They are having dinner. That night, they are going to have dinner. It's simple, and it should feel simple. But nothing is ever as simple as it should be, not with them.
It would probably feel more simple if every single dinner didn't feel like a date. It's not an obvious sort of feeling—they rarely go to formal places, and they never dress in anything besides the suits they wear to work, aside from the recent meal they shared for Mulder's birthday (Scully's doing something different with her hair, it's straighter now, but that's more of an everyday thing than a concession for their dinners), and they never, ever call it a date, of course—but it's still there, the stipulation of sorts. Even though they do dinner a few times a week. Even though Mulder goes to her apartment, or Scully goes to the house to do work, and half the time they fall asleep there, though if it never goes any further than that. The awkwardness—the feeling that had appeared after the fear of their ordeal with apocalyptic visions and seizures and assassins faded away—is still there. It's less strong than it was in the early days of this second partnership, but it's still undeniably there. The awkwardness of the breakup, of not having lived together for years, of the fact that they agreed to take some time before moving further with their relationship. Mulder likes to think they're working through it all.
So. They are going to dinner, and since things have been particularly slow at the office lately, Mulder finds it's all he can think about in the quiet.moments of the day. They closed a case a few days ago in Tennessee, and Scully's working on the paperwork, having taken over the desk so she can work at the computer. (They still haven't brought Scully a desk, despite repeated requests from the both of them; something about budget. That fucking budget. He got her a nameplate, though, a gift he's saving for Christmas. It's not much, but it is something.) Her hair’s twisted back in the messy braid of her hospital days, and she's deep in concentration, teeth worrying her lower lip as she types. Mulder finds himself easily distracted by her, tapping a pencil absently against the other side of the desk; he doesn't have a lot of interest in this case report, especially considering that it wasn't too impressive of a case in the first place. They don't make monsters the way they used to.
“Mulder,” Scully says suddenly, startling him out his stupor. “Do you have the crime scene report?” she asks, scraping her teeth over her lower lip absently.
“Yeah.” Still halfway distracted, he has to rummage for it for a moment before coming up with it. Scully raises her eyebrows at him in a teasing sort of way as she takes it, and he shrugs. “Slow day, Scully. I'm ready for an impressive case.”
“I don't think cases come in based on whether or not you find them impressive,” says Scully bemusedly, taking the report from him. “And we need to finish this report, or Skinner will be pissed.”
“Let him be pissed,” Mulder says with a scoff, and Scully shoots him a stern look. She doesn't exactly approve of his newfound resentment of Skinner that's also lingered around since the beginning of the year. She's pointed out multiple times that they don't have any solid proof that Skinner is consorting with the Smoking Man, that Skinner has been their friend and ally for years, that he is still technically their boss, but Mulder doesn't care. (There is too much on the line, and he refuses to risk his family. Even for a friend.)
Scully taps his arm firmly with her pointer finger, still stern, gazing at him over the rims of her glasses. “Get to work, Mulder,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest. “Few more hours, and we can get out of here.”
Mulder sighs, looking back at the desk. Paperwork has never been his favorite staple of the job. Taking Scully to dinner will be the highlight of his day. He taps the pencil against his lower lip, reluctantly goes back to the file.
And then, as if some higher power heard his complaints of boredom, his cell phone dings with the email alert.
“Convenient,” says Scully dryly without looking up—she recognizes all his alerts on this new phone of his by now. The light from the computer is reflecting off the lenses of her glasses.
Mulder smirks sideways at her as he retrieves his cell phone from the desk and opens the message. “It's not an FBI email,” he says. “I'll bet it's a citizen about a case.”
“Mmm.” Scully tucks loose strands of hair behind her ear absently, like she couldn't care less either way.
He scans the first few lines of the email, and chuckles quietly. “It's from a teacher in Willoughby.”
That gets Scully's attention; she looks towards him in surprise. “Willoughby, Virginia ? I haven't heard that name in almost ten months. I figured we were done there.”
“In case you've forgotten, Scully, the Willoughby Specter is more or less an annual occurrence.” Mulder reads the rest of the email, raising his eyebrows in interest. “Email's from a Joy Seers. She teaches sophomore biology at Willoughby High, and Ryan Caruthers is in her first period.”
“Ryan Caruthers?” Scully asks incredulously, pulling her glasses off and setting them on the table. “I would've thought he'd still be in juvenile detention from the fire.”
“Sheriff O'Connell emailed me after Ryan went to trial in February. He got sentenced to six months in a detention center. I'm guessing that he got out in time to attend his sophomore year of high school.”
“I'm shocked he wasn't expelled,” she says.
“I'm guessing someone stuck their neck out for him. He is just a kid.” Mulder shrugs.
Scully chews absently on her thumbnail, indicates the phone with her chin. “So what does biology teacher Joy Seers want?”
“It seems as though a ghost is haunting her classroom.”
“ No ,” Scully says immediately, firmly. “We do not need to get pulled into that bullshit again.”
“It wasn't bullshit, Scully,” Mulder reminds her amusedly. “You saw it for yourself.”
“Mulder, it's been a year since the first time we were called in, and I still don't know why we were there. The only actual crime committed was the arson! And there's certainly no crime here!”
“But there was an X-File,” says Mulder. “And the case was never technically closed.”
“Mulder, half of our cases are never technically closed,” says Scully, exasperated.
“Yeah, but how many of them have repeat occurrences of phenomena?”
He makes a face at her, and Scully rolls her eyes in a matter that is somewhere between irritable and endearing. “So what's going on in this classroom?” she sighs, and Mulder grins, knowing he's gotten her attention, if not her endorsement.
Mulder sends the request in to Skinner, and Scully rolls her eyes and says that there is no way Skinner is going to approve a case back in the same town they've already gone to investigate three times, on top of the fact that it's not even law enforcement asking them to come, and Mulder shrugs it off. He doesn't have a lot of faith in Skinner, but he's pretty sure he can convince Scully to sneak over there off the book, considering it isn't even a real crime.
Luckily, he doesn't end up having to play that card. Skinner calls them that weekend, on a Saturday night when they're having dinner again at Scully's house, to let Mulder know that he signed off on the case. He sounds like he's trying to make up for something, which somehow only leaves Mulder more annoyed at him. He thanks Skinner somewhat begrudgingly and hangs up his phone.
“You can't be mad at him forever, Mulder,” says Scully from across the table, setting her fork down. “He's still technically our boss. And besides that, he's the best ally we have.”
“Not if he's betrayed us,” Mulder says.
“It's Skinner,” she says, like that should mean something. And Mulder supposes it should, but it doesn't, not when it comes to this.
Scully changes the subject, taking a sip of her wine. “So,” she says coyly. “We're going to Willoughby?”
“Looks that way,” he says, raising his eyebrows at her.
“And I suppose you want to leave tomorrow.” Her smile is small, but distinct.
“It might be advantageous to get a chance to look at the classroom without a bunch of high schoolers running around,” Mulder offers.
Scully takes another long drink of wine, rolling her eyes a little. “I'll pick you up in the morning,” she says. “It's on the way out there.”
He's tempted to point out that the trip would probably be a lot quicker if he just slept over here instead of going all the way back to Farrs Corner tonight. But she asked for time, nearly ten months ago, and he's trying to give it to her, as best as he can. So he nods, going back to his plate.
There's a few awkward beats of silence before Scully asks, “So, what do you think is going on in Willoughby, Mulder? Seriously.”
“Seriously? I'm not sure. But I'm guessing it's no coincidence that this alleged haunting is taking place in a classroom Ryan Caruthers is in daily.”
“But assuming this Specter of yours is real, Mulder, why is it doing this? I was under the impression that the spirit just… warned people about stuff. I didn't think it did… the typical haunting sort of thing,” she says, a bit stiltedly, like she feels awkward trying to make this point.
“Maybe it's a different ghost,” Mulder says, amused, and Scully scoffs a little. He shrugs innocently. “Or maybe the Specter’s activities are more complex than everyone else believes.”
“I feel like you're thinking about this more than it needs to be thought about, Mulder,” says Scully.
“Probably.” He shrugs again. “But I think it's worth looking into, don't you?”
“Not exactly,” she says, not unkindly. “But it should be an interesting venture.”
Mulder shakes his head wistfully, dares to reach across the table and take her hand. “That it should be.”
Scully squeezes his fingers, a sort of wistful look on her face. “Why do you really want to go to Willoughby, Mulder? Even you have to admit that this is a little below us, considering all the other work we’ve done..”
“I'm a little curious about this whole Specter thing, I'll admit,” he says. “But, honestly, Scully? Ryan Caruthers seems to be at the center of all of this, and I feel bad for the kid. And I think if William were out there in a situation like this, I'd want someone helping him.”
Scully bites her lower lip, as if contemplating, and he suddenly realizes the gravity of his words, rushes to add, “I don't mean in a… guilt trip kind of way, Scully, I know that you…”
“No, no,” she says, squeezing his hand again before pulling hers back. “I understand, Mulder. I more than understand.”
He nods. They sit in silence for a few beats, looking at each other from across the table, until Scully suggests, “More wine?”
Mulder nods again, holding his glass out. “Have I mentioned that you've really grown into a marvelous cook, Scully?” he says lightly as she fills the glass.
Taken aback, she pauses for a minute before shaking her head and responding, “Shut up, Mulder.” But there's laughter in her voice as she sets the wine down next to the takeout boxes from the restaurant she'd stopped by on the way home.
He smirks at her across the table, hangdog and teasing all at once. “I'll teach you how to cook someday, Scully,” he says. “Consider it my apology for dragging you on waste-of-time ghost cases.”
She sticks out her tongue at him before taking another sip of wine. “You know,” she says at length, the stem of the glass between two fingers. “It'd probably save us both time tomorrow if you just slept over here tonight.”
Hope flutters to life in his chest, a silly hope but a poignant hope. “Makes sense to me,” he says, taking a sip of his own.
Scully smiles at him, just a little, and looks like she wants to say something else, but they suddenly hear Daggoo yipping to go out in the other room. (Scully usually closes him into the bedroom while they eat because he's worse about food than her old dog was; that mutt would just beg, but Daggoo will climb up and eat food off the plate if you give him the chance. Scully is working on training him.) “Guess I'd better take him out,” Scully says, setting down the glass and standing. “I’ll have to call the sitter tonight if we're headed out tomorrow.”
Mulder stands, too, pulling his coat off of the back of the chair. “I'll come along,” he says, and when Scully throws him questioning look, he adds, “This dog actually likes me, Scully. I have to preserve that relationship.” As if he's not coming along just to spend more time with her.
She smiles and motions him towards the bedroom door.
They stay up for a few more hours, talking together on Scully's couch, before Scully excuses herself to take a shower. While she's in there, Mulder goes to the guest room he knows well and sets up the bed with sheets and a duvet.
A few minutes after he hears the water in the bathroom turn off, Scully's feet pad over the creaky floorboards. (As fucking modernized as this whole house is, you'd think they'd have a solution to creaky floorboards.) “Mulder?” she calls out in something like confusion, and he calls back, “In here.”
A few seconds later, she shows up in the doorway, wet hair and shielded confusion on her face. “Hi,” she says guardedly. Almost a question.
“Hey,” Mulder says, straightening a corner of the duvet. “Figured I'd go ahead and hit the hay.”
(He feels strange, ignoring the potential of sharing a room with Scully, but he doesn't know if that's what she meant when she said he should stay, and he doesn't want to risk the awkward conversation. Easier to just make up the guest bed so she doesn’t have to. He wants to give her the space she asked for.)
“Right,” Scully says, and her voice is unreadable. “Early start tomorrow.” When he turns to face her, he sees a hand pressed tensely against her thigh. Nerves. “Goodnight, Mulder,” she says softly.
He swallows, smiles smally. “Goodnight, Scully.”
She offers him a little wave before turning away and walking back down the hall. He considers following her, but he doesn't. He climbs into Scully's guest bed, where the sheets usually smell much nicer because of the laundry detergent she buys, and slowly falls asleep.
In the morning, they wake up and drive to Willoughby together. Scully drives. She makes a cup of coffee for him and negotiates rights for the radio ruthlessly.
They meet one Mrs. Joy Seers, biology teacher, at her house in Willoughby. She's a slight woman with wild hair, wearing a periodic table t-shirt, a cross necklace similar to Scully's hanging around her neck. She smiles cheerfully at them when she answers the door. “Agent Mulder?” she asks, extending a hand.
Mulder nods, shaking her hand. “This is my partner, Agent Scully.”
“It's nice to meet you,” Joy says, shaking Scully's hand in turn. “Deputy Jacobs spoke highly of both of you. He said that you both were a big help when the sightings started up last fall.”
“That's very flattering,” Scully says as they enter the house, “although I'm not sure how much help we actually were.”
“As much help as anyone can be with these sightings,” Joy says with something of a dismissive shrug. “I'm still not entirely sure how to control or interpret them.”
“So I'm guessing you believe that the phenomena in your classroom is a result of the Specter?” Mulder asks.
“That seemed like the most obvious explanation,” Joy says. “I mean, it could be something else, but considering the connection to Ryan Caruthers, it makes sense.”
“You think Ryan has a part in these… hauntings?” Scully asks carefully.
“I do, but not in the same way other people do.” Off their looks, she clarifies: “Some people are skeptical as to the authenticity of the haunting. They think Ryan is personally responsible for whatever is happening in my classroom.”
“What kinds of things have been happening? In my experience, most hauntings include phenomena that can't exactly be attributed to a fifteen year old,” says Mulder.
“I can show you the best evidence we have for the haunting. It's pretty self-explanatory in itself. The purported activity was caught on footage of a student's science project; he had a camera set up to film 24 hours a day in the classroom.” Joy sits in a chair adjacent to her coffee table and pulls a silver laptop onto her lap.
“So the entirety of the haunting was caught on video?” Mulder asks.
“Go ahead and take a seat,” Joy says, motioning at the couch adjacent to the chair. “No, not the entirety of it; there'd been strange activity all year. Stuff moving or getting lost, lights flickering, doors opening on their own, weird noises… Most students dismissed it at first, and then they started speculating that maybe it was the Specter, maybe the Specter was trying to tell us something. The activity mostly happened in first period, which made most people believe it was connected to Ryan Caruthers. And before long, the students and some of the staff were convinced that it wasn't due to the ghost at all. That it was Ryan, and he was trying to convince everyone that the Specter was bad.”
“Because Ryan doesn't share the same… faith in the ghost as the rest of the town,” Mulder supplies as he and Scully sit, side by side, facing a shelf of thick historical novels.
“Exactly,” says Joy, her fingers tapping at the keyboard. “Although I don't understand why people get so… fired up about that. The legend can be interpreted in many different ways. Personally, I think there's more to the legend than the ghost being a warning, but that's beside the point. By this time two weeks ago, everyone was convinced that Ryan was kidding with everyone, had been orchestrating all this stuff.”
“And that was when the video footage came into play?” Scully asks.
“Exactly.” Joy turns the laptop around to show a paused video, stopped on the image of a darkened classroom blocked by two plants. “This was the science project of Jamie Stintley. His project was going to be filming plants with a digital camera, for a month apiece over three months to see how they responded to different care methods, and do a timelapse video to show the change. He asked me if he could set it up in the classroom since his parents didn't want him filming at home, and I agreed. I've pulled the important clips out of the footage to show you what happened.”
She presses play with the stab of her thumb, and Mulder and Scully watch as the footage begins. At first the camera only shows the plants, with a series of chairs in the background. But then the footage fizzles, static crackling across the screen, and comes back clearer to show a dark figure in the background. It moves across the screen almost too quickly to see what it is, but Mulder can vaguely make out the flutter of what seems like a cloak, the shape of what might be a hat.
Beside him, Scully takes a sharp breath. Startled, Mulder looks over at her in concern, but her face is neutral, her jaw clenched almost angrily.
“That was the first night,” Joy says. “A couple of days later, this is what showed up.”
The footage switches to a similar scene: darkened classroom, empty. Static cuts harshly across the frame, and as the crackling sound cuts out, it's replaced by a low, pained moan.
The sound is eerie, cacophonous, and it sends a sharp chill up Mulder's spine. It starts out low and rises in volume, jarring, and becoming more and more like a scream. As it grows louder, a desk begins to bang against the floor in the background, starting out so suddenly loudly that they both jump. The camera's at an angle to where they can't see the desk moving, but the noise is unmistakable.
Mulder is tense, waiting for the activity to escalate, but it doesn't; it continues that way for a while, the desk pounding and the screams growing shriller. When the sounds finally end, it is sharp, and it echoes around the room in a rattly manner, the screams abruptly silenced, the desk pounding against the floor one last time. Mulder shivers again, wiping his palms absently on his pant legs. As the sound fades out, the screen grows static-y again.
“That kind of thing happened for a couple nights, apparently, but nobody realized it was happening because no one was viewing the footage,” says Joy. “But we found the camera had been moved one day. Slid over a few feet. Jamie just moved it back and didn't think about it again.”
She presses play again, to show a brief clip of the camera sliding across the shelf it is sitting on, moved by an invisible hand. The footage goes on uneventfully for a minute or two after that, nothing but the sound of the radiator and the hum of the computer monitors, and Mulder is about to say something when a chair falls abruptly to the floor.
“Camera was moved a few more times,” Joy says. “But just as Jamie was starting to think that someone was moving it on purpose, the camera went missing.”
“The ghost took it?” Mulder asks, and he doesn't have to be looking at Scully to know she's rolling her eyes.
Joy shrugs. “I genuinely don't know. Jamie couldn't find it; he figured someone was playing a prank. He started yelling and making threats, which earned him a trip to the principal's office, of course. I didn't know if I believed that anyone had stolen it, but I looked myself and couldn't find it anywhere. And I realized that day that a lock on one of the windows in the classroom was broken, so someone could've possibly broken in and taken the camera. So I threatened every class I had with detention if I found out they'd stolen the camera, and then everyone went home for the weekend. It was a Friday, and on Monday, Jamie found the camera stuffed under a radiator in the classroom.”
“Was there any footage on the camera?” Scully asks.
“Just this,” Joy says, and she hits play on the camera again.
The footage is once again of the dark, empty classroom. It's quiet and still for a moment before the camera begins to shake. It's brief, but rapid, and there's a pounding in the background that resembles the earlier desk pounding. A sudden, brief scream erupts, leaving Mulder and Scully jumping with surprise, and then the camera is flying across the room, hitting the floor with the sound of cracking glass.
The screen is suddenly a web of cracks, lying facing the ceiling. The feed fizzles, and there is a sudden dark figure leaning over the camera. Mulder can't make out much of it, but he can tell that it's the same figure from the first clip Joy showed them. Scully tenses beside him, and he's about to ask her if she's okay, but a sudden light flickers to life on the screen. Something almost like a flame. But Mulder never gets to see the source, because static fills the screen again. It overtakes it before the footage cuts out completely.
“That's the last of the footage,” says Joy, snapping her laptop shut. “Jamie's science project was ruined, of course, and in his mind, the minds of most of his classmates, and the minds of the majority of the staff, to be honest, Ryan Caruthers was to blame.”
“People don't honestly believe a fifteen-year-old kid did that ,” says Mulder incredulously.
“There's actually a bit of damning evidence. Earlier in the year, Ryan made a video for a social studies project. His editing work was notably impressive. That, in most people's eyes, was enough to convict him, especially considering his recent stint in juvenile detention, his noted rivalry with Jamie Stintley, and his repeated insistence that the Willoughby Specter was a malicious spirit. People believe Ryan stole the camera and edited Jamie's footage to simulate a haunting, maybe even set some stuff up in the classroom. Pranks or stuff like that. We checked the footage for manipulation, of course, but someone told me that if the person knew what they were doing, we'd never be able to tell that the footage had been messed with. I hadn't been able to get the window lock fixed, so Ryan could've gotten in and rehidden the camera. I didn't know how long the lock had been broken, so he could've gotten in and out to set up stuff like the banging desk. It seemed like the obvious answer.”
“But you don't share this opinion,” Scully says knowingly. “Which is why you called us in here.”
“Exactly.” Joy folds her hands on her lap and meets their eyes. “Look, Agents, I've gotten to know Ryan pretty well in the few months since school started. He's not a big fan of science, but he's a hard worker and a good student. And he's a good kid who made a stupid mistake. I don't know the full spectrum of the Willoughby Specter—what it is, what it can do, what its intentions are with the people it haunts—but I do think it's real. And I'm not ready to convict Ryan off of this footage alone. I know this is pretty unconventional compared to your usual line of work, but I'd like to clear Ryan's name. And I'd really, really appreciate your help, considering your expertise.”
Mulder doesn't know if expertise is a good word, but he's ready to help anyway, as best as he can. He always figured there'd be a time in his X-Files career where he got to play Ghostbuster. He looks over at Scully questioningly. She's still a little tense, it seems, her hands knotted in her lap, but she nods her agreement.
Mulder turns back to Joy—a little reluctantly, he'd like to ask Scully what's wrong, but he doubts that she wants to discuss this in front of a stranger. “We’d be glad to help,” he says.
Joy Seers thanks them gratefully, practically beaming at them. “I don't know what you want our next move to be…” she says hesitantly. “I figure you want to talk to Ryan, but I'm not sure that school is the best place to do that… I know his aunt, I could see if they'd be willing to meet us somewhere.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Scully says with a small smile.
“All right. I'll go give her a call.” Joy gets up to exit the room, taking her cell phone with her. “Make yourself at home,” she calls over her shoulder.
As soon as they're alone, Mulder turns to Scully. “Scully, are you okay?” he says in a hushed voice.
She's clearly startled by the question, unraveling her fingers and sitting up straighter as if to feign a neutral state of contentedness. “What? Yes, I'm fine.”
“You just seemed…” He trails off, unsure of what to say. “You seemed shaken by all of that,” he finally finishes. “And I mean, I wouldn't blame you, but…”
“I'm fine,” Scully says again, and there's nearly a sharpness to her voice that's almost immediately contrasted by her fingers brushing across his. “Really, Mulder. I am. I was just startled.”
He lets it go, if only because he doesn't want to push her. But he can't help but linger over it, the way she tensed up when that thing appeared on screen. He supposes it's probably pretty insulting of him to be surprised by Scully getting scared; Scully is as human as he is. But it was just unexpected. Things like this don't usually bother Scully.