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fifteen.

november, 2017

Scully can't sleep after they leave Jackson's house. Even with Mulder wrapped around her, sleeping restlessly in her arms, even with the exhaustion settled into her bones, she can't sleep. The mess of images running through her mind is too strong. (Her baby on a cold metal table. Pictures of her son growing up, smiling happily into the camera, all the moments she wanted to experience with him. Her son with a bloody wound in his head. Her son calling out to her in dreams, her son sneaking out of the hospital to find her. He's alive out there. She's more sure of it than she's been in a long time. She's seen something just like this before, and she's willing to believe in miracles again.)

She can't sleep, and so she grabs her phone from the bedside table and pulls up ghouli.net. She wants to know her son, and this feels like the best way to do that.

Scrolling through the blog, she figures out quickly that the user Rever is Jackson. The more she reads, the more obvious it becomes: he talks of snow globes, of the apocalypse, of a period as a child where he stayed in a hospital with doctors who isolated him, took his stem cells, used some sort of gas on him. (That part makes her a little nauseous, makes fury rise in her throat like bile. She has no way of knowing whether or not it's true, but she has no reason to doubt it. And the idea of it makes her furious, guilty, sick to her stomach. It makes her want to hurt the people who have done these horrible things to her son.) She reads an account of a dream just like the one she had the other night, an account from childhood where he refers to himself (she doesn't know if it's him, but it must be him, it has to be him) as Billy, where he describes displaying some sort of clairvoyant ability. And the recurring part of a large section of these entries seems to be her.

She used to think something like this was wishful thinking, was silly and too hopeful and self-indulgent, but it's here, it's all here. He knows her. Her son knows her, even if it's just a little. He saw her as a child, during a clairvoyant episode. He describes her in the dream similar to her own recent sleep paralysis dream that led her here: red hair, crucifix. He describes her on the same bridge she saw in her visions of the end of the world. He describes seeing her when he seizes, wonders if they share the same scars. He writes, I want her to hear me, but I don’t want her to hurt, not because of my uncontrollable screaming skull.

Her eyes flood with tears; it's all too much, it's too overwhelming, and yet it's the thing she's wanted to hear for years and years. She sniffles loudly, wiping her eyes, her nose, unable to take her eyes off of the phone screen.

Beside her, Mulder stirs. “Scully?” he murmurs, and she sniffles again. He rises up beside her, wipes her cheeks and wraps his arms tight around her. “Are you okay?” he murmurs, concerned. “D-did you have a bad dream?” His own voice is full of weariness and pain, the weight of everything they have endured.

Scully gasps a little on a sob, shifts in his arms and smiles waterily. “Mulder, look,” she whispers, handing him the phone.

She watches him take it, watches his face shift as he reads. He looks up from the screen with astonishment. “Scully,” he whispers in quiet reverence.

She shuts her eyes, presses a hand to the side of his face as a tear slides out from under her eyelids. “I guess… I never knew we were connected like this,” she whispers. “Even after those visions from a couple years ago. But, Mulder… he knows who I am. He's seen me, all this time.” She makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

Mulder seems as overwhelmed as she is. He wraps his arms tight around her, rests his chin on her shoulder, rocking her back and forth. She holds him tight, her fingers digging into his shirt. He's alive, she reminds herself. Their son is alive, and he's out there somewhere. He knows who they are. He wants them to find him.

“We have to find him,” she whispers.

---

At breakfast, they try to get in touch with Detective Costa, to see if there's any news, but the intrusion of the DOD has the guy spooked and he won't talk to them. It's more or less to be expected. Neither of them are very deterred by it—especially not Scully. She takes the lead, suggests they split up and talk to some people about Jackson. “Try to learn more about who he is, try to see if we can figure out where he'd go, or why any of this happened,” she says. “If you'll drop me by the rental car place, I bet I can grab one for the day. We can cover more ground if we go separately.”

Mulder agrees, of course. As much as he doesn't like the idea of splitting up, it makes sense. And he doesn't think he could deny Scully anything right now. He takes her to the rental car place from the hotel, makes her promise to call him immediately if anything happens. She promises, leans across the console to kiss his cheek before climbing out

He's jittery and panicked as he drives away, weariness mixed with anticipation mixed with fear mixed with hope, and it seems appropriate when he realizes he forgot his coffee at the hotel. Cursing under his breath, he decides to stop by the coffee shop that he and Scully visited the day before and pick something up.

Skinner calls while Mulder is at the coffee shop—pissed, of course. Apparently the DOD and the DOJ have complained about him. Mulder isn't surprised, but he isn't focused on that at all. He's thinking about his son, where he could be, if Scully will find him first. If this coffee shop is a place his son liked, if he'll come here, if he's safe out there, if they can save him. Skinner tells him that he needs to come back, and Mulder insists that Skinner needs to come out there instead. He feigns a bad connection for an excuse to hang up, grabs his cappuccino and leaves.

He meets with Brianna and Sarah's parents, separately, and then with some various other people—teachers, Jackson's boss from his job at a grocery store—to discuss Jackson. Scully is doing the same with some family friends she was able to get in touch with, and she has an appointment with Jackson's therapist later in the day. He gets something of varied reports: Jackson's boss and some of his teachers have good things to say, other teachers say that Jackson was a smartass and a troublemaker. (Mulder can't say that he was much different in high school aside from the two girlfriends thing, but he hasn't had the cleanest dating record anyway, so who is he to talk.) Brianna's parents apparently thought Jackson and Brianna were just friends; the father seems angry and disapproving, in light of what apparently happened the day before, and the mother seems somewhat confused as to how Jackson could get tangled up in this mess. He's such a sweet kid, she says, I can't believe he'd do this. Sarah's parents are less willing to talk to Mulder, and he can't gauge much of their opinion on Jackson. None of them seem to know where he would go, the fact of which seems darkened by the fact that they all believe he is dead. (Why the hell are you chasing a dead kid, Agent? Brianna's father snaps. Mulder guesses that they didn't tell the press about the missing body. He pretends that his chest doesn't ache when he says dead.)

When Mulder is finished with the meetings, he ends up back at the hotel with takeout and a copy of the forensics report from the Van de Kamps. (He drops by the police station on his way back, purposefully finding an officer he didn't recognize to ask for a copy.) He wants to know for sure if his son killed his parents—and the more he looks over the case, the clearer it seems that he didn't. Aside from the evidence he's noted since last night—the cold soda, the open door—the pattern of blood splattering suggests that there couldn't have been only one shooter.

It seems too convenient: the accident with the girls, the Van de Kamps's death, Jackson's seeming suicide. He thinks it was done that way on purpose, fabricated. He's seen it a million times before.

At that moment, his phone buzzes on the bedside table with a text from Skinner. He's in Norfolk, it says, and he wants to meet at the crime scene. Mulder drives out to the old ferry immediately. Just like in the coffee shop, it's impossible not to take in the scenery and wonder. That girl, Sarah, said kids come out here to get high; was Jackson (is  Jackson) one of those kids? Did he like being out on the river? Did he like growing up near the coast? Does he love the ocean, like his mother?

Skinner is waiting for him with the typical warning: drop the investigation. He explains Project Crossroads as a eugenics program based around hybrid DNA and alien technology, began by a Dr. Masao Matsumoto. Mulder already knows some of this story: it was unpredictable enough that it was eventually shut down. Skinner confirms it: Matsumoto got rid of the files, and then vanished. Jackson is one of the subjects of the project.

When Mulder explains their relationship to Jackson, the astonishment passing over Skinner's face is simultaneously comforting and entirely uncomforting. Mulder can't handle it. He thanks Skinner for his warning and leaves, commenting that it came too late as he goes.

By the time he gets back to his car, he's exhausted, nose stinging with the potential onslaught of tears. He doesn't want to consider it, any of it: what they did to Scully, what they did to his son. On Scully's recommendation, he read through Jackson's blog earlier today, and the entries there are both cathartic and painful. All these years, their son has seen Scully, and Mulder will admit that he's grateful for that. He's spent a lot of time desperately wanting their son to know his mother. But the darker entries, the ones with hospitals and shady doctors and painful seizures, just make him sad, make him angry and protective. They couldn't protect their son, but neither could anyone else. Was it inevitable, all of this? Could they ever stop these people from finding him? Is he really still alive, out there somewhere, and how is that possible? Why has their son only ever seen Scully, and not him?

Mulder spends a long time sitting in the car, his forehead pressed awkwardly to the steering wheel, until his phone buzzes in the cupholder. It's Scully; she's out of the meeting with the therapist, and she thinks they should talk. It's probably not the smartest idea to meet in public, but they're already probably being watched. Mulder texts back to meet him at the coffee shop; he's exhausted, he needs the caffeine.

When he gets to the coffee shop, Scully is standing by the front counter, her head dipped down and her hair hiding her face. She looks exhausted, too, shoulders tense and body slumping. But she smiles at him when he enters the store, touches his hand softly as he comes to stand beside her. They put in their orders and retreat to a counter near the window to wait.

Mulder gives a brief summary of his conversations with Jackson's acquaintances, his encounters with Skinner. In turn, Scully shares her own experience, talking to Jackson's friends and his therapist. “She more or less confirmed that Jackson had the same vision as I did, of the end of the world,” she says, tapping her fingers absently on the counter. “Our… shared vision. We really did share it.”

Mulder is about to speak, but the barista calls his name at that moment—or the fake name he used yesterday, that he doesn't want to explain is fake at this point. “I'll be right back,” he says, and gets up to retrieve the coffee. When he returns, she is staring out the window, lost in her own thoughts. “So, you think a shared vision means that it's more likely to come true?” he asks, sitting down beside her.

“What if I didn't get a glimpse of the future? she asks. “What if I was just a receptacle for his message to me? Just like my dream to come here.”

The barista from yesterday passes by, tossing out a, “Hey, Bob,” as he goes. The fake name he's been using. Mulder jabs a finger at his own chest, jokingly.

“It's an alternate reality,” Scully says with amusement. “Fox doesn't exist in coffee shops.”

“No,” Mulder says in slow realization. It makes sense, suddenly, the fabricated crime scene. “It's a false reality, Scully. Just like everything we've seen so far. I've been going over the forensics of the case. The police think that Jackson killed his parents, then himself, but the spatter pattern tells me different. It tells me there were two shooters. Her body was moved after she was shot to make it look like there was one shooter.” Scully's listening intently, her face serious, and so he keeps going, trying his best to be gentle. “Scully, I believe that, through the Smoking Man, you were an unwitting participant in a eugenics program called Project Crossroads,” he says softly. “It was spearheaded by Dr. Masao Matsumoto. He disappeared two years after William was born. I believe our son was one of his test subjects.”

Scully's expression shifts, to one of distress, but not of surprise. They've suspected something like this for years; he's heard her accounts of unusual activity when William was a baby, mobiles spinning on their own. But she says nothing.

He keeps going, piecing together what he's been considering since last night. Brianna and Sarah's claims of a monster and of not seeing each other, the impossible disappearance of Jackson's body. The impossible abilities he had as a baby, that could've continued into adolescence. “Jackson knew he was being hunted,” he says, “so he hid the only way he knew how. He created an alternate reality playing dead.”

“So he made us hear the shot,” says Scully, instantly understanding. Instantly unquestioning. “And see the hole in his head.”

“Yes, and those two girls thought they saw a monster.” It all makes sense now, every piece of this confusing puzzle. His son is alive, and he's not a murderer. But he is in danger.

“And so, Mulder?” Scully says, prodding a little. He sighs. “Where is he now?”

He sighs again, rubbing tiredly at his forehead. “I don't know, Scully. I wish that I did. H-he could be anywhere by now.”

“It's possible he's still in Norfolk,” she notes, thoughtfully. Looking down at her coffee cup. “Or… he could be long gone by now.”

“I don't think he's gone,” says Mulder. He has absolutely no idea why he would think he knows that, but he does. “After everything that's happened here… I don't think he's left. I think he's still here somewhere. He's trying to figure out his next move.”

Scully rubs a hand over the side of her coffee mug before reaching for his, holding it in both of hers. “Do you really think we're going to find him?” she whispers, her voice small and vulnerable. She'd sounded so sure the night before, and now she sounds so unsure. She holds onto his hand tightly, his knuckles against her chest.

He reaches up with his free hand to push hair behind her ear. “I do,” he says softly. “I really do.” He rubs a thumb soothingly over her cheek. “He's spent so much time wondering about you, Scully, if the things on that blog are true… if he heard the things you said to him in the morgue… I don't know how he couldn't want you to find him.” She chuckles under her breath, nervous and grateful, and he leans in to kiss her forehead. “You're going to see him again,” he says softly, and she squeezes his hand. “You are.”

---

Ryan has a broken ankle and a couple of cracked ribs. The doctor splints his ankle, advises him to stay off his feet and to ice the sore spots, and gives him some crutches.

Annie hovers the entire time, clearly worried. She admits with shame to the doctor that she wasn't home to see the accident, sounding a bit disgusted with herself. Ryan tells the doctor and Annie that he fell down the stairs; it's the truth. He's not going to detail why, or how, but he did fall down the stairs.

Annie wants to know what really happened. She asks him several times. He doesn't know how to tell her. He doesn't know if she'd believe him. When he was a little kid, and he used to tell her about the things he saw, curled up on her lap and wiping his face on her shirt, he'd ask, Do you believe me? and she'd say, Yes, Ry, of course I do. But he doesn't know if she ever did, really. At least, he doesn't know if she ever believed in the ghost part. (He knows she believes he was seeing things.) And even if Annie believes in the ghost, that doesn't necessarily mean she believes in the Specter's power.

She didn't believe Jared, when he tried to tell her. Why the hell would she believe him?

A nurse wheels him out in a wheelchair, just like in the movies. Annie follows behind them with his crutches and thanks the nurse profusely. Towards the exit, she helps Ryan out of the wheelchair and into a regular one, clarifying, “I need to go and get the car.” As the nurse leaves, Annie sits down beside him and tousles his hair. “How are you feeling?” she asks softly, clearly tired.

Ryan works his jaw back and forth, just as tired. Fear still wedged under his skin. “Not amazing,” he mutters. “Not particularly great.”

“Oh, buddy.” She tousles his hair again, like he's a little kid. “I'm so sorry. I should've been with you. I don't… how long were you there before I got home?”

He shrugs. He doesn't know; he honestly can't remember. Passing out will do that to you.

Annie looks concerned, chewing at her lower lip. “What you were saying…” she starts, tentatively. “... Before we left the house…”

Ryan sighs almost automatically, rolling his eyes. “Come on, Aunt Annie…”

“I want to know,” she says, a little stern. “You said we couldn't leave the house, or something would hurt us. What was it?”

“I told you, it was nothing. Nothing. I was in a lot of pain, I was talking nonsense,” he says, but he's thinking of something else. Of what happened just before he pulled her inside. He's suspected possession for years, maybe even got proof of it, but he's never seen it. And he's scared shitless. It could've hurt her, it could've taken her the way it took his parents. It can hurt anyone like that, and the only chance they have of avoiding it is in the house. “I just want to go home, okay?” he adds, nearly pleading. They'll be safe there.

Annie bites her lower lip. Squeezes his shoulder comfortingly. “Was it the Willoughby Specter?” she asks in a hushed voice. She's talking to him like he's a child, like he needs to be fucking comforted. “Was that what you were scared of?”

Irritated, Ryan is ready to blurt, No! but something stops him. He doesn't want to up and tell her the truth, but he doesn't want her to think that there's no danger from the Specter. Doesn't want her to be caught off guard. “It doesn't matter,” he snaps instead, too harshly. He just wants to close his eyes until it’s all over, like he really is a child.

Annie squeezes his shoulder again, prodding. “Is… is this because of your uncle?” she says, and her tone is serious this time, full of regret and hesitance, like she doesn't want to talk about this. And she doesn't. She doesn't; she's told him so many times that she doesn't want to. But she continues: “B-because he's getting out of prison?”

Something stronger than irritation rushes through Ryan: disgust, he thinks. “What the hell, Aunt Annie?” he growls, yanking away from her so harshly he bangs his ankle against the left of the chair. He yelps with pain.

“Oh, honey,” Annie yelps right along with him, leaning over to touch his shoulder again.

He waves her hand away, glaring. “What the hell,” he whispers, and the pain has tears welling in his eyes. “You're gonna be like everyone else in this town, huh? Blame everything on Uncle Jared and my parents?” She looks apologetic, but he doesn't care, he doesn't care. “I thought you knew me better than that,” he hisses. “I thought you thought I was better than that.”

He shifts in his seat, pressing a hand to a spot just above his boot. “Ryan…” Annie starts, but he won't look at her. He wipes his eyes, wishes for some different reality. One where his parents lived, and his aunt and uncle like each other, and he's never, ever seen a ghost.

Annie sighs, exhausted. “I'm sorry, Ry. I'm sorry. I'm going to go and get the car, okay? We're gonna go home and get some sleep.”

She pats his back a couple times, an attempt at comfort, and then she gets up and walks towards the door. Ryan looks away. Shifts in his seat and stares straight ahead until the tears are gone.

He spends a few minutes watching the bustle of the hospital. The announcements over the intercom. The people clustered in the waiting area. The man who comes charging into the hospital and runs straight for the front desk. “My wife, I need to see my wife,” he blurts. “Someone called me and told me she was awake.”

The man is tall, with a full, neatly-cut beard and round glasses, and Ryan feels like he recognizes him from somewhere. “What's your wife's name?” the woman at the desk asks, infinitely patient.

“J-Joy Seers,” the man nearly stammers, and Ryan recognizes him in a second. That's Mrs. Seers's husband.

“Mrs. Seers is awake?” he says immediately, without thinking. Mr. Seers whirls towards him in confusion, and he clarifies quickly, “I was her student.”

He nods quickly, eagerly. “She's awake, they told me, and I want to see her,” he says, turning back towards the nurse.

The nurse taps on the keyboard for a second before informing Mr. Seers, “Third floor. Room 26.” He nods, frantic, and moves for the elevator.

Ryan watches him go, his own mix of frantic emotions surfacing. Mrs. Seers is awake? He's relieved, of course, but he has no idea how to interpret this news. He knows that the Specter was involved in her accident, and a part of him probably figured that she wouldn't wake up. But now that she has… he has no idea what that means. If there's been some kind of supernatural interference, or if it's just an everyday kind of miracle.

“Ry?” His aunt's voice is soft and gentle, apologetic, as she reaches out to touch his shoulder, but he jumps anyway. “Are you ready to go?” she asks gently.

Ryan nods, his eyes darting back and forth to the elevator. “Mrs. Seers just woke up,” he says. When Annie raises her eyebrows at him questioningly, he adds, “Mr. Seers just came through and asked to see her. He said she was awake.”

“Oh,” says Annie, clearly surprised. “Well… that's good news, isn't it?” She grunts with the effort as she helps him up, balances him on the crutches. “That's excellent news.”

Ryan's watching the elevator, nerves rising, heart pounding. He's thinking of the morning after last Halloween, when he got the news about Mrs. Seers, when he'd realized he hadn't been able to save her, to stop the Specter. “I hope so,” he says softly. “I really do.”

---

Mulder and Scully spend a few more hours at the coffee shop, combing through evidence—the forensic reports from both crime scenes, and Jackson's blog. (Reading fully through Rever's entries leaves a sizable lump in Mulder's throat, and he can hear Scully sniffling at intervals; it's incredible, remarkable, remarkably painful. It's the most connection he has with his son, and he clings to it, clings to the visions of Scully, ignores the small voice at the back of his head: Why hasn't he ever seen you?) They're there for long enough that it's dark the next time Mulder looks up, that he can hear Scully's stomach rumbling next to him. “Scully,” he says, and she doesn't look up. He repeats her name, and she doesn't seem to hear, doesn't look up until he nudges her shoulder, her eyes wide and questioning. “Have you eaten anything since breakfast?” he asks gently, ignoring the fact that he himself hasn't eaten today; she's much worse off than he is, she needs to eat.

She bites her lower lip and shakes her head.

He nudges her shoulder again, motioning her towards the door as he stands. “C'mon. It's been a long day, and we both need to eat something. We can go back to the hotel, order a pizza or something.”

Her jaw works back and forth, as if she's thinking, and then she nods, almost reluctantly. “I'm going to keep looking, though,” she says, her voice soft and determined.

“Honey…” he starts, squeezing her arm soothingly.

“I can't stop, Mulder. Not until he's safe. That is the most important thing right now, okay?” she replies. Not accusatory, not angrily. Just firm enough that there isn't any room for argument. She meets his eyes with hers, silently willing him to understand.

And he does. Of course he does. If it were anything else, he might push a little harder, but it's their son. “Okay,” he says. “We'll keep looking for a little while longer.”

Her eyes are grateful; she rises on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek briefly before walking with him to the door.

Mulder fully intends to keep his promise—he’s considering suggesting that they take turns, that he can keep looking while she rests a little and he'll let her know if he finds any leads—but they never make it back to the hotel. They're passing the hospital from the night before, the one Jackson vanished from, when they see the flash of blue and red lights in the parking lot.

“Mulder…” Scully says in a gaspy, breathless voice, grabbing his arm hard.

“I see, I see,” he says, and he turns into the parking lot too hard, pulling up to where the cars are clustered. They are both thinking the same thing: he's in there.

Neither of them are sure, of course, but Detective Costa confirms it almost immediately, by confirming that they don't have Jackson in custody, but that they have the exits covered. He shows them a picture that he received, of William (whole and okay and alive) sitting on Brianna's bed, and their breaths simultaneously catch in their throats. “Detective, I'd like to ask you to keep your officers outside so that we can be the first to go in,” says Scully, her voice full of emotion—anticipation, fear.

“Agents from the Department of Defense are already inside,” says Costa.

Mulder has to bite back angry words, the furious things he'd like to say. He and Scully exchange a glance, and he knows: they're thinking the same thing. “Excuse me,” he says, and they push past Costa.

The hospital looks normal when they enter: nurses bustling around, people in the waiting room. No sign of Jackson, or of the DOD agents, but they both know Jackson can manipulate his appearance. Scully is breathing shallowly, nervously, as she scans the faces in the rooms, and the two of them keep moving until they hear the echoes of multiple gunshots, somewhere above him. “Evacuate the floor!” Mulder calls, largely on instinct.

As people around them begin to panic, to run for the exits, he looks over at Scully. Her eyes are wide. She jerks her chin towards a stairwell, and the two of them begin to push towards it.

An alarm begins to blare. They move together through a mass of people running down the stairs. More gunshots in the distance, which Mulder finds both terrifying and shockingly comforting; if they're still shooting, than they probably haven't hit him yet. His son might still be alive. Someone slams hard into him and he swears, pushes through in an attempt to keep up with Scully.

They get into a hallway and run through a set of double doors; he veers right, and Scully veers left. He keeps running, even as he hears Scully shout, “FBI! Put your weapon down!” He hears the voice of a DOD agent, although he can't hear what he's saying, but he doesn't hear any gunshots, so he keeps going. He rounds the corners of the hallway, scanning the rooms for Jackson, when he nearly runs into Scully as she rounds a corner. They both freeze at the sounds of multiple gunshots, at the sound of two thuds somewhere down the hall.

Mulder meets Scully's eyes briefly before moving towards the sound, quicker than her. Relief courses through him when he gets close enough to see it; it's not Jackson. It's not Jackson. It's the DOD agents, bloody and lifeless on the ground. “They shot each other,” he informs Scully as she catches up to him.”

“Well, who were they shooting at?” she replies.

Her voice is soft, vulnerable, and he understands what she is saying in a split second. “He's here,” he says, and shouts immediately, “Jackson! It's safe. It's over.”

“Jackson, we just want to talk to you,” Scully calls out, scanning the room right along with him. “Make sure you're okay.” Her voice has that same vulnerable quality, and something else he recognizes, something he hasn't heard in years. The voice she used with Emily, with William. The voice of a mother.

They're surveying the room, and Mulder hears a sudden rustle behind them. They turn in time to see a frightened nurse scurry to her feet and run out of the room. Frustrated, Mulder sets out to keep looking, Scully right on his tail.

They search the whole floor, finding another body, and then the stairwell, the parking garage, the parking lot. If Mulder knows anything about his son, he knows that Jackson is trying to run, to get to safety. He's hoping to catch him before he gets too far. But it's no use; he's probably long gone, and he has the advantage of being able to make people see things that aren't there. For the first time, the idea occurs to Mulder: they may not be able to find him.

The parking lot is crowded, so crowded it'd be hard to find anyone, but Scully catches up to him near the car. “Anything?” she calls in a soft voice that's somewhere between hopeful and defeated. Like she, too, knows they won't find him.

“No,” he says, shaking his head. He feels as defeated as she does, feels so fucking stupid. After all these years, he still can't protect his own son. He's a pathetic excuse for a father. “He's disappeared.”

Scully sighs a little, devastated. He reaches for her and she comes, leaning hard into his chest, wrapping one arm around his back and her other hand around his elbow. He rests his chin on top of her head, rocking her back and forth in the crowded parking lot. He holds her tight and, over her head, continues scanning the crowd for William's face.

---

 They go back to the hotel. They crawl into bed together, wrapped around each other, his hand heavy over her stomach, his cheek pressed against her shoulder. He kisses the soft spot under her chin, rubs his nose against her jaw. “I'm so sorry,” he whispers, and she crumbles, tears welling in her eyes. She stifles a sob with her palm. He thumbs a tear away from the corner of her eye, sniffling from behind her. “I'm so sorry, honey,” he chokes out.

She reaches for his hand and holds it tight, pulls it to her mouth and kisses his knuckles, the base of his thumb. “He's alive,” she whispers, and she can feel him trembling against her. “He's alive,” she says, holding his hand against her cheek. “Our son is alive, Mulder.”

He kisses the nape of her neck, the top of her shoulder, kisses her like he can kiss the pain away. She can feel his tears wet and cold against her skin, rolling down her collarbone. She quivers in his arms, and he bundles her closer. She thinks of a night, sixteen years ago, where they lay together in a bed like this holding their baby boy between them.

---

In the morning, they agree they should go home. It's one of the hardest decisions Scully has ever made, but she doesn't see much point in staying. They have no idea where to find him, and he's probably long gone by now. He must be running. He must be so scared.

They go home. They eat breakfast—Scully is anything but hungry, but she hasn't eaten for a full twenty-four hours and she doubts Mulder has, either—and they leave. The car is still packed up. Scully tucks the broken snow globe and the vial with the strand of Jackson's hair that they tested into her purse. Mulder bundles the files, the printouts of Jackson's blog into the glove compartment. They climb into the car and leave, driving out of town in near silence. Past the ocean, past the bay. Scully lets her forehead hit the window, watches the town where her baby grew up vanish behind her. She wonders what his life was like. She wishes she could have been there for it, every step of the way.

As they get further away from the city, she retrieves the glass with his hair, cradling it in her palms. It's silly, very silly, but it's all she has left of him. She remembers William as a baby, the soft chubby weight in her arms, his first haircut. She'd taped the strand of baby-soft hair in a scrapbook the way her mother had done with all of her children, a scrapbook that is probably buried somewhere deep in Mulder's office. This is all she has left.

She looks up absently at one point, and her eyes fall on a little rural gas station, one with a windmill in front of it. A windmill like the one in the snow globe, the snow globe she saw in her dream.

On an impulse, she asks, “Do we need gas?”

Thoughtfully, Mulder says, “I could use a bathroom,” and guides the car off of the road.

He parks next to a tank and goes into the store to use the bathroom. Scully pays and begins to fill the tank. The door chimes, behind her; she stretches a bit, craning her neck to relieve the tension. Ignores the store until she hears a familiar voice. “Were you following me?”

She turns to see the man from the hospital a couple nights ago, the one who ran into her when she dropped the snow globe, the one who told her not to give up on the bigger picture. “Hey,” she says, much more cheerful than she feels. “Didn't I see you at the hospital?”

“It must be kismet,” the man says with a chuckle, shrugging. “But I doubt we'll be seeing each other again. I'm driving cross country.”

“Oh. A-Anywhere in particular?” she asks politely.

“No, I just want to see the world,” the guy says, almost wistfully. He meets her eyes and says, in the same serious, knowing way as the other night, “Things are about to change.”

He starts to walk away, but Scully's curiosity is peaked. This can't be a coincidence, between the windmill and the things that this man keeps saying. She remembers something that Mulder told her the day before, about the man who disappeared after Project Crossroads. “Hey,” she says, and he turns towards her. “Are you Dr. Masao Matsumoto?” It's possible, she thinks, that Matsumoto would come looking for his patient if he was in danger, if the details of Project Crossroads were being unearthed again.

But that doesn't seem to be the case. “A doctor?” the guy says, chuckling again and shaking his head. “No, I never finished high school.” He pauses for a second before adding, “You seem like a nice person. I wish I could know you better.”

His voice is sincere, and despite the strangeness of both of their interactions, Scully can't bring herself to dismiss him for some reason. “Well,” she says, “safe travels.”

He nods, turns around and heads for his car. She turns back to her car and hears his car door open before she hears his voice again. “If you don't stand for something…” he starts, and she whirls around to look at him. “... you'll fall for anything,” he finishes.

Speechless, Scully watches him as he climbs into his car and starts it. She's so lost in her thoughts that she doesn't hear Mulder until he's right  beside her. “Who's that?” he asks. 

“Just a friendly old guy,” she says, watching his car pull out of the parking lot. “But he seems so familiar.” It dawns on her, suddenly, and she gasps a little. “The Pick Up Artist,” she says, wonder in her voice.

“What are you talking about?”

“That book in Jackson's room,” she says. “I think he's the author.”

“What'd he say?” Mulder asks.

“He gave me a piece of advice,” says Scully. “He said… he said, ‘If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.’”

Recognition flickers over his face like a flame. "That's a Malcolm X quote, Scully,” he says.

Their eyes meet in a brief, mutual understanding, and they move together towards the road. Scully scans the road, her eyes moving up and down it as she shifts around Mulder, but there is no sign of him, and she's about to voice something—a protest, a thanksgiving, a plea—when Mulder says, “Scully,” and points to a surveillance camera near their car.

They move towards the store now, nearly running. Mulder gets there first, flashing his badge, and nearly commanding, “We need to see your surveillance video. Now.” The clerk nods, wordless.

The footage is on a shitty TV on the wall, and the guy rewinds it for them until Scully stops him. “Right there,” she says, and he stops, and there is her son. Standing right there in front of her, William, her baby.

Are you Dr. Masao Matsumoto? the version of her on the tape asks, and her son says, A doctor? No, I-I never finished high school. The words of the friendly old man, but in her son's voice. This is their son's voice. Her mouth drops open, emotions bubbling inside her; Mulder's hands drop to her shoulders and squeeze. Holding her there, grounding her.

You seem like a nice person, says her son. I wish I could know you better.

She reaches back for Mulder's hand, holding it tight. A smile breaks out over her face as she watches herself wish her son safe travels. “He found us,” she whispers, her voice raspy. She squeezes Mulder's hand hard. “Mulder, he found us.”

---

Jared Caruthers has always communicated with his nephew through alternating letters and emails: letters mostly, but Ryan always sends emails when it's something urgent, and he needs a faster response. One day in November, he receives an email from Ryan that practically screams urgent; Call me, it reads, as soon as you get a chance. I need to talk to you. And then it includes a number, a number Jared actually recognizes; it's the landline at his parents’ old house, the one he knows Annie moved in to when she adopted Ryan.

The next time he gets a chance to use the phone, he calls Ryan immediately. No question. If Ryan needs to actually talk to him, instead of explaining things in an email, then he doesn't want to wait around and find out why. The fact that he's calling a landline, though, since he has to call collect and can't call cell phones, isn't helping his anxiety. He listens to the rings, discordant in his ear, counts them absently the way he did when he was a kid. He's prepared for hearing Ryan's voice that he's startled out of his wits when a woman picks up and says, “Caruthers residence, this is Annie speaking.”

Jared freezes, his mouth hanging open as he realizes. This isn't some random woman, this is his baby sister. He hasn't heard her voice in years. She hasn't wanted to talk to him.

As Annie prods, “Hello?” he considers just hanging up and forgetting the whole thing. But he remembers the crypticness of Ryan's email, the seeming urgency. That, mixed with the fact that Ryan is telling FBI agents that Jared was possessed that night, feels like enough motivation to speak up.

Just as Annie starts to threaten to hang up, Jared clears his throat and speaks. “Annie, it's Jared.”

She gasps on the other end, stunned. He can hear it, plain and simple, over the clatteriness of the phone line. He doesn't say anything else as she recovers, as she demands, “Why are you calling here, Jared?”

He tries to embed his voice with apology. He tries to explain: “R-Ryan asked me to call here.”

Why?” Annie snaps, almost begging, and Jared recognizes that voice from their childhood. They used to fight over toys, and she would use that voice: This is mine! His little sister is all grown up now, but all he's picturing is the little girl with chubby cheeks and pigtails.

“I don't know,” says Jared, trying his best to sound level headed. Trying his best not to cry. “Annie, if you're uncomfortable…”

“Aunt Annie—” He can hear Ryan in the background, calling from a distance. “Aunt Annie, I need to—”

There's a rustle on the other end, and Annie's voice comes back, angry and dark. “Look, Jared, I've tried not to discourage your relationship with Ryan—tried not to discourage any way he wants to cope with this horrible, fucked up mess—but he is getting himself in trouble with the whole Willoughby Specter debacle. He is getting himself hurt.”

Jared's mouth drops open in instinctual shock; it's the kind of thing he's always suspected, always feared, would happen. Ever since Ian and Marion and Holly. But somehow he still can't believe it. “I-i-is he okay?” he stammers dumbly.

“Aunt Annie!” Ryan shouts on the other end, and he sounds just like Ian when he didn't get his way. Jared has a school picture of his nephew from a couple years ago that he keeps tucked inside a book; Ryan looks just like Marion, but he sounds just like Ian.

Annie sighs. “Yes. He's fine,” she says curtly. “He sprained his ankle falling down the stairs, and cracked a couple ribs. When I came home, he was hysterical, insisting we couldn't leave the house. I think he was trying some kind of banishment spell or something? There's salt lines around all the doors that he won't let me touch, and the whole house reeked of sage.”

A different kind of fear fills Jared, a furious one he probably doesn't have any right to. “Wow,” he chokes out, voice rough. It's the most he can manage at the moment.

“Let me talk to him, Aunt Annie!”

Annie sighs again, clearly put out. “I'm going to put you on. But Jesus, Jared, please don't encourage this stuff.”

There's a clatter on the other end, and then Ryan's voice comes through, stiff and annoyed. It's clear he's heard everything Annie has said. “Look, Uncle Jared—”

“Ryan, what the hell?” Jared snaps, probably harsher than he should. He can feel the guards watching him. The call's being recorded, of course, but it's probably not a good idea to get overexcited anyway. He lowers his voice and mutters, “I told you that you couldn't try anything like that, didn't I? It's too dangerous! I've told you a thousand times…”

(When Ryan had first contacted him, it'd been about the ghost. He'd written him a letter two years ago and said, I've been seeing the Willoughby Specter all his life. I don't think you murdered my parents. I think the ghost used you to get revenge because you were trying to get rid of it. He'd apparently found the police report somehow and figured out what they had been doing before the murders took place. He wanted Jared's help getting rid of the ghost forever. And Jared had been so scared of something like this happening—of getting Ian's son killed by the same being that killed him—but he'd been unable to ignore his nephew's letters. His whole life, he'd been tortured, and it was probably Jared's fault. And a part of him couldn't turn away a connection with a member of his family. That little kid in the crib.)

(But look. Look what happened. Jared can't shake the feeling that he's about to fuck up his family all over again.)

“What else was I supposed to do?” Ryan hisses, furious. “You don't understand, Uncle Jared, it's been getting stronger!” His voice softens in tone, like he's trying to whisper, but it doesn't soften in fury. “It's getting stronger, I thought it was gonna hurt Aunt Annie! And it tried to, it possessed her! I didn't know what else to, what else was I supposed to do?” His voice breaks off in what is nearly a whimper, muffled like he has a hand pressed over his mouth, like he is trying to stifle tears.

Jared sighs, balling his hands wearily in his hair. His nose is burning like he is going to cry any minute. “I don't know, Ryan, I don't fucking know. But you can't be fucking around with this stuff anymore. If you try to get rid of it… you just need to leave it alone, okay? Just leave it alone, and it'll…. it'll…” He falters. He doesn't know if he can say the end of that sentence. He can't promise that it'll leave Ryan alone. He can't promise a goddamn thing, but he can't risk his nephew being hurt. He can't.

Ryan laughs, bitterly. “You really don't get it, Uncle Jared,” he says sadly. “It's too late for any of that.”

And then he hangs up with a sharp click, leaving a startling emptiness echoing in Jared's ear  

---

Scully wakes up in bed (in her bed, the one that she and Mulder picked out together), too warm, tangled up in quilts and sheets, her hand tangled in the chain of her cross and her thumb hooked in the loop of her ring. The first thing she sees is frost gathered on the windows, and her first thought is, Jesus Christ, I hope William is warm. And then she reminds herself, Jackson, in the firmest voice she can muster. Jackson, her wayward, intelligent, dumbass kid. She once told Mulder that their son looks just like him, and he does. Tears well in her eyes, and she wipes them quickly, takes a deep, shaky breath. He's alive, she reminds herself. He's alive.

The second thing she notices is that she's alone in bed, the sheets rumpled and cold. She sits up tentatively, the ring slipping off of the tip of her thumb, and calls out softly, “Mulder?” There's no answer, no sign he's in the bathroom. She tucks some wayward hair behind her ears before climbing out of bed. The floorboards are freezing under her feet and she shivers, padding out into the hall.

Mulder isn't upstairs; she has no idea where he is until she starts downstairs and hears it. The muffled, miserable sobs coming from the living room.

Her chest clenches, her heart pounding against her ribs, and she hurries the rest of the way down. Mulder is on the couch, curled smaller than she ever would've guessed, his eyes screwed shut, and he's muffling his sobs behind his palm.

Sudden guilt rises in her throat, and she whispers, “Mulder,” her stomach twisting.

He looks up, startled, his face wet. “Oh, Scully…” he mumbles, as if embarrassed, wiping his cheeks frantically. “I-I'm sorry… I didn't want you to…”

She drops on the couch beside him without another word and wraps herself around him, hauling him into her arms. He whimpers a little, his face pressing into her collarbone. “I didn't want you to see me like this,” he croaks ashamedly, and she squeezes him tighter, kisses the top of his head. Shakes her head with her lips to his hair. She doesn't want him to feel like he has to hide his feelings to protect her. She never wants that.

He breaks down slowly, his fists gripping her t-shirt. She rocks him back and forth the way that she did after his mother died, whispering soothing things into his scalp. “I thought he was dead,” he gasps out, and she grips him tighter, murmurs, Shhh. It's okay. You're okay, honey. It's okay.

They collapse in a tangle of limbs against the arm of the couch, Mulder mostly on top of her. She welcomes the weight, his cheek against her sternum and his hiccuping sobs into her shirt. Her own eyes are filling with tears. She holds onto Mulder like a lifeline, and they ground each other to the earth.

---

Later, back in bed, she curls around his back the same way he did for her on a shitty couch bed, palm splayed across his ribs. He holds her hands in his, and on his fourth finger on his left hand, she feels a slip of metal she hasn't noticed in years.

She rests her chin on his shoulder, kisses the side of his neck gently. “Are you okay,” she whispers.

He hmms in response, kisses the back of her left hand. “I don't know,” he murmurs. “I… I can't tell you how relieved I am that he's alive. That he's… okay… but going through that… it felt real.”

“I know,” she says. She knows better than anyone. She doesn't think she'll ever forget the sight of her baby on a morgue slab. She presses her cheek against his back and bites back a shudder.

He holds her hand tightly against his chest. “I just… I always thought I would… get to talk to him,” he whispers. “Or that he might… I-I know it's selfish, but…”

“It's not selfish,” she says immediately, hugging him tight. “He's your son, Mulder. It's okay to have… regrets.”

He sniffles, quivering in her arms. “I just… I love him so much, Scully.” He squeezes her hand. “I want to know that he's okay.”

“I know.” She scoots up a bit to kiss his cheek, the spot behind his ear, wipes her eyes and leans her forehead against his neck. “I do, too. I do, too.”

He kisses her knuckles, the inside of her wrist. She can feel his ring between her fingers; she shivers. “I'm so glad you got to talk to him,” he mumbles, and she sniffles. He turns in her arms and pulls her against him, kisses her forehead gently, kisses the spot where a tear drips down her cheek. “I'm so glad he found you.”

---

Scully has another dream, the first one she's had in days that doesn't begin with sleep paralysis. She's lying in bed, and then she sits up, and she sees the dark figure standing in the doorway. She can't make out the face, but it feels so familiar. It feels like the dark figure in her first dream from Jackson.

Initially, in the midst of that first dream, Scully had thought it was another recurrence of that strange, Willoughby-induced fear that's been following her along with that silly case. A recurrence of all the things she's been seeing. But she couldn't explain why she felt compelled to follow the figure, why the dream had felt so significant. That was primarily the reason she'd actually told Mulder about that dream; she'd found herself unable to ignore it, dismiss it as another fearful hallucination or the like.

The dark figure hulks in the doorway; Scully whispers, “William?” and can hear the pleading desperation in her own voice. Is this another message? she wants to ask. What are you trying to tell me? She wants it, very badly, to be him; she wants to talk to her son again.

The figure raises a gesturing hand, as if to say, Come with me. And then it turns in the doorway and walks off, out into the hall.

Scully climbs out of bed and follows. She doesn't think she has a choice. The last time she followed a dark figure like this, it led her to her son. Maybe this dream is meant to help her find him again.

The hallway is dark, darker than it usually is; she can barely see the figure in front of us. She follows him warily, her hands quivering. They walk for longer than what would make sense, considering the layout of the hallway, and the figure doesn't say a word, just leads her further and further into the darkness.  

Scully clenches her hands into fists and calls out, “Jackson?” But he doesn't answer. She bites her lower lip, prods, “Are you trying to send me a message, honey?” But still no answer comes. The figure just keeps walking. And as they go, the figure seems to look less and less like her son.

A sudden wave of frustration and fear washes over her, and she surges forward to reach for the figure. But her fingers land on nothing, they're grasping at thin air.

The hulking shape before her freezes in place, as if startled. And then it begins to turn, slow enough to be considered ominous. Scully tries to stumble away but she's frozen, she cannot move. The figure lifts something in its hand, and there is a scratch, like the striking of a match, there is a sudden flickering of firelight.

Scully jerks awake, biting back a startled yelp. Her hands pressed flat into the mattress, her body tense and drawn as a live wire. She can feel Mulder behind her, sitting up in bed and playing absently with her hair, and he lifts a hand to stroke her scalp at the sudden movement. “You okay?” he asks softly, concerned.

She swallows, turns in bed and pulls herself into a sitting position before nestling under his arm. He willingly tucks her into his side. “Yeah,” she says quietly, cheek against his collarbone. “Bad dream.” He looks down at her with curiousness, maybe even hopeful astonishment, and she clarifies quickly, “Not that kind of dream, not… from him.” She knows for sure now that it wasn't—that’s why she didn't have any sleep paralysis—and she's annoyed that she's stuck on the fucking Willoughby Specter again. She doesn't know why it's affected her so deeply, doesn't know why she keeps seeing things.

Mulder kisses the top of her head, rubs a hand up and down her arm. “I'm sorry, honey.”

She shrugs, trying to dismiss the dream and the fear it brought. Her heart is still pounding too hard against her ribs. She pulls the covers tighter around them—it’s still freezing, what looks like an icy rain falling outside—and that's when she notices the phone in Mulder's lap, opened to an email. “Who's that?” she asks, shifting a bit to face him. “Skinner? Detective Costa?”

“N-no, nothing like that,” Mulder says quickly, and Scully knows what he means. Nothing about him. “It's, uh, it's actually from Willoughby,” he adds.

Scully bites back her surprise. Clenches her jaw and forces herself to nod calmly. “From Ryan?” she asks, a little grimly; she's in no mood to dig into this case again, for several reasons.

“No, actually, it's from Deputy Jacobs,” says Mulder. “He wanted to let us know that Joy Seers woke up from her coma. They think she's going to be okay.”

“Oh.” Scully's honestly surprised by the news—after not hearing about any changes in Joy's condition for over a year, she'd doubted whether or not Joy would ever wake up—but it's not a bad surprise. She'd always liked Joy. Having had her own experiences with a coma, she'd been understandably horrified when she found out that Joy was in one. And as much as she doesn't want to think about Willoughby right now—because she doesn't want to think about brutally murdered parents, or wayward delinquent kids, or this nonexistent apparition that she apparently can't stop thinking about—this news is very welcome. If she has to have news from Willoughby, Virginia, she's glad it's good.

“That's excellent news,” she says, to voice her feelings out loud, and rests her head on Mulder's shoulder. “Excellent.”

“It is,” he agrees, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. “Her husband must the overjoyed.” There's a familiar inflection in his voice, the inflection of, I know what this is like. I've gone through this before. Scully bites her lower lip and nods. She understands.

Mulder laughs, a little bitterly. “I'll admit, Willoughby has kind of been in the back of my mind these past couple days, even with everything,” he says. “D-do you remember when I called you the night before we went to Norfolk, and I told you I had a dream about the Specter?”

She'd admittedly forgotten until this moment, but she does remember. It scared her half to death, to wake from the mysterious dream and hear Mulder in a panic on the other end. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “I remember.”

Mulder swallows hard, a gulp, and shifts restlessly. “In the, uh, dream,” he continues uneasily, “I was shown a body bag.” Scully stiffens instinctively, and she can feel Mulder's own tension, but he keeps going. He says, “And I-I thought it was you. That's why I called you like that. But… I don't think it was. I think it was some kind of warning. About… what was going to happen to Jackson.”

Her heart is pounding again, too hard. She sits up in bed and shifts to face him. But he's not looking at her, his head is bowed. His voice cracks as he speaks again, quivering: “A-and the whole time we were there at that hospital, I couldn't stop thinking…” He takes a trembling breath, wipes his eyes. “... t-that I could've stopped it… I could've saved him if I'd just…”

She can't take anymore. She moves towards him in one fluid motion and wraps her arms as he chokes out a soft sob. “It’s okay,” she whispers, ignoring her thudding heartbeats, her fear and her anger, everything but this man in her arms. Her hand tangled in his hair. “Honey, it's okay. It's okay.”

They hold each other in the dim-lit room, sleet falling outside, and they do not speak of the Willoughby Specter again that night.

---

Ryan goes back to school a few days after his return from the hospital. The pain’s become more or less manageable, and besides, he doesn't exactly like hanging around the house, with all this new tension between him and Annie. (He doesn't exactly like leaving the house, either—it’s more or less become a sanctuary for him—but Annie leaves it every day, and he knows he can't go without leaving the house forever. And so he goes back to school.)

His friends, and some of the nicer students, want to know what happened. He gives the generic answer of I fell down the stairs, and wishes that would be the end of it. He's tired of talking about it. He doesn't want to have to explain why it happened, or how it really happened, that he was pushed down the stairs by a fucking ghost.

More people want to tell him what he already knows: Mrs. Seers woke up. Apparently a group of people is planning to go and visit her after school. One of his friends invites him along, and he agrees, mostly because he feels like he owes it to Mrs. Seers. After all, it was probably his fault she got into the accident in the first place. But Annie is wary to let him go; apparently, she doesn't exactly trust him right now. Ryan grits his teeth and curses under his breath and argues the best he can, until Annie gives in just a bit and agrees to drive him herself. It's not ideal, but it's something.

By the time they get there, the group from school is already leaving. Annie shoots Ryan an apologetic look and he does his best to ignore it; he's not in the mood. They ride the elevator up in silence.

Mrs. Seers still looks sick: pale and thin, with her hair having grown long. But she's sitting up in bed, and she smiles when Ryan comes in. “I was wondering if you would come by,” she says, straightening a bundle of flowers and setting them in a vase beside her bed. “The other students told me you had been hurt.”

“Yeah, Ry took a bit of a spill,” says Annie, squeezing his shoulder. “But we were so happy to hear that you had woken up, Joy, and we thought we should come by.” She grins. Ryan always forgets that his aunt and Mrs. Seers know each other; he thinks that they have a mutual friend or something.

Mrs. Seers addresses Ryan, her voice polite and sympathetic. “Does it hurt?” she asks.

Ryan shrugs. “Not too bad.” He shifts his weight, trying to take it off of his ankle. “How are you feeling, Mrs. Seers?”

“All right.” She shrugs. “All of this lost time… it is strange.”

“I can't imagine,” Annie says in a soft voice. She squeezes Ryan's shoulder again before stepping back. “Listen, I wanted to run downstairs and have a word with Ryan's doctor while we're here. This kid doesn't want to use the crutches half the time…” She chuckles, and Ryan rolls his eyes. “I'll give you two a minute to talk, okay?”

Mrs. Seers nods.

Ryan almost wants to ask her not to leave—he hates awkward situations, and this is definitely a taker. But he's not a little kid, and he doesn't feel particularly companionable with his aunt right now, anyway. So he says nothing and she walks out of the room and leaves them in silence.

Ryan shifts back and forth awkwardly. Mrs. Seers is just watching him, silently, and his first thought is that she is resentful. He blurts, “Mrs. Seers, I'm really sorry.”

She says nothing. Her hands are folded in her lap, and she's still watching him.

Ryan moves a little closer, his crutches squeaking on the floor. “I'm really sorry,” he repeats, in a softer voice. “I… I didn't want anyone to get hurt… because of what was happening in the classroom… with the Specter…” The words sound ridiculous, coming out of his mouth, but he keeps going. He can't help it. Aside from Jared and Robbie, and maybe from that male FBI agent, Mrs. Seers has always been the most open to the idea that the ghost is real, is behind these things. And if she understands what happened last Halloween, than she will understand the apologize and it's a well-deserved apology. “I felt really bad,” he says, gripping the bars or his crutches, the metal lukewarm between his fingers. “Hotrible. I'm… I'm really sor—”

“Did you think it was over?” Mrs. Seers says abruptly.

Ryan blinks in a shocked stupor. For a second, he thinks he imagined it. “Um… what?” he asks, with a little laugh.

Mrs. Seers nods, as if confirming she spoke. “It is not over,” she continues frankly. “You are a fool if you think that.” She lifts her chin to meet his eyes, and he suddenly understands. He understands everything.

Ryan gulps, his hands quivering. He doesn't say anything else. The words are solidly lodged in his throat. He turns, without another word, and begins to make his way out of the room. He can hear Mrs. Seers's voice behind him, calling his name, but he ignores it. He just keeps moving, crutches scraping, hands shaking, just a bit. He keeps going until he finds a set of chairs down the hallway, and it's not as safe as he'd like, but it's better than nothing, it's not like he can do anything else.

He lowers himself into a chair and sits there, nervously, until a hand comes down on his shoulder and he jolts.

“Sorry!” Annie says immediately, holding her hands up in apology and moving into his line of view. “Did I scare you?”

“Startled,” he mutters, although it isn't the truth.

Annie shoots him a look, and he can't tell if it's a confused look or an accusing look. “Why are you out here?” she asks. “What happened with Mrs. Seers?”

Ryan picks at a cuticle, avoiding looking at her. He wants to go home. He'd like very much to go home. “Oh, she said she was tired and she wanted to rest,” he mumbles.

“Oh.” Annie looks surprised, but she shrugs. She reaches down to help Ryan up, hooking his arm around her shoulders. “Well. It's good to see her up and about like that, huh? A real relief.”

“Yeah, for sure,” Ryan mutters. His eyes are on the end of the hall, on Mrs. Seers's room. He's trying to avoid the fact that won't stop poking at him, the thing that became obvious a few minutes ago in that room: that wasn't Mrs. Seers.