Scully's second impression of Judy Poundstone is very different than the first; she finds her antagonistic this time, startlingly so. She remains coy about her potential involvement in Arkie's death, as well as her brother's involvement, but her response to the whole thing makes Scully think that she must be involved, somehow. She supposes that the autopsy will shed some light on that subject.
Before Scully leaves, Judy begins to sling insults in the same matter she slings her pudding. She clearly has an infatuation with Mulder, and suggests that he would forget all about Scully, that she doesn't know what Mulder sees in her. She calls her dried up, not even half a woman. Past the age where she can have children. It's silly and petty, it shouldn't bother her, but it does, when she thinks about what happened last week. Mulder deserves someone who is willing to come home to him, someone who will actually be there and tell him what they want, instead of being wishy-washy and detached. Maybe he really does deserve someone who would be able to give him more kids. She's never considered that possibility, with everything that's happened, but maybe that is something he wants.
She tries to ignore it. Swallows it back and goes to the local morgue to perform the autopsy. An examination of Arkie Seavers seems to contradict her theory from the night before, that Arkie had killed himself. If her conversation with Judy had her suspecting that, somehow, the Poundstones were involved in Arkie's death, this autopsy has her nearly certain. The angle of the strangulation wound suggests that Arkie couldn't have done it himself, as well as a lack of strain on the arm muscles. She finds tissue under his fingernails, like he'd tried to fight off his attacker, but when she runs the DNA test, she finds that it's a match for Arkie himself. So there's no telling if that's from the attack, some strange confirmation that Mulder's insistence of doppelgangers, or from an earlier incident. But she leaves the morgue fairly sure that Arkie Seavers didn't kill himself.
She goes back to the hotel from the morgue, surprised to find how quickly the day has passed. She hasn't heard from Mulder outside of a couple texts clarifying that he's talking to the families of the other recent victims, and so she picks up some dinner and heads back to the hotel.
Scully tries to relax, tries to focus on the case and banish thoughts of ghosts or of Mulder growing tired of her, but something in her can't shake the gloom of the last week. Somehow, it only seems to be getting worse; she can't loosen up, she can't let go of these things. She stands in front of the mirror as she unbuttons her blouse, her ring-less cross (she'd left it on the bedside table for some unknown reason) nestled against her collarbone, and all she can hear is Judy's voice as she looks at her reflection. She's a little disgusted with herself, for lingering on these meaningless words, for letting them bother her so much, but a part of her can't help it. Can't let it go.
She's still standing in front of the mirror when she hears a knock at the door. “Just a minute,” she calls out, rebuttoning a couple buttons, and crosses the room to open the door.
It's Mulder, in his side of the suite, leaning against the door with a degree of casualness. She hadn't even known he was back. “Hey,” he says. “What'd you find out, Scully?”
“That Dookie winging past your head sends a sharp message to your brain,” she says, reaching up to remove her earrings as she crosses the room.
“What message is that?” he asks, the tiniest bit of laughter in his voice.
She chuckles, too, holding both earrings in her hand. “To gather the other apes and make war on your dread enemy.” She sets them down next to her cell phone, next to the tiny good circle of her ring. She wonders if Mulder has noticed that she has it.
“I believe I'm in touch with that feeling, Scully,” he says.
“Really? Did you have Dookie flung at you, too?”
“Uh, figuratively,” he says, fully entering the room to stand by the table near the door. “By the queerest little man in the queerest little house.”
“I don't know, Mulder,” she says, sitting on the bed. “This Judy, she has some malign influence over these victims, and I'm at a loss to figure out what it is.”
“Yeah, I agree. There is some evil in the air, Scully,” says Mulder.
For a second, she almost knows what he's talking about, but she dismisses it immediately. “No, it's not evil—it's mental illness,” she says, almost more to reassure herself than him. “There's some kind of psychic transference.”
“I wouldn't rule out ghosts,” Mulder says.
“Well,” she says with a scoff, thinking of Willoughby, and all of that Specter nonsense that cannot possibly be real, “except for the fact that they don't exist?”
“Of course there are ghosts,” he says, as if to remind her that they’ve just recently been investigating just such a ghost.
She'd rather forget. “I mean, science has proven that the stimulation of the brain's left anterior insula is linked to the feeling of a sensed presence, and that repeated stimulation to an area of the left temporoparietal junction is what promotes the sense of a shadowy figure, collectively known as the Gastaut-Geschwind syndrome,” she says, still reassuring herself. Still justifying everything. What she kept hearing last night was Mulder, of course, and the other night at home can be explained by this, as well as the malfunctioning house. The shadow in the mirror. All of it has a rational explanation.
“Talk about flinging dookie,” he says, joking. And she should laugh, but the thought of Judy and that pudding takes her right back to that room. She sighs wearily; it's been a long week.
She’s saying it almost before she can think about it: “Mulder, do you think of me as old?”
“What?” he says, laughing gently. “Where is that coming from?”
“Well…” she starts, unsure of how to explain, as he comes to sit on the bed beside her.
“I mean, maybe in dog years. No,” he says comfortingly. “What are you… what are you talking about?”
“Well, a woman thinks about these things,” she says, very nearly sheepish. Certainly embarrassed.
“No, Scully, you're… You still got it going on, you…” He chuckles, a little awkwardly, so ridiculously sweet that it does make her feel better. Just a little better. “You still got some scoot in your boot,” he finishes.
She smiles warmly, genuinely. “I'm gonna boot you out of here,” she says, pushing gently at his shoulder, and he goes, agreeable as she's ever seen him.
“Knock three times!” he calls over his shoulder as she closes the door behind him. She leans against it, the smile slipping away from her face. She misses him. She's been his partner again for two years now, she stays with him almost every week, and she still misses him. She doesn't know why she booted him out. For a second, she thinks about opening the door, asking him to come back.
She used to kick him out of her room in 2000, when their relationship was so new, and she would always open the door eventually, and he would always be waiting on the other side, leaning against the door jamb and smirking at her. She hears his footsteps across the floorboards on the other side, crossing the room.
Just because he's willing to reassure her doesn't mean that he wants to be in here with her. She's still scared, after everything. She sighs to herself wistfully, pushes off of the door and walks back to her bed.
She curls up on her side of the bed and falls asleep quickly, surprisingly quickly and surprisingly calmly. She sleeps well, and that is a shock, too, after the week she's had. When she wakes up, she is cold, lying on her stomach on his side of the bed.
The next morning, she and Mulder disperse to interview the Poundstone siblings again. Judy is calm again, feigning the same innocence as before, and claiming no memory of their last interaction. She refuses to stop playing Hangman with her brother, and Scully isn't sure how much sway those games actually have over those deaths, but she knows that they can't have no sway at all. Judy does offer her a solution—protection, she claims, in the form of bread pills she takes every morning. No medicinal power, but the nurses claim to take them to protect themselves. Scully can't bring herself to throw them away. She tucks them into her jacket pocket.
Arkie's lawyer shows up at their hotel, ranting about how he's being stalked by his double. Scully tells him that he is making it worse. “Your paranoia is only gonna feed on itself,” she says. “Y-You know that mass hysteria is just a symptom of fears run wild.” It's the kind of thing she's been telling herself ever since the sleepless nights, the paranoia and the hearing things began. Some small comfort.
Mulder advises him to take precautions to avoid the danger. They tell him to go home and lock his doors, and Mulder hands over his card. Scully tells him that it can't haunt him if he doesn't let it—more of the things she's been telling herself, but she means it sincerely.
As the lawyer leaves, Mulder says, “Like I said before, clearly there's a dark influence set loose in this town, Scully.”
He could be talking about Willoughby as easy as he's talking about this town, but this is the case they are on, and the case of the Willoughby Specter should hold no sway over that. “Well, by ‘dark influence,’ again, I presume you mean evil, Mulder,” says Scully. “But there is no such thing as evil. I mean, evil is a concept, like the Devil.”
“Oh, the Devil is a concept?” Mulder asks over his shoulder as he retrieves his keys from his car. “Certainly, that's not what they taught young Dana Katherine Scully in Sunday school, is it?”
“Well, I certainly believed in the literal Devil when I was a child,” she says as he closes his car door and turns back to her.
“So you don't believe that we, as humans, have dark sides that we sublimate or repress?”
“Well, while anyone with an imagination can entertain acting out violence or antisocial behavior, that doesn't mean that there's an evil twin lurking inside of us.”
“Speak for yourself, Scully,” he says. “And tell that to Chuck and Judy.”
“Chuck and Judy are mentally ill, Mulder,” she replies matter-of-factly.
“Explain how they're doing it,” he challenges her.
“I can't explain it,” she says, and he nods, a little smugly. “But,” she adds, “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever is remaining, even if improbable, must be the truth.”
“No sugar, Sherlock,” he retorts, his car alarm chirping.
“But I have to admit,” she says sheepishly, “I, uh, still sleep with my back to the door just in case the Devil comes in the night.” It's the closest she's willing to come to admitting what she's been going through. She locks her own car and heads towards the hotel.
“Can never be too careful,” Mulder says behind her, so quietly she almost misses it.
They order in a pizza and eat it in Mulder's side of the suite, where he's folded up the couch. They discuss the case, eating off of paper plates the way they used to when they were young and newly partners, and the way they've done dozens of times on cases in the past two years. It's companionable, sitting knee to knee in the couch, discussing dark forces and the possibility of patterns and the intentions of the Poundstone siblings. It feels familiar, easy, almost like nothing had ever happened last week. But they still depart to their separate rooms at the end of the night.
Scully is hoping for a peaceful night, like the night before, but of course she wouldn't be so lucky. She sleeps in snatches again, her spine crawling, jolting at the slightest sound. At one point, she's nearly asleep when she swears she hears someone behind her, and she rolls over in a panic only to find Mulder. She gasps a little with fading fear, rolls over and says, “Please, Mulder, you've got to quit scaring me like that.”
“Oh, I'd like to quit,” he says.
The reasoning doesn't need an explanation. Arkie Seavers's lawyer is dead.
They go to his home and find his head detached from his body, blood splattering the walls. Scully notes that while it's unlikely that a man could cut his own head off, it's not impossible. Mulder notes that the man was scared out of his mind. He clearly believes that this was not the work of suicide, and a small part of Scully is inclined to agree. Still, there is nothing more they can do tonight, and so they agree to head back to the hotel.
On their way out, as Scully is weaving through the crowd, she sees something strange, something impossible. Her own face in the nearby crowd, watching her. Glaring at her. She squints at the crowd in confusion, trying to get a better look, but someone briefly blocks her line of sight, and by the time they are gone, so is the face.
“You coming, Scully?” Mulder calls on the other side of the car, and she climbs it, silently repeating her former words to herself. It's paranoia, it's her imagination, it's some strange suggestion of her brain, but it isn't real. Maybe this is a manifestation of the things she was seeing at her house, or maybe this is something completely different, but it's not real.
When she and Mulder get back to the hotel, she crawls into her bed without bothering to turn the lights on, Mulder padding into the other room tiredly as they exchange their second good nights. She'd like to go back to sleep, to hopefully get some uninterrupted rest, but she's spooked. The image of her own face glaring at her hovers behind her eyelids, small noises are making her jump. She lays on her side away from the door, closes her eyes and tries to fall back asleep, but the dread won't leave her. She feels as if someone is standing over her shoulder, the way Mulder has been the last two times someone died. The feeling grows stronger, shiver up her spine, and she turns over in a panic, hoping she sees Mulder's face instead of her own. But there is nothing there.
She gasps in relief or in panic, rolling on to her back. She can't decide if she'd rather something be there, or nothing. Noises with nothing attached to them makes her panic instinctively, but she certainly doesn't want someone threatening to be there. She wishes Mulder was the one there this time, and he didn't have a crime scene for them to rush off to.
This is ridiculous. She's been jumpy for over a week now with no end, and she's tired of feeling this way. She thinks of that night when she thought she heard an intruder, when she reached for her phone to text Mulder, because she was afraid. This doesn't feel very different. She's on edge and admittedly a little frightened, and she doesn't want to be alone. So she won't be.
It's largely an impulse, but she's going to do it. She gets out of bed, walking across the room and opening the connecting door. Doesn't bother to announce herself because he hasn't before; call it revenge. He's lying on his side, on his side of the bed, back to the door; she stands behind him until he turns over, startled. “Oh,” he says good-naturedly. “Speak of the Devil.”
“I can't sleep, Mulder,” she says honestly.
“Oh. What's the problem?” He shifts in bed, turning to face her.
She sighs, reluctant, trying to decide how much she wants to explain. She settles for, “Something about this case is getting under my skin.”
“Well, we've had stranger cases, Scully,” he says, on his side facing her, his arm folded under his head.
“Can you hold me?” she asks, also completely on impulse. Without thinking. But she doesn't think it requires a lot of thought; it's what she wants. It's what she's wanted since that night she pulled away, that she didn't know how to ask for. She's spooked, and she's lonely, and this feels right, feels almost brave.
She sees the briefest moment of hesitation, enough to strike wavering fear and embarrassment, before he says, “Yeah, I can do that,” and she wonders why she ever doubted him.
She climbs onto the rickety couch bed beside him, her back to his chest. He wraps his arms around her, easily because he's been doing it for over a decade, and it feels like home. She can't believe she's gone so long without this.
“What's gonna happen?” she says in a small, vulnerable voice, because suddenly all she can see is the bags she packed to move out, her rejections of Mulder in the past, telling herself it was just for a few months and that quickly turning into four years. She needs to know what their future is, what Mulder wants their future to be. If he even wants a future with her.
“What's gonna happen when?” Mulder asks sleepily from behind her.
“When we're old,” she says.
He scoffs out a laugh against her hair. “What do you mean ‘when?’”
She laughs a little, too, but the thought won't leave her. The uncertainties that have been plaguing her. “I mean… sooner or later, we're gonna retire, and…” she tries to explain.
“Hmm.” Mulder nudges her shoulder with her chin.
“... Are we gonna spend time together?” she finishes lamely.
“I'll come push your wheelchair with my wheelchair,” he murmurs, his nose brushing the corner of her eye.
She chuckles softly, says, “That's not what I mean.”
“Oh, I'll always be around, Scully,” he says, and a sudden warmth fills her from head to toe. “Offering bulletproof theories of genius that you fail to assail with your inadequate rationality.”
She scoffs out another laugh, pretending that she isn't incredibly relieved that she didn't screw this up. “And I'll always be around to prove you wrong,” she says, because she wants him to know. He hmms in response, and she adds, “Promise.”
He nestles closer, holding onto her tighter, and she'd love to just stay in this moment forever, here with the man she loves. But there is still that unsure part of herself, and she can't let it go. She needs to absolve herself of any uncertainties. “No, but that's not what I mean,” she continues.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
There is a long pause, a silence she spends considering if she even wants to ask him this, if she really wants to know the answer. She sighs a little, says gingerly, “What if you meet someone?” He shifts against her startledly, like she's caught him off guard, and she has no idea how to take it. She continues, “What if you meet someone… younger, who… wants to have kids?”
“Oh,” he says, “that's what you mean.” He still sounds so caught off guard, so shocked. He says, “Well… you could do the same. You could meet someone, and… have kids.”
She laughs a little at the thought, astonished. Uncertain as to whether or not he actually thinks that's a possibility, whether or not he knows what he means to her. “Mulder, that's not gonna happen,” she says.
“That's nonsense.” He nudges her a little.
“No, it's not,” she says firmly. “I'm… I'm at the end of that journey.”
“Do you want to have more kids?”
The question genuinely shocks her; she never expected to be having this conversation with Mulder. Not after William, not so late in life. “Well…” she says, hesitating, “... I would have liked to have had another one.” Because it's true; a long time ago, she always thought she'd have more than one. She always wanted a big family. And years later, it had gotten to the point where having another child seemed impossible, even immoral because of what happened with William, and she hadn't thought about it since. But in a different life…
“Mm,” Mulder hums quietly. “At the risk of sounding insensitive, what's stopping you?”
“Besides the fact that the first time was a miracle? And besides the fact that I don't have anyone to have one with even if I could?”
There's a long, pregnant (Excuse the pun, Scully thinks to herself almost bitterly) pause before Mulder finally speaks. “You're a woman of science,” he says.
She laughs softly at that. “Mulder,” she says, “sometimes I think the world is going to hell and that we're the only two people who can save it.” That's how it's always felt, almost since the beginning. The two of them against the world, always.
“The world is going to hell, Scully. The president working to bring down the FBI along with it.”
“What if we lose our jobs?” she says softly, wondering. Two years ago, she thought that this stint at the FBI would be brief, and now she can't imagine doing anything else. Working with anyone else.
“Yeah.” He bumps his cheek against her shoulder, resting it there. “Then what would we do?”
There is another long pause, but this one feels full of possibility. She is here, and she is being held by her husband, and she Bt him with everything in her. She turns gently in his arms, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as Mulder's palm slides over her stomach. “We'll think of something,” she says.
She smiles more broadly at him, and he is smiling, too. His palm is so soft over her stomach, so warm, and she moves closer to him almost unconsciously. Reaches up with quivering fingertips and touches the side of his face. He’s watching her carefully, like he might scare her away. She kisses him first, cupping his face in her hands, soft and sweet and a little sloppy. He makes a small sound of pleased surprise, his hands sliding down to her hips, sliding under her shirt. He tugs her closer and she wraps herself around him, her arms folding tight around his neck. “Are you sure…” she mumbles, purely out of caution.
He kisses her again in lieu of an answer. His hands fumbling, unbuttoning the buttons of her pajama shirt.
Afterwards, she falls asleep curled up against his shoulder, wrapped up in a sheet, springs bearing into her back. His arm against her back, his hands rubbing over the chilly tops of her feet. She goes to sleep warm, feeling calmer than she has in months. She can't believe she went so long without this.
She wakes up to something not unsimilar to chaos. Mulder in a panic, insisting he saw his doppelganger. She admits she saw her double, too, which only seems to spur him on. She tries to reassure him, to get him to calm down, but he seems bound and determined. He wants her to go and visit Judy, and she hardly sees a better solution to the issue, and so she goes.
She’s driving to the hospital when she sees it again: the unnerving sight of her own face from the rearview mirror. But this time, she is less unnerved. This time, she finds the whole thing a lot more annoying.
“My rational mind knows that you are only a… a manifest psychic ideation borne of latent hostility,” she tells the image firmly—maybe out of courage, but more likely out of pure irritation. She's tired of this, dark, menacing shapes over her shoulder. “Maybe Mulder was right, you're evil incarnate. It's all you are.”
She looks at the mirror again, and then swivels a bit to check for sure. The doppelganger is gone.
She breathes a small sigh of relief, of satisfaction. It's strange, but it feels like a triumph over whatever images and sounds have been tormenting her over the last week. Like a small victory. She feels better, like she's had some sort of adrenaline shot, stemming both from her discussion with Mulder and from this.
She drives the rest of the way to the hospital and finds Judy Poundstone dead on the floor of her hospital room. Unexplainably dead, considering they just saw her not five minutes ago, but Scully has an idea what has happened. She finds a game of Hangman on the floor; the answer is Chucky.
Across town, Mulder finds a similar scene after a scuffle with his doppelganger. Dead Chucky Poundstone. A game of Hangman reading Judith, and two more, older ones reading Mom and Dad.
Scully is packing up evidence in her half of the hotel room when Mulder enters, says, “So I was thinking maybe we could get a couple hours in before check out time?” She gives him a questioning look, and he continues innocently, “I'm just talking about getting some shut eye,” like she hadn't woken up in his bed this morning.
“I'm glad to hear that, Mulder,” she says carefully. A replica of their conversation the first night. They haven't talked about what happens now, she doesn't know what he wants from this.
“Yeah,” he says. “Uh… I guess I should hit the hay.”
She can't gauge his meaning, can't tell if they've fallen back into their old habits of saying things without really saying them. At times, she had thought they'd gotten past that; but then again, look at their last week. They've been veering away from the difficult subjects for years. It's why their relationship fell apart the first time, it's what keeps making it fall apart. “Okay,” she says.
“Yeah,” he says. “But you need anything, you just, uh, call me.”
She's tempted to just ask what it is he wants. But instead, she says, “I can't imagine that I will.” She feels somewhat safer, somewhat less paranoid, somewhat more capable. But she is still scared, too scared to ask him to stay. She is briefly, mildly disgusted with herself.
He nods a little at her, crosses the room and closes the door behind him. She keeps her eyes on the door, like it's going to open. Maybe. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. Maybe she should push through this part of her that's holding back, that's still hesitating. She couldn't imagine that she'd need anything, but then again. “But then again,” she mutters to herself, courage building inside of her, “it's not out of the realm of extreme possibility.”
She crosses to the door, opens it, and there he is. Leaning against the door like it's 2000 again. She smiles at him, can't help it. “Hi,” she says, maybe a little tentative. Maybe a little welcoming.
Mulder leans in this time, kisses her warmly. “Hi,” he mumbles against her mouth, and she laughs a little, somewhat in relief. She takes his hand and tugs him into the room, shutting the door behind him.
“I didn't mean it,” she says.
They're curled up in bed (a real bed, thank you very much), wrapped up in the comforter and silky sheet, Scully lying half on top of Mulder, and Mulder’s head half-pressed into her neck. He stirs slowly, his hair rubbing against her chin like a needy cat. “Didn't mean what?” he says with something of a nervous chuckle. Like he's scared she's going to take back everything she's said these past couple days.
She brushes her lips over his tousled hair, something warm building in her chest. “What I said the night we got back from New York,” she murmurs. “Or… the way I reacted.”
Mulder lifts his head, rumpled and sleepy, his eyes soft and gentle. “Oh, Scully,” he whispers, lifting a hand to stroke her hair back. “I'm the one who should be sorry. I said I wouldn't push you about moving back in, and then I…”
“No, Mulder. You shouldn't have to be sorry.” She tips her head forward until her forehead is against his. He slides his heavy palms up her hips, and she shivers, burrowing closer. “I… I've been indecisive,” she mutters. “I feel like I've lead you on.”
He shakes his head. “Never,” he says, and his nose bumps against hers as he leans in to kiss her on the mouth. “You've never led me on. Scully, I'd wait as long as necessary for you.”
Nearly embarrassed, nearly overwhelmed, she ducks her head until her face is against his shoulder. “You would?” she mumbles shyly, so quiet she almost hopes he doesn't hear.
“I waited seven years, didn't I?” he teases, nudging her side. Scully chuffs out a relieved laugh against his shoulder, and he kisses the top of her head. “I can wait a little longer,” he murmurs. “I would wait forever.”
She presses her forehead against his shoulder hard before drawing back to meet his eyes. “I don't want you to have to wait,” she says, surprisingly vulnerable, even to herself. Some uncertain emotion passes over his eyes, but he says nothing. He watches her, carefully, his face composed, trying not to show his cards. She reaches up with one hand to touch the side of his face. “I don't know if I'm… ready to come home yet,” she says softly. “But… I want to try again. With us.”
He says nothing. He says nothing, but she can feel the nervous thud of his heart against their ribs. She doesn't move her hand.
A smile breaks out over his face, slowly. He reaches up to cover her hand with his, and she intertwines their fingers.
They leave for home later that day. It seems so much more ridiculous now, that they drove here separately, considering everything—Scully thinks that right now, she'd love nothing more than a morning spent in the car with Mulder. But they did drive separately, and it seems like they'll have to drive back separately as well.
They're carrying their suitcases out to their various cars when Mulder catches Scully's hand in his, squeezes her fingers. “Let me buy you breakfast,” he says.
Her brow furrows, and she gives him a funny look. “Mulder, there is a free continental breakfast at the hotel,” she points out. “And it's closer to lunch time than breakfast.”
“Oh, those hotel breakfasts lose all the glamour and charm after the second or third morning.” He grins, nudging her hip with their tangled up hands. “Let me buy you breakfast, Scully.”
He's such a sap. She rolls her eyes and lets him buy her breakfast.
They meet at a restaurant outside of town, not wanting to tempt fate and stay there any longer. It's the type of greasy spoon they used to eat at a thousand times back in the day. Scully loves it. They sit in a booth catty-cornered to the wall that must be too small; their knees keep knocking together under the table.
They spend too long in the diner, drinking their coffee and arguing about nothing. At one point, Mulder jokingly suggests a game of Hangman, and she shoots him a look both of skepticism, and a reminder that he didn't seem too keen on the idea of Hangman the night before. She sketches out Tic-tac-toe on a napkin instead.
Just as she's winning her third round of the game, Mulder's phone beeps loudly on the table, vibrating hard enough to rattle his silverware. Scully gets a brief glimpse of the display as he scoops it up to check it. “Ryan Caruthers is still emailing you?”
“Snoop,” he says lightly, clicking on the email. “Yeah, the kid is nothing if not persistent. I figured I'd check the case report again while we're between cases.”
She bumps her knee against his. “I'll remind you that we have a report due to Skinner promptly,” she says, and he hums in response. She leans forward and catches a few lines of the email: Please keep looking into the case… I think they made a mistake… “Does he think that his uncle is innocent?” she asks.
“I'm not sure,” he says, setting his phone down. “I considered it, but the report seems to implicate Jared Caruthers pretty heavily… I looked at the autopsy report, but I'm horrible at that stuff.”
“Hmm.” Their knees knock together again. She takes a long sip of her coffee. “I could take a look at them for you, if you want.”
He grins, a little sheepishly. “Would you mind? I know it's not technically a case we're technically working on.”
In the back of her mind, part of her doesn't particularly want to deal with the case. But the rest of her is mentally chiding herself, telling herself that whatever happened to her in Willoughby was a long time ago, and it is time to let it go. It can't hurt her if she doesn't let it.
“Of course I'll take a look, Mulder,” she says. “Although we might want to save it for after hours, or when things are slow in the office. After Skinner got so upset the last time, we should probably hold off until there's an actual crime to investigate.”
“Hmm.” He grins again, wider this time. “You're probably right. We'll have to work late one of these nights.”
“Too bad,” she says lightly, like she hasn't worked late with Mulder a million times before.
“Oh, don't worry, Scully,” says Mulder. Their knees brush together again. “I'll take you to dinner first.”
Contacting the FBI was probably a dumb fucking idea, but Ryan didn't know what else to do. Doesn't know what else to do. These past couple years have felt like a downhill slide, ever since he started visiting Uncle Jared. Ever since other people started seeing the ghost again.
The thing is that it's been exhausting. The whole goddamn thing. He's spent weeks now digging into the murder of his parents, his one life-long nightmare. He's talked to people, tried to access crime scene reports, written Jared emails with questions that Jared tries to dodge answering. It gets exhausting, having to relive that over and over again.
But he can't stop. He knows he can't stop. It's getting worse.
It happens again one night. He's asleep, tangled up in his greasy sheets that he probably needs to wash, when he hears a loud banging sound. A slamming sound.
Ryan jolts awake, his teeth chattering. He's trying to get his bearings when he hears another bang, louder this time.
He groggily shoves the sheets aside and stumbles to his feet, purely on instinct. He's not even thinking about the ghost; he's thinking about his aunt, wondering if she's gotten back yet, wondering if she's okay. “Aunt Annie?” he calls blearily, pushing the door open.
There's no answer. The hallway is empty.
Ryan grits his teeth, shakes his head. It's becoming more obvious what's happening here. He slams his door hard, making sure to push at it so it clicks all the way shut. So it won't be easy openable. (He'd lock it, but the last time he did that, Annie panicked when she couldn't get the door open.) He pushes at the door with his shoulder a little for emphasis, and then turns back to his bed, intending to text Aunt Annie and see if she'll be home soon.
As soon as his back turns, he hears it: the sharp rattle of the doorknob.
He turns hard on his heel, hands held out in front of him like a pathetic imitation of a Jedi, like he's trying to protect himself. But the door doesn't open. It only rattles, as if someone was trying desperately to get it open.
Ryan stumbles back a few steps until his thighs hit the mattress of his bed, his hands lowering to his side. “Nice try!” he calls out, and ignores the way his voice quivers.
The doorknob doesn't stop rattling. The motion almost seems to increase, the cross hanging on the back of the door joining in, almost vibrating in place. Ryan bites down on his lip so hard it bleeds.
The rattling spreads from the door to the walls: the crosses he'd hung up there rattling too, the rosary beads he'd bought on eBay and dangled from the doorknob of his closet door clacking together like chattering teeth. The printouts he has of crosses from the Internet, that he taped up, go fluttering madly to the ground. His dresser starts shaking in place, the drawers banging back and forth; behind him, the bed starts to move, rattling up and down as if there was an earthquake. Ryan can nearly feel the vibrations beneath his feet.
He stumbles madly away from the bed, to the center of the room, and shouts indignantly for the mess to stop. But the chaos continues, all the furniture in his room being shaken by an invisible hand. A picture he taped the wall detaches and flies across the room, hitting him in the face; he hears another one ripping in half. His school books clatter off of his desk. The cup of water on his nightstand overturns on top of his digital clock. The pillows from his bed go flying, too, hit him in the face with more force than he ever would've expected from a pillow and knock him right on his ass.
“Fuck!” he yells, more surprised than anything, but it seems to be something of a trigger. The room freezes in place, like it's a movie someone paused. The pillows land on top of him, considerably lighter. The doorknob gives one last rattle, but it won't open. He didn't lock it, but he still knows (or maybe at this point he's just hoping) that it won't open.
Breathing hard, Ryan shifts on the ground, catching the photo from the wall under his leg. He picks it up carefully and sees that it's his parents’ wedding photo. It's unharmed, which he's grateful for, but it's hard to look at; their cheery smiles seem almost sinister in this context. Ryan stands and sets it on his bedspread.
The other photo, the one that ripped, is sitting on the bedspread, too. Ryan catches a glimpse of a black gown as he goes to pick it up and knows instantly what it is: the photo of his dad and Annie and Jared at Annie's high school graduation. Annie doesn't like that he has that up, but he's never taken it down, and she hasn't said anything since he first put it up. Ryan winces when he sees the rip, winces harder when he sees where the rip is.
The larger half still shows his dad and Annie, their arms around each other, grinning into the camera. But the fingers held up in bunny ears behind Annie's square graduation cap are missing the rest of the person they belong to. When Ryan finds the other half, his fears are confirmed: his Uncle Jared has been ripped out of the picture.
A sudden scratching sound comes to life out in the hallway, one that Ryan has learned to recognize well in his sixteen years. The lighting of a match. The flickery flames are visible under the doorway, accompanied by the creaking footsteps of the ghost walking away.
It's getting stronger. This is the one phrase in Ryan's head: It's getting stronger.
He strides easily across the room, hands shaking in fear, and locks his door.