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fourteen.

november, 2017

Mulder gets a file across his desk one day from Norfolk, Virginia. A stabbing on an abandoned ship called the Chimera. Two teenage girls, no clear motivation. And no clear supernatural involvement. It's intriguing, but he doesn't see much point in going out there; the local PD can probably handle it. He puts it aside on his desk to check with Scully tomorrow, make sure she has no interest.

Scully's headed home for the evening already. She's spent the last couple nights at her place, alone. She kissed him goodbye before she left, and drove back to Bethesda. He didn't argue. He's trying to be patient. He waited seven years for her, and he can wait a little while longer. He works late, falling into bad habits, reads some articles on paranormal possession that some sources sent him, and then he drives home, thinking more about the Willoughby case than the Norfolk one. He's close to just asking Skinner to officially sign off on going down to Willoughby and investigating himself, but he knows Skinner and Scully will have the same question: what are you going to investigate? It's hard to investigate on only a series of ghost sightings and a fifteen-year-old cold case.

The house is too quiet, too cold, after weeks of spending night after night with Scully. Mulder flips on the heater before making himself at home on the couch—a bad habit from the first year or so after Scully moved out. A bad habit so old he can hardly believe it. Who knew he'd be back to sleeping on the couch after all this time? He hears up a frozen meal, reviews some witness testimonies from the Jared Caruthers case, falls asleep on the couch just like he expected to. He swears it's not a cry for help or resentment that he's here alone; it's just a bad habit. He knows Scully would disapprove if she saw him, asleep on their lumpy couch covered only in an Afghan and one of the sweaters they've more or less shared that fits him better than her, his glasses still on his face—but it's not enough to make him go upstairs. He falls asleep mostly warm, the TV lights flickering over his face.

When he opens his eyes, later, he is not at home. He's standing in a hospital hallway, the fluorescent lights flickering above him. It's cold, so cold; he's shivering. He wraps his arms around himself, trying to take in his surroundings. The walls are too white. It doesn't feel real.

He starts to call for Scully, almost instinctively—if he's in a hospital, for whatever reason, odds are that Scully is there with him. But he doesn't even make it through her name before he sees it, as he's turning around. The dark figure, hat pulled down over his eyes, cloak fluttering as if it is the Ghost of Christmas Future. The one he recognizes from a dream a few weeks ago.

The figure—the Specter—raises one white-gloved hand and motions for Mulder to follow. So he does.  

He follows the shadowy figure down hallway after hallway of flickering lights, shadowy corners and buzzing bulbs. He doesn't know what's happening, or why, but the possibilities terrify him. He follows, numb to do anything else but follow, until the figure stops, so suddenly that Mulder stumbles. Stops in front of a open door.

The hall lights flicker, leaving the hall dim. The room is brighter. Mulder feels frozen, stiff and motionless, but the spirit motions him forward with a sharp, cruel smile, and he goes. He walks forward, though he doesn't want to, his heart thudding hard, his hands shaking. His breath coming in shallow gasps. When he reaches the doorway, he sees it: the silver table, the black body bag lying on it.

He shouts himself awake, quivering under the blanket on the couch. His face is wet, his hands are cold.

He is alone, he remembers, and he fumbles wildly for the phone, breathing too hard, too raspily. He needs to talk to Scully. He needs to hear her voice. He keeps seeing the body bag on the table, the Specter's familiar cold smile. The Specter brings misfortune, and it's hard to misinterpret a dream like that. His chest is too tight as he dials the number, listens to the rings, absolutely terrified that she won't answer, that he's already too late. He waits and waits for an answer, his palm pressed over his mouth, but the phone just keeps ringing and ringing. He's on the verge of wild sobs, tears welling in his eyes, when that answer finally comes. “Mulder?” Scully mumbles on the other side, sounding confused, sounding fearful and panicked and half-asleep all at once.

“Scully, are you okay?” he blurts, stumbling to his feet. He's casting his eyes widely around the room for his shoes, for his keys, his heart racing. She's afraid, and she must be in danger, and he has to get to her before it's too late.

There's a long pause before she says, stunned, “Mulder, I'm fine. W-what's wrong? You sound…” Her voice breaks off, trembling.

He almost runs into the counter in an effort to get to the car keys before freezing in place. He's clutching the phone too hard. “You're okay?” he says softly.

“I-I had a bad nightmare, but… I'm… I'm okay, Mulder, yes.” Her voice is soothing, even as shaken as it sounds. The best sound he's ever heard, if only because it means she's still here. “What's wrong? Are you okay?”

He gasps in relief, leaning hard against the counter until its edge bites into his ribs. He presses his hands hard over his eyes. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “Yeah, I just… I had a nightmare, too. About the Specter… And I just…” He shakes his head hard, breaking off his words. Scully doesn't need to know what he saw. “Bad night for nightmares, huh,” he cracks, but the words come out clumsy and dry.

“Yes, I suppose so,” Scully says softly.

He's still tempted to go there, to check on her, but his fear of losing her is still nearly neck-in-neck with his fear of pushing her away. And he's not sure if she'd welcome a random, panicky midnight visit. He yanks a hand through his hair, taking shallow breaths. Says, “D-do you want to talk about your dream?” he asks softly. “You sounded pretty shaken, honey.” His voice is rough; he's as shaken as she is. He wonders if she has noticed.

Scully's voice falters. “I… I'd like to talk about it tomorrow,” she says with an exhale. “If that's alright. I'm just… a little unnerved, and I'd rather talk about it tomorrow.”

“O-of course,” he says immediately. The sound of her voice is so precious he almost wants to beg her not to hang up but the words won't come. “I just wanted to know that you're okay. W-wanted to hear your voice.”

Her voice warms on the other end. “I'm here, Mulder. I'm okay,” she says softly. “I promise. I'm just fine.”

He presses his forehead into his palm. He wants to tell her more about what he saw—about the hospital, about the body bag—but he doesn't want to frighten her. He knows she doesn't believe in the ghost. He'd halfway expected her to tell him, It was just a dream, but considering her own bad dream, he guesses she's not banking on, It's just a dream. “Call me if you need anything, okay?” he says instead, his voice rough. “Even if it's just to talk.”

There's that fear back in her voice when she speaks again, a sort of weary sadness and worry. “I will,” she says softly. “I will. Get some sleep, okay? You need your rest. I'll see you tomorrow. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” he says. “I'll see you tomorrow.”

It's so routine that he doesn't realize it until she's already hung up. And when he does, a wave of stunned happiness hits him, so strong he nearly forgets about his fear.

That's the first time she's said it, since they came back together, since they started working together again. That's the first time she's said she loved him in such a long time.

---

Mulder's anxiety doesn't quite fade; it lessens a little, but it doesn't fade. He sleeps restlessly in their bed the rest of the night, on her side of the bed, tossing and turning for hours until he drifts off. He texts her almost as soon as he wakes up, under the guise of asking if she wants coffee, and breaths a little sigh of relief when she answers. He speeds on the way the work, as best he can, because he's ready to see her, ready for the visual confirmation that she is okay. The Willoughby Specter brings premonitions, and he doesn't know how else to interpret that one outside of someone is going to die. And he can't think of anyone at more risk for that sort of premonition than Scully.

It takes a lot not to throw his arms around her when he sees her in the office, a relieved, tight hug. But the urge changes when she turns around and he sees her face, sees the dark circles under her eyes. “Scully, are you okay?” he asks, touching her elbow gently, juggling his briefcase and the drink tray. “You look like you didn't sleep at all.”

She takes the drink tray gratefully, holding the door open for him. “I guess that it was harder to shake that dream than I expected,” she says softly, throwing him a wry grin. “I couldn't let it go, Mulder.”

He understands the feeling. He sits at the desk and she sits across from him, gulping her coffee gratefully. “Do you want to tell me about it?” he asks gently, touching her hand.

She chews at her lower lip, takes a deep breath. “I think I need to,” she says.

She starts off sitting, but she's clearly restless. She ends up pacing around the room as she talks, shifting restlessly. She tells him of waking up in a dark stranger's house, unable to move, until she felt a dark figure behind her. As soon as she could move, she tried to follow the figure, but found herself unable to leave the house. She looked through it again and again before finally coming across a snow globe with a tiny boat inside.

It sounds too similar to Mulder's dream the night before. Much, much too similar. Mulder latches on to the part where she was unable to move. “It sounds like sleep paralysis. REM atonia. Did you hear a hissing, o-or a buzzing? Did you feel an electric current running through your body?” he asks.

“No, it was different, Mulder,” she says. “I mean, after t-the initial jolt of fear, I-I felt compelled to follow the dark figure.”

“Dark figures are usually meant to be avoided,” he says, thinking of the Specter, of his own dream the night before. Wondering  if Scully saw the Specter, too. “Where was it leading you?” he asks uncertainly.

Sudden recognition spreads over Scully's face and she draws close to the desk. “There,” she says, pointing to the file that he was looking at the day before. The stabbing on the Chimera. “That’s the same boat.”

“That's an open X-file, Scully,” says Mulder, leaning closer. He's just so relieved it's not the Specter—Norfolk is nowhere near Willoughby—that he'd investigate anything. Even a mundane stabbing.

Chimera,” she whispers, before looking up at him in amazement. “Mulder, this is impossible. This shouldn't be real.”

“Do you think your dreams are trying to tell you something?” he asks. “Whatever the source may be?”

She rubs a hand over her mouth, sits in the chair across from him. Rubs a thumb over the photo. “I… I don't know,” she says softly. “But I think we need to investigate this case, Mulder. I think it's important that we do.”

---

Annie knocks on his door early in the morning. “Hey, Ry,” she says, sticking her head in. “I'm headed out, okay? I'll be in meetings all day, but I'll have my cell phone, and I left some money for pizza on the counter. And Bonnie said you're welcome to call Sheriff O'Connell if you have an emergency.”

“Ha ha,” Ryan says dryly, setting his phone down. “That’s really funny.”

“C'mon, Ryan. I know things have been… awkward with the O'Connells, but they're family friends. And Joe did stick his neck out for you.”

“He's the cops, Aunt Annie. He has to help if I call him. And none of the O'Connells even like me anymore.”

Annie sighs, shaking her head. “Okay,” she says, and throws him a small smile. “Have a good day, okay? Don't get into any trouble. And call the neighbors if you have an emergency.” She steps into the room and reaches over to tousle his hair, the way she used to when he was a kid. He half-heartedly swats her hand away.

Annie turns towards the door, her eyes falling on the desk. “I didn't know you were into sage and stuff like that,” she says, her voice taking on an edge of suspicion. The is-this-because-of-the-ghost voice. Ryan's heard it many times.

“Yeah,” he says, trying to sound casual. “Yeah, I thought some… good energy or whatever would be a good idea.”

Annie's eyes flicker from him to the desk and back to him. “Okay,” she says warily. “Have a good day, Ry. Love you.”

She leaves the room, closing the door behind her. “Love you, too,” Ryan calls out after her, and picks the phone back up. Reopens the article he was reading, that he closed so Annie wouldn't see. How To Efficiently Banish Evil Spirits.  

---

They go straight to Norfolk. Grab a flight, even though it's not a long drive, and are there within a couple hours. Scully seems nervous, lost in her own thoughts, fidgeting in her lap. She does research on the I-Pad at the airport, and then again in the car. Mulder leaves her alone; he senses, somehow, that this is very important to her. He notices that they are being followed as they drive into town.

They go to the crime scene, where one Detective Costa gives them the rundown. Two teenage girls, different schools, no criminal histories. But they nearly killed each other with knives in an abandoned ferry. It's clearly not a coincidence, Mulder tells Scully, but he can't figure out why they're here. Some connection that the girls had that Scully picked up on somehow? The strangest things about this case so far are the question of a connection between the girls, and Scully's dream.

And then the detective mentions a monster called Ghouli. One that the girls apparently asked the EMTs about. A prospect that fits their typical M.O. much more than a run-of-the-mill stabbing.

At a coffee shop, Mulder finds a blog devoted to Ghouli. It's the typical stuff he's seen a million times, and he's pretty bored with it. Scully points out that most of the entries are from a user named Rever, stopping on an entry that Mulder catches bits and pieces of. It's talking about the end of the world. He's intrigued, but his phone buzzes at that moment with a text from Detective Costa. The girls are awake, if they went to talk to then.

He and Scully split up at the hospital; she talks to Brianna Stapleton, and he talks to Sarah Turner. Sarah describes a monster with sharp teeth and cinnamon-smelling breath that apparently dropped down from the ceiling and attacked her. But she denies seeing anyone else there. She does describe a dream that sounds almost identical to Scully's: a dark figure, a strange house, a snow globe with the Chimera in it. And she mentions her boyfriend. A kid named Jackson Van de Kamp.

Mulder's interest had originally been peaked when the girl described the dream in almost exactly the same context as Scully's, but it rises further when she mentions Jackson Van de Kamp. It nearly spikes off the charts. Van de Kamp is the name that's been in the back of his mind since early 2016, since Scully told him what Jeffrey Spender had told her in the hospital: that William's adoptive parents were named Van de Kamp. His breath catches in his throat as he makes the connection, as he finally starts to understand: this is why they're here. William sent Scully visions of the apocalypse, and William must be sending her visions now. Or dreams. This isn't a coincidence, he can feel it.

Scully seems a little skeptical, but not nearly as skeptical as he may have expected. She shares the details of her interview with Brianna, and reveals that the girls experienced the same thing. They both saw Ghouli, they both had the dream. They are both dating Jackson Van de Kamp. Mulder's breath catches in his throat at that detail.

“The sleep paralysis. The labyrinth. The snow globe. You share the same story,” he points out immediately at Scully's description of

“And the girls, apparently, the same boyfriend—Jackson Van De Kamp,” says Scully. She says it like she wants to say the name again, like she's turning it over and over in her head.

“Scully…” he starts, gently. He knows this is going to be hard. It may be the hardest thing they've ever done.

“I know,” she says softly. She sounds like she doesn't believe it. She sounds like she wants to believe it. “Mulder, it has to be a coincidence.”

“No, it's not,” he says, reaching down to press his hand against her back reassuringly. “You were sent here. We are meant to be here. We've got to find out where this kid lives.” He wants to believe it, too. He's wanted to find his son for so long.

She takes a shaky breath, lifting her chin to look at him. “Do you really think this is it, Mulder?” she whispers, her voice tremulous. “That this is why we're here? This is why I had this dream?” He nods immediately, wrapping his arm around more securely around her. “Do y-you really think it's him?” she whispers in the smallest voice.

“I do,” he says, because he does. He rubs his hand up and down her arm gently, not caring that they're in the middle of a hospital. She leans into him, uncaring herself. He tugs her closer, holding her tightly.  “You got that dream for a reason, Scully. I truly think this is him. And if it is… he's calling out for you. He wants to see you.” He presses a brief kiss to her forehead. He can't tell if the churning in his stomach is excitement or fear. If this is real, he's going to see his son again. Scully's going to see her son again. And it seems like he actually does want to see them; he's been afraid for years of the idea that their son hates them, wants nothing to do with them.

She looks up at him, her eyes wide. “Do you think he's in danger, Mulder?” she whispers, one hand pressed to his chest. “Or… scared? Is that why he's reaching out?”

“I don't know,” he admits. He squeezes her close again before letting go. “But we're going to find out. We're going to find him. I promise.”

---

He texts Detective Costa and gets an address back almost immediately. They don't wait around after that; they race straight out to the parking garage and retrieve their car, drive straight there.

Scully is silent on the drive, and Mulder doesn't press her. He can't imagine what she must be feeling right now. He knows what he is feeling: his nerves are shot, he's fearful. Yet he's excited, somehow, as well as fearful; he hasn't seen his son since he was a baby, and he's thought about him every day since. But William doesn't know him, he reminds himself; he has other parents, maybe even a new name. He is not his father. And anyways, his son reached out to Scully. This is about Scully. Scully, who has felt the guilt over losing William for years. Scully, who wanted this more than he ever did in the beginning, even as much as he wanted it in the end. Scully, who has some unexplainable connection to their son.

He feels like he's about to throw up, he's so strung out, and he can tell Scully's in the same place. When they pull up to the curb in front of the house and climb out of the car, they pause at the edge of the lawn. “I feel like I'm gonna fall off a cliff,” Scully whispers, as fearful as he's ever heard her, and he reaches out to rub her shoulder with his thumb. Some small comfort or reassurance.

And that's when they hear it: the popping sound of two gunshots, coming from inside the house.

They take off at a run immediately, sprinting for the front door. Mulder slams his shoulder against the door, breaking it down, and it swings open to reveal an empty foyer. They enter slowly, guns in hand, and Scully whispers his name. “Mulder,” she says. “This is the house in my visions.”

He doesn't have time to process that. He moves further into the house, noting, “Door's open.” He keeps moving, going into the kitchen, until he sees the two bodies. “Scully,” he calls out, and she joins him. They survey the scene: a man and a woman, older, shot in the head. The Van de Kamps, he assumes. Possibly his son's parents. He's about to say something to Scully—although he doesn't know what—when they hear something else. The heart-stopping sound of another gunshot from upstairs.

They twist, turning towards the stairs. Scully gasps, her breath faltering; Mulder's stomach twists painfully. They both move to the stairs, thundering up them, and move in opposite directions. He goes left and she goes right; he moves down the hall, breathing shallowly, silently praying that it's not what he thinks it is. He checks a bedroom, a bathroom, and finds nothing. And then he hears Scully calling out for him. Calling his name in a voice that sounds ripped open, sounds like it's full of tears.

He sprints down the hall, his feet pounding the footboards, and comes across another bedroom. Scully is standing in the doorway, her hand pressed over her mouth, sniffling and softly whimpering behind it. Trying not to cry and mostly failing. Mulder's breath leaves his body as his eyes move over the room. As they land on the boy sprawled in the rug, eyes shut. Blood clotted in his dark hair.

Times seems to stop, then. Seems to thicken, suffocating and airless. He can't breathe. All he can think is that his dream from the night before makes a lot more sense now. It wasn't Scully in the body bag. It was never Scully. He can't breathe. He feels like he is going to throw up.

---

Ryan cleanses first. Just like the article says. He lights the sage and walks the house with it, trying to wave it around like the articles and YouTube videos said. He does all the corners and the doorways, his hand clutching the sage too hard until the end of it is limp and damp with sweat. He's wearing one of the plastic cross necklaces under his shirt, hoping like hell it works in the way of offering a little protection. That all of this works.

He can't risk having the ghost here anymore. He can't. He's terrified that it'll try to hurt his aunt, try to hurt him. He needs to figure out how to get rid of it, but for now, he'll settle for getting it out of his house. He'd do anything to have it gone, to have one place where he feels safe. Just one.

He sages the entire house, reaching up every now and then to touch the cross and make sure it's still there.

---

It might not be him. That's what Mulder tells himself, splashing cold water on his face in the downstairs bathroom. It might not be him. He was so sure, an hour ago, and now he's desperately hoping that it's not, as selfish as that is. It might not be him. He's sure Van de Kamp is a common name. Maybe it's just a coincidence, maybe William is a cousin or something who saw what was happening and has some connection…

He can't stop seeing the body. The image of the boy who might be his son with a bloody hole in his head. His throat is raw, his cheeks are wet and freezing, his eyes red. He turns off the water and exits the stranger's bathroom, heading into the kitchen.

He's looking for Scully, and he means to keep looking when he doesn't find her there, but he gets stuck there, staring at the bodies. At these people who might've raised his son, his baby boy. The woman has dark hair with blood clotted in it, just like her son's. He wants to throw up all over again. Detective Costa is saying that Jackson killed his parents and then killed himself, and Mulder can't listen to it. He doesn't want to hear it. He goes upstairs to find his wife.

He goes upstairs, calling her name softly, and walks right in on them zipping up a body bag. Jackson Van de Kamp's still face disappearing underneath a zipper. A body bag, just like in the dream. The Specter was warning him, and he didn't know how to stop it.

He bites his lip to keep from saying the things he wants to say, from making pleas that no one can grant, and turns around and leaves. He calls Scully's name again, going down the hall until he reaches a room that has to be Jackson's. He freezes in the doorway, taking it all in. There is space paraphernalia on the wall, a telescope by the window, and Scully is sitting facing away from him at the desk. It's so hard, so hard to be in here, looking at the life of the person who may be his son (a life that he missed, and now it might be too late), but he has no choice. He has to be strong for her.

“Scully?” he asks as he enters the room.

She looks up at him, sighing a little bit; her eyes are red, her expression tremendously sad. She's been crying. “This is his room,” she says softly. “I recognize it from my dream. You're right, Mulder. Whoever he is, he wanted me to be here.” He draws closer to her, and he can see what it is she's holding: pictures. Pictures of Jackson. “Look,” she says, thumbing through them. “Birthday, Halloween, vacation, baseball.” She holds out a picture of a little boy in a Little League uniform for him to see, and Mulder really does want to cry. It might not be him, he tries, but he looks familiar. With those dark eyes peering out from under a baseball cap he looks—just a little—like Samantha did as a small child, playing baseball on the Vineyard. But no, he's imagining things, he has to be. “It's a whole life,” Scully finishes thickly, and the words thud solidly in his stomach.

He looks away, because he has to, and when he does, his eyes fall on the can of soda on the desk. “It's full,” he says, picking it up and feeling the chilly condensation under the pads of his fingers, “and it's still cold. Odd choice to crack open a can of soda before you decide to kill your parents.”

Scully says nothing to that. He crosses the room, going over to the dresser and picking up a book on top. He chuckles as he sees the title, some strange combination of gallows humor and amusement. “The Pick Up Artist: Memoirs of a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing,” he says aloud, showing Scully. He tries to joke, “At least he had his priorities straight,” wondering what he would say if Jackson really was his son, if he could say anything at all. He doesn't know if he has the right. He remembers being a dumb kid. Bad choice of reading, bad philosophy to have, but it's not his advice to give, whether Jackson is William or not. Either way, he's not his father.

“He was troubled, maybe even schizophrenic,” says Scully, holding two medication bottles in her hand, staring at the labels. “He was seeing a psychiatrist. Clozapine—that's an antipsychotic, and Diazepam is to treat seizures. They were prescribed two months ago, and they're still full, so he was off his medication.”

“I have grave doubts about what appears to have happened here, Scully,” Mulder says, which feels like an understatement. He's crossed the room to stand by Jackson's bed, and he notices something suddenly on the ceiling. He sits on the bed to get a better look. “Huh.

“Malcolm X,” Scully offers quietly.

"’The future belongs to those who prepare for it today,’” he reads from the poster.

"Was that his hero?” Scully asks as she sits on the bed beside him. An almost fond smile on her face as she cranes her neck to look at the poster. She looks like a mother, the way she did when William was born (smiling fondly down at the baby in her arms). It hurts to see her like that.

“We don't know that that body is William, Scully,” Mulder says. Because it might not be, and if it is, it means they've lost their son. They've really, truly lost their son. And he doesn't think he could handle that. He doesn’t want Scully to go through it. He's trying to give her some kind of hope, trying to reassure himself.

“Mm.” She looks down from the poster, the small smile gone. “Malcolm Little took the last name ‘X’ because he wouldn't take the slave name given to his ancestral family,” she says as he gets up and rounds the bed, going back to the desk. Her voice is vulnerable again, guilty. “Was Jackson's identity so adrift that he couldn't see himself as being a part of a family? Is that why he killed his parents and then himself?”

“Why would he call you here just to see him die?” he asks, forehead furrowed, because he doesn't want to believe it. Can't believe it. He doesn't think he can handle losing anyone else.

“I need to get proof of his identity, Mulder,” she says. “I need answers.”

Mulder hears the sudden sound of car doors open. He looks out the window to see the men who seem to have been popping up all day exiting the car. The men who followed them. “I'll get you one,” he says, leaving the room, rage twisting his stomach into knots.

He goes downstairs, pushing through detectives to get out of the house. He walks through the flurry of people outside to get to the men, and demands, “Who the hell are you with, and why are you following me?”

“Take it easy,” says one of them. The one on the right. “Nobody's following you.”

“We're just curious onlookers,” says the one on the left.

“Yeah,” says the other one. “We saw the police cars. Something bad happened here.”

“What agency are you with?” Mulder presses. “Judging by your crappy rental car, I'm guessing the DOD.”

“You make a lot of assumptions,” the one on the left says.

“I'm also gonna assume it's no coincidence you're here on the night the Van De Kamps are killed.”

“Wow. Three bodies. What a tragedy,” the one on the right says in such a dry tone Mulder wants to hit him. He turns just in time to see them loading the Van de Kamps into the ambulance. Three body bags on a stretcher, a macabre, sickening family portrait.

“Keep cracking wise,” he tells them furiously, a warning of sorts. He could hurt them. He will hurt them, if they were any way involved in his son's death. If that's his son right there. He feels like he could cry, he wants to scream, he wants revenge. He wants his son, more badly than he's ever wanted anything. “You have no idea my state of mind.”

---

Mulder drives Scully to the hospital to run a DNA test on Jackson. But before they leave, he sneaks upstairs to steal the photograph of Jackson playing baseball. It's a horrible thing, but he doesn't think he can leave without it. He wants this one, small thing from the boy who might be his son. This might be all he has.

The photo is too heavy in his pocket. Like a fucking stone. His eyes are stinging, his throat is thick. He drives Scully, silent in the passenger seat, to the hospital with unsteady hands.

He tries to volunteer to go and get the sample—he doesn't want Scully to have to look at Jackson's still face, to feel that fear and anguish and guilt—but she insists, shaking her head hard and firm. “I have to do it. I have to do it, Mulder. I need to take care of him,” she whispers, and her voice breaks a little, and so does his heart. “I need to do it,” she's still insisting, her eyes wet, her jaw set. “Just let me do it. I need to see h—I need to do it.”

He doesn't fight her. He doesn't have the strength. He wraps his arms around her and squeezes her close, tells her okay, okay. He'll go check on some things. He'll come find her. He'll give her some time alone. He kisses the top of her head, holds her close, and lets her go.

She goes to the morgue, and he goes to the labs, intending to ask them to run a DNA comparison. But he finds, suddenly, it's impossible to go in. He freezes up, he can't do it. He collapses in a chair in the hallway, his legs weak, his heart thudding. He fumbles in his pocket until his hand closes over the photo, and he draws it out gingerly. Cradles it in the palm of his hand the way she cradled the snow globe. Fragile. It could be everything, it could be all he has left. It is so, so hard to look at this photo of this boy—maybe his son—playing baseball, because he'd wanted to show their son baseball, watch games with him on the couch, teach him how to throw and hit and catch, go to his games and cheer him on… He'd wanted this, and he'll never have it, and he doesn't know if this is his son, but he's starting to think it might be, because he really does look a little like Samantha, when she was seven or eight. He looks like Scully. He looks just like Scully.

Tears well in his eyes, and he lets his face drop into his hands, lets the photo drop into his lap. He doesn't know how to do this. He should be well acquainted with losing people by now, but he doesn't know how to do this. He feels horrible, that a whole family is dead and all he can do is pray that this kid is not his son, but he doesn't think he could bear losing anyone else. It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

Somehow, he makes himself stand up. Somehow, he makes himself walk into the lab and ask them to run a DNA comparison against him and Scully. (He may just be paranoid, but they never found out if Emily was the only child the Syndicate made. If this is really William, he wants to make sure that he matches both of their DNA.) The guy gives him a funny look, but agrees. Mulder does a mouth swab at his direction, drops it in a little glass, and promises to be back shortly with the other two samples.

He travels downstairs to the morgue, through a seemingly endless maze of hallways and elevators, and he remembers the dream suddenly, the dark figure leading him down hallways just like this. They looked just like this. But his dream wasn't from his son; it was from a fucking demonic ghost showing him his twisted future. He wants to vomit, wants to scream, wants to curse the people of fucking Willoughby, Virginia for ever getting them involved. Wants to kill the people who did this to them, shaped their lives into an endless string of pain and heartache, frightened Scully to the point where she felt she had to give their son away to keep him safe. It's a fucking nightmare, and he wants to scream himself awake, but he can't.

He freezes outside of the morgue, suddenly unable to go inside. To see the body bag with his baby in it. He can't move. He can't breathe. He feels dizzy, for a moment, not entirely there, and he shakes his head hard to snap out of it. And as his senses start to come back, he hears something else, another reason not to go in. Scully is talking to Jackson Van de Kamp. Scully is crying.

“—thought I was being strong, because it was the hardest thing I've ever done,” she is saying, sniffling, and Mulder can hardly stand it. He doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know what to do. “I mean… to let go. And to know that I was gonna miss your whole life,” she adds, and he shuts his eyes with the pain of her words, the raw emotion. He's thinking of that last night, when they spent the whole night holding each other  on the bed, Scully crying and William snuffling in his sleep, snuggling closer to his chest. He's thinking of telling them goodbye in the foyer, hugging Scully close, kissing them both again and again. He'd promised he would come back. He promised he would stay alive. He promised they would be a family. And that was the last time he saw his son: in the doorway of Scully's apartment, cradled in her arms. He promised they would be a family, he promised that he would be a better father than his. And look what happened. Look what has happened.

“But it turns out that this is the hardest thing,” Scully is saying, her voice thick with tears, and it's so hard to listen, but Mulder finds he cannot leave. He can't leave them like this. He watches her, bent over the table, tears in her eyes. “To see the outcome. And how I failed you.” She lets out another sob. “I… need you to know that I never forgot you,” she says, and he wants to tell their son that it's true, how much she thought about him, how much she cried about him, that she kept the bunny from his crib through multiple homes and hotels, even slept with it some nights. She's held onto him all this time.

“And I thought… I felt… that even recently, that we were gonna somehow… be reunited… I wish I could have been there to ease your pain.” Her voice breaks. Shatters. “Oh, my God, this is so inadequate. I'm just so sorry. I'm so sorry.” She sniffles, nearly sobbing, and then she looks up. She sees him there, in the doorway, his hand held out like he's about to knock. He feels awful, like he's intruded. He feels like he's inches away from crying himself. “Have you been there the whole time?” she asks softly.

“No, but I heard enough.” His voice is so steady, it's surprising. He crosses the room in a few strides. “You have nothing to apologize for,” he assures her, wrapping his arms tight around her, his cheek against her forehead. She comes willingly, her arms going around his waist. His eyes shift, inadvertently, to the table, to Jackson's body. His breath falters, just a bit. He rocks Scully back and forth.

He could've stopped this. If he'd only known what the dream had meant, he could've fucking stopped this. If he'd realized what the dream meant, if he hadn't left them alone, if he'd never gone to Oregon… He's failed them. Scully believes that she failed William, but she never would have given him up if he hadn't have left. It's him, not her. He's failed his family, the same way he's failed everyone else in his miserable life.

“This is torture, Mulder,” she whispers, her cheek to his chest. “I need to get the results.” She pulls away and grabs the samples on the table. A swab of her saliva, a lock of his hair.

“Okay,” he says. He feels numb. He has to be here for her, he reminds himself. He's failed her, but he will do his best not to do it again. “We can use the lab here and get a DNA comparison.”

“Okay.” She nods.

“They'll be back in two hours.” He rubs a soothing hand over her back as they exit the room together.

“Yeah.” They walk to the door, and Scully flips off the light before she closes the door. Mulder bites down on his lip too hard, thinking of bedtime and night-lights and please leave the door open just a crack. He fiercely wants to turn back time. He wants the life they should've had.

---

Ryan finishes sageing the house. He goes over the whole thing twice, feeling a little ridiculous, but feeling equally determined. He lights candles, putting them in the hall, both bedrooms, the kitchen, the dining room. His hands are trembling as he lights the candles, lights the sage. He's afraid, more afraid than he'd like to admit. Annie is going to be very suspicious when she gets home and sees all this, but he doesn't care. He has to do this.

He finishes sageing the house and lighting a ridiculous amount of candles, and then he goes upstairs to retrieve the salt he bought. He checks the line before his door—hidden safely under his rug—and in front of his closet. He sprinkles some in the corners of the bedroom. Then the hallway. Then his aunt's room. He's heard that salt can help with more aggressive spirits, and he certainly would classify the Specter as that. As aggressive. He used to hide in closets from the ghost, whimpering with flannel-pajamaed knees clutched to his chest. He used to wake up from nightmares with wet sheets, thumb planted firmly in his mouth. He used to cling to his aunt with fear, bursting into sobs. He used to find bruises on strange parts of his body, just like in the movies. It’s definitely aggressive. It's been tormenting him his whole life; it's been torture.

Ryan sprinkles salt in the corners of the bathroom and across the bathroom door, and then whirls on his heel, heading for the stairs. There's a sudden rustling sound, somewhere behind him, and his head whips around so hard he can nearly feel the friction. At that point, he begins to hear something strange: the sound of a ringing. A sharp, shrill ringing in his ear that's nearly painful in intensity.

Ryan winces, jerking his head and clapping a hand to his ear, as if that will stop the painful sound. “This is over!” he roars, unthinking. “Over! Do you hear me? I want you out! You are not welcome here!” The ringing grows sharper and he cries out a little with the pain, clapping a hand to the side of his head. He makes a move for the stairs, attempting to run down them, his feet clomping on the steps. But he's going too fast, breathing too hard, when the ringing suddenly stops. So abruptly he stumbles to a stop, his arms fumbling, his hands reaching for the banisters. And that's when something plows into him from behind. Pushing him forward, shoving him down.

His ankle twists to the side, hard. He yowls. He goes flying, falling down the rest of the stairs.

He lands hard, hitting the floor too roughly. He cries out again, eyes filling with tears, pressing a hand to his side, gasping hard in pain. His ankle is swollen and bruised, throbbing and aching. The salt has spilled on the floor. He's sprawled in the hall, inches away from the front door, the salt in piles around him.

He can hear the floorboards creaking behind him.

Get out!” he shouts, his voice wavering with pain. The ringing begins again, shrill and sharp, and he whimpers. Grabs the container of salt and pushes himself up. He crawls towards the door, dragging himself nearly pathetically. Every movement hurts. Behind him, the floorboards creak and moan. He harkens back to one of the articles he read earlier today, and begins to mutter the Lord's Prayer under his breath.

He's never been to church a day in his life, outside of after sleepovers with his friends, and he's mumbling the Lord's Prayer like it's going to save his life. It's absolutely ridiculous, but what else can he do?

Outside, it is getting dark. Something like firelight flashes in the reflection of the screen door. Something dark and cloth-like flickers in the corner.

“Thy kingdom come,” Ryan hisses through gritted teeth, grabbing for the door jamb. He groans as he tries to pull himself into a standing position. “T-thy will be done...” he gasps out, feeling pathetic, like a poser. More salt spills on the floor, but he ignores it. He nearly screams as he puts weight on his swollen ankle. He yanks open the door and nearly falls through it, out on the porch, a limp tangle of limbs. He's bruised all over now, but he can't think about that. He rolls over a couple times, wincing—shit, his ribs are killing him—and muttering the prayer under his breath. The Specter looms over him, out on the porch, but he seems to be drawing back. Almost like the prayer is working. When he gets to the part about deliver us from evil, the ghost yanks away, as if pained. The ringing in Ryan's head increases, pounding hard at his skull; he tosses a handful of salt as he cries out, flinching hard. “For thine… is the kingdom…” he gasps out, crawling pathetically back toward the door. “... t-the power… and the g-glory…” He grabs handfuls of salt, spreading it in a thick, globby line before the door. “... forever and ever,” he gasps out, tossing another handful of salt in the direction of the Specter, who is far on the other side of the porch. “Amen.”

The ringing gets higher: suddenly, painfully higher, until it blinks out like a light. Ryan gasps, tears trailing down his cheeks. He lets out a gaspy sob. Pulls himself to his feet with a whimper, yanking the door open hard, and falls through the doorway in a slump.

He's passed out almost before he hits the ground.

---

When they leave the morgue and stumble onto a waiting room with a couch, Mulder encourages Scully to lie down for a little while. She looks exhausted, eyes rimmed red and lower lip wobbling, but his motives are equally spread to the fact that he doesn't want her with him when he gets the results of the DNA test. He can fall apart without her while he figures out how to break the news to her gently.

“I shouldn't sleep right now, Mulder,” she murmurs, shaking her head stubbornly. “I-I can't. Not right now.”

“Yes, you can.” He presses his lips to her forehead, hugging her close. “If you push yourself too hard, you'll crash. There's…” He hesitates, biting his lower lip. “There's nothing you can do right now, okay? You should get some rest.”

She shakes her head again, but he can feel her resolve weakening. She's practically drooping in his arms. “I can't sleep here, Mulder. It's a hospital.”

“It's a waiting room,” he tells her, “where people sleep all the time. It's fine.” He squeezes her close again, rocking her a little, stroking her warm head. She tethers him, in a sense; he doesn't know what he'd do without her. Especially right now.

Lump in his throat, he rubs a hand up and down her back, pulling away to look her in the eyes. “You lie down here,” he murmurs, cupping the side of her face, “and I'll come get you in a little bit.”

She nods, looking at the ground. “Okay,” she murmurs, and he thumbs hair back from her face, kisses her forehead again. She sits on the bench gingerly, sniffles a little and wipes her eyes.

“I'll be back in a little bit,” he promises, and she nods.

He goes to the lab where he dropped off his samples, cradling Scully and Jackson's samples in his hands. He can still feel the picture in his pocket, too heavy. He can still feel the weight of everything that's happened tonight. He's trying not to think about those three nights, those three nights he had with his son. He's trying not to pray and beg some higher power that the dead teenager down the hall isn't his son. He's trying to believe that his son is still out there somewhere. Another Van de Kamp, and this Van de Kamp is just a coincidence, a chance encounter. But it doesn't feel like that. It's too terrifying to think about, but this doesn't feel like a coincidence. He feels horribly selfish for wishing so badly that it was.

The lab techs agree to compare the samples. They tell him to come back in a little while. He'd wait by himself, but he doesn't think he could handle that. He goes back to the waiting room to find Scully fast asleep, sprawled across the couch. He doesn't wake her up. He goes out to the car to retrieve her coat and drapes it over her like a makeshift blanket, tucking it around her. He sits on the edge of the couch and lets her head bump into his thighs, sits there and strokes her hair and tries to think of anything but what is happening right here. Just strokes her hair and listens to the announcements over the intercom.

It's about the longest two hours of his life.

Scully sleeps restlessly, tossing and turning so violently on the tiny space that he's afraid she's going to fall off. He fidgets absently with the picture, his thumbs pressing against the edges. He sits there until the two hour mark, until he looks down at the clock on his phone and sees how long it's been. It feels like it has been an eternity, and yet he hardly remembers the wait. And he is terrified of what is waiting for him down that hallway. His heart seems to falter. He takes a trembling breath. He slides out from under Scully, his hand on her head, and brushes his lips over her scalp. Hopes, prays that he will return with good news for her.

He goes back up to the lab, where the tech is waiting for him with a solemn look on his face. His stomach twists, painfully, and in the moment, he's so, so glad Scully isn't with him.

The man tells him in that soft, soothing voice Mulder recognizes. He's used the same voice a hundred times before.

---

 After he gets the news, time seems to knot up in a muddled mess. He wants to throw up, he wants to scream, he nearly falls to his knees. He wants to tear apart all the people who have driven them to this, who ripped their family apart. This never should've happened. This never should've fucking happened.

All he can think is that he wants another chance. He wants another chance. He'd do anything for another chance. He wouldn't leave them, he'd never let them go. He's lost so many people in his life—his sister, his parents, his best friends, his old partners, Scully over and over again—but somehow, he never thought he'd lose this. His son. He used to think that despite everything, at least William was safe. Scully gave him up to keep him safe, and their one small comfort in all of this was believing that was true. He's lost so many people, but he never thought he would lose his son.

He finds himself sitting on the floor of the men's room, curled up into a ball in a stall, his knuckles bruised and stinging, his face wet with tears. He presses his face into his knees like a child. His throat is sore from crying. He's shaking, shivering like he is cold. He's thinking about William as a baby, the warm cuddly weight in Scully's arms. He looks just like you, Scully had said, tucked under his arm, snuggling into his side. The baby snuffled sweetly. He doesn't look like Skinner, she'd sniffled, grinning at him wobbily. He looks just like you.

Mulder takes shallow, panicked breaths against his knees, clutching them too hard, shaking. He doesn't know how to tell this. He doesn't know how to tell Scully that they've lost their son. Their son. He'd had that dream, and he could've done something to save him, but he had no fucking idea. And he left in the first place, sixteen years ago, left Scully vulnerable and with no other choice. This is his fault. He failed their son. He failed them all.

He stays curled up on the tile floor until his ass aches, until he stops shaking and whimpering. Until he can stand, can walk out of the stall. He wipes his face with a damp paper towel. His knuckles are scratched and bruised. He takes deep, steady breaths. You have to go get Scully, he tells himself. You have to tell her. You have to be there for her. He tries to tell himself that they can get through this. He balls and unballs his fists, breathes easily. He has to do this. He wipes his eyes and leaves the bathroom.

He doesn't find Scully when he left her, in the waiting room. Her coat is there, draped over the back of the couch, but she isn't there. Mulder knows immediately where she's gone. She's gone to the morgue, to see their son.

He can hear her as he walks down the hall; she's talking to someone. “—no sign anyone was ever in here,” she’s saying. He gets to the end of the hall and she's there, standing over the silver table, over the body  bag.

“Scully,” he says, and his voice sounds weak, like it's faltering. “Can I have a word?

She turns to him. “It's okay, Mulder,” she says, like she's trying to comfort him.

“It's not good news,” he warns her. He doesn't want her to think everything is okay, that their son is still out there somewhere. He wants to prepare her for this awful fucking news.

“I know,” she says, and her voice is nearly hopeful, Jesus Christ. “It's William. His body's missing.” And only then does Mulder notice that the body bag is empty. It looks deflated, limp on the table like a discarded grocery bag.

“There's no way anyone could have taken a body out of here,” says the man that Mulder had barely even noticed before—the coroner, he assumes.

Scully looks around in a desperate little motion, nearly eager. “Are there any windows anywhere?”

The coroner motions them to a door off to the side. It's a bathroom, with an open window on the far wall. They examine it together, Mulder peering outside, and it's immediately clear: no one has broken in. The window is open, but no one has broken in. “No sign of damage on the outside,” he says, worry curdling his stomach—what the hell has happened to his son? What have they done with him?

“That window's always locked,” says the coroner.

“Well, then it must have been opened from the inside,” Scully says, looking back at him. Her voice is still full of hope, and Mulder  suddenly realizes what she is thinking, and it’s impossible. Impossible. She turns on her heel and leaves the room, and he has no choice but to follow.

She's already halfway down the hall when he catches up to her, walking with a new determination. “Scully,” he calls, and she stops, turns towards him. “Can I talk to you?” he asks, drawing closer.

“Yeah,” she says.

He waits until he is close to speak, whispering both for the sake of covertness and comfort. He hopes that he can comfort her. “I know what you're thinking,” he says. “And I want him to be alive every bit as much as you do.” Wants it so much, he can feel it as a lump in his throat. A fierce burning of hope. “And in my heart, I never thought that we'd… have to face this moment, but… here we are.” She's still looking at him questioningly; he adds, “Hope is not a fact. And I'm always the first to jump to extreme possibilities, but this is not as simple as that.” He doesn't want her to get her hopes up; it's so improbable, after what they heard and saw… he can't lose their son again. He can't put his faith into such a wild theory just to find it's not true; he can't lose William again.

“Mulder, I had another vision,” she says with soft conviction. As serious as he has ever heard her. “And I saw this.” She pulls a snow globe out of her pocket, one with a little windmill in it. A tagline from a movie: The Wizard of Oz.

Looking at the snow globe in her palm, he feels some mix of worry and companionship. He's thinking of the stolen photo in his pocket “Did you take that from his room?” he asks.

She falters, as if embarrassed. “I don't know why I did. I just needed to hold on to something tangible.”

“All right. I'll check the video surveillance,” he says. He doesn't know why aside from the fact that he cannot deny her this. He can't do that to her, on top of everything else. He's dismissed Scully's beliefs too many times in their years together, and he won't do it again. Especially not when it hinges on their son. Digging further into the idea that William is alive may only hurt them worse, but he'd hate himself if he ignored the possibility. “But this doesn't change anything. Not yet.”

“He wants us to find him, Mulder,” Scully says, and she sounds more sure of this than she ever has before. “I know it.”

He wants to believe that. He so badly wants to believe that. But with all the evidence, everything that he's seen, he's finding it hard.

---

Mulder checks the surveillance at the hospital and finds nothing. Horribly, frustratingly nothing. No signs of Jackson getting up and walking out of the hospital. But no signs of anyone stealing the body, either. It's as if he vanished into thin air. The disappointment is palpable, the blow more crushing than he expected; he wanted to believe, as unwise as he knew it was.

When he leaves the hospital, he finds Scully in the car, cradling the snow globe in her hand, the glass cracked and broken. “What happened?” he asks, stunned.

“I ran into someone in front of the hospital,” she says softly. “But it's okay.” She runs a gentle finger tip over the unblemished section of the globe. “We should go back to Jackson's house,” she adds. “See if we can dig anything up on his computer. Find any connections to Ghouli. I have a feeling that this is all connected—what happened with the girls, and what happened tonight.”

It runs through him nearly like a shock—the reminder of why they are here in the first place. The Chimera. The case. The monster. “Okay,” he says, and starts the car.

It's strange to be back in Jackson's bedroom, knowing what Mulder knows now. This is his son's room. He wants to linger, to pay attention to every detail, but they don't have time. Scully thumbs through a messy journal they find in the bedside table while he searches the laptop with his device from the dark web that can pull browser histories, and finds a startlingly clean history. He knows then: this isn't the right laptop. But right as he is pointing this out to Scully, cars with flashing sirens pull up outside the house, and he knows they have a small window before they'll be blocked from this investigation.

Scully locates the second computer quickly, under Jackson's mattress, and passes it over. With the device, Mulder finds posts to ghouli.net, as well as evidence that Jackson has hacked into the DOD. His mind goes, almost immediately, to the first case he and Scully worked together: Augustus Goldman's kids, experiments, and the DOD's heightened interest. The one that reminded them of William in the first place.

They hear government agents calling for them downstairs. Scully goes to hold them off, and Mulder digs further. He finds more files, specifically one called Project Crossroads. It's mostly classified, but the bits he can piece together are plenty revealing. A DOD agent shows up and orders him to leave before he can get too far, but he knocks over the open soda can Jackson left by the computer as he leaves. One small attempt to protect his son, if he's out there; it's the least he can do.

Scully is waiting for him in the car, in the driver's seat. “You might want to gun it, Scully,” he says as he climbs into the car, adrenaline running high. “I probably just pissed off an entire government agency—although not for the first time—but I think Jackson's secrets are safe.”

She raises her eyebrows at him as she starts the car. “That's a relief,” she says. “The secrets being safe, not the pissing off of another government agency.”

“In the long run, who cares?” He shrugs. “Where do we go now?”

“I think we should go back to the hotel,” Scully says, honestly surprising him. When he shoots her a look of shock, she says, “You haven't slept at all, Mulder, and it's so late. It's been a long night. And besides that, we'll probably be blocked again if we try to do anything else tonight.” When he doesn't say anything, still a little stunned, she reaches across the console and takes his hand. “You need to sleep, Mulder,” she says softly, just like what he had said to her back at the hospital. “It's okay. We're going to find him.”

He wants to find his son tonight. He's been looking for years, and he wants to find him tonight. Right now. He doesn't want to wait another minute. But the look on Scully's face weakens him. She's holding his hand, looking at him with the softest eyes, and she really believes their son is alive. She really believes it. He nods.

They go back to the hotel. One room, no question. They curl up together in the bed, their arms tight around each other, her head on his shoulder. “Are you okay?” Scully whispers, her nose against his neck, and it all crumbles in that moment. He thought his son was dead. He saw his son dead. A lump is rising in his throat; he wants to cry. But he doesn't cry. He nods, pressing his face into her hair, gripping her tightly. “He's going to find us,” she whispers, and he swallows back a sob.

“I hope so,” he whispers back. He kisses the top of her head, breathing shakily, biting back more tears. “I really, really hope so.”

---

Ryan wakes slowly. The surface hard beneath him, the pain in his ankle and ribs shooting back through him like a knife. He groans, rolling over wearily to face the door. He needs to get up, but he's so exhausted, he feels like he can't move.

He's lying in the space between the screen door and the regular door, and with his face half-pressed against the cold glass, he suddenly sees a long shadow falling across his form. The two feet on there on the other side.

He draws back a little bit, rolling away from the door, and sees that it is his aunt, standing on the porch, clutching her briefcase in one hand. He breathes a sigh of relief and raps his hand against the window. “Aunt Annie?” he calls. “Aunt Annie, I hurt my ankle. I… I think I need to go to the hospital.”

She says nothing. Practically standing over him, her eyes are dark in the dim light.

Ryan bangs against the door helplessly again, clumsier. “Aunt Annie?” His voice is small, like a scared child; he's practically begging.

She frowns. She lets her briefcase drop to the ground. “You did not really think it would be that easy, did you?” she says in a droning voice.

Or, no—no, no, it’s not her. Ryan's stomach drops out from under him. He tries to scramble away from the door, and pain shoots through his ankle. He whimpers.

Annie—the ghost in Annie's body—slams a hand into the glass door, so loud he yelps. “I may not be able to cross the threshold, but do you think that means I cannot hurt you?” it growls. “I broke apart your family. I watched your father bleed out while your mother begged for her life. I watched your uncle cower in his prison cell. And I have followed you throughout your entire life. Do you think you can stop me? I can still touch the people you love.”

Ryan struggles to rise on his knees, trembling with pain and fear, his head throbbing. He watches as it dips a hand into Annie's briefcase and comes out with a pair of scissors.

He yelps in terror, fumbles wildly for the door handle and yanks hard at it. The door opens, whapping Annie in the thigh, but she doesn't move. She's lifting the scissors, slowly. Ryan lunges forward clumsily, grabbing her by the wrist and yanking her forward. She stumbles and the two of them fall, half in and half out of the doorway. The scissors clatter to the ground, the screen door hits them both. Groaning, Ryan yanks at Annie's shoulders, pulling her over the threshold. She doesn't struggle, but goes limply—he can't tell if the Specter is still there or not. He keeps tugging, grunting with the effort and the pain, until the screen door slams shut. He collapses to the floor, breathing too hard, tears in his eyes, Annie coming down hard beside him.

Annie comes to gradually, and then suddenly, it seems. “Ry?” She blinks, rubbing at her eyes and sitting up. “W-what happened? When did I get home?” She gasps, upon seeing his ankle. “What happened?” she repeats, more urgent. “You're hurt, Ry, what happened?”

He can't speak. He's crying. He's sobbing, he realizes, sobbing like a baby, so hard that he's shaking.

“Jesus Christ,” Annie murmurs, her voice full of worry. “It's gonna be okay, Ryan. You're okay. I'm going to take you to the hospital, it'll be okay. C'mon.”

She tries to loop his arm around her shoulders, and he gasps, “No!” He tries to scramble back from her, shaking his head wildly. “No, no, no, no, we can't,” he sobs, his face wet and snotty, his heart pounding too hard. “We can't, we can't leave the house.”

“Ryan, you need a hospital, you need a doctor…”

“No!” he shouts, yanking away. “I can't, I can't do this, we can't leave the house. I can't stop it, Aunt Annie, it's gonna hurt us.”

“What?” Annie asks firmly. “What is going to hurt us, Ryan?”

He can't speak. He breaks off into whimpers, quivering with cold on the floor.

“Ryan, talk to me,” she pleads, her voice breaking. “Talk to me, honey, what is it? Please, tell me.”

He can't speak. He shakes his head, shuts his eyes, hides his face with a whimper. Because just outside the door, he can see it: the Specter, waiting with his lantern held high. Watching.