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PART THREE

 

ten.

september, 2017

Jared Caruthers hasn't seen the Willoughby Specter nearly as much as his nephew has, and he can't help but be grateful for that. He hates that Ryan has had to live with that all this time, that poor fucking kid, but he's grateful that he doesn't have the constant reminder of everything that happened fifteen years ago.

That isn't to say he hasn't seen the spirit. He's usually guaranteed to have one or two sightings every couple years. But it's been a while, and he's taken many precautions to try and keep the Specter away. He's tried . He wanted to put that part of his life behind him, to forget it, until Ryan got in touch with him. It's all too hard to think about, too fucking painful.

When he was a kid in school, they used to have a day in elementary school around Halloween where their teacher would tell them the story of the Specter, and everyone would draw scribbly crayon pictures of the ghost or other staples of Halloween, and they'd be hung up and down the halls. He remembers standing in the hall after school with Ian and Annie, hands clutching their backpack straps as they looked for their drawings. They'd ride the bus, and Ian would try to scare them with stories about the Specter. They had no idea, of course, what they were talking about. They had no clue.

It happens because Jared can't sleep. He's laying in bed, tossing and turning, listening to the sounds of the people around him. He's considering whether or not it's worth it to pull out a book and read when he flips over, towards the front of his cell, and sees it. The flickery light through the bars.

Jared bites his lip so hard it bleeds and pulls the covers over his head like a little kid. He's thinking of when they showed Annie The Shining way too young, and she got terrified and wouldn't leave them alone. She clutched at his hand with sticky fingers and pled to sleep in his room, and Jared had pretended to be annoyed so she wouldn't know he was scared, too. They used to hide under the covers like this. It's ridiculous, that he's in prison for murder, but he's scared of a fucking ghost, hiding under the covers like a child scared of a movie.

He's taken the precautions. He has the religious imagery, crosses and pages of the Bible on the wall, despite the fact that he's never been religious in his life. He's tried not to tempt fate; some of the guys were fooling around with a Ouija board in the rec room a couple months ago, and he stayed the fuck away. He's tried to draw back from contacting Ryan lately, because he doesn't want to get the kid involved in this. He owes Ian and Marion more than that. Ryan is earnest, the way Marion always was—and Jared has always missed Mar as much as his brother, she was like another sister to him—and it's hard to shake him, but Jared has been trying. He got a suspicious letter from Annie about their correspondence last year, the first he's heard from her in years. He's trying to shake the kid, and he's been so careful . Why the hell is this still happening to him?

He dares a peek out from under the covers, and it is still there. The lantern in hand, the hat pulled over the eyes. Distantly, Jared wonders if the other inmates ever see this shit. Probably not, with his luck.

The Specter moves, just a little, and Jared jolts. He fumbles without looking for the cross on the wall, shaking hands, unhooks it from the wall and holds it out like he's in The Exorcist or something. It quivers in his sweaty palm.

The Specter doesn't move anymore. Very slowly, the corners of its mouth turn up into a cruel, hard smirk.

Jared shudders, burrows down and turns his back to the door. Fingers curled hard around the cross figure. His eyes falling on a page from the Bible he taped up on the wall; he catches a bit about demons and driving out . He sees the flicker of the Specter's lantern on the wall, hears it crackle as it fizzles out. Darkness falls over the cell, somehow rendered darker than before.

Something bad is going to happen.

---

There's been a lapse in cases lately.

Mulder won't speculate why, because he really has no idea. Part of it is probably because of this weird tension with Skinner; since Skinner has to sign off on their cases, there's a level of awkwardness in actually beginning new cases, since they've more or less avoided him for well over a year now, and it's just easier to keep avoiding him. But mostly, he thinks, it's because there really is a lack of strange activity. They'll get a video over email every now and then, with the type of evidence similar to what Joy Seers presented them with in Willoughby last year—footage of Sasquatch or a poltergeist or some other kind of monster—but Scully can prove that they are fake so fast it almost makes his head spin. The lapse hasn't lasted too terribly long, but it's been nearly a month since they've gotten a new case, and Mulder has nearly reached the level of cynicism he was at a couple years ago when he met Guy Mann. (Not quite, but nearly.)

Scully's off doing an autopsy, on loan to a big serial killer case that half of the Bureau is working on, and he's going through old files in his office when the phone rings. Bemusedly (and maybe a little cynically), Mulder reaches for the phone, absently tucking it between his ear and his shoulder and answering, “Mulder.”

“Is this the guy from that weird FBI unit?” The voice on the other end is unfamiliar, and definitely that of an adolescent: deep, but right on the verge of cracking. Mulder can't place it for a few moments. “The one that investigates all that weird shit?”  

“This is the X-Files unit,” Mulder says, as professional and pointedly as he can. “Agent Mulder speaking.”

The kid on the other end hesitates for so long that Mulder is starting to think it's a prank, and that Scully would've hung up by now. He's about to hang up, too, when the kid says in a rush, “This is Ryan Caruthers.”

It takes Mulder a few seconds to place the name, but when he does, his interest immediately rises. “From Willoughby?” he asks, nudging his pencil cup with the eraser end of a pencil. “Willoughby, Virginia?”

“That's me,” Ryan says, a little irritated. “And you're that FBI agent guy who believes in ghosts and shit.”

Amused, Mulder says, “That belief bodes better for you than if I didn't.” He lets the pencil drop in the cup, leans back in his chair. “What can I do for you, Ryan?”

There's another long, awkward pause before Ryan speaks again, in a rushed, angry way. “You have a file on Willoughby, right? On the Specter? From 2002?”

“Yeah,” Mulder says, hesitating. “How did you…”

“I know you investigated it,” he snaps.

It's silly, but even hearing insinuations, references to his lost time (the time when strangers were heading his unit, the time when he left Scully and William) upsets him. It shouldn't, but it does. “Actually,” Mulder says tensely, trying not to sound tense, “it was colleagues of mine investigating.”

“Whatever, whatever,” the kid hisses. “Look, I need you to look at that file. The file on the Specter.”

“Why do you need me to look into that?” Mulder asks, genuinely curious. Wondering about Willoughby and the health of Joy Seers and whether or not this kid is in danger. “Did something happen?”

“I just… want you to look into it,” Ryan says in a rush. “Reopen the file or whatever. That's all.” He hangs up abruptly, leaving the dial tone cacophonous in Mulder's ear.

Mulder blinks in surprise, setting the phone down.

He isn't sure whether or not this is a serious call. His initial instinct is that it's a prank, and he knows that Scully would likely regard it as a prank, considering all of their encounters with Ryan. But also considering their history with Willoughby, he finds it hard to dismiss this. It's been two years since they first got called out, two years since they were assigned to the X-Files, but something that the little kid, Robbie, said has stuck with him with all of that time. He sees the ghost every year! Usually when it's cold. And global warming makes that definition a little looser, but in the two years since Willoughby, Mulder has heard something about the ghost annually, right around the same time of year. Right around October.

Did Ryan call because he's been seeing the ghost? Because he's scared of what happened?

Last Halloween in Willoughby stuck with him: his own sighting of the ghost, Joy Seers nearly being strangled by her own necklace and then ending up in a coma… Mulder had known as soon as he got the news about the accident. He'd known it wasn't a coincidence, that it was a fallout of what had happened that night.

Scully had stayed with him for three days after their return, sleeping in the guest room down the hall from Willoughby, and he'd been scared to let her go home (remembering that night in the school, remembering what happened to Joy), but he hadn't said anything when she left. And nothing had happened to them that could be interpreted as having been caused by the Specter. But he knows that what happened to Joy is related to what happened in the school. And he's never forgotten that night. He doesn't want to take the possibility of the ghost being back lightly, especially if Joy was right about the ghost's origin. He doesn't want anything like what happened to her happening to anyone else.

Mulder drums his fingers on the table, staring at the phone warily. The workload has been light lately. Scully did admitted that she'd been bored recently over breakfast the other day. He assumes that after doing autopsies for a serial killer case all day, she wouldn't mind a chance to clear her brain.

He retrieves his cell phone from where he left it on the desk and texts Scully. Hey, may have a lead on an old case. Want to come over tonight and check it out? I'll cook.

---

He ends up heading home first. Scully estimates being stuck in the morgue a couple hours late; she calls between autopsies to tell him. She seems wary of the prospect of discussing a casefile, especially when she presses for information and he explains that it's the Willoughby file, but she wavers at the prospect of food. “Make that soup,” she says finally, her way of agreement.

“The one I made last December?” he clarifies with a grin.

“Yes, that soup. I think it's supposed to be cold tonight.”

Her voice is warm on the other end, tired and put-out and shy and stern all at once, the way she used to sound when she'd call him on breaks at the hospital. He grins wider, throws a pencil at the poster on the wall. The point hits the poster dully and bounces off. “Okay.”

He can't see her, but he can almost hear the smile in her own voice. “Okay,” she says. “I'll be over after work.”

He gets back to the house before she does and checks upstairs to make sure he put fresh sheets on the guest bed. (He hates that she sleeps there, but he has no idea how to ask her to do anything else. He'd promised to give her space, and he's been trying to give her space. And besides, they don't always end up sleeping separately when she comes over. She comes over to work on cases, she stayed with him last Christmas before she flew out to see her brother and for a week over the summer while her house was being fumigated, and they fall asleep together on the couch all the time. Her head on his shoulder or his head on hers. Curled up together with papers crumpled between them or ink pens leaving stains on the cushions or his t-shirts.) He gets the guest room ready, goes downstairs and leaves the Willoughby files (the one from 2002, and his report from 2015, updated last fall) on the coffee table. Starts the soup he knows Scully loves, some old recipe he dug out of old boxes from his mom's because she was staying with him for Christmas and he wanted to make her something nice.

Scully gets home nearly an hour later, wearing a coat over that maroon sweater Tara sent her for her last birthday. He loves that sweater. “Oh, god, Mulder, that smells amazing,” she says as she shuts the door behind her, drapes her coat over the back of the couch next to his. “I'm absolutely exhausted.”

“Tough time with those autopsies?” he asks sympathetically, filling a bowl and passing it to her as she enters the kitchen.

She hums an irritable response, eyes shutting as she takes the bowl. “The next time Skinner decides to lend me out to a mainstream case, I am definitely going to fight it.”

“I'll dig up some case,” he says, leaning over and kissing the top of her head. She keeps her head down, inhaling the scent of the soup, but she doesn't pull away. He breathes out slowly, adds, “Some case in South Dakota or something that I can't possibly investigate without my partner.”

“South Dakota is surprisingly void of monsters,” Scully says, bumping her shoulder against his before he can pull away. “I don't think we ever investigated there.”

“Hmm.” He grabs his own bowl of soup and carries it to the table, sits across from her. “But Willoughby, Virginia is surprisingly unvoid.”

“Mmm.” She chews at her lower lip, sluicing her spoon through the bowl before taking a sip. “So… you said over the phone that Ryan Caruthers called you and wanted you to reopen the case? What happened? Was there any change in Joy Seers's condition?” He knows she was just as concerned as he was when they got the news about the accident, even if she didn't believe the ghost was involved.

“He didn't say,” says Mulder sheepishly. “He didn't say very much at all, actually, but he emphasized the fact that he wanted me to look into the Willoughby case. Specifically the file we have from 2002.”

“Reyes and Doggett's investigation? I'm surprised he even knows about that,” says Scully, eating another spoonful. “He would've been a baby, and anyway, they never investigated the murders. They were called in for something else—a suicide, I believe.”

“Yeah, that sounds right… I don't know how he knew about it, but he was very insistent. Considering the circumstances—everything that happened the last time we were there—I thought it seemed worth looking into.”

“So, what… do you want to go down to Willoughby again? On what grounds?” Scully asks, taking a drink of the tea he'd already poured in a mug. “It doesn't sound like there's been an actual crime, or we would've heard from the sheriff. And Skinner was pissed enough when we went to investigate what was happening in that school and came up with nothing.” (The Budget Office had come down on him for approving travel expenses for a case with no crime and no arrests, which had ended the leniency on Skinner's end, especially considering that no one had been implemented in the hauntings since Scully avoided turning Ryan Caruthers in. Mulder had nearly forgotten about those Budget fuckers since that whole debacle in 2002.)

“No, I don't necessarily want to go to Willoughby,” says Mulder. “Not unless we have reason. I just thought we might could… review the file from 2002, see if anything sticks out. I know we went over it in 2015, but I'll admit I don't remember all the details.”

Scully shrugs. “Doesn't sound like it could hurt. He really didn't give you any clue as to why?”

“No, it was very brief.” He shrugs right back.

“Hmm.” She talks another big bite of soup, gives him a small smile. “Well, if you want to look it over after dinner, I'd be glad to help you out.”

He grins sappily at her, as if he hadn't invited her over for that very purpose. “You're an excellent partner, Agent Scully.”

“Just doing my job,” Scully says slyly, sipping her tea. “I'll accept payment in soup.”

He wishes he'd known a long time ago that good cooking was the way to Scully's heart. “Pot's on the stove when you're ready for more,” he says, and she immediately stands and heads to the stove.

---

When dinner's done, they retire to the couch, sitting with a few respectable inches between them and the TV on mute in the background, and break out the files. They have their account of events, #X-29336,  and then they have the file from 2002, #X-43187. Scully swears she doesn't remember the original case that Doggett and Reyes took, and from the math Mulder absently did at one point or another, he has a pretty good guess as to why. He doesn't press her. Neither of them really remember the case from when they reviewed it in 2015, so they start from the beginning.

Reyes's report style is different than Mulder is used to; he vaguely remembers reading reports that Doggett wrote, back when he returned and found a stranger partnered with Scully, but he's pretty unfamiliar with Reyes's. One thing that kind of drives him crazy is that no one bothered to make a specific list of the sightings that preceded their investigation; there's just a vague reference to “various sightings.” But the reason for them being called to Willoughby is quickly made clear: the suicide of one Holly Smith, labeled mysterious.

Holly Smith was reportedly an avid hiker, who knew the nearby mountains and woods well. People interviewed swore that she would never fall off by accident. She was found at the bottom of a cliff, the overlook fenced off so that someone would have to climb completely over it to be able to jump. But there was no note. There were no signs that she'd wanted to die.

Doggett and Reyes had been called in at the insistence of one man who wouldn't leave the police alone, Holly Smith's good friend, who she'd apparently been close with since childhood: Jared Caruthers.

Scully blinks in surprise at that, her forehead furrowing as she squints at the file, as if Mulder hadn't read it right. “ Jared Caruthers ?” she says in disbelief. “The man who murdered Ryan's parents?”

“That's him, I remember the name,” says Mulder, tapping his thumb against the side of the file. “I guess this is part of the family's reputation with the ghost.”

Scully takes the file from his hands, scanning it quickly. “It says that he insisted that the ghost was behind it,” she mutters. “He wouldn't stop talking about it. He said Holly saw the ghost many times before her death, and that he'd seen it once, too, and that Holly had feared for her life. But almost everyone that Doggett and Reyes interviewed insisted that the ghost was benevolent.”

“Sounds familiar,” Mulder says, resting the sole of his shoe against the tip of the coffee table.

Scully makes a face. “Oh, Mulder, look at this,” she says, pointing at a line of the text. “Is that Joy's husband?”

“Who?” Mulder leans closer, too, out of pure stubbornness; he's avoiding getting up to retrieve his glasses.

“Benjamin Seers,” Scully says, poking at the file. “It says that he was close with Holly, too, and they were doing research on the ghost.”

“Wait, do you think that means…” Mulder bumps his shoulder against hers and she looks at him. “Do you remember Joy's theory about the Specter? The one she shared with her husband?”

“Vaguely,” says Scully. “It was… the opposite of the townsfolk, right? Malevolent instead of benevolent?”

“Exactly.” He bumps his shoulder against hers again, and she shakes her head with a rueful grin. Settles back into the couch with the file in her lap.

They're suddenly closer than before, the warmth of her not quite against him but close enough that he can feel it. She says, “What's your theory? I assume you have one.”

He shrugs. “Nothing much past the thought that this must be connected, right? Joy's husband to Holly Smith to Jared Caruthers to Ryan Caruthers to Joy Seers? A circle of some sort?”

“That makes sense,” Scully says quietly. “Whatever… phenomena is affecting this town, it follows a pattern.”

“The ghost, you mean,” he says, teasing. “You know it's a ghost.”

“I know no such thing,” she says coyly.

He grins at her, and she shakes her head again. Grabs the remote and changes the channel on the TV. “Do you think Ryan saw this connection somehow?” she asks, scrolling through the Guide menu. “Somehow, he figured it out? Do you think that's why he called you?”

“I don't know,” he says, brushing his hand over hers as he takes the file back. “I assume so. I guess the real question is why he wants to look into it.”

“I assume because of the connection to his past,” says Scully. “His parents, his uncle… his own connection to the phenomena… I would be curious, too.”

A sudden quiet falls over them. Mulder gets the slightest sense that she isn't just talking about Ryan anymore. He swallows gingerly, flipping through the crime scene photos included in the file. “I know what you mean.”

Scully yawns suddenly beside him, rubbing a hand over her mouth. “You tired?” he asks, flipping the file closed and setting it on the table.

“Mm, no.” She shakes her head, hair slipping over her shoulders. “Not too tired.”

“Not too tired, huh.” He puts his feet up on the coffee table, sinking back into the cushions.

“Nope,” she says stubbornly. She props her feet up right beside his, folding her hands on her stomach. “Not tired at all.”

“Okay.” He's not going to argue with that. He'll sleep on the couch, even though it'll be murder on his back, if only for a chance to be near his wife. He settles in beside her, checks his phone once before setting it down between them. Scully yawns again beside him. He watches the TV, feeling sleepiness setting in like a fog as he listens to Scully's gentle breathing. Before he knows it, he's fallen asleep.

---

He's in the woods, the woods behind the house. It's dark, and the air is choked with fog, and he can't see a thing. He can't move his arms. He can't find Scully. He's stumbling along blindly, without coordination or the use of his arms, and he has no idea what's happening. His throat is scratchy; he tries to call Scully's name, but all that comes out is a rasp. He spins around, clumsily, and comes face to face with a shadow figure.

He stumbles back in surprise. He's freezing, he can't feel his fingers. The figure raises an arm, as if inviting, but Mulder knows that it is anything but. He wants to move away, but he's suddenly frozen, he can't move a muscle.

The figure shifts, drawing closer, and Mulder hears a crackle. A sizzle. A light flickers to life, slowly illuminating the scene, until Mulder can make out the face of the figure. The same face he saw in a high school hallway last Halloween, smiling cruelly at him. He stumbles backwards, downwards, falling without being able to catch himself.

The scene goes black. Stunningly, shockingly black.

The next thing Mulder hears is the soft voice of Scully, waking him up. The fuzzy blue image of a long-dead friend on his cellphone. And nearly immediately after, the cacophony and chaos of three assassins breaking in.

---

If the situation were a little different, Scully might want to laugh. Of course it would happen on the night she's absolutely exhausted from autopsies. She might've laughed, if the situation hadn't been so insane; she's mostly just glad that she and Mulder are okay.

From the time she wakes up, the entire ordeal is a blur: waking up to Langly on Mulder's phone, the assassins showing up, the SWAT team showing up in their wake, calling Skinner and being told to surrender. Their rushed escape into the woods, made clumsy from the series of handcuffs linking them together, Mulder's hands warm around hers. Skinner showing up and unlocking their cuffs, giving them a bundle of cash. They call a cab and wait on the edge of the road, hanging back in the shadows of the trees, and Mulder slips her hands into his again, squeezes their tangle of fingers. She's exhausted, but she couldn't sleep even if she wanted to; the fear of the night has worked its way under her skin. She and Mulder huddle in the back of the cab, whispering to each other like school children and casting suspicious looks at the driver.

They go from Arlington to an Internet cafe, find a QR code on the grave of Deep Throat, of all people, and use it to track down a building from an old X-File: the Long Lines Building in New York, that houses NSA program Titanpointe and project Blarney. They go to a parking garage in the Bureau, asking Skinner for help, out of a pure lack of anything else to do, anyone else to call. It's not Scully's first choice—though Mulder has been suspicious of Skinner since their ordeal with the seizures and the visions of the apocalypse last year, she's been the first to defend Skinner recently, but that admittedly shifted after what happened the night before. She doesn't know if they can trust him, now, after his supposed allegiance with the company trying to kill them, but they don't have a choice. Mulder insists they need access to this X-File, and Skinner is the only one who can give them this access.

Skinner insists that he is on their side.     He takes them to access the X-Files online in an attempt to track down Langly. They find the system scrubbed clean of any references to Langly, or to Blarney or Titanpointe, but they find a breadcrumb trail leading to Karah Hamby, a professor of mathematics in Bethesda, Maryland. Once they've safely left Skinner behind, Scully admits that the name sounds familiar, that she vaguely remembers Frohike and Byers teaching Langly about Karen or Karah, his “genius girlfriend,” in the months before their death. (She'd spent a long of time with the Gunmen back in the day, taking William over to their place, the four of them taking turns cooking dinner and playing with the baby, all silently missing Mulder together.) That seems evidence enough: they follow the trail and find Karah Hamby in her classroom.

Karah Hamby is probably the friendliest encounter they've had in days. She tells them of a deal that she and Langly took back in the day from Perlieu Services, the company that is trying to kill them now. A chance to continue their work and lives in a computer simulation. They'd been uploaded fifteen years before, but they couldn't begin their lives in the simulation until they died in this one. She says that if Langly is reaching out, than the simulation must not be what was promised, that it must be a lie. She says, “We wanted a life eternal together,” and Scully looks instinctively at Mulder, thinking absurdly of Alfred Fellig and whispers of immortality and promises she'd made and broken years ago that she'd never leave him. She finds he's looking back at her and looks away, self-conscious.

She used to want what Karah is describing, with Mulder, and she thinks she still does. She constantly thinks about going home, permanently going home. On the phone with the police earlier, she'd said, “Agent Mulder's residence,” but she'd described it as their home to Skinner earlier, without thinking. There are so many things she wants, but doesn't know how to express. She understands what Karah is describing, the desire to have that eternal life together.

The purpose of this beyond-the-grave contact from Langly becomes clear: they have to shut down the simulation. Karah gives Mulder her cell phone, begins to give instructions on how to make the contact easier, but she is shot dead before she can finish, courtesy of the one assassin they haven't been able to shake. Thinking of the way Langly's face used to light up before he'd try to hide it, when Byers and Frohike would tease him about her all those years ago, Scully furiously shoots back and doesn't miss.

They head to a bar next, partially out of a lack of any idea of what the hell else to do, and partially because they both could use a drink. Scully curls up in one of the booths and naps lightly, Mulder's coat folded up to hide the gun, jolting awake at the slightest noise. Mulder follows Karah Hamby's instructions to fix the phone, and before they know it, Langly's made contact again. It's the most coherent contact they've had with him so far, and it's strange to see him again, after all these years. He gets emotional when Mulder tells him that Scully is there, and even though it should be impossible for this computer version of their long-dead friend to have emotions, Scully gets emotional right along with him.

Langly describes the place he's in to them, explains that it should be perfect, seems perfect, but it isn't. He describes himself as the others as digital slaves, explains that they are miserable, that this place is nothing like heaven. He begs them to shut it down, directs them to the Long Lines Building in New York before the connection fizzles out.

They go directly to the bus station from the bar, without question. Scully's mostly just grateful to be able to sit down for a few hours. They take brief nap shifts on the ride, one sleeping while the other watches the door, before giving up to discuss strategy. The tenseness doesn't completely leave Scully the entire time; she naps as fitfully as in the bar, jolting awake when the kid behind her kicks her seat. When it's Mulder's turn, he sleeps with his head eventually lolling heavily on her shoulder, his nose tucked into her hair. Scully leans in and pretends she isn't, watches the lights outside the bus window and thinks of Karah Hamby and lives eternal and the extraordinary protectiveness she felt for the house when the bullets began to fly, for Mulder when they shoved him to the ground and threatened to kill him.

---

When they finally get into Titanpointe, through the tunnel and into the building, Mulder gets caught and Scully gets away. He can't help thinking that's appropriate; she's always been the smart one, and is probably the reason he's alive right now. He isn't sure whether or not to be grateful that he decided to ask her to work on that case the night before.

The agents from Perlieu take him to Erika Price, the woman he remembers from the year before who spoke of space colonization and wanted the smoker dead. She still seems to want that—one of the first things she says is that he is refusing to answer the “question of his father”—but she speaks more on the evolution of the human species. Of the benefits of the simulation, and its essentialness to the survival of mankind. She emphasizes his role in all this, the fact that Langly chose to contact him. She wants something from him.

Mulder plays along. It seems like the safest route. “If I were to change my course of action and, um, terminate my father,” he says, “would I be able to upload to the simulation? And could Agent Scully be with me?”

It's not a lie. He doesn't want to update to this particularly simulation, of course, he's trying to play into Price's hands, but it's not a lie. In an ideal situation, he wants that with Scully. He's wanted that with Scully for years.

Price explains the benefits, the process. She says, “One of our best incentives here is that you and loved ones don't ever die,” and Mulder almost wishes.

---

Scully can't stop touching him after it's all over. After she's shut the simulation down, after Mulder's fought off the Russian assassin and entered the room, weary and beaten down and covered in sweat. Her hands are pressed to his chest, his cheek, just relieved that he's all right. That the danger seems to have faded now, that they're both safe. The people from Perlieu disappear, taking the simulation with them, but their name is cleared, and that's more than enough for her. She's absolutely exhausted. She and Mulder take a taxi to the nearest airport and buy two tickets home, and she leans bonelessly against his shoulder in the airport as they wait for the plane, not caring. They sleep on each other's shoulders on the plane, pulling up the armrests and huddling together wearily. “When we get home, I'm sleeping until Thanksgiving,” Mulder jokes, wrapping an arm tight around her shoulders, and she murmurs her agreement against his shoulder sleepily.

It's early evening by the time they get home, and despite having slept for most of the flight, it's a short flight and Scully's still exhausted. She doesn't bother with the formality of Bethesda; they take the same can from the airport, right back to Farrs Corner.

The house is even more of a mess than it was when they left; Scully surveys it as they enter, surmises that Perlieu must have searched it. She absently thinks, Our house, again, almost grimacing at the thought of how long it will take to tidy up, at the idea of strangers who tried to kill them pawing carelessly at their things. The files from Willoughby are scattered over the floor, photos and reports and lists of sightings, and she and Mulder bend down to pick them up, try to sort them out before their eyes meet and they both let them drop to the ground. They're entirely too exhausted to clean up, and the Willoughby Specter seems like a minor issue right now.

Instead, they plod over to the couch, collapsing back into their positions from the night before. Scully doesn't think that this couch has ever felt this good.

They sit in silence on the couch, closer than they were sitting before, their arms pressed together. Scully closes her eyes wearily, and is very nearly asleep before Mulder speaks. “Hey, Scully,” he whispers, tapping her hip.

She groans, shifting against him, maybe shifting a little closer. “What happened to your pact to sleep til Christmas?”

“It was Thanksgiving,” says Mulder, “and I just remembered something.”

She opens one eye to look at him. “What's that, Mulder?”

“I had a dream before those assassins broke in.” She hmms her acknowledgement, and he nods. Adds, “I think it was about the Willoughby Specter.”

The words send something of a shock through her; she opens both eyes to look in him in astonishment. “You're kidding.”

He shakes his head seriously. “I didn't really have time to… consider it, with everything that happened, but I was just thinking about it, and I think that's really what I saw.”

She chews at her lower lip, not really wanting to have this discussion. Not really wanting to think of what happened last Halloween, or of that night before her mother died; she's had enough enormous things to consider the past couple of days. “Are you sure?” she asks finally, almost regretting questioning him this much. Silly as it sounds, the two of them were so in sync these past couple of days; she felt like things were more normal than they've been in years. She doesn't want to ruin it by making him think her dismissive.

He nods. “In the dream,” he says, “I was in the woods, and I couldn't see anything, and I couldn't move my hands. And then I turned around, and it was right there. It looked exactly like it did last Halloween, Scully. And when I woke up… That had to have been a warning, don't you think? Some premonition as to what happened the other night?”

She blinks in rapid surprise, in a stunned, caught-off-guard way. “I don't know, Mulder,” she says. “I… It might've been because we were going over the case before we fell asleep.”

Deep in thought, Mulder shrugs, and she can't tell if it's an agreeable shrug. “Could be.”

She chews her lip again, reaches over and pats his hand. “We can worry about Willoughby later,” she says. “We need to sleep. We need to sleep for about a week, and then when we wake up, we need to clean. And probably take that trip to Ikea.”

“Hmm.” He catches her hand in his and squeezes before letting go. “A trip to Ikea does sound nice.”

“It's almost a blessing in disguise,” she adds, suddenly longing to change the subject. “I've been wanting to replace some of this stuff for a while… We bought so much of it at yard sales or antique stores, and that was thirteen years ago.”

“Hmm,” Mulder says again, almost happily. Teasing. “Maybe it's about time you moved some of your fancy new apartment furniture over here, if this isn't satisfactory for you. Or at least start contributing to the house payments before you criticize.”

Scully stiffens immediately, almost involuntarily, and is scooting a few inches away from him on the couch before she can consider what she's doing. “Kidding,” Mulder says in a rush. “Of course…”

“Of course,” says Scully. But she can't seem to shake his words. They've burrowed under her skin, into that place that fears coming home. She can suddenly feel the pain in her muscles, her back, her feet more acutely. She turns towards him, trying to avoid his eyes. “I think I'm going to go lie down in the guest room for a while,” she adds, suddenly desperate to be out of the room and hating herself for it.

He nods; she can see it out of the corner of her eye, but she can't see the expression on his face. He reaches up and squeezes her shoulder gently, rubs a hand up and down. “Get some rest, Scully,” he says softly. “I'll probably be right behind you.”

Part of her wants to apologize, joke with him instead of pulling away, just wrap her arms around him and go upstairs to their bed and lie down. She called it their home. But the part of her that is still scared stands up, offers him a wobbly, I'm-so-glad-you're-okay smile—only briefly catching his own guilty expression—and starts to head upstairs.  

She takes a shower, using the shampoo Mulder started buying for her sometime last year, and heads straight to the guest room. It's the guest room, it's the room her mother used to stay in when she'd visit, Scully remembers picking out the furniture thinking that she'd never use it herself. But this is where she stays when she stays with Mulder. She has a few changes of clothes in the dresser, a cluster of makeup and face creams on the dresser, two extra blankets on the bed because she always gets too cold, and this bed is notably void of a Mulder to cuddle up with. She finger-combs her damp hair and climbs into the bed, lying against the wall. She aches from head to toe.

She can hear Mulder on the stairs, getting into the shower; she hates being a stranger from him in his own home, but she doesn't know how to approach this. How to respond when he teases her about coming home—he hasn't outright asked her since that hotel room in Willoughby, but there have been brief moments like this, and her response is usually similar. She doesn't know how to respond. She doesn't know how to go down the hall and tell Mulder that she loves him, she's always loved him, that she meant it when she called it their home, that she'd want an eternal life with him if there was a guarantee it wouldn't all be a lie. It's ridiculous, after all this time, that she doesn't know how to tell the love of her life this—it used to be so fucking easy, but there's an undeniable distance between them that's appeared, that accompanies this age-old familiarity and love. They're walking a delicate line, and she doesn't know how to cross it. She doesn't know how to come home.

---

Scully leaves sometime the next day. She leaves after they've both slept for many, many hours, after Mulder's woken up between cold sheets, disgusted with himself for making that stupid joke. She leaves under the excuse of, “I need to go check on the house, make sure no one… raided it or anything. And I should probably take Daggoo off the neighbor's hands.” Thank God the dog wasn't here. Mulder nods, Scully gives him a hug at the door and promises to see him at work in the next day or two. He tells her to take all the time she needs, and means it wholeheartedly.

He goes back to bed, his back screaming in pain. He retrieves some Icy Hot from the bathroom cabinet and climbs into bed, trying not to wish she was here, trying not to wish himself back to that couch with her right beside him.

When he goes into work the next day, out of some sheer stubbornness towards the ache in his back and his frustration at the apocalyptic state of the house, he has the mess of a clearly searched (nearly ransacked) office and several voicemails on the office answering machine waiting for him. He deletes every single one that has to do with the Perlieu ordeal before coming across one with a familiar voice, the one he heard over the phone a few days ago. It's Ryan Caruthers, speaking in that same rushed, angry voice. He says, “This is Ryan Caruthers again. Uh, I know I asked you to look into that case from 2002, but I need you to look into something else. I need you to dig into the murder of my parents.” He pauses, takes a shaky breath. “Ian and Marion Caruthers, okay? It's an X-File or whatever, it's not just a normal murder. Please look into it.”

The message cuts off abruptly with a brief burst of static.

Mulder chews his bottom lip. Sits at the desk and reaches into his briefcase to retrieve the Willoughby files that he'd reorganized this morning before leaving.