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nine.

october, 2016

If there's anything that Mulder and Scully are not used to, it's having a third presence on their stake outs. Back in the day, if they were staking out with someone else, said someone probably wasn't very happy about being stuck on a stakeout with them. (They've both heard plenty of “third wheel” gossip over the years, right along with the gossip about them being together long before they actually were.) Luckily, Scully notes, this time, they have what seems like a perfectly nice woman as their company. As much as she relishes the chance to have time alone with Mulder and inexplicably get paid for that time, it's better to share the time with someone who doesn't hate them. And Joy Seers seems like halfway decent company.

She gets takeout for everyone, fighting streets abuzz with Halloween traffic, cars and costumed pedestrians alike. She stops at a gas station and grabs a couple bags of M&M's as an added bonus for Mulder—in honor of the holiday, and because she's guessing they'll be here a while without much paranormal activity to entertain them. (She's still convinced that Ryan Caruthers, and maybe a few friends, are behind the whole thing. It makes much more sense than a diabolical ghost tormenting the entire town.)

Scully picks her way back to the school through streets crowded with pint-sized monsters, ghouls, and pop culture characters. Houses festooned in cobwebs and streamers and plastic skeletons. Kids in costumes holding onto their parent’s hands. At a stoplight near the school, she notices a kid on a bus bench. A familiar-looking kid with an Orioles cap pulled over his face.

She finds Mulder and Joy Seers in the classroom: Mulder setting desks and chairs upright, Joy propping a video camera up on the righted bookshelf. The room has been swept, most of the debris cleared; it looks like an empty skeleton of a room, bare walls and bare floors. “I brought food,” Scully says, sitting the plastic bags of containers on a desk.

“Thanks, Scully.” Mulder grins at her briefly overtop of a graffitied desk. She can tell he's enjoying this. He's probably been waiting for a case like this to fall on Halloween for a while. (“How do we always end up staking out haunted places on holidays, Scully?” he joked earlier, and she rolled her eyes, pointed out that this particular place is not haunted, absolutely not. Not the inn, not the school, not the town. She knows he's remembering their conversation last night, and she's hoping he won't bring it up. She feels silly just thinking about it.)

“Were the roads too bad?” Joy asks politely, squinting as she adjusts the angle of the camera. “I know they can be a little crazy on Halloween, especially in the fancier neighborhoods.”

“Not too bad,” says Scully, sitting at the desk. “Anything happen while I was gone?”

“Nothing yet,” Mulder says, sitting down at the desk beside Scully and smirking a little at her. She smirks right back.

“I was relying on our security system to prove whether or not there's any paranormal involvement, but it shorted out today,” says Joy with a touch of irony in her voice, climbing down from the chair and smoothing messy curls absently. “Convenient, huh? Principal thinks someone messed with it to cover up the crime, but we couldn't prove it; it just seems like a system malfunction. And he couldn't get anyone in here to fix it. So I'm setting up a camera in here since this has been the primary location of the activity. I'm hoping to catch some proof as to what this is, if anything happens.”

“That seems smart,” Scully offers. “Although it's strange that the security cameras would mess directly after a break-in.”

“It is,” Joy says, crossing her arms, “but the fact is that it was still working last night. Since my window lock was fixed, anyone who broke in would've had to use the halls. And the cameras showed nothing.”

“Someone could've been planning another break-in for tonight,” Scully comments.

“That's true.” Joy shrugs. “But everyone I talk to says it's just an issue with the computer system. We have the shittiest system, I swear. Anyways, we have this camera to catch anything strange that happens, paranormal or B&E's alike.”

Scully looks at Mulder, who shrugs. It does seem convenient to her—too convenient, especially considering Ryan's technical reputation—but she decides to let it go. She says, “Do we have any sort of plan past the camera?”

Mulder shrugs again. “Not really. I think we're just planning to… sit here.” He smirks at her a little, teasing her as he unwrapping the plastic silverware. “You are familiar with the method of a stakeout, aren't you, Scully?”

“Very much so,” she says dryly, resisting the urge to stick out her tongue.

Joy joins them in the clusters of desks, taking her food gratefully and thanking Scully. “I'm hoping that we'll be able to get something out of tonight,” she says, screwing the cap off of a water bottle. “I really am. Ryan's a good kid, and I hate that everyone's been putting the blame on him.”

“You really don't think there’s any possibility Ryan is behind this?” Scully asks, picking at her salad.

Joy shakes her head. “I never have. Aside from the fact that it seems improbable that a kid—albeit a pretty smart kid, but still—could pull this off, Ryan's always seemed like a good kid to me. I'm not close to Annie Caruthers, but she's always spoken highly of him whenever we see each other… And besides that, he's a model student. Aside from a bad attitude, I haven't seen any signs of delinquency from him. I almost can't believe he really set that fire.”

Scully bites her lower lip in consideration. “I think I saw Ryan outside on my way in,” she says carefully. “The intersection a block over.”

“Really?” Mulder asks, his eyebrows shooting up.

Scully nods. “I think,” she says, somewhat uncertainly. “He wears the Orioles cap, right?”

Joy taps her fingers on the desktop absently. “Probably just a coincidence,” she offers.

“It's a small town,” says Mulder helpfully. Scully pokes at a leaf of lettuce silently.

Mulder clears his throat awkwardly. “Have you ever considered that this… activity might be the result of possession of some sort? Some mixture of Ryan Caruthers and the ghost?”

Scully swallows back the urge to scoff.

“You think Ryan's possessed?” Joy asks, almost incredulously. “By the Specter?”

He shrugs. “Possession can sometimes give humans a power they wouldn't normally have. I've seen it before. That would explain how Ryan was able to get in and out of the school without being detected, how he would be able to move those heavy desks.”

Joy Seers looks uncertain, skeptical. “I suppose that could be the case, but I doubt it,” she says. “I've never heard of any possessions in the history of the legend. And I still just don't think Ryan's involved. Besides his prior history with the ghost, of course.”

Scully hmms in response quietly, sticking the fork in her mouth. She hasn't known what to make of this case since they got it a year ago, and she certainly doesn't know what to make of it now. Mulder shrugs, surprisingly nonplussed, as if he doesn't know what to make of this either.

“I guess we just wait now,” Joy says, and it's almost a question, a clarification. “Wait to see what happens next.”

They nod, nearly in unison.

Their forks scrape at the Styrofoam containers in the new quiet. The setting doesn't seem to align with the stunning silence all around them, the echoey hallways and dim classroom. As a child, Scully used to get scared in big empty buildings, especially in the huge church they used to attend in San Diego, all the looming, empty halls and the almost eerie paintings of Christ. She's gotten past that now, of course, but the oddness of being in an empty school has nearly brought it back. Right now, in all this empty and quiet space, with the small sounds in the hall as the sun sinks below the horizon, she can almost understand why people might think this school—even this town—is haunted.

---

It's getting dark now, the familiar October chill in the air. Ryan clenches his chattering teeth, beginning to regret not wearing the skeleton costume from last year. It's dorky as hell, but it's warm, he sweated buckets at last year's party. And it helps with appearances. He's just wearing a hoodie and jeans right now, no costume of any kind.

He got some candy earlier, even with the disapproving looks (either because he's too old to trick-or-treat, or because he set a fire), and so he unwraps a mini Snickers bar now and takes a bite. He's thinking about turning around and going to the party he told Annie he was going to. He should probably go to the damn party. He still has friends somehow, despite everything, and this is not the right way to spend Halloween. It might be spooky, but honestly, Ryan got tired of the horror movie bullshit at about six or seven. (He hates scary movies, scary stories, any of that stuff that makes him think about the empty eyes of the parents he'll never know and ghostly light on his bedroom walls.) He's nearly convinced, gets his bag up off of the bench and is about to walk away when his fingers brush over an envelope sticking out of the top. The letter from his Uncle Jared.

He swallows, sits down so hard his legs hurt. Shakes his head hard until he's good and resigned. He has to do this. He doesn't have a choice.

He rummages in his bag until he finds the stick-on tattoos and the bottle of water. Follows the directions as he applies them to the back of his hands.

---

Scully will admit, once again, that she's really, really not used to sharing stakeouts with other people; some of her favorite memories of working with Mulder are when they were alone on a stakeout. But they've been sitting in the school for several hours, and she has to say, it's a lot better than she expected. Aside from their opinions on ghosts, it turns out that she and Joy Seers have a lot in common. They discuss their college degrees—biology and pre-med are vastly different, but they took similar grueling science classes and can exchange stories about hellish professors—and Joy asks about the cross around Scully's neck, the one similar to her own. “Oh,” says Scully in surprise, reaching down to touch the cross, and the ring that hangs beside it. (Thank God she didn't ask about that; that'd be a fairly awkward conversation for all of them. Mulder doesn't wear his ring that she knows of, which she has no idea how to take, but at least it fields the Oh, are you two married? questions. A little.) “Oh, my mother gave my sister and myself these necklaces the Christmas I was fifteen. I've worn it ever since.”

She leaves out the occasions where she'd given it to her daughter and it was the only part of her They left behind, and when Mulder had worn it through both of their abductions. (She put the ring on the chain beside her cross when she stopped wearing it because it felt stunningly appropriate, that it lie beside something that had meant so much to both of them over the years. Sometimes she felt like she could feel Mulder in her cross as much as she could in the ring.)

Joy smiles a genuine smile. “Oh, that's wonderful,” she says. “Mine was a family heirloom. It was my grandmother's.”

Scully smiles back, a little easier than she might've a few months ago. It's getting easier to remember her mother, and concentrating on the happier memories does help. “It's beautiful,” she offers.

“Thank you—so is yours.”

Mulder stays politely quiet through most of these interactions, but he speaks up sometime in the fourth hour of their vigil. “Ms. Seers—” he starts.

“Call me Joy, please,” Joy says immediately.

“Joy,” Mulder says. “I remember when we met yesterday, you said something about there being more than one way to interpret the Willoughby Specter story.”

“Oh, right.” Joy throws out an absent grin. “That famous touchy spot. Especially around here.”

“I sense that people don't agree with you?” Scully asks, thinking of Robbie O'Connell's and the sheriff's claims that the ghost is angelic. Ryan Caruthers's claims that the ghost is anything but. The disdain she's seen in response to that skepticism. Personally, she can't really tell why the demeanor of the ghost matters, one way or another.

“I don't know if they do or don't. I haven't made any particular claims about the skepticism.” The other woman shrugs. “My husband is a historian, though,” she adds. “He's done some research into the subject, and we've discussed it before. The origins of this ghost aren't quite as black and white as everyone would like to believe.”

Mulder's interest is piqued—more than piqued, Scully can tell. “Would you mind sharing?” he asks.

Joy shakes her head. “The fame of the ghost just so happens to be intertwined with the origin of this town,” she says. “The name Willoughby comes from a Revolutionary War leader, General Samuel Willoughby. He's hailed as a hero, especially around here, considering he led his soldiers to victory in a battle right around this area. The legend got started when Willoughby published a book of his journals and letters during the war. In the journal entry dated the night before the battle, he speaks of seeing a 'specter’ who brought about feelings of foreboding and dread. This convinced him that he was doomed to die on the battlefield the next day, and his soldiers doomed to lose. So he changed his plans.”

“He survived the battle,” Scully says knowingly—she knows how these legends always go. “And he led his men to victory, and people attributed that victory to the Specter. Which is where the legend originates."

Joy nods. “But what most people don't acknowledge is how costly that victory was,” she says. “Over half of Willoughby's soldiers lost their lives, including his brother. As well as several civilians who unfortunately lived in the area and got caught up in the battle. And that's not to mention the British casualties. Personally, that's not my definition of angelic , especially considering the death of his brother.”

Mulder chuckles briefly, rubbing thoughtfully at his mouth. “It's not exactly mine, either.”

“People see what they want to see,” says Joy. “Someone comes to warn them of something bad coming, people want to think they have good intentions. That there's some way to be prepared.”

Scully hardens her face until it is stony, trying not to show her cards. Spreads her fingers out flat on the table and tries to think of anything but that night before her mother died. Mulder is nodding in agreement, and she's glad that he's distracted by this story, that he won't notice and start asking questions again. “So you don't think the ghost has… good intentions?” he asks Joy.

“Does a ghost have intentions?” Joy laughs. (Along the same line Scully has thought on in this case.) “But no, I don't. Personally, my husband and I have discussed it before, and we think that the ghost is demonic.”

“Demonic?” asks Mulder.

“Yeah. My husband has studied a lot of local history, and he found a court record corresponding to a diary entry from the judge in the early settlement that more or less became Willoughby. It speaks of a man who was convicted of the murder of his wife. He was scheduled to hang, but he disappeared from his prison cell the night before, despite two guards being posted outside. The man had been fairly wealthy and prosperous, and he had a fair amount of money stored away in his house, where they'd also found many signs of what they considered witchcraft and devil worship. All the more reason to execute him, they'd said. But after he disappeared, so did the money.” Joy takes a sip of her water bottle. “They found him two months later, dead in the mountains with no clear cause. All of his money on him. A lantern burning beside his body despite the snowstorm raging around him.”

Scully raises her eyebrows in a halfway interested response—it’s an interesting story, even if it sounds false. Mulder says, “And you think that's the Specter?”

“A ghost has to come from somewhere, right? It makes sense to me, especially that lantern detail. The details about his escape and discovery, as well as the trial records, lead me to believe this man had made a deal with the devil, for lack of a better term. And this is more or less his due he has to pay: bringing bad luck to the inhabitants of Willoughby.”

Mulder hmms under his breath. “That's a great theory,” he says. “And it makes a lot of sense, at least in my mind. It would be consistent with Ryan Caruthers's claims.”

“There’s discussion of 'the local devil worshipper’ in local folklore, but it's not as widespread. And since it took place a full century before, no one in the town ever connected the story with the Specter. But I've always thought it made a lot of sense,” says Joy. “And with everything that's happened here at this school, I've got to say, it makes even more sense to me now.”

“What do you think, Scully?” Mulder asks, and his hand is suddenly on her arm. He's noticed how silent she's been.

Scully grits her teeth and shakes off the thoughts of her mother and her cross and that fucking hallucination or dream or whatever she had before her mother passed away. Forces a smile. “I suppose it could be plausible…” she says, “... if ghosts were real.”

Mulder scoffs jokingly. “I can understand your skepticism, Agent Scully,” Joy says kindly. “Even i—”

They're cut off by the sound of distant crashes, somewhere in the building.

Scully's eyes dart to Mulder. “Did you…”

“Yeah,” he says, already standing. “Joy, do you have any idea…”

“I'm really not sure,” she says. “Maybe the cafeteria?”

More crashes, louder this time. “Split up, clear the halls?” Mulder asks, and Scully nods.

“Joy, you stay here, okay?” she says, standing and reaching for her gun, just in case. “Keep an eye out, call us if you need help.”

Thankfully, Joy doesn't argue; she just nods. “Do you really think you need that?” she asks, gesturing to the gun with her chin.

“Hopefully, no,” Scully says. “But it's a good precaution. In case whoever—or whatever—is destroying your classroom is dangerous.”

---

Mulder and Scully split up outside of Joy Seers's classroom; she goes through the west wing, and he goes through the east. The school is stunningly dark, the halls admittedly eerie, and Mulder is inadvertently reminded of the case years ago that he can barely remember the details of outside of the fact that a satanist PTA tried to kill him and Scully in a high school gym shower. He shudders involuntarily; that doesn't seem like a good line of thought after discussing a ghostly devil worshipper.

He's most of the way down the hall when he hears it: the creaking of a door hinge behind him. He whirls around to see the door of an English classroom hanging open in the circle of his flashlight.

Immediately, he sweeps his flashlight up and down the hallway, but it's completely empty.

Mulder swallows roughly, ignoring the chill spreading over him. He starts to turn back around when the door slams closed hard. He jumps, his hand flying to his holster automatically. Still nothing there; no signs of life, or things notably not alive.

“Hello?” he calls out, sweeping his flashlight up and down the hallway, feeling equal parts silly and determined. He's about to make some plea for the ghost to show itself when he hears another slamming sound, almost smaller than the last one. And then another, and another. The lockers lining the hallways are opening and closing, their slams cacophonous and engulfing. Mulder scans the hallway in frantic confusion, looking for any signs of the Specter, not sure if he really wants to see it or not, considering its legacy. But he still finds nothing, invisible hands moving the lockers as they slam, the cabinets shaking and rattling in place as if affected by an earthquake. Fascinated, Mulder stares, not wanting to look away, wanting to call Scully to get in here and see this. But before he can do anything, his flashlight flickers once, twice, and dies in his palm.

The lockers’ motion fades out as Mulder's breathing grows more erratic, maybe even fearful. The hallway seems darker without the flashlight, pitch black. He smacks the flashlight against his palm in an effort to get it working again, to no avail. “Shit,” he mutters, dropping the flashlight to his side and rubbing at his temples with his free hand.

And then from behind, he hears the scritching sound of a lit match. Golden firelight, small but unquestionably the brightest thing in the room, comes to life behind him, reflected on the metal lockers.

His heart in his stomach, Mulder whirls. He sees it almost immediately, it's unmistakable. He can't make out a face, but he doesn’t have to. It matches every description he's ever heard.

The Specter stands at the end of the hall, lantern held up like some kind of lamplighter.

Mulder's breathing is shallow, erratic; where the hell is Scully when stuff like this happens? He's dying to take a picture, but he knows that will likely only cause problems.

Instead, he draws closer, flashlight dead and useless in his hand, heart thudding against his ribs. The Specter doesn't move. He seems to be surveying Mulder, sizing him up, but somehow, Mulder can't allow himself to worry about that. He goes closer and closer, carefully, as if trying to calm a stray dog. “I know what you are,” he calls. “I know what it is you do.”

The Specter seems unaffected by this. He stands still, his face shadowed, his lantern flickering.

“Do you speak?” Mulder asks, thinking of the ghosts in that haunted house that one Christmas Eve. (If that was real; he and Scully have disagreed about it forever.) “What do you want?”

The ghost remains silent. Mulder's shoes creak on the tile floor as he steps closer, his palms sweaty around the flashlight. The Specter seems to be regarding him, considering.

When Mulder is about three feet away, the ghost's mouth contorts, dipping into a frown. Disapproval. A sudden fear plunges through Mulder's chest, nervousness—what does disapproval mean?—as he remembers Joy Seers's theory that the ghost is demonic. He is about to ask, again, what the Specter wants, when the lantern flickers out.

In a completely impulsive move, Mulder stumbles forward, absurdly swiping at the space where the Specter is. He feels nothing, and he doesn't know if it has disappeared or is still there. Breathing hard, he stands awkwardly in place, his hand curled around the useless flashlight.

And then he hears a pained yelp, down the hall the way he came from.

---

Scully is in the ninth grade wing when she hears it again: the crashing sounds down the hall to the right of her. She follows the sound, flashlight held out in front of her and gun held down by her side. There's a sound almost like banging, a clattery sound like something being dragged over the floor. Scully comes face to face with the double cafeteria doors, where the sound is louder, and pushes it open with a loud clang.

There's a startled shout, and then the smack of a body hitting the floor. Rounding the table blocking the body from view, Scully shouts, “Freeze, FBI!” completely on instinct.

“Shit!” The kid—Ryan Caruthers, Scully notes with an emotion somewhere between satisfaction and disappointed—scrambles to his feet, his ankle caught in a cafeteria chair. His face turns up towards Scully, full of regret and panic as he curses quietly under his breath: “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Scully puts away her gun with a sigh—somehow, she doubts she needs it. “Ryan?” she says, somewhat sternly. “Ryan Caruthers?”

“I had no idea you'd be here,” Ryan says miserably, untangling himself from the chair.

“So you wouldn't have come if you'd known?” Scully asks. He doesn't answer, just rubs at his face with the heel of his hand. “No one's ever been here when you've done this before, right?” she prods.

“I haven't done this before,” Ryan snaps, glaring at her. “I know what you think of me—believe me, I know what everyone thinks of me—but I swear to shit, this is the first time.”

“How did you get in?” Scully asks, still firm. “The window in Mrs. Seers's room is fixed.” She remembers in a split second, as Ryan answers, that the window was fixed before the destruction of the classroom the night before, and mentally curses.

“I jimmied open another window,” Ryan says, sounding disgusted. “The windows in here are shit, the locks are awful… And I'm telling you, I've never done this before.”

“Then why did you come here tonight, Ryan?” Scully fixes the kid with the sternest look she can muster up. “Knowing that people believed you had broken in before?”

Ryan's face turns red, and he ducks his head. His hand shoots through the air as he reaches down to untangle himself from the chair, and Scully sees the same cross tattoo on the back that she remembers from last year. “I… was worried about what was going to happen,” he nearly mumbles. “Because of the ghost. I thought something bad might happen to someone, and I wanted to come here and try to stop it.”

Scully's stern demeanor falls, just a little. She doesn't know why, but it does. She asks gently (not too gently, of course—only a bit more gently), “How did you think you could stop it, Ryan? What did you think was going to happen?”

“Does it matter?” Ryan snaps venomously. “Aren't you going to arrest me now? Agent Sully, or whatever your name is?”

“It's Scully,” she says automatically, and is ready to say more, when she hears a distinctly female shout from somewhere in the building. Joy , she thinks immediately, and mentally curses herself and Mulder for leaving a civilian alone in a potential crime scene. Even if she doesn't believe in the ghost.

Ryan jumps at the sound, startled. “What was that?”

Hoping briefly that Mulder will get there sooner, that Mulder is okay, Scully says, “You know what, Ryan? I should take you in, but this is all very juvenile, and Mrs. Seers has vouched for you multiple times. So I'm going to look the other way.”

The kid looks stunned. Beyond stunned. He says, “Are you serious ? Why are you doing this?”

She doesn't know why, she really doesn't. Outside of the face that is stuck at the back of her brain, along with pain and death and visions of the end of the world. Her son out there, somewhere, and she shouldn't let it affect her work, but… She says, “Look, I need to go. If you're still back here when I come back, I'm taking you in. If I ever catch you doing something like this again, my first call will be to Sheriff O'Connell. Do you understand?”

His face white, Ryan nods. Unwilling to wait any longer—unwilling to linger or analyze why the hell she did that, she really can't believe it—Scully turns and heads the other way, back to Joy Seers's classroom.

Inside, she finds all the fluorescent lights flipped on, Joy sitting in a chair heaving air like she is going to run out and Mulder crouched on the floor. Scully runs straight to her side. “Are you okay?” she asks, kneeling to examine the prominent red line on Joy's neck. “I'm a doctor, I can help you.”

Joy waves her off absently. “I'm okay, I'm okay,” she says, her voice only a little rough. “My necklace… it was being tugged, by I don't know what. It was choking me, and then it just broke.”

Mulder stands, the broken silver chain in the palm of his hand. “I saw it,” he says, and his voice is filled with some panicked emotion that Scully can't quite place. “It was being pulled by an invisible force, Scully, she was choking and it was just held up in the air. By nothing. And then it just snapped.”

Joy takes the necklace, muttering, “Damn,” under her breath. She rubs at her forehead, her eyes, in a tired sort of way. “I'm okay,” she reassures Scully again. “Scared me more than anything. I guess I have my proof now that the Specter is hostile.”

She laughs briefly, but Mulder doesn't, and Scully doesn't know how to ask why. She stands up a little reluctantly—she’d have preferred to check Joy a little more, but she really does seem fine, she's waving  her off insistently—and dusts her palms off on her pant legs. “Deep breaths,” she says gently. “Try to stay calm.”

Joy clears her throat a few times, rubbing her neck with her empty hand. “So did you find anything, Agent Scully?” she asks raspily. “I heard more sounds in the cafeteria.”

Mulder looks at her curiously, but Scully doesn't know how to tell them what she saw, much less explain what could've convinced her to let Ryan go. She lies, “I think some furniture may have fallen over. I didn't see anything.”

---

They leave the school after that. There doesn't seem to be much point in staying. They have the video in the classroom, and therefore proof. Joy seems spooked by the whole encounter, seems to have lost interest in all of it—she thanks them profusely in the parking lot, but says that she doesn't see any need for them to stay if they don't want to. “I guess I can call you if anything else happens,” she says, “but I don't know if there's anything else you can do. And I'm sure you have more important work to get back to.”

Mulder doesn't bother telling her that they probably don't—he’s almost sure that Scully shares Joy's opinion, that the lack of an actual crime here doesn't justify their position. They shake Joy's hand and get in their car to head back to the hotel.

They're both quiet on the drive. Mulder can't get past what happened in the hallway, his encounter with the Specter. At the time, he'd mostly been fascinated, caught up in the excitement of seeing an actual ghost, but now, all he can think of is the other part of the legend. The part that promises that something bad will happen if you see the Specter. He drives back to the hotel with a precise carefulness that Scully doesn't seem to notice—she seems as lost in her own thoughts as him, fidgeting with her hands in her lap. He keeps sneaking glances at her, as if something is going to steal her away, because by his count, the only two people besides him who could be affected by the Willoughby Specter and his bad omens are Scully and William. He doesn't relax until they get back to the hotel, and even then, it is a cautious relaxation. He's extraordinarily glad that they are sharing a room.

He waits until they get up to the room to say it. He nearly blurts it out—he says, “Scully, I saw it,” and it feels like an exhale.

Scully, in the act of peeling her coat off, freezes. He can see the muscles of her back, can tell how tense she has suddenly gotten. “What?” she says.

“The Specter,” he says. “I saw the Specter, Scully, in the halls. It disappeared just before something pulled at Joy's necklace.”

Scully isn't looking at him. She drapes her coat over the back of the chair, her knuckles nearly white as she clutches it. “It's not that I… don't trust what you saw, Mulder,” she says carefully, her nails scuffing the side of the jacket. “But… are you sure that's what you saw? That it couldn't have been some kind of… projection?”

Twenty-odd years ago, this skepticism would've driven him mad. Now, he pretty much expects it. But it feels like there's something different here, some unusual emotion. The familiar stubbornness, and then something else layered under it. Almost fear. He wonders if it is because of the legend, the implication that something bad will happen to him. He swallows, reaches out and brushes a slow hand over the small of her back as if trying to offer comfort. “I really think it was,” he says. “It couldn't have been a projection, it was too… It couldn't have been.” She's still not looking at him. He flattens his palm against her back, rubs a circle with his thumb. “I don't know what that means, Scully,” he says softly. “Whether or not it's…”

“It probably means nothing, Mulder,” Scully says immediately. She finally turns towards him, and her expression is guarded, but she reaches out and squeezes his arm. “It'll be fine,” she says softly, firmly. Leans forward and kisses his cheek. “I'm going to take a shower, okay?” When she draws back, she won't meet his eyes. He watches her go into the bathroom, until the door closes behind her.

He showers next, tries to shed the thought of more misfortune, but he can’t quite shake the thought of it. After everything they've been through, he can't imagine going through more, even if it is a bit inevitable at this point. He doesn't know if he could bear it. Especially if whatever misfortune the Specter brings involves losing his wife or son. (He is praying it's something trivial, like a flat tire, or someone breaking into his house.)

When he exits the bedroom, Scully is lying in bed on her side, facing the wall. He climbs in behind her, touches her shoulder gently and briefly before settling in. He's ready to fall asleep and try and forget the whole thing, give Scully her space, but she rolls over first, rolls towards him until they're facing each other. “Ryan was in the school,” she says. “In the cafeteria. All that crashing around was probably just from him breaking in.”

His eyebrows raise in surprise. “Seriously? What happened, did he get away?”

“No.” She bites her lower lip, looking away from him. “Sort of. I… I decided to give him a warning.”

His expression shifts to confusion. “A warning?”

“Yes.” She is almost squirming, avoiding his eyes. “I… I don't know why. It just all seems so silly, the whole thing. And he insisted that this was the first time he had broken in. But I told him if I ever caught him doing that again, I'd call the police without hesitation.” She rubs at her forehead with embarrassment, her voice full of shame. “The security system was out, though. We hopefully don't have to worry about it ever getting back to Skinner.”

“Do you believe him?” Mulder asks, astonished and trying like hell not to show it. He's more surprised than angry, it doesn't really matter to him, but he can tell how foolish Scully feels and he hardly wants to make that worse. “That it was his first time?”

Scully rubs her forehead again, presses her palm over her eyes. “I honestly don't know, Mulder. I really do think that he's involved in this… it makes the most sense. I don't know how or why, but I hope he gets his act together. I… I hope that I've made this better instead of worse.”

“I definitely think Ryan has something to do with this,” says Mulder quietly, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder, “but I don't think it's the same way that you think so. I think he's a… catalyst of sorts. I think he has a connection to this ghost, and I can't put my finger on it. But I think Joy Seers was right. I think there's more to the legend than people take at face value. And I don't think that Ryan was responsible for what was happening in that school.”

Scully yawns, burrowing down into the covers. “Whether there is or there isn't, it doesn't really matter, does it?” she mumbles, sounding like she wants to drop the subject. “We're going home in the morning. I just hope that no one finds out what happened.”

“Yeah,” he agrees, quietly, and reaches over to turn out the light. They settle in next to each other in the dark, their arms pressed together, hands side by side. Mulder swallows, bumping his finger against hers absently. The adrenaline of the night hasn't completely left him, the implications of his encounter in the hall, and he's grateful that she is close by. As if that can prevent everything bad from happening.

“Do you think I made the wrong decision?” Scully asks softly, and that shame is still in her voice. “To let Ryan go instead of taking him in?”

“No, I don't,” he tells her honestly, covering her hand gently with his. “I think that isn't nearly the worst thing we've gotten away with on the job.” She chuckles at that, and he grins. “I don't see why anyone ever has to know about it,” he adds. “The cameras are out, and I'm not planning to tell anyone. And I'm sure Ryan will keep it to himself. You may have given that kid another chance that he'll take.”

“Mmm,” Scully says, and he can tell by her voice that she is tired. “It feels so convenient, the cameras. Especially considering how much I asked about them earlier. Mulder, I bet Ryan either knew about the system being down or took it down himself, if this really was the first time he'd broken in.”

“Hmm,” he says softly. “Maybe.”

“I guess I just didn't think he was dangerous,” she whispers. “I feel so foolish. I feel like I haven't done my duty as an FBI agent. I don't know what I was thinking.”

“You don't have to know,” he says, and he intertwines his fingers with hers. “You don't.”

She makes a small sound that indicated she disagrees with him, but she doesn't argue. Their elbows bump together companionably. Her palm is cool under his. They fall into quiet again, hands clasped together under the sheets.

Mulder matches his breathing to hers, calm, and he is nearly asleep when he hears a low whistling sound, akin to a moan. The shutters of the windows rattle.

A sudden panic shoots through him at the noise. “Scully, did you hear that?” he whispers.

“It's the wind,” she says, her voice sleepy but hard. “Just the wind, Mulder.”

The wind howls against the glass again and Mulder shivers, crawling closer to Scully. “You sure?” he asks, and she nods, almost growly in her delivery. Scully does not fuck around when she is tired, and he senses she's already in a bad mood from the Ryan Caruthers thing.

But the sound is too human, too eerie, and Mulder can't ignore it. He never thought he'd be this much in regret because of a supernatural encounter, but this is the kind of thing that is too hard to let go. He's as embarrassed as Scully about tonight—embarrassed about how badly he wanted to see the ghost, and embarrassed (and fearful) of the repercussions it will bring.

He drops a light, impulsive kiss on Scully's hair before curling up closer to her than before. He doesn't particularly want to leave Scully anytime soon, not if he can help it. Not with the wind howling like that and with the eerie figure of the Specter hovering at the back of his mind. It's silly, but considering how their last run-in with ghosts went, he doesn't think he's overreacting. He holds her hand tight and lays close to her, and she doesn't protest, and he thinks that is what gives him the courage to say what he says.

He says, nose against her hair, hand on her waist: “Scully, do you want to come back to the house with me tomorrow?”

She says nothing; the only sign of surprise is the slight lilt in her breathing. He adds quickly, “Just… to look over that tip I got last week. The one about the river creature?”

“Oh?” Scully asks, and her voice is very nearly coy. “It doesn't have anything to do with what happened tonight?”

He rubs his nose into her hair; he is moving entirely on impulse now. “If it did,” he says softly, “would it change your answer?”

She's quiet. He can hear every breath. It goes on for so long that he begins to consider pulling away, but she hasn't let go of his hand yet.

Finally, she says, “I hope you're ready. I've been thinking of lots of rebuttals for your river creature theories.”

He laughs, a little nervously, a little relievedly. She squeezes his hand once before letting go. She shifts a little in bed, turning over on her side, but she doesn't move away. His chest is against her back, his arm against her hip, and she doesn't move away.

The wind wails and the shutters rattle, and he thinks that the heat must be broken because he's freezing, but they're together, and she's warm. She is so warm, and she's here, and he loves her. He presses his cheek briefly to the back of her head before settling in to go to sleep.

---

Joy leaves the broken necklace on her desk. It's so dark out, she'd probably just lose it, and she couldn't do anything with it tonight, anyway. She feels nearly naked without it around her neck, but she feels equally relieved at the absence. Her breaths are still ragged, her neck still stinging, her heart still pounding. She can't quiet leave the fright of the moment, sweat slicking her palms, a shivery feeling up her spine. She just wants to get home and fall asleep for a few hours before she'll have to wake up and go back into school. She realizes that tonight hasn't exactly made any progress in the way of getting this ghost out of her classroom, and her temples throb. Tonight seemed like an ending, but she doesn't see why it would be. The ghost is likely still there.

She rubs at her eyes with exhaustion, texts her husband to let him know she'll be home soon and starts her car.

The streets are dark, orange and black streamers hanging limply from street lamps and candy wrappers littering the streets. Joy yawns, making a left turn. Driving in the dark has always given her the creeps. She likes to think it's the product of moving to the country after growing up in the city: no lights, no noises, just endless black and silence. She turns on her brights, just because no one else is on the road, and hums absently to herself, drumming her fingers on the dashboard.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the radio springs to life. It's playing Monster Mash, and Joy never thought a goofy song like that would bring as much terror as this one does, because her hands were nowhere near the dial.

Spooked, frantic, Joy tries to reach out with her right hand and turn it off, but she can't move. Her hands are frozen, her wrists achey and her fingers spasming around the wheel in her attempts to move, but it's to no avail. She can't reach over and turn off the radio.

Her eyes yank from side to side frantically, the only part of her body she seems to be able to move. And then her foot moves without her meaning to. She presses down harder on the gas, increasing her speed far past the limit.

Joy tries to thrash, tries to break her hands free from the wheel or her foot from the gas, but she still finds herself frozen, helpless. She can't decrease the pressure. The bouncy sound of Monster Mash continues, too loud, echoing in her eardrums. She whimpers, just a little, as she shoots past 70 in a 35 zone. At least there are no other cars in front of her.

Her eyes jerk again, almost painfully, and land on the rearview mirror. There's no one on the road behind her, but there is a shape in the back seat. A hulking, humanoid shape that seems to be watching her.

Joy's breath catches in her throat, unable to take her eyes away, unable to look away. She is helpless. She can't make out the face of whoever, or whatever, is in the backseat, but she thinks it may be smiling. Smiling maliciously.

The next thing she knows, the shape seems to be lunging at her. Her hand suddenly moves, not of their own accord, swerving the wheel hard to the right.

The next thing she knows, everything is going black.

---

November 1, 2016

Willoughby Daily Press; Willoughby, Virginia

SEVERE CAR CRASH ON PINE TREE ROAD LAST NIGHT

Last night, a car swerved off Pine Tree Road and flipped in the adjacent field. The accident was estimated to take place a few minutes before midnight.

The car belongs to a Mrs. Joy Seers, who was reportedly driving the car when it crashed. Mrs. Seers reportedly obtained major injuries, and was transported to Willoughby General Hospital from the scene. No one else was harmed in the wreck.

Seers's husband was contacted, but declined to comment on his wife's condition. According to a source who requested to stay anonymous, Mrs. Seers is in a coma at Willoughby General, and it is unknown when she is expected to wake up.

The Willoughby Police Department declined to comment on the accident. It is assumed that no foul play was involved, although this is unconfirmed.