lose her again. He lifts her hand gently and holds her knuckles against his mouth, fearful tears welling in his eyes. Scully stays unconscious, but he stays with her. His knees scream in protest, but he kneels by his wife until the EMTs come.

---

Scully has a dream. A vision. It's the end of the world and Mulder is missing, Mulder is dying, and so is the rest of the world. They're dying from a virus, a virus that shuts down the immune system. She's unaffected, she's working on a virus, but it's all happening so fast, Monica Reyes is a traitor and Mulder is dying and they need their son to save him, they need William, and Scully doesn't know where he is, she doesn't, she needs to find her son…

The last thing she sees is a light. The light is a UFO that fades into the image of a boy with dark eyes, convulsing in the throes of a seizure. A boy that is very, very familiar. More familiar to her than anything.

It feels real, it feels like reality, and when Scully wakes up, it is hard to believe that it isn't. She's lying down somewhere, the sounds around her commonplace and yet completely unfamiliar, and she breathes hard, desperate to know what happened after she blacked out. She looks to the left and sees Mulder, to her astonishment, sitting next to her bed with his head in his hands, and an incredible relief washes over her. He's okay . He looks perfectly fine, not sick at all. “Mulder,” she whispers.

He looks up, relief filling his own eyes as he says, “Scully,” in the way he used to say her name by dozens of hospital beds. He gets to his feet quickly, reaching down to take her hand.

The shock of seeing him all right, seeing him healthy after she saw him so sick just a few minutes before, is almost as great as her shock when she found out he hadn't been in the fire in Willoughby. It's too much to wrap her head around, but she can't dwell on it, they don't have enough time; she says, “Mulder, you have to go.”

“I'm not going anywhere,” he says firmly, and it shouldn't surprise her, but it does. It still does, somehow, after all these years.

“To find the Smoking Man,” she adds, hoping that will make him understand why he can't stay with her. He has to understand before it's too late, she can't lose him again. She won't lose him again.

Mulder falters for a moment in surprise before saying, “Scully, I'm going to get your doctor.”

“No, listen to me,” Scully insists, tightening her fingers around his as he starts to move away. “I've seen it.”

“You've seen what, Scully?” he asks, so gently. Too gently.

“I know how it begins,” she says hushedly, almost in awe. “There's a virus… the Spartan Virus. It shuts down our immune system, and it starts a pandemic.” Mulder coated in sweat in the back of the car, hot under her hands, his voice raspy. Dying. Slipping away.

“Honey—” the Mulder before her starts uncertainly. “You had a seizure. You-you have extremely abnormal brain activity.”

“No, a plague is released,” she says insistently. She is not going to let this happen to him, not going to risk him again. Not him or William or the rest of the world. “But there's a cure. Mulder, I'm absolutely certain about this.”

“Okay,” he says softly, leaning closer. “Tell me what you saw.”

She stares at him in horror for a moment, unable to shake the images of Mulder slumped in that car. “You're dying, Mulder,” she whispers. Mulder in the car on the bridge, Mulder on the lawn of the burning apartment building, Mulder sprawled on the ground of an Oregon parking lot, on a front yard scattered with birds, clutching at his head in pain. None of those were serious, most of those weren't even real danger, but this, this is real. This is what everything hinges on, them and their son and the whole goddamn world. “But I can't save you,” she adds. “Not without stem cells from our son.”

“Scully, I'm fine. I'm here,” Mulder says soothingly, not unlike the things he said in Willoughby. “There's no plague, you don't need to save me.”

“The Smoking Man is behind it,” she says urgently.

“The Smoking Man is dead.”

“No. No, he's not. He's alive.” She has to make him understand. “And he's in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Mulder, from where he unleashes hell on Earth.”

“Scully, I don't doubt you,” he says, “that you believe what you're saying. But t-the doctor says that your brain is on fire, and…”

“It’s me, Mulder,” she says fiercely, thinking of the things she hasn't told him, even recently—ghosts in hotel rooms and the like. But this —everything hinges on this. He has to believe her on this. “I'm not an irrational person,” she adds for good measure. He has to believe her. “You have to find him, and you have to stop him, before he kills you.”

She's memorized the feeling of losing Mulder, between years of danger and their separation and the fire and this vision that is real ; it feels incredibly real, and she's not going to ignore it. She's not going to risk him again.

---

Kenny is cleared for active duty shortly after Joe is, trading in his crutches for a fairly steady gait. Robbie is delighted, hugging them both tightly when he comes by the office after school. “Is the Specter gone now, Daddy?” he whispers in Joe's ear, his arms tight around his neck, and Joe nods. He could always be wrong, but considering the extravagance of the fire and the lack of sightings since the fire, he thinks it really is over.

Kenny seems strangely quiet during the duration of Robbie's visit to the office. More interested in paperwork than Joe has ever seen him. Lost in thought, and distracted by the presence of his son, Joe lets it slide until Bonnie comes by to pick up Robbie, but as soon as she's gone, he sits down beside Kenny's desk. “Okay, Ken,” he says, crossing his arms. “I think you should tell me what's got you down. I can tell something's bothering you.” When Kenny doesn't say anything right away, Joe prods, “I thought you'd be happy , coming back to work.” (He's heard some stories from Winnie Burns about Kenny bugging her to let him ride along.)

Kenny is still quiet, rolling a pencil back and forth on his desk. Joe lowers his voice, asks quietly, “Is this because of the Specter?” Even though it seems like the Specter ordeal is over, he's been spooked himself. The image of the grinning man, silhouetted by the orange flames, his face shrouded in shadow, the lantern in his hand burned out; it doesn't sound eerie in translation, but Joe has admittedly had nightmares about it. Especially in the wake of the fire.

Kenny shakes his head, still looking down at his desktop. “Joe, I think I know who set the fire,” he says.

“You do?” Joe asks, astonished. “Who was it?”

Kenny chews at his lower lip. The pencil rolls noisily off the edge of the desk and hits the floor. “You're not going to like it,” he says.

---

Mulder leaves Scully in the hospital to go and look for the smoker. He hates to do this, doesn't want to leave her alone, but she's trying to leave and he can't let her get hurt, not again. So he goes, drives to Spartanburg in an attempt to clear this up. The potential of Scully's vision, of the world being in danger, of their son… It is too significant to ignore. He follows Scully's stories, supposed premonitions that did not come from a ghost, like some sort of wild avenger. He wonders if Scully had ever felt this way when their positions were reversed.

The next twenty-four hours pass in a whirl of exhaustion from minimal sleep, muddled explanations Mulder barely understands, and frantic worry for Scully. The conspirators who apparently resent his father and want his son send him into a frenzy, but the news of Scully's car accident makes his stomach drop out from under him, yanks him back to sensibility and grounds him in fear and worry. He never should've left her, he should've fucking known better. He drives back to DC in a haze, his mind racing.

He almost throws up when he finds her on the floor of her hospital room, a stranger's hand around her neck as she gasps for air. The anger that courses through him is incredible, the hatred for the stranger that is trying to kill her. He doesn't even think, only moves, grabbing for a scalpel and unhesitatingly slitting the man's throat.

Scully gulps in air desperately as Mulder yanks the assassin off of her, the blood dripping down over her face and gown. They both briefly survey the dying man before Mulder kneels beside her, his hand going to touch her cheek. Her hands searching blindly until they're touching his arm, his hand. She looks up at him with some wordless emotion in her eyes; he bites back a shudder, tears, and keeps his hand on her cheek. He doesn't know if he'll ever be able to stop touching her.

The nurses come first, pushing past Mulder to help Scully off the floor and examine her. Security comes next, very curious to know why there is a dead man on the floor and why Scully is covered in blood. They want to talk to them separately, and Mulder doesn't want to leave her, but Scully tells him to go on. “I'll be fine, Mulder,” she says gently, her voice roughened but her eyes full of reassurance. She squeezes his hand hard.

He doesn't argue. He doesn't want to put that kind of stress on Scully. He leans forward and presses a gentle kiss to her forehead, whispers, “I'll be right outside,” before turning and leaving the room. He sits right outside, as promised, and waits for her while the cops talk to her.

It feels like forever, but Scully finally exits the hospital room to come and sit beside him. She's wearing what looks like a lab coat over her scrubs, and her expression is unreadable, but she places her hand on his thigh as she sits beside him. He reaches down and takes her hand in his, filled with relief at the fact that he gets to do that, that he wasn't too late to save her. He's thought about what Scully said in Willoughby, about not being used to the danger yet—but the thing is, he doesn't know if he'll ever be used to it. He'd burn down the world to keep her safe, and he'd do the same for their son.

“That man they just wheeled out on a gurney—I know that man,” he says, remembering. He was at the house of those space colonization conspirators, Mr. Y and Erika Price. He should've fucking killed the guy when he had the chance, before he ever got a chance to get to Scully.

“The Smoking Man didn't send him,” Scully says with a confidence he finds surprising.

“How do you know that?”

“Because the Smoking Man won't harm me,” Scully answers softly, leaning a little closer. “He's held my life in his hands. That… was something else.”

“Your visions, Scully,” he says. “They're not wrong.”

“My visions,” says Scully, “are from William.” Mulder's stomach twists a bit in surprise, shock at her words; he gasps a little, looking away as Scully adds, “I don't know how, but I know that he's guiding me. And you.”

Mulder sighs a little at this, worried for the son he doesn't know, the son he can't protect. “They're looking for him.”

“The Smoking Man can't act without William,” she says. “I know that in my bones. And William knows it.”

Mulder sighs again, weary and worried, remembering Mr. Y’s claims that the Smoking Man needs William. What if it's true, what if William is the key to Spender's fucked up plans? And what if he can't protect him?

“They won't find him,” Scully adds reassuringly. “But he will find us.”

He wishes he had Scully's confidence. He hopes that it is the truth, that William will find them someday and they can protect him and possibly, hopefully get to know him, but he hates the uncertainty, the powerlessness. “So we… just wait? Do nothing?” he asks.

“We do our work,” says Scully, and Mulder is reminded of the reasons he came back to the FBI in the first place. It was for Scully, it was for answers, it was for the betterment of the rest of the world, but largely, it was for William. He'd hoped he'd find answers about his son here.

“The truth still lies in the X-Files, Mulder,” Scully says, as if she'd heard what he was thinking, as if confirming it. And he believes that, he truly does. A part of him has always believed it.

---

In the aftermath of it all, the brief investigation and confirmation that the assassin's death was in self defense, the clash with Skinner in the hall, Mulder takes Scully home. He thinks she should stay in the hospital longer, but she clenches her jaw in that determined way he loves about her and says, “I want to go home, Mulder,” and that is that. He isn't going to argue with her when he's come this close to losing her. They check in with her doctor and leave the hospital sometime after midnight.

“You look exhausted, Mulder,” Scully says softly as they walk out to the car. Her voice is still raspy, drooping with exhaustion herself, but she still reaches up to rub her hand up and down his shoulder. “You drove all the way to Spartanburg and back in twenty-four hours, Mulder… have you slept at all?”

“A few hours,” he says. “I'm okay, Scully. I’m not the one who… “ He stops mid-sentence, instead wraps an arm around her shoulders and kisses the top of her head.

It's largely a reflexive move, and he's half expecting her to pull away, but she snuggles into him instead, her cheek rubbing against his shirt. “Let's go home, Mulder,” she says into his chest. “Farrs Corner home.”

His breath falters a little at that, but he doesn't show his surprise; he kisses the top of her head again, his hand rubbing up and down her back. “Let's go,” he whispers, and she nods.

Scully sleeps on the drive home, her head against the window. Mulder drives, his own window cracked in an attempt to keep himself awake. The entire trip seems entirely too long, he just wants to get her home. As soon as they reach the end of their long driveway, Mulder climbs out and goes around to help Scully out of the car. She comes without argument, not even protesting how much he is trying to help her. She lets him do it all without saying a word about it, and for that, he is grateful.

“I'll sleep on the couch,” Mulder offers quietly as he unlocks the door. “Or in one of the guest rooms.”

Scully's blinking owlishly, leaning into him; she shakes her head firmly, and it's enough of an answer. They go together up the stairs and into the bedroom. Their bedroom, and Mulder can't remember the last time they were here together. It'd probably be more groundbreaking if he wasn't so tired, and he loves her so much, and they're both okay. They're both here, together.  

Scully changes quickly, out of her bloodied hospital gown and into one of his shirts before crawling into bed, curling gingerly on her side. He changes as well before climbing in behind her. As soon as he's settled, Scully scoots backwards, her back against his chest, his chin against her shoulder. He gratefully wraps his arms around her, sleepily kisses her skin where it's exposed at her collar of her shirt.

“I thought you were dying,” Scully says softly, roughly. “I thought I couldn't save you.”

His eyes half-closed, he nudges Scully's hair with his nose. “I'm okay,” he says, reminding himself that she is okay. It feels almost unreal, with the image of Scully fighting for air burned onto the inside of his eyelids, but it is, she's here.

“It was real, though, Mulder,” she whispers. “I could feel it all, I was living it. That's our future, unless we can stop it.”

“We'll stop it,” Mulder says, his hand sliding down over her hand, her stomach, her hip. He presses his face into her hair. “I promise we'll stop it.”

Scully breathes shakily, coughing a little. They lie together in silence for a moment, Mulder nearly asleep with his nose tucked into her hair, when she speaks again. “Do you think we'll ever see him again?”

Mulder doesn't have to ask who she's talking about. She sounded so confident earlier, so sure of herself, but now she sounds worried. Small.

He was unsure himself, before, but now he is not. He says, “I do, Scully. I really do.”

She makes a small, insecure sound, and he nuzzles her again. He waits a few more beats before asking his own nervous question, something he's almost hesitant to ask about. “Scully, did you see him?” he asks softly, reaching for her hand again. “What did he look like?”

She seems to hesitate herself before saying, “I didn't really… get a good handle on him, I don't think. It was strange, Mulder. I'd have a lot of trouble explaining it.” He opens his mouth to apologize, but she's already adding, “But… he looked like you, Mulder. I could tell. He looked just like you.”

He shivers a little, tightening his hold on her. She threads her fingers through his and squeezes.

They lie together in the warm shell of their comforters and each other, Mulder simply grateful for her presence.

---

They both sleep for hours, through most of the next day. When Scully wakes up, it's because of the ache reverberating through her bones. She is still sore from the car crash, she can still feel the assassin's hands on her neck and his blood on her skin. She sighs, sinking further into the mattress and the pillows. She'd forgotten how perfect this bed is, the familiar lumps in the mattress, the cool, soft sheets against her skin.

It takes her a moment to realize that Mulder is gone, but by the time she does, he's already reentering with two steaming mugs in hand—her favorites, the ones they bought in a cheesy DC gift shop just after they went to the courthouse to be married, her hiding her giggles behind her hand while he made up extravagant stories about how they were cheese farmers from Idaho. She smiles a little. “I thought you might want some coffee,” he says, raising one mug in the air—the Lincoln Memorial surrounded by cherry blossoms.

“You thought right,” Scully says, swallowing back the lump in her throat and grinning.

He comes over to the bed, setting the mugs down on the bedside table before slipping in beside her. He passes a mug to her before taking his own. She rests her head against his shoulder, sipping the hot liquid gratefully.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Mulder asks softly, gently.

She shakes her head. She doesn't, not right now. Right now, she'd like to forget it as much as she can with the pain in her chest and stomach and neck. She wraps her hands around the mug, grateful for the warmth.

They sit in silence for a moment, blankets tucked around them as they sip their coffee. Mulder has remembered exactly how she takes it, and it shouldn't make Scully want to cry, but it does. Her vision is still fresh in her mind, the panic and the pandemic and Mulder gone and dying. Mulder's face as he bent over her in the hospital. Tears sting the back of her throat, and she blurts, “I'm sorry, Mulder.”

Mulder tenses in surprise, like he wasn't expecting that; he shivers and bumps his shoulder against hers. “What’re you sorry for, Scully?” he says, a sound near laughter in his voice. “You don't have anything to be sorry for.”

“Yes, I do,” she says immediately. She's been trying to make it clear since the fire in Willoughby, but she doesn't know if it has worked, and she wants him to know. He deserves a real apology. She needs for him to know, in the wake of all this, the non-reality that felt so real of Mulder missing and dying somewhere, her life being drained out by a stranger's rough hands when she hadn't even apologized to him. It's like the shock of the fire, but realer, and more dangerous. She can't risk something happening to one of them with Mulder not knowing how guilty she feels. “I’m sorry for the way I acted in Willoughby,” she says. “The things I said at the hotel.”

They sit in silence for a minute before Mulder starts speaking, too quickly, “You don't have to apologize, Scully. I shouldn't have pushed you, I went too far…”

“I wasn't fair to you,” she says. She sets her mug down on her bedside table and smooths her warm palms over the comforter. “I asked you to stay with me without making my intentions clear, and that wasn't fair to you , Mulder. I haven't been fair.”

Mulder's quiet, as if thinking it over. Scully's starting to think that now wasn't the best time to bring this up, but she plunges on anyway. “I don't know when I'll be ready to come home, permanently,” she says. “It's not because of you. It's because… I think we both need to work on ourselves. I think we both need time for that, Mulder. Space.”

Mulder isn't looking at her. “I’m willing to give you that space,” he says quietly. Gently.

“And I'm grateful for that. But, Mulder… we've had our time apart, really apart, and I don't think that was helping either of us. I don't want to push you away.” He's tense, nervous, and she feels regretful for that; she leans hard into him, tries to make him feel it. “I've missed you,” she says quietly. “I've missed you more than I can put into words, Mulder.”

“I've missed you, too,” he says roughly. “So much.”

“Whatever happens, I don't to ruin this,” she says. “I don't want to lose you again.” To a plague or to separation; she doesn't care. She's never losing him.

“And I don't want to lose you,” says Mulder in a raspy voice. He wraps an arm tight around her shoulders, rubbing his hand up and down her arm. “In… any potential way.”

“I know,” she whispers, her hand unconsciously fisting in his t-shirt. He kisses the top of her head several times, rapid and full of affection; she presses her cheek into his neck. “So I think we need to just… take this slow,” she says. “Whatever it is.”

Mulder wraps both arms around her, holding her tightly, and she can feel his fear and desperation in his embrace. The events of the night before come flooding back all at once, and she winds her arms around his waist. “That's fine,” he says, and she can tell it's genuine. “I want to give you all the time you need. Just… Jesus, Scully, just don't die on me, and you can have all the time you want.”

“The same goes for you,” she says sternly into his shoulder, her voice quivering. She pulls back a little until they are nose to nose, looking him in the eye. “But, Mulder… if it's difficult for me to be here when we're not… officially…” She swallows difficulty, continues, “... just say the word, and I'll leave. This goes both ways, you know; I don't want to give you false hope, or make you uncomfortable.”

“Scully, listen to me,” Mulder says with his own brand of sternness, lifting his hand to cup her cheek again. “You are always welcome here. Always. It's your house. It's yours just as much as mine.”

“I don't want to make you…” she tries.

“You can stay or you can not stay. It's up to you. But I don't want you to think you're not welcome here. Ever.” His thumb runs over her hair, her skin. He laughs humorlessly, adds, “Did you really think I was going to kick you out after you… after everything that happened?”

She shakes her head, because she didn't. “I just… I want to make sure we're on the same page, Mulder.”

“We are.” He leans in and kisses her cheek, her nose. She bumps her forehead against his, their heads together, and shuts her eyes. They're both breathing tremulously, Mulder shaking against her; he was scared. He was so scared. He reaches for her hand and she gives it. They stay like that for a long time.

When he finally pulls away, Scully scoots down in bed, making herself comfortable. God, she hadn't realized how much she missed this bed, and she's still exhausted from everything that has happened. “I don't want to talk about what happened yet,” she says—she kind of just wants to go back to sleep.

Mulder leans down and kisses her forehead gently. “We don't have to,” he says gently. “We don't.”

“But I do think we're going to see William again,” she says, and she's said it before, but it seems important to say it again. They're going to find their son, after all this time. Their son . “I do.”

Mulder lies down beside her, not touching her, but she can feel his warmth against her side. “I do, too,” he whispers.

---

When they wake up again later and venture downstairs to eat something, Mulder finally thinks to check his phone for any messages. There's a couple missed calls from Skinner that he stubbornly ignores, a missed call from the police department who had responded to the ordeal at the hospital, and a voicemail from the Willoughby Police Department. “That's weird,” he says out loud.

Scully takes a bite of her steaming soup, raising her eyebrows at him. “What is?” she says, her voice soft.

“Just a call from Willoughby,” he says. “They left a voicemail.” He turns off his phone screen and sets it down on the table.

“You should go ahead and listen to it,” says Scully. “It might be important.”

“Scully, I think the last thing either of us needs right now is a case,” says Mulder.

“So we won't go if they want us to come. But it might not be that.” She indicates his phone with a flick of his chin. “The least you can do is listen to it.”

Mulder shrugs, scoops up the phone and opens up the voicemail, putting it on speaker so that Scully can hear it, too. Sheriff's O’Connell's voice begins to emit from the speakers. “Hey, Agent Mulder, this is Joe O’Connell,” he says sheepishly. “I just wanted to call you and give you an update on the fire. We figured out it was arson. And, uh, we found out who did it.” O'Connell takes an uncertain breath before continuing in a guilty sort of voice. A voice full of regret. “It was Ryan Caruthers. We found his baseball cap at the scene, and several empty gas cans in the back of his aunt's garage with his fingerprints all over them. Plus, he didn't have an alibi for the fire. So we took him in. The case hasn't gone to trial yet, but, uh… I'm fairly sure he'll be in juvenile detention for a while.”

Scully sighs a little, shaking her head. Mulder rubs the bridge of his nose tiredly. “So, anyways,” O’Connell finishes, sounding nearly embarrassed now. “Just wanted to let you know.” There's a bit of a pause before he adds, “There's been no sightings of the Specter since the fire, by the way.” The voicemail clicks off, leaving a clattery sorry of silence.

Scully speaks first. “I can't believe that kid set the fire,” she says regretfully, sluicing her spoon through her soup. “He seemed… abrasive, but what teenager isn't? And I didn't get the impression that he’d do anything like this. Although I guess neither of us knew him very well.”

“I seriously doubt he knew that the Sheriff was there,” Mulder says, reaching for his mug. “Arson is still a crime, but it seems less ominous if you take the person inside factor out of it.”

“Whether you and the Sheriff were at the apartment building or not, it's still incredibly dangerous to burn a building down like that,” says Scully. “The neighbors could've gotten hurt, Ryan himself could've gotten hurt, he could've started a forest fire… there was no way he could keep that size blaze under control. Whatever the reason, it was a silly mistake.”

Mulder swallows, rubbing a hand over his stubbly chin. “I think the motive for why he did it is clear,” he says. “He seems to be pretty hung up on his parents’ deaths. And who can blame him? It's an impossible thing to go through. I've gotta say, I can understand the urge to destroy the place where it happened.”

“So can I,” Scully says softly. By the look in her eyes, Mulder can tell she's thinking of a different teenager with lost parents, someone the same age. Someone who was in Scully's head just yesterday, who might be just as bitter and lost as Ryan Caruthers is. Mulder wonders if he tries to exorcise his demons in the same way that Ryan has.

“Supposedly seeing a ghost for most of his life can't have helped,” Scully adds thoughtfully, startling him out if his stupor. “Poor kid.”

Mulder nods his agreement. He's partially lost in his own thoughts, thinking about William instead of Ryan. About the visions he had of the end of the world, visions he shared with his mother. Thinking about the angry way teenagers have about them, about someone who is haunted by bad things to come for life. “Yeah,” he says, not knowing if he's referring to the teenager in a small town that he barely knows or the long-lost son he doesn't know. Scully's hand is flat on the table; he reaches across to cover it with his warmly. “Yeah, poor kid.”

---

Ryan Caruthers has genuinely never felt more like a fucking idiot in his life. More than anything, for losing his Orioles cap (his father's old Orioles cap) at the apartment, but also for setting the goddamn fire in the first place.

Sheriff O'Connell gave him back the cap, at least. He hates that dude, but he doesn't think he's cruel. (Although he knows for sure that the sheriff hates him, hates his guts, thinks he let Robbie's dog out. Ryan didn't do it, knows he didn't do it, and has a pretty good idea of who did, but it doesn't matter. The sheriff still hates him.) And he had absolutely no idea that the sheriff was in there when he set the fire; he's sworn that up and down, and he means it. Apparently, there was almost an FBI agent in there, too, which probably would've been a lot worse, but he wasn't in there. Just Sheriff O'Connell, and Ryan hadn't had any idea until his aunt told him that night. He'd wanted to throw up, prayed that he didn't smell like smoke. He never wanted to kill anyone, even the sheriff. Never. (He can imagine what they're saying about him: that he's a killer, just like his uncle, and that honestly makes him want to throw up, too.)

He also never thought he'd get caught. He didn't realize he'd lost his cap until days later; he'd been so shaken by the news that he almost killed someone, and even then, he'd been in denial: he lost it while he was running home, hosing off the gasoline in the driveway even though it was way, way too cold to be using the hose, when he went out into the woods for a run the way he always does… He never thought he'd get caught, never thought he'd be arrested (they didn't handcuff him, but still), never thought he'd see the horror on his Aunt Annie's face as they lead him out to the squad car. (She was the youngest in the family, his dad and his Uncle Jared had both been older, but she'd always been close to Jared, especially when they all got older. It tore her apart when Jared was arrested, when she found out what he'd done. He can't believe he put her through that again.) Her face was white with horror, her expression the one Ryan saw every time the details of his mom and dad's murder came up. He never wanted to make her look like that, but he had. He had.

The cops thought it was because of his Uncle Jared. All because he had started visiting him. Ryan wishes to hell it had never gotten out—the prison is two hours away, it never should have, but Annie had probably told Robbie's mom at work, and the O’Connell family never shuts up about anything. He knows it's part of the reason he got fired. (Annie hadn't been very approving of the visits—she had no desire to see Jared, she'd told him ever since he was a little kid whenever he used to ask why she never visited—but she'd been supportive, driven him to the prison and mailed his letters for him, and Ryan is genuinely grateful for that.)

(Or maybe he's not. As helpful as the visits have been, surprisingly enough, Ryan knows that everyone in this goddamn town wouldn't have it out for him if he hadn't started visiting Jared. Or maybe they would; most people resent him because he doesn't kiss the Specter's ass. And that's where the trouble lies in the first place.)

He tried to blame it on the Specter, even. He knew that Sheriff O’Connell had been working with those weird FBI agents because of the Specter; maybe they'd believe him. “I could've been possessed, you don't know,” he'd said defensively, like a goddamn idiot. “The ghost possesses people all the time, makes 'em do stuff.”

But they hadn't believed him, of course, because Ryan was basically cursed. And it wasn't true, about the possession. And now he's grounded and probably going to juvie, and his entire life is thrown off track. And he's put distance between him and his aunt. And all for nothing. All for a dumb mistake, some stupid grasp at control over this fucking thing.

Or, maybe not. Maybe not for nothing.

Ryan turns over on his side, facing the wall. Inadvertently facing the picture of his parents he has taped up over his bed. It's a picture of their wedding day, when they probably had no idea that they'd someday be stabbed in their apartment by his dad's brother while their baby wailed in his crib for them. They look happy, his mom's hair twisted away from her head, her veil blowing in the wind, and his dad's arm twined around her waist. Ryan swallows uncomfortably, blinking at their still faces. When he was little, he used to cry because he didn't have parents like most other kids did. He doesn't cry much anymore, but it still makes him sad. He really, really misses them. He wishes he'd gotten a chance to know them.

He wonders if they'd be proud of him, if they knew him. He thinks probably not. No one wants a delinquent son who set a fire and almost killed the sheriff.

The room is dim, lit only by a lamp on Ryan's bedside table, and it suddenly grows dark as the lamp flickers off behind him. It's night, pitch black, and Ryan shivers in the sudden cold. He doesn't move as a small light flickers to life behind him, the firelight reflecting in the photo, flashing across his mom and dad's faces.

Ryan grits his teeth together in irritation; he knows the drill, and this shit drives him fucking crazy. “What the fuck do you want now?” he snaps, turning on his other side.

The ghost is across the room, in a corner, holding back. His face isn't visible, his hat pulled down over his eyes, but he's holding his lantern up, the tiny flame creating strange shadows on the wall.

Ryan holds up his hands, where he's reapplied the washable cross tattoos he stole from Sunday School. A warning, pathetic as it is. “You can get the hell away from me,” he snaps. “It's over. I made sure of that.”

The Specter simply smiles. A chilling smile. Ryan's stomach turns.

They've been doing this for years, the two of them; he'll turn around and there it'll be. He used to wet the bed when he was a kid; he used to run to Annie's room in tears, not wanting to sleep alone, only to wake up and see the Specter standing over his aunt. But no one else has seen the ghost. Nothing like this has ever happened since he was a baby, car accidents and missing dogs…

Ryan shoves his hands out again like a shield. “This is over ,” he says firmly, like if he says it enough, it'll be true. But his voice shakes. Trembles like a leaf. “Over. You understand?”

The Specter just grins and grins. He doesn't say anything, because the Specter never does. But he keeps on grinning. That grin says, The fire didn't work. That grin says, You can't stop me. That grin says, Next time, it will be much, much worse.

The lantern flickers out.