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PART ONE

 

one.

May 20, 2002

Willoughby Daily Press; Willoughby, Virginia

MARRIED COUPLE FOUND DEAD IN APARTMENT BUILDING OFF OF CHURCH STREET

Last night, responding to a 9-1-1 call from a house on the corner of Church Street and Humphrey Avenue, police found Ian Caruthers (34) and Marion Caruthers (32) reportedly stabbed to death in the hall outside their apartment in the Willoughby Woods Apartment Building.

The Caruthers’s infant son was apparently found unharmed in his crib inside, and has since been released to family.

Neighbors say that the couple was spending time with Ian's brother, Jared Caruthers (27), the night of the attack. There was no sign of Jared at the scene, although it is believed that he made the 9-1-1 call. He is currently missing. A second 9-1-1 call was placed when the Caruthers's neighbor returned home and ran into the brother in the hall, who was reportedly covered in blood.

The Willoughby Police Department is currently searching for Jared Caruthers. WPD declined to comment on whether or not Jared being considered a suspect.

Anyone with information on Jared Caruthers's whereabouts should contact the Willoughby Police Department immediately.

---

Reports of appearances by the Willoughby Specter have come sporadically since its famous appearance in the eighteenth century. Some of the more famous sightings include local farmer George Brown seeing the Specter just before the highly public destruction of his harvest in 1834, or World War I soldier and Willoughby native John McNeeley reporting a sighting prior to the loss of his arm in France—albeit miles from the usual site of sightings. But however, wherever, or whenever the sightings occur, one thing remains clear: the Willoughby Specter is a warning, a harbinger of misfortune. And anyone who sees him is likely to experience such misfortune, in whatever form it may come.

— Excerpt from Folklore of Rural Virginia, written by Tabitha Cooper

---

october, 2015

Sheriff Joe O'Connell has never been a superstitious man.

He's heard the story of the Willoughby Specter a million times throughout his life, but aside from a strange string of uncertainty-striking events in 2002 when he was just a deputy at the Willoughby Police Department, he hasn't believed in the spirit since the second grade. He's had no reason to. The legend remains a believed part of Willoughby's history, but few people actually believe in the ghost anymore, and most of the people who do are under the age of ten. The best example is Joe's son, Robbie, who is six and has preached his belief in the Willoughby Specter since he first heard the story at age four, but he's a kid, and Joe is sure that he'll shed the belief when he grows up.

Or at least he's sure until he finds the family dog missing one morning. The back door is hanging open when Joe goes downstairs, teeth chattering with the October chill, and the dog, Bear, isn't where he usually sleeps in the living room. He searches the house, jogs around the neighborhood in the chilly morning air calling the dog's name, but there is no sign of Bear anywhere.

Robbie is devastated, bursting into tears when he finds out and clinging to his mother. Joe feels a pang of sympathy for his son, tousles his hair and promises that the dog will turn up eventually. He's planning to dispatch a deputy to search for the dog if things aren't busy (which they never are, their town is too small for much crime to occur outside of minor disturbances and petty neighbor squabbles), but at the moment, he's stuck on how the hell Bear actually got out. None of them are sleepwalkers, and his wife swears that she closed and locked the doors last night before she went to bed. There are no signs of anyone breaking in, no signs that anyone took the dog on purpose, so either someone inside the house made a mistake… or someone from outside let the dog out.

Robbie gets off the bus the police station that afternoon, the way he always does, his eyes red and his sweater rumpled. He climbs up onto Joe's lap and sits there for a while, sniffling and refusing Joe's offers of an afternoon snack. Joe tousles his hair absently as he talks on the phone. He's been calling around the town to see if anyone's seen the dog to no luck. He's sent his best deputy, Kenny Jacobs (his best friend for years and practically an uncle to Robbie), out to drive around and look for the dog, but he hasn't heard anything from him.

When he hangs up the phone, Robbie tugs at his shirt in an impatient sort of way. “Daddy?” he mumbles, rubbing his face against the pocket of Joe's jacket.

“What's up, bud?” asks Joe, rubbing his back. “Do you want me to call Mom to come get you?”

“I knew that Bear was going to run away.”

Joe blinks in unabashed surprise. “What?” he asks, startled. Robbie nods, his lip jutting out, looking like he has just confessed to murder.

The door to Joe's office opens as Kenny enters. “Hi, Uncle Kenny,” Robbie says, instantly distracted, wiping his nose and waving at him.

“Hi, Rob.” Kenny sits in front of the desk, giving Joe an apologetic look. “No luck, Joe. Sorry.”

“We'll talk about that in a minute, Ken. Son, look at me for a second.” He puts a finger under Robbie's chin, tipping his head towards him until the boy is looking him in the eye. “Did you let Bear out, Robert?” he asks carefully, a little sternly.

Robbie shakes his head furiously. “No, Daddy, I wouldn't do that! I love Bear!”

“But you said that you knew Bear was going to run away,” Joe says with confusion. “How did you know that? Did someone tell you that?”

Robbie looks a little nervous; he looks between Joe and Kenny, scans the room quickly like he's checking for something, and motions Kenny closer, who leans across the desk. He says to the two men in a low, confidential whisper, the words slurring through the gap in his front teeth, “Cause I saw the Willoughby ‘pecter last night.”

Dumbfounded, Joe says nothing for a few beats. “What?” Kenny says incredulously, and Joe is suddenly reminded that Kenny is a superstitious man. (He's never forgotten about what happened in 2002. He brings it up once or twice a year, whenever the Specter spectacle inevitably comes up again.)

“Uh-huh,” says Robbie proudly. “Just like in the stories! He was a glow-y guy with a creepy beard and a black cloak and an old hat, and he looked reallllllllly old-fashioned. And I was really scared, but then I remembered that everybody likes the ghost! Well, everybody except Ryan.” His face twists up thoughtfully.

(Ryan is their former babysitter, hired by Joe's wife, Bonnie and fired by Joe himself, and Joe is suddenly reminded of why he dislikes that kid so much. Filling his boy's head with nonsense.)

“When did you see him?” Kenny asks, completely serious.

“Last night. I didn't know why until Bear was gone. But the ghost warned me! He came ‘cause of Bear!”

“Robbie, buddy,” Joe says slowly. “Did Ryan tell you scary stories the last time he came over?” It was less than a week ago, and that entire encounter did not go well, ended in an argument with Ryan and an argument with Bonnie and general awkwardness all around.

Robbie shakes his head. “I bet the ghost is going to tell me where Bear is! What do you think, Daddy? Uncle Kenny? Do you think the ghost's come again, Uncle Kenny?”

Kenny's mouth gapes open, like he doesn't know what to say. Joe holds up his hand to halt the conversation. “Son, I think I'm going to take you on home. I'll drive around and look for Bear on my way back, okay?”

“Okay.” Robbie rubs at his eyes and jumps off of Joe's lap, slapping Kenny's hand in their routine high five. “Maybe you'll see the ghost, Daddy,” he suggests.

Joe pats his son's head indulgently. “Go wait outside, bud.” Robbie nods and goes running, the door slamming behind him.

Joe grabs his keys and hangs it around his thumb. “Can you hold down the fort, Kenny?”

“Sure, boss.” Kenny is standing, too, arms crossed over his chest. “Do you… think there's something to what he's saying? Robbie?”

Joe shakes his head, jaw set.

“Cause if it's true, then that'd be the first time in thirteen years. Except for… you know…”

“I seriously doubt it, Kenny.” Joe starts towards the door, swinging his keys absently from his thumb, more than ready to let the subject of the Willoughby Specter go. (Not likely, with Robbie, but he can sure try. Maybe some ice cream on the way home will help.)

“Cause… if it was… you remember that unit of the FBI?” Kenny asks, rubbing thoughtfully at his beard. “Those agents who came and investigated?”

“I heard that unit was closed down years ago.” Joe opens the door and turns back. “It's nothing, Kenny,” he says. “Robbie’s imagining things. Don't let your imagination run away with you.”

And then he leaves, letting the door slam too hard behind him.

---

Of all the unexpected things that have happened in Scully's life, this goes up pretty high on the list, if not at the top. She never expected to be reassigned to the X-Files, especially not after years of being on the run with a federal fugitive, and over a decade spent out of the FBI completely. She thought she was done with all of that when she left DC in 2002, thought it was over again in 2008 when they worked the Monica Bannan case. She certainly didn't think she'd be entering the X-Files again with Mulder after their separation. She's been genuinely taken aback by all of this, Tad O’Malley and Sveta and Mulder's renewed obsession, insisting that this is important. Her own insistence that they needed to protect Sveta, to stop the people who have been doing this to innocent civilians for years. It's all happened so fast that her head is spinning. She never expected to be working with Mulder again.

She has to meet with several people to be recertified, make sure she fits the Bureau’s new qualifications. It takes the better part of a day, exhausting and working her way under her skin, but she aces every requirement. Every bullet she fires hits the target; she fires out out of pure muscle memory, she doesn't have to remind herself how. She'd forgetten the feel of a gun in her hand, the click of the trigger and the smell of gunpowder; it's stunningly satisfying, achingly familiar. She never really thought she'd want this part of herself again.

When Scully gets out of her meetings, she finds an unread text from Mulder. He's already been here a couple days; he got recertified a few days ago while Scully was clearing up her leave of absence at the hospital. (She had no idea how long she'd be at the FBI when she asked for leave, whether it'd be a few months or a few years; she honestly isn't sure what to hope for.) Mulder had called her the night before, grim and solemn, to inform her of Sveta's death, and Scully had been filled with a weary anger that she hasn't quite felt in years. Thinking of that girl's fear underneath her smugness; she can relate to what Sveta has been through, even if Sveta hadn't thought so, and she knows Sveta didn't deserve to die. To be murdered. Another innocent woman fallen victim to these men's evil.

Now, Mulder has texted her telling her that he's at the office for the day and he's just gotten a case offer. He offers to discuss it on the phone with her, or discuss it tomorrow at the office. The message exudes politeness, a courtesy that the earliest days often lacked, and it makes her want to smile. He's been so gentle with her since she agreed to come back; cautious, as if he's afraid he'll scare her away. He went from inviting her along to meet Tad O'Malley to not inviting her along to his stupid little conspiracy rendezvous to agreeing to work with her again. Navigating this new stage of their relationship—living apart for two years, in a perpetual state of separation and resentment and fear and affection—is strange, and Scully barely knows how to do it. The most they'd talked before this Tad O'Malley mess was the phone call on Mulder's birthday a couple weeks ago that inexplicably lasted nearly an hour.

Instead of responding to Mulder’s text, Scully slides her phone into her pocket. Goes into the elevator and hits the button for the basement. She feels twenty-eight again, stupidly young and nervous. She hasn't been down to his office in years, and the last time she was there, it belonged to someone else. This feels like a strange new beginning.

The door is half ajar when she reaches it, no nameplates on the door. She can see Mulder inside, sitting at a haphazardly-placed desk with a pile of files and what looks like a phone system sticking out from underneath it. He's distracted, flipping through a file. The rest of the office looks like a mess, papers scattered all over the place, pencils hanging from the ceiling. She smiles a little before catching herself, taps on the door jamb before entering. Holds back the urge to make a crack about the FBI's most unwanted.

Mulder looks up, and a smile spreads over his face that makes her heart flutter a little like she really is twenty-eight again. “Scully, hey,” he says, knocking over a flurry of files in his attempts to stand. “I didn't know you were here.”

“I had to get recertified,” she says, standing awkwardly in the doorway like an unwelcome guest. “I just now saw your message.”

Mulder nods, a little awkwardly, and motions to the half-finished office. “We're a little bit of a work in progress here,” he says. “I haven't cleaned up in here much, and, uh… they've only delivered one desk, and no computer yet.” He motions to said desk. “I'm gonna call up for another one. Another… desk, that is. For you.”

Scully smiles smally again, and this time it is completely involuntary. After all this time. She'd be lying if she said she wasn't touched, just a little. “Thank you,” she says quietly, and he nods, watching her carefully. So much has changed; it's been almost twenty-three years since she first walked into this office.

Scully's eyes scan the office briefly before they land on a familiar image, crumpled and peering over the top of the trash can. “What happened to the poster?” she asks, astonished. That poster, although not the original copy, has been in their office forever; it even made it through the years without Mulder, Doggett and Reyes dutifully leaving it up.  

Mulder follows her line of sight before he realizes what she is referring to and laughing a little sheepishly. “Oh, uh… a little unbridled rage. The poster was a victim.” He pulls it out of the trash only for Scully to see that it's been ripped in half.

“That's a shame,” she says lightly, pretending that statement (unbridled rage) doesn't worry her. “I've always liked that poster.”

Mulder nods grimly, letting the top half of the poster fall back into the trash again. “Me, too.”

They stand in silence for a few seconds before Scully speaks up. “You said you've got a case? Already?”

“Oh, right.” Mulder rummages in his pile of files for a moment before coming up with one and holding it out. “Do you remember the case in Willoughby, Virginia?”

She blinks in surprise. “Should I?”

“I don't know. It was after my time.” He passes her the file, tapping the top of it with his index finger. “May, 2002. Agents Doggett and Reyes signed off on it. I didn't know if they ever talked to you about it, or…”

“Oh.” She doesn't want to mention that May was the setting of the aftermath of her decision to give up William. She hadn't worked many cases then out, of an attempt at self preservation, and John and Monica hadn't asked often. But either way, she doesn't remember Willoughby. “No, I don't remember if either of them mentioned it to me. It was thirteen years ago.”

“Right.” Mulder clears his throat uncomfortably, looks away. “Well, I've been looking over the file since I got this call, trying to get a full understanding of the original case.”

“The case you got a call about today is in Willoughby?” She's admittedly never heard of Willoughby, on the X-Files or otherwise.

“Yeah, looks like some kind of recurrence of the case that popped up in 2002,” says Mulder. Scully flips open the top and sees that it's classified under Hauntings. “The alleged perpetrator is a ghost, a local legend that seemingly warns townsfolk of future misfortune to come. A sort of premonition. Doggett and Reyes's report is a little hard to follow, but it looks like they were called in to investigate a string of hauntings and an apparent suicide that may have occurred as a result.”

Scully flips the file closed, lets it fall on the desk. “So why have they called you now? Is it related to the same suicide?”

“The suicide didn't come up, but the ghost did.” Mulder drums his fingers on the table, a nervous habit she instinctively recognizes. “Apparently a deputy at the local police department—one Kenneth Jacobs—called in response to a missing dog.”

Scully laughs. She can't help it. “A missing dog? That cannot possibly fall under the Bureau's jurisdiction, Mulder.”

“It may not fall under the Bureau's jurisdiction, but it does fall under the X-Files's,” Mulder says sheepishly. When she shoots him a look, he clarifies: “The dog belongs to the local sheriff. His six-year-old son apparently saw the Willoughby Specter the night before the dog disappeared.”

“The Willoughby Specter? Mulder, you can't be serious,” she says. “This is the big, triumphant return you want to make to the X-Files after thirteen years—no, fifteen years for you… After all this time away, this is the case you want to take? A missing dog and local lore? A ghost with a name like the Willoughby Specter?”

“Don't tell me you don't believe the legend, Scully,” Mulder says, pushing his pen around the table. She can't tell if he's teasing or not.

“I don't,” she says matter-of-factly, “but that's hardly the point. It'd be different if a human life was in danger, but this is a dog. It's a ridiculous case!”

“The X-Files investigates the unexplainable, the paranormal. What would you classify this as?”

“A waste of time,” she says bluntly.

Mulder doesn't respond to that. He's looking at his desk, rummaging through like he's looking for something, and Scully begins to wonder if she's being too harsh. She adds gently, “Besides, Skinner will never sign off on it. You know that. He’ll agree with me on the jurisdiction.”

“Might as well find out, right?” Mulder looks up at her, raising his eyebrows playfully, and he doesn't look upset. He looks better than he has in months, just for one brief instant. “I've got a meeting set up with Skinner in the morning. Now that you're recertified, we can just ask Skinner if the case is worth looking into. If he believes—as I do—that a simple case is the best avenue to help us adjust to being back in the field, then we'll take it. If not, we'll look for another case that's less of a waste of time. Sound good to you?”

“Sure,” she says, and just barely manages not to roll her eyes. Mulder smiles.

Scully's stomach rumbles, reminding her of how late it is; she checks her phone for the time and sees that it is after 5:00. “It's a little later than I expected,” she says, “and I'm starved. I'm headed out for the night. Are you coming?”

Mulder seems to hesitate, looking down at the files again. “Mulder,” Scully adds, gently prodding. “It's past five. You're not going to stay late and work, are you? You shouldn't overexert yourself.”

Mulder looks back up at her, and she can't read his look, can't tell if he's neutral or resentful of her for trying so hard to take care of him when she's the one who left. She doesn't dare ask. “Lost track of time,” he says, reaching for his laptop bag, and she resists a sigh of relief. “I should head home; those country roads are awful at night, remember?”

She remembers. She offers him a small, slightly tense smile before turning and leaving, him on her heels. The two of them walk down the familiarly cramped hall together until they reach the elevator; Mulder presses the button for the parking garage and she mumbles a quick thank you. The elevator begins to rise.

The quiet is near stifling, so Scully makes a grab at conversation. “What did you say that ghost of yours does, Mulder?” she asks.

Mulder perks up, just a little; he has always loved to tell a good story. “I need to do more research, but best I can tell is that it warns people of bad stuff in their future,” he says. “It appears before a death or an accident or a…”

“Runaway dog?” Scully offers, and he chuckles. “You don't really believe in that, do you?”

Mulder shrugs. “I've got no reason not to. We've run into some ghosts in our heyday, remember? The haunted house on Christmas Eve?”

“Oh, god, don't bring that one up,” Scully groans as the elevator reaches their floor. Mulder laughs again, quietly. They step out of the elevator together, shoulder to shoulder like the old days, nearly in sync.

“It's strange to be back, isn't it?” Mulder asks over the echoing of their shoes on their pavement. “To be doing this again, after all this time.”

“It is,” she agrees wistfully. She reaches her car and stops, and it takes Mulder a few more paces to realize she isn't with him. He turns around in confusion.

Keys already out, Scully motions to her car awkwardly. “I'm parked here,” she says. There's still traces of the message Mulder scrawled to her on her back windshield: Don't give up. The same thing he'd told her after Monica Bannan, the first time she almost left him. That feels like an eternity ago.

“Oh.” Mulder hovers awkwardly in one place, like he's considering whether to step forward and kiss her cheek goodbye (which is how he'd said goodbye in their last parking garage meeting) or shake her hand like a stranger. He seems to decide not to move at all, lifts his hand in a sad little wave and says, “See you tomorrow, Scully.” And then he turns around and heads down the row of cars, his hands stuffed in his pockets and his shoulders hunched up. He misses her.

“See you tomorrow,” she calls after him, and is surprised to find she's glad that's true. She's missed him, she misses him.

As soon as she gets home, she logs onto Amazon to buy the office a new poster.

---

She really is sort of expecting Skinner to just sign off on the case—because truthfully, Mulder is right about the simple case being an easier adjustment, as much as she wants a challenge, something to occupy her mind—but the next morning, before their meeting with Skinner, they're being called out to Nugenics to investigate the suicide of one Dr. Sanjay.

Mulder seems to think there's more to this case than just a suicide—which is why he snatched the case up—which Scully is inclined to agree with, based off of the Department of Defense blocking their efforts at the crime scene. (A small part of her can't help but think, Here we go again. Plunging into conspiracies, pissing off government agencies, tumbling right into trouble.) She finds something written on the victim's palm: Founder's Mutation, in reference to Dr. Goldman (also known as the Founder), someone who Sanjay worked for and who Mulder wanted to interview in conjunction to Sanjay's death. They end up searching Sanjay's apartment by the end of the day, finding a wall full of photographs of kids who could be classified as experiments. Sanjay, Mulder tells her, fears that these children were dying.

Scully looks at the photos and thinks, with a pang, of her own children and the experiments they had seemingly been. Emily, who was dying, and William, who she's always been afraid would never be able to escape the intentions of the people who wanted him born. With her past, it's hard not to think about them in this situation.

But she has no time to linger on that, because the police are entering the apartment and Mulder is falling to his knees, his hands flying up to his head in pain. Panic rises up in her throat like bile, memories of his half-frozen form in the snow, of his frightening headaches that lead to a fucking brain disease flooding her mind. She falls to her knees beside him, but the chaos of the whole situation takes over. Her worry for Mulder—her panic at seeing him in distress, unable to talk to her or explain what is wrong—has to be pushed aside in order to explain things to the police.

Her explanation takes a good ten minutes, most of which she spends casting nervous looks at the room she left Mulder in, but once they are good and convinced that Mulder and Scully do, in fact, have a right to be there (which they don't, but Scully isn't going to linger on that), she nearly rushes back into the room to find Mulder, her heart thudding hard in worry that he'll be badly hurt.

But Mulder seems to be fine, by all definitions; he's rummaging through Sanjay's desk, pulling out files from drawers like he wasn't in pain at all. He looks slightly exhausted, maybe a little off-balance, but otherwise fine. “Are you okay, Mulder?” she whispers in confusion, going to his side, raising her hand to touch his head and then lowering it.

He nods, teeth clenched in his familiar headache habit, forehead furrowed. “I'm fine. Help me get these files, Scully,” he says, his voice slightly pained but hard with determination.

She reaches out to touch his arm, gently, and he motions to the files again. Scully can't tell if it's because he's become hyper focused on the investigation, the way he did all those years ago, or because he has no interest in comfort from her. She sighs and proceeds to help him gather up the files.  “What are these?” she whispers. “Are they in relation to those pictures out there?”

Mulder nods distractedly. “I took a quick look at one, and it looks like the kids Sanjay worked with had serious genetic abnormalities. If Sanjay believed they were dying, this could go a long way to explaining why he committed suicide.” He chews his lower lip, gathering up files and gathering them together with a ball of loose rubber bands retrieved from the desk drawer. “And if I had to guess, Scully, I'd say the DOD is involved. I'd say these children are likely experiments.”

Scully nods a little, wearily. She thinks it's bitterly ironic that her first case back would involve experimented-on children, considering everything. “So these files…”

“We need to get them back to the Bureau,” says Mulder, “and make copies before the DOD takes them back.” He gathers up the files against his chest and turns towards the door, wincing a little as he goes.

“Are you sure you're okay, Mulder?” Scully whispers. There are still police outside; she lifts the side of Mulder's suit jacket to partially hide the files, falling into step beside him. “You seemed like you were in a lot of pain.”

He waves it off absently. “I'm fine, Scully. Seriously. Let's just go back to the office.”

She's guessing it's going to be another long night. She flashes her badge to the police officers again as they walk to their car, and climbs in the driver's seat. Mulder is rubbing his temples as he gets in, setting the stack of files on his lap, so she offers him a bottle of Tylenol and he mumbles his thanks. The pills rattle as she starts the car and pulls away.

“So,” says Mulder as they merge onto the highway, “what do you think? Is this better than a missing dog case?” His voice is grim, but not bitter, not exactly. She thinks that Mulder is more invested in this case than he'd be in the case in Willoughby, but she's guessing he's had the same thoughts she's had about this case. The untouchable subject of their son.

Scully grits her teeth, watching the road quietly. “Not sure yet,” she says softly, thinking of needles and hospitals rooms and all the time she's feared her son was an experiment. Of everything she wanted to forget. “I suppose we’ll see.”

---

They end up at the office most of the night dealing with this issue. (Mulder keeps acting like he has a headache and Scully watches him like a hawk, nervous, but neither of them bring it up.) The DOD figures out what they're doing and confiscates the original files, of course, but Skinner surprisingly and satisfyingly has their backs (while maintaining an outwardly stern appearance). The two of them keep digging, combing through security footage from Nugenics, and Scully is stunned by how natural this all feels, investigating; aside from having to adjust to all the new technology, her transition back into the FBI feels near effortless. Even working with Mulder feels as natural as breathing, if they ignore some of the awkward tension between them.

Mulder confesses that his ordeal last night in Sanjay's apartment was due to a sharp, high, painful sound he heard, along with words: Find her. Scully points out that Sanjay killed himself due to hearing some horrible sounds, suddenly upset at herself for not seeing the connection sooner. A letter opener to the ear to stop a sound, and why didn't she see that this could easily be happening to Mulder? “This is dangerous,” she says, and Mulder scoffs, a little playfully, “When has that ever stopped us before?”

It never has. They keep digging.

Scully takes Mulder to Our Lady of Sorrows in an attempt to get in contact with Dr. Goldman. They arrange a meeting with him for the next day, but that's not what ends up sticking with Scully. They also find a pregnant woman, Agnes, who is frantic and asking for their help. She says that her baby isn't normal. She says, “I changed my mind, I'm not giving it up,” and Scully feels a horrible familiarity wash over her. All she can think about is her own son, wherever he is, the possibility that people are using him the same way that they are using Sanjay's kids. That Agnes is being used the same way she was. First Sveta and then Agnes, endless reminders of her own ordeals.

Outside of the hospital, Mulder suggests that the women in that hospital might be tools of the DOD in their experiments, incubators, and Scully can't help it. All these dark feelings rise to the surface, the same fight they've been having for years, the reason they broke up. She asks Mulder, “Is this what you believe happened to me 15 years ago? When I got pregnant, when I had my baby?” It's hard not to wince at the words, the memories this is bringing up. “Was I just an incubator?” she adds softly.

“You're never just anything to me, Scully,” he replies, and she wants to cry from it all, the horror of everything that's happened to them and how long it has been since they spoke to each other like this. In a manner of comfort, of sweetness and love, rather than from stiff politeness.

He comforts her, tells her that he thinks about their son, too, tells her that all they can do is keep looking. Suggests that they go home, because they didn't get any sleep last night and they can't exactly do anything until their meeting with Goldman tomorrow. Scully agrees, maybe because she really is tired. She feels drained, and she feels like some of that can be attributed to the day she's had. She lets Mulder drop her off at the Bureau before she drives her way out to Bethesda.

She sleeps for a few hours, tangled up in blankets, but it is unfortunately not a dreamless sleep. She dreams her usual dreams of William, the good dreams: beautiful scenes of a life she and Mulder have created for their son together that gradually turn nightmarish. She wakes with a start hours later, covered in a cold sweat and tangled up in her blankets, the image of William pleading for help still vivid behind her eyes. She stumbles to her feet quickly and pads out into her living room, collapsing in her desk chair.

Almost dizzy, she rests her head on her forearms, letting the images of her daydream leave her. She can still see that one part bright in her mind, the one where she took her son to school and kissed him goodbye. The most important thing to remember, she'd said, is that I love you. The thing she'd most like to say to William, the thing she'll never get a chance to.

She pauses for a moment, considering, hesitating, until she decides and reaches for the drawer where she keeps William's picture. It's small in her hands, glossy, and she strokes a thumb gingerly over the front in lieu of all the things she wants to say.

She never used to look at the picture. She never allowed herself to when she was living at home, actually used to get mad at Mulder when she saw him doing it. But she took this photo with her when she left, and now she does it enough to feel like a hypocrite. But she can't help it. There's something in her that needs this tether, the same part of her that keeps her wedding ring around her neck.

Her phone, which she'd deposited with her keys on her kitchen counter, buzzes. Scully gets to her feet and goes to check, sees Mulder's name lighting up the screen. You okay? the text reads.

Scully smiles a little, involuntarily. I should be asking you that question. Are YOU okay? How's your head?

I'm fine, doc, Mulder types in response, her phone buzzing merrily, and Scully shakes her head ruefully. His next message reads, I'm sorry about this case. I had no idea.

It doesn't matter, Scully types out before pausing. Even if it doesn't matter to her, the issue of William isn't her cross to bear alone; Mulder has been just as hurt by the whole thing. She deletes that message and sends, You didn't know, instead.

We should've taken the dog/ghost case.

Scully rolls her eyes automatically, although not without affection. You're never going to let that one go, are you? She can picture the way he'd be smirking with her if they were having this conversation in person.

I actually got another call from Deputy Jacobs. He says that another person has claimed a sighting.

And how many people know of the original sighting?

The deputy didn't disclose that information.

Scully is grinning unabashedly before she catches herself. It feels great to be discussing a case with Mulder, bickering back and forth about something that doesn't matter. It's almost a shock, how great it feels. But it feels just as strange to argue with Mulder over text instead of face to face. The smile slips away in a sudden, surprised motion, and she's left cradling her phone uncertainly.

It buzzes again. You know… that case is always an option. If this one gets too personal.

Scully bites her lower lip determinedly, types, No, thanks. I'm fine. She means it to sound light and casual and dismissive, but it's impossible to convey tone through text, and she's sent it by the time she changes her mind.

There's something of an awkward silence—if such a thing can exist in texts—where, if they were talking in person, Mulder would probably hurl a hurt, You're always fine. But they're not in person, and the one advantage of texting that Scully can halfway enjoy and loathe in the same breath is the ability to compose a sensible, well-thought reply. Mulder doesn't answer right away, and so she puts the William photograph back in her desk without letting herself look at it, picks up her phone and goes into her bedroom. She's changed and curled up under the comforter, her book resting in her lap, when her phone buzzes again. Mulder has said, Just let me know if you're not. Fair enough. She pretends she isn't relieved that it didn't come down to accusations.

Scully puts the phone on her bedside table and cracks open her book at an attempt at distraction. But her mind keeps returning to what Mulder had said before, in response to her asking if he ever thought about William. Yes, of course I do, he'd said with conviction, like he couldn't believe she had to ask. She'd seen Mulder looking at William's picture many times in the eleven years they'd lived together before she left, but somehow, she had never considered that he might think about William, too, at least in the way that she did. That he might imagine the life they could've had instead of what happened when they let go.

---

Goldman shows them a flurry of children who seem more or less miserable, who claim to have been there forever. Agnes is found dead, the baby gone; Scully performs the autopsy and feels like weeping the entire time. They find Goldman's wife, who tells a story Scully finds all too familiar: lost sons and daughters, experiments she couldn't save. “A mother never forgets,” she says in sympathy with the other woman, the ache in her chest that she knows Goldman's wife must feel.

The lead from Jackie Goldman leads them to Kyle Gilligan. Mulder falls to the ground again from the same horrible sound that Scully cannot hear, and her panic only increases; she tosses around angry convictions until they've arrested the perpetrator and Mulder is on his feet again.

Their arrest of Kyle Gilligan leads to a confrontation with Goldman that Scully largely doesn't see, blacking out briefly after she goes flying somehow, hits the wall hard and crumples to the hospital floor. She wakes up to Mulder kneeling beside her, his hand warm against her cheek, her forehead. “Scully?” he says softly, worry spreading over his face.

Scully's head is pounding, aching from the inside out. She groans a little, trying to sit up; Mulder grabs her hand in his and helps her sit against the wall. “Are you seeing clearly? Can you tell me your name?” His hands brush hair away from her forehead.

“Dana Katherine Scully, I'm fifty-one, and you're Fox Mulder,” she says impatiently. “We're at Goldman Technology investigating Augustus Goldman. My vision is just fine.” Mulder’s thumb grazes her cheek, and her irritability wilts, just a little. “I'm okay, Mulder. I don't have a concussion.” Although she's going to be sore as shit tomorrow; she nearly winces at the thought. “Where's Kyle?” She looks past Mulder, over his shoulder, and sees Goldman's mutilated body, winces on instinct at the bloody mess.

“Yeah,” Mulder says sympathetically, brushing hair out of her eyes. “Far as I can tell, they're gone. I'm not sure; I blacked out, too.” His hand moves down her arm to cup her elbow. “Do you want to try and get up? Have a doctor check you out?”

“I'm fine, Mulder,” she says, but it's half-hearted, and she lets Mulder help her up, lets him support her with an arm around her shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asks softly, her hand unintentionally pressed against his hip. Suddenly concerned by the fact that he says he blacked out, today; what happened to them?

His nose brushes her hair as he nods, a phantom kiss. She reaches up to touch his temple, a reflex of times long gone, and he catches her hand and lowers it gently, shooting her a gently chiding look. “You’re getting checked out if I am,” she says by way of rebuttal and he nods, tightening his arm around her shoulders. They move past the flurry of police officers and nurses and men in suits to an examination room where a nurse confirms that Scully doesn't, in fact, have a concussion, and neither does Mulder. And by then, the DOD and Skinner have arrived and the whole thing is pretty much over. Their involvement is severed.

They stand together behind the red tape, watching the whole thing go down, Mulder revealing a stolen vial of blood. He's concerned for her in a way that's absurdly surprising (and it shouldn't be surprising, not at all); he keeps touching her arm or shoulder. He backs off a little when he hears that she is all right, but he doesn't leave her side the whole time.

After they're dismissed, Mulder drives her home. It honestly surprises her, because (as she points out several times) it adds another hour to his trip, and because he's always avoided her house with a delicate staunchness, a stubborn refusal. But still, he drives her home, and she gives up trying to argue with him by the time they leave the city. By the time she's directed him to the silly smart house she can't quite believe she's still subletting (she hasn't heard from the doctor who technically owns the house in months), she’s thanking him quietly. “You really didn't have to do this,” she says as he parks, reaching for the door handle. “I promise I'm fine.”

“It's been a while since we've done this,” Mulder says, and for a minute, she thinks he means something different entirely until she realizes he's talking about the job. “Even if you don't have a concussion, I know you've got to be in pain. I wanted to make sure you got home okay.”

Scully looks down at her lap, her fingers tangled, and says, “Well, I'm grateful.” She is briefly disgusted with herself, that she can't even have a normal conversation with this man she's loved for years. That they've been reduced to near strangers.

Mulder brushes his fingers over her cheek again, and she shivers briefly, looks up at him. He's leaned a little closer, his eyes dark in this light, and they're almost nose to nose. “I'm sorry about this case,” he says softly. The same thing he'd said a couple nights ago.

Scully catches his hand in hers, gingerly, as he lowers it. “You don't have to be sorry, Mulder,” she whispers. “I know this case couldn't have been any easier for you than for me.”

He looks down at their joined fingers, squeezes her hand in lieu of an answer. She strokes the back of his hand with one tentative finger. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she is protesting that this is dangerous, that they shouldn't be doing this, but somehow, she can't stop herself. His palm is warm, and he'd tried to take care of her after she hit the wall, and she's tempted to ask him to come in, press her forehead against his and kiss the side of his jaw, his cheek. A near-insane part of her actually wants to discuss William with him; she's always avoided that topic with him in the past, but now, she honestly thinks it would help. But she is so tired, and the pounding in her head has increased to a steady ache, spreading down her back.

“You look exhausted, Scully,” Mulder says, voicing her thoughts. He squeezes her hand again before letting go, nudging her thumb in a familiar gesture from years and years ago before pulling back completely. “Get some rest, okay?”

She nods, head down, reaching for the door handle. Pauses briefly, and turns back to him. “Mulder,” she says carefully. “We can take that case in Willoughby if you want.”

Taken aback, Mulder says with surprise (but not with an inflection of amusement), “I thought it was a waste of time.”

“It is a waste of time. I think that's what we need right now.” After everything that's happened in the past couple weeks, she'd really love a ridiculous ghost story to distract her. She meets his eyes, questioning him wordlessly on what he thinks.

The side of Mulder's mouth lifts, the ghost of a grin. “I'll check with Skinner,” he says. He leans forward in one rapid motion and kisses Scully's cheek, a familiar gesture that catches her off-guard. “Goodnight, Scully.”

Her face warm, she opens the door. Offers him a lame little wave as she steps out onto the curb and says, “Goodnight, Mulder.” Like they're lying in bed beside each other, like they're holding each other as they fall asleep. Like they haven't been separated for two years.

She closes the door and watches him pull away from the curb before she goes inside.

Chapter Text

two.

october, 2015

Skinner signs off on the Willoughby case, to Mulder's surprise; he'd expected more argument, but it's been a long time since they've done this and he suspects that their boss just wants to get them away from all the DOD attention. He and Scully leave two days after the closure of the Goldman case, and nearly a week since he'd gotten the original call from Deputy Jacobs of Willoughby.

Willoughby is about a ninety minute trip from DC; no sense in flying to somewhere that close. Scully drives. Mulder sits in the passenger seat and fiddles with the radio, tries to figure out how to connect his phone to the Bluetooth, offers tidbits on stories he's heard about this particular ghost. “I'm surprised we never ran into this ghost story back in the day,” Scully says dryly at one point. “Sounds exactly like the kind of cases we used to get all the time.”

“Sounds like it happened just a couple years too late,”  Mulder says in the same dry tone, and then mentally winces. He has a lot less resentment for Agent Doggett now than he did fourteen years ago, but he and Scully have had a lot of pain and resentment over those lost years in the past, and the last thing he wants to do is bring that pain back. (He hasn't ever blamed her for those lost years, anyway, not really; how could he? Any resentment he had for her insisting he leave back in 2001 has long faded. They've both suffered enough.)

Scully hums absently in the back of her throat, not commenting on that. “So what's your theory, Mulder? What are you thinking?”

He shrugs a little, casually. “I don't know that I have one yet. I mean, it sounds like the ghost probably exists, seeing as how our colleagues investigated it all those years ago. They must've been called in for something.”

“It could've been a hoax of some sort,” Scully points out. “People capitalizing on a local legend to manipulate people, or… gain publicity…”

“I doubt we would've heard from law enforcement if it were some kind of hoax,” says Mulder. “Besides, how does a missing dog contribute to that theory? Deputy didn't say where the kid saw the dog, but he did mention that the kid was only six, remember? In my experience, kids that age can't lie very convincingly. And I doubt that kid was in an easily accessible place when he saw the ghost, one where he'd be susceptible to a hoax from an outside source. And how could the supposed trickster know about the dog unless they were the one who took it?”

“Who knows,” Scully says with a sigh. “I think we might be overthinking this, Mulder.”

“Oh, I dunno.” He smirks a little at her from the passenger seat. “A lot of simple things we've seen turned out to be more complicated than we expected. You never know.”

“I know about this one,” Scully says at length, halfway annoyed, but she's smiling a little. Just a little as she watches the road, and Mulder feels it in the pit of his chest.

“We'll see,” he says slowly, fiddling with the radio again. He's missed this. He's missed her.

Scully fully smirks and shakes her head. Static bubbles through the speakers as he flips through stations, and they drive on. Mulder thinks he may never want to leave this moment, just he and Scully in the car, driving off to investigate some great mystery. Sitting here now, it almost feels as if nothing has changed.

---

Willoughby is the kind of sleepy little country town that they've both seen a thousand times. A few main streets, lots of farms and suburban houses among the rolling green hills. They pass an old stone church next to a forest, surrounded by houses and small apartment buildings. Mulder leans closer to get a better look and spots a cemetery full of ancient, weathered tombstones. “This town is old, Scully,” he says delightedly. “Perfect setting for a ghost.”

If the ghost is real.” Scully flips on her turn signal, coasting to a stop at a stop sign. “Which is doubtful.”

“Same old Scully,” Mulder says haughtily, and is relieved to hear her amused scoff from behind him. He watches quaint little Virginia houses flit by until they reach the downtown and the police station.

Inside, they find a receptionist sitting before a cluster of desks and police officers. “Can I help you?” she asks politely.

Scully flashes her shiny new badge. “Agents Mulder and Scully from the FBI, here to see Deputy Kenneth Jacobs.”

The receptionist raises her eyebrows in surprise. “Kenny?” she calls over her shoulder, a tad suspicious.

A bearded man in a uniform rounds a corner and waves a little at them. “Agents Mulder and Scully?”

Mulder nods. “That's what they said,” says the receptionist.

The man steps forward, reaching out to shake their hands. “Kenny Jacobs,” he says by way of introduction. “Glad you could make it—although I've gotta say, I don't remember you from 2002.”

“You're thinking of Agents Doggett and Reyes, the agents assigned to the unit at that time,” Scully says. Her tone is unreadable; Mulder scuffs his shoe against the floor and tries to ignore it.

“Oh, yeah. What happened to them?”

“I'm not sure about Agent Reyes, but last I heard, Agent Doggett is living in Florida. They left the Bureau years ago, but we have plenty of experience ourselves.” Scully offers Jacobs a polite smile.

“I’m Agent Mulder, we spoke on the phone,” says Mulder, reaching out and shaking his hand. “You said there'd been several more sightings since the original one you called me about?”

Deputy Jacobs motions them towards a desk with two chairs pulled up to it. “Yes, sir. Two more, to be exact.”

“We'd like to talk to the people who have seen… it,” Scully says a little awkwardly. “If that's all right. Would the sheriff mind if we talk to his son?”

“Joe? I mentioned that I called you, and he wasn't thrilled—he’s not a big believer in this stuff—but his son, Robbie, got all excited, convinced you all could find his dog. I tried to tell him not to get too excited, but he's all wound up, and Joe agreed to talk to you because of that. They'll be over as soon as Joe picks Robbie up from school.”

They both nod as they take a seat at the desk. “So, Deputy,” Mulder says, mostly out of curiosity. “Have you ever seen the ghost?”

“Can't say that I have,” Jacobs says almost automatically, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “I’ve heard the stories all my life, but I've never seen him. I will say that people who claim to see him usually have events coinciding with it pretty soon after. My grandma once said she saw it the night before her cat passed away.”

“And what does this… specter look like?” Scully speaks stiffly, awkwardly. “Based on the stories?”

“It’s supposed to be a colonial man in a cloak with a lantern. People say it 'lights up the truth’ or whatever. Like I said, I've never seen it, but I really think there's some truth to the story. There's been sightings every now and then throughout my life, and in 2002, there were at least thirty sightings that ended in three people dead. The reason those other agents were called in.”

“And you don't think any of that could be the result of some sort of mania?” Scully asks. “A psychological response to bad luck? A follow-the-crowd mentality?”

“No, ma'am,” says Deputy Jacobs. “I'm inclined not to. There's an entire history of the Willoughby Specter… It's actually part of some book on folklore in Virginia, if you want to check it out.”

“I did a little research and went over the case from 2002, so I'm a little familiar with the phenomenon,” says Mulder.

Deputy Jacobs nods a little in response, his eyes shifting over their shoulders. “Hey, Joe, over here,” he calls out, waving at someone behind them. Mulder turns around to see a man wearing a sheriff's star walking in, holding the hand of a boy in a Spider-Man t-shirt.

“These the FBI agents?” the sheriff asks as they reach the desk. The kid is looking up at them shyly; Scully smiles, the genuine smile she usually gives kids, and waves a little, and he hides behind his father's leg.

“Yes, I'm Agent Mulder, and this is my partner, Agent Scully.” Mulder stands and shakes the man's hand. “Deputy Jacobs said you'd agreed to talk to us?”

“Yeah, let's get this over with. We can talk in my office.” The sheriff motions his son towards a door at the back of the room, and Mulder and Scully follow them into the room.

Inside, the sheriff scoops up his son and places him in his lap. “I’m Joe O’Connell, and this is my son, Robbie,” he says by way of introduction, patting Robbie's back.

“Hi,” Robbie says quietly.

“Hi, Robbie,” Scully says, and Mulder finds himself thinking of Goldman's kids behind glass panels, little girls with the face of Scully's dead sister and babies cradled in her arms. He swallows back the memories, forces himself to focus.

“So, Kenny mentioned he called you in, but he didn't spend a lot of time explaining why. Something to do with my dog and the Willoughby Specter?” Sheriff O’Connell's voice is full of a skepticality that Mulder finds more than familiar; not exactly unfriendly, but not exactly friendly, either.

“Yes, Deputy Jacobs mentioned that Robbie had seen the Willoughby Specter the night before your dog disappeared,” Mulder says, drumming his fingers on his knees.

“I did!” Robbie says excitedly, seeming to perk up at the mention of the ghost. “It was really cool.”

“Do you want to tell us about it, Robbie?” Scully asks gently.

Robbie looks up at his dad, who ruffles his hair and nods. “Go ahead, buddy, it's okay. Tell them the whole story.”

“Okay.” Robbie screws his eyes shut in concentration, before beginning to talk rapidly. “Okay, so cause it's gonna be Halloween at the end of this week, my mommy and I watched the Snoopy Halloween movie the night I saw the ghost. And it wasn't very scary at all. I like Scooby-Doo better. But anyways, we watched Snoopy Halloween, and then Mommy took me upstairs and took me to bed. She made Bear—that’s our dog!—stay downstairs cause he's not supposed to sleep in my room. She tucked me in and said goodnight and turned on my nightlight. And then I went to sleep.” Robbie folds his hands in his lap, serious as Mulder has ever seen a six-year-old, and continues. “I woke up a little later, and then I was looking at my nightlight. It's orange, like jack-o'-lanterns, so it was the right color for Halloween. But it went out! Mommy says the bulb burned out. But there was still a light, like a yellow one that was moving around a lot. It was coming from behind me.”

Entranced in the story, Mulder absently looks up at Sheriff O'Connell and sees that his eyes are wide with astonishment. Not quite belief, but at least astonishment. “You never told me all this, son,” he says. “About the light…”

“You never asked,” Robbie says simply, and Mulder has to hold back a knowing laugh. “Anyways, I saw the light from behind, and so I turned over, and that's when I saw him.”

“You saw the Specter?” Mulder asks. Robbie nods. “Was he scary?”

Robbie starts to nod again, but then changes his mind and shakes his head. “At first, he was. His eyes were really black, and he was wearing a black cape and hat, and his lantern was scary. Like the Headless Horseman! My teacher has a picture book of George Washington stories, and I saw the Headless Horseman, and it's really scary. He was on Scooby-Doo, too. The ghost looked like that, except he had his head. And I was scared at first, and I was gonna scream for Daddy—cause Daddy's a cop, and he's very brave, and I knew he could protect me—but then I kind of felt okay. My great-uncle Theo told me all about the ghost, and he says the ghost is nice. Like an angel! And I said, everyone says he looks scary, how is he an angel, and he said that angels from the Bible look scary, too—” Out of the corner of his eye, Mulder sees Scully purse her lips in a way that makes him think of nephilim and seraphim and her lost daughter. “—and I guess he was right, because the ghost made me feel real good, like an angel. Even though he looked scary. But he wasn't.” Robbie nods confidently.

Scully clears her throat awkwardly. “And… and what happened next, Robbie?”

Robbie's face twists in confusion. “I… I dunno. I think the ghost disappeared, then I fell asleep. And then Daddy woke me up asking if I'd seen Bear.” His lower lip juts out in a pout. “I miss Bear. The ghost is cool, but I wish he hadn't made Bear go away. Can you find Bear for me?”

Mulder blinks, taken aback; he probably should've expected this, but somehow, it had never crossed his mind. “Well, Robbie,” Scully says awkwardly, “we don't really…”

“Cause Uncle Kenny said you were like the Ghostbusters, or the Men In Black. I bet they could find my dog!” Robbie grins, kicking the side of his father's desk.

Sheriff O'Connell bounces his knee up and down and tickles his son's side, sending Robbie into wild giggles. “Hey, Rob? Why don't you go sit at Uncle Kenny's desk and play Angry Birds on my phone? You wanna do that, bud, so I can talk to the FBI agents?”

“Okay!” Robbie jumps down and grabs his father's phone off of his desk. He starts to leave before pausing, turning to address Mulder and Scully. “If you wanna find the ghost, and maybe my dog, you should really talk to Ryan.”

“Ryan?” asks Mulder. “Who's Ryan?”

“He's my babysitter. He sees the ghost every year! Usually when it's cold.” Robbie leans forward and whispers confidently to Scully, in a too-loud rasp, “He's the only one who sees it anymore. No one besides Ryan has seen it since before I was born! Except me. Just me and Ryan.” Robbie grins excitedly. “So he'd probably know. But I told him I saw the ghost, and he wasn't excited. He's the only one in town who doesn't think the ghost is awesome! It's so weird.” He turns around and runs out of the room, clutching the phone in his hand.

Scully turns to Sheriff O'Connell as the door slams behind Robbie. “So, Sheriff,” she says. “What do you make of all this?”

O’Connell rubs at his forehead contemplatively, maybe a little wearily. “I dunno, Agent. I really don't. I've never really believed in the ghost, like most people in this town anymore. The only people who do anymore are the old-timers, the superstitious, and kids; everyone else is sensible. I always thought Robbie would snap out of it, but that Ryan kid wasn't helping anything, filling his head with these stories. My boy doesn't lie, and when he does, he's not good at it, so I don't think he made up that story. I think it might have been a nightmare; the only things that match up are the burned-out lightbulb and the fact that our dog did disappear.” O'Connell grimaces, rubbing a hand over his stubbly face again. “Honestly, agents, I'm starting to think my dog might be dead, or holed up with some other family. He's been gone for a week now, and I know he knows how to get home. I wish Kenny hadn't called y'all in and made a big deal out of nothing.”

“I don't want to give you a false impression, Sheriff, so I'll be straight with you,” Mulder says. “We work on a unit that investigates paranormal phenomenon. That's largely why we're here. Deputy Jacobs mentioned that there'd been other sightings, and we're here to look into those as well.”

O’Connell blinks blearily at them. “I remember a little bit about your unit. Gotta say, I don't see the point in investigating an urban legend.”

“I have to say, I share your sentiment,” Scully says, and Mulder resists the temptation to roll his eyes.

“We just wanna dig a little further,” he says lightly. “Sheriff, can you tell me about this Ryan kid?”

Sheriff O'Connell clears his throat. “Ryan is Willoughby's local celebrity. He's got a tragic past for sure—his parents were murdered by his uncle back in 2002, and everyone around here knows it.”

“2002?” Mulder asks. “Was the crime in conjunction with the multiple Specter sightings?”

“Supposedly—it came up at the trial—but I don't believe a word of it. The uncle, Jared, used his widely known Specter obsession to try and get off. Should've pled guilty by reason of insanity. He's in prison now.”

“Could this Ryan be using his family's past with this alleged Specter for attention?” Scully asks. “How old is he?”

“He's fourteen, and I doubt it. He's supposedly been seeing the ghost since he was four or five. The story got out when his aunt took him to a psychiatrist. Annie Caruthers—nice lady. She's his primary guardian now, and probably the best turn out from that family. Anyway, as a child, Ryan reportedly had horrible nightmares every winter, and told her that he saw a ‘glowing man’. When the story got out on accident, everyone went wild. Said that the boy was being guarded by the ghost cause of what happened to his family. And Ryan insisted the story was true as he got older, so he's gradually gotten more and more famous. 'Cept the kid claims that the ghost is evil, which goes against every version of the legend around here. Pisses people off.” The sheriff has a knowing look on his face, his eyebrows raised. “I don't know that they think the ghost is protecting him anymore.”

“And he's your… babysitter?” Mulder asks.

“Not by my choice. My wife works with Annie, and Robbie was so excited that we hired the kid—loves ghost stories. He seems nice enough on the outside, but, you know. I've never liked the kid. He's good with Robbie, but he seems disrespectful. And between you and me, he's been visiting his Uncle Jared in prison lately. That's a bad influence if I've ever seen one.” O’Connell nods as if convicting the boy. “I told my wife I had a bad feeling about Ryan, so we fired him a couple weeks ago. Amicable enough. We sent our apologies to Annie. But then, my dog disappears and my son starts talking about seeing the Specter?” The sheriff leans closer to add quietly, “Between you and me, our door was standing wide open the morning Bear went missing, and my wife swears she locked everything. So unless Robbie has taken up sleepwalking, then someone unlocked the door from the outside and let our dog out. And Ryan never gave us back his key.”

---

“What do you make of this town, Scully?” Mulder asks as they leave the police station. Robbie waves merrily to them as they exit and Scully waves back, with the same sweetness she always has for kids. Mulder waves, too.

“I’m not sure,” says Scully. “It seems to me like the Willoughby Specter is such a well-known and worshipped phenomenon in this town, that everyone is obsessed with experiencing it.” She pauses decisively, pulling her hair back into a ponytail as they walk back to their car. “But then again, that theory of claiming sightings for attention and local fame really doesn't work in conjunction with the idea that this Ryan is the only one who's seen the ghost for fourteen years. It's possible that the kid is doing it for attention, but then again, why would others not capitalize off of that attention by also claiming sightings?” Scully pauses again, tightening her ponytail. “I don't think Robbie O’Connell is lying. Unless someone coached him—the sheriff being an unlikely candidate for that; I'd say Deputy Jacobs is a possibility, since he's clearly close to the boy, but I don't know what his motive would be… Anyway, there’s no way a six-year-old could concoct a story that complex.”

“Dana Scully,” Mulder says slowly, teasing, “are you saying that you believe in the Willoughby Specter?”

“I most certainly am not,” Scully says, bristling, but she's smiling again. “I'm simply going over the facts. Which aren't even facts, really—the only people we've talked to are Robbie, the sheriff, and the deputy. We'd need to talk to some other people before we make any conclusions.”

“Uh huh.” He makes a face at her.

“I still think the story is bogus,” Scully says defensively. “I just think that there must be something that these people think they're seeing. I don't know how to explain it, but I guarantee you, Mulder, that there is not a ghost haunting people before bad things happen to them.”

“Oh, sure, Scully. So what is your explanation for all of this?”

“I told you. I don't know.” She looks up at him with a certain defensiveness in her eyes. “But I'd say we should talk to the other witnesses and find out.”

Mulder shrugs a little, grins at her. “So we should.”

---

The other witnesses seem to play right into Scully's theory: that this ghost is not real. Maybe even that this is a case of herd mentality: someone besides this Ryan Caruthers claims to see the Specter and everyone else jumps on board. Either way, Mulder truly hates to admit it, but neither of the two people they speak to about seeing the ghost could be considered credible witnesses.

The first is a college student—kid by the name of Mark Johnson—who reminds both Mulder and Scully too much of the teenagers they'd run into on their second case together, or the stoners that had made appearances a couple times on cases they had in 1996 (one of which did involve a missing dog—a dog that unfortunately had belonged to Scully. Mulder hates that he can't remember its name). He speaks in a slow drawl, and stinks of weed so bad that Mulder either wants to laugh or flash his badge, just to freak the kid out. Scully can scarcely keep from rolling her eyes or conducting the entire interview with thick sarcasm; the conversation lasts all of five minutes before she's done.

The second is a girl—also college-aged, whose name is Emma Gibson—who admittedly seems more credible than the other witness, at first. But when she invites them into her self-proclaimed office, they see a paraphernalia of paranormal trinkets: posters of horror movies, a Ouija board on a shelf, the type of equipment Mulder’s seen on more than one paranormal investigation show, and a cluster of true ghost story books. This is the first clue that this witness is not quite reliable. The second is that her story is not very believable—it’s awkward and stilted, like she's coming up with it on the spot, and when she starts talking about the ghost physically dragging her into the woods past the old church and threatening to murder her entire family in a voice “kind of like Darth Vader,” Mulder is inclined to agree with Scully about the idea of follow-the-crowd mentality.

By the time they're finished with the interviews, it's late, already dark and chilly outside. Mulder takes Scully to one of the small-town diners they haven't frequented in years. There's a flurry of Halloween decorations taped to the big glass windows: paper jack-o'-lanterns and skeletons. There is a cartoonish ghost over their table, his oval mouth open in a ghastly black wail. Mulder taps it with his index finger. “I found the Willoughby Specter,” he says dryly, and Scully giggles.  

“That's uncharacteristically cynical of you, Mulder,” she says as they sit. “Those last two witnesses get you down?”

“Just a little bit.” He plucks the menu out of its holder and examines it. “I still think Robbie O’Connell had to have seen something. I'm just not sure that the other two did.”

“That's for sure,” Scully agrees. A waitress in an apron comes by and they both order their drinks. As she moves on, Scully adds, “Although I'm becoming convinced that whatever Robbie O’Connell saw was not what he thought it was. Remember, the sheriff said he suspects this Ryan of letting out the dog as revenge for being fired? He had access to Robbie's room. He could've set up some sort of prank.”

“It sounds to me like this Ryan kid is getting treated unfairly,” says Mulder. “Besides, what kind of prank involves a disappearing man in a black cape and lantern coinciding with a burnt-out night light?”

Scully shrugs. “A complex one? It seems like people today can do anything with technology, Mulder. Maybe there was a projector or something.”

“Wow, we are getting old, Scully. You've started throwing around the 'kids these days’ phrase.” She shoots him an annoyed look across the table, and he shrugs right back. “Whatever the case, I think we can agree that Robbie isn't faking. But I guess the question is, what do we do now? Talk to this Ryan kid?”

“Maybe,” says Scully. “But what the hell would be our explanation? Why are we here, Mulder, for that matter? To find Robbie's missing dog? To arrest a kid for stealing the sheriff's dog? To prove the existence of this Specter?”

“Honestly? I have no idea. Likely the latter,” says Mulder. Because he still believes it's real. Of course he believes it's real.

“Except I doubt either of us have any idea how to prove its existence,” Scully says.

“Hey,” he says, shooting her a fake wounded look, and she smirks innocently.

The waitress reappears with their drinks to take their orders, and by the time she's left, their conversation has lost some considerable steam. Scully clears her throat, pulls out her phone to check it and immediately starts to type something into it. “Sorry, just heard from my mom,” she says.

“Is everyone okay?” Mulder asks. He hasn't seen Maggie in months, but he's had some concerns, based off of some comments Scully's made about her ability to get around the house.

“Yeah, she's fine. Just wanted to check in on me.” Scully's fingers fly across the screen at an impressive speed, and Mulder wants to make another joke about kids these days, but he doesn't. “She misses Bill; he's off in Germany on assignment, and she's been taking it hard. Says she misses seeing Matthew. He used to fly up a couple times a year before they left, about a year ago.” The reason goes unspoken: because the other grandchild she was close to was given up just before his first birthday. Mulder swallows awkwardly, looks down at the table.

“But we try to keep in touch,” Scully adds. “We have dinner a couple times a week. I'll probably call her tonight when we get back to the hotel.”

“I'm glad you two are still close,” Mulder offers. (She hadn't seen her mother a lot in the years before he could come back to the surface, and he'll always feel guilty for that.) Scully nods a little, laying her phone face down on the table. Mulder tries a different subject, a pathetic attempt at conversation. “You were really good with Robbie today,” he offers.

He means it as a compliment, but Scully is silent for a few seconds after—just enough time for Mulder to mentally berate himself for bringing up the one topic that has been off-limits for most of their time together. But he's surprised to see a smile spread over Scully's face before she answers. “He was a cute kid, wasn't he?” she says. “Sweet kid. Kind of reminded me a little of you, isn't that weird?”

Mulder is taken aback, but he realizes that Scully must not think of William as a little kid like Robbie anymore. William is fourteen, wherever he is, likely a sullen teenager like this Ryan they keep hearing about. Growing up without them. He gulps anxiously, says, “Is it the proclivity for ghost stories?”

“That must be it.” Scully is grinning at him across the table, and it's one of the more startling things he's seen. (But also one of the most beautiful: Scully's fucking thousand-watt smile.) And then she says something that truly shocks him to the core: “You know, he kind of reminded me of William. Or, you know… who William might've been eight years ago.”

She is acknowledging the trauma between them that they mention so unoften, the heavily avoided subject of their son. It seems so incredible, after years of avoiding the subject, of her getting furious every time he brought it up. This feels like dangerous territory. He takes a deep breath before answering, “Me too,” in a tentative sort of way, because he had thought of William. He couldn't help it.

The truth is this: If it'd been Robbie on his own, he probably would've had some slight flickerings, fleeting thoughts about who William might've been. But seeing Robbie and Scully together, even in their brief interactions, Robbie confiding in Scully specifically, made it worse. Made him hyper-aware of what he could've had, all he'd lost.

(Mulder daydreams sometimes about what it would be like to find William. It's impossible not to. This last case with Goldberg, all those kids in the hospital, he couldn't stop considering the possibilities. What it would mean to Scully, what it would mean to him. Intellectually, he knows they will never get a chance to raise him, or anything like that, but he thinks it'd be enough to know that he was okay. Their son.)

“It's hard not to imagine the person he could've been—the person he is right now,” Scully says softly. “It's hard to think about sometimes, but sometimes I can't help it.” She looks down at the table, her hand flat on the table next to her phone. “Is it the same for you?”

Mulder's eyes stray to her hand. He'd like nothing more than to reach across the table and take it, but he has no idea how she'll react. He held her hand in the car the other night, sitting outside the home she's made without him. He can remember an encounter in a diner not too long ago when he took her hand and she pulled away. He doesn't want to push it. Doesn't want to push her away. He keeps his hands in his lap.

“Yes,” he says, though, a peace offering. The verbal equivalent of taking her hand. “It is.”

Scully smiles wobbily at him across the table. Slides her hand back to curl around her mug. He's tempted to keep going—to ask what she imagines, if she'd like to discuss it more, if she thinks they'll ever see him again—but he doesn't know how. This is dangerous territory. His fingers twitch, like he is longing to reach out and take her hand, but he doesn't move.

---

After dinner, they go back to the local hotel, an old-fashioned inn that looks considerably better than the sad little motel that probably has bed bugs they passed on the way into town. Scully asks for two rooms at the front desk, and Mulder reminds himself that he shouldn't expect anything different. They're not together. They haven't shared a bed in two years.

(He can't help but feel as if he's stuck in the nineties again, awkward and madly in love with his untouchable partner. Except they're both older and smarter and have more history between them. They're married, they lived together for a decade, they have a son out there somewhere. And she loves him, too, or she did once. She told him that she'd always love him. She told him once that this would only be temporary, that she'd come home someday. But he doesn't know what to think now. He wants to believe she'll come home. He wants to believe, but it's hard to know what to believe in anymore.)

(Two hotel rooms. Just like the old days. At least they're side by side.)

Mulder offers to carry her bag, and Scully politely refuses, jabbing him in the side and teasing him a little, and the receptionist winks at them from underneath her jaunty witch’s hat, waves as they walk together to the stairs. Their room is on the third floor, and Mulder is lamenting the lack of an elevator. And then they're standing between the doors of their room, and Mulder remembers how, twenty years ago, he'd make excuses for them to keep working or offer to split a pizza or snacks from the vending machine, just because he wanted to keep hanging out with her. He thinks about doing it now, but what excuse does he have? There's nothing else to investigate.

Scully smiles brightly at him, and it all feels stilted suddenly, like they're putting on a show. He's seen her go to bed angry so many times in the last year or two of their relationship, and it feels impossible that she could be this happy to be with him, here on this dead-end case. “See you tomorrow?” she asks, and he can hardly believe it. If this is the only way he can have her back, for now, he'll take it. The chance to drive into the unknown with her and share small-town diner meals and see her in the morning.

“Bright and early,” he says, unlocking his room. Scully chuckles quietly, and he raises his eyebrows questioningly.

She turns a little red, but explains, “It's just that… that's what you said to me the first time we met. Just before I left. That you'd see me tomorrow, bright and early.”

“How do you remember this things?” he asks in near disbelief, and she chuckles again. He chuckles, too, touches her shoulder, briefly, in some small attempt at intimacy, and starts to turn towards his room—he still has no idea how Scully feels about the way he said goodbye last time, and he certainly doesn't want to push his boundaries. But she surprises him yet again tonight by rising on tiptoes and kissing his cheek this time. “Night, Mulder,” she says in a husky voice. And then she's disappearing into her room, leaving Mulder standing halfway in and halfway out of his doorway with a stunned expression on his face.

Later, he'll be able to hear her pattering around in her room, turning on the TV, calling her mother. The walls in this hotel must be thin as shit. But whatever the case, he finds it comforting: to know she's there and she's all right. It almost feels like being home.

---

Joe O'Connell has never been superstitious, and he's remained un-superstitious throughout all this Willoughby Specter bullshit, as irritating as it all is. (He's not mad at his son, of course. He's mad at that kid Ryan and his fucking ghost stories, at Kenny for making a big deal out of something that was probably a dream or Robbie's imagination, at those two kids who claimed that they also saw the ghost and were probably lying. He's mad at the whole goddamn mania. But he's not mad at Robbie.) He wishes the whole thing would just die down. He resents that the FBI agents, whatever their names are, are here to give his son false hope. He's ready to accept that Bear is gone and just tell Robbie that so they can move on with their lives. Maybe he'll get the boy another dog for Christmas.

But this is before Robbie wakes him up at the crack of dawn the morning after the FBI agents arrive, jumping on top of his stomach and whispering frantically, “Daddy, Daddy, I saw the ghost again!”

Beside him, Bonnie grunts out a dim protest as she turns over; Joe grabs his son and sets him down on the edge of the bed, groaning a little at the pain in his gut. “What happened, Rob?” he asks in a soft voice.

“I saw the ghost!” Robbie is wriggling with excitement, oblivious to his parents’ desire to keep sleeping. “He told me where Bear is! Daddy, you gotta go get him!”

Joe groans, his eyes slipping closed. It isn't that he doesn't believe his son, but it's four a.m. and he'd rather not go on a wild goose chase this early. “Robbie, buddy, I dunno…” he mutters sleepily, ready to tell him to go lie down, and he'll take care of it in a few hours.

“He said it was an abandoned apartment building on Church Street,” Robbie says. “He says someone took Bear there and locked him in.”

And that wakes Joe right up.

Because he knows for a fact that the Caruthers lived on Church Street in a two-apartment building when they were murdered in 2002, and he knows it was put on the market but never sold. And it sounds ridiculous, considering the kid's history, but it seems kind of fitting to him that two members of the Caruthers family would choose the same building to commit their crime.

---

Mulder gets a call from Sheriff O'Connell entirely too early in the morning. He's called to ask a favor—apparently Robbie had another dream about the ghost, telling him where the dog is: an abandoned apartment building on Church Street. “Far as I know,” says O’Connell, “there's only one abandoned apartment building on Church Street. And it's the building that Ryan Caruthers's parents were murdered in.”

Mulder blinks blearily, rubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hand. “So you think…” he says slowly, not entirely awake yet and not completely following what the sheriff is saying.

“I know I said a lot of stuff about this ghost not being real, and I still think that, but…” The sheriff hesitates for a minute before finishing. “I really do think that little shit is involved,” he says. “Revenge for us firing him or something. And that'd be the perfect place to hide Bear if he took him, right? A building he knows is abandoned?”

“Bear?” Mulder asks in confusion.

“Bear,” says O’Connell. “The dog's name is Bear. I'd really appreciate it if you went and took a look.”

Mulder goes. Mostly because it's the best lead they have, and because he wants to know: are the claims legitimate? If the dog is there, than that means there is at least some truth to Robbie's story. It might even prove the existence of the Willoughby Specter, if the ghost just so happened to give Robbie the correct location. He goes, and he texts Scully several times to invite her along. She comes out eventually, her hair strangely wild and her demeanor familiarly sharp, blunted with the impact of being woken before seven o’clock. He pulls through a drive-through and gets them coffee as a peace offering, and her thanks is sincere, but her tone speaks volumes as to her perspective on the whole thing.

By the time they've reached the abandoned apartment building (Willoughby Woods Apartment Building) on Church Street (not entirely hard to find, Sheriff O'Connell had said; just look for the church), Scully has woken up a little more, looks a little less wild and angry. But her attitude towards the case itself does not seem to have improved. “We're out here chasing a dog, Mulder,” she says as they climb out of the car, shivering in the October chill. “Not a criminal. A dog. At six in the morning.

“What if it were that dog of yours, Quog?” Mulder asks, hoping he got the name right. He's somewhat annoyed with the case himself, at this point, but his annoyance is mixed with a genuine hope that they find something, some sort of evidence. That this isn't the pointless waste of time Scully said it was, that he's not foolish for believing the word of a six-year-old. Some hope that one of their first cases back isn't total and utter bullshit. “Don't you think that would be worth chasing?”

Scully shoots him a look. “His name was Queequeg,” she says, and Mulder grimaces. (He hadn't gotten the name right.) “And that's not the point, Mulder. How did the ghost tell Robbie where the dog supposedly is? How does that work?”

“I'll remind you that we had two ghosts tell us a lot of things, Christmas Eve of 1998.”

She makes a face at him, partly teasing, partly true malice. (He guesses the memories of the actual haunted house aren't exactly happy ones, although the morning that followed had gone much, much better.) “I'll remind you that whatever happened that night was not real. And this lead feels like a setup. It feels much too convenient.” They reach the front stoop of the apartment building, and Scully unlocks the dusty door with the key the on-duty officer at the police station had given them. It swings open, the hinges squeaking like the door in a haunted house.

Mulder flips on the flashlight and steps inside. “O’Connell said that the Caruthers's apartment was the one on the first floor,” he says, moving his beam down the dusty, decrepit hallway. There are two doors: one hanging half-open exposing the staircase, and another one with a brass 1 hanging upside down on the door. “Do you still think Ryan Caruthers is responsible? The sheriff suspected that he'd take the dog here.”

“I'm honestly not sure,” Scully says. They start together down the hall towards the apartment door. “I'm guessing you're hoping to find the dog here, though,” she adds. Maybe a little good-naturedly, maybe a little sympathetic.

Mulder throws her a thin, wry smile. He is hoping to find the dog, but he's certainly not looking for sympathy. Not on this subject. “You guessed right.”

The door to the apartment unlocks with the same key as the front door. Inside are bare, empty rooms, a kitchen catty-cornered off from a living room. A window towards the back is broken, a cluster of canned foods and an old blanket in a corner. “It looks like homeless people have been staying here,” Scully says, moving her flashlight across the shell of a home.

Looking down at his feet, standing on the threshold of the apartment, Mulder can see old bloodstains underneath the soles of his shoes and out into the hall, the wood turned pale from where someone tried to bleach it away. He almost shudders. The one thing he knew about home improvement for years, before he bought a house of his own and actually put effort into it, is this: bloodstains don't come up easily. This apartment looks haunted, and not by the Willoughby Specter. By the ghosts of a family torn apart right around the same time that his was. He grimaces, biting back another shudder.

He steps into the apartment himself, angling his flashlight down the hall off to the right. There’s something red-looking and bright on the walls; he jogs across the living room and into the hall to examine and sees jagged words spray-painted there. CURSED CAROTHERS!!! Caruthers is misspelled. “Looks like more than homeless people have been here, Scully,” he calls. He steps inside a large bedroom that must've belonged to the parents; there's more graffiti, some related to the ghost, some not. No dog.

The next room is sadder: painted baby-blue, a old crib on its side on the floor. It feels emptier, somehow. It absurdly makes Mulder want to cry, even though he knows the baby is the one who lived. He tries to stay focused: there's no dog, there, either.

He checks the bathroom and a room that must've been a study, and doesn't find the dog. He checks all the rooms again, even opening the closets, to no avail. Something of disgust is starting to build inside him, mostly aimed at himself. When he reenters the living room, he finds it empty, but Scully reappears a moment later, sticking her head through the front door. “I decided to run upstairs and check the other apartment,” she says, and Mulder is so relieved that she didn't have to see the abandoned nursery that he almost misses what she says next: “Dog's not up there. If he ever was here, he's gone now.” Her eyes are apologetic; there is definitely sympathy now.

Mulder sighs, shaking his head, some strange mix of disappointment and resentment clogging his throat. He probably should've expected something like this based on previous evidence, but a part of him had still hoped the ghost was real. But he supposes that this is the most obvious answer they'll get: it's not. It's a hoax of some sort, or a nightmare, or something, but it probably isn't involved in the disappearance of the dog. He feels foolish, sweat pooling under the wool collar of his coat. “I guess I'll go ahead and call Sheriff O'Connell,” he says. “Let him know we didn't find the dog, and that we're getting out of here. I'm pretty sure he'll agree that there's no reason for us to keep investigating.”

“We don't have to go home right now,” Scully offers half-heartedly. “We could… stay and talk to Ryan Caruthers if you want… We've only been here one night, surely there's still more to investigate...”

“No, Scully, we should go,” says Mulder, defeated. Whatever excitement he'd felt about this case initially is gone, replaced by a general feeling of dismay. The supernatural is less attainable, there is nothing to find in this little town, and his partner pities him. He flips off his flashlight and heads for the door. “You were right from the beginning: this case is a waste of time.”

Chapter Text

three.

november, 2015

In the weeks following the departure of those X-Files agents, Joe's faith is tested several times.

His insistent claim—to Kenny, to those FBI agents, to Robbie and Bonnie and all the townspeople who'd heard about his son's claims (sometimes Joe really, really hates living in a small town; news travels so fucking easy)—that the ghost isn't real is validated when he and Robbie find Bear while trick-or-treating on Halloween night. Robbie is more than overjoyed, and Joe is relieved as well. Based off of some cuts, and the leaves and briars stuck in his fur, it looks like Bear just ran off into the woods for a few weeks, which is what Joe tells Robbie. He still believes, personally, that Ryan Caruthers (that little shit) is the one who let Bear out, but Bonnie refuses to let him confront the punk. (“I will not have you tormenting that child and ruining my friendship with Annie just to prove a point,” she says sternly one night. Bonnie is firm on the subject of Ryan, having always liked him, and Ryan is about the only thing Joe and Bonnie actually fight about. Another reason to resent that kid.) But still, when the dog shows up, Joe truly believes it's all over: his son's insistence that he's seeing the Willoughby Specter, and the town's hysteria over it, and hopefully his association with Ryan Caruthers.

But this firm disbelief is shaken when more people begin to report sightings.

Joe is dismissive at first. This happened in 2002, he tells himself and Kenny: some people claimed they saw the ghost, and suddenly everyone wanted to become a part of it—and the next thing he knew, three people were dead. But he refuses to indulge it at first. It's mostly teenagers or college students, anyways, insisting that they saw the ghost when they were probably either drunk or high. A couple claim to have a video that spooks Kenny and screams hoax to Joe. Mark Johnson even shows up, more sober than Joe has seen him in years, and says he definitely saw the ghost this time, for real, he's sure of it.

Joe gets tired of it after the sixth claim. He asks the seventh person who comes in, “Why the hell is everyone reporting to me, anyway? This is hardly a crime, and it isn't like there's anything I can do about it.”

The girl, who can't be more than fifteen or sixteen, shrugs in a nonplussed kind of way. “I came because I heard you called in FBI agents last time. I figured that you'd do that again.”

Joe has no intention of calling those agents back again, of course; it was a hassle enough, and plenty embarrassing when they found nothing. But the sightings keep getting called in, and all of a sudden, there's bad things happening to accompany them, popping up all over town. Mark Johnson loses his job. An man who calls a sighting in calls again the next day, hysterical because his parakeet has died. There's an accident at the high school that manages to get rid of everyone's grades and test scores for the entire year. A man is abruptly evicted, and insists that he saw the ghost the night before and had thought nothing of it. The reports keep coming in, in the same frantic flurrying matter of 2002, and Joe begins to get worried all over again. The last thing he wants is for someone to end up dead again, because of this hysteria, or phenomena, or however you want to describe it.

He calls Kenny over to the house one night, wanting to talk the whole thing over, see if Kenny thinks they need to call the FBI agents back in. He's not sure what the hell they can actually do—the man as much as admitted that they didn't think there was anything here, and even if they changed their minds, what could they actually do to stop it?—but he's wondering if getting them involved will help everyone to calm down.

Kenny agrees to come over immediately. He's always been enthusiastic about this sort of thing, found it exciting; Joe knew he'd be willing to help. He says he'll be over right away.

Joe waits for him by the door; he doesn't intend for it to be a long wait, but there's a strangely empty period where he doesn't get any texts from Kenny or see any headlights in the driveway. It should take Kenny about five minutes to get over to Joe's house, but a half hour passes and he still hasn't arrived. Bonnie is giving him strange looks from the couch where she's watching a movie with Robbie, and Joe is trying Kenny's phone to see if he changed his mind and getting voicemail every time.

And then Joe gets a call about a nasty wreck, a car flipped upside down a block away. Kenny's car.

Joe rushes to the hospital immediately to wait for his friend to get out of surgery. After several more hours waiting anxiously in the waiting room, the nurses reassure him that Kenny is going to be fine.

He is relieved, immensely so, calling Bonnie thankfully to give her and Robbie the news, but a very small part of him can't help but wonder: is this related to all the bad things that have happened in the town lately? Kenny was the one who believed in the ghost in the first place, Kenny seems like a likely candidate to get involved in this stuff. Maybe Joe could've stopped him from getting hurt if he'd just listened, if he'd done something about the damn sightings sooner.

It takes another day for Kenny to regain consciousness, and when he does, he doesn't actually bring up the ghost, to Joe's surprise. Joe has to bring it up himself. When he finally mentions it, Kenny's face twists up, just a little bit, and he sighs wearily. “Was wondering when someone would bring that up,” he says, rubbing at his eyes with his palm.

“So you saw it?” Joe asks, knotting his fingers together on top of his knees. “The Specter?”

Kenny bites his lower lip, nods. “Just before I crashed,” he says, his voice unsteady. “I looked over at the passenger seat, and there he was. Scared me half to death. He kinda pointed at me, and then I think I blacked out or  something. The next thing I knew, I was in my smashed car and I could hear sirens. Then I blacked out again.”

“Holy shit,” says Joe, who knows that Kenny wouldn't be making this stuff up. Part of him wants to ask if Kenny had done any drinking that night, but he knows Kenny wouldn't drive if he'd had enough to drink to see things that weren't there. And the rest of him can only steadfastly believe Kenny, because Kenny's his best friend, and he doesn't make things up. “Did it look the way Rob described it?” he asks, because those are the best comparison sources he has, his son and his best friend.

“Exactly like the stories, man,” says Kenny seriously. “Like how everyone's been saying. I think… I'm starting to think that… that this might be like what happened in 2002.” His face is halfway guilty as he looks away from Joe.

Joe sighs, rubbing his mouth. Considers the fact that someone has almost died. Whether it's a ghost or not, Kenny could've died, was seriously injured in relation to the Specter story. It hasn't escalated to the levels it did in 2002, this mania or haunting, but it easily could. If this is the same thing. Someone else could get hurt, or die…

“Ken, do you think… I should call those FBI agents back in?” he asks gingerly. “To calm people down? Or… to prevent this from escalating worse?”

“I'm not exactly sure what they could do, but it's worth a shot,” Kenny says quietly. “We need to try and make this stop. So it doesn't end like it did last time.”

---

Three things happen as a result of the were-lizard case Mulder and Scully take in Oregon a few days after they leave Willoughby.

The first is that Mulder regains whatever confidence he lost in Willoughby. It happens surprisingly, but it ends in a satisfying encounter where Mulder actually shakes hands with a friendly monster. Scully doesn't believe him, of course (or at least she pretends she doesn't), but he tells her that she has solved a case and caught a serial killer and should be proud of herself just for that. (“I didn't say I wasn't proud of myself, Mulder,” she says. “I said that were-lizards aren't real.” “My point is that we both accomplished things on this case,” Mulder retorts, sitting on the edge of her bed. Scully pats his knee as if sympathetic, but she's smiling, and that feels like something.)

The second is that Scully steals a dog. It's the dog who she bonded with at the animal shelter, she tells him, the one who reminded her of Queequeg. A little yippy brown-and-white puppy. The animal shelter was in such disarray after she caught the serial killer that no one noticed her taking him. Scully is holding the puppy in her lap as Mulder recounts all of this, scratching the top of his head, and Mulder is reminded of Guy Mann's story. “You know what's funny?” he says. “The were-lizard had a dog named Daggoo. Daggoo is a character from Moby Dick, right?”

Scully nods. “A harpooner. That's a strange coincidence.” She looks down at the dog with the affection she used to bestow on Queequeg, that little shit. “Maybe I should call this little guy Daggoo,” she says, petting his back, and Mulder smiles. Calls her a ruthless dog thief, and she sticks out her tongue in retribution, bumping her shoulder against his.

The third is that they start having dinner together. Not every night, not anything that they openly discuss, but it happens, likely as a result of the night they spend in Oregon after the case ends, sitting on Scully's bed in the new hotel (sans creepy animal heads and creepier owner), eating pizza and playing with Daggoo. (Scully is wearing his shirt, an ugly striped one that he hadn't even noticed was gone, for the second night in a row. Mulder dutifully pretends not to notice, but seeing her in it makes him feel warm from head to toe. He can't believe that she took it with her.) From then on, they eat together three or four nights a week. Mulder tries to pick nice places when it's his turn to pick. They aren't dating, not officially (they always go to restaurants because of the unspoken taboo on visiting each other's houses, broken only once by Scully during the Tad O'Malley incident), but it's something, and he wants to take Scully to the nice places he never took her all these years ago.

 They are at one of these dinners when he gets the phone call from Sheriff O'Connell. He doesn't recognize the number and almost declines the call, but Scully notes, “Mulder, that's the Willoughby area code.”

He raises his eyebrows at her, impressed. “You have area codes memorized? That's impressive, Scully.”

“I saw O’Connell's number when he called you about the key to the Caruthers's apartment a couple weeks ago,” she says, raising her eyebrows matter-of-factly. “Go ahead and take the call, Mulder, it might be important.”

It's nearly shocking to hear Scully refer to a case that she repeatedly called a waste of time as potentially important, but he goes with it. He nods apologetically, unusually formal (as if he hasn't known her for nearly twenty-three years), and answers the call just as it starts to click over to voicemail. “Mulder,” he says, out of an age-old habit.

“Agent Mulder?” says a voice on the other end that he recognizes. “This is Sheriff O'Connell from Willoughby, Virginia.”

Across the table, Scully shoots him a questioning look, and he nods in confirmation. “Yes, Sheriff, I remember,” he says into the phone. “How can I help you?”

“Well…” The sheriff sounds uncomfortable, and Mulder can practically see him squirming with discomfort on the other end. “I’m sure you and your partner will be glad to know that we found Robbie's dog. He's okay, looks like he just ran off.”

“Oh, that is good news,” Mulder offers politely.

“Yeah, but…” There's an awkward pause in which Mulder can picture the squirming again. “Look, I know I said that this is a bunch of horseshit,” Joe says finally on the other end. “And I know you and your partner… kinda agreed… but weird stuff has been happening ever since you left town. People have been reporting sightings, and a bunch of bad stuff has been happening… an incident with the high school… my friend, Kenny—you remember Kenny?—was just in a bad car accident. He's all right, but he says…  he says he saw the ghost just before he crashed.”

His eyebrows raise at that, remembering Deputy Jacobs's seeming fascination with the ghost. He doesn't know if he believes the story of the Specter, doesn't know if he can believe claims of a sighting from Deputy Jacobs anymore than from those kids, but he'll admit, he's intrigued. “I'm sorry to hear about the accident,” he says.

“Thanks.” There's another few beats of silence before O'Connell adds, “I don't know if there's anything you can do about all this. And I don't know if it's even a ghost doing any of this. But people are really riled up, and they've been asking me to call you in. Would you and your partner mind…”

“Coming down to take a look?” Mulder asks. He shoots Scully a questioning look, expecting her to resist, but she shrugs, resigned. She did say on their last case that she forgot how fun these cases could be; maybe the Willoughby Specter factors into that. “Sure, we could do that,” he says. “How soon would you need us there?”

---

It's oddly cold the morning they leave for Willoughby again. Mulder drives this time, picking Scully up at her house, and she turns the heat all the way up as soon as she climbs in the car. “There was a malfunction with the computer, or whatever it is that controls the heating in my apartment,” she says, clenching her teeth so they don't shatter, holding her hands in front of the vent.

“I guess technology isn't everything,” Mulder says, teasing and Scully makes a face at him. On an impulse, he grabs one of her admittedly chilly hands and presses his mouth against her fingers briefly. Reaches for the gear shift as soon as he lets go. Neither of them say anything about it, not a word, but Scully tucks the hand into her lap as they pull away from the curb. They drive to Willoughby with the heat turned all the way up.

Sheriff O'Connell meets them at the police station, mug of steaming coffee in hand. He looks like he hasn't slept in a day or two, stubble dotting across his jaw and circles under his eyes. “Agents, good to see you again,” he says, rubbing at his face and extending a hand to shake theirs. “I have absolutely no idea of how to handle any of this. Do you have any experience with cases like this?”

“Something like that,” Scully says in a nearly ironic voice.

“I’m assuming you want all this activity in your town to stop?” Mulder asks, and O’Connell nods earnestly. “I won't lie and say that I know exactly how to do that, but I think there's a way to figure it all out. A method of sorts. I'd say the next step is to get as much information on this spirit as possible and try to prove that it is, actually, a spirit that's involved. Maybe try to understand the spirit's warnings in the first place in order to stop whatever follows the warning.”

“But the spirit isn't causing these events,” O'Connell says. “Even if it is real, it's not an… evil spirit.” He looks slightly disgusted at himself for actually uttering these words. “My objective in bringing the two of you in is to calm down the public, try and stop the mania before it goes too far and someone else ends up hurt or dead.”  

Scully is nodding. “I think that's wise, Sheriff,” she says. “And I think that Mulder's right, that we need to gather as much information as we can to understand the full picture. Why only one person has been experiencing this… mania… before now, and why others have been experiencing it recently. And how we can stop others from experiencing it in the future.”

“You're talking about Ryan Caruthers,” says the sheriff, “right? His involvement in this?”

Scully nods. “We'd like to talk to him, if you think you could arrange that.”

O’Connell shrugs, nods. “He never found out that I suspected him of letting Bear out. And there's some advantages to my wife being friends with his aunt.” He pulls out his phone and starts to type. “I'll see if she can arrange a meeting.”

---

O’Connell's wife does arrange a meeting with the kid, at their house later in the day. The three of them spend the morning picking through reports of other sightings—the ones from the past few weeks, and earlier ones from 2002 and further back. There doesn't seem to be any particular pattern, besides this: out of the ones on record at the police station, the only sightings that were not singular or very, very sparsely occurred in 2002 or 2015. The sightings accompanied by other many sightings.  

Later, Scully and Mulder follow the sheriff back to his house in their car. Scully drives while Mulder reviews his notes in the passenger seat. “I just don't understand it,” he says finally. “Why have there only been two occurrences of repeated sightings? And why 2002 and right now? Why are those years significant over other years? What does a flurry of sightings mean?”

“We don't know that there have only been two… occurrences of this widespread mania,” says Scully. “There have only been two occurrences on record at the police station, but the lore is as old as the town itself. Who knows how many occurrences there have been?”

“Good point.” Mulder rests his chin in his hands contemplatively. “But I'm still not sure what Sheriff O’Connell wants from us, or how we're supposed to calm the public down. We could prove that the ghost is real, but what good would that do? Unless people want to try and understand it so they can stop whatever bad thing is coming.”

“It's a possibility,” Scully says, following the sheriff up a gravel driveway. She throws the car into Park behind his. “We've had a lot of nonsensical cases, Mulder. Why should this one be any different?”

“Because it somehow makes less sense than all the others,” Mulder says dryly as he unbuckles his seatbelt. “Or at least the cases that I remember.”

Scully makes a face at him across the console, as if to ask, Really? They climb out of the car and follow Sheriff O'Connell up the driveway, silently debating the coherency of their case history the entire way there.

Robbie O’Connell is waiting just inside, and he runs to his father first and hugs him tightly before coming to Mulder and Scully where they cluster near the doorway. “Hi!” he says, taking Scully's hand and tugging at it. “I want you to meet Ryan, he's super cool.”

Scully laughs, a little anxiously, and follows Robbie's direction. There is a woman and a teenager sitting on the couch, the woman eyeing them suspiciously, the boy ignoring them with a bored look on his face. “Ryan, Ryan, these are the FBI agents I was telling you about!” Robbie says excitedly, letting go of Scully's hand to run to Ryan's side. “They're super cool, like Men in Black.”

Mulder chuckles, says, “Actually, we sort of have to fight the men in black,” as he comes to stand by Scully's side. Robbie giggles with delight, and the kid who must be Ryan offers him an indulgent smile and a subtle fist bump, but continues ignoring everyone else.

The woman stands up and offers her hand. “Annie Caruthers,” she says, totally serious and straight-laced. “If you don't mind, could I ask what this is all about? I don't want to subject my nephew to unnecessary interrogations.”

“Ma'am, we just…” Mulder start to say as he shakes her hand, but Scully stops him with a raised hand of her own. “Ms. Caruthers, I completely understand,” she says, and she does. She'd only lived nine months with her son, but she'd seen what he could do and it terrified her, the thought of people wanting him for these unexplainable abilities. She thinks that seeing a ghost and making things levitate are probably pretty different, but she understands Annie's instinct to protect Ryan. She wouldn't want strangers interrogating her son, either, if he was still a part of her life. “Ryan isn't in any trouble, and he doesn't have to answer any questions he doesn't want to. We just want to ask him about some stuff.”

“About his experience with the Specter,” Mulder adds from beside her. “What he knows about it, stuff like that.”

The kid, Ryan, barks out a sharp, mocking laugh. “The FBI is investigating the Willoughby Specter? Seriously?”

“It's like I told you, Ryan, they're cool,” Robbie insists. Sheriff O'Connell appears almost immediately, scooping Robbie up and carrying him out, avoiding the gaze of Ryan or Annie Caruthers.

“We're an unusual unit,” Mulder says politely. “We're just trying to gather information, get the facts straight. But you don't have to talk to us if you don't want to.”

Annie looks hesitantly between them and Ryan. Ryan hunches up against the couch cushions, arms crossed, pulling the brim of his Orioles baseball cap down over his eyes. “Don't ask me about my parents,” he mutters. “I don't want to talk about them.” And Scully is involuntarily reminded of William, even though the circumstances are very, very different. She swallows dryly. Her throat hurts.

“That seems fair,” Mulder says. Annie nods a little, as if giving permission, and sits on the couch beside Ryan. Mulder and Scully each sit in a chair facing the couch, Scully pressing her hands into her knees in an attempt to focus.

Ryan shrugs, a little aggressively. “Okay, so, like… what do you wanna know?”

“Tell us about seeing the ghost,” says Mulder. “How long has it been happening?”

Ryan shrugs again. “I dunno. Since I was a little kid. It scared me, though, I used to have nightmares.” Annie nods like she is confirming this.

Scully suddenly remembers a detail from Robbie's story; she blurts, “You never felt… safe? Around the ghost?”

Ryan looks disgusted underneath the baseball cap. “No, I never felt safe. It was a fucking ghost.”

“Ryan!” his aunt scolds, but Mulder meets her eyes, silently thanking her for asking about that.

“We've heard reports of this ghost being… good,” Scully continues. “Likened to an angel, even.”

Ryan laughs. “Did Robbie tell you that? Look, I like the kid, and I'm glad he wasn't too scared, but, no. The Specter was never… angelic for me. Absolutely not.”

“How often did you see it?” Mulder asks.

The kid shrugs aggressively. “Every fall or winter. I dunno why. Maybe it's significant for the ghost or whatever.”

“Was there any routine to the sightings? Like a specific thing that would happen to bring it all on?”

“No, he'd just… appear. Follow me around. Freak me out. Like a Sixth Sense type thing.”

“He never… made any contact with you? Warned you about some ominous future?” asks Mulder. “Did you ever have anything unfortunate happen in conjunction with the sightings?”

“Nope.” Ryan crosses his arms again.

“Have you seen it recently?” Scully asks, and Ryan hesitates, pausing in the wake of her words, looking down at his shoes sheepishly before finally confirming—supposedly—that he hasn't.

“Do you have any idea why this is happening?” Mulder asks awkwardly, assumedly thrown by Ryan's irritable responses. “Why this specter is… warning people more often now? Or why other people are seeing him for the first time since…”

Ryan shakes his head bitterly. “Okay, first of all, we don't know other people haven't seen him since my parents got murdered. We don't know! I might just be the only one stupid enough to announce it to the world. And second of all, I don't know why this ghost does anything that it does. It's a ghost. Do you hear yourself? You sound ridiculous.”

Ryan,” his aunt scolds again, sterner this time, but Ryan isn't finished. He says, “Nobody actually understands the stupid ghost, you know. I don't know why all this bad stuff is happening. Maybe this town has, I dunno, pissed off some higher power, and now they're paying penance for it.”

“Ryan, stop,” Annie says, holding her hand up. “I think this conversation is getting a little ridiculous, and I'd like to request we stop.”

“That's fine,” Mulder says quickly, although Scully is sure that he'd rather keep talking.

“We just want to understand this,” Scully adds, trying to sympathize. “It seems like people are upset, and we don't want anyone to get hurt.”

“That's Joe O'Connell talking,” Ryan says harshly. “He thinks I'm crazy. He thinks the ghost is just an excuse for other people to act crazy, and he brought you guys in to calm them down. I'm guessing you don't believe in the ghost either, do you?”

“Ryan, stop it! We're leaving, all right?” Annie stands at the same time Scully does, and reaches out politely to shake her hand again. “This is kind of a sensitive subject,” she says quietly. “I honestly don't know what is going on with this town—although I know it tends to go off the rails a little when a good ghost story comes into play—but whatever it is, I honestly doubt my nephew can help you with whatever it is you're gonna do to fix it.”

Ryan's already halfway out the door. Annie calls a strained goodbye to Mrs. O’Connell, wherever she is in the house, and follows him.

“Well,” Mulder says as soon as they're alone. “That was… interesting.”

“It's understandable, Mulder,” says Scully. “I'd be protective if I had a child who was… unique.” And I did, she adds silently—and unnecessarily, she deduces, from the look on Mulder's face. She rushes to add, “I'm still not sure what we can actually do here, Mulder, besides try to calm people down. And I'm not even sure how to do that.”

“Maybe we're here to try and explain why this is happening,” says Mulder. “Maybe even to stop it. Certainly to try to understand it.”

“But who knows if there even is a way to understand it,” says the sheriff as he re-enters, his son on his heels. “I take it the discussion with Ryan didn't go well?”

“That's an accurate description,” Mulder says with a light chuckle.

O’Connell sighs wearily. “I figured that kid wouldn't be any help.”

Robbie pouts, tugging at his dad's shirt. “But Daddy, Ryan's nice.”

“Ryan is a troublemaker, Rob.” O’Connell ruffles his kid's hair again, looking at Mulder and Scully questioningly. “Agents? What should our next move be?”

Scully shrugs. Mulder says, “I think possibly interviewing people who have seen it. Recent ones, and then possibly the ones prior to 2002… Like I said to Agent Scully,  I think our first step should be to try and understand this.”

The sheriff nods. “I might be able to set that up tomorrow.”

Mulder nods, too, reaches out and shakes his hand. “We'll be in touch.”

Scully takes a turn shaking his hand, waves goodbye to Robbie, and then they are leaving, walking out into the cold again. The temperature has dropped at least ten degrees since the afternoon, and dark gray clouds cover the sky in forewarning of an incoming storm. Thunder rumbles somewhere above them, and Scully shivers. Mulder draws closer almost unconsciously, his shoulder brushing hers through their coats.

It feels hard not to think of William in the wake of their encounter with Ryan Caruthers. William would be the same age as Ryan, and Scully silently wonders if he would be resentful in the same way, angry and sullen and haunted. She hears Ryan say again, Don't ask me about my parents, I don't wanna talk about them, and bites back a shudder. She is tempted to ask Mulder if he is thinking the same things as they climb into the car, but she can't get the words out, they're trapped in her throat. Mulder looks over at her from the driver's seat and smiles warmly, the same way he's been smiling at her since they got reassigned to the Files. She smiles back because she can't help it. There is so much they need to talk about, so much that needs to be resolved, but when he smiles like that, it makes her think they might be okay. It makes her want to move home.

It starts to rain before they get back to the hotel, lightning slicing across the sky, rain pounding the windshield. Like some odd warning, like a bad omen.

---

She's standing in her living room—not the one at the house she's living at now, but her living room, the one at her home—and William is there, and he is glaring at her. Why did you do this to me? he spits, his eyes fierce and furious.

I didn't do anything, baby, she tells him, pleading. Her eyes are wet. I just wanted you to be okay. I wanted to save you.

You threw me away because I wasn't perfect, William snaps. You gave me up. You're the reason I'm a fucking freak!

William, please, she says, nearly sobbing. Please, honey, I'm so sorry. I never wanted this for you. I love you so much, William.

You can't love me, he says plaintively, furiously, and he hates her, she can see it in her eyes. You don’t love me. You gave me up, you threw me away. You're the reason I'll never know my family.

She chokes out a pleading sob, stumbles away from his accusing eyes. She whirls around in a panic, runs for the door in a feeble attempt to escape, but someone appears in the door, a hulking, faceless shape with a black cloak fluttering in the air, and she tries to turn around and it raises white-gloved hands to her shoulders, clamps down painfully and pushes her roughly back into the room…

Scully wakes with a jolt, stifling her panicked yelp with a hand over her mouth. Shivering, her teeth chattering, her eyes wet, she rises up and surveys her surroundings until she remembers where she is. Mulder's hotel room. They'd ordered in takeout under the guise of working, but they are both much older than they used to be, much more tired. Scully thinks they fell asleep at some point after Mulder suggested they watch TV, after she got off the phone with her mom. She’s lying sprawled on the mattress, on top of the comforter, her hair mussed from the pillows. Mulder is curled up beside her, huddled against her as if to preserve warmth, his hand resting over her ankle. He is still asleep. The heater isn't on, and Scully's breath puffs out visibly before her, goosebumps rising on her bare skin.

As tempted as she is to just stay, crawl under the covers and cuddle up to Mulder for warmth while the terror of the nightmare leaves her mind, she knows she can't. She extracts her ankle gently out from under Mulder’s hand, wipes her eyes quickly, climbs off the bed and pushes the files aside before meticulously pulling the comforter out from underneath Mulder. He moves a little in his sleep, muttering something indecipherable, but he doesn't wake up. She covers him with the blanket, brushes some hair off of his face and quietly regrets her lack of courage. And then she flips on the heat, gathers her shoes and bag, her key card, and quietly slips out of the room.

The hall is pitch black, and Scully blinks in surprise; she could've sworn there were lights out here. It's just as cold out in the hall, and Scully buries the numb fingers of her free hand in her pockets as she heads down the hall to her room. It's just a few feet away from Mulder’s room, but she suddenly feels sluggish, unable to move more than a few inches at a time. Almost as if she is still dreaming. She blinks rapidly, shakes her head hard in an attempt to wake up.

There is a loud bang behind her, sudden and cacophonous, and Scully whirls, her hand flying to her waist where her holster should be and her eyes darting to the staircase. There is nothing there.

Heart pounding absurdly, Scully mentally scolds herself as she turns back to her hotel room. But the hall isn't empty anymore; at the end of the hall, there is a figure standing in dark clothes. His head is risen to face Scully, although she can't make out any features.

She offers a chilly smile out of politeness and fumbles for her key, inserting it into the lock. No click.

Her heart is still pounding too fast, and this is just ridiculous. Scully pulls the key out and reinserts it, jiggling the door handle in a frantic sort of matter. Nothing. She looks back down the hall, and the stranger has drawn closer. She still can't quite make out his face, but she can see that he is smiling. This strange man is grinning at her, and it doesn't feel polite. It feels almost menacing.

Her teeth are chattering again. How does a hotel get this cold? Scully turns back to the door and tries the key again. Nothing.

There are sounds like footsteps. She tries the key again and again. Nothing, nothing, nothing, until suddenly… There is a click, and Scully gasps in stupid relief, pushing the door open and stumbling inside. The door locks behind her.

The relief fills her entire body with a stunning warmth, and she turns up the heat immediately before changing into pajamas, the buttondown ones with one of Mulder's old shirts slipped overtop for extra warmth. She can't remember the last time she was this cold. She finger-combs her hair before crawling into bed, flipping out the light and burrowing under the thin quilt. She wishes she'd stayed in Mulder’s room. She wants to purge her mind of that nightmare, of William and his accusations and the horrible, consuming guilt that has stayed with her since the day she let that social worker walk away with her baby. She wants desperately to forget it, so she flips on the TV and curls up into a ball and tries to doze off. Lies shivering under the blankets, trying to concentrate on the voices on the TV instead of other, darker things.

She's almost asleep when she hears it: the heavy footsteps thudding outside of her door. The brief, faint glow coming from under the crack that she sees when she opens her eyes.

---

Scully isn't sure how long she sleeps. But she wakes up hours later when it is still dark outside, her phone buzzing loudly in her purse. Figuring that the only people who would call her at this hour—sometime after 3 a.m., she notes with a wince—are Mulder or her mother, she drags herself out of bed and fumbles through her purse for her phone, nestled up against her makeup case. The display reads William, and she blinks in rapid surprise, confusion. Rubs the sleep from her eyes. And then she sees that her phone says Mulder, and feels foolish for ever thinking it said William in the first place. Some leftover guilt from her nightmare. She swallows hard, her throat thick.

She answers just before it clicks over to voicemail and groggily answers, “Scully.” She’s still tired, still half asleep. This has not been one of her better nights, and she's guessing she'll be exhausted tomorrow.

“Hey, Scully, it's me,” says Mulder on the other end. “Sorry, I know it's early.”

“It's okay,” she says, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand.

“When do you leave last night? I don't remember…”

She presses the heel of her hand harder against her mouth, says sleepily, “Mulder, did you call me at three a.m. just to talk about that?”

“Oh… no.” He sounds slightly embarrassed. “Skinner called. There's a man dead in Philadelphia, apparently. Drawn and quartered. Apparently the detective that called said that he found something spooky about the crime scene.”

“But we're on a case right now,” Scully says with another yawn.

“I know, but Skinner asked us to go on and handle this one, considering that a man is dead.” Mulder sounds slightly miffed, irritable to be pulled off of one case and onto another. “I was thinking we could leave about… six?”

Scully rubs her eyes tiredly. “Sounds wonderful, Mulder.”

“Okay,” he says sheepishly. “So you can… get a couple more hours of sleep.”

“Sure.”

“See you at six, Scully.”

In one heart-shock moment, Scully remembers the stranger from the night before, the cloaked and the strange smile, and she remembers Robbie's description of the ghost. Minus the lantern, the figure she saw feels too familiar, and she says, “Mulder, wait,” on an impulse.

“What's up, Scully?”

She hesitates for a moment, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. The more she considers it, it seems silly. There's nothing in particular that distinguishes that man as supernatural. She'd had a nightmare, she's being silly and paranoid, she should just forget about it. She backtracks quickly: “It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive,” she says. “I'll see you at six, okay?”

Mulder sounds skeptical, but he doesn't push, and she is grateful for that. “See you at six.”

The phone beeps as he hangs up on the other end. When she was much younger, she used to feel insulted that Mulder never said goodbye before hanging up. Now, strangely enough, she thinks it might be one of the things she loves most about him.

Scully slips the phone back into her purse and goes back to bed. Sitting here, with Mulder's voice echoing in her ear, she feels perfectly grounded. Completely dismissive of the idea that she could've ever seen a ghost. It's not possible. For whatever reason, talking to Ryan Caruthers shook her up, but she's fine now. Just fine. They're going to work on a different case now, and she's going to forget she ever had this nightmare, and everything is going to be fine.

She curls up in bed and tries to drift off to sleep—a hopefully dreamless sleep—before they have to drive to Philadelphia.

Chapter Text

four.

december, 2015

The case in Philadelphia is cut short when Scully gets the call that her mom is in the hospital. Mulder tells her to go and see her mom without hesitation, because he'd never ask her to stay in a situation like this, but because he's also thinking of his mom fifteen years ago, the way she called him while he was on a case and he ignored it, and the next thing he knew… He hopes that Maggie isn't dying, desperately hopes so, but whatever the case, he's not going to keep Scully from her mother. He's so distracted by the whole thing, by watching Scully leave and wishing he could go with her, that it takes him a few moments to gather himself, to focus on the case.

The case is intriguing, but he can't focus. He's distracted, constantly checking his phone for news from Scully. When he gets out of a meeting with someone running tests on evidence, he has a text from Scully: Mom changed her living will. She didn't want to be kept on life support. Mulder knows the history behind that will, and it's enough to keep him from hesitating anymore. He gets into the car and drives straight back to DC without a second thought.

Scully is there, tearful and nervous, clutching a quarter that her mother was wearing around her neck. But she seems immensely relieved to see him. When she exits the ICU, she immediately hugs him hard, arms wrapped tightly around his waist, face pressed into his neck. He hugs her back wordlessly, his chin resting on her shoulder. He can see Maggie in the hospital bed, over her shoulder, and his breath falters a bit. Scully holds him tighter for a moment more before letting go.

It's overwhelming, being there. He tries to hold it together, tries to reassure Scully the best that he can, but he can tell it's too late. He doesn't know what to say to Scully, so he just tries to be there. He sits with her outside the ICU, sits with her by Maggie's bedside. Hears the voice over the phone of the one Scully relative he's never met, and monitors Maggie's vitals. He's right there when she slips away.

Before Maggie dies, she speaks to Mulder and Scully directly. “My son is named William, too,” she says, her frail hand clasped in Mulder’s, and he feels the same pang of loss and regret he's felt for years. Guilt and grief rising in his throat. All he can do in the moment, however, is shove those feelings down, go to Scully and hold her and try to comfort her. He holds her close, rocks her back and forth the same way she did for him after his mom died. When she pleads with him to let her work, tells him that she needs to work, he's nearly powerless to stop, unable to talk her out of it.

He drives her to Philadelphia, takes her hand when she reaches for his over the gear shift and holds tight. She cries quietly for most of the ride up there, her forehead against the car window, and he holds her hand. He doesn't try to talk to her, doesn't prod her; he just lets her cry.

She seems to have calmed down a bit by the time they've reached Philadelphia, her grief sharpened into determination. As soon as Mulder stops the car, she yanks hard at the door handle, trying to get out nearly before he's turned the car off. He catches her arm, whispers, “Scully, hey…” and she freezes, one hand still on the door handle.

She doesn't protest when he leans across the center console and wraps his arms around her. She leans into it a little, sniffling so softly that he almost can't hear it. “I'm fine, Mulder,” she says, her voice soft.

He smooths a hand over her hair gently. “I know,” he murmurs, letting go and leaning back.

Scully yanks the door open as soon as he's drawn back and climbs right out. He doesn't protest this time.

---

They solve the case, and they go home. They go to the funeral, and he doesn't leave her side. He sits beside her at the funeral and try to avoid fights with Scully's brothers, offers his condolences, shakes Bill's hand politely. He takes her hand when she reaches blindly again, rubs soft circles on the back of it in an attempt at comfort. He drives her to scatter her mother's ashes because she whispers, “Please, I don't think I can do it alone.”

She bares her soul to Mulder at the site of her mother's final resting place, and he listens because it seems to be the best thing he can do, to just be there for her. She laments her grief, her fears about William—all the questions she'll never have answered. She says that she'll be there when he finds the answers to all of his mysteries (and he looks at her in a stunned sort of surprise, not quite able to believe it, shocked at this level of commitment), but she'll never find the answers to her own mysteries. She calls him Fox, her voice trembling on the brink of sobbing. He can't remember the last time she called him that. Tears are welling in his own eyes; he holds Scully while she sobs quietly on the chilly beach. Watches the blue, blue water lap at the shore.

He'd do anything she asks right now. He wraps his arms around her and tries to hold her up, holds her for as long as she needs, until they're both shivering with cold as the sun goes down. Takes her back to her house when she asks him to, and doesn't leave when she asks him to, one hand curled possessively, desperately, around the hem of his dress shirt. He holds her on her bed, a bed he doesn't recognize, while she sobs into his chest. He cries with her, because Maggie was the only family Scully had left, and aside from the moments where he'd felt resentment from her, she had always, always been welcoming to him. She was the closest thing to family he had, outside of Scully. And he aches for Scully, for her loss, for her grief. Whatever happens now, he doesn't want her to be alone.He holds Scully and rocks her back and forth, thumbing away his own tears, and whispers the words he'd said to her in the hospital: “I'm here, I'm here.”

He doesn't leave Scully's house for days after Maggie's death. He holds Scully for hours until she falls asleep, a tangle of limbs in his arms, and he slips out of bed in the morning, trying to decide if he should respect Scully's previous wishes and leave or respect Scully's current wishes and stay. He decides, more or less, to make a cup of coffee and figure it out (he didn't sleep very well the night before), but he can't figure out half the stuff in this ridiculous house. Scully told him years ago that she was subletting from a friend, and that's about the only way he'd believe she lives here, in this electronic-crazy place. He spends ten minutes hopelessly rummaging around the house, trying to figure out the coffee maker, before Scully comes out, eyes red and clothes rumpled, and he immediately feels immense remorse for waking her up, for being so fucking thoughtless.

“Scully?” he asks tentatively, instantly feeling guilty, but she doesn't say a word as she approaches him, her eyes blank of any discernible emotion. She wordlessly takes the mug from Mulder and makes his coffee, fixes it the way he likes it, retrieving milk and sugar from the fridge. When she hands him the mug—a shiny, new mug that Mulder doesn't recognize because she left everything at the house when she left—he's a little dumbfounded. He feels horrible. “I'm sorry,” he says softly. “Scully…” He doesn't know what else to say. He holds her mug in both hands, staring at her with a blank sort of confusion, of apologeticness.

Daggoo wanders out of the bedroom at this moment—he’d slept on the edge of the bed the night before, curled dutifully around Scully's feet—and licks Scully's ankle excitedly, then Mulder's. Scully ignores him. She curls a fist around the hem of Mulder's shirt, a desperate hold. Her eyes now full of pleading. “Don't go,” she says softly, her voice still full of tears.

And so he doesn't.

---

The sightings of the Willoughby Specter continue, but they don't escalate as badly as they did with Kenny's car accident. Joe tries calling the X-Files unit again, to see if they've finished with the case that pulled them away from Willoughby, but Agent Mulder politely explains that they're taking some time off work because of a death in the family. (When Joe repeats this to Kenny, he says, “I knew they were married or something,” and Joe rolls his eyes. He admittedly hadn't thought about it very much.)

So he's started treating the sightings as another routine part of his job. Tells people not to panic, to remember the legend and that the Willoughby Specter is supposed to be good. He doesn't know what else he's supposed to do besides try to reassure people. He still isn't sure if he really believes in the Specter or not, but he knows that freaking out will only add to the mania. He remains nervous, on edge, but he tries not to cause a panic by expressing these feelings to others.

Kenny comes home from the hospital about a week after the FBI agents leave, hobbling around on crutches. Joe brings him back to his house so that they can help him out—he feels partially responsible for the whole ordeal, after all. Everyone is perfectly fine with this arrangement; Bonnie and Kenny have always been good friends, and Robbie adores Kenny. The four of them settle into a strange little daily routine—one that feels so idyllic, it visibly contrasts with the chaos of Joe's work.

Thanksgiving comes, and then Christmas time. The O'Connells get a tree and Kenny offers suggestions on how to decorate it from his perch on the couch. He starts moving Robbie's Elf on the Shelf around, although his crutches clatter around so much that Joe swears he's going to blow it. Robbie switches from the Willoughby Specter to Santa. The sightings slow down, going from four or five a week to one or two. It seems like things are slowing down, Joe and Kenny agree; it seems, briefly, like everything might be okay.

It's a completely normal night when that changes, when everything seems to shift. To be right on the verge of falling apart.

Joe's favorite activity with Bear is to take him for runs in the local walking park. Bonnie is consistently after him to try and do it before dark, but with Joe having taken over half of Kenny's responsibilities at the station, and the days being shorter anyways, he doesn't have a lot of daylit chances. It becomes as much of a routine to get Bear every night after work and go for a run as it is to help Bonnie with dinner every night, or to read Robbie a bedtime story.

One night in mid-December, he picks Bear up from the house and takes the dog to the park as the sun sinks over the horizon. They do five laps in the December chill, Joe running them so hard that sweat coats his face. Bear is left panting with the exertion, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his stride slowing. By the time they're finished, it's almost completely dark. When the two of them reach the car, Joe lets Bear hop in first before climbing in himself, leaning back against the seat and closing his eyes with exhaustion. He's completely content to just sit there for a moment while the car warms up.

His phone buzzes with a text from Bonnie, and he looks down to answer it, reassuring her that he'll be home soon. Beside him in the passenger seat, Bear begins to growl low in his throat. “Oh, hush,” Joe scolds, dropping his phone back in his pocket. He looks back up through the windshield, the night pitch-black, and flips on his headlights, and it instantly becomes clear what Bear is growling at.

A man stands before the car, illuminated by the headlights, a man that looks exactly the way his son described, exactly like the drawing in the folklore book at Joe's parents’ house, the one Robbie likes to look at. Tricorn hat pulled over his eyes, black cloak fluttering in the wind. The headlights flicker briefly before going black, as if the bus had rapidly died, but a flame springs to life before him, contained in the lantern held in the man's hand. Bear switches from growling to frantic, furious barking.

Joe can't breathe. He fumbles desperately for the gear shift, but he can't take his eyes off the thing. The Specter. He thought it was impossible, but here he is, it's real. Jesus, he should've believed Robbie and Kenny. The ghostly figures smiles at him, and a wave of happy feelings wash over Joe, but it doesn't feel good. It feels like being drugged.

Joe manages to curl his hand around the gearshift, and yanks the car frantically into Drive. Bear is going insane next to him, claws skidding on the dashboard, and all Joe can think about is getting home to Bonnie and Robbie and Kenny. Wondering what the hell the Specter is here to warn him about.  Wondering if he'll even get home, or if there's anything to go home to.

The Specter disappears as the car lurches forward, plunges into the space where the figure was, and Joe bites down hard on his tongue to stop himself from screaming out loud. If the Specter was a solid form, it'd be on his windshield right now. His hands shake as he steers them out of the parking lot.

He speeds home, breaking every single Willoughby speed limit and praying one of his deputies doesn't stop him, his hands clutching the wheel too hard. He should probably drive more carefully—he doesn't want to end up crashed like Kenny—but he's terrified of what he'll find: his family hurt, dead, his house ransacked or burned down. But when he gets home, barreling up the porch steps and trying to unlock the door so hard and so quickly his key almost snaps, he finds nothing but Kenny and Robbie in the living room watching Elf. He gasps a little as he stands in the doorway, stupid with relief and confusion and fear.

“Hey, Joe,” Kenny says, surprisingly cheerful for a guy with a broken leg. He's absorbed in the movie, not noticing the fear all over Joe's face. “Rob and I decided to watch Christmas movies and give you and Bonnie a break. She's upstairs, I think. Y'all take some time for yourself.”

“Hi, Daddy!” Robbie says, waving wildly, his eyes on the TV too. “Uncle Kenny likes Elf, too!”

Bear huffs tensely, flopping down on the couch beside Robbie, laying his nose on his thigh, baring his teeth just a little, like the Specter is going to come in and snatch Robbie away.

Joe gasps out a few breaths, beads of sweat along his forehead. His heart is still pounding too hard, his hands are still quivering. “Hi, son,” he manages. “Hey, Ken.”

Will Ferrell shoves spaghetti in his mouth onscreen, and Joe smiles stiffly at the enraptured audience. Waves a little and goes upstairs, still quivering, thanking God that they're all still okay. For now, they are okay.

Bonnie is lying on the bed reading a book, glasses sliding down her nose. “Hi, honey,” she says, lying the book down on her stomach as he enters. “How was your run?”

Joe can't answering, frozen in the doorway. Relieved to see that everyone is okay, and terrified of what is going to happen now that he's seen the ghost. Terrified of the fact that he can't stop it. He goes to the bed stiffly, clenching his hands into fists to hide the trembling.

Bonnie sits up, sudden concern spreading over her face. “Honey? What's wrong?” she asks softly, scooting to the edge of the bed to touch his arm. “Are you okay?’

Joe gulps in air, takes several deep breaths before speaking. “Bonnie? You know how I've always said that the Willoughby Specter legend is horseshit?”

A bit of a nervous look passes over Bonnie's face. She's always been a bit more superstitious compared to Joe. “Yes,” she says warily.

“Well, I'm starting to think it might not be,” he says softly. The image of that lantern and that fucking malevolent smile is burned into his brain, lingering just behind his eyelids, and the feeling of dread that accompanies it is incredible.

---

On a morning near the end of his second week staying at Scully's, Mulder comes back into her bedroom after a shower to find her awake in bed, leaned back against the pillows, staring blankly at the ceiling. “Scully?” he asks softly as he climbs into bed beside her. “Are you okay?”

She looks up at him with an expression somewhere between surprise and familiarity. Her eyes are rimmed red again, but she looks happy to see him. “Mmm, hey,” she says, reaching up and sliding her fingers through his damp hair. She rises up on her elbow and kisses his jaw. “I was just thinking,” she says softly, her cheek falling against his shoulder.

“About what?” His hand slides down between her shoulder blades, rubbing the length of her spine.

“About Mom.” Her voice trembles a little, but it doesn't break. “And William,” she says with a sigh. “I've been thinking about them both a lot lately. I… I had a dream about them the night before Mom passed.” She pauses, her breaths uneven, adds nearly reluctantly, “A nightmare, really.”

Surprise, and maybe a bit of understanding, course through Mulder, and he wraps his arms around her tighter. “Oh, honey,” he murmurs, kissing the top of her head. “I'm so sorry.”

Scully looks up at him, her eyes wet. “I had no way of knowing what was going to happen with Mom,” she says softly. “But… in the dream… William asked me why I gave him up. He said that I was the reason he'd never know his family. And then… with what Mom said to us about William, I couldn't help thinking…” She breaks off, eyes shifting away from Mulder towards the corner.

“Scully, no,” he whispers, understanding instantly. He thumbs hair behind her cheek, tips her chin in an attempt to get Scully to look at him, to reassure her. He's not sure that he ever really knew Maggie Scully very well, but he knows this, knows that she forgave Scully a long time ago, that she's tried all these years not to hold it over her head. That Maggie wouldn't throw it in her daughter's face on her deathbed like that. “What she said to us… there was no resentment there,” he tells her gently, looking her right in the eye. “That was reassurance. She wasn't accusing you, she was… she was encouraging you to find peace. To find the answers to your mysteries.”

At the funeral, she'd told him that she would never have the answers to her mysteries, and he can't believe that. He has to believe that Scully will someday be relieved of these burdens, that she'll find her answers the same way he has. Her mysteries are his mysteries, and he hopes they'll find the answers someday. (Still selfishly hopes, sometimes, to see his son again.)

Scully sighs a little, thumbing away a tear in the corner of her eye. “I don't think that… what she said to us before she passed was malicious,” she murmurs. “But I know she resented me for what I did to William. To her. I know she did. And now I'll never have a chance to make up for it.”

“It's not your fault,” he tells her, his thumb tracing the line of her cheek. “It was never your fault.”

“She resented me, Mulder. William probably resents me. And you…” She's looking away again, her shoulders hunched up. “You resent me for it, too. Don't try to tell me you don't.”

“It's not your fault,” he says again, sterner. When she says nothing, he presses his nose to her cheekbone, kisses her cheek, her forehead. “It's not,” he whispers. “And I could never resent you, Scully. Ever. Not for that.” She's stiff in his arms, and he hugs her tighter, tries to make her understand. “You did everything you could, Dana,” he whispers. “It's not your fault. I don't blame you, and neither did your mom.”

She's still not looking at him, but she presses her palm to his cheek gently. Mulder kisses the side of her head softly, thumbs tears off of her cheek. “I'm glad you're here,” she whispers, her voice wavering, and he feels his stomach twisting at that, emotion rising so high in his throat that he wants to cry. He squeezes her close again.

All of a sudden, his phone comes to life on Scully's bedside table, the ringtone echoing through the room, the buzzing sound discordant against the wood. Scully's chin nudges his shoulder as she scoots backwards. “I don't know why you don't put your phone on vibrate, Mulder. It's much more subtle,” she says dryly, sniffling a little. She shoots him a look that he thinks might be an attempt at teasing.

“Because you can't hear it that way,” Mulder says in response, reluctantly reaching for the phone. The display reads Willoughby Sheriff, the contact name he'd given Sheriff O'Connell a couple weeks ago. He shoots Scully a questioning look, ready to decline it, but she nods pointedly at him, motioning to the phone. He presses Send and says, “Mulder,” into the speaker.

“Agent Mulder? I'm sorry to call so early. I know this is becoming a habit with us.” O’Connell is on the other end, embarrassment littering his voice.  

“That's okay, Sheriff. I do feel bad that Scully and I had to run out on you before the case was over.” They would've had to go anyway, but there's no point in  disclosing that. Might as well keep things civil and polite.

“How are you doing?” the sheriff asks politely. “I was sorry to hear about your loss.”

He looks over at Scully, who is watching him curiously, her eyes still red from crying. He knows she can probably hear what Sheriff O'Connell is saying. “Thank you,” he says, reaching out and rubbing her knee comfortingly with one hand. “We're doing fine. Not to cut to the chase, but… have there been more sightings? Is that why you've called?” He wants to give Scully space to recover, and he's sure chasing a ghost isn't involved in that.

Sheriff O’Connell hesitates again, silence over the line. “You believe in all this stuff, don't you, Agent Mulder?” he says finally. Almost reluctant, definitely uncertain. He sounds like making this call took a lot of convincing. “Ghosts and shit. The Specter.”

Mulder begins to understand. “Yes, I do,” he says.

“I didn't,” says the sheriff. “For years, I did. Robbie and Kenny made me wonder, but… I didn't really believe until I saw it for myself.”

Scully, who can hear every word from how close she is sitting, raises her eyebrows at him curiously. Mulder shrugs, unsure of what to make of this; he's intrigued, but he's not sure he wants to rush down to Willoughby and investigate. “You saw the ghost?” he says into the phone.

Another pause before the sheriff answers. “Yeah,” he says. “I did. And I hate to… ignore a problem til it's staring me in the face, so to speak… but I can't just sit by and let something bad happen to me or to my family. Or to this town. I'm trying to see this as a wake-up call, as some sort of sign that I need to do something before this gets out of hand and someone else gets hurt, or worse. I think we need to try and stop this again… if you all can come back and help out, that is.”

Mulder meets Scully's eyes, silently asking her the same question he's asked before. Trying to reassure her that they don't have to go, that he's more than fine with that. She nods emphatically in response, her eyes full of determination.

“We’ll be there as soon as we can,” he says into the phone.

---

Mulder is certainly concerned about taking Scully on a case so soon after her mom's death, but Scully has always been the type to throw herself into her work to hide her grief. He knows this, knows she did it after her father and after Melissa, and—according to various reports from Skinner and Agent Doggett—after he was presumed dead. He also knows how badly she's wanted to work, how badly she wants a distraction, and this seems like a safe one to take. (Not a lot of danger, not a lot of complications, just a ghost story and a series of superstitious townsfolk.) They drive to Willoughby a few hours after O'Connell's call, at Scully's insistence.

They drive largely in silence, Scully in the passenger seat, absently fiddling with her mother's quarter from where it hangs around her neck, watching the countryside go by. There's a sudden flash of gold between her fingers and then her cross slips out from under her shirt, accompanied by something else: the ring he'd given her a few years ago when they got married.

Mulder swallows roughly, looks away and stares straight out the front windshield. Pretends there isn't a lump in his throat. He didn't know she still wore that.

He will do whatever Scully needs him to do without question, and that includes staying with her, acting like nothing ever changed between them. But he knows he can't do this forever, not without eventually discussing what happens next. This hardly seems like the time to discuss this sort of thing, and he'd barely know how to bring it up anyway. He'll be there for her because he can't do anything else besides that, but he doesn't know what to do when this is all over. He doesn't know how to ask the questions he needs answered. How to ask her to come home.

He drives down the highway, and tries not to think about his ring, sitting on a shelf in the bathroom. Where it's been since he took it off, three months after she moved out. It used to belong to her father, and it feels bizarre that he has it; it probably should've gone to Bill or Charlie, especially in the wake of what's happened. But she gave it to him. He wishes he was wearing it. He drives, and he doesn't protest when Scully turns on the radio to fill the silence in the car.

They get to Willoughby in the mid-afternoon, go to the diner they remember from a couple of months ago to meet the sheriff. The front window has replaced the Halloween decorations with paper Christmas trees and Santa Clauses and reindeer, and the waitress recognizes them. Sheriff O'Connell waves them over to a booth towards the back, tucked behind the counter. He stands to shake their hands before they sit. “Thank you so much for coming,” he says.

“We were glad to,” Scully says, shaking the sheriff's hand and sliding into the booth.

It feels like something of a lie, at least on Mulder's end, but he lets it slide. After all, it isn't as if he has no interest in what's happening in Willoughby. “What do you think our next move should be?” he asks as he sits down beside Scully.

O’Connell shrugs. “I’ve been thinking about what you said, Mulder, about how we should try to understand the ghost. Why it does what it does, if there's any way to interpret the warnings. I've been examining the reported sightings, and I can't find anything out of the ordinary.” He pauses, adds apologetically, “Or… out of the ordinary for a bunch of ghost sightings, whatever the hell that is.”

Mulder nods knowingly. There's pretty much no normal in this line of work.

“So I think our best course of action,” O’Connell says, “is probably to further investigate Ryan Caruthers and his parents’ murder. Out of all of the sightings, I think it's safe to say that those are the most unusual.”

The waitress appears them, pitcher of coffee in hand and with the usual nosiness Mulder has seen time and again in small town citizens. She jumps right into the conversation like she's been invited. “You talking about Ryan, Joe?” she asks as she refills the sheriff's mug. “That kid is trouble. I thought he actually might be a pretty good kid a while back, when he was little, but have you heard what he's into now?”

“What is he into?” Mulder asks, immediately curious. Scully nudges him disapprovingly.

The waitress leans in and says in a confidential, gossiping whisper, “Aside from him visiting that no-good uncle of his in prison? I heard he's going to Sunday School, acting all weird and sitting in the back and taking the stuff they give out to all the kids. That family doesn't go to church, but now he is? There's something going on there, for sure.”

“Maybe he has a new interest in religion,” Scully offers sensibly.

The waitress dismissively shrugs off that theory. “Well, my friend Madge has always been suspicious of the fact that the boy sees the Specter so much. Says the Specter must've known something wasn't right, and is watching over him to try and steer him towards the light.”

“Thank you for the coffee, Teresa,” the sheriff says suddenly, in what Mulder recognizes as a polite attempt to get her to leave. The waitress nods, offering Joe a big lipsticky smile, and walks off. As soon as she's gone, the sheriff rolls his eyes and says, “I dunno about all of those rumors. But I will say that Ryan has been acting unusual lately. And I think that he's connected enough to the Specter that it's worth looking into.”

“Do you want to interview him again?” Scully asks.

“No, I don't really think that'd go down well. I'd like to dig into the 2002 murders, really examine them.” He rubs at the back of his neck, looking between Mulder and Scully. “I was a deputy on the force back when the murders were called in, so I remember a little, but not a lot. And I'd like to see what you two think of the case. I can pull the files, and we can take a look tomorrow, if you think that's a good idea.”

Mulder and Scully exchange a quick look; Scully shrugs her agreement. “What should we do in the meantime?” Mulder asks.

“I've pulled some sighting files, if you want to take a look at those, look for patterns or whatever,” the sheriff says. “I have them out in the car.”

“Sounds good,” Scully says, her voice the neutral drone she's used to respond to most things since her mom. She nods in confirmation.

“I'll go and get them for you. And then I guess I'll call you in the morning?” O'Connell asks, getting to his feet.

Mulder nods. The sheriff unfurls some bills from his wallet and sets it on the table before standing. He jogs out of the restaurant, retrieving car keys from his pocket.

“Do you want to stay here and get some food, look through the files?” Mulder asks, brushing his fingers over her knee.

“Sure, that sounds good,” Scully says quietly. When Mulder shoots her a concerned look, she offers him a shaky but sincere smile. “I'm fine, Mulder. Distractions are just what I need right now.”

He smiles a little, reaches up to squeeze her shoulder. “I'll be right back,” he says, and goes after Sheriff O’Connell to get the files.

On his way out the big glass doors, he almost runs into Ryan Caruthers. He starts to say hello, wondering if he can start up a conversation about the Specter, but Ryan uninterestedly shoves past him, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. As he goes, Mulder sees something that strikes him as unusual: something that looks like washable tattoos of crucifixes on the back of Ryan's hands.

He goes out to the squad car, where O’Connell is rummaging inside the backseat. “Did you see Ryan back there, Sheriff?” he asks.

O’Connell nods absently. “I'm still not convinced he didn't let out Bear, you know. I definitely still think that kid is up to no good.”

“He had these… temporary tattoos on the back of his hands,” says Mulder. “Of crosses.”

O’Connell pauses, considering, before lifting the files and turning. “That's weird. But no weirder than anything else he's done, I guess. But it doesn't really matter. I don't care what Bonnie or Robbie says, we're not hiring him to babysit again.”

“I don't blame you,” Mulder says absently. His mind is on the tattoos, trying to figure out what they could mean. He accepts the files, holding the stack against his chest. “So what time should we meet you tomorrow?” he asks conversationally.

“I'll call you,” the sheriff says with a nod. “Let me know if you find anything important.”

“We will,” Mulder says. He nods politely to O’Connell before turning and going back into the diner.

Scully's still in the corner booth, and she's ordered them both coffee. “I didn't get decaf because I figured we'd be here a while,” she says as he sits down.

“Thanks.” He picks up the mug and takes a swig. She's gotten it the way he's been getting it for years, the way she made it that morning last week, and it feels silly to want to cry at his estranged wife (who has known for years now) getting his coffee right, but he does want to cry. His eyes fall on the ring, the top of it just visible under the quarter in the V of her shirt, and he immediately looks away.

“Did you see Ryan?” Scully asks, quiet this time. She motions to a seat by the window, where Ryan is flipping through a thick book, jaw jutted out in an irritable sort of way.

He nods. “Did you see the…” He motions wordlessly to the back of his hand.

She nods. “I’d wondered if it had something to do with the Sunday School attendance that the waitress mentioned.”

“But what the hell does it mean?” asks Mulder. “Something to do with his parents?”

Scully shrugs. “Who knows? Maybe he is religious now. Or maybe it's just some sort of joke. I'm not sure it's relevant to this case.” She nudges at the stack of files with one finger. “Should we get started?”

---

They spend the better part of two hours going through the files, which feel a lot like X-Files but with less attention, less experience. They're dictated with a level of annoyance and detachment that even Scully has never displayed towards the cases she was the most skeptical of. “These seem to be as commonplace as traffic accidents in this town,” Scully says in reference to the files that predate 2002, stabbing a leaf of lettuce with her fork. “Or at least… commonplace enough that they weren't noted as strange until the sightings stopped for thirteen years.”

“I'm still surprised we never got called out here back in the day, Scully,” says Mulder. “What with all the ghostly activity.” He waggles his eyebrows at her like they are too young and he is flirting with just enough detachment because he doesn't think he'll ever get the courage to kiss her.

Scully laughs quietly, rolling her eyes. “I think it's probably because no one was in any actual danger, in most cases,” she says, sounding better than she's sounded in a while. “Or maybe people didn't think to call the FBI.”

“Maybe.” He shrugs. “This has been a pretty unconventional situation, compared to other cases we've worked.”

“You're telling me,” Scully mutters in a husky voice. “I feel like a Ghostbuster.”

Mulder snorts into his coffee, in the same surprised, delighted way he always does when Scully surprises him with a joke. She smiles, a little slyly, and he wants to wrap his arms around her, wants to promise her the world.

He says instead, “You mean you haven't always felt like a Ghostbuster, Scully?”

“No. But don't ask Robbie O’Connell. He'll tell you that we are Ghostbusters.” Scully smiles wider, her fingers wrapped around her mug.

Mulder drums his fingers on the table, looks down at his mostly empty and admittedly cold coffee. He bites back a yawn, says, “I don't know about you, Scully, but now that we've established that I'm a middle-aged man—” Scully rolls her eyes, and he bites back a grin. “—I think I might need to adhere to middle-aged stereotypes and get to bed soon.”

“Oh.” Scully raises an eyebrow at him. “Really.”

He shrugs. “The caffeine didn't work, Scully. I'm still tired.”

“Glad to hear you're not an insomniac anymore.” It could be an insult, but she says it good-naturedly as she reaches for her wallet to pay the bill. “Are we headed back to the Willoughby Old Fashioned Inn?”

“They say the Specter haunts its halls,” Mulder says in an attempt at an eerie voice, and Scully's head shoots up in surprise. She looks taken aback at that, stunned, like his words are a slap in the face, so he backtracks. “Yeah, uh, unless you're feeling brave enough to conquer Bedbug Manor.” He can see the tension in her shoulders, and guilt blossoms in his chest; he reaches across the table and covers her hand with his.

“I'm all right,” says Scully, recomposed. She holds his gaze reassuringly. “Let’s just brave the Inn.”

“Deal.” He grins at her, puts his hand over her wallet. She pushes it away in that same stubborn battle they'd had a million times in the new millennium once they started eating off of the Bureau's dime. “C’mon, Scully, we have a Bureau credit card again,” he says, trying to push her wallet away again. Jesus, when did they start this awkward dance again. They have a marriage certificate and over twenty-two years behind them, and they're still fighting over who pays the bill.

“Maybe we do. But we've eaten so many meals in Willoughby with such little amount of concrete evidence that I'm afraid we'll make them suspicious.” Scully raises her eyebrows at him gently. “Come on, Mulder. I want to buy you dinner.”

That’s about all it takes. He lets her pay the damn bill.

Outside, the air is chilly, and Scully shivers, draws closer to him as they walk to their car. “Mulder, I was wondering if I could… ask you a favor,” she says, her voice low again. Quivering. Her cold fingers intertwine with his.

He forces himself to be calm, rubs some warmth into her fingers. (Scully has the coldest hands he's ever seen, it's ridiculous and he loves it.) “Of course,” he says, suddenly unable to tease.

“I was wondering if you'd mind if I… stayed with you tonight.” Her voice is quiet, almost embarrassed. He hates that she has to feel embarrassed. He hates that this isn't second nature, the two of them sharing a hotel room.

“Of course, Scully,” he says immediately, squeezing her hand. He looks down at her, and she isn't looking at him, but she has a look on her face somewhere between relief and contentment. She squeezes his hand back. They walk to the car together, hand in hand.

---

It happens in a blur, the whole thing. Driving back to the hotel, asking for a room (Yes, one room, he has to clarify to the woman at the front desk, and Scully's cheeks turn pink at that), going upstairs and settling in, Scully getting in the shower. Everything that follows.

He's sitting on the bed when she gets out of the shower, her hair wet and pulled away from her face. It's a familiar sight after staying with her for so long, and it still makes his heart race. She climbs onto the bed beside him, pulling the covers over her knees as she leans against his shoulder. “It's cold,” she murmurs, burrowing into his side.

Mulder wraps his arm around her, presses his mouth to the top of her head. “You're cold,” he says, playing with the damp ends of her ponytail. “You're always cold.”

“Am not,” she says petulantly, nestling into him, her back almost against his chest.

“You are.” He wraps both arms around her, squeezes her close. “You always keep three or four huge blankets on your bed; I always wake up covered in sweat.”

“Mm. Poor you.” She leans further into his shoulder, tips her chin back and kisses him softly on the mouth.

It's not the first time she's kissed him, really kissed him, even recently. But despite the fact that he's been staying with her since her mother died, he doesn't think she's kissed him since that first night, her fingers fumbling to unbutton his shirt, to unknot his tie, her mouth hot and furious and needy under his. This is different. Softer. His arms are around her, and her neck is bent at an angle that must be killing her, and she's kissing him with a gentle familiarity that makes him want to cry. He loves her so much it hurts.

She breaks off the kiss after a few minutes, her forehead against his cheek, the ghost of a smile on her face. Mulder nuzzles her hair with his nose, the damp wayward strands, and then he's saying it on impulse, before he can even think about it. “Come home.”

She stiffens in his arms, immediately, and Mulder realizes too late that this was a bad idea. “What?” she asks softly, her voice chilling.

He wants to take it back, to apologize and say, Forget it, but he finds he can't. “Come home,” he says again, rubbing her hip through her shirt. “I've missed you so much, Scully.”

“Mulder, no,” she says, and she's pulling out of his arms, crawling across the bed. She sits back to face him, her eyes serious, all of the affection leached out of them.

He doesn't try to touch her again. He says softly, “Is it because you… aren't ready? Because, Scully, I don't…”

“This wasn't a good idea,” Scully says, and she's climbing off the bed, she's retrieving her jacket where she draped it over a chair and putting it on over her pajamas. “I'm going to go and get my own room.”

Guilt washes over him in a way, and he fumbles to get down from the bed. He can't believe he's driving her away like this—especially now, of all times. “No, Scully, you don't have to do that…” he protests.

“I think I do.” She tugs at her coat, slides her feet into her shoes. She turns to look at him, almost apologetic. “I can't… I can't do this, Mulder. Not right now. I can't,” she says firmly.

“I can get a new room, Scully, you can…” he tries, nearly pleading.

She shakes her head firmly, stubbornly. She looks strange in her pajamas coupled with her coat; she is beautiful, and he curses his stupidity. He never should've pushed her, but he doesn't understand, doesn't see how she's okay with him staying at her apartment and with staying in his hotel room, but she won't come home. But he shouldn't have pushed. He's a goddamn idiot. “Scully, I'm sorry,” he says. “You don't have to… c’mere, and we'll talk about this. If you don't want to stay with me, then let me get the other room…”

“I can't do this, Mulder,” Scully says roughly. “I just can't.”

He knows he shouldn't say it, but he does anyway; it just slips out. “Why do you have to leave just because I asked you to come home? How is that different than me staying with you?”

Scully's jaw tightens, and he's cursing himself again, hating himself for being this cruel. “I'm sorry,” he tries again, but she's already turning around.

“I'm sorry, too,” she says quietly, and Mulder can't tell if she's angry or upset. He's not sure which would be preferable. She shoulders her bag and opens the door. “I'll see you tomorrow, Mulder.”

The door shuts sharply behind her, nearly slamming.

Mulder buries his face in his hands in defeat. He can't believe he ruined this. Can't believe he drove her away, fucked up like this when she's vulnerable and mourning, when he should be supporting her. Can't believe the things he said. He's cursing himself for being so stupid, for taking this all for granted. He's holding out for the hope that they'll eventually be able to get this right, but he starting to doubt they'll ever be able to.

---

Scully goes to get her own room, ignoring the slightly smug and slightly suspicious reaction of the woman at the front desk. She moves quickly, takes the key and goes upstairs and sheds her jacket and combs her hair and climbs into bed mechanically so she doesn't have to think. Doesn't have to dwell on the fact that she's alone, alone for the first time since her mother's death, alone in the same hotel she was in the night before it happened. Where she had a strange nightmare that led to some sort of hallucination, whoever or whatever she saw in the hall that had spooked her so much. It's childish, but part of the reason she'd wanted to stay with Mulder is because she was scared. Childishly scared, not wanting to have another nightmare. Scared to have to face the fact that she is alone.

She hates that she started the fight with Mulder, on top of everything, but she can't do this yet. She can't. Things have been so easy between them lately, so easy, and she doesn't want to ruin that. She should've kept him at arm's length, let things happen more naturally, but she needed him. Needs him. She shouldn't have left, but she can't come home. And she doesn't know how else to do this besides re-widening the gap. Besides pushing him away again until she is ready.

She misses her mom. She wants to call her mom. Nearly every night since, she's instinctively gone to call her mom, and nearly every night since, she's had that horrible moment of realization. She just wants things to go back to normal. She doesn't want to be alone anymore. She misses her mom so much.

Her phone buzzes in her purse. It's a text from Mulder. I'm so, so sorry. I never should have said that. And then a second one: I'm always here if you need me, okay? She ignores them both. Drops her phone back in her purse and forces herself to ignore them.

Scully turns out the light, forces herself not to turn on the TV for the extra noise. (It's silly, looking for comfort in that, she is a grown woman and a nightmare shouldn't shake her up that much.) She burrows under the blanket and tries to sleep. Fails to sleep. She can't get warm, she's gotten used to another warm body under there with her: Mulder holding her, the way he talks in his sleep and steals all the covers. Scully lets her cheek fall against the pillows, closes her eyes and orders herself to sleep. This is silly, she's been sleeping alone for years now. Years. (And sleeping with him for longer. It's a hard habit to break, missing Mulder. She's missed him nearly every night for two years.)

She keeps her eyes shut, levels her breathing, tries not to think about Mulder or calling her mom on the phone or strange figures at the end of a dark hallway. Just focuses on her own breathing, steady as the tide. She does this until she finally dozes off.

But she's unable to avoid the nightmares. It's not about her son, not this time, or about her mom. It's about Mulder. He's standing inside the house, the door open, and he's turned away from her, and she's calling his name but he doesn't answer. She starts towards him, going up the stairs of the porch, but she can't get to him, she can't cross the threshold. A hand closes down on her shoulder, hard, and she looks up to see the man in the cloak, his hat pulled down over his eyes and a lantern in his hand, and he is smiling cruelly at her…

Scully jolts awake sometime after one, breathing sharply. Hair falls into her face as she sits up, shivering a little in the room. It's too dark, odd shapes taking on the form of figures, and she fumbles desperately for the lamp, breathes a sigh of relief when light floods the room and reveals it to be empty.

Just a nightmare, she tells herself firmly. It's being back in this place, it's hearing these stories all day, it's your fight with Mulder, it's losing Mom. Just a nightmare. That is all it is. But her mental mantra sounds unconvincing at this time of night, being back in this place alone. A part of her regrets leaving Mulder's room.

She gives in and turns on the TV. Starts to reach for her phone on instinct, to see if Mulder is still awake, before she remembers herself. She sets the phone down on the bedside table, and turns over in bed so that she's not looking at it.

Chapter Text

five.

december, 2015

Things are awkward in the morning. Scully should have expected that they'd be, but part of her had hoped they wouldn't. But she knows it won't be as soon as she sees Mulder, slumped over at a table in the dining room when she comes down for breakfast, glasses on his nose, stifling yawns behind his hand. He looks like he barely slept. He offers her a stiff smile when she enters, motions her over, but he doesn't have much to say. He checks his phone a lot, articles that she catches snippets of the headlines from.

Scully just eats her breakfast quietly. She doesn't know what else to do.

Sheriff O'Connell calls them after a while, asking them to come down to the police station. They snatch up the opportunity quickly; Scully can tell that Mulder is just as relieved for the potential distraction as she is. If she's being honest, Scully still isn't sure why they're there, but she's willing to throw herself into it just so she doesn't have to think. That was the whole reason she agreed to come back to Willoughby; she would've been fine with staying away, but she wanted to come so she could concentrate on something else for a while.

O'Connell and Deputy Jacobs are waiting in O’Connell’s office. Jacobs has crutches, which are leaning against the chair he's sitting in, his leg encased in a cast propped up on another chair, and he greets Mulder and Scully with more enthusiasm than O’Connell does. “Glad to hear y'all are back in town,” he says, closing the file on the desk and nodding politely.

The sheriff motions to the file with a wave of his hand. “I’ve got Kenny looking at the original Caruthers file, seeing if he can find anything new,” he says. “He was on the original case, and is much more tuned into the… supernatural aspect of things. So I'm hoping he'll have an epiphany or something.” He clears his throat. “In the meantime, I was thinking that maybe we could go check out the crime scene. You've been there before…”

“We have,” says Mulder, “but I wouldn't mind a second look.” He's got that sound in his voice, the one that gives it away: he's interested in this. He wants to fully understand it.

Scully is looking at the file on the desk. “Are the original autopsy reports in there?” she asks. Jacobs nods. “I’d love to see that, make my own observations,” she says, nearly without thinking. “Maybe I should stay back with Deputy Jacobs.”

She looks over at Mulder out of the corner of her eyes, and sees that he is nodding. “That sounds like a good idea,” he says, and she wonders if he's eager to get rid of her. “Scully’s a pathologist, a damn good one, so she's likely to see anything that was potentially missed,” he explains to Jacobs and O'Connell.

“Oh, that's good.” The sheriff nods politely. “So… you would rather stay here, Agent Scully?”

“I'd like to see the autopsy results, yes,” Scully says awkwardly, looking away from Mulder. (She wants to make this right, but she has no idea how. And going along with Sheriff O'Connell to investigate a crime scene they've already been to does not seem like the right method, not right now.)

“Sounds good.” The sheriff reaches for his keys, the metal jangling between his fingers. “You want to head on out there, Agent Mulder?”

“Sure.” Mulder's hand brushes over the small of her back, and Scully jumps. She hadn't expected him to be ready to touch her so soon. It’s not unwelcome, but it’s certainly startling, and she looks at him sheepishly.

His eyes are apologetic when he looks at her, when he says, “See you in a few?”

“Sure,” Scully says, swallowing hard. “Good luck.”

Mulder nods as he turns to follow the sheriff out of the room. “You, too.”

---

There are the same bloodstains on the floor outside the Caruthers’ apartment, the ones he remembers, and Joe shows them to Agent Mulder with a flick of his hand. “Here's where they were found,” he says. He can still remember what they looked like, a shocking, horrifying picture: blood clumped in Marion's dark hair, Ian’s eyes open like marbles. He never knew them well, but he'd seen them around town. He'd thought their baby was cute, then, and thinking of Ryan now fills Joe with guilt when he thinks of Marion and Ian’s bodies. He certainly never pictured himself hiring that baby as a babysitter years later, and then firing him and wholeheartedly believing that the kid let his dog out. He wonders what Marion and Ian would've thought of that; he wonders if they somehow know.

“So they were stabbed here,” Mulder says. “Or were they stabbed inside and dragged out here?”

Joe shrugs. “Far as I can remember, they were stabbed out here.”

“Huh.” Mulder steps inside the threshold of the empty apartment, surveying the living room and then the hall. “So they could've been trying to run from the murderer,” he says, and Joe thinks of Jared Caruthers, always a year or two behind him in school. He'd been a little bit of a black sheep growing up, but they'd still never suspected he'd do this. Jared and Ian had always been close, had always picked on their baby sister; if you'd asked a younger Joe O’Connell which of the Caruthers siblings would murder another, he would've guessed Annie. And then he would've shaken his head in dismissive disbelief, because he never would've really suspected that any of the Caruthers kids could murder somebody. Never.

“Or,” Mulder adds contemplatively, “maybe Jared wanted to make sure the bodies were found, if he planned this.”

“He ran, though,” Joe says. He remembers that part well. “Why would he run if he wanted his victims to be found?”

Mulder shrugs. “Maybe he wanted to buy some time for some reason? Maybe he was worried about what would happen to his infant nephew if no one knew the parents were dead? Or maybe there was a specific reason they were killed outside the apartment. Did Jared Caruthers ever disclose the reasoning behind that?”

Joe shrugs. “Like I told you a couple months ago, Agent Mulder, Jared was obsessed with the Specter. Maybe he thought that murdering his brother and sister-in-law was the bad thing that the Specter predicted.”

Mulder scans the living room again, his brow furrowed in thought. “So Jared saw the ghost before the murders? There was a distinct premonition to the deaths?”

Joe shrugs. “I dunno. Kenny always figured one of the three of them saw the ghost, especially after Ryan's sightings went real public years ago. Made sense. But I don't know for sure.”

“I think the key here,” says Mulder, “is to figure out the Specter’s role in the murders. Why the Specter has been haunting Ryan all these years. Because I'm guessing that when this crime was investigated in 2002, no one considered the fact that Ryan Caruthers was going to be haunted because it hadn't happened yet.”

Joe shrugs. “That's true. That's one factor that's different.”

Mulder paces around the living room in a wide circle, as if considering its bareness. Joe remembers that night at the crime scene: Kenny so green that he turned nauseous at the sight, Joe himself with a year or two under his belt but understandably horrified by all of it. He thought of his girl, and how he wanted to marry her someday. How horrible it'd be if he and Bonnie turned out like this. A social worker had been carrying Ryan out, and that poor baby was bawling his eyes out. It was one of the saddest things Joe had ever seen.

“What did you all find inside the apartment that night?” asks Mulder, startling Joe out of his stupor. He turns to the older man, who's watching him contemplatively. He raises an eyebrow. “Anything out of the ordinary?”

Joe suddenly remembers the candlelight flickering across Kenny's spooked face, and he says, “Candles. Lots of them. And there was a Ouija board on the floor. And… crosses on the wall, I think. I remember someone commented on it, because Ian and Marion didn't go to church even though they lived right down the street from one. None of the Caruthers family went to church.”

Mulder's eyes are wide in astonishment. “Wait, there was a Ouija board at the crime scene?” Joe nods. “And you said that Jared Caruthers was obsessed with the Specter.” Joe nods again.

Agent Mulder crosses his arms. “Sheriff, I know you're hesitant to believe in this stuff, but I'm starting to think the Specter had more of a hand in these murders then you realize.”

---

The autopsy reports seem fairly straightforward: Marion and Ian Caruthers were killed by multiple stab wounds, largely to the torso. A few defensive wounds and scratches, mostly on the husband, likely as a result of trying to protect his wife. Jared Caruthers was found with scratches along his arms and face, bruises; some probably from the murders, others as a result of running through the woods. The baby was unharmed. No blood inside the apartment, aside from the murder weapon, dropped on the floor as if out of horror.

“Here's the crime scene photos,” Deputy Jacobs says to Scully, sliding the pictures to her. The hall is covered in splotches of blood; the living room is filled with large white candles, crosses hung on the wall and a Bible on the dining room table and a Ouija board in the center of a circle of candles. Scully can't tell if it looks more like the site of a seance or an exorcism, but she knows that Mulder would be all over it.

“Did the brother ever disclose what they were doing that night?” she asks, tapping the photos with one finger. She thinks the next logical step is talking to Jared Caruthers to try and find out; she's going to suggest that to Mulder when he gets back.

“Not that I know of. Remember, it's been a while,” Jacobs says. “I do think Jared was pretty upset about the whole thing. Didn't want to talk about it, wouldn't really give answers. I think he regretted what he did.”

Scully bites her lower lip, considering. She knows that she has been plagued with guilt over her sister's death for years, felt as if she was responsible, and she can't imagine what it would be like to have actually been responsible. Especially if you were close to your sibling. She has no idea about how Jared Caruthers felt about his older brother, but she knows what it's like to see your sibling dead and feel like it's your fault. (In the case of Jared Caruthers, it actually is.)

“Did you find anything you think could be important, Agent Scully?” the deputy asks.

She blinks out of her stupor. “Oh… I think there's a possibility these crime scene photos could be significant,” she says, tapping the images again. “Agent Mulder would probably know more about said significance, but I definitely think it could be important. I also would like to talk to Jared Caruthers if the opportunity arises.”

Jacobs strokes his beard in thought. “Sure, we could probably work that ou—”

But he never finishes. The walkie-talkie on the desk springs to life, a female voice coming through: “Sheriff, are you there?”

Jacobs scoops up the radio and says, “This is Kenny Jacobs, Winnie. Joe's out on assignment; what's up?”

“We've got a fire out on Church Street,” the woman says. “That abandoned Willoughby Woods Apartment Building is ablaze. The site of those murders in 2002? The fire department has been called, and Deets and I are responding to the scene…”

Something about that name seems familiar. Scully is muddling over it when Deputy Jacobs turns to her with saucer-wide horrified eyes, and she realizes. From the look on his face, she knows. “Mulder,” she says, her breath leaving her in a painful burst. She feels airless, like she's been hit in the stomach. “Is that where they…”

Jacobs presses the button on his radio too hard and says, “Joe's in there, Winnie. He and an FBI agent went out there to investigate the Caruthers murder.”

“Oh my god,” the woman says with horror.

Scully is already on her feet, rushing for her bag and her keys, her heart racing. Praying that he's all right, he has to be all right. “I have to get over there,” she blurts. The jagged edge of the keys bite into her palm. She clutches them harder.

“I'll come with you.” The deputy maneuvers himself onto his crutches with admirable mobility. His face is white and worried. “That's my best friend out there.”

Mine too, Scully wants to say, but he's so much more than that, and her ring is cold against her collarbone, and she doesn't want the last thing she said to him to be a fight. A refusal to come home. She doesn't want that to be the end of things between them, she has so many things she needs to tell him. So many things she needs to apologize for. You don't know that he didn't get out, she tells herself as she moves towards the door, trying to reassure herself. You don't know that he isn't okay. But she doesn't know that he is okay, either, and she needs to get to him. She needs to get to him, she never should've stayed back this way. She moves without thinking through the police station and out to the car, Jacobs’s squeaking crutches behind her. She climbs into the driver's seat and pulls out her phone, calls Mulder as she settles into the seat. Prays and prays for him to answer as Deputy Jacobs climbs into the passenger seat. It goes straight to voicemail. “Goddamnit,” Scully hisses, dropping her phone on her lap, throwing the car into Drive and pulling away.

 She tries again and again, three times before they reach Church Street, shifting her eyes frantically between her phone and the road. No answer every time. Several discordant rings, his voice saying, Hi, you've reached Fox Mulder— Hang up, try again, pray that isn't the last time she'll hear his voice.

She can see the smoke in the sky, and fear is clogging her throat. “Damn it, Joe, answer,” Jacobs is growling at his own phone, and Scully's hands feel numb around the wheel. Please, some small part of her protests. Please don't let this be it. She wants to see him, she just wants to see him. She hits Mulder's contact again with the flat of her thumb, listens to it ring as they roll down the street. The sound of Mulder's voice—Hi, you've reached Fox Mulder—fills the car again, and Scully bites back curses, blinks back furious tears.

The building is really, truly ablaze, smoke and flames pouring out of the windows, and Scully's stomach twists painfully at the sight. Jacobs gets out of the car, frantically moving towards the firefighters clustered at the edge of the lawn (far enough from the fire to be out of danger), but Scully can't move. Mulder’s contact page is still pulled up on her phone. She drops it in the cupholder, reaches up unconsciously to touch her ring through her shirt. Offers up a quick prayer, some sort of plea. Lets her eyes slip shut briefly.

And then the firefighters emerge from the building with someone held between them, smokey and coughing roughly into his elbow. Scully can't see who it is, but she begins moving immediately: pushes the car door open and nearly falls to the ground, races towards the firefighters so fast that she practically skids to a stop, her shoes kicking up frosty grass. They're lowering the rescue onto a stretcher, placing an oxygen mask over his mouth, and by now Scully can see that it's Sheriff O'Connell. Not Mulder. She catches a fireman by the arm in a hard, gaspy motion, gasps out, “Mulder, where's Mulder?”

“Ma'am, I don't know what…”

Scully gathers her strength and manages to bite out an explanation: “There was another man in there. An FBI agent. Where is he?”

The man's face fills with regret as he meets her eyes. “Ma’am, we didn't see anyone else in there.”

It's like a punch to the gut, and Scully gasps a little as she lets go of the man's arm. O’Connell is unconscious, his deputy bent over the stretcher, and she can't even ask if Mulder is in there. If Mulder is gone, if she's lost him. A combination of tears and smoke sting her eyes as she bites out, “Y-you have to go back in, you have to look…” She's ready to pull rank, ready to spit at this man that she is his wife, that she'll go in herself to find him, that he can't be dead, she won't let this be the end…

“Scully?”

The voice comes from behind her, a shouted question. She turns and she sees him standing on the edge of the lawn, cold wind biting her skin as his coat blows with it, his hair rumpled and not sooty and his eyes full of confusion, questioning.

She takes a shaky, desperate breath, like she can finally get enough air again, and starts to run. She moves towards him in an impulsive motion, throws her arms around him like they are young and stupid again and holds tighter now than she ever did then, her fingers clutching at his shirt, digging in. Questions satisfied, the firefighters move on behind her. Mulder's hand comes up tentatively to smooth her hair, his other hand against the small of her back, pushing her closer. Her face presses into his tie. “Jesus, Mulder,” she chokes out, leaning hard into him with the push of the freezing wind. “I thought you were in there. I thought you were dead.”

She wants to throw up at the thought of losing Mulder so soon after her mother, never getting a chance to apologize to him or reconcile, never seeing him again. She clutches him tighter under his coat, the smell of smoke muffled a little by his dress shirt.

“I'm okay, Scully,” he murmurs, his hand cupping the back of her head. His voice is trembling, too; he presses his mouth against her hair.

She pulls away as a firefighter approaches, telling them they have to get back so they don't get caught up in the chaos. She walks back with him, their fingers tangled messily together, until they reach the car. Streams of water hit the house. Deputy Jacobs is being helped into the back of the ambulance with Sheriff O’Connell; he waves at them and Scully nods back. She turns back to Mulder as they reach the car. “Where the hell did you go?” she asks softly.

“We didn't find anything of significance in the apartment, so I suggested we go see where the victims are buried, in the cemetery right down the street. Just in case there was anything there, any signs of paranormal activity. But just as we were leaving, the sheriff got this weird look on his face and said he had to go back in.” Mulder has a strange, contemplative look on his face. “He wanted me to come with him, but I said I’d rather just walk on down, meet him later. So I went on.”

“I called you three or four times,” she whispers, still not entirely out of the state of panic.

Guilt rushes over his face. “No reception out there. It's a dead zone.” He reaches out gently to touch her cheek, strokes it with the flat of his thumb. “I'm so sorry, Scully. I had no idea…”

“It's okay,” she says, and she's hugging him again, her face pressed into his neck. He's alive, he's not hurt, and that's all that matters. They have time. It'll be okay. “It's okay.”

He inhales sharply, maybe a little surprised, and then he's hugging her back, his arms wrapped around her waist. She sighs a little with relief, doesn't move. They stand together for a moment, frozen in the mix of December chill and heat emanating from the blaze, their arms tight around each other.

---

Joe is fine, and Kenny is more than thankful for that. Beyond relieved. He was really scared for a second there, more scared than he thinks he's ever been in the history of their career as cops. Joe is still unconscious when they arrive at the hospital, recovering from smoke inhalation, so Kenny calls Bonnie before sitting by his friend's bed until she arrives. He promises her that he'll stay with Joe.

Kenny has always believed in the ghost, ever since his grandma told him the story as a kid. When her cat died, and she swore to everyone that she had seen the ghost the night before, and he'd listened with wide eyes. He's always believed. And that belief has only strengthened since Rob saw the ghost, since he saw the ghost himself. And Joe… Joe never actually told Kenny that he saw the ghost a few days ago; Bonnie had been the one to let him in on that, and Kenny has tried to respect his friend's privacy. But Kenny's been nervous ever since Bonnie told him, about what was going to happen to Joe, or to his family. It'd been part of the reason he insisted on coming into the station to do desk work, some faux-noble sense of wanting to protect his buddy. He shouldn't have let Joe go alone to the house, but he'd figured the FBI agent could protect him better than Kenny himself. And besides, he hadn't know what the hell could happen there, hadn't expected a fourteen-year-old crime scene to be dangerous, especially in Willoughby…

Bonnie and Robbie show up, pale and tearful, and Kenny leaves them alone after giving them both hugs and reassuring that he's just a phone call away. He's intruded on too many family moments lately. “Call me when he wakes up,” he says, gives Rob another tight hug and then leaves. He takes the only taxi in town back to the station, and finds a group of deputies ready to go out to the site to investigate. “House burned to the ground,” Winnie, the deputy who called it in, says to Kenny, arms crossed over her chest. “They say it's gotta be arson. They don't know what else it could be.”

Kenny rubs his beard thoughtfully. He'd like to take a look himself, has his own theories, but there's no way he can get out there like this. “Hey, take me out there with you, wouldja?” he asks.

Winnie shoots him a disapproving look, fiddling with her hat. “C’mon, Ken. You know you're not supposed to be in the field.”

“I'll be careful,” Kenny says. He has a feeling about this, a thought that there's something important here. “C’mon, Winnie. This is barely even 'the field,’ anyhow. It's just a fire..”

Winnie sighs and gives in, takes him in her car. Kenny likes to think he's good at arguing his case.

At the scene, there's not much but ashy grass and grayed ruins, collapsed walls and piles of charred bricks. It's a little strange, the big empty space along Church Street, especially when the space is as famous as this one. The Caruthers house. It was apartments, but Kenny knows every Willoughby kid born after 2002 calls it the Caruthers house. It's Willoughby's tourist attraction, a popular Halloween destination by dumb teenagers trying to scare each other. Joe has said, before, that there was graffiti in the apartment that said something about the Caruthers family being cursed. Based off of that kid Ryan's history, and now this, Kenny is inclined to agree.

He's moving on his crutches along the ruins, around to the back, coughing a little and thinking of what could've happened to Joe today, if no one called it in. Thinking of the night they got called out here for the murders and saw it: the living room set up like an eerie movie, the kid crying as someone carried him out. And the blood; oh, god, the blood. He was so green, he almost vomited. He's thinking of Marion and Ian and Ryan, and even Jared and Annie. The poor cursed Caruthers. He's known them forever, they were all in school together. He and Joe right between Ian and Jared; they all played football together sometimes, they'd all go to the same parties or, earlier, play the same games on the playground. He never expected this.

And just as Kenny is recalling a memory from some-odd party he and Joe were at (where he saw Jared and Ian nastily drunk and nearly fighting each other, shouting, their faces red with fury), he sees it. The crumpled baseball cap on the ground.

Orioles cap. Ryan Caruthers's hat of choice.

---

Mulder and Scully aren't sure what, exactly, to do in the wake of this fire. They feel detached, uncertain. They eventually end up going to a restaurant, a little place that's slightly more high end than the diner. It feels like the best thing to do.

Scully seems distracted, staring blankly at her menu until the waitress comes and she blinks in surprise when the waitress asks what they want to eat. She keeps looking at Mulder like he's going to disappear, in a cautious, shielded way. Mulder thinks of the weight of Scully in his arms, the way she held onto him. Almost the same way she did outside of her mother's hospital room, but not quite. More panicky, more fearful. She was scared for him. She thought she had lost him, too.

“Hey,” he says when the waitress leaves, touching her hand across the table tentatively, like she might pull away. “I'm sorry I scared you today.” There's a lot he needs to apologize for, but he'll start there.

Scully sighs a little, brushing her fingers over his as she looks at him. “It's not your fault, Mulder. I just… I haven't gotten used to this again. The fear… the danger… I haven't experienced any of those feelings since 2012—” She bites off her words like she regrets them, looks at the top of the table.

Mulder squeezes her hand. He doesn't want to talk about 2012, because he knows a lot of what happened in 2012 is what led to the end of their relationship, but he's gotten to a point where he can talk about it without feeling the anger or fear or confusion he had then. He wants Scully to know that, but he senses that now isn't the time to bring it up. “I don't think you have to get used to it, Scully,” he says instead. “You shouldn't have to. Your life shouldn't be… a long string of fear and tragedy.”

“It's not, on good days.” She rubs her thumb over his knuckles, head bent in thought.

The scene from the night before replays in his head again—the things he said, the way she reacted. He pushed her, and when she didn't respond the way he expected, he lashed out. It's fucked up, and it's not what he deserved, and he's felt incredibly guilty about it. And he needs her to know. “Scully, I'm…” he starts, unsteadily. “I am so sorry for what I said last night. I wasn't being fair to you, and I never… I didn't want to drive you away like that. I wanted to be there for you. And I'm… I'm so sorry.”

Scully doesn't say anything. But she doesn't let go of his hand. She's looking right at their intertwined fingers, staring hard. “Do you remember what I said on the Monica Bannan case, seven years ago?” she asks finally. “When I said that chasing monsters in the dark wasn't my life anymore?”

He thinks about it constantly. “Yes,” he says in what he hopes is a neutral voice.

Scully pauses, her jaw working back and forth. “I think… I said it because I was scared,” she says finally. “I'm scared so often, Mulder, of so many things. I'm scared now. But I think… when I said that, then, I was just thinking about the monsters. And the fear, like the fear I felt today, when I thought I'd lost you.” Mulder’s chest clenches as she squeezes his hand tightly. “But, Mulder… this is my life again,” she adds. “And aside from moments like today… I don't hate it. I don't think I ever did. And the only reason I don't… the only reason I haven't walked away from this, that I even came back in the first place… is you.”

Mulder's eyes widen, just a little. Scully pulls his hand to her and brushes her lips over his dirty knuckles. She doesn't let go of it, either; she holds his hand against her chest, his arm stretched across the table. He lets her, his hand warm in hers. It almost aches.

She's still not looking at him, but she looks happy, he can see it behind the hair falling across her face. Not quite smiling, but the corners of her mouth lifted. Content. “I don't know, Mulder,” she says finally. “It feels like I'm always scared. Like I'm always… reacting because of it.”

It's an apology for last night; he can tell. The most of an apology she'll give because neither of them are very good at talking about things. He nudges her thumb with his, an old habit of theirs from years ago, his own quiet apology. “Take all the time you need,” he says. “I'll be here.”

---

They go to the police station after the diner, to give their statements about the fire. The officers who responded to the scene seem to belief that the fire was a result of arson, but they don't have a clear idea of who set it. Mulder confirms that he didn't see anyone in or around the apartment building during the time he was there, and they're more or less cleared to leave. “We’ll call if we have further questions,” says the deputy who takes their statements.

They go to the hospital next, to check on Sheriff O’Connell. His wife is waiting outside, asleep in a chair, but Robbie is sitting on the floor coloring. He offers them a small smile when they enter, and Scully smiles back gently. “I think Daddy's awake,” he says solemnly, selecting a red. “He says he wants to talk to you.”

“Thanks, Robbie,” Mulder says, offering a smile on his own. They enter quietly and find O'Connell sitting up in bed. He opens his mouth to greet them, but falls into coughing instead.

“Don't strain yourself, sheriff,” Scully says quickly.

O’Connell waves off their protests, wiping his mouth. “Are you okay, Agent Mulder?” he rasps.

Mulder looks startled. “Y-yeah, I'm fine,” he says.

The sheriff looks relieved. “I wasn't sure if you got out,” he says. “Or if you'd left, like we talked about.”

“You don't remember asking me to come back in with you?” asks Mulder carefully. “And me saying I'd meet you back there after I checked out the cemetery?”

The sheriff shakes his head, confused. “I can't remember anything after we left the apartment building, Agent Mulder. Last I remember, you had suggested going down to the cemetery to visit the Caruthers's graves. And then I was waking up in a hot, smoky room. I have no idea what happened in between.”

Scully's brow is furrowing, and Mulder is just as confused. “You suggested going back in, sheriff,” he says. “You don't remember that?”

O'Connell shakes his head, falling into another coughing fit. After a minute, he says, “But I do… I do remember this. The firefighters didn't find me where I first woke up. I saw the Specter.”

“You saw the Specter?” Mulder asks incredulously.

O'Connell nods. “I followed him out into the hall before I collapsed again, but the room I was in collapsed as soon as I left. And then the firemen found me,” he says roughly. He wipes his forehead, his mouth again. “I guess he is a sort of… good angel or whatever.”

Scully raises her eyebrows at Mulder, who shrugs. She says, “Well, we're relieved to hear that you were okay, Sheriff O'Connell.”

“Thank you.” The sheriff sags into the pillows, tired, coughing harshly into his elbow. “Well, I just wanted to tell y'all that, and also that I don't think there's any reason to stay unless you just want to. Seeing as how Kenny and I are both out of commission.”

Mulder exchanges a hesitant look with Scully. “You don't think this needs any more investigation?”

O’Connell coughs again, longer this time. “It's hard to say,” he manages, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “But… I know that you'll have a harder time without me or Kenny, considering the mindset of the people in this town. Besides, the fire being as destructive as it was… this may be the end of the sightings, at least for now.” He dissolves into hacking coughs once more.

“You should rest, sheriff,” says Scully quickly. “Don't strain yourself. You're lucky to be alive.”

The sheriff meets their eyes, a resigned sort of look in his eyes. A look Mulder hadn't seen the first time he met, when he hadn't exactly believed in the Specter. “I'm not sure it was luck, Agent Scully,” he says. “I don't think that it was.”

---

Mulder and Scully leave, simply because they aren't sure what else to do. They meet with Deputy Jacobs before they go, who seems distracted, like his mind is on something else. “I think people are going to be pretty preoccupied with the fire, honestly,” he says, his fingers drumming absently on the table. “The police department and the citizens. I don't think anyone is going to be thinking about the Specter much.”

So Mulder and Scully leave. “Maybe someday, something will happen here that causes us to spend more than one night at a time,” Mulder jokes as they drive out of town.

“I've said it before and I'll say it again,” Scully says. “I'm not sure if we could ever do anything here. I'm not sure what the case was. We didn't find the dog, we didn't save Sheriff O'Connell.”

What she's saying feels like a nice way of saying that this case was a waste of time, but Mulder is starting to agree. “It started out as a missing dog and ended up as a phenomenon that could be classified as a mania,” he says. “And a fire.”

She sighs, her head leaning against the window. “I don't know, Mulder. Confusion, fainting, or seizures are possible mental repercussions of smoke inhalation, but I've never heard of memory loss. Especially not the type that Sheriff O'Connell was describing.”

“It sounded more like a blackout to me,” Mulder says. “Which is impossible, because he was talking to me. He asked me to come back in with him.”

“Thank God you didn't,” Scully says with a sigh. She's fidgeting with one of the chains around her neck, but Mulder cannot tell if it's the ring or the quarter.

He has a sudden epiphany, a memory: the look in the sheriff's eyes as he announced that he wanted to go back in. It was strange, unfamiliar. “There was…  something different about O'Connell during the time he can't remember,” he says out loud. “A… weird look in his eyes or something. He almost didn't seem like himself. He changed his mind so fast, and he wouldn't explain why.”

“That is weird,” Scully says. Her fingers move at her collarbone. “I'm starting to think Willoughby is just a strange town, period. But I don't necessarily think the… ghost, or the supposed phenomenon of the ghost, is dangerous. I mean, someone certainly could've died today, or gotten hurt much worse, but no one did. People died back in 2002, but the causes were perfectly natural. The phenomenon is certainly unexplained, but it doesn't seem like anything we could prevent, or interfere with.”

“I thought our purpose here was to explain it,” says Mulder. “To understand it. That was what I had hoped to do.”

Scully shrugs. Her hand falls away from the neckline of her shirt. “Some things are just unexplainable, Mulder. Sometimes we can't look any further because there's nothing to find. If the Willoughby Specter exists, it looks like it just warns people. Robbie O’Connell about his dog, Deputy Jacobs about his accident, the sheriff about the fire.” Her voice has sort of a dark quality to it, like she doesn't want to discuss it. “It seems like there's danger, but that the danger isn't exactly linked to said paranormal phenomenon.”

Mulder’s mind is fixed on Sheriff O'Connell in that moment outside the Caruthers apartment. He hadn't lingered on it before, but now he keeps returning to it: the unsettling look in his eyes. An almost eerie look. “Everyone says that the Willoughby Specter is a good spirit,” he says. “But all it brings is death and destruction.”

“Ryan Caruthers doesn't believe it's good,” says Scully, a surprisingly hard quality to her voice. “But who knows, Mulder? Who knows if it even exists. We may never know.”

“What do you think, Scully?” Mulder asks in a soft voice. “What do you make of all this?”

She shrugs. Her eyes are on the outside window, on the incoming clouds that suggest a storm in the near future. “I don't know, Mulder. I really don't.”

---

Case #X-29336, Willoughby, Virginia

Addendum to 2002 Investigation (Case #X-43187) by Agents Doggett and Reyes

December, 2015; Agent Fox Mulder, Agent Dana Scully

There is undeniably paranormal activity in Willoughby, Virginia. This activity is attributed to the legend of a spirit who warns citizens of the town of future misfortunes to come. In 2002, there were many sightings of this spirit and noted unfortunate events, one of which has been included here [the suicide of Holly Smith; reference: report by Agents Doggett and Reyes, May, 2002]. Such events transpired again in 2015. The events that we investigated [ref: Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully] are as follows: the disappearance of a dog belonging to the O’Connell family (preceded by a sighting by Robert O'Connell), a car accident (immediately preceded by a sighting by Deputy Kenneth Jacobs), a fire (during which the spirit was sighted by Sheriff Joseph O’Connell), many other sightings by various citizens [ref: see attachment], and multiple sightings between the years 2002 and 2015 by Ryan Caruthers. No official crimes were committed. The only injuries as a result of this phenomenon were afflicted on Kenneth Jacobs and Joseph O'Connell.

While there are no clear crimes in Willoughby and no clear perpetrator to be pursued [addendum: the crime of arson and possibly attempted murder being investigated by the Willoughby Police Department, but it is assumed this crime did not occur as a result of paranormal activity], it is clear that Willoughby is filled with unexplainable events. One of the three times we were called out to Willoughby was an attempt by the sheriff [ref: Joseph O'Connell] to contain said events to protect the citizens of Willoughby, as a similar series of sightings ended in the deaths of three people [ref: report by Agents Doggett and Reyes, 2002, ref: attached summary of the murders of Marion and Ian Caruthers,]. While there is no clear crimes being committed currently as a result of the Willoughby Specter, the potential is certainly there. It has happened before, and it may happen again. There is also the question of the ghost itself. Its sightings are unable to be interpreted; the citizens of Willoughby regard it as a warning, but the events it warns them of are never able to be prevented since the victims are never explicitly informed of what is going to happen. The morals and intentions of this spirit are pulled into question as well.

Case #X-29336 remains open, pending further investigation.

---

There is a case in Texas. There are younger, baby-faced agents that amusingly remind Mulder and Scully of themselves. Scully makes a joke that harkens back to the first time they'd met and Mulder smiles. He likes to think that they are healing, the two of them.

When it's all over, Scully comes out to the house for the first time since Tad O’Malley and his circus of conspiracies. It's a stunningly warm day for December, especially considering how cold it's been lately (“Global warming,” Mulder jokes when Scully shows up in a light jacket), and they end up hand in hand, walking out into the field together. They sit out in the tall stalks of dying grass, their fingers intertwined and their faces bent up towards the sky.

“So, Scully,” Mulder says in a soft voice, when the sun has sunk a little in the sky and they've fallen into a comfortable silence. “Why'd you decide to come out here?”

She traces over the length of his fingers. “No reason,” she says, her voice thick with casualness. She squeezes his hand again, leans her head against his.

He bumps his shoulder companionably against hers. “This is an awful long way to come for no reason, Scully,” he says, nudging her thumb. He doesn't know why he is saying this, why he is pushing her, but he wants to know. He won't push any further than the distance they've more or less established since Willoughby, but he wants to know this, at least. After her aversion to coming out here, her insistence that they stay at her apartment in Bethesda and her refusal to discuss coming home, he doesn't understand why she's come here now.

He's prepared for Scully to pull away, to close herself off, but she does neither of those things. She sighs a little, her head lolling against his shoulder, grips his hand in hers like an affirmation. “I just wanted to see you, Mulder,” she says, and he can hear the purposeful lightness in her voice. “That's all.”

He smiles, just a little. Lets go of her hand to wrap his arm around her shoulder. “Well, I'm glad you came,” he says, his hand rubbing warmth into her shoulder. And out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he can see her smiling.

They sit together in the field, watching the clouds move across the sky.

Chapter Text

six.

january, 2016

A week or two after Christmas, Mulder is running late to work. There's an unexpected traffic jam and he's stuck on the expressway for a good thirty minutes. He's expecting to find Scully waiting for him in the office, maybe ready to discuss the email they'd gotten from a detective in Boston about a series of strange videos of some sort of monster in a park pond.

But the office is empty when he enters. Or seemingly empty—when he rounds the desk, he finds Scully unconscious on the floor, pale and still. A trickle of blood dripping from the corner of her mouth.

His chest clenches painfully as his breath leaves his body; he falls to his knees by her side, checking her pulse. It’s there, a little muted but beating steadily. He gasps a little with relief, fumbles to press a hand against her cheek. “Scully,” he whispers, his voice breaking. “Scully, it's me. It's Mulder.” He smooths her hair, strokes her forehead with his palm. Her skin is cool under his. “Can you hear me?” he says, almost pleading. “Scully?”

She's unresponsive. She's still silent, sweat at her hairline and her eyes fluttering, like she is dreaming. There's blood on her face, and it's too easy to think of bloody noses, Scully's pale face behind a red tissue, hospitals and saline and the fear that he'd never see her again every time he left her room.

Mulder stumbles to his feet, going for the phone on the desk. He hits his hip hard on the corner of the desk in his attempt to get to it, bites back a curse, but he barely feels the pain. He calls 9-1-1 frantically, clenches his jaw to keep from shouting at the operator. The operator promises to send an ambulance straight away.

Mulder hangs up and rushes to kneel beside Scully, brushing hair off of her face, taking her hand in his. Praying that the cancer isn't back, praying that he isn't going to lose her again. He lifts her hand gently and holds her knuckles against his mouth, fearful tears welling in his eyes. Scully stays unconscious, but he stays with her. His knees scream in protest, but he kneels by his wife until the EMTs come.

---

Scully has a dream. A vision. It's the end of the world and Mulder is missing, Mulder is dying, and so is the rest of the world. They're dying from a virus, a virus that shuts down the immune system. She's unaffected, she's working on a virus, but it's all happening so fast, Monica Reyes is a traitor and Mulder is dying and they need their son to save him, they need William, and Scully doesn't know where he is, she doesn't, she needs to find her son…

The last thing she sees is a light. The light is a UFO that fades into the image of a boy with dark eyes, convulsing in the throes of a seizure. A boy that is very, very familiar. More familiar to her than anything.

It feels real, it feels like reality, and when Scully wakes up, it is hard to believe that it isn't. She's lying down somewhere, the sounds around her commonplace and yet completely unfamiliar, and she breathes hard, desperate to know what happened after she blacked out. She looks to the left and sees Mulder, to her astonishment, sitting next to her bed with his head in his hands, and an incredible relief washes over her. He's okay . He looks perfectly fine, not sick at all. “Mulder,” she whispers.

He looks up, relief filling his own eyes as he says, “Scully,” in the way he used to say her name by dozens of hospital beds. He gets to his feet quickly, reaching down to take her hand.

The shock of seeing him all right, seeing him healthy after she saw him so sick just a few minutes before, is almost as great as her shock when she found out he hadn't been in the fire in Willoughby. It's too much to wrap her head around, but she can't dwell on it, they don't have enough time; she says, “Mulder, you have to go.”

“I'm not going anywhere,” he says firmly, and it shouldn't surprise her, but it does. It still does, somehow, after all these years.

“To find the Smoking Man,” she adds, hoping that will make him understand why he can't stay with her. He has to understand before it's too late, she can't lose him again. She won't lose him again.

Mulder falters for a moment in surprise before saying, “Scully, I'm going to get your doctor.”

“No, listen to me,” Scully insists, tightening her fingers around his as he starts to move away. “I've seen it.”

“You've seen what, Scully?” he asks, so gently. Too gently.

“I know how it begins,” she says hushedly, almost in awe. “There's a virus… the Spartan Virus. It shuts down our immune system, and it starts a pandemic.” Mulder coated in sweat in the back of the car, hot under her hands, his voice raspy. Dying. Slipping away.

“Honey—” the Mulder before her starts uncertainly. “You had a seizure. You-you have extremely abnormal brain activity.”

“No, a plague is released,” she says insistently. She is not going to let this happen to him, not going to risk him again. Not him or William or the rest of the world. “But there's a cure. Mulder, I'm absolutely certain about this.”

“Okay,” he says softly, leaning closer. “Tell me what you saw.”

She stares at him in horror for a moment, unable to shake the images of Mulder slumped in that car. “You're dying, Mulder,” she whispers. Mulder in the car on the bridge, Mulder on the lawn of the burning apartment building, Mulder sprawled on the ground of an Oregon parking lot, on a front yard scattered with birds, clutching at his head in pain. None of those were serious, most of those weren't even real danger, but this, this is real. This is what everything hinges on, them and their son and the whole goddamn world. “But I can't save you,” she adds. “Not without stem cells from our son.”

“Scully, I'm fine. I'm here,” Mulder says soothingly, not unlike the things he said in Willoughby. “There's no plague, you don't need to save me.”

“The Smoking Man is behind it,” she says urgently.

“The Smoking Man is dead.”

“No. No, he's not. He's alive.” She has to make him understand. “And he's in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Mulder, from where he unleashes hell on Earth.”

“Scully, I don't doubt you,” he says, “that you believe what you're saying. But t-the doctor says that your brain is on fire, and…”

“It’s me, Mulder,” she says fiercely, thinking of the things she hasn't told him, even recently—ghosts in hotel rooms and the like. But this —everything hinges on this. He has to believe her on this. “I'm not an irrational person,” she adds for good measure. He has to believe her. “You have to find him, and you have to stop him, before he kills you.”

She's memorized the feeling of losing Mulder, between years of danger and their separation and the fire and this vision that is real ; it feels incredibly real, and she's not going to ignore it. She's not going to risk him again.

---

Kenny is cleared for active duty shortly after Joe is, trading in his crutches for a fairly steady gait. Robbie is delighted, hugging them both tightly when he comes by the office after school. “Is the Specter gone now, Daddy?” he whispers in Joe's ear, his arms tight around his neck, and Joe nods. He could always be wrong, but considering the extravagance of the fire and the lack of sightings since the fire, he thinks it really is over.

Kenny seems strangely quiet during the duration of Robbie's visit to the office. More interested in paperwork than Joe has ever seen him. Lost in thought, and distracted by the presence of his son, Joe lets it slide until Bonnie comes by to pick up Robbie, but as soon as she's gone, he sits down beside Kenny's desk. “Okay, Ken,” he says, crossing his arms. “I think you should tell me what's got you down. I can tell something's bothering you.” When Kenny doesn't say anything right away, Joe prods, “I thought you'd be happy , coming back to work.” (He's heard some stories from Winnie Burns about Kenny bugging her to let him ride along.)

Kenny is still quiet, rolling a pencil back and forth on his desk. Joe lowers his voice, asks quietly, “Is this because of the Specter?” Even though it seems like the Specter ordeal is over, he's been spooked himself. The image of the grinning man, silhouetted by the orange flames, his face shrouded in shadow, the lantern in his hand burned out; it doesn't sound eerie in translation, but Joe has admittedly had nightmares about it. Especially in the wake of the fire.

Kenny shakes his head, still looking down at his desktop. “Joe, I think I know who set the fire,” he says.

“You do?” Joe asks, astonished. “Who was it?”

Kenny chews at his lower lip. The pencil rolls noisily off the edge of the desk and hits the floor. “You're not going to like it,” he says.

---

Mulder leaves Scully in the hospital to go and look for the smoker. He hates to do this, doesn't want to leave her alone, but she's trying to leave and he can't let her get hurt, not again. So he goes, drives to Spartanburg in an attempt to clear this up. The potential of Scully's vision, of the world being in danger, of their son… It is too significant to ignore. He follows Scully's stories, supposed premonitions that did not come from a ghost, like some sort of wild avenger. He wonders if Scully had ever felt this way when their positions were reversed.

The next twenty-four hours pass in a whirl of exhaustion from minimal sleep, muddled explanations Mulder barely understands, and frantic worry for Scully. The conspirators who apparently resent his father and want his son send him into a frenzy, but the news of Scully's car accident makes his stomach drop out from under him, yanks him back to sensibility and grounds him in fear and worry. He never should've left her, he should've fucking known better. He drives back to DC in a haze, his mind racing.

He almost throws up when he finds her on the floor of her hospital room, a stranger's hand around her neck as she gasps for air. The anger that courses through him is incredible, the hatred for the stranger that is trying to kill her. He doesn't even think, only moves, grabbing for a scalpel and unhesitatingly slitting the man's throat.

Scully gulps in air desperately as Mulder yanks the assassin off of her, the blood dripping down over her face and gown. They both briefly survey the dying man before Mulder kneels beside her, his hand going to touch her cheek. Her hands searching blindly until they're touching his arm, his hand. She looks up at him with some wordless emotion in her eyes; he bites back a shudder, tears, and keeps his hand on her cheek. He doesn't know if he'll ever be able to stop touching her.

The nurses come first, pushing past Mulder to help Scully off the floor and examine her. Security comes next, very curious to know why there is a dead man on the floor and why Scully is covered in blood. They want to talk to them separately, and Mulder doesn't want to leave her, but Scully tells him to go on. “I'll be fine, Mulder,” she says gently, her voice roughened but her eyes full of reassurance. She squeezes his hand hard.

He doesn't argue. He doesn't want to put that kind of stress on Scully. He leans forward and presses a gentle kiss to her forehead, whispers, “I'll be right outside,” before turning and leaving the room. He sits right outside, as promised, and waits for her while the cops talk to her.

It feels like forever, but Scully finally exits the hospital room to come and sit beside him. She's wearing what looks like a lab coat over her scrubs, and her expression is unreadable, but she places her hand on his thigh as she sits beside him. He reaches down and takes her hand in his, filled with relief at the fact that he gets to do that, that he wasn't too late to save her. He's thought about what Scully said in Willoughby, about not being used to the danger yet—but the thing is, he doesn't know if he'll ever be used to it. He'd burn down the world to keep her safe, and he'd do the same for their son.

“That man they just wheeled out on a gurney—I know that man,” he says, remembering. He was at the house of those space colonization conspirators, Mr. Y and Erika Price. He should've fucking killed the guy when he had the chance, before he ever got a chance to get to Scully.

“The Smoking Man didn't send him,” Scully says with a confidence he finds surprising.

“How do you know that?”

“Because the Smoking Man won't harm me,” Scully answers softly, leaning a little closer. “He's held my life in his hands. That… was something else.”

“Your visions, Scully,” he says. “They're not wrong.”

“My visions,” says Scully, “are from William.” Mulder's stomach twists a bit in surprise, shock at her words; he gasps a little, looking away as Scully adds, “I don't know how, but I know that he's guiding me. And you.”

Mulder sighs a little at this, worried for the son he doesn't know, the son he can't protect. “They're looking for him.”

“The Smoking Man can't act without William,” she says. “I know that in my bones. And William knows it.”

Mulder sighs again, weary and worried, remembering Mr. Y’s claims that the Smoking Man needs William. What if it's true, what if William is the key to Spender's fucked up plans? And what if he can't protect him?

“They won't find him,” Scully adds reassuringly. “But he will find us.”

He wishes he had Scully's confidence. He hopes that it is the truth, that William will find them someday and they can protect him and possibly, hopefully get to know him, but he hates the uncertainty, the powerlessness. “So we… just wait? Do nothing?” he asks.

“We do our work,” says Scully, and Mulder is reminded of the reasons he came back to the FBI in the first place. It was for Scully, it was for answers, it was for the betterment of the rest of the world, but largely, it was for William. He'd hoped he'd find answers about his son here.

“The truth still lies in the X-Files, Mulder,” Scully says, as if she'd heard what he was thinking, as if confirming it. And he believes that, he truly does. A part of him has always believed it.

---

In the aftermath of it all, the brief investigation and confirmation that the assassin's death was in self defense, the clash with Skinner in the hall, Mulder takes Scully home. He thinks she should stay in the hospital longer, but she clenches her jaw in that determined way he loves about her and says, “I want to go home, Mulder,” and that is that. He isn't going to argue with her when he's come this close to losing her. They check in with her doctor and leave the hospital sometime after midnight.

“You look exhausted, Mulder,” Scully says softly as they walk out to the car. Her voice is still raspy, drooping with exhaustion herself, but she still reaches up to rub her hand up and down his shoulder. “You drove all the way to Spartanburg and back in twenty-four hours, Mulder… have you slept at all?”

“A few hours,” he says. “I'm okay, Scully. I’m not the one who… “ He stops mid-sentence, instead wraps an arm around her shoulders and kisses the top of her head.

It's largely a reflexive move, and he's half expecting her to pull away, but she snuggles into him instead, her cheek rubbing against his shirt. “Let's go home, Mulder,” she says into his chest. “Farrs Corner home.”

His breath falters a little at that, but he doesn't show his surprise; he kisses the top of her head again, his hand rubbing up and down her back. “Let's go,” he whispers, and she nods.

Scully sleeps on the drive home, her head against the window. Mulder drives, his own window cracked in an attempt to keep himself awake. The entire trip seems entirely too long, he just wants to get her home. As soon as they reach the end of their long driveway, Mulder climbs out and goes around to help Scully out of the car. She comes without argument, not even protesting how much he is trying to help her. She lets him do it all without saying a word about it, and for that, he is grateful.

“I'll sleep on the couch,” Mulder offers quietly as he unlocks the door. “Or in one of the guest rooms.”

Scully's blinking owlishly, leaning into him; she shakes her head firmly, and it's enough of an answer. They go together up the stairs and into the bedroom. Their bedroom, and Mulder can't remember the last time they were here together. It'd probably be more groundbreaking if he wasn't so tired, and he loves her so much, and they're both okay. They're both here, together.  

Scully changes quickly, out of her bloodied hospital gown and into one of his shirts before crawling into bed, curling gingerly on her side. He changes as well before climbing in behind her. As soon as he's settled, Scully scoots backwards, her back against his chest, his chin against her shoulder. He gratefully wraps his arms around her, sleepily kisses her skin where it's exposed at her collar of her shirt.

“I thought you were dying,” Scully says softly, roughly. “I thought I couldn't save you.”

His eyes half-closed, he nudges Scully's hair with his nose. “I'm okay,” he says, reminding himself that she is okay. It feels almost unreal, with the image of Scully fighting for air burned onto the inside of his eyelids, but it is, she's here.

“It was real, though, Mulder,” she whispers. “I could feel it all, I was living it. That's our future, unless we can stop it.”

“We'll stop it,” Mulder says, his hand sliding down over her hand, her stomach, her hip. He presses his face into her hair. “I promise we'll stop it.”

Scully breathes shakily, coughing a little. They lie together in silence for a moment, Mulder nearly asleep with his nose tucked into her hair, when she speaks again. “Do you think we'll ever see him again?”

Mulder doesn't have to ask who she's talking about. She sounded so confident earlier, so sure of herself, but now she sounds worried. Small.

He was unsure himself, before, but now he is not. He says, “I do, Scully. I really do.”

She makes a small, insecure sound, and he nuzzles her again. He waits a few more beats before asking his own nervous question, something he's almost hesitant to ask about. “Scully, did you see him?” he asks softly, reaching for her hand again. “What did he look like?”

She seems to hesitate herself before saying, “I didn't really… get a good handle on him, I don't think. It was strange, Mulder. I'd have a lot of trouble explaining it.” He opens his mouth to apologize, but she's already adding, “But… he looked like you, Mulder. I could tell. He looked just like you.”

He shivers a little, tightening his hold on her. She threads her fingers through his and squeezes.

They lie together in the warm shell of their comforters and each other, Mulder simply grateful for her presence.

---

They both sleep for hours, through most of the next day. When Scully wakes up, it's because of the ache reverberating through her bones. She is still sore from the car crash, she can still feel the assassin's hands on her neck and his blood on her skin. She sighs, sinking further into the mattress and the pillows. She'd forgotten how perfect this bed is, the familiar lumps in the mattress, the cool, soft sheets against her skin.

It takes her a moment to realize that Mulder is gone, but by the time she does, he's already reentering with two steaming mugs in hand—her favorites, the ones they bought in a cheesy DC gift shop just after they went to the courthouse to be married, her hiding her giggles behind her hand while he made up extravagant stories about how they were cheese farmers from Idaho. She smiles a little. “I thought you might want some coffee,” he says, raising one mug in the air—the Lincoln Memorial surrounded by cherry blossoms.

“You thought right,” Scully says, swallowing back the lump in her throat and grinning.

He comes over to the bed, setting the mugs down on the bedside table before slipping in beside her. He passes a mug to her before taking his own. She rests her head against his shoulder, sipping the hot liquid gratefully.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Mulder asks softly, gently.

She shakes her head. She doesn't, not right now. Right now, she'd like to forget it as much as she can with the pain in her chest and stomach and neck. She wraps her hands around the mug, grateful for the warmth.

They sit in silence for a moment, blankets tucked around them as they sip their coffee. Mulder has remembered exactly how she takes it, and it shouldn't make Scully want to cry, but it does. Her vision is still fresh in her mind, the panic and the pandemic and Mulder gone and dying. Mulder's face as he bent over her in the hospital. Tears sting the back of her throat, and she blurts, “I'm sorry, Mulder.”

Mulder tenses in surprise, like he wasn't expecting that; he shivers and bumps his shoulder against hers. “What’re you sorry for, Scully?” he says, a sound near laughter in his voice. “You don't have anything to be sorry for.”

“Yes, I do,” she says immediately. She's been trying to make it clear since the fire in Willoughby, but she doesn't know if it has worked, and she wants him to know. He deserves a real apology. She needs for him to know, in the wake of all this, the non-reality that felt so real of Mulder missing and dying somewhere, her life being drained out by a stranger's rough hands when she hadn't even apologized to him. It's like the shock of the fire, but realer, and more dangerous. She can't risk something happening to one of them with Mulder not knowing how guilty she feels. “I’m sorry for the way I acted in Willoughby,” she says. “The things I said at the hotel.”

They sit in silence for a minute before Mulder starts speaking, too quickly, “You don't have to apologize, Scully. I shouldn't have pushed you, I went too far…”

“I wasn't fair to you,” she says. She sets her mug down on her bedside table and smooths her warm palms over the comforter. “I asked you to stay with me without making my intentions clear, and that wasn't fair to you , Mulder. I haven't been fair.”

Mulder's quiet, as if thinking it over. Scully's starting to think that now wasn't the best time to bring this up, but she plunges on anyway. “I don't know when I'll be ready to come home, permanently,” she says. “It's not because of you. It's because… I think we both need to work on ourselves. I think we both need time for that, Mulder. Space.”

Mulder isn't looking at her. “I’m willing to give you that space,” he says quietly. Gently.

“And I'm grateful for that. But, Mulder… we've had our time apart, really apart, and I don't think that was helping either of us. I don't want to push you away.” He's tense, nervous, and she feels regretful for that; she leans hard into him, tries to make him feel it. “I've missed you,” she says quietly. “I've missed you more than I can put into words, Mulder.”

“I've missed you, too,” he says roughly. “So much.”

“Whatever happens, I don't to ruin this,” she says. “I don't want to lose you again.” To a plague or to separation; she doesn't care. She's never losing him.

“And I don't want to lose you,” says Mulder in a raspy voice. He wraps an arm tight around her shoulders, rubbing his hand up and down her arm. “In… any potential way.”

“I know,” she whispers, her hand unconsciously fisting in his t-shirt. He kisses the top of her head several times, rapid and full of affection; she presses her cheek into his neck. “So I think we need to just… take this slow,” she says. “Whatever it is.”

Mulder wraps both arms around her, holding her tightly, and she can feel his fear and desperation in his embrace. The events of the night before come flooding back all at once, and she winds her arms around his waist. “That's fine,” he says, and she can tell it's genuine. “I want to give you all the time you need. Just… Jesus, Scully, just don't die on me, and you can have all the time you want.”

“The same goes for you,” she says sternly into his shoulder, her voice quivering. She pulls back a little until they are nose to nose, looking him in the eye. “But, Mulder… if it's difficult for me to be here when we're not… officially…” She swallows difficulty, continues, “... just say the word, and I'll leave. This goes both ways, you know; I don't want to give you false hope, or make you uncomfortable.”

“Scully, listen to me,” Mulder says with his own brand of sternness, lifting his hand to cup her cheek again. “You are always welcome here. Always. It's your house. It's yours just as much as mine.”

“I don't want to make you…” she tries.

“You can stay or you can not stay. It's up to you. But I don't want you to think you're not welcome here. Ever.” His thumb runs over her hair, her skin. He laughs humorlessly, adds, “Did you really think I was going to kick you out after you… after everything that happened?”

She shakes her head, because she didn't. “I just… I want to make sure we're on the same page, Mulder.”

“We are.” He leans in and kisses her cheek, her nose. She bumps her forehead against his, their heads together, and shuts her eyes. They're both breathing tremulously, Mulder shaking against her; he was scared. He was so scared. He reaches for her hand and she gives it. They stay like that for a long time.

When he finally pulls away, Scully scoots down in bed, making herself comfortable. God, she hadn't realized how much she missed this bed, and she's still exhausted from everything that has happened. “I don't want to talk about what happened yet,” she says—she kind of just wants to go back to sleep.

Mulder leans down and kisses her forehead gently. “We don't have to,” he says gently. “We don't.”

“But I do think we're going to see William again,” she says, and she's said it before, but it seems important to say it again. They're going to find their son, after all this time. Their son . “I do.”

Mulder lies down beside her, not touching her, but she can feel his warmth against her side. “I do, too,” he whispers.

---

When they wake up again later and venture downstairs to eat something, Mulder finally thinks to check his phone for any messages. There's a couple missed calls from Skinner that he stubbornly ignores, a missed call from the police department who had responded to the ordeal at the hospital, and a voicemail from the Willoughby Police Department. “That's weird,” he says out loud.

Scully takes a bite of her steaming soup, raising her eyebrows at him. “What is?” she says, her voice soft.

“Just a call from Willoughby,” he says. “They left a voicemail.” He turns off his phone screen and sets it down on the table.

“You should go ahead and listen to it,” says Scully. “It might be important.”

“Scully, I think the last thing either of us needs right now is a case,” says Mulder.

“So we won't go if they want us to come. But it might not be that.” She indicates his phone with a flick of his chin. “The least you can do is listen to it.”

Mulder shrugs, scoops up the phone and opens up the voicemail, putting it on speaker so that Scully can hear it, too. Sheriff's O’Connell's voice begins to emit from the speakers. “Hey, Agent Mulder, this is Joe O’Connell,” he says sheepishly. “I just wanted to call you and give you an update on the fire. We figured out it was arson. And, uh, we found out who did it.” O'Connell takes an uncertain breath before continuing in a guilty sort of voice. A voice full of regret. “It was Ryan Caruthers. We found his baseball cap at the scene, and several empty gas cans in the back of his aunt's garage with his fingerprints all over them. Plus, he didn't have an alibi for the fire. So we took him in. The case hasn't gone to trial yet, but, uh… I'm fairly sure he'll be in juvenile detention for a while.”

Scully sighs a little, shaking her head. Mulder rubs the bridge of his nose tiredly. “So, anyways,” O’Connell finishes, sounding nearly embarrassed now. “Just wanted to let you know.” There's a bit of a pause before he adds, “There's been no sightings of the Specter since the fire, by the way.” The voicemail clicks off, leaving a clattery sorry of silence.

Scully speaks first. “I can't believe that kid set the fire,” she says regretfully, sluicing her spoon through her soup. “He seemed… abrasive, but what teenager isn't? And I didn't get the impression that he’d do anything like this. Although I guess neither of us knew him very well.”

“I seriously doubt he knew that the Sheriff was there,” Mulder says, reaching for his mug. “Arson is still a crime, but it seems less ominous if you take the person inside factor out of it.”

“Whether you and the Sheriff were at the apartment building or not, it's still incredibly dangerous to burn a building down like that,” says Scully. “The neighbors could've gotten hurt, Ryan himself could've gotten hurt, he could've started a forest fire… there was no way he could keep that size blaze under control. Whatever the reason, it was a silly mistake.”

Mulder swallows, rubbing a hand over his stubbly chin. “I think the motive for why he did it is clear,” he says. “He seems to be pretty hung up on his parents’ deaths. And who can blame him? It's an impossible thing to go through. I've gotta say, I can understand the urge to destroy the place where it happened.”

“So can I,” Scully says softly. By the look in her eyes, Mulder can tell she's thinking of a different teenager with lost parents, someone the same age. Someone who was in Scully's head just yesterday, who might be just as bitter and lost as Ryan Caruthers is. Mulder wonders if he tries to exorcise his demons in the same way that Ryan has.

“Supposedly seeing a ghost for most of his life can't have helped,” Scully adds thoughtfully, startling him out if his stupor. “Poor kid.”

Mulder nods his agreement. He's partially lost in his own thoughts, thinking about William instead of Ryan. About the visions he had of the end of the world, visions he shared with his mother. Thinking about the angry way teenagers have about them, about someone who is haunted by bad things to come for life. “Yeah,” he says, not knowing if he's referring to the teenager in a small town that he barely knows or the long-lost son he doesn't know. Scully's hand is flat on the table; he reaches across to cover it with his warmly. “Yeah, poor kid.”

---

Ryan Caruthers has genuinely never felt more like a fucking idiot in his life. More than anything, for losing his Orioles cap (his father's old Orioles cap) at the apartment, but also for setting the goddamn fire in the first place.

Sheriff O'Connell gave him back the cap, at least. He hates that dude, but he doesn't think he's cruel. (Although he knows for sure that the sheriff hates him, hates his guts, thinks he let Robbie's dog out. Ryan didn't do it, knows he didn't do it, and has a pretty good idea of who did, but it doesn't matter. The sheriff still hates him.) And he had absolutely no idea that the sheriff was in there when he set the fire; he's sworn that up and down, and he means it. Apparently, there was almost an FBI agent in there, too, which probably would've been a lot worse, but he wasn't in there. Just Sheriff O'Connell, and Ryan hadn't had any idea until his aunt told him that night. He'd wanted to throw up, prayed that he didn't smell like smoke. He never wanted to kill anyone, even the sheriff. Never. (He can imagine what they're saying about him: that he's a killer, just like his uncle, and that honestly makes him want to throw up, too.)

He also never thought he'd get caught. He didn't realize he'd lost his cap until days later; he'd been so shaken by the news that he almost killed someone, and even then, he'd been in denial: he lost it while he was running home, hosing off the gasoline in the driveway even though it was way, way too cold to be using the hose, when he went out into the woods for a run the way he always does… He never thought he'd get caught, never thought he'd be arrested (they didn't handcuff him, but still), never thought he'd see the horror on his Aunt Annie's face as they lead him out to the squad car. (She was the youngest in the family, his dad and his Uncle Jared had both been older, but she'd always been close to Jared, especially when they all got older. It tore her apart when Jared was arrested, when she found out what he'd done. He can't believe he put her through that again.) Her face was white with horror, her expression the one Ryan saw every time the details of his mom and dad's murder came up. He never wanted to make her look like that, but he had. He had.

The cops thought it was because of his Uncle Jared. All because he had started visiting him. Ryan wishes to hell it had never gotten out—the prison is two hours away, it never should have, but Annie had probably told Robbie's mom at work, and the O’Connell family never shuts up about anything. He knows it's part of the reason he got fired. (Annie hadn't been very approving of the visits—she had no desire to see Jared, she'd told him ever since he was a little kid whenever he used to ask why she never visited—but she'd been supportive, driven him to the prison and mailed his letters for him, and Ryan is genuinely grateful for that.)

(Or maybe he's not. As helpful as the visits have been, surprisingly enough, Ryan knows that everyone in this goddamn town wouldn't have it out for him if he hadn't started visiting Jared. Or maybe they would; most people resent him because he doesn't kiss the Specter's ass. And that's where the trouble lies in the first place.)

He tried to blame it on the Specter, even. He knew that Sheriff O’Connell had been working with those weird FBI agents because of the Specter; maybe they'd believe him. “I could've been possessed, you don't know,” he'd said defensively, like a goddamn idiot. “The ghost possesses people all the time, makes 'em do stuff.”

But they hadn't believed him, of course, because Ryan was basically cursed. And it wasn't true, about the possession. And now he's grounded and probably going to juvie, and his entire life is thrown off track. And he's put distance between him and his aunt. And all for nothing. All for a dumb mistake, some stupid grasp at control over this fucking thing.

Or, maybe not. Maybe not for nothing.

Ryan turns over on his side, facing the wall. Inadvertently facing the picture of his parents he has taped up over his bed. It's a picture of their wedding day, when they probably had no idea that they'd someday be stabbed in their apartment by his dad's brother while their baby wailed in his crib for them. They look happy, his mom's hair twisted away from her head, her veil blowing in the wind, and his dad's arm twined around her waist. Ryan swallows uncomfortably, blinking at their still faces. When he was little, he used to cry because he didn't have parents like most other kids did. He doesn't cry much anymore, but it still makes him sad. He really, really misses them. He wishes he'd gotten a chance to know them.

He wonders if they'd be proud of him, if they knew him. He thinks probably not. No one wants a delinquent son who set a fire and almost killed the sheriff.

The room is dim, lit only by a lamp on Ryan's bedside table, and it suddenly grows dark as the lamp flickers off behind him. It's night, pitch black, and Ryan shivers in the sudden cold. He doesn't move as a small light flickers to life behind him, the firelight reflecting in the photo, flashing across his mom and dad's faces.

Ryan grits his teeth together in irritation; he knows the drill, and this shit drives him fucking crazy. “What the fuck do you want now?” he snaps, turning on his other side.

The ghost is across the room, in a corner, holding back. His face isn't visible, his hat pulled down over his eyes, but he's holding his lantern up, the tiny flame creating strange shadows on the wall.

Ryan holds up his hands, where he's reapplied the washable cross tattoos he stole from Sunday School. A warning, pathetic as it is. “You can get the hell away from me,” he snaps. “It's over. I made sure of that.”

The Specter simply smiles. A chilling smile. Ryan's stomach turns.

They've been doing this for years, the two of them; he'll turn around and there it'll be. He used to wet the bed when he was a kid; he used to run to Annie's room in tears, not wanting to sleep alone, only to wake up and see the Specter standing over his aunt. But no one else has seen the ghost. Nothing like this has ever happened since he was a baby, car accidents and missing dogs…

Ryan shoves his hands out again like a shield. “This is over ,” he says firmly, like if he says it enough, it'll be true. But his voice shakes. Trembles like a leaf. “Over. You understand?”

The Specter just grins and grins. He doesn't say anything, because the Specter never does. But he keeps on grinning. That grin says, The fire didn't work. That grin says, You can't stop me. That grin says, Next time, it will be much, much worse.

The lantern flickers out.

Chapter Text

PART TWO

 

seven.

october, 2016

They are having dinner. That night, they are going to have dinner. It's simple, and it should feel simple. But nothing is ever as simple as it should be, not with them.

It would probably feel more simple if every single dinner didn't feel like a date. It's not an obvious sort of feeling—they rarely go to formal places, and they never dress in anything besides the suits they wear to work, aside from the recent meal they shared for Mulder's birthday (Scully's doing something different with her hair, it's straighter now, but that's more of an everyday thing than a concession for their dinners), and they never, ever call it a date, of course—but it's still there, the stipulation of sorts. Even though they do dinner a few times a week. Even though Mulder goes to her apartment, or Scully goes to the house to do work, and half the time they fall asleep there, though if it never goes any further than that. The awkwardness—the feeling that had appeared after the fear of their ordeal with apocalyptic visions and seizures and assassins faded away—is still there. It's less strong than it was in the early days of this second partnership, but it's still undeniably there. The awkwardness of the breakup, of not having lived together for years, of the fact that they agreed to take some time before moving further with their relationship. Mulder likes to think they're working through it all.

So. They are going to dinner, and since things have been particularly slow at the office lately, Mulder finds it's all he can think about in the quiet.moments of the day. They closed a case a few days ago in Tennessee, and Scully's working on the paperwork, having taken over the desk so she can work at the computer. (They still haven't brought Scully a desk, despite repeated requests from the both of them; something about budget. That fucking budget. He got her a nameplate, though, a gift he's saving for Christmas. It's not much, but it is something.) Her hair’s twisted back in the messy braid of her hospital days, and she's deep in concentration, teeth worrying her lower lip as she types. Mulder finds himself easily distracted by her, tapping a pencil absently against the other side of the desk; he doesn't have a lot of interest in this case report, especially considering that it wasn't too impressive of a case in the first place. They don't make monsters the way they used to.

“Mulder,” Scully says suddenly, startling him out his stupor. “Do you have the crime scene report?” she asks, scraping her teeth over her lower lip absently.

“Yeah.” Still halfway distracted, he has to rummage for it for a moment before coming up with it. Scully raises her eyebrows at him in a teasing sort of way as she takes it, and he shrugs. “Slow day, Scully. I'm ready for an impressive case.”

“I don't think cases come in based on whether or not you find them impressive,” says Scully bemusedly, taking the report from him. “And we need to finish this report, or Skinner will be pissed.”

“Let him be pissed,” Mulder says with a scoff, and Scully shoots him a stern look. She doesn't exactly approve of his newfound resentment of Skinner that's also lingered around since the beginning of the year. She's pointed out multiple times that they don't have any solid proof that Skinner is consorting with the Smoking Man, that Skinner has been their friend and ally for years, that he is still technically their boss, but Mulder doesn't care. (There is too much on the line, and he refuses to risk his family. Even for a friend.)

Scully taps his arm firmly with her pointer finger, still stern, gazing at him over the rims of her glasses. “Get to work, Mulder,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest. “Few more hours, and we can get out of here.”

Mulder sighs, looking back at the desk. Paperwork has never been his favorite staple of the job. Taking Scully to dinner will be the highlight of his day. He taps the pencil against his lower lip, reluctantly goes back to the file.

And then, as if some higher power heard his complaints of boredom, his cell phone dings with the email alert.

“Convenient,” says Scully dryly without looking up—she recognizes all his alerts on this new phone of his by now. The light from the computer is reflecting off the lenses of her glasses.

Mulder smirks sideways at her as he retrieves his cell phone from the desk and opens the message. “It's not an FBI email,” he says. “I'll bet it's a citizen about a case.”

“Mmm.” Scully tucks loose strands of hair behind her ear absently, like she couldn't care less either way.

He scans the first few lines of the email, and chuckles quietly. “It's from a teacher in Willoughby.”

That gets Scully's attention; she looks towards him in surprise. “Willoughby, Virginia ? I haven't heard that name in almost ten months. I figured we were done there.”

“In case you've forgotten, Scully, the Willoughby Specter is more or less an annual occurrence.” Mulder reads the rest of the email, raising his eyebrows in interest. “Email's from a Joy Seers. She teaches sophomore biology at Willoughby High, and Ryan Caruthers is in her first period.”

“Ryan Caruthers?” Scully asks incredulously, pulling her glasses off and setting them on the table. “I would've thought he'd still be in juvenile detention from the fire.”

“Sheriff O'Connell emailed me after Ryan went to trial in February. He got sentenced to six months in a detention center. I'm guessing that he got out in time to attend his sophomore year of high school.”

“I'm shocked he wasn't expelled,” she says.

“I'm guessing someone stuck their neck out for him. He is just a kid.” Mulder shrugs.

Scully chews absently on her thumbnail, indicates the phone with her chin. “So what does biology teacher Joy Seers want?”

“It seems as though a ghost is haunting her classroom.”

No ,” Scully says immediately, firmly. “We do not need to get pulled into that bullshit again.”

“It wasn't bullshit, Scully,” Mulder reminds her amusedly. “You saw it for yourself.”

“Mulder, it's been a year since the first time we were called in, and I still don't know why we were there. The only actual crime committed was the arson! And there's certainly no crime here!”

“But there was an X-File,” says Mulder. “And the case was never technically closed.”

“Mulder, half of our cases are never technically closed,” says Scully, exasperated.

“Yeah, but how many of them have repeat occurrences of phenomena?”

He makes a face at her, and Scully rolls her eyes in a matter that is somewhere between irritable and endearing. “So what's going on in this classroom?” she sighs, and Mulder grins, knowing he's gotten her attention, if not her endorsement.

---

Mulder sends the request in to Skinner, and Scully rolls her eyes and says that there is no way Skinner is going to approve a case back in the same town they've already gone to investigate three times, on top of the fact that it's not even law enforcement asking them to come, and Mulder shrugs it off. He doesn't have a lot of faith in Skinner, but he's pretty sure he can convince Scully to sneak over there off the book, considering it isn't even a real crime.

Luckily, he doesn't end up having to play that card. Skinner calls them that weekend, on a Saturday night when they're having dinner again at Scully's house, to let Mulder know that he signed off on the case. He sounds like he's trying to make up for something, which somehow only leaves Mulder more annoyed at him. He thanks Skinner somewhat begrudgingly and hangs up his phone.

“You can't be mad at him forever, Mulder,” says Scully from across the table, setting her fork down. “He's still technically our boss. And besides that, he's the best ally we have.”

“Not if he's betrayed us,” Mulder says.

“It's Skinner,” she says, like that should mean something. And Mulder supposes it should, but it doesn't, not when it comes to this.

Scully changes the subject, taking a sip of her wine. “So,” she says coyly. “We're going to Willoughby?”

“Looks that way,” he says, raising his eyebrows at her.

“And I suppose you want to leave tomorrow.” Her smile is small, but distinct.

“It might be advantageous to get a chance to look at the classroom without a bunch of high schoolers running around,” Mulder offers.

Scully takes another long drink of wine, rolling her eyes a little. “I'll pick you up in the morning,” she says. “It's on the way out there.”

He's tempted to point out that the trip would probably be a lot quicker if he just slept over here instead of going all the way back to Farrs Corner tonight. But she asked for time, nearly ten months ago, and he's trying to give it to her, as best as he can. So he nods, going back to his plate.

There's a few awkward beats of silence before Scully asks, “So, what do you think is going on in Willoughby, Mulder? Seriously.”

“Seriously? I'm not sure. But I'm guessing it's no coincidence that this alleged haunting is taking place in a classroom Ryan Caruthers is in daily.”

“But assuming this Specter of yours is real, Mulder, why is it doing this? I was under the impression that the spirit just… warned people about stuff. I didn't think it did… the typical haunting sort of thing,” she says, a bit stiltedly, like she feels awkward trying to make this point.

“Maybe it's a different ghost,” Mulder says, amused, and Scully scoffs a little. He shrugs innocently. “Or maybe the Specter’s activities are more complex than everyone else believes.”

“I feel like you're thinking about this more than it needs to be thought about, Mulder,” says Scully.

“Probably.” He shrugs again. “But I think it's worth looking into, don't you?”

“Not exactly,” she says, not unkindly. “But it should be an interesting venture.”

Mulder shakes his head wistfully, dares to reach across the table and take her hand. “That it should be.”

Scully squeezes his fingers, a sort of wistful look on her face. “Why do you really want to go to Willoughby, Mulder? Even you have to admit that this is a little below us, considering all the other work we’ve done..”

“I'm a little curious about this whole Specter thing, I'll admit,” he says. “But, honestly, Scully? Ryan Caruthers seems to be at the center of all of this, and I feel bad for the kid. And I think if William were out there in a situation like this, I'd want someone helping him.”

Scully bites her lower lip, as if contemplating, and he suddenly realizes the gravity of his words, rushes to add, “I don't mean in a… guilt trip kind of way, Scully, I know that you…”

“No, no,” she says, squeezing his hand again before pulling hers back. “I understand, Mulder. I more than understand.”

He nods. They sit in silence for a few beats, looking at each other from across the table, until Scully suggests, “More wine?”

Mulder nods again, holding his glass out. “Have I mentioned that you've really grown into a marvelous cook, Scully?” he says lightly as she fills the glass.

Taken aback, she pauses for a minute before shaking her head and responding, “Shut up, Mulder.” But there's laughter in her voice as she sets the wine down next to the takeout boxes from the restaurant she'd stopped by on the way home.

He smirks at her across the table, hangdog and teasing all at once. “I'll teach you how to cook someday, Scully,” he says. “Consider it my apology for dragging you on waste-of-time ghost cases.”

She sticks out her tongue at him before taking another sip of wine. “You know,” she says at length, the stem of the glass between two fingers. “It'd probably save us both time tomorrow if you just slept over here tonight.”

Hope flutters to life in his chest, a silly hope but a poignant hope. “Makes sense to me,” he says, taking a sip of his own.

Scully smiles at him, just a little, and looks like she wants to say something else, but they suddenly hear Daggoo yipping to go out in the other room. (Scully usually closes him into the bedroom while they eat because he's worse about food than her old dog was; that mutt would just beg, but Daggoo will climb up and eat food off the plate if you give him the chance. Scully is working on training him.) “Guess I'd better take him out,” Scully says, setting down the glass and standing. “I’ll have to call the sitter tonight if we're headed out tomorrow.”

Mulder stands, too, pulling his coat off of the back of the chair. “I'll come along,” he says, and when Scully throws him questioning look, he adds, “This dog actually likes me, Scully. I have to preserve that relationship.” As if he's not coming along just to spend more time with her.

She smiles and motions him towards the bedroom door.

---

They stay up for a few more hours, talking together on Scully's couch, before Scully excuses herself to take a shower. While she's in there, Mulder goes to the guest room he knows well and sets up the bed with sheets and a duvet.

A few minutes after he hears the water in the bathroom turn off, Scully's feet pad over the creaky floorboards. (As fucking modernized as this whole house is, you'd think they'd have a solution to creaky floorboards.) “Mulder?” she calls out in something like confusion, and he calls back, “In here.”

A few seconds later, she shows up in the doorway, wet hair and shielded confusion on her face. “Hi,” she says guardedly. Almost a question.

“Hey,” Mulder says, straightening a corner of the duvet. “Figured I'd go ahead and hit the hay.”

(He feels strange, ignoring the potential of sharing a room with Scully, but he doesn't know if that's what she meant when she said he should stay, and he doesn't want to risk the awkward conversation. Easier to just make up the guest bed so she doesn’t have to. He wants to give her the space she asked for.)

“Right,” Scully says, and her voice is unreadable. “Early start tomorrow.” When he turns to face her, he sees a hand pressed tensely against her thigh. Nerves. “Goodnight, Mulder,” she says softly.

He swallows, smiles smally. “Goodnight, Scully.”

She offers him a little wave before turning away and walking back down the hall. He considers following her, but he doesn't. He climbs into Scully's guest bed, where the sheets usually smell much nicer because of the laundry detergent she buys, and slowly falls asleep.

In the morning, they wake up and drive to Willoughby together. Scully drives. She makes a cup of coffee for him and negotiates rights for the radio ruthlessly.

---

They meet one Mrs. Joy Seers, biology teacher, at her house in Willoughby. She's a slight woman with wild hair, wearing a periodic table t-shirt, a cross necklace similar to Scully's hanging around her neck. She smiles cheerfully at them when she answers the door. “Agent Mulder?” she asks, extending a hand.

Mulder nods, shaking her hand. “This is my partner, Agent Scully.”

“It's nice to meet you,” Joy says, shaking Scully's hand in turn. “Deputy Jacobs spoke highly of both of you. He said that you both were a big help when the sightings started up last fall.”

“That's very flattering,” Scully says as they enter the house, “although I'm not sure how much help we actually were.”

“As much help as anyone can be with these sightings,” Joy says with something of a dismissive shrug. “I'm still not entirely sure how to control or interpret them.”

“So I'm guessing you believe that the phenomena in your classroom is a result of the Specter?” Mulder asks.

“That seemed like the most obvious explanation,” Joy says. “I mean, it could be something else, but considering the connection to Ryan Caruthers, it makes sense.”

“You think Ryan has a part in these… hauntings?” Scully asks carefully.

“I do, but not in the same way other people do.” Off their looks, she clarifies: “Some people are skeptical as to the authenticity of the haunting. They think Ryan is personally responsible for whatever is happening in my classroom.”

“What kinds of things have been happening? In my experience, most hauntings include phenomena that can't exactly be attributed to a fifteen year old,” says Mulder.

“I can show you the best evidence we have for the haunting. It's pretty self-explanatory in itself. The purported activity was caught on footage of a student's science project; he had a camera set up to film 24 hours a day in the classroom.” Joy sits in a chair adjacent to her coffee table and pulls a silver laptop onto her lap.

“So the entirety of the haunting was caught on video?” Mulder asks.

“Go ahead and take a seat,” Joy says, motioning at the couch adjacent to the chair. “No, not the entirety of it; there'd been strange activity all year. Stuff moving or getting lost, lights flickering, doors opening on their own, weird noises… Most students dismissed it at first, and then they started speculating that maybe it was the Specter, maybe the Specter was trying to tell us something. The activity mostly happened in first period, which made most people believe it was connected to Ryan Caruthers. And before long, the students and some of the staff were convinced that it wasn't due to the ghost at all. That it was Ryan, and he was trying to convince everyone that the Specter was bad.”

“Because Ryan doesn't share the same… faith in the ghost as the rest of the town,” Mulder supplies as he and Scully sit, side by side, facing a shelf of thick historical novels.

“Exactly,” says Joy, her fingers tapping at the keyboard. “Although I don't understand why people get so… fired up about that. The legend can be interpreted in many different ways. Personally, I think there's more to the legend than the ghost being a warning, but that's beside the point. By this time two weeks ago, everyone was convinced that Ryan was kidding with everyone, had been orchestrating all this stuff.”

“And that was when the video footage came into play?” Scully asks.

“Exactly.” Joy turns the laptop around to show a paused video, stopped on the image of a darkened classroom blocked by two plants. “This was the science project of Jamie Stintley. His project was going to be filming plants with a digital camera, for a month apiece over three months to see how they responded to different care methods, and do a timelapse video to show the change. He asked me if he could set it up in the classroom since his parents didn't want him filming at home, and I agreed. I've pulled the important clips out of the footage to show you what happened.”

She presses play with the stab of her thumb, and Mulder and Scully watch as the footage begins. At first the camera only shows the plants, with a series of chairs in the background. But then the footage fizzles, static crackling across the screen, and comes back clearer to show a dark figure in the background. It moves across the screen almost too quickly to see what it is, but Mulder can vaguely make out the flutter of what seems like a cloak, the shape of what might be a hat.

Beside him, Scully takes a sharp breath. Startled, Mulder looks over at her in concern, but her face is neutral, her jaw clenched almost angrily.

“That was the first night,” Joy says. “A couple of days later, this is what showed up.”

The footage switches to a similar scene: darkened classroom, empty. Static cuts harshly across the frame, and as the crackling sound cuts out, it's replaced by a low, pained moan.

The sound is eerie, cacophonous, and it sends a sharp chill up Mulder's spine. It starts out low and rises in volume, jarring, and becoming more and more like a scream. As it grows louder, a desk begins to bang against the floor in the background, starting out so suddenly loudly that they both jump. The camera's at an angle to where they can't see the desk moving, but the noise is unmistakable.

Mulder is tense, waiting for the activity to escalate, but it doesn't; it continues that way for a while, the desk pounding and the screams growing shriller. When the sounds finally end, it is sharp, and it echoes around the room in a rattly manner, the screams abruptly silenced, the desk pounding against the floor one last time. Mulder shivers again, wiping his palms absently on his pant legs. As the sound fades out, the screen grows static-y again.

“That kind of thing happened for a couple nights, apparently, but nobody realized it was happening because no one was viewing the footage,” says Joy. “But we found the camera had been moved one day. Slid over a few feet. Jamie just moved it back and didn't think about it again.”

She presses play again, to show a brief clip of the camera sliding across the shelf it is sitting on, moved by an invisible hand. The footage goes on uneventfully for a minute or two after that, nothing but the sound of the radiator and the hum of the computer monitors, and Mulder is about to say something when a chair falls abruptly to the floor.

“Camera was moved a few more times,” Joy says. “But just as Jamie was starting to think that someone was moving it on purpose, the camera went missing.”

“The ghost took it?” Mulder asks, and he doesn't have to be looking at Scully to know she's rolling her eyes.

Joy shrugs. “I genuinely don't know. Jamie couldn't find it; he figured someone was playing a prank. He started yelling and making threats, which earned him a trip to the principal's office, of course. I didn't know if I believed that anyone had stolen it, but I looked myself and couldn't find it anywhere. And I realized that day that a lock on one of the windows in the classroom was broken, so someone could've possibly broken in and taken the camera. So I threatened every class I had with detention if I found out they'd stolen the camera, and then everyone went home for the weekend. It was a Friday, and on Monday, Jamie found the camera stuffed under a radiator in the classroom.”

“Was there any footage on the camera?” Scully asks.

“Just this,” Joy says, and she hits play on the camera again.

The footage is once again of the dark, empty classroom. It's quiet and still for a moment before the camera begins to shake. It's brief, but rapid, and there's a pounding in the background that resembles the earlier desk pounding. A sudden, brief scream erupts, leaving Mulder and Scully jumping with surprise, and then the camera is flying across the room, hitting the floor with the sound of cracking glass.

The screen is suddenly a web of cracks, lying facing the ceiling. The feed fizzles, and there is a sudden dark figure leaning over the camera. Mulder can't make out much of it, but he can tell that it's the same figure from the first clip Joy showed them. Scully tenses beside him, and he's about to ask her if she's okay, but a sudden light flickers to life on the screen. Something almost like a flame. But Mulder never gets to see the source, because static fills the screen again. It overtakes it before the footage cuts out completely.

“That's the last of the footage,” says Joy, snapping her laptop shut. “Jamie's science project was ruined, of course, and in his mind, the minds of most of his classmates, and the minds of the majority of the staff, to be honest, Ryan Caruthers was to blame.”

“People don't honestly believe a fifteen-year-old kid did that ,” says Mulder incredulously.

“There's actually a bit of damning evidence. Earlier in the year, Ryan made a video for a social studies project. His editing work was notably impressive. That, in most people's eyes, was enough to convict him, especially considering his recent stint in juvenile detention, his noted rivalry with Jamie Stintley, and his repeated insistence that the Willoughby Specter was a malicious spirit. People believe Ryan stole the camera and edited Jamie's footage to simulate a haunting, maybe even set some stuff up in the classroom. Pranks or stuff like that. We checked the footage for manipulation, of course, but someone told me that if the person knew what they were doing, we'd never be able to tell that the footage had been messed with. I hadn't been able to get the window lock fixed, so Ryan could've gotten in and rehidden the camera. I didn't know how long the lock had been broken, so he could've gotten in and out to set up stuff like the banging desk. It seemed like the obvious answer.”

“But you don't share this opinion,” Scully says knowingly. “Which is why you called us in here.”

“Exactly.” Joy folds her hands on her lap and meets their eyes. “Look, Agents, I've gotten to know Ryan pretty well in the few months since school started. He's not a big fan of science, but he's a hard worker and a good student. And he's a good kid who made a stupid mistake. I don't know the full spectrum of the Willoughby Specter—what it is, what it can do, what its intentions are with the people it haunts—but I do think it's real. And I'm not ready to convict Ryan off of this footage alone. I know this is pretty unconventional compared to your usual line of work, but I'd like to clear Ryan's name. And I'd really, really appreciate your help, considering your expertise.”

Mulder doesn't know if expertise is a good word, but he's ready to help anyway, as best as he can. He always figured there'd be a time in his X-Files career where he got to play Ghostbuster. He looks over at Scully questioningly. She's still a little tense, it seems, her hands knotted in her lap, but she nods her agreement.

Mulder turns back to Joy—a little reluctantly, he'd like to ask Scully what's wrong, but he doubts that she wants to discuss this in front of a stranger. “We’d be glad to help,” he says.

Joy Seers thanks them gratefully, practically beaming at them. “I don't know what you want our next move to be…” she says hesitantly. “I figure you want to talk to Ryan, but I'm not sure that school is the best place to do that… I know his aunt, I could see if they'd be willing to meet us somewhere.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Scully says with a small smile.

“All right. I'll go give her a call.” Joy gets up to exit the room, taking her cell phone with her. “Make yourself at home,” she calls over her shoulder.

As soon as they're alone, Mulder turns to Scully. “Scully, are you okay?” he says in a hushed voice.

She's clearly startled by the question, unraveling her fingers and sitting up straighter as if to feign a neutral state of contentedness. “What? Yes, I'm fine.”

“You just seemed…” He trails off, unsure of what to say. “You seemed shaken by all of that,” he finally finishes. “And I mean, I wouldn't blame you, but…”

“I'm fine,” Scully says again, and there's nearly a sharpness to her voice that's almost immediately contrasted by her fingers brushing across his. “Really, Mulder. I am. I was just startled.”

He lets it go, if only because he doesn't want to push her. But he can't help but linger over it, the way she tensed up when that thing appeared on screen. He supposes it's probably pretty insulting of him to be surprised by Scully getting scared; Scully is as human as he is. But it was just unexpected. Things like this don't usually bother Scully.

Chapter Text

eight.

october, 2016

The Caruthers agree to meet with Mulder and Scully at an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of town. “Probably to avoid attention from the rest of the town,” Joy says before they leave her house. “That restaurant is relatively new, so it's usually pretty empty.” She doesn't go along in an attempt to keep things from being too uncomfortable, but she does agree to call them tomorrow if there's any strange activity; otherwise, they'll come by after the school day to take a look at the classroom when. It's empty.

“I'm guessing there will be activity tomorrow,” Mulder says as they leave, climbing into Scully's car. “Seeing as how tomorrow is Halloween.”

“That would be very appropriate, wouldn't it? If Ryan Caruthers is faking the whole thing,” says Scully, tucking some loose strands of hair behind her ear. She's attempting to recover from the slip she had a few minutes ago, her misplaced fear at that silly video that was probably faked. Likely faked. She's embarrassed that Mulder noticed, even more embarrassed that it happened in the first place. She shouldn't be shaken by an encounter that wasn't even an encounter—it was probably a random hotel guest—that she's blown up in her mind because of her mother's death immediately following it. She needs to put it behind her. She needs to let it go.

Mulder is staring at her incredulously as she starts the car. “You think Ryan Caruthers faked that ?”

“Mulder, we've seen what technology today can do,” she says. “How real it looks. Remember those false Bigfoot videos in the spring? You said those looked legitimate, too. And they did look convincing, but there wasn't an ounce of reality in them.”

“This is different, Scully. I have a good feeling about this.”

“That's what you said about the Bigfoot sightings.”

“You're right one time and you never let me hear the end of it,” he says with a false haughtiness, teasing.

“You've never let me hear the end of it for twenty-three years, Mulder. I think you can let me have the Bigfoot case,” says Scully, making a face at him before pulling away from the curb “And I think it's the same case here, Mulder. It makes sense if Ryan is the one behind this. It makes a lot of sense.”

Mulder shrugs a little. “What would the motivation be? Clearing his name for the fire by indicating the power of the ghost? Attention? I just think that'd be awful hard to fake, and I have no idea why he'd do it.”

“We've seen a lot stranger, Mulder. This video certainly isn't that strange in the long run.”

“Exactly,” he says, a hint of laughter in his voice. “So it shouldn't be so unbelievable that a ghost might be inhabiting Joy Seers's classroom.”

“Hmm.” Scully tucks more hair behind her ear and says nothing more. They drive in silence for a few minutes, the only sound the robotic voice of Mulder’s GPS instructing Scully where to go. And then Scully speaks again. “All I'm saying is that we already know that Ryan has a proclivity for troublemaking,” she says. “The fire, for one. And remember that Sheriff O'Connell was convinced that Ryan was behind the disappearance of his dog last fall. I'm just saying that it makes sense. It's just a prank, it'll probably just result in a detention if he's guilty.” Although it won't do his reputation any favors, she adds silently.

“I understand,” Mulder says. “I just don't think that's what's happening here. It's too easy. And even if Ryan has gotten into trouble in the past, I doubt he was faking whatever he saw when he was a little kid. A kid couldn't fake that. Plus the connection of this spirit to his uncle and the death of his parents is pretty undeniable.”

She resists the urge to roll her eyes, and says instead, “I guess we'll find out.”

“I guess so,” he says gently.  

They turn a corner and pull into the parking lot of the restaurant. Mulder smiles at her in a fond sort of way from the passenger seat, and she doesn't know why he's smiling, but she smiles right back.

---

Ryan and Annie Caruthers are sitting side by side in a booth, waiting for them. They've only technically met them once, so Mulder isn't expecting familiarity, but Annie stands up immediately to shake their hands—greets them by Agent Mulder and Agent Scully in a polite tone. Ryan doesn't move from his seat. He crosses his arms over his chest grumpily, more hostile than he had been when they met before, and mutters, “You two really must not have anything better to do at your dead end fucking jobs, huh. If you're investigating a haunting at a high school .”

Annie Caruthers shoots her nephew a fiery look; beside Mulder, Scully makes a choking sound that he recognizes as one of amusement instead of out of insult. He knows that she probably shares Ryan's sentiment on the relevance of this case to the FBI. He stifles a smirk of his own as Annie says, “Mrs. Seers said you wanted to clear Ryan's name? Figure out what's going on in that classroom?”

“Yes, that's why she asked us to come and investigate,” Mulder says.

Annie's stance is protective, even slightly suspicious as she sits back down next to Ryan. “I’ve gotta admit, I was a little taken aback when Mrs. Seers called me,” she says, motioning for Mulder and Scully to sit. “I definitely wasn't expecting the FBI to get involved again , especially in something like this.” She's squirming a little, uncomfortably; Ryan is staring uninterestedly at the tabletop. “But I suppose this is the best possible solution, all things considered. I don't know what's happening in that classroom, but I know Ryan didn't have anything to do with it. Right, Ryan?”

She pokes Ryan in the shoulder with a manicured fingernail. Ryan shrugs aggressively.

“The last thing we need is this added to Ryan's reputation,” Annie adds, patting her nephew's shoulder. She seems to Mulder like one of those parents who would argue with a judge over her kid's sentence, who would stand by his side no matter what. He can't help but wonder about her relationship with her brother. “Under normal circumstances, whatever happened to that kid's science project would probably just warrant a few in-school suspensions, but that principal has got it out for us. He was reluctant to let Ryan come back after what happened last winter. I nearly had to get my lawyer involved.” She chews at her lower lip nervously. “And now they're saying that he broke in to the school. Crawled through an unlocked window or something. And I have no way of verifying that he didn't because I was at a meeting that night.” Ryan slouches further into his chair. “I mean, I know that he didn't,” Annie adds, rubbing her temples with her fingertips, “but…”

“I think we can clear this up fairly easily,” Mulder interrupts gently. “We just want to ask Ryan a few questions.”

Ryan remains more or less unresponsive, but Annie nods, which Mulder takes as permission. “Ryan, have you noticed any strange activity in your biology class this year?”

“Depends on whether or not you think the complete idiocy of Jamie Stintley is strange,” Ryan offers in a dryly sarcastic voice. “He stinks to high heaven, and I swear to God, his brain is the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s.”

Scully's jaw works back and forth, and Mulder knows she's not exactly amused anymore. She's thinking about Ryan's devil-may-care attitude, thinking about the possibility of his guilt. Mulder rushes to add, “Your teacher mentioned lights flickering, doors opening, things moving on their own…”

“Maybe that stuff did happen. I dunno. You guys know from last year that this town is haunted as shit.”

“Come on, Ryan,” Annie says in a soft, stern voice, dropping her hand back down to her nephew's shoulder. “ Please take this seriously.”

“Who says I'm not?” Ryan asks, his voice hard. “Weird, spooky stuff happening is pretty much normal for me. So who knows if I even noticed?”

Scully tries a different approach. “Ryan, can you tell me about your relationship with Jamie Stintley?” she asks in a neutral voice. Not quite the voice she uses in interrogations, but not far off.

Ryan laughs bitterly. “He's an asshole. I'm sure Mrs. Seers told you that we're not big fans of each other. He won't exactly let me forget that I just got out of juvie, and he was a little snot about it.”

“Jamie's been provoking Ryan all year,” Annie says quickly. “But we discussed it earlier this year, and we were clear that there wasn't going to be retaliation.” Her hand is heavy on Ryan's shoulder. “Right, Ryan,” she says in a stern voice.

Ryan shrugs, his jaw clenched.

“Did you ever come into contact with Jamie Stintley's science project?” Scully asks.

Ryan shrugs again.

“Have you seen the Specter since the last time we were here?” Mulder tries. Another shrug. “In the classroom?” Another shrug. Mulder sighs a little, tries again. “Have you had any indications that the Specter planned…”

“I'm not an expert on the Specter, okay?” Ryan snarls. “I'm probably not even the only one who sees him! I can't tell you why this bullshit is happening.”

“Ryan, come on!” Annie says, somewhere between a scold and a plea.

“It doesn't matter, okay? It doesn't matter what you prove. It doesn't matter what Mrs. Seers tells you. People expect things like this from me because of that stupid fire.” The kid’s jaw works back and forth. "They expected stuff like that from me before the fire,” he adds. “Because of my uncle.”

Annie flinches, a familiar expression. If Mulder recognizes anything, it's pain associated with a sibling. Ryan looks sorry as soon as he says it, but he's trying his best to hide it. “You should just forget about this,” he says. “How the hell are you going to prove that I didn't do this? How the hell are you going to prove that I did? Most people don't believe in ghosts, anyway.”

Mulder can practically see Scully's eye roll, can practically feel it. He says, “We're just trying to help you, Ryan. Your teacher wants to help you. I don't think that you did this, and neither does she, and we want to help you.”

Ryan's head snaps up to meet Mulder's eyes, his own eyes flashing. “I don't need your help,” he says.

Annie's gaze is hard. “We're leaving,” she snaps. “Now. I appreciate your help, agents, but I guess we don't need it.” She stands abruptly, motioning Ryan up. He follows gingerly, his head ducked down. “Nice to see you again, I suppose,” she says, motioning Ryan towards the door. And they walk away, leaving Mulder and Scully sitting in an awkward silence in the booth.

Mulder laughs a little, nervously. “So what now?”

Scully is rubbing her temples a little tiredly. “I'm guessing that neither of us have changed our opinions,” she says. “But we could always take advantage of this table and get some dinner.”

Mulder's watching Ryan and Annie leave, his mind still on that video. On what he's read about the murder, what everyone has told him about Ryan Caruthers. “You go ahead and order,” he says, getting to his feet. “I'll be right back.”

He jogs out the front door, catching up with Ryan where he trudges slowly after his aunt, who is marching ahead with a marked determination. “Ryan, wait,” he says, catching the kid by the shoulder.

Ryan turns, his brow furrowing as he meets Mulder's eyes. “What now?” he says grumpily, crossing his arms over his skinny chest.

Mulder gives Ryan a serious look as he says, “I don't think you're behind these hauntings.” Ryan starts to roll his eyes, but Mulder's not finished. “I don't think you're that kind of kid. And I think you had a good reason for setting that fire.”

He's been considering the motives ever since they found out, and the obvious one seems to be pain over his parents’ murders. But now, it seems more complicated than that. The flurry of sightings, the involvement of his parents, the fire… He suspects it's all connected. And Ryan's “hardened juvenile delinquent” act doesn't seem very authentic; Mulder can't explain why, but it doesn't.

Ryan isn't looking at Mulder, tense from head to toe. “Am I right?” Mulder asks gently. “Did you have a good reason for setting that fire? Are you faking the haunting in Mrs. Seers's classroom?”

“Ryan?” his aunt calls from the car, a little impatient.

Ryan meets his eyes again as he steps away. “Just… just fuck off, okay?” he snarls. “You don't know what you're talking about. Neither of you do.”

With that, he rolls away, storming towards his aunt's car. Mulder sighs again, shaking his head ruefully. He doesn't know how the hell to deal with the people in this town. He's about to be on board with Scully and classify this case as a waste of time. But then again, most of their cases come with difficult people. It's part of the job.

---

By the end of the dinner, one thing is clear: Mulder and Scully can neither one agree on whether or not Ryan is innocent. That's not unusual, but Mulder gets the feeling that they need more evidence to make a conclusive decision. And there's nothing more they can do tonight.

It's a nice meal, though. Mulder is more than used to disagreeing with Scully, and he loves any opportunity to bicker over ghosts with her. The conversation eventually turns to other things, of course, easier than it ever could've twenty years ago, and it just feels normal. It feels good, to talk about nothing with Scully. He likes to make her laugh, and he finds that laughter comes a little easier to her these days. They stay at the restaurant much longer than they should after finishing up dinner, and then they head to their usual Willoughby hotel.

The same receptionist from a year ago is at the front desk, in the same witch's hat, although she doesn't remember them. She does inform them, somewhat grimly, that there is only one room. “There's a family reunion in town,” she says. “They booked up the whole hotel, but someone canceled last minute.”

A sudden uncertainty flashes through Mulder's mind, and he looks helplessly to Scully for answers.  They have no protocol for this. They haven't shared a bed since January, and although they've slept over at each other's places plenty in the months since then, they haven't slept together , aside from accidentally falling asleep on the couch together on occasion. Neither of them has proposed it, has mentioned the fact that Scully did stay over at his ( their ) house for a week in January, slept with him in his bed. He's trying to give her space. He doesn't want to be presumptuous. So he looks to her for answers.

She shoots him a look that leaves him almost embarrassed that he had to ask. “It's fine, Mulder,” she says softly, reaching out to brush her fingers over his arm. “We'll take the room,” she says, louder, addressing the receptionist.

“We don't have to,” Mulder says, trying not to sound like he doesn't want to. Trying to be accommodating. His heart is pounding like he's a teenager again, and he feels absolutely ridiculous; just a minute ago, he was thinking about how normal and nice things have been between them, and now he's terrified to share a bed with his wife? Or maybe he's just terrified of scaring her off.

“We could go to that hotel outside of town,” he offers helplessly.

Scully shakes her head firmly. “I'm not going to risk those bedbugs, Mulder. That place looks horrible. It's fine .” She pats his elbow reassuringly. “Oh, thank you,” she adds as the receptionist hands them the keys. Mulder is fidgeting with the strap of his overnight bag; he realizes it just as Scully passes him a key. And Scully sees it. He can tell, because she immediately adds, “Unless… you're not comfortable with…”

“No, not at all,” he rushes to add. He can feel the receptionist watching them from under the brim of her hat, and he feels uncomfortably on display. “I'm fine with… whatever you're fine with, Scully.” He can feel heat on the back of his neck.

“All right,” says Scully, key in one hand and overnight bag in the other. She clears her throat quickly and says to the receptionist, “Which room is it again?”

“Room 214,” the receptionist says patiently.

“Thank you.” Scully turns back to Mulder, her face slightly red and her expression unreadable, and they move together towards the stairs.

The rooms are the same as Mulder remembers them from months ago, and the memory of the last night they spent in this hotel—the night he pushed Scully too far by asking her to come home, and fucked things up between them—is suddenly running rampant in his mind. He drops his bag on the desk, avoiding her eyes. “So do you want the bathroom first?” he asks, eyes shifting over the room. There's no couch, probably no cot—they’re going to have to share the bed.

“Sure.” Scully drops her bag on the floor next to the desk, offers him a small smile when he looks at her. “I won't be long,” she offers.

“Take your time,” he says, and on an impulse, he reaches out and presses his palm to the small of her back, briefly. She looks up at him, and there is a look in her eyes that he can't quite explain, but it makes him want to lean down and kiss her, to pull her into his arms and hold her. Tell her he loves her, even though he hopes she knows. His arm is partially around her, and he's halfway thinking about kissing her and halfway thinking that it is a bad idea, but she leans in first. She rises up on tiptoes to kiss him gently, lingeringly on the forehead. “I'll take you up on that,” she says, and he chuckles. She kisses his cheek, more briefly, and steps away, turning to her overnight bag and retrieving what she needs. “Don't even think about trying to sleep on the floor, Mulder,” she adds as he sits in the desk chair, a little sternly. “It'd be murder on your back.”

“Okay, doc,” he says, and gets her sarcastic, disapproving smiles in return. She disappears into the bathroom, and he moves to the bed, sits on the edge and flips on the TV.

They take their turns in the bathroom methodically, and Mulder is a little relieved that Scully went first so that he doesn't have to be the one to get into the bed first. When he exits, Scully is already there, blankets tucked around her waist as she leans back against the pillow, the TV softly. She's on her side, the side she's always slept on, and she shifts over to make room for him as he approaches the bed. "Hey,” she says softly as he climbs in beside her, covers his hand with hers.

“Hey.” He twines his fingers with hers and squeezes. “I'm beat, Scully,” he says, rubbing circles on the back of her hand.

She chuckles, squeezing back. “You're a middle-aged man, Mulder, remember? No more all-nighters spent on shitty leather couches.”

“You loved that couch.”

“I did love that couch,” Scully says, and he smiles at the ceiling. They're lying side by side, hand in hand, and he can't see her unless he turns his head, but it's enough to know that she's there. Scully reaches out and turns off the lamp, plunging their room into a halfway darkness lit up by flickering light from the TV. “I can keep the TV on if you want,” she offers, and Mulder shakes his head, so she turns it off, too. She rubs his thumb with hers absently, he presses her palm to hers.

They're breathing in tandem, and Mulder feels a sleepiness overtaking him, pulling him under, when Scully speaks again. “Mulder, do you really believe in this ghost?” she says softly. “Not that it's… haunting the classroom. Just… the ghost in general. Do you believe?”

He opens his eyes in surprise. “Yeah, I do,” he says thoughtfully. “I don't really have a reason not to, although I guess I haven't really seen it… It just makes sense, considering everything we saw last year with the facts of this case. Ryan Caruthers's experiences and all that.” Scully's quiet, her hand stiff in his, and he tries, “Why do you ask?”

Scully sighs a little. “I don't know. It's just strange to think about. The ghost comes to warn people, but there's no way to stop what's coming because there's no way to interpret the sightings, right? That's how the legend goes?”

“I… yeah, I believe so.” He suddenly understands what she means now. Between the two of them, they've had plenty of events that they could've used a warning for. Even recent events; he knows Scully would do anything to be able to see her mom again, and he'd personally like to expunge the image of Scully fighting for air underneath an assassin's hands from his mind forever.

“That just seems like such a shame to me, Mulder,” Scully says in a small voice. “Getting a warning and not being able to stop it. Or even to know what you're being warned about.”

“It is,” he says. And it really is. And he knows that the torture of seeing the ghost and not knowing what it means; hell, Sheriff O'Connell called them in last month because he saw the ghost and was worried of what it'd do to his family. Mulder can't imagine how he'd feel if he saw the ghost. He can't imagine how Scully would feel.

It is a few long minutes before either of them speak again, their hands flat on the mattress between them. Scully says, “The whole town is kind of… haunted, right?” Her voice is neutral, but curious, and even though Mulder is half-asleep, he can't but wonder what's wrong, why she's asking about these things. He never minds discussing the paranormal with Scully, but it's a subject he's much more likely to bring up than her. Especially after they spent half of dinner discussing it.

“Yeah, I think so,” he says out loud.

“So… in theory, that would include anywhere in the town. The school. Ryan Carruthers’s house. This inn.”

And Mulder almost wants to laugh at that. The inn is undoubtedly eerie, with its aged feel and its antique furniture and empty hallways; he can understand the slight feeling of dread. He turns on his side, moving their joined hands with him to where their knuckles end up pressed against his chest, and says in a voice that is meant to be sincere, but is equally lined with amusement: “Are you afraid, Scully?”

He can barely see her face in the dark of the room: only the outline, the fall of her hair and the point of her nose. She says quickly, “No, Mulder, of course not.”

He immediately feels sorry for asking, but he's exhausted, and he can hear Scully yawning. He pulls her hand to his mouth and kisses her knuckles gently. “Goodnight, Scully.”

“Goodnight, Mulder,” she says, her voice warm. He kisses her hand again before letting it fall, and then he lets the drowsiness overtake him, unhindered by the warm, welcome presence of his wife beside him.

---

In the morning, Mulder wakes faced away from Scully, all the covers on his side of the bed, and Scully curled up against his back, her face against his shoulder and an arm thrown over his chest, their fingers still knotted together. He smiles a little to himself. Lies still until he hears movement from Scully behind him.

---

If Joy Seers has learned anything, it's that teaching high school requires a certain amount of patience. It's impossible to deal with a bunch of teenagers without having patience. She's learn to keep her cool in the most irritating of situations. Which is exactly why she doesn't lose her temper when she finds her classroom in disarray on the morning of Halloween.

She's running late to school that morning, caught up in considering this haunting and the FBI agents's meeting with Ryan Caruthers last night (which apparently didn't go well), and arrives at her classroom to find all of her students clustered around the doorway, waiting. “Sorry, guys,” she says hurriedly, pushing through them to unlock the door.

A nearby student informs her that he wishes she'd been later so they could just go home; another student tells her they wish she hadn't come at all. The perks of teaching a bunch of disgruntled teenagers. The crowd around Joy is buzzing with conversations and complaints. But everyone falls silent when she gets the door open and flicks on the lights, revealing the destruction of her classroom.

Joy's mouth falls open. A few of the kids gasp as they take it in: papers strewn all over the floor, desks and chairs thrown around the room, pencils and pens snapped in half. The bookshelf is flat on the floor, textbooks torn apart; the plants from the corner are also on the floor, their pots shattered; her big poster of the periodic table is ripped in half. Her own desk has been toppled, her belongings scattered in various states of brokenness. Joy's breath leaves her body for a moment as she looks at it, the bare skeleton of her classroom; she spent weeks putting this all together at the beginning of the year, she worked so hard. But she shakes off the instantaneous rush of emotion, pulls herself together and shoos her students back into the hallway. Her eyes fall on Ryan, at the back of the cluster, and he has a grim, knowing look on his face. She wants to ask him if he knew this was coming, but she figures that'd just cause more trouble. And she doesn't want it to sound like an accusation.

There are whispers of, “What the hell?” and “How did this…” and “I guess the ghost was real,” until Jamie Stintley speaks up. “It was Ryan!” he hollers, jabbing an accusing finger at Ryan.

Ryan doesn't look surprised. He slouches as if shamed, or annoyed, hands in his pockets.

“Calm down, Jamie,” says Joy immediately, “we don't know what happened here…”

But Jamie is unconvinced. “He broke in and messed up the classroom, just like he did my science project,” he says, practically sneering. “You're such a little criminal, Caruthers, just like your uncle.”

“Hey!” Joy snaps immediately. “That's uncalled for!”

Ryan's face is red, his fists balled up by his side. “Go fuck yourself, Jamie,” he spits.

Language ,” Joy says sternly, raising her voice. “Now I want everyone to calm down…

But they don't listen. Of course they don't. A few of Jamie's friends join in offering their input—”Oh, yeah, Ryan did it, it must've been him”—when another student speaks. “I think Ryan is channeling the ghost,” she says, very seriously, very accusatory. “I think that he turned it evil, and he's siccing it on us.”

“Oh, come on ,” Ryan replies with disgust lining his voice. “It's always been evil! Why do you think it only ever shows up before bad things happen?”

Joy has some thoughts on the subject of the ghost’s morality (or lack thereof), but now is hardly the time to bring it up. “Everyone quiet!” she very nearly shouts, and everyone slowly grows quiet. “I do not want anyone assigning blame right now,” she says sternly. “Consider the matter closed, okay?” A couple of students start to protest, but she jabs a finger in their direction and they quiet. “All right…” she says slowly, gathering her thoughts. “We're going to the library until further notice. Consider it a Halloween treat; no biology class. Okay? And we're not speculating on who's responsible for this. We are not .”

A couple students murmur their agreement, which is about the best Joy could hope for. She leads her first period to the library, thanks the librarian over and over again for watching her insane students, and then goes to the front office to let the principal know what's happened. The man grits his teeth tiredly, says in a near growl, “That blasted classroom.” He's been very put out with “this ghost nonsense,” as he calls it. He shakes his head, adds, “Do you think the Caruthers kid is behind it?”

“I don't know how he could be, sir,” says Joy. “The lock on that window is fixed, I made sure of it.”

“I wouldn't put it past him to figure it out. When's the last time you checked the lock? The kid could've broken it and climbed back in.” The principal shakes his head again, says, “I'll see if the janitors can give your room some attention today. In the meantime, you can have one of the freshman classrooms since they're gone on their field trip.”

Joy has a sudden thought, remembers her conversation with Agents Mulder and Scully yesterday. She says, “Actually, before you do that, I'd like to ask someone else to come in and take a look.”

---

Joy Seers calls Mulder and Scully in the middle of their late breakfast to tell them that her classroom has been destroyed, and Mulder agrees to come in and check it out. They're at the school within an hour, directed by the secretary to Seers's classroom.

Joy meets them outside, anxiously messing with the hem of her jack-o'-lantern t-shirt. “Thank you so much for coming,” she says with relief. “I have no idea what to do about this, it's just such a mess .”

“What's happened?” Scully asks politely, a hint of skepticism in her voice.

In lieu of an answer, Joy simply opens the door to the classroom, revealing the destruction she described.

Mulder whistles low in his throat as he sees it, stepping over the threshold and into the classroom. “You weren't exaggerating,” he says. He's seen destruction like this on haunting cases before, but it still always manages to surprise him.

“Whoever did this certainly spent a lot of time on this,” says Scully, stepping in behind him and surveying the room.

“It's completely destroyed,” Joy says, motioning to the overturned desks, the torn books, the broken pencils and binders and plant pots. “I don't know what the hell happened here, or why, but my entire classroom is completely destroyed. And people seem to think that Ryan somehow did this.”

“I don't think he could have,” says Mulder, striding across the classroom. He prods Joy's large metal desk with the toe of his shoe. “Look at this desk here. This is way too heavy for a fifteen-year-old to move on his own.”

“It could've been more than one person,” Scully offers, surveying the torn poster, the spilled paint and ink. “It could've been two or three people… some kind of Halloween prank…”

“I guess it could've been, but look.” Joy is standing by the window, and they watch obediently as she locks and unlocks the lock on the window. “It's not broken anymore,” she says. “I checked it after I found the room like this; it wasn't rebroken. And I don't know how else anyone could've gotten in overnight without getting caught. We have alarms, cameras in the halls and classrooms.”

Mulder does another once-over of the classroom, deep in thought. “This looks like poltergeist activity I've seen in the past,” he offers. “If this was the Willoughby Specter, I'd say someone pissed it off pretty well.”

“I really don't know what it was.” Joy is absently fiddling with the silver cross around her neck, her eyes somewhere else. “But I did have an idea on how to maybe find out.”

Mulder and Scully lock eyes from across the room: Mulder from behind the overturned teacher's desk, Scully from the corner of shattered beakers. “What's that?” Scully asks, stepping over the shards of glass. She doesn't sound completely opposed.

“It's kind of a favor, actually,” the other woman says sheepishly. “But I have no idea what else to do, and I think you two have a better handle… more expertise… on this paranormal shit than anyone else I know.”

“What are you thinking?” Mulder asks gently.

“I was thinking of… staking out the school overnight, in case there's more activity. I feel like that'll give me a chance to observe potential supernatural activity, and if there's any strange activity, I can prove that Ryan isn't involved,” says Joy. “And I was wondering if you two would mind staying here with me tonight. Like I said, the two of you are way more knowledgeable than I am about these kind of things.”

Mulder exchanges another look with Scully, a questioning one. He can tell that something has happened here just by looking at the classroom, something that seems pretty improbable for a teenager to have done. And how many chances will he have to potentially observe paranormal activity first-hand? He'd personally like to stay, but he doesn't want to subject Scully to an entire night of sitting around in an empty school, especially when her interest in the case has been minimal at most.

Her face is neutral, at first. And then she shrugs, the smallest hints of a smile tugging at her lips. An agreement.

Mulder turns back to Joy Seers with a nod. “We'd be glad to,” he says.

Chapter Text

nine.

october, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scully swallows back the urge to scoff.

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

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

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

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

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

They nod, nearly in unison.

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

---

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

“Thank you—so is yours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Demonic?” asks Mulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His expression shifts to confusion. “A warning?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm,” he says softly. “Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next thing she knows, everything is going black.

---

November 1, 2016

Willoughby Daily Press; Willoughby, Virginia

SEVERE CAR CRASH ON PINE TREE ROAD LAST NIGHT

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

PART THREE

 

ten.

september, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something bad is going to happen.

---

There's been a lapse in cases lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know you investigated it,” he snaps.

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

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

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

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

Mulder blinks in surprise, setting the phone down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

The scene goes black. Stunningly, shockingly black.

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

eleven. (part 1)

october, 2017

Scully has been strangely spooked ever since the whole Perlieu ordeal.

At first, she thinks it's because of the break-in, the jumpiness that didn't quite leave her for those few days as a result of almost being killed multiple times. She thinks she might have come home too soon, at first, that it's too soon to be alone after almost dying; she's halfway tempted to ask Mulder to come back to the house with her, although she knows she can't. She keeps jumping at small noises, fumbling frantically for her gun or her light, hearing things. She has the cameras do multiple scans, and there are never intruders, but she ends up sleeping with Daggoo right by her side and her phone within easy reach to call for backup or for Mulder if Perlieu comes back.

Even after it becomes clear that Perlieu is not coming for them, she remains jumpy. Remains liable to startle at the sound of the house settling, or the beeps and buzzes of the “smart” features of the house, or Daggoo's toenails on the floor boards. She tries to throw herself into work at home, or books, or the movies that play on TV. Nothing seems to work. She keeps thinking she's hearing things. The house suddenly seems too quiet; she gets into the habit of leaving the TV on too loud, turning on music in the kitchen while she cooks or loads the dishwasher. She feels ridiculous, but the silence suddenly seems too heavy, too cloaking. Daggoo hovers by her feet, sticking to her side instead of retiring to his dog bed; she's grateful for the company.

Scully honestly can't decide if she's being foolish for not just calling Mulder and making amends, or foolish for getting so spooked and wanting to call him in the first place. She tries to ignore either possibility. In the caseless week that follows their ordeal, she goes home each night, makes a small meal, sits down on her couch and goes over the autopsy reports from the serial killer case. But she can't quite shake the paranoia. She's halfway tempted to lug her flashlight from room to dark room, or roam the house turning all the lights on.

One night in the middle of the week, she's at the mirror brushing her teeth when she sees it: a dark, hulking shape in the hall behind her.

She's frozen in place Daggoo barks once, sharply, and Scully jolts, whirling on her heel to find the hallway dark but empty. No alerts from the computers that run the house; she'd recognize the alarms. And when she turns back to the mirror, she finds it empty, too.

She shakes her head disapprovingly at her reflection, runs her fingers sharply through her hair and ignores the way they tremble. Spits in the sink, tells herself she's imagining things, the same way she imagined things in that hotel hallway two years ago. Scoops Daggoo up and goes to bed, pretending she doesn't push the door until it clicks closed, pretending she turns on the television only because she wants to catch up on the news, pretending she doesn't desperately want to call Mulder.

---

Mulder and Scully spend their entire first week back at work fixing all the issues of their run-in with Perlieu: going to hearings, giving statements, collecting evidence. Scully spends several hours touching base with the team on that serial killer case, clarifying things about the autopsy reports and doing a couple more. Mulder calls in cleaners to at the very least get all of the destroyed furniture out of the house; he'll worry about new furniture later. He couldn't bear to pick things out without Scully, and that's a bit of a sore subject personally anyway. He's spent a decent amount of time kicking himself for that little comment about the furniture, and he's not quite done yet.

He spends his spare moments in the office reviewing and re-reviewing the Willoughby files. Noting similarities of sightings, trying to collect more information on the Holly Smith death. He halfway considers calling John Doggett before deciding against that; he probably shouldn't be asking for any favors from the guy. He combs through the Bureau system for any mention of Ian or Marion or Jared Caruthers. He hasn't decided whether or not to officially reopen the file on Willoughby and the Specter, mostly because Ryan still refuses to explain why he needs Mulder to look into his parents’ murders. He's communicating through email now, sending Mulder a list of recent sightings he's heard about in Willoughby, but every time Mulder asks why they're corresponding, he refuses to answer, and just sends more sightings.

Things remain awkward with Scully. She's amicable, of course, and he likes to think he is, too, but a new distance has sprung up that barely makes sense in the wake of everything else. She doesn't ask to have dinner with him, or ask him to come over, and he doesn't dare bring it up. They spend weekdays from eight to five together, and that is the extent of it, aside from a few friendly texts. He doesn't know how to fix things, and he's not sure she does, either. At one point, he said he would take what he could get, and he never, ever wants to push her, but he's not sure he can take being only Friendly, Too-Close Co-workers anymore.

By Sunday, Mulder is bored stiff, with no cases on the horizon and no Scully to do nothing with. He takes the Willoughby files home for the weekend, but he nearly has them memorized by now, and he doesn't want to read over them for the millionth time. He could probably use a pair of fresh eyes, but he doesn't want to ask Scully, considering how their last conversation about Willoughby went. And so Sunday is the day he finally breaks down and drives to Willoughby to see if he can get a copy of the Caruthers murder file.

(He texts Scully before he leaves, just in case she decides to drop by. He doesn't want her to panic if she were to come home and find him not there. And besides that, he doesn't want to feel like he's hiding things from her. He lingers awkwardly in the driveway, leaning against the car and nudging his sunglasses up and down the bridge of his nose until Scully answers, somewhat hoping she'll want to come along. But she just tells him to be careful and let her know if he needs anything, and so he leaves it at that.)

Sheriff O'Connell isn't at the station when Mulder arrives—the receptionist says he and his family are on vacation—but Deputy Jacobs is there, and he's fairly nice to Mulder about the whole thing. He photocopies most of the file for Mulder to take with him, curious about why Mulder wants to investigate again. “Just a lingering curiosity,” Mulder lies. “Boredom, you know. Have there been many sightings lately?”

Deputy Jacobs shrugs. “A few. Maybe more that haven't been reported. But nothing major since last year, as far as I know—since that stuff with the school, and Joy Seers's car accident.”

Mulder nods. “The activity seems to be somewhat restricted to the fall and winter, right?” he asks after a beat, his eyes falling on a photo of the crime scene. Bloody floor and scratch marks in the woods—from fingernails, he guesses.  

“Somewhat,” says Deputy Jacobs. “In my experience.” They stand in silence for a few minutes more as he copies the last of the papers. He doesn't speak again until he's bundling the papers into a folder; he says, casually, “Jared Caruthers is due for parole soon, you know.”

“What?” Mulder says, caught off guard.

“Jared Caruthers. The murderer.” Deputy Jacobs waves the file around for emphasis before passing it to Mulder. “Getting paroled for good behavior. But who knows if he's going to come here.”

“Hmm.” Mulder takes the thick folder and tucks it into his bag. “What are the people around town saying?” he asks knowingly.

Jacobs laughs, a sharp barking sound. “Some say he's gonna come for Ryan and finish the job,” he says. “Others say he and Ryan are going to team up and go on a killing spree. I think it's all bullshit.” He motions to the bag with his chin. “Let us know if you find anything, Agent Mulder. And tell… what was your partner's name? Agent Sullivan?”

“Agent Scully,” says Mulder.

“Agent Scully. Tell her I said hello.”

Mulder nods, silently wondering if he'll have an avenue to tell Scully that Deputy Jacobs from Willoughby says hello. He thanks the deputy and leaves.

At home that night, he reviews the case again. He doesn't remember much from when he and Scully reviewed it back in 2015, aside from the basic details. He's able to piece together the details from the investigative reports and witness testimonies.

The murders took place on May 19, 2002. According to Ian Caruther's co-workers, he left the office at five o'clock, the usual time; one coworker in particular noted that he seemed somewhat nervous, and reacted strangely when asked how his brother was doing (in reference to the death of Holly Smith), which surely only added to the suspicion towards Jared. Jared and Marion's whereabouts were unknown, as Marion was still staying at home with the baby (she was a teacher, and had taken a year's worth of leave) and Jared had recently been fired from his job. From the hours of five to ten, no one saw the Caruthers. There was no sign of them until the first 9-1-1 call, time-stamped at approximately 10:27 p.m. The call made by Jared. The transcript reveals nothing of the emotions in the actual phone call, whether or not Jared was hysterical, fearful or calm and collected, but Mulder can't help but read it as hysterical. My brother's been hurt. Please, I need your help. It's him and his wife… I think they've been stabbed… oh, Jesus Christ. Willoughby Woods Apartment Building, please hurry, oh fucking Christ.

The second 9-1-1 call was placed around ten minutes later, made by a neighbor. This transcript lays out the scene more carefully: the neighbor returned home from a friend's house and ran into Jared in the hallway, reportedly covered in blood. The neighbor asked if he needed help; Jared ran away. A few steps further, and he came across the bodies, bloody and prone in the hallway. He took their pulse to no avail; both were very dead. He could hear the baby crying.

The police responded to the scene and pronounced Marion and Ian Caruthers dead on the scene. They'd been dead for only an hour or two. The baby was found unharmed. An examination of the crime scene found candles—some lit, some unlit and overturned, some arranged in a circle around a Ouija board, religious paraphernalia like a Bible, crosses, a bowl shattered on the ground in a puddle of water. Mulder peruses the crime scene photos with interest—the scene certainly suggests a deeper involvement with the Specter. He vaguely remembers hearing something about things like this at the crime scene a couple years ago, remembers thinking that was significant. He paper-clips them together and sets them aside for another look.

Jared Caruthers was spotted buying explosive materials in a hardware store two towns over before being found and apprehended in the old cemetery down the street from the apartment. He had changed clothes, but the shirt he'd been wearing at the time of the murder was found in the trunk of his car with Ian and Marion's blood on it. Skin residues were found under his fingernails, also matching the DNA of the victims. The blade of the knife stuffed under his seat had been wiped clean of blood, but his fingerprints were still on it. (They found traces of Marion Caruthers's fingerprints as well, but that's mostly skimmed over.) One testimony reports that, when they cuffed him, Jared began to weep. (“But I dunno if it was out of guilt, or cause he got caught.”)

He refused to say anything, but they had more than enough evidence to convict him. He eventually signed a statement confessing to the murders. Supposed open-and-shut case, and Mulder still has no idea why Ryan wanted him to look into this.

He goes back to the crime scene photos, the fuzzy images of a scene that looks like it's right out of a horror movie. It's the fact that he keeps coming back to. Had Jared Caruthers planned this, in an attempt to pin the murders on some supernatural force? Or had the Willoughby Specter interfered, somehow? Joy Seers believes the ghost is demonic, and after his own encounter, Mulder can understand why. And he knows Ryan doesn't have any lost love for the ghost. But what does he think the ghost's involvement in his parents’ deaths? Does he suspect that his parents weren't murdered at all?

Mulder has copies of the autopsy reports, but that's never been his strong suit; he'd love to ask Scully to look them over. He tucks the cluster of papers back into the folder and scribbles a note to himself to review the crime scene photos.

He's settling into the couch to watch TV for the night when he gets a call from Skinner about a case in Henrico County.

---

Sunday night, Scully goes to bed early. She hasn't been sleeping well, either from paranoia or from a general sense of unrest, and she's trying to catch up on rest while they don't have a case. (She halfway expected a follow-up text to Mulder's announcement that he was driving down to Willoughby to the day to pick up a file, gently prodding her to come along, but it never came. She admits she doesn't love the idea of looking into the Willoughby case again, as paranoid as she's been this past week, but she expected Mulder to ask her to accompany him. She supposes he must still be upset about what happened the other week, and is mostly telling her where he's going as a formality. She told him to be careful.)

She spends Sunday evening watching a documentary on National Geographic; she's tempted to text Mulder a few times, out of the familiar twinge of missing him that she gets when they don't stay together (which they've done at least once or twice a week for almost a year now; this may be the longest period that one of them hasn't stayed at the other's house), but she holds off. She watches the documentary, and then she goes to bed, breaking her usual habit and taking a sleeping pill. She halfway thinks she deserves it, after a week of near-constant jumpiness and anxiety.

She has strange dreams. Strange, shadowy dreams that leave her with a sense of dread. There's someone that she's looking for that she can't find, and she has no idea whether it's Mulder or William.

Scully wakes up suddenly to a sharp, shrill sound, jolting in bed as if awakening from a bad nightmare. She's shivering, the tension hard in her muscles; she can feel the aches and pains from the Perlieu ordeal again, the bruises stinging. She groans, blinking blearily, and rolls over on her stomach, and the source of the sound becomes clear: Daggoo is standing on the edge of the bed, barking furiously at the door.

Scully shakes her head hard, running her fingers through her hair and sitting up in bed. She scoops up Daggoo and shushes him firmly, sets him down on the other side of the bed. “You hush,” she says firmly, reaching over to turn on her lamp. Her fingers slip on the switch, hearing the empty click with no accompanying light. She flips it a few more times, cursing under her breath: burnt-out bulb. She climbs to her feet, shivering as her feet hit the cold floor, heading for the door to get another bulb; she might as well change it now.

But she freezes in her tracks when she hears the creaking of floorboards on the other side of the door. It takes a second or two for her to remember that she's alone, that Mulder isn't here and the house is empty, and her breath catches in her throat in fear.

Footsteps creak on the other side, slow squeaking footfalls. Daggoo stands on the bed, growling at the door.

Scully forces herself to take a deep breath, another. Forces herself not to think of the cruel smile of a dark figure in the hallway of a Willoughby hotel. Walks carefully, quietly to her dresser and retrieves her gun from her holster. She walks to the door with her weapon held out in front of her, shushes Daggoo quietly and pushes the door open abruptly. “Federal agent, I'm armed!” she shouts, aiming the gun. But the hallway is empty.

Breathing uneasily, Scully steps out into the hall, the automatic lights flickering on. (Why the hell didn't her friend who rented her the house put automatic lights in the bedroom?) She doesn't bother turning them back off, like she’s done so often out of irritation. She walks the house, lights coming on with a soothing regularity, clearing every room, and finds the whole place empty. Daggoo paces the house behind her, growling under his breath. Scully checks every room twice, checks the cameras and the security system, and there is nothing. No intruder. No alerts. No signs of anything walking around the house except for her and the dog.

Scully blinks tiredly, rubbing at her eyes. She must be going insane. She doesn't want to consider any other possibilities. She reminds herself that she is nowhere near Willoughby, Virginia. She reminds herself that ghosts don't exist. They don't.

She scoops up Daggoo, restless and wriggling, and walks back to her bedroom. The lamp is still burned out, but she doesn't have the energy to change it. She shuts the door firmly, places the gun on her bedside table, climbs into bed and screws her eyes shut. She's exhausted. She just wants to go to sleep. She doesn't want to think about ghosts, or intruders, or anything of that sort. It's your imagination, she tells herself firmly as Daggoo curls dutifully into her side. You're imagining things.

She burrows in under the covers, ignoring any temptation to call Mulder or to recheck the house. Ignoring the slow squeak coming from the bathroom door down the hall swinging open, slow and eerie as a horror movie cliche. It's the house, she tells herself, the mechanics are malfunctioning. That must be it, because she can certainly hear the hinges squeaking painfully slow, but there's no intruder, she checked. And there is no such thing as ghosts. She grits her teeth and slides further under the covers like a child trying to hide, her eyes remaining shut even as her hand itches to grab for her gun.  

She can hear another door creaking, and she caves in and reaches for her phone, opening her messages from Mulder without a second thought. They've been together for years, she should be brave enough to tell him that she's hearing things, even if it's irrational. But she pauses when she sees her most recent unopened message from Mulder. Skinner's given us a new case. Not Willoughby. I'll have the details tomorrow morning at work.

It's professional enough to make her take pause, make her shake off this silly fear. She works her jaw back and forth and texts back, See you then, pretending she isn't disappointed at this new distance between them. She's being ridiculous. The house is malfunctioning, that's probably the thing she mistook as footsteps earlier. They'll start a new case tomorrow, and it'll get her mind off of Willoughby and the Specter and the break-in. She'll be back to normal in no time.

She turns off her phone screen and lays back against the mattress. It seems as if Daggoo has calmed down, fallen asleep curled against her, and she strokes a hand over his belly before closing her eyes and concentrating on the sound of their breathing. It's almost soothing, the steadiness of it, and she can feel herself slowly drifting off to sleep.

She bites back a startled yelp when she hears the bang of the doors slamming closed, Daggoo breaking into angry, yipping barks again. She pulls the covers over her head and rolls over onto her side.

---

Scully doesn't sleep well, despite the sleeping pill. She's absolutely exhausted the next morning, but she gets up and goes into work anyway, because what the hell else is she going to do? She's imagining things, or there's something wrong with the computer that runs the house, but she cannot let herself linger over these things. She eats her bagel and drinks her morning coffee, packs a bag for a few nights out of instinct, drops Daggoo off at the neighbor's, and drives to work.

Mulder's thumbing through an unfamiliar file when she comes in, sitting at the desk, lost in the work. (They still only have one desk, through no fault of Mulder's; he's called upstairs multiple times about another one to no avail. Scully is a little thrown by the fact that no one has managed to scrape up another desk in the two years they've been back, but it hardly seems to matter. They take turns with this one, most of the time, and it isn't as if she isn't annoyingly used to the whole thing.) “That the new case?” Scully asks, shutting the door behind her. 

Mulder looks up from what seems to be a photo, his eyes softening a little like he's happy to see her. She swallows back any discomfort at their chaste, nearly formal exchanges yesterday, and offers him a small smile. “Scully, hey,” he says. “Yeah, I'm just… going through the details of it all.”

Scully steps closer to the desk, motioning to the photo in his hand. “Is that the victim?”

He looks down at the photo and nods. “Mm-hmm.” Swiveling the photo to face her, Scully sees a young man with a swelled, bruised face. “Arkie Seavers, age 20,” says Mulder. “Currently a resident of the county jail.”

Scully takes the photo to examine it herself. “What does the other guy look like?”

“Funny you should ask,” Mulder says, motioning to the photo. “Arkie there wasn't in a fight. Car crash, head-on collision into a tree. Drunk as a skunk.”

“He's lucky to be alive,” Scully says as she takes a seat.

“You have no idea,” says Mulder.

“Not wearing a seat belt, I suspect.”

“To hear Arkie tell it,” Mulder says as he gets to his feet and rounding the desk to stand near her chair, “he didn't have time to fasten his seatbelt, 'cause he was too busy beating a hasty retreat from the boy he says caused the accident.”

“And who was that?” she asks.

“You're looking at him,” says Mulder.

She raises her eyebrows questioningly  at him, maybe even a little playfully. “No. Not me,” he says, just a little bit playful back, and points at the photo in her hand.

“What, he blames himself?” she asks, looking back at the photo.

“In a manner of speaking.”

“I don't get it, Mulder,” she says.

Mulder picks up a side view of the victim, holding it up for effect. “Arkie, our hapless road warrior, is driving by his lonesome, down the highway to hell, when he sees another Arkie—” He scoops up another mug shot, framed opposite of the first one, and mimes the situation with the two photos as he continues: “—across from him, who grabs the wheel and crashes the vehicle.”

“Well, you did say he was drunk,” says Scully, rolling her eyes a little.

“Yes, and I know what you're gonna say about seeing double and all those hackneyed bromides about not giving the kids the car keys—”

“20 is hardly a kid,” she interrupts.

“—but circumstances bear a curious similarity to the stories told by other good folk who didn't share Arkie Seavers' luck of the Irish, and who also reported seeing their doubles right before dying.” He sits back at the desk, across from her, and passes her a bundle of photos.

“And how did these people die?” she asks.

“Each by their own hand.”

“After seeing their doubles?” She thumbs through the photos, briefly noting that the state of the bodies do seem to suggest suicide.

“According to all reports issuing out of Henrico County, Virginia.”

“Reports issued by whom?”

“Friends, relatives. A doctor.” He nods towards her.

“And the medical diagnosis is…?” she asks.

“A rare form of schizophrenia.”

She chuckles a little. “Right. So rare I've never heard of it.”

“Well, correct me if I'm wrong, Scully, and I know that you will, but schizophrenics have been known to hear voices and have reported hallucinations similar to the ones Arkie reports,” he points out.

“Hallucinations, yes, but not necessarily grabbing the wheel of a car and ramming it into a tree,” she points out right back.

“Well, they didn't all die from car crashes into trees,” he says. “Seven died from hanging, four jumped off a tall bridge, um, three—”

She looks at him in astonishment, that he didn't think to mention this before. “This is a mass phenomenon.”

“Precisely my thinking, Scully, which is why you and I are gonna jump on I-95 South this morning and get back to our bread and butter,” he replies, getting to his feet and grabbing his coat.

Her eyebrows raised, she gets to her feet and sets the photos down on the desk. “We seem to have a habit of getting into cases of mass, supposedly supernatural phenomena in small Virginia towns,” she comments.

“Precisely, Scully. Bread and butter.” Mulder is pulling on his coat at the door; he waggles his eyebrows playfully at her. “Got to bring home a paycheck somehow, right?”

“Are you getting reimbursed for road trips to Willoughby?” she asks, and she means it to sound playful, but she's worried it comes off as the opposite. She clears her throat, adds in what she hopes is a light tone, “Has Ryan Caruthers clarified why he wants you to look into this again? Do we need to reopen the Willoughby file?”

Mulder shakes his head. “He just wanted me to investigate the murder of his parents,” he says. “I'm considering it a side project.”

“Mm.” She bites her lower lip as she gathers her things, pretending she isn't relieved, just a little. “Focusing on more relevant things?”

“Exactly.” He smiles a little at her, and she smiles back, strangely nervous. She wonders, briefly, if she should tell him about the weird things she heard last night before deciding against it. It was just a computer malfunction, it's not important. And she doubts Mulder will really care about issues with the house she's living in separately from him.

They leave the office together, side by side, ride the elevator up to the parking garage.

---

They end up driving to Henrico County separately. Scully still isn't quite sure how it happens. One minute, she's commenting on the distance away from the county—a little two hours, close enough to drive but far enough that they'll have to get a hotel—and the next thing she knows, Mulder's commenting on how it might even be more efficient to take two cars, in case they have to split up a lot, and she can't tell if he's kidding or not (she thinks he might be, but it's honestly hard to tell), and she's agreeing that it might be efficient. And then the next thing she knows, they're exiting the parking garage in separate cars. It happens so fast it stuns her.

The drive is too long, too quiet. Scully starts an audio book on Audible just to fill up the silence. She looks in the mirror every few minutes and sees Mulder right behind her, and she's just left wondering how this whole thing happened. She still can't believe she reacted that way on the couch, after everything that happened.

The two of them drive straight to the Henrico County Jail to talk to Arkie Seavers, and from there, they go to the crash site. Despite Arkie's history of DUIs and drugs, Mulder seems to believe his insistence that his doppelganger is responsible. He counters Scully's logical arguments with the point that Arkie probably doesn't have the wherewithal to make it up. They go to the local psychiatric hospital, where they discuss things with a doctor there, who classifies the other recent deaths as similar to Arkie's incident in the supposed involvement of doppelgangers. They speak to a patient named Judy whose walls are plastered with games of Hangman, who claims to play telepathically with her brother. Scully's not so sure she believes that part of it, but Mulder locates a game of Hangman with an answer of Arkie on the wall, and she can't quite dismiss it as a coincidence, despite Judy's denial of knowing Arkie Seavers.

By this time, it's getting late, and when Mulder suggests they call it quits for the day, Scully certainly isn't going to argue. They head to a local restaurant for dinner, but there must be some kind of local event, because it takes them an hour and a half just to get food. By the time they finally reach the local St. Rachel Motel, it's past 11:00, and Scully is exhausted.

They ring the doorbell, and hear a shouted, “Coming!” from somewhere inside. A woman appears behind the sliding glass door, pushing it open.

“Hi, we'd like a couple rooms,” says Scully, almost automatically. They haven't  shared a hotel room on purpose since Willoughby; they've stuck to the formality of separate ones. And she certainly doesn't  expect that to change, especially in the wake of all their newfound awkwardness.

“Do you have reservations?” the woman asks.

“No,” Scully says. She senses what's coming; of course they wouldn't be able to get a room in this tiny town after she barely slept the night before. Just their luck. “Uh, do you have any rooms?”

“I've had a cancellation,” says the woman. “It's just a suite.”

“We'll take it,” says Mulder, speaking for the first time since they've gotten here. No hesitation or anything of that sort. She turns to look at him in shock—although she's not sure what the source of the shock is. Because of this strange new distance, because she thought he was angry at her for pulling away? Because the last time they were offered only one hotel room, he seemed nervous and looked to her for answers, offered to go somewhere else? She isn't sure how to react, isn't sure if she's eager or terrified. She thinks of holding her phone in her hand the night before, wrestling with whether or not to call him. He looks back at her with a degree of surprise, too, and she doesn't know why. A degree of awkwardness, maybe, and that makes more sense.

“There's a pullout sofa,” the clerk assures them.

“Okay,” says Scully, because what else is she supposed to say? She's made Mulder up a bed in the guest room, told him goodnight from her bedroom door and lay alone between stiff, cold sheets wishing he was there. The same way he’s made up his guest room for her. This is no different, is it? Maybe this is the push they need to get back to the place they were in a week ago.

She looks back over at Mulder as the woman walks away, and he's shaking his head  innocently, maybe even a little apologetically. “Just trying to get some shut-eye.”

“I'm glad to hear it,” she says, walking past him. She doesn't know what else to say. Doesn't know if he's upset with her, doesn't know how to make things right with them. She wishes to god she did. She misses him, misses the way she felt those nights in Willoughby where they fell asleep holding hands. She almost wishes there wasn't a pullout sofa, but at the same time, she's relieved there is.

They get up to the suite, a two-roomed thing with a bedroom and a joint bathroom and living room. Door between the couch and the bed. Mulder is trailing behind her, drops his suitcase in the corner of the room. “I can take the couch bed if you want,” he says, noble as he always is.   

“Don't be ridiculous, Mulder,” she replies immediately, combing her hair out of her face with her fingertips. “With your back problems, and everything that happened with Perlieu…”

“My back is fine, Scully. And besides that, I've gotten in the habit of sleeping on the couch every now and then.” She turns to him in surprise, her eyebrows raising. He shrugs. “Couch at home folds out. Closer to the kitchen and the office. Aside from the nights we fall asleep on the couch… sometimes I sleep there because it's easier. More convenient.”

He sleeps on the couch sometimes when she's not there. She didn't know that. She swallows. She wants to ask him to share the bed. She should ask, she should make some effort to close this gap between them, but the words are caught in her throat. “All the more reason for you to take the bed,” she says instead.

“Come on, Scully, I'm used to it.” He smiles at her gently, and she thinks about kissing him, touching his face and asking him to stay, telling him that she's sorry, she's so sorry, and she doesn't want to sleep alone.

She twists her hair away from her face, says briskly, “I'm going to take a shower.” She can feel his eyes on her as she goes to the bed, unzips her suitcase and removes her pajamas. It is too late, near midnight, and her bones are aching, old bruises sore and fatigue clouding her mind.

She takes a hot shower in the other room (why the hell would they put the bathroom in the room that is not the bedroom?), and Mulder is sprawled out of the couch bed when she gets out, gray t-shirt hanging on his frame. It makes a sudden lump rise in her throat. “Nice digs?” he asks, and she nods, unable to speak. “You should get some sleep,” he offers. “We have a meeting with Arkie and his lawyer first thing in the morning.”

She's still tempted to ask him back to the bed, but sleepiness outweighs her need for him, and she ultimately decides against it. Not tonight. Maybe it's because she's tired or maybe it's because she's scared, but whatever the case, she isn't going to go any further. She doesn't know how he feels towards her right now, she doesn't know how how to make things right. “Right,” she says. “God knows we could both use some shut eye.” The reason, according to Mulder, that they'd taken the damn hotel room.

“Right,” he says. He's looking at her warily, almost nervously, but still smiling.

She smiles back. She can't help it. They're still too scared to do anything, but this might be enough for now. They can pretend that nothing’s wrong. “Good night, Mulder,” she says, stepping closer to the couch bed. She brushes a hand over his shoulder before crossing to the door.

“Good night, Scully,” he says, just before she closes the door.

---

Scully's so tired that she can't see straight, but nearly as soon as she lies down, she finds herself restless. She sleeps in fitful snatches, tossing and turning, jumping at small noises. Silly fear from what happened the night before, she tells herself, but telling herself that doesn't make the fear go away. She shifts from one side to another, trying to focus on her breathing, the buzz of the air conditioning, anything but every small, mundane sound, when she hears the footsteps behind her. Startled, motivated by the fear lingering from the night before, she flips over in a panic.

She finds Mulder standing there, sheepish and apologetic. “Mulder,” she sighs wearily, lying flat on her back in defeat, “what are you doing?”

“That bed nice and comfy?” he asks, waggling his eyebrows.

“Mulder, go back to sleep,” she chides, because she's not in the mood for a discussion right now. She doesn't care if he goes back to the couch bed or climbs right in beside her, she just wants a good night's sleep.

“I wish that I could, Scully,” he says. “They just found Arkie Seavers dead in his jail cell.”

She sits up in bed in astonishment. “You're kidding,” she says.

“I'm afraid not. They didn't give many details, but they wanted us to come down and check it out.” He gives her a small, apologectic smile. “I'm sorry. Maybe we can come back and catch a few more winks after we check out the crime scene.”

Scully yawns as she climbs to her feet, rubbing her forehead. “Is that a promise?”

“What's wrong, Scully? Haven't been sleeping well?” His voice is genuinely sympathetic, soft and warm in the way that reminds her of why she almost texted him the other night.

“That,” she says, reaching out to open her suitcase, “is an understatement, Mulder. But I'll be okay.”

“I'm sorry, Scully.” He presses his hand briefly to her back before crossing the room to exit. “Meet you in twenty minutes? I'll buy you some coffee.”

She stretches, biting back another yawn. “Sure. Thanks, Mulder.”

He smiles at her gently before closing the door. It's enough to make her forgive him for sneaking up on her, enough to make her want a lot of things.

Arkie Seavers is indeed dead, strangled with his own belt. Scully is ready to classify it as a suicide, and even Mulder admits that it's a possibility. But he seems to be firmly attached to the idea that Judy Poundstone and her brother are responsible. He cites them as their main two suspects. He keeps his promise, takes them back to the hotel to let her sleep, but he suggests that they go interview the siblings tomorrow.

“That sounds like a reasonable next step,” she says as they re-enter the hotel room. “I can go visit Judy before I do Arkie's autopsy tomorrow afternoon.”

“Sounds good.” He bumps her elbow against hers lightly. “Right now, though, you should get some sleep.”

She smiles a little, just a little. Their detour to the jail was hardly a welcome interruption, but maybe she can finally get some sleep now. “Thank you, Mulder. Do me a favor and make sure I don't sleep too late.”

“I'll wake you up by eight,” he says teasingly. “Maybe nine.”

“Eight,” she says sternly—there’s no need to be unprofessional. “We can grab some breakfast before we go interview the siblings.” She's tempted to suggest they just interview the twins together instead of splitting up; it might not be very time-conservant, but it seems to make more sense.

“Good thing we thought to drive separately,” Mulder says before she can. He sounds a little awkward saying it, almost sad—like he regrets suggesting they drive separately in the first place—but still, he says it, and so Scully keeps her mouth shut. “That'll make tomorrow much easier.”

Scully yawns, rubbing at her eyes. “That's true,” she says sleepily.

Mulder opens the door, looking back over his shoulder. “Good night, Scully,” he says, for the second time that night. “Or… good morning, I guess.” He chuckles softly.

Scully chuckles, too, reaching down to unfasten her necklace. Her fingers accidentally curl around her ring where it hangs around her neck. “Good night, Mulder.”

The door closes softly behind him. Scully changes quickly and climbs back into bed, her eyes straying back to the door like a magnet. She slips her hand under her hair and unfastens her necklace, sliding the ring off, and closes her hand around it instinctually before setting it down on the bedside table and setting her cross down beside it. She touches the ring with the tip of one finger before curling up under the comforter, letting her eyes slide shut.

By some miracle, she manages to sleep dreamlessly and peacefully until the moment when Mulder wakes her back up. (At nine. Of course. She scolds him a little for being unprofessional, but secretly, she's grateful. They eat breakfast in the dining room together, hands accidentally bumping every time they reach for the salt or pepper or Sweet'n'Lows.)

Chapter Text

Scully's second impression of Judy Poundstone is very different than the first; she finds her antagonistic this time, startlingly so. She remains coy about her potential involvement in Arkie's death, as well as her brother's involvement, but her response to the whole thing makes Scully think that she must be involved, somehow. She supposes that the autopsy will shed some light on that subject.

Before Scully leaves, Judy begins to sling insults in the same matter she slings her pudding. She clearly has an infatuation with Mulder, and suggests that he would forget all about Scully, that she doesn't know what Mulder sees in her. She calls her dried up, not even half a woman. Past the age where she can have children. It's silly and petty, it shouldn't bother her, but it does, when she thinks about what happened last week. Mulder deserves someone who is willing to come home to him, someone who will actually be there and tell him what they want, instead of being wishy-washy and detached. Maybe he really does deserve someone who would be able to give him more kids. She's never considered that possibility, with everything that's happened, but maybe that is something he wants.

She tries to ignore it. Swallows it back and goes to the local morgue to perform the autopsy. An examination of Arkie Seavers seems to contradict her theory from the night before, that Arkie had killed himself. If her conversation with Judy had her suspecting that, somehow, the Poundstones were involved in Arkie's death, this autopsy has her nearly certain. The angle of the strangulation wound suggests that Arkie couldn't have done it himself, as well as a lack of strain on the arm muscles. She finds tissue under his fingernails, like he'd tried to fight off his attacker, but when she runs the DNA test, she finds that it's a match for Arkie himself. So there's no telling if that's from the attack, some strange confirmation that Mulder's insistence of doppelgangers, or from an earlier incident. But she leaves the morgue fairly sure that Arkie Seavers didn't kill himself.

She goes back to the hotel from the morgue, surprised to find how quickly the day has passed. She hasn't heard from Mulder outside of a couple texts clarifying that he's talking to the families of the other recent victims, and so she picks up some dinner and heads back to the hotel.

Scully tries to relax, tries to focus on the case and banish thoughts of ghosts or of Mulder growing tired of her, but something in her can't shake the gloom of the last week. Somehow, it only seems to be getting worse; she can't loosen up, she can't let go of these things. She stands in front of the mirror as she unbuttons her blouse, her ring-less cross (she'd left it on the bedside table for some unknown reason) nestled against her collarbone, and all she can hear is Judy's voice as she looks at her reflection. She's a little disgusted with herself, for lingering on these meaningless words, for letting them bother her so much, but a part of her can't help it. Can't let it go.

She's still standing in front of the mirror when she hears a knock at the door. “Just a minute,” she calls out, rebuttoning a couple buttons, and crosses the room to open the door.

It's Mulder, in his side of the suite, leaning against the door with a degree of casualness. She hadn't even known he was back. “Hey,” he says. “What'd you find out, Scully?”

“That Dookie winging past your head sends a sharp message to your brain,” she says, reaching up to remove her earrings as she crosses the room.

“What message is that?” he asks, the tiniest bit of laughter in his voice.

She chuckles, too, holding both earrings in her hand. “To gather the other apes and make war on your dread enemy.” She sets them down next to her cell phone, next to the tiny good circle of her ring. She wonders if Mulder has noticed that she has it.

“I believe I'm in touch with that feeling, Scully,” he says.

“Really? Did you have Dookie flung at you, too?”

“Uh, figuratively,” he says, fully entering the room to stand by the table near the door. “By the queerest little man in the queerest little house.”

“I don't know, Mulder,” she says, sitting on the bed. “This Judy, she has some malign influence over these victims, and I'm at a loss to figure out what it is.”

“Yeah, I agree. There is some evil in the air, Scully,” says Mulder.

For a second, she almost knows what he's talking about, but she dismisses it immediately. “No, it's not evil—it's mental illness,” she says, almost more to reassure herself than him. “There's some kind of psychic transference.”

“I wouldn't rule out ghosts,” Mulder says.

“Well,” she says with a scoff, thinking of Willoughby, and all of that Specter nonsense that cannot possibly be real, “except for the fact that they don't exist?”

“Of course there are ghosts,” he says, as if to remind her that they’ve just recently been investigating just such a ghost.

She'd rather forget. “I mean, science has proven that the stimulation of the brain's left anterior insula is linked to the feeling of a sensed presence, and that repeated stimulation to an area of the left temporoparietal junction is what promotes the sense of a shadowy figure, collectively known as the Gastaut-Geschwind syndrome,” she says, still reassuring herself. Still justifying everything. What she kept hearing last night was Mulder, of course, and the other night at home can be explained by this, as well as the malfunctioning house. The shadow in the mirror. All of it has a rational explanation.

“Talk about flinging dookie,” he says, joking. And she should laugh, but the thought of Judy and that pudding takes her right back to that room. She sighs wearily; it's been a long week.

She’s saying it almost before she can think about it: “Mulder, do you think of me as old?”

“What?” he says, laughing gently. “Where is that coming from?”

“Well…” she starts, unsure of how to explain, as he comes to sit on the bed beside her.

“I mean, maybe in dog years. No,” he says comfortingly. “What are you… what are you talking about?”

“Well, a woman thinks about these things,” she says, very nearly sheepish. Certainly embarrassed.

“No, Scully, you're… You still got it going on, you…” He chuckles, a little awkwardly, so ridiculously sweet that it does make her feel better. Just a little better. “You still got some scoot in your boot,” he finishes.

She smiles warmly, genuinely. “I'm gonna boot you out of here,” she says, pushing gently at his shoulder, and he goes,  agreeable as she's ever seen him.

“Knock three times!” he calls over his shoulder as she closes the door behind him. She leans against it, the smile slipping away from her face. She misses him. She's been his partner again for two years now, she stays with him almost every week, and she still misses him. She doesn't know why she booted him out. For a second, she thinks about opening the door, asking him to come back.

She used to kick him out of her room in 2000, when their relationship was so new, and she would always open the door eventually, and he would always be waiting on the other side, leaning against the door jamb and smirking at her. She hears his footsteps across the floorboards on the other side, crossing the room.

Just because he's willing to reassure her doesn't mean that he wants to be in here with her. She's still scared, after everything. She sighs to herself wistfully, pushes off of the door and walks back to her bed.

She curls up on her side of the bed and falls asleep quickly, surprisingly quickly and surprisingly calmly. She sleeps well, and that is a shock, too, after the week she's had. When she wakes up, she is cold, lying on her stomach on his side of the bed.

---

The next morning, she and Mulder disperse to interview the Poundstone siblings again. Judy is calm again, feigning the same innocence as before, and claiming no memory of their last interaction. She refuses to stop playing Hangman with her brother, and Scully isn't sure how much sway those games actually have over those deaths, but she knows that they can't have no sway at all. Judy does offer her a solution—protection, she claims, in the form of bread pills she takes every morning. No medicinal power, but the nurses claim to take them to protect themselves. Scully can't bring herself to throw them away. She tucks them into her jacket pocket.

Arkie's lawyer shows up at their hotel, ranting about how he's being stalked by his double. Scully tells him that he is making it worse. “Your paranoia is only gonna feed on itself,” she says. “Y-You know that mass hysteria is just a symptom of fears run wild.” It's the kind of thing she's been telling herself ever since the sleepless nights, the paranoia and the hearing things began. Some small comfort.

Mulder advises him to take precautions to avoid the danger. They tell him to go home and lock his doors, and Mulder hands over his card. Scully tells him that it can't haunt him if he doesn't let it—more of the things she's been telling herself, but she means it sincerely.

As the lawyer leaves, Mulder says, “Like I said before, clearly there's a dark influence set loose in this town, Scully.”

He could be talking about Willoughby as easy as he's talking about this town, but this is the case they are on, and the case of the Willoughby Specter should hold no sway over that. “Well, by ‘dark influence,’ again, I presume you mean evil, Mulder,” says Scully. “But there is no such thing as evil. I mean, evil is a concept, like the Devil.”

“Oh, the Devil is a concept?” Mulder asks over his shoulder as he retrieves his keys from his car. “Certainly, that's not what they taught young Dana Katherine Scully in Sunday school, is it?”

“Well, I certainly believed in the literal Devil when I was a child,” she says as he closes his car door and turns back to her.

“So you don't believe that we, as humans, have dark sides that we sublimate or repress?”

“Well, while anyone with an imagination can entertain acting out violence or antisocial behavior, that doesn't mean that there's an evil twin lurking inside of us.”

“Speak for yourself, Scully,” he says. “And tell that to Chuck and Judy.”

“Chuck and Judy are mentally ill, Mulder,” she replies matter-of-factly.

“Explain how they're doing it,” he challenges her.

“I can't explain it,” she says, and he nods, a little smugly. “But,” she adds, “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever is remaining, even if improbable, must be the truth.”

“No sugar, Sherlock,” he retorts, his car alarm chirping.

“But I have to admit,” she says sheepishly, “I, uh, still sleep with my back to the door just in case the Devil comes in the night.” It's the closest she's willing to come to admitting what she's been going through. She locks her own car and heads towards the hotel.

“Can never be too careful,” Mulder says behind her, so quietly she almost misses it.

---

They order in a pizza and eat it in Mulder's side of the suite, where he's folded up the couch. They discuss the case, eating off of paper plates the way they used to when they were young and newly partners, and the way they've done dozens of times on cases in the past two years. It's companionable, sitting knee to knee in the couch, discussing dark forces and the possibility of patterns and the intentions of the Poundstone siblings. It feels familiar, easy, almost like nothing had ever happened last week. But they still depart to their separate rooms at the end of the night.

Scully is hoping for a peaceful night, like the night before, but of course she wouldn't be so lucky. She sleeps in snatches again, her spine crawling, jolting at the slightest sound. At one point, she's nearly asleep when she swears she hears someone behind her, and she rolls over in a panic only to find Mulder. She gasps a little with fading fear, rolls over and says, “Please, Mulder, you've got to quit scaring me like that.”

“Oh, I'd like to quit,” he says.

The reasoning doesn't need an explanation. Arkie Seavers's lawyer is dead.

They go to his home and find his head detached from his body, blood splattering the walls. Scully notes that while it's unlikely that a man could cut his own head off, it's not impossible. Mulder notes that the man was scared out of his mind. He clearly believes that this was not the work of suicide, and a small part of Scully is inclined to agree. Still, there is nothing more they can do tonight, and so they agree to head back to the hotel.

On their way out, as Scully is weaving through the crowd, she sees something strange, something impossible. Her own face in the nearby crowd, watching her. Glaring at her. She squints at the crowd in confusion, trying to get a better look, but someone briefly blocks her line of sight, and by the time they are gone, so is the face.

“You coming, Scully?” Mulder calls on the other side of the car, and she climbs it, silently repeating her former words to herself. It's paranoia, it's her imagination, it's some strange suggestion of her brain, but it isn't real. Maybe this is a manifestation of the things she was seeing at her house, or maybe this is something completely different, but it's not real.

When she and Mulder get back to the hotel, she crawls into her bed without bothering to turn the lights on, Mulder padding into the other room tiredly as they exchange their second good nights. She'd like to go back to sleep, to hopefully get some uninterrupted rest, but she's spooked. The image of her own face glaring at her hovers behind her eyelids, small noises are making her jump. She lays on her side away from the door, closes her eyes and tries to fall back asleep, but the dread won't leave her. She feels as if someone is standing over her shoulder, the way Mulder has been the last two times someone died. The feeling grows stronger, shiver up her spine, and she turns over in a panic, hoping she sees Mulder's face instead of her own. But there is nothing there.

She gasps in relief or in panic, rolling on to her back. She can't decide if she'd rather something be there, or nothing. Noises with nothing attached to them makes her panic instinctively, but she certainly doesn't want someone threatening to be there. She wishes Mulder was the one there this time, and he didn't have a crime scene for them to rush off to.

This is ridiculous. She's been jumpy for over a week now with no end, and she's tired of feeling this way. She thinks of that night when she thought she heard an intruder, when she reached for her phone to text Mulder, because she was afraid. This doesn't feel very different. She's on edge and admittedly a little frightened, and she doesn't want to be alone. So she won't be.

It's largely an impulse, but she's going to do it. She gets out of bed, walking across the room and opening the connecting door. Doesn't bother to announce herself because he hasn't before; call it revenge. He's lying on his side, on his side of the bed, back to the door; she stands behind him until he turns over, startled. “Oh,” he says good-naturedly. “Speak of the Devil.”

“I can't sleep, Mulder,” she says honestly.

“Oh. What's the problem?” He shifts in bed, turning to face her.

She sighs, reluctant, trying to decide how much she wants to explain. She settles for, “Something about this case is getting under my skin.”

“Well, we've had stranger cases, Scully,” he says, on his side facing her, his arm folded under his head.

“Can you hold me?” she asks, also completely on impulse. Without thinking. But she doesn't think it requires a lot of thought; it's what she wants. It's what she's wanted since that night she pulled away, that she didn't know how to ask for. She's spooked, and she's lonely, and this feels right, feels almost brave.  

She sees the briefest moment of hesitation, enough to strike wavering fear and embarrassment, before he says, “Yeah, I can do that,” and she wonders why she ever doubted him.

She climbs onto the rickety couch bed beside him, her back to his chest. He wraps his arms around her, easily because he's been doing it for over a decade, and it feels like home. She can't believe she's gone so long without this.

“What's gonna happen?” she says in a small, vulnerable voice, because suddenly all she can see is the bags she packed to move out, her rejections of Mulder in the past, telling herself it was just for a few months and that quickly turning into four years. She needs to know what their future is, what Mulder wants their future to be. If he even wants a future with her.

“What's gonna happen when?” Mulder asks sleepily from behind her.

“When we're old,” she says.

He scoffs out a laugh against her hair. “What do you mean ‘when?’”

She laughs a little, too, but the thought won't leave her. The uncertainties that have been plaguing her. “I mean… sooner or later, we're gonna retire, and…” she tries to explain.

“Hmm.” Mulder nudges her shoulder with her chin.

“... Are we gonna spend time together?” she finishes lamely.

 “I'll come push your wheelchair with my wheelchair,” he murmurs, his nose brushing the corner of her eye.

She chuckles softly, says, “That's not what I mean.”

“Oh, I'll always be around, Scully,” he says, and a sudden warmth fills her from head to toe. “Offering bulletproof theories of genius that you fail to assail with your inadequate rationality.”

She scoffs out another laugh, pretending that she isn't incredibly relieved that she didn't screw this up. “And I'll always be around to prove you wrong,” she says, because she wants him to know. He hmms in response, and she adds, “Promise.”

He nestles closer, holding onto her tighter, and she'd love to just stay in this moment forever, here with the man she loves. But there is still that unsure part of herself, and she can't let it go. She needs to absolve herself of any uncertainties. “No, but that's not what I mean,” she continues.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

There is a long pause, a silence she spends considering if she even wants to ask him this, if she really wants to know the answer. She sighs a little, says gingerly, “What if you meet someone?” He shifts against her startledly, like she's caught him off guard, and she has no idea how to take it. She continues, “What if you meet someone… younger, who… wants to have kids?”

“Oh,” he says, “that's what you mean.” He still sounds so caught off guard, so shocked. He says, “Well… you could do the same. You could meet someone, and… have kids.”

She laughs a little at the thought, astonished. Uncertain as to whether or not he actually thinks that's a possibility, whether or not he knows what he means to her. “Mulder, that's not gonna happen,” she says.

“That's nonsense.” He nudges her a little.

“No, it's not,” she says firmly. “I'm… I'm at the end of that journey.”

“Do you want to have more kids?”

The question genuinely shocks her; she never expected to be having this conversation with Mulder. Not after William, not so late in life. “Well…” she says, hesitating, “... I would have liked to have had another one.” Because it's true; a long time ago, she always thought she'd have more than one. She always wanted a big family. And years later, it had gotten to the point where having another child seemed impossible, even immoral because of what happened with William, and she hadn't thought about it since. But in a different life…

“Mm,” Mulder hums quietly. “At the risk of sounding insensitive, what's stopping you?”

 “Besides the fact that the first time was a miracle? And besides the fact that I don't have anyone to have one with even if I could?”

There's a long, pregnant (Excuse the pun, Scully thinks to herself almost bitterly) pause before Mulder finally speaks. “You're a woman of science,” he says.

She laughs softly at that. “Mulder,” she says, “sometimes I think the world is going to hell and that we're the only two people who can save it.” That's how it's always felt, almost since the beginning. The two of them against the world, always.

“The world is going to hell, Scully. The president working to bring down the FBI along with it.”

“What if we lose our jobs?” she says softly, wondering. Two years ago, she thought that this stint at the FBI would be brief, and now she can't imagine doing anything else. Working with anyone else.  

“Yeah.” He bumps his cheek against her shoulder, resting it there. “Then what would we do?”

There is another long pause, but this one feels full of possibility. She is here, and she is being held by her husband, and she Bt him with everything in her. She turns gently in his arms, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as Mulder's palm slides over her stomach. “We'll think of something,” she says.

She smiles more broadly at him, and he is smiling, too. His palm is so soft over her stomach, so warm, and she moves closer to him almost unconsciously. Reaches up with quivering fingertips and touches the side of his face. He’s watching her carefully, like he might scare her away. She kisses him first, cupping his face in her hands, soft and sweet and a little sloppy. He makes a small sound of pleased surprise, his hands sliding down to her hips, sliding under her shirt. He tugs her closer and she wraps herself around him, her arms folding tight around his neck.  “Are you sure…” she mumbles, purely out of caution.

He kisses her again in lieu of an answer. His hands fumbling, unbuttoning the buttons of her pajama shirt.

---

Afterwards, she falls asleep curled up against his shoulder, wrapped up in a sheet, springs bearing into her back. His arm against her back, his hands rubbing over the chilly tops of her feet. She goes to sleep warm, feeling calmer than she has in months. She can't believe she went so long without this.

She wakes up to something not unsimilar to chaos. Mulder in a panic, insisting he saw his doppelganger. She admits she saw her double, too, which only seems to spur him on. She tries to reassure him, to get him to calm down, but he seems bound and determined. He wants her to go and visit Judy, and she hardly sees a better solution to the issue, and so she goes.

She’s driving to the hospital when she sees it again: the unnerving sight of her own face from the rearview mirror. But this time, she is less unnerved. This time, she finds the whole thing a lot more annoying.

“My rational mind knows that you are only a… a manifest psychic ideation borne of latent hostility,” she tells the image firmly—maybe out of courage, but more likely out of pure irritation. She's tired of this, dark, menacing shapes over her shoulder. “Maybe Mulder was right, you're evil incarnate. It's all you are.”

She looks at the mirror again, and then swivels a bit to check for sure. The doppelganger is gone.

She breathes a small sigh of relief, of satisfaction. It's strange, but it feels like a triumph over whatever images and sounds have been tormenting her over the last week. Like a small victory. She feels better, like she's had some sort of adrenaline shot, stemming both from her discussion with Mulder and from this.

She drives the rest of the way to the hospital and finds Judy Poundstone dead on the floor of her hospital room. Unexplainably dead, considering they just saw her not five minutes ago, but Scully has an idea what has happened. She finds a game of Hangman on the floor; the answer is Chucky.

Across town, Mulder finds a similar scene after a scuffle with his doppelganger. Dead Chucky Poundstone. A game of Hangman reading Judith, and two more, older ones reading Mom and Dad.

---

Scully is packing up evidence in her half of the hotel room when Mulder enters, says, “So I was thinking maybe we could get a couple hours in before check out time?” She gives him a questioning look, and he continues innocently, “I'm just talking about getting some shut eye,” like she hadn't woken up in his bed this morning.

“I'm glad to hear that, Mulder,” she says carefully. A replica of their conversation the first night. They haven't talked about what happens now, she doesn't know what he wants from this.

“Yeah,” he says. “Uh… I guess I should hit the hay.”

She can't gauge his meaning, can't tell if they've fallen back into their old habits of saying things without really saying them. At times, she had thought they'd gotten past that; but then again, look at their last week. They've been veering away from the difficult subjects for years. It's why their relationship fell apart the first time, it's what keeps making it fall apart. “Okay,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says. “But you need anything, you just, uh, call me.”

She's tempted to just ask what it is he wants. But instead, she says, “I can't imagine that I will.” She feels somewhat safer, somewhat less paranoid, somewhat more capable. But she is still scared, too scared to ask him to stay. She is briefly, mildly disgusted with herself.

He nods a little at her, crosses the room and closes the door behind him. She keeps her eyes on the door, like it's going to open. Maybe. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. Maybe she should push through this part of her that's holding back, that's still hesitating. She couldn't imagine that she'd need anything, but then again. “But then again,” she mutters to herself, courage building inside of her, “it's not out of the realm of extreme possibility.”

She crosses to the door, opens it, and there he is. Leaning against the door like it's 2000 again. She smiles at him, can't help it. “Hi,” she says, maybe a little tentative. Maybe a little welcoming.

Mulder leans in this time, kisses her warmly. “Hi,” he mumbles against her mouth, and she laughs a little, somewhat in relief. She takes his hand and tugs him into the room, shutting the door behind him.

---

“I didn't mean it,” she says.

They're curled up in bed (a real bed, thank you very much), wrapped up in the comforter and silky sheet, Scully lying half on top of Mulder, and Mulder’s head half-pressed into her neck. He stirs slowly, his hair rubbing against her chin like a needy cat. “Didn't mean what?” he says with something of a nervous chuckle. Like he's scared she's going to take back everything she's said these past couple days.

She brushes her lips over his tousled hair, something warm building in her chest. “What I said the night we got back from New York,” she murmurs. “Or… the way I reacted.”

Mulder lifts his head, rumpled and sleepy, his eyes soft and gentle. “Oh, Scully,” he whispers, lifting a hand to stroke her hair back. “I'm the one who should be sorry. I said I wouldn't push you about moving back in, and then I…”

“No, Mulder. You shouldn't have to be sorry.” She tips her head forward until her forehead is against his. He slides his heavy palms up her hips, and she shivers, burrowing closer. “I… I've been indecisive,” she mutters. “I feel like I've lead you on.”

He shakes his head. “Never,” he says, and his nose bumps against hers as he leans in to kiss her on the mouth. “You've never led me on. Scully, I'd wait as long as necessary for you.”

Nearly embarrassed, nearly overwhelmed, she ducks her head until her face is against his shoulder. “You would?” she mumbles shyly, so quiet she almost hopes he doesn't hear.

“I waited seven years, didn't I?” he teases, nudging her side. Scully chuffs out a relieved laugh against his shoulder, and he kisses the top of her head. “I can wait a little longer,” he murmurs. “I would wait forever.”

She presses her forehead against his shoulder hard before drawing back to meet his eyes. “I don't want you to have to wait,” she says, surprisingly vulnerable, even to herself. Some uncertain emotion passes over his eyes, but he says nothing. He watches her, carefully, his face composed, trying not to show his cards. She reaches up with one hand to touch the side of his face. “I don't know if I'm… ready to come home yet,” she says softly. “But… I want to try again. With us.”

He says nothing. He says nothing, but she can feel the nervous thud of his heart against their ribs. She doesn't move her hand.

A smile breaks out over his face, slowly. He reaches up to cover her hand with his, and she intertwines their fingers.

---

They leave for home later that day. It seems so much more ridiculous now, that they drove here separately, considering everything—Scully thinks that right now, she'd love nothing more than a morning spent in the car with Mulder. But they did drive separately, and it seems like they'll have to drive back separately as well.

They're carrying their suitcases out to their various cars when Mulder catches Scully's hand in his, squeezes her fingers. “Let me buy you breakfast,” he says.

Her brow furrows, and she gives him a funny look. “Mulder, there is a free continental breakfast at the hotel,” she points out. “And it's closer to lunch time than breakfast.”

“Oh, those hotel breakfasts lose all the glamour and charm after the second or third morning.” He grins, nudging her hip with their tangled up hands. “Let me buy you breakfast, Scully.”

He's such a sap. She rolls her eyes and lets him buy her breakfast.

They meet at a restaurant outside of town, not wanting to tempt fate and stay there any longer. It's the type of greasy spoon they used to eat at a thousand times back in the day. Scully loves it. They sit in a booth catty-cornered to the wall that must be too small; their knees keep knocking together under the table.

They spend too long in the diner, drinking their coffee and arguing about nothing. At one point, Mulder jokingly suggests a game of Hangman, and she shoots him a look both of skepticism, and a reminder that he didn't seem too keen on the idea of Hangman the night before. She sketches out Tic-tac-toe on a napkin instead.

Just as she's winning her third round of the game, Mulder's phone beeps loudly on the table, vibrating hard enough to rattle his silverware. Scully gets a brief glimpse of the display as he scoops it up to check it. “Ryan Caruthers is still emailing you?”

“Snoop,” he says lightly, clicking on the email. “Yeah, the kid is nothing if not persistent. I figured I'd check the case report again while we're between cases.”

She bumps her knee against his. “I'll remind you that we have a report due to Skinner promptly,” she says, and he hums in response. She leans forward and catches a few lines of the email: Please keep looking into the case… I think they made a mistake… “Does he think that his uncle is innocent?” she asks.

“I'm not sure,” he says, setting his phone down. “I considered it, but the report seems to implicate Jared Caruthers pretty heavily… I looked at the autopsy report, but I'm horrible at that stuff.”

“Hmm.” Their knees knock together again. She takes a long sip of her coffee. “I could take a look at them for you, if you want.”

He grins, a little sheepishly. “Would you mind? I know it's not technically a case we're technically working on.”

In the back of her mind, part of her doesn't particularly want to deal with the case. But the rest of her is mentally chiding herself, telling herself that whatever happened to her in Willoughby was a long time ago, and it is time to let it go. It can't hurt her if she doesn't let it.

“Of course I'll take a look, Mulder,” she says. “Although we might want to save it for after hours, or when things are slow in the office. After Skinner got so upset the last time, we should probably hold off until there's an actual crime to investigate.”

“Hmm.” He grins again, wider this time. “You're probably right. We'll have to work late one of these nights.”

“Too bad,” she says lightly, like she hasn't worked late with Mulder a million times before.

“Oh, don't worry, Scully,” says Mulder. Their knees brush together again. “I'll take you to dinner first.”

---

Contacting the FBI was probably a dumb fucking idea, but Ryan didn't know what else to do. Doesn't know what else to do. These past couple years have felt like a downhill slide, ever since he started visiting Uncle Jared. Ever since other people started seeing the ghost again.

The thing is that it's been exhausting. The whole goddamn thing. He's spent weeks now digging into the murder of his parents, his one life-long nightmare. He's talked to people, tried to access crime scene reports, written Jared emails with questions that Jared tries to dodge answering. It gets exhausting, having to relive that over and over again.

But he can't stop. He knows he can't stop. It's getting worse.

 It happens again one night. He's asleep, tangled up in his greasy sheets that he probably needs to wash, when he hears a loud banging sound. A slamming sound.

Ryan jolts awake, his teeth chattering. He's trying to get his bearings when he hears another bang, louder this time.

He groggily shoves the sheets aside and stumbles to his feet, purely on instinct. He's not even thinking about the ghost; he's thinking about his aunt, wondering if she's gotten back yet, wondering if she's okay. “Aunt Annie?” he calls blearily, pushing the door open.

There's no answer. The hallway is empty.

Ryan grits his teeth, shakes his head. It's becoming more obvious what's happening here. He slams his door hard, making sure to push at it so it clicks all the way shut. So it won't be easy openable. (He'd lock it, but the last time he did that, Annie panicked when she couldn't get the door open.) He pushes at the door with his shoulder a little for emphasis, and then turns back to his bed, intending to text Aunt Annie and see if she'll be home soon.

As soon as his back turns, he hears it: the sharp rattle of the doorknob.

He turns hard on his heel, hands held out in front of him like a pathetic imitation of a Jedi, like he's trying to protect himself. But the door doesn't open. It only rattles, as if someone was trying desperately to get it open.

Ryan stumbles back a few steps until his thighs hit the mattress of his bed, his hands lowering to his side. “Nice try!” he calls out, and ignores the way his voice quivers.

The doorknob doesn't stop rattling. The motion almost seems to increase, the cross hanging on the back of the door joining in, almost vibrating in place. Ryan bites down on his lip so hard it bleeds.

The rattling spreads from the door to the walls: the crosses he'd hung up there rattling too, the rosary beads he'd bought on eBay and dangled from the doorknob of his closet door clacking together like chattering teeth. The printouts he has of crosses from the Internet, that he taped up, go fluttering madly to the ground. His dresser starts shaking in place, the drawers banging back and forth; behind him, the bed starts to move, rattling up and down as if there was an earthquake. Ryan can nearly feel the vibrations beneath his feet.

He stumbles madly away from the bed, to the center of the room, and shouts indignantly for the mess to stop. But the chaos continues, all the furniture in his room being shaken by an invisible hand. A picture he taped the wall detaches and flies across the room, hitting him in the face; he hears another one ripping in half. His school books clatter off of his desk. The cup of water on his nightstand overturns on top of his digital clock. The pillows from his bed go flying, too, hit him in the face with more force than he ever would've expected from a pillow and knock him right on his ass.

Fuck!” he yells, more surprised than anything, but it seems to be something of a trigger. The room freezes in place, like it's a movie someone paused. The pillows land on top of him, considerably lighter. The doorknob gives one last rattle, but it won't open. He didn't lock it, but he still knows (or maybe at this point he's just hoping) that it won't open.

Breathing hard, Ryan shifts on the ground, catching the photo from the wall under his leg. He picks it up carefully and sees that it's his parents’ wedding photo. It's unharmed, which he's grateful for, but it's hard to look at; their cheery smiles seem almost sinister in this context. Ryan stands and sets it on his bedspread.

The other photo, the one that ripped, is sitting on the bedspread, too. Ryan catches a glimpse of a black gown as he goes to pick it up and knows instantly what it is: the photo of his dad and Annie and Jared at Annie's high school graduation. Annie doesn't like that he has that up, but he's never taken it down, and she hasn't said anything since he first put it up. Ryan winces when he sees the rip, winces harder when he sees where the rip is.

The larger half still shows his dad and Annie, their arms around each other, grinning into the camera. But the fingers held up in bunny ears behind Annie's square graduation cap are missing the rest of the person they belong to. When Ryan finds the other half, his fears are confirmed: his Uncle Jared has been ripped out of the picture.

A sudden scratching sound comes to life out in the hallway, one that Ryan has learned to recognize well in his sixteen years. The lighting of a match. The flickery flames are visible under the doorway, accompanied by the creaking footsteps of the ghost walking away.

It's getting stronger. This is the one phrase in Ryan's head: It's getting stronger.

He strides easily across the room, hands shaking in fear, and locks his door.

Chapter Text

twelve.

october, 2017

The house has been cleaned up since the Perlieu incident.

That's the first thing Scully notices, the first time she returns to the house in Farrs Corner since that night. She'd expected it to still be half-destroyed (although she doesn't quite know why; the Mulder of five years ago was absorbed enough in his obsessions to let the house stay messy, but the Mulder of today is doing considerably better). When she entered and paused in surprise, Mulder had shrugged beside her. “I called in a cleaning service,” he said, almost sheepishly. “But I haven't bought anything new yet.” The unspoken rest of that sentence lingers: Because I was waiting for you.

Scully smiled at that. She couldn't help it. “I'll help you out with that,” she replied. “If you want.” And that is that.

The next few days or so is spent dealing with a bizarre man named Reggie, his claims of an alternate history and parallel universes, accompanied by strange, altered memories from their past. When the whole thing is finally over, they retire back to Mulder's (their, Scully corrects in her mind, almost daringly) house. He cooks, which she almost prefers over going out to dinner; she makes Goop-O ABC in his Bigfoot mold. They retire to the couch to debate over universes and sink into reminiscences of the past. She moves closer to him almost unconsciously, their thighs pressing together.

Eventually, work seems to take some odd precedence over sitting and doing nothing. Mulder retrieves his laptop to start his report on Reggie (she's told him about five times that this isn't a real case, and he's told her about five times that he wants this whole thing documented properly in the X-Files). She retrieves the file from Willoughby to finally look over that autopsy report she promised to look at. She saw it once before, nearly two years ago, but it's been a long time, and she could use a refresher.

“What is it that I'm looking for again?” she asks Mulder, flipping through the files with the flat of her thumb.

“Hmm?” He's still fairly absorbed in his report. She nudges his shoulder and motions to the file pointedly until his focus shifts. “Oh, just… anything out of the ordinary, I guess,” he says, scanning the file over the top of his glasses. “Anything to suggest that someone missed something about these murders, or that maybe they weren't murders in the first place.”

“Okay.” Scully moves papers aside until she hits the autopsy reports, all bundled together with photos of the bodies included.

She's had issues with small town coroners before, with the quality of their work or the thoroughness of their investigation, but these autopsies, signed off by one Pamela Underwood, seem satisfactorily thorough. She looks at the photos of the dead bodies unflinchingly, noting the defensive bruises and scratches that she remembers from the last time she looked at this, the number of stab wounds. Fifteen on Ian, ten on Marion. She reads the transcript of the actual autopsy, and has to bite her lip hard to keep from flinching here. Marion had given birth in the past year, sometime in the summer of 2001. She was still breastfeeding at the time of her death.

 By the time Scully is finished reviewing the report, there is one thing she is certain of. “These are definitely murders, Mulder,” she says.

He looks up from the laptop then, setting it down on the coffee table. “You're sure?” he asks, scooting closer to take a look.

“Well, this report is fifteen years old. Someone could have tampered with it, of course,” she says. “But the tox screen came back clean. No signs of drugs, not even signs that they'd been drinking. The cause of death was definitely the stabbings; they didn't die from other causes and then have it covered up. There's too many wounds for it to have been, I don't know, a freak accident where they fell on a knife or something like that. And the angle of the wounds, here…” She pulls out the photos to show him. “That rules out suicide,” she says. “Unless they both stabbed each other at the same time, which seems unlikely under the circumstances. And there's also this.” She points to the scratches and bruises on their arms and hands. “They tried to fight back, Mulder. I honestly don't know what this could be besides two murders.”

“Huh.” Mulder takes the autopsy report and scans it himself, nodding a little. “I see what you mean, Scully,” he says. “I thought it seemed pretty obvious that this was a murder, but I wanted to be sure.”

“Unless there's something being left out of the report, or someone manipulated the report, then I'd say we can be pretty sure.”

Mulder flips the file closed and passes it back to her. “And we still don't know why Ryan wanted us to look at this case,” he says with a sigh. “Unless he thinks Jared is innocent.”

Scully huffs out a brief, humorless laugh. “I seriously doubt it,” she says. “Considering he was found with clothes with the victims’ blood on it, and with residue of his skin under their fingernails. And that he signed a confession.”

“But he never made a confession of his own,” Mulder counters. “And I know the evidence is damning, but we've seen pretty damning evidence before that turned out to be false, haven't we? Maybe there was some sort of struggle with an outside party. Maybe he felt guilty because he couldn't save his brother and sister-in-law. It'd certainly explain the 9-1-1 call he made.”

“Mulder, his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon!” she protests.

“That doesn't mean he did the actual stabbing,” says Mulder. “They found other fingerprints on the knife, you know. Marion's were on there, too.”

She snorts, skeptical. “What, so this… mystery murderer of yours wore gloves, and just so happened to get the blood of Marion and Ian on Jared?”

“Maybe this mystery murderer wasn't alive,” Mulder says cryptically.

It's so ridiculous she nearly laughs. “Mulder, no,” she says, very sternly. “No. You are not blaming these murders on the Willoughby Specter, of all fucking things.”

Mulder shrugs. “All I'm saying is that it's a possibility. We know the spirit is involved, because of what's happened to Ryan. And did you see the apartment in the crime scene photos?”

“That does not mean a ghost killed two people!” she protests. “It's a ghost!”

“Maurice and Lyda were ghosts.”

“Who—” she starts to ask, and then she sees the look on his face. She rolls her eyes so hard, it hurts. She's never going to live that Christmas down. “I thought we agreed that… ordeal… was all in our heads,” she says curtly.

“We agreed upon no such thing,” he says coyly. How does he remember these things, anyway?

“It was almost twenty years ago, Mulder. And besides that, the Willoughby Specter seems very different than Maurice and Lyda. I seriously doubt it—if it even exists, which it likely does not—is capable of murdering people.” She's thinking of figures in the hallway and the mirror, glows underneath doors, and trying determinedly not to.

“Uh-huh,” Mulder says, maybe a little smug. He's raising his eyebrows at her. She swats him lightly on the shoulder, he catches her hand in his and squeezes it. “C'mon, Scully, you know that ghosts are real,” he says slyly, tracing the length of her fingers. “Just like doppelgangers. We don't know if they can murder people, but we both know that they are real.”

“I know no such thing,” she says hotly, but she leans her head on his shoulder, for absolutely no reason at all.

“Sure.” He kisses the back of her hand sweetly and tucks it into his lap. She leans closer, just a little. “I love having you here,” he says happily, and it could be interpreted as a guilt trip, but she knows it's not.

“You're a sap, Mulder,” she says, but she's snuggling closer. She's not thinking of ghosts or parallel universes or the Mandela-Mengele-whatever Effect; her mind is somewhere else completely.

“Like you're not.” He kisses the top of her head, lets go of her hand to draw her closer.

They stay like that for a minute, Scully tucked under the shield of his arm, tucked comfortably into his side, Mulder's nose tucked against the top of her head. She wriggles out from under her arm, getting to her feet. “C'mon, Mulder,” she says softly. “If I spend one more night on a couch when there's a perfectly good bed available…”

He chuckles softly. Gets up beside her and takes her hand.

---

They drive to work together the next morning. Mulder falls asleep wrapped up in Scully, warm and huddled together under the blankets, and wakes up to Scully straightening her hair in the bathroom, smelling like the shampoo she's kept there for months. It's one of the better mornings he's had in a while. They both manage to get ready in a decent amount of time, and are out the door right on schedule. They drive to work together. Mulder can't remember the last time they did that, even when Scully was staying here, or when he stayed at her house. It indicates that she'll be back to get her car later. He loves it. He feels deliriously, nearly foolishly, happy. He lets Scully pick the music and takes on the horrid DC traffic with stride.

They spend the morning mostly doing desk work. Mulder pecks away at his Reggie report; Scully cleans out his email inbox, looking for a legitimate case to take. (He's told her before that she doesn't have to do that, and she's argued, “But if I don't, then who will?” He's horrible about deleting emails. And besides, people typically email him about cases. Except for Skinner, who forwards stuff to the both of them.) It's a slow morning, and Mulder sinks so deep into his report (and research on the Mandela Effect and Dr. They) that he barely even hears the knock on the door. “Come in!” Scully calls out from the main desk chair, closing her laptop.

“Who's that?” Mulder stage-whispers as they get to their feet, and Scully shrugs just as the person enters.

It's a teenager, tall and strangely familiar, an Orioles cap pulled down over his eyes and a Visitors badge pinned to his jacket. It takes a few seconds for Mulder to place the face, but once he does, he's not surprised. “Ryan?” he asks knowingly. “Ryan Caruthers?”

Ryan nods, curtly. “Agent Mulder,” he says. “Agent Scully, right?” he adds, addressing Scully.

“Yes, that's me,” Scully says, an edge of disapproval in her voice. Mulder remembers, just then, what she told him last Halloween: she let Ryan go in the school. She seemed to have some qualms about it at the time; he wonders how she feels about it now. “What are you doing here, Ryan? How did you find this office? How did you get to DC?”

“I read an article online about this unit, it said the office was in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover building,” Ryan says impatiently, crossing his arms over his chest. “I wanted an update on my parents' case. Have you found anything?”

Scully exchanges a look with Mulder that suggests that he shouldn't share these details with Ryan directly. Mulder holds back a sigh. “I've taken a look, Ryan,” he says. “We both have. Although it is hard to find anything when you don't know what you're looking for.”

The kid sighs irritably. “I told you, it's not a normal murder.”

“That doesn't tell us a lot, Ryan,” says Scully. “That doesn't give us a lot to go on. I don't know what theories you have about your parents’ deaths, but it's hard to take the case at anything but face value.”

Ryan blinks angrily, shifting his weight from one foot to another. “You guys are supposed to be good at this stuff, right?” he mumbles. “Why can't you figure this out?”

Mulder suddenly remembers something else: their initial reintroduction back into Willoughby. The specific file they were looking at a couple weeks ago, before the break-in. “Initially, you wanted us to investigate the Willoughby X-File from 2002,” he says, and Ryan turns slightly towards him. “The Willoughby Specter,” Mulder prods. “This has to do with the Specter, doesn't it? You think the Specter is involved with the murders?” Scully nudges him a little from the side, like he's going to share his the-Specter-actually-committed-the-murders theory with the kid, but he ignores her. He already knows the Specter is involved, at least a little—through Ryan, of course, but he remembers the sheriff telling them that the Specter came up at Jared's trial. But he wants to know what Ryan thinks.

Ryan scoffs, his jaw jutting out. “I seriously can't believe you can't figure this out,” he says.

Mulder notes a theory he had when Ryan first called, that Ryan was seeing the ghost again, that the kid was scared. That theory suddenly seems plausible again. He tries coaxing, just a little, tries to make his voice reassuring. “I've seen it, too, you know,” he tells the kid. “Last Halloween. I saw it, too.”

Ryan doesn't say anything. Mulder looks over at Scully, and sees that she has a strangely guilty look on her face, that she's looking at the ground. He's about to ask her what's wrong when Ryan laughs, bitterly and roughly. “You don't know a thing about me,” he says. “You don't know a goddamn thing. No one does. The ghost is evil; that's what I wanted you to prove! The ghost is fucking evil. Uncle Jared knew it back in 2002, when his friend died. I know it, too. It doesn't warn people about bad things, it causes them. It possesses them, even, to cause bad shit. I've seen it possess people. How do you think all this stuff happens?”

Scully blinks in surprise, like she wasn't expecting this. Mulder's not surprised, not really; he's been expecting the malevolent factor since Joy Seers's theory. (Although he'd be lying if he said the possession thing doesn't throw him off guard a bit, despite vaguely remembering floating that theory to Joy and Scully last year. He'd suggested that Ryan was possessed, and Joy had doubted that theory, saying she'd never heard of a possession before.) “The ghost… possesses people?” he asks warily, clarifying.

Yes,” snaps Ryan wearily, as if relieved he finally figured it out.

There's a pause where the two of them are just standing there at their desk, uncertain, and Ryan sighs in disgust. “Look, I'm worried about my aunt,” he says. “I'm worried that she's gonna get hurt in all this. Or someone else will. The way Mrs. Seers did.” He gulps a little, looking at the ground.

“Is Mrs. Seers still in a coma?” Scully asks, carefully. Mulder knows she's been worried about Joy since they left last year, knows how much Scully liked her—hell, knows how much he liked her. They've both sent flowers and cards, hoped that she would eventually wake up.

“Yeah, far as I know,” Ryan mutters. He scuffs the floor with the toe of his shoe. “The last time this many people saw the ghost was 2002,” he says reluctantly. “And in 2002, three people died. And it happened a lot faster.” He kicks the floor a little. “I think I really am the only person to have seen the ghost before 2015. And I don't know why it came back then… but look what happened when it did. In 2015, that deputy got in a car accident. And the sheriff was in the fire. I know I set the fucking fire, but the place was supposed to be empty. I heard the sheriff followed the Specter back in.”

“I thought he followed the Specter out,” Mulder says—it’s been forever, but he has the vaguest memory of someone saying that.

“Whatever, okay? I heard he followed the Specter in.” Ryan gulps again, shoving his hands in his pockets. “And in 2016, there was another car accident that ended in Mrs. Seers in a coma. What if this keeps happening? What if it ends in someone actually dying this time?” The kid shrugs aggressively, as if trying to shrug off his words. But they aren't easily shrugged off. Mulder recognizes the sentiment; it's the same that the sheriff was expressing in 2015.

“Ryan,” Scully says, her voice surprisingly gentle. “How do you think that this spirit is involved in the murders?”

She sounds skeptical, like she already knows what Ryan is going to say, but not skeptical enough to scare the kid off. He shrugs again. “I… I think that Uncle Jared was possessed. I don't think he really did it.”

Surprise washes over Scully's face, uncertainty. “Ryan…” she starts.

“Look, I don't care if you believe me. I've got to go.” He's pulling at the drawstrings of his jacket, he turns towards the door. “Just… will you look into this stuff? Please? I don't know if the ghost can be gotten rid of, but… maybe if people know it isn't good, they'll stop trusting it or whatever.” He is frantic, eyes darting towards the door.

Mulder agrees almost automatically. “Yeah, we can look into it,” he says.

He can feel Scully's surprise, but she doesn't say anything. “You should probably go,” he adds. “Before someone notices that you wandered away from your tour.”

Ryan bobs his head up and down in an absent nod, turns and exits the office. Mulder can hear his sneakers pounding the floor all the way to the elevator.

As soon as the kid is gone, Scully turns to him with her eyebrows raised questioningly. “I'm not going to protest the idea of looking into this case further, Mulder,” she says, “since we were already planning to do that, more or less… but I will point out that it will likely be difficult to prove any of Ryan Caruthers's claims.”

“Difficult, maybe,” says Mulder, “but not impossible.” He's already turned to the filing cabinet and is digging in the sectioned off Hauntings area, looking for the actual X-File, flipping through file tabs with a pencil.

“Do you ever think anything is impossible, Mulder?” Scully asks, leaning against the desk.

“We've seen a lot of impossible stuff, Scully. But by definition, those things are not impossible.” He sticks the pencil between his teeth and pulls out the two files—the 2002 one, and the 2015 one. He tries to speak around the pencil as he drops the files on the desk; looking amused, Scully pulls the pencil out from his teeth. Mulder repeats himself as he sits down at the desk: “Remember the crime scene photos? All that stuff that looked like a seance?”

“We don't know that it was a seance, Mulder,” she says, tapping the pencil against the side of the desk before dropping it in the pencil cup.

“We could find out,” he says. “We could talk to some people who worked the case before. Talk to Jared Caruthers himself, maybe.”

“Mulder, we've been over the original case so many times. Do you honestly think there's anything here we've missed?”

“It's certainly possible.” Mulder thumbs through a file, grabs his phone and scrolls through his contacts. “I just think we should be thorough.”

Scully cranes her neck to see the screen of his phone. “You're going to call the Willoughby Police Department?”

“Just to see if I can talk to some people who worked the case the first time,” says Mulder. “I feel like you're right, we can look at the casefile over and over again, and we may not ever get anything new from it. But officers who actually worked the case may be able to give some insight.”

“Didn't you get some information from the sheriff and Deputy Jacobs a couple of years ago?” she asks curiously.

“I did, some, but it's been a while.” He shoots her a teasing look. “Remember, I'm a middle-aged man, Scully.” She rolls her eyes and he grins, nudging her. “Also, I'm not sure that I was asking the right questions. I need to look at this with a different perspective.”

“You don't really believe that, do you, Mulder? That Jared Caruthers was possessed?” Scully asks.

He shrugs. “I don't know. I'd like to find out.”

“I don't see how you could get that information from anyone besides Jared Caruthers.”

“Which is exactly why I'd like to talk to him.” He shrugs again. “We should talk to Doggett or Reyes, too, if we can get in touch with them. I'd like to hear their perspective on this.”

“We should talk to Doggett,” Scully says in a rush, surprising Mulder a bit; they admittedly don't discuss the subject of Doggett and Reyes much, but he always thought she was closer to Reyes. When he shoots her a questioning look, she adds, “Just… because I know how to contact him. We haven't talked in years, but he's living in Florida, last I heard. I have no idea where Monica is.”

He shrugs, nonplussed. “That's fine. Maybe you should be the one to talk to him, though… you two will probably have more to talk about.” He means that genuinely; he's had time to let go of his resentment about what happened while he was gone, about Scully's friendship with Doggett, but there's still no lost love between him and Doggett.

She shrugs. “Sure, I can do that.”

He grins gratefully at her. “Thanks, Scully.” He nudges her again and she dips her head to hide her small smile. “Hey,” he adds, thinking of it just then, “do you want to come with me to talk to the Willoughby cops? I understand if it's not your speed…” But I wanted you to know that I wanted you to come, he adds silently.

She looks up at him, traces of a smile still on her face, and shakes her head. “I appreciate the sentiment, but someone should probably stay here and cover for us in case Skinner comes around with questions.” She pats his arm as if reassuring him. “I can try and get in touch with Doggett while you're gone, kill two birds with one stone.”

“Oh, that's a good idea.” He taps her wrist with one finger, playfully, and reaches for his cell phone. “We can meet for dinner after,” he adds. “I owe you a real date.”

 He almost misses it as he turns back to his desk: the flicker of another smile across her face.

---

Mulder drives to Willoughby after lunch to meet Deputy Jacobs, who promises to bring a couple of other people who worked the case. They meet at the diner, with its usual Halloween decorations plastered on the window. Deputy Jacobs waves him over, sitting at a table with two other officers. He stands as Mulder approaches the table, reaching across it to shake his head. “Agent Mulder, good to see you again,” he says. “You find anything new in that file?”

“Maybe,” says Mulder with a shrug. “That's what I'm here to find out about.”

Jacobs sits back down at the table, motioning to his colleagues. “Joe couldn't make it, he had some stuff to take care of, but this is Winnie Burns and Mike Terrence. They both worked on the case back in 2002.”

Mulder shakes hands with Winnie and Mike, nodding politely. Winnie offers him a polite, if not slightly awkward, smile in response, but Mike just nods in return, his face expressionless. “So, you buy into this Specter bullshit?” he asks as Mulder sits back in his chair. “Or so that's what I've heard.”

Deputy Jacobs's mouth twitches like he's slightly uncomfortable. “I've… become interested in the Specter legend, and I also have an interest in this case,” Mulder says, drumming his fingers on the file on the table. “I wanted to get some firsthand perspective on the case.”

“Yeah, Kenny filled us in in the details,” says Winnie. “What do you want to know?”

Mulder shrugs. “Do you remember anything out of the ordinary with this case? Anything strange, anything that didn't make it into the report?”

Winnie and Mike exchange a quick look. “Not really,” Mike says. “It was an open-and-shut case. Everyone knew that Jared had been a mess since his friend's suicide earlier that month. And before that, it had been rumored that he had some anger issues. With the blood and the DNA evidence, with the neighbor as a witness… I don't think there was ever any doubt that he did it. There was always doubt as to why he did it… but never that he did it in the first place.”

“Except for the fact that he never confessed,” Deputy Jacobs chimes in.

“He may not have ever explicitly confessed to the murders, but he did sign a confession, Ken. And he didn't deny that he did any of it at the trial,” Winnie reminds him.

Mulder taps his thumb against the side of the folder. “There were never any other suspects considered?” he asks. “Any… doubt that they were both murdered?”

Mike scoffs. “Absolutely not. The evidence was overwhelming. They both got stabbed multiple times!”

“Are you thinking it could've been a suicide or something?” Winnie asks, seeming genuinely curious. “Or that someone besides Jared was responsible?”

“I'm not sure,” says Mulder. “I just think there's something deeper here.”

Mike laughs. Deputy Jacobs shifts awkwardly in his chair. Seemingly a bit sympathetic, Winnie offers, “I remember how that case went. We got called out in the middle of the night—most of the force, actually. The sheriff, the sheriff we had before Joe, he was freaked. We'd had to deal with a suicide, and then a couple weeks later, a double murder? Willoughby usually isn't that violent.”

Unless the Willoughby Specter comes to visit, Mulder adds silently, nodding for Winnie to go on. She continues, “We pronounced Ian and Marion dead pretty much when we got there. We had to call in the county coroner, the one who did the autopsy on Holly. Er, on the woman who committed suicide,” she adds, looking at Mulder for clarification, and he nods again. “Anyway, I think Joe and Mike interviewed the neighbor who ran into Jared in the hallway, and his testimony was pretty indicative of Jared as the murderer. We called in the families, of course, but, uh, Marion's parents lived far away and had to catch a flight in, I believe… and I think the Caruthers… the parents were in Europe, and Annie was at grad school. We had to wait to talk to them. In the meantime, Joe and Mike and Kenny were all working on actually finding Jared. But they sent me and someone else to talk to people that Marion and Ian and Jared would've interacted with that day… you know, friends and co-workers and past employers… And everyone we talked to about Jared said that he had lost it when Holly died. He was distraught about losing her, he was obsessed with the ghost… Almost everything we heard implicated him.”

Exactly,” says Mike pointedly. “Open-and-shut case. Simple. Y'all shouldn't try to make it into more.”

He claps Deputy Jacobs on the shoulder, who grimaces a little. “I should clarify, Agent Mulder,” he says, “that I was one of the ones to talk to Annie and her parents, when they finally got into town. And they were all absolutely shocked when they heard we suspected Jared. Insisted that he wouldn't do something like that, he couldn't. Especially not to his brother and sister-in-law.”

“But they stopped that line of thinking when they saw the evidence, Ken,” Mike chides. “Ask Annie Caruthers now, and she'll tell you that her brother did it. Why are you so obsessed with proving otherwise?”

Mulder clears his throat loudly. “Was Jared's obsession with the Specter ever considered as a factor in the murders?”

Deputy Jacobs has something of a knowing look on his face, but he says nothing. Mike looks as if he's going laugh himself silly. “What do you mean?” Winnie asks.

Mulder knows the question won't go over well, especially with Mike, but he has to ask. He's asked people with more skepticism questions with more ridiculousness. And besides, maybe Deputy Jacobs will know something; he seems open to this stuff. He clears his throat and says, “Was possession… ever considered as a factor in Jared Caruthers's motives?”

Winnie and Jacobs both blink in surprise. Mike laughs harder this time, more mockingly. “I'm sorry, but I'm done now,” he says. “Possession? Where did you get this guy, Kenny?”

“Oh, screw off, Mike,” Winnie says wearily. “No, Agent Mulder, I can't say we ever did consider possession. Do you mean by the Willoughby Specter? I don't think it can possess people; doesn't it just warn?”

Mulder shrugs. He doubts he'll get anywhere with this line of conversation. “I couldn't say, Deputy. I'm sure you know the lore better than I do.”

“C'mon, Winnie, we should get back,” says Mike, removing some crumpled up bills from his wallet and dropping them onto the table. He reaches out to shake Mulder's hand as they all get to their feet. “Nice to meet you, Agent Mulder. Good luck with these ideas of yours.”

“Thank you,” says Mulder dryly, struggling not to roll his eyes. He's dealt with so many small-town cops like this that Mike is practically a stereotype. He'd argue with the guy, but he doesn't have the energy.

Winnie shakes his hand next, somewhere between polite, apologetic, and sympathetic, and follows Mike out. Deputy Jacobs lingers, carefully, until the doors of the diner shut behind them. “I shouldn't have brought Mike,” he says in apology as soon as it does. “He's a prick, but he was the only one besides Winnie who worked the case, who hadn't moved on and wasn't busy…”

“It's fine. I'm more than used to this stuff,” says Mulder.

Jacobs scans the diner before leaning in closer to Mulder and saying in a low voice, “I've never heard of the Willoughby Specter possessing anyone, I guess… but Ryan tried to claim possession after the fire.”

Mulder blinks in surprise. “What?”

“Yeah. I can't remember very well, but he said something about how the ghost possesses people all the time.”

“Huh.” Mulder offers his hand to the deputy, who shakes it immediately. “I think I might pursue this line of investigation,” he says thoughtfully.

“I think I'm about to that place myself,” says Deputy Jacobs, drawing his hand back and nodding politely. “Let me know if you find anything, Agent Mulder.”

---

Scully emails Skinner to ask for Doggett's email address or phone number while she finishes the Reggie report. (Which mostly consists of cleaning up what Mulder already wrote. She swears that there is a novelist somewhere inside of him; he's always much too fanciful and much too wordy.) Skinner responds a couple hours later with the number, and the obligatory question of why she wants to talk to him. She suspects he thinks it's because something's happened with the smoker again, or with William. She ignores that part of the email, programs Doggett's number into her phone in case he doesn't pick up and calls back, and is pressing Dial before she can really think about what it is she's going to say.

Her anxieties immediately rise when she hears the rings. She hasn't talked to John in years, aside from a few phone calls, covert postcards in 2002, and a somewhat awkward dinner she and Mulder shared with him when their connecting flight was delayed in Florida. What if he's working with Reyes, what if he doesn’t know she’s betrayed them? She’s considering just hanging up and sending an email when the phone clicks on the other end. “This is John Doggett.”

Scully clears her throat. “Hi, John. This is Dana.” There’s an awkward pause after that, and she adds stiltedly, “Dana Scully.”

“Oh, yeah, Dana, hi!” Doggett says on the other end, surprisingly cheerful. “How are you? It's been forever since we caught up.”

“I'm doing fine,” she says, and is surprised to find that she actually means it. It's almost refreshing, to say she is fine without feeling like a liar. And she is fine. Things are good. “How are you doing?”

“Oh, I'm doing okay… You know, it's been fifteen years since I moved down here, and I still don't miss cold winters.” He laughs, and Scully does, too. “How's Mulder?” he adds. “He doing okay?”

“Mulder's doing well,” says Scully automatically before remembering that people don't usually ask her about Mulder. (Bill doesn't, of course, and her friends from the hospital have all avoided the topic whenever they've talked. And any acquaintances she's made at the FBI probably don't know that she and Mulder used to be—are—together. And Skinner talks to them both.) She wonders if John even knows about the break-up; she doesn't know if she ever mentioned it. She rushes to fill the awkward silence: “Actually, Mulder and I are back on the X-Files.”

There's something of an air of shock on the line before Doggett says, “Really? Can't say I ever would've expected that, after all the trouble we got in.” He chuckles. “How the hell did that happen?”

“Skinner. He essentially stuck his neck out for us when Mulder found something that warranted investigation. We've actually been back for two years now.”

“Wow,” says Doggett. “Well—congratulations. I know the Files meant a lot to Mulder. And to you.”

“They did,” Scully says, although they hadn't very much in the year before she left the FBI completely. It'd always been about Mulder. “Actually, John, I was hoping I could bother you about an old case.”

“It's not that man-bat thing, is it? Wasn't that thing supposed to come back in however many years?”

“Fortunately, no,” she says. “Mulder and I have stumbled across one you and Monica worked—a few times, actually. And we're not sure what to make of it.”

“Oh,” says Doggett. “Which one?”

“The one in Willoughby, Virginia. The case with a ghost… I-I think you were called in to investigate a suicide.”

“Yeah, that sounds right.” Doggett sounds deep in thought, like he's trying to remember. “I think I remember that one. We went down there about a month before the X-Files were closed.”

“But you didn't ask me to go along with you,” says Scully, so matter-of-factly it surprises her. Would she rather them have asked her to go along, during that period where she could barely even get out of bed?

A long pause. “No, no, we didn't,” he says finally. “I think that Mon and I figured… under the circumstances… that you wouldn't want to…”

“Yes, I understand,” she replies too quickly, probably coming off as abrupt. She wants to change the subject before they get too far into that mess. “You… you didn't find anything, did you?”

“No, not really. We talked to a couple people about the possibility that the suicide had been influenced by this ghost, if I recall right, but a lot of 'em insisted that the ghost wouldn't be involved in that. Just sounds like a campfire story to me.”

“I can't say I disagree,” Scully says with a quiet chuckle. “What did Monica think? Do you remember?” She feels strange talking about Monica, after nearly two years of firmly believing that she is working with the smoker.

“Huh.” He's paused, as if thinking. “I think she was kind of suspicious of the whole thing. The way the whole town kind of rallied around the ghost… It's been a while, but I remember she thought there was more to it than what everyone was saying.”

Scully chews at her lower lip, suddenly nervous. It feels strange to be talking about her old friend this way, when she may be a traitor. “And the murders?” she asks. “Did you hear about the two murders committed by a close friend of the suicide victim's? A Jared Caruthers?”

“Oh, yeah, we did hear about that,” he says. “Monica seemed pretty interested in it, but it was right around the time the Files closed, when everything went crazy. So we couldn't investigate.”

She can't remember the exact dates, but if Holly Smith died in early May, than the timeline there sounds right. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“That kid, Jared Caruthers, though,” Doggett says. “I was surprised to hear he did it. I think Mon was, too. He was pretty grief-stricken when we talked to him, but I never got the impression he'd hurt anyone. He seemed like a perfectly nice guy.”

She knows what Mulder would say to that; more proof that Jared Caruthers was possessed.

Doggett speaks again before Scully can. “What happened to get you two involved in that?” he asks. “More deaths?”

Scully laughs automatically at that. “No, actually… initially, it was a missing dog,” she supplies, and John laughs on the other end. “And then… issues with Jared's nephew,” she adds. “Ryan Caruthers… he's just a kid, but according to him, he's been seeing the ghost for years.”

Doggett chuckles, out of amusement or disbelief. “And what do you make of all this, Scully? Do you believe in the ghost?”

He sounds like he's kidding, but it makes Scully pause. Makes her think of all the strange things she's experienced, even if it is only a figment of her imagination. “No,” she says, her voice soft. “No, of course not.”

Doggett chuckles again. “The nephew—what was his name? Ryan? Wasn't he the baby of the people Jared murdered? Am I remembering that right?”

“Yes.  Jared murdered his brother and sister-in-law.” She swallows hard, picking at a loose chip of paint on the wall.

“That's what I thought.” Doggett clicks his tongue. “That poor kid. I'm not surprised he's… seeing things, after everything he went through.”

Scully remembers, suddenly, that Doggett has lost his son, too. She can't believe she'd nearly forgotten that. “Me either,” she says huskily. She feels like she is missing things that Mulder would be asking, but she is lost in the mess of her own thoughts. She taps her fingers on the side of the table. She asks, on an impulse, “John, have you talked to Monica recently?”

There's a pause, so long it almost makes Scully suspicious, makes sweat spring up on her palms. (Is he working with the smoker, too, can she trust him? Does she have any friends anymore? Do she and Mulder have any allies?) She's about to press when Doggett says uncertainly, “Not in a while. No. Have… have you heard from her recently?”

He's hesitating, she thinks. Hesitant. She doesn't know what it means. “No, I haven't been able to get in touch with her,” she says, forcing a touch of lightness into her voice. “I'm not sure where she is.”

She asks Doggett some questions about Florida to change the subject, and he seems a bit relieved by that. He sounds happy, talking about his life, and Scully is glad that he's happy. She still has no idea whether or not he knows about Reyes's betrayal, whether or not he's involved, or whether or not she can even believe her vision of Reyes's betrayal, but she almost thinks she's happier not knowing, for now.

---

After work, Scully meets Mulder at a restaurant they both like in Bethesda. He tells her that the cops he spoke to in Willoughby seemed skeptical to the ideas that Jared Caruthers wasn't responsible, or that possession could play a factor. Aside from Deputy Jacobs, of course. “That response doesn't surprise me, Mulder,” Scully says gently. “Possession is a pretty out-there theory.”

He makes a face at her. “I've operated on 'pretty out-there theories’ for years now, Agent Scully,” he retorts, and she laughs quietly. “Did you get in touch with Agent Doggett?” he continues. “What did he say?”

“Well, first of all, I don't think it's Agent Doggett anymore,” Scully says. “Seeing as how he hasn't worked at the Bureau in fifteen years. And second of all… his account sounded pretty similar to our experience. He said that most people insisted that the ghost wouldn't have anything to do with a suicide, that it couldn't have caused it. He mentioned that Reyes was suspicious, though. And that she'd wanted to investigate the murders, but the X-Files had already been closed.”

“Huh.” Mulder looks intrigued, taking a sip of his water. “You really don't have any way to get in touch with Reyes? I'd love to get her perspective on things.”

“No, I really have no idea,” Scully says abruptly. “And Doggett didn't either.” An awkward pause follows, and she adds, “I'm sorry, Mulder.”

He shrugs, nonplussed. “Did Doggett say anything else?”

“He said that they were surprised to hear that Jared did it. That he seemed like a nice guy.”

Mulder nods thoughtfully. “Well, I think we have plenty of things to support further investigation into this case,” he says.

Scully raises her eyebrows in surprise. “How did you come to that solution?”

One corner of his mouth turns up as he looks at her, with some degree of amusement. “Well, Deputy Jacobs seemed to think that there's some solidity to Ryan's theory—although I didn't disclose it was Ryan's, of course. Doggett admitted that he and Reyes believed that there was something suspicious going on. And we did promise Ryan that we'd look into it.”

A part of Scully wants to argue. But she doesn't, and she doesn't largely because of something that Doggett said earlier. About Ryan, about everything he'd been through. “I think you're right,” she says, and momentary surprise flickers over Mulder's face. “I think we need to keep looking into this, if we can.”

She doesn't elaborate, but she doesn't need to. The surprise on Mulder's face is replaced by a knowing look. Understanding. “Because of William,” he says. Not a question.

Scully clears her throat awkwardly. “Yes, because of William. Is that silly?” she asks in a quiet, sheepish voice.

Mulder laughs a little, nervously. “No,” he says. “No, of course not.”

He reaches across the table and slides his fingers into hers. She squeezes his hand, looking down at the table. “I guess… it's hard to see a kid going through that… when I'm so afraid things are like that for William,” she says softly. “Or worse. The idea of him… seeing things… and nobody believing him…” She can remember that moment last year in the school, when she decided to let Ryan let without reporting the break-in; she still doesn't completely understand why she did it, but she thinks it's for the same reason as this. It's because of her son. And if they can't help him—if they don't get the chance to help him—then shouldn't they help a kid who might be like him? “And he's looking for answers about his parents,” she adds sheepishly, embarrassed. “I guess… it's the sort of thing that I… I wonder if…”

“I know what you mean,” Mulder says immediately, and she's grateful that she doesn't have to spell it out. For this wordless communication they've developed: bad as it is, they hope that William is looking for them. “I feel exactly the same way.”

She smiles at him, just a little. He pushes at her thumbnail with his, nudges at her thumb in initiation of a thumb war. “So you're in?” he asks softly. “You want to keep doing this?”

She nods, captures his thumb with hers. “I'm in,” she says.

Chapter Text

thirteen.

november, 2017

A couple weeks pass with no leads on the unofficial Willoughby case. Mulder and Scully don't exactly want to officially go down there and investigate—lest they draw the wrath of the Budget Office again—so they've been working on other cases in the meantime. One in West Virginia, another in Indiana. Mulder writes a letter to Jared Caruthers and sends it to the prison he's at in Pennsylvania, but they don't get a response right away. They're back to their usual routine of spending a few nights a week at one of their houses, but it's different now. Now, they're together, in whatever sense of the word.

They spend a weekend in Scully's place, walking the dog together, Mulder fighting with the technology to cook, wrapped up in blankets on the couch or in her bed. Three nights at the house in Farrs Corner, staying up too late working and passing Mulder's reading glasses back and forth because Scully left her pair in her bedside table drawer. Another night in Scully's bed, tipsy and giggling like newlyweds. They buy each other breakfast or lunch at work. Mulder insists she take the desk chair. They keep things relatively peaceful with Skinner, despite past tensions. It's almost idyllic.

They're at Scully's one weekend morning, wrapped up in her sheets and comforter, huddled over on one side of the bed because that monstrous dog of hers is taking up the entire other half of the bed. Sprawled out by the pillow, taking up just enough space so that they can't lay there. Mulder didn't know a dog that small could take up that much space. “We need to renegotiate this space issue,” Mulder says into Scully's hair, his arm around her waist.

She shifts in bed, the top of her head landing just below his chin. “Mulder, I never expected you to argue about a situation that landed us sitting this closely in bed,” she says coyly. She's teasing him.

“Maybe not, but I didn't expect to have our space reduced to the size of a twin bed.” He nudges her side through the blankets. “Maybe the dog should have his own room, Scully.”

She scoffs. “Well, that seems a little excessive.” Next to her, Daggoo yawns—admittedly adorably, that little fucker—and Scully scratches his belly contentedly. “You and your dogs,” Mulder murmurs, kissing the part in her hair, and she shifts against him again, snuggling into his chest.

On the bedside table, his phone beeps with the email alert. “Some important case?” Scully mutters huskily against his shoulder as he reaches for his phone.

“Hmm. It's from Jared Caruthers, actually,” he says with surprise, opening up the email. “I included my email in case he wanted to forgo letters. Looks like he did.”

Scully props herself up on one elbow, scooting to the other side of the bed and pushing Daggoo away. He crawls into her lap, wriggling and yipping, and she scratches the top of his head. “Really? What did he say?”

Mulder scans the email. “He's willing to meet with us,” he says. “He mentions the possibility of us coming down sometime next week.”

Scully cranes her neck to read over his shoulder. “That sounds good to me,” she says. “How far away is the prison?”

“Couple hours. Up in Pennsylvania. We could drive up after lunch on Monday if there's no new case.”

“Mmm.” She rubs her nose briefly against his neck. “That makes sense. We can stay over here again Monday night if you want; I think it's closer.”

“That's sweet of you.” He kisses the top of her head again. “Although the mutt and I may need to have a discussion before then. I think it's ironic that he likes to sleep on my side of the bed.”

“Oh, hush, you big baby.” She pats the side of his face. “You'll be just fine.” He kisses her abruptly before she can finish.

---

The weather this fall has been kind of sporadic: hot one day, freezing the next. Tonight, it's freezing. Ryan hates the irony in that; the one night he'd wanted to spend outside.

He finally has his driver's license, but he has to borrow Annie's car if he wants to go anywhere. She said that he could have hers when she got a new one next year, but he suspects she's still sort of suspicious of him after the fire. That the suspicion will never completely go away. She says she isn't suspicious, that she trusts him, believes him when he says it was a stupid mistake, but he doesn't believe her. It probably doesn't help that he is technically going back to the scene of the crime tonight. If he gets caught, he'll never live it down. That'll end any chance he has of ever regaining his reputation in this stupid town.

He borrows his aunt's car because it's freezing and about to rain, and because he's tired of riding his bike around town like a little kid. He's trying to avoid suspicion, so he parks it at the nearby church and walks, up the street, past the houses near the church and to the site of the original apartment building. The place where his parents died. It's gone now, of course, but they're building some new house on the property. Ryan can't decide how to feel about it, but it's not like he has any sway over the decision. Especially considering he burned the original place down. (It seems so stupid now, thinking about why he burned the building down—to try and stop the Specter. It seems so childish. You can't stop the Specter that way. He's trying to find another way.)

The new house can't be called a house; it's a skeleton, only the frame and part of a wall in place. The chunk of wall faces the street, and Ryan gratefully ducks behind it. It's already dark, but he doesn't want anyone driving by to see him inside and get suspicious. Aside from this being the scene of two Caruthers family crimes, he's technically trespassing. He turns on his flashlight and props it up against the wall, leaving him a small yellow-white light to work with. From his backpack, he pulls the folded-up board from under his wallet. Finds the planchette and pulls that out, too. A Parker's Brother Ouija Board, bought for two bucks at the Goodwill in the next town. It's a fucking cliché, but it's all he's got.

He's never played with one before. He's been terrified of them all his life. (He sees a ghost all the time; why the fuck would he want to summon another one?) A friend of his had one at a sleepover, and he refused to play, and got called a weenie until he cried and called his aunt to come and get him. This feels like a rite of passage, a fulfillment of everything he's checked out of all of his life.

He pulls out the video camera he stole from the closet and sets it up facing the board. It's probably stupid, considering that people probably still suspect him of faking the house in class last year (and probably only let it go because Mrs. Seers got into that accident, and Agent Scully never let on that she saw him in the school), but he wants video proof. If this works, he's going to send it to Agent Mulder, who probably believes in this shit. A witness testimony of sorts. Ghosts are real, and the Specter really did possess my uncle. It's all real. He makes sure it's recording, sees that the little red light is on, and moves back to his spot before the board.

He pulls one more thing out of his pack and tucks it under the corner of the Ouija board: his parents’ wedding photo. Takes a deep, shaky breath. Come on, Ry, one of the kids at the sleepover had said—Ryan still doesn't know if he was trying to be nice or cruel. We can contact your parents. Don't you wanna talk to them again? He hadn't then. He was too scared.

He inhales, exhales, places the planchette on the board. Places two fingers on it. He takes two more shaky breaths, shakes shaggy bangs out of his face as he moves the planchette around the board a couple of times. Thunder crashes off in the distance.

Ryan’s fingers are cold on the plastic, hands shaking. He presses his shoulder against the bricks. “If there are spirits here tonight,” he says in a low voice, “please make yourself known using the board and only the board.” It’s probably not much protection against the Specter, but it’s something. And he has his old washable cross tattoo habit going again, and he’s wearing a crucifix that Jared sent with his last letter under his t-shirt. He offers up a quick prayer that this won't go badly, even though he's never prayed in his life.

Nothing happens. The planchette sits still in the center of the board.

Ryan sighs, chewing at his lower lip. It's childish, but he starts to move the planchette around the board. Swirling it back and forth. He spells out M-O-M and is on the D of Dad when the planchette yanks off one side. It rapidly spells out H-E-L-L-O.

His heart speeds up, fluttering hard, pounding against his ribs. “H-hello?” he stammers. “Mom, Dad? Is that you?”

The planchette slides again, violently, over to YES.

He laughs, a little terrified, a little joyful. He's heard stories about his mom and dad all his life—they met in college, they danced the Macarena and the Electric Slide at their wedding, they were so happy when they found out they were pregnant. His dad used to read to him every night while his mom fed him, his mom took him on long walks every day in the stroller, they both sung to him and neither of them could sing at all, they were as tone deaf as he is. But he has never once had a conversation with them. It's frightening, it's overwhelming. He can feel tears on his face.

Above him, lightning flashes across the sky.

“A-are you okay?” he whispers. “Is it nice, wherever you are?” He doesn't know if he believes in heaven, but if there's an afterlife (and there must be), he hopes it is good for them. His mom and dad. He has so, so many questions.

The planchette swirls, lands on YES again. And then it keeps moving, spelling out words. W-E L-O-V-E Y-O-U.

Ryan gulps. Wipes his face with his free hand. “I love you too,” he whispers. He doesn't know if teenage boys are supposed to tell their parents that they love them, but he's going to. He's never gotten to before, aside from the visits he and Annie paid to their graves when he was a kid. (Crouching in front of them, his hands covered in dirt and grass stains, his eyes sticky with tears as he told the stones everything he wanted to tell them.) This video is going to be embarrassing as shit.

Thunder rumbles again. Ryan clears his throat, wiping his eyes again. “Mom, Dad…” he says carefully. It feels so strange to say those words to them, even if he can't see them. “I need to ask you something. If you remember it.”

The board says nothing. The planchette is still. Ryan continues, “That night… uh, with Uncle Jared… did he…” His words break off, quivering. He doesn't know if he can say it. “Did he… did he mean to kill you? O-or was it not him?” He's stammering, weeping, blinking at the flash of lightning. He can barely articulate it, but she forces it out. “Was it the Specter? Was the Specter using him?” he whispers. “D-did the Specter kill you?”

The planchette yanks again. NO.

Ryan's mouth drops open. There's no proof, he has no proof, Jared won't tell him anything and no one else will believe him, but he was so sure… “He did?” he whispers. “Mom… Dad… he killed you?”

YES.

He shakes his head hard, his jaw clenched. “N-no, he couldn't,” he whispers. “He didn't. He…”

The planchette yanks again and again. YES YES YES YES.

The thunder booms, louder this time. A tear drips down Ryan's face. “Why?” he murmurs, his voice wrenched free of all noise. “Why did he kill you?”

The planchette loops around the board again, sharply. B-E-C-A-U-S-E O-F Y-O-U. Ryan gasps hard, yanking his hands away from the board, but the planchette keeps moving. Y-O-U Y-O-U Y-O-U Y-O-U… And Ryan suddenly understands that this isn't his parents, or not solely his parents, and he grabs for the board, for the planchette, to shift it over to GOODBYE, but the planchette moves before he can grab it. It goes flying, directly at him, and hits him in the forehead. He jerks back in pained surprise, and his head bangs hard against the unfinished wall.

He can hear the rumble of thunder again as he collapses on the ground, his head pounding.

His vision is funny, swimming, his stomach turning; he feels like he is going to throw up. His ears are buzzing with faint things, words, voices, and the sounds suddenly sharpen into something clear. Screams. Blood curdling screams, a woman's screams. A sharp, pained, deep-voiced groan, a whimper. Why, the voice pleads. Why are you…. The voice breaks off into another moan.

The screams break off into sobs, whimpers, pleas. Please, don't, don't, don't… another voice, a woman's voice, begs. Don't do this, please… Another scream, this one full of pain. Why? the voice pleads. Jared, why? Why are you doing this?

The responding voice is familiar, scarily familiar. It's different, though, darkly-toned, stiff, nearly mechanical. I have to.

More screams, more sobbing. Please, Jared, please… the voice pleads. Please don't hurt our baby. Please don't hurt Ryan. More screaming. Ryan, screaming. Ryan, crying out until his throat hurts. Ryan, lurching off to one side and vomiting hard.

His head hurts. Thunder is rumbling again, and his head, his throat, his eyes hurt. He knows what his parents sound like, Annie and both sets of grandparents have videos. But he's never heard them sound like that. Begging for their lives, for his life.

He wonders if any part of that was real, or if it was all the Specter. If just once in his life, he could hear his parents actually say that they love him.

He picks himself up off the ground, groaning and checking the back of his head—no blood, thank God. He checks the camera, too, and the little red light is on. Thank God for that, too; this is the best proof he could ask for. He puts the camera and the planchette into his backpack. But when he reaches tentatively, cautiously for the board, it yanks away from him as if shoved by an invisible hand. Seems to quiver in place, rattle on the slats of unfinished wood. Ryan reaches for it again, and the whole thing bursts into flames. He yelps, scrabbling back across the floor until his back hits the wall again. He blinks hard, as if expecting the image to go away, but it’s real. The board is ablaze. He can feel the heat of it seeping through his jeans.

He fumbles in his backpack until he finds a water bottle and dumps it over the board. A few sparks of fire remain on the board, and he stomps it out with his sneakers. His hands are shaking, his head is pounding. He stamps on the Ouija board until it stops smoldering, reaches down and grabs it, ignoring the heat. He throws it out of the skeleton of the new house, shakes his hands hard in the air to try and relieve the pain. Grits his teeth. He hurts all over, his head is pounding.

He finds the picture on the ground, soggy, blackened and charred around the edges. But he can still see his parents’ faces. He can still see them. He slips it back into his backpack and walks away.

Thunder claps again as he is walking back to the car. The sky opens up, and it starts to rain.

---

Annie is on the couch when Ryan gets home, absorbed in a Netflix show. She jumps when he walks in, fumbling for the remote and pausing it. “Hey, Ry,” she says, her shoulders relaxing in relief—that he's not a burglar, he supposes. Or a ghost. “You're home sooner than I expected. Did you see the movie?”

He shrugs. His head is killing him, and he's exhausted. And the fear hasn't completely left him, is wedged under his skin. His heart is still pounding too hard. You'd think that after seeing those ghost for most of his life, he'd be immune to all this fear, but he isn't.

“Do you want to watch a movie now?” Annie asks, motioning to the couch. “Make some popcorn, some candy? You can pick.”

He shakes his head, somewhat reluctantly. “I'm going to bed. Thanks, though.”

“Sure.” She shrugs. “There's some pizza in the fridge, help yourself.”

He nods, yanks his fingers through his hair and grimacing at the burst of pain. “Night,” he says, and walks upstairs. His hands are trembling. He just wants to go to sleep.

He pins the picture back up on the wall, first. Annie will ask what happened, but he doesn't care. Next, he hooks the camera up to his laptop and backs up the video three times—twice in the cloud, and once on the laptop itself. He fast-forwards through it; he doesn't want to watch it, but he wants to make sure it's all there. He types out an email to Agent Mulder and attaches the video. This is proof, the email says, and he'd wanted it to be proof that Jared didn't murder his parents on purpose, but this works, too. It is still proof—proof that the Specter is anything but angelic. It's something. He thinks this is plenty of stuff to convince the guy, he seems pretty open to this stuff.

He presses send, shuts his laptop and curls up in bed. Checks his phone and is responding to a text when it buzzes to life with an email alert. The email didn't send. It doesn't say why.

Reopening his laptop, Ryan tries again. And again. Each time, he gets an alert, and each time, it doesn't explain why. Usually, it'll say that the address is invalid, or the file is too big, but these say nothing. The file won't send, no matter what he does.

Ryan slams his laptop shut and puts it away, flopping on his stomach and burying his face in the pillow. He doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know what to do. That was his chance, to convince the FBI agents that Jared didn't murder his parents, or that the ghost was malevolent, or any of the above, but he's pretty sure he's lost it, if the email won't go through. He digs his fingernails into the mattress until the skin underneath stings. He stuffs the corner of the pillow in his mouth and screams in frustration. He keeps the light on even though he can't sleep with the light on, because he's too afraid to turn it off.  

---

On Monday, Mulder and Scully drive up to Pennsylvania to meet with Jared Caruthers. They call ahead to the prison, who seem surprised—because Jared's about to go on parole, Scully supposes. (Mulder told her a couple of weeks ago.) But the visit is approved, and Monday afternoon, they find themselves in a visiting room with Jared Caruthers.

He stands as they come in the room, reaches across the table to shake their hands politely. “Agent Mulder, right?” he says. “You're not, ah… you're not here to mess up my parole, are you?” He chuckles, but Scully can tell he's a bit nervous.

“Not at all,” she says. “I'm Agent Scully, Agent Mulder's partner. We'd just like to ask you some questions.”

Jared sits back down as they do. Scully has seen mugshots of him from back in 2002, and the man changed a lot: he is older, less disheveled. He's grown a beard. There's a certain amount of weariness in his eyes. He says, “So in your email, you mentioned knowing my nephew, Ryan.”

“Yes, we've run into Ryan a few times in investigations of Willoughby,” says Mulder.

“He's mentioned you a few times in his letters. I remembered the unit from when, uh, when my friend died in 2002. I think I talked to some people from it. But I don't think that was you two.”

“No, you would've spoken with our colleagues,” Scully offers. “Agents Doggett and Reyes.”

Jared nods. “Yeah, that sounds familiar.” He sighs a little, shutting his eyes briefly, rubbing at his mouth with one hand. “I’m sorry, it's just… hard time to think about. You had some questions for me? I'm assuming about what happened with my brother?”

“Yes,” says Mulder. “If you don't mind talking about it.”

He offers them a grim smile. “It's not like I haven't been asked to talk about it a million times before.” He folds his hands on the table, regards them politely. “What do you want to know?”

Scully clears her throat, shifting in her seat. “Could you talk about that night?” she asks. “What you remember?”

“Not very much, I'm afraid.” His voice is as grim as his smile.

“Anything you can tell us is helpful,” Mulder offers.

Jared sighs, shutting his eyes again. “I'll… I'll tell the story if you want me to,” he says. “It's a difficult story, but I'll tell it. Everything that happened that year… with Holly… and then Ian and Marion… it's hard to think about.”

“I understand,” Mulder says. “Take your time.”

Jared sighs again, presses his hands briefly into his eyes. “Okay,” he mutters. “Okay. Um, after Holly died, things sort of went downhill. Nobody would believe me that Holly wasn't responsible for her death, that the ghost would involved. Maybe her boyfriend believed me, a little, but he was in pain and he didn't want to hear it. Those agents came in and investigated, and they didn't really find anything, and I didn't know what else to do. I got fired from my job. I got recommended to several therapists, and hell, I probably should've gone. But I don't think it would've changed the outcome of that month. It just might've changed my involvement with it.”

“What do you mean?” Scully asks.

“Marion called me. She had taken a year off of work to stay home with the baby—she taught middle school English—and I knew she'd been bored lately. And she knew what a hard time I'd be having. We'd always been… friends. Pretty close friends. So she would ask me to keep her company after Holly died, let me play with Ryan or whatever, so I wouldn't be thinking about Holly. So I figured she was calling because of that.” He grits his teeth, staring down at his hands. “But she wasn't. It wasn't that. She was calling because she'd seen the ghost. Seen it three times, in fact. And she was scared. I-I don't think it was just because of Holly, I don't know if she believed me about Holly before she saw the ghost. But other people had been seeing the ghost, and other people had been experiencing bad shit because of it. And I think she started believing me then. She was scared for Ryan, that something bad was gonna happen to him. And she wanted my help.”

He's quiet, fidgeting with his hands. Mulder prods gently, “Wanted your help with what?”

“With the ghost,” says Jared. “She… she wanted to get rid of it. I don't know if it was more because of fear or boredom… but she wanted to get rid of it. We joked about it, before Holly died… we'd meet Marion and Ryan sometimes for coffee, and Holly would play with the baby, and we'd talk about Holly seeing the ghost, and the research her boyfriend was doing, and Mar would joke about exorcising it or something. But she was serious this time. She asked me if I was interested in helping her, and I said yes, absolutely. After what that thing did to Holly, I wasn't willing to risk it happening to anyone else. Especially not my family.” He winces, as if realizing what he's said, and drops his head into his hands. “So that was when it started,” he mumbles.

They sit in silence for a moment before Mulder speaks. “So… you and Marion were going to exorcise the ghost?” he asks. “What about your brother?”

“Ian… Ian was hesitant, but he agreed to help us after Marion asked him a few times. I'm not sure if he was being indulgent of our fears, or if he was actually concerned, but he helped when he could. We… we researched exorcisms, Marion went and got ordained online… It all seems so fucking juvenile now, but we were so young. Mar and Ian… they were so young.” Jared shakes his head, his face still hidden. “The, um… the night it happened… we were going to try and do it. The exorcism.”

That explains the state of the crime scene, Scully notes. The occultish and religious paraphernalia.

Jared presses his hands harder against his eyes briefly before pulling away. His eyes are damp. “Um, Mar and I set up. That day, we… we hung out with the baby, and we set up. Ian was weird about the whole thing, but he came. After work, he came home and agreed to do it. We… we had a plan. We were gonna summon the ghost with… with a fucking Ouija board, and then we were going to try to exorcise it. Get rid of it. To protect my nephew. God, it all sounds so fucking stupid now. I don't know what I was thinking. But I… I didn't know what else to do.” He wipes his eyes, sniffling. “I thought I was doing the right thing.”

Scully looks at the ground, uncomfortable. It's hard not to think about her sister, listening to Jared tell this story. She tries to remind herself that this is a murderer, that what happened to Melissa is very, very different than this, but it's hard to remember that when she's experienced every emotion she sees on his face. The guilt, the regret, the wondering what you could've done differently. She knots her fingers in her lap, presses her palms together.

“We, uh, we tried the Ouija board and nothing happened. Ian and Marion thought it didn't work. Ian wanted to quit, Marion wanted to try again… they were bickering about that. Ian went to check on the baby. Marion decided to make some food, I think… she was gonna make a salad. She was chopping tomatoes. She said we should eat something, and maybe try again. I decided to take a smoke break. I went outside to take a smoke break, out in the hall. That's… that's the last thing I remember.” His voice breaks. “T-the next thing I know, I'm waking up in the hall. Ian and Marion are on the floor, and they… they're just covered with blood… I had the knife that Marion used to chop tomatoes, and it was in my hand, and I remember thinking that the blade was red from the tomatoes, but it wasn't…” He makes a soft choking sound. Scully lets her eyes slip shut.

“Take your time,” Mulder says gently. Scully feels his hand cover hers on her knee, gently, and she wonders if he is thinking of Samantha. She tightens her jaw and opens her eyes, but she doesn't pull her hand away.

Jared takes a few deep breaths, rubbing at his face. “I guess you know the rest of the story,” he says dryly. “I… I called 9-1-1. I went to check on the baby, and by that time, I'd figured out what had happened. What… what I'd done. So I ran. I-I don't think I really thought about it, I just… I just did it. I didn't want to leave Ryan alone, but I didn't know what else to do. I just ran.”

Scully takes a few steady breaths, tapping her foot softly against the floor. Mulder says, “So… you don't remember the murders? If you don't mind me asking.”

Jared shrugs. “No, I don't. I don't remember a bit of it, and I think I'm happier that way. Living with the whole thing is bad enough.”

“I understand,” Scully says kindly—more kindly than she expected.

Mulder fidgets next to her, a sign that he wants to ask more questions but also doesn't want to push too hard. He says, “I don't know if Ryan has mentioned—”

“He has.” Jared smiles grimly at them. Cynical. “I appreciate my nephew's support,” he says. “Even if it's not necessary. After everything… not seeing him for thirteen years, or know if he was okay… I was so surprised that he didn't hate me. I know that my sister hates me.” He grimaces, rubbing at his jaw. “His ideas… I don't want to dismiss them. For a long time, I thought I was possessed that night. With what happened to Holly… I thought it was the only thing that made sense. I didn't want my brother and sister-in-law to die. But I didn't want to make excuses.” His teeth grit. “I am responsible, even if I didn't want to be. I pulled them into the problem with the ghost, after Holly… and I did the killing. Even if I don't remember it. Making excuses seemed cheap. It didn't seem fair, not to my family or to Marion's. I deserved not to have a chance to start over because of what happened. I deserved to have my life ended, too, in a sense.” He stares off into a corner, his eyes nearly glassy, like he's going to cry again. “Ryan… he's a good kid, and I love him, and I hate myself for what I did to him. I don't deserve his loyalty.”

There's an unexpected lump in Scully's throat; she didn't expect to be moved by the testimony of a murderer, especially a murderer she doesn't particularly believe. She nods and looks back down at the table, clearing her throat.

“I appreciate you talking to us like this, Mr. Caruthers,” Mulder says after a few beats of silence. He sounds like there's some emotion in his voice, too. If there's any language they both understand, it's guilt. “I just have one more question, if you don't mind.”

“Sure.”

“When you were arrested… you were found in the cemetery near your brother's home,” he says. “What were you trying to do?”

Jared laughs, and it has a touch of humor in it. Just a bit. “What do you think, Agent Mulder?” he asks. “I was trying to finish what we started the night before.”

---

“There's no way to prove he was possessed, you know,” Scully says as they pull away from the prison.

Mulder throws her a wayward grin from the driver's seat. “I knew you were going to stay something like that.”

“Well, there isn't,” she says matter-of-factly. “Whether or not I believe that theory, there isn't. It could just as easily be a lie to gain sympathy from his nephew.”

“He seemed to have plenty of guilt and grief about the whole thing,” Mulder says, having his thumb over his shoulder at the prison like a hitchhiker.

“That means he's guilty and he's grieving. That doesn't mean he's possessed.”

“So, what would be your alternative theory, then, Scully?” He's mostly teasing, but there's just enough seriousness in his voice to let her know he wants to know her theory. “Why is all of this happening in Willoughby?”

Scully considers it for a second, tapping her foot against the floor. “Do you remember when we first got called to Willoughby and I suggested that the town might be affected by some kind of a mania?” she asks. “A psychological response, possibly to the legend itself, or to the attention gained from claiming sightings?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what if that's part of it?” she offers. “And the things people see… the real things, not the stories that people make up… are the result of some sort of hallucinatory substance affecting the town?”

“The way ergot caused the Salem Witch Trials, you mean?” Mulder says slyly.

“I meant more along the lines of that mushroom field in North Carolina,” she replies dryly.

“Is the town of Willoughby being digested?” he says in that stupid not-spooky spooky voice that she secretly loves.

She nudges him in the side. “You know what I mean,” she says, and he makes a face at her. She laughs, quietly, because she really has missed this. They've been working together for two years now, and she doesn't think she'll ever stop missing this. “I don't know, Mulder,” she adds. “Hallucinations seem like the only way to rationalize everything that's happened.” That we've seen.

“Not everything,” he says softly. “Not quite.”

He's still smiling at her, sneaking glances out of the corner of his eye. She loves him. “No,” she says, reaching out and putting her hand over his knee. She squeezes his kneecap. “No, not quite.”

---

Ryan makes a trip to the grocery store after school and races home to beat his aunt. It's not a bad trip if he rides his bike; not far from school, not far from home. Sometimes he can appreciate this tiny-ass town.

He got the package from Amazon yesterday, it's sitting upstairs on his desk. The white sage, and the cheapest gemstones he could find. He puts those on his desk and dresser, lights some sage with his lighter. Then he rips open the bags from the grocery store. More crosses, the type he's seen in tacky decorating. Maybe they work better than the cheap plastic ones from Vacation Bible School, he doesn't know. He nails those on the wall. Annie will probably notice, but maybe not, she doesn't come in his room a lot. He hopes not. He doesn't want to have to explain this until it's all over.

The last thing left is the salt. He opens the bag and pours it in a line in front of the door, just like in the movies. Pours it in a circle around his bed. Along the windowsills and the door to his closet. Stores it in the closet for safekeeping.

The woman in the store had given him the strangest look when he unloaded his cart onto the conveyor belt. Probably only increasing his shitty reputation, but it doesn't matter. None of that matters, none of the banal, unimportant stuff. All that matters is ending this. He wants to finish what his parents started.

Ryan checks his salt lines, checks his sage. The sage smell is not great, but he wrinkles his nose and ignores it. He wants to make sure everything is right. He wants to make sure that it can't get in here.

It's the only way to keep himself safe.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

PART FOUR

 

chapter sixteen.

february, 2018

In between all the chaos—firemen arriving, interviews with the police, checking in with neighbors, and confirming multiple times that despite the fact that all of the ruined technology is technically connected to her, the house is not under her name, and yes, she's been subletting it for almost five years with no word from the original owner—Mulder takes Scully to a diner. (Their diner, she thinks in an almost possessive manner. They've been going to it forever, ever since the Tooms case; Mulder took her then to get her out of her apartment while the police finished up. It looks completely different now, painted green instead of blue with an altered menu, but she's not complaining. After all these years, even after good and bad memories in this diner, it still feels like theirs. Now that they're back on the Files, they go all the time.)

They're sitting side by side at the counter, their fingers intertwined and their phones facedown on the table, absently debating about the probability of sentient, vengeful robots, when Scully's phone starts buzzing insistently. She checks the screen quickly and sees that it is the Bethesda police. “I should probably take this,” she says apologetically, and Mulder nods understandingly, squeezes her hand tight.

She sits at the counter as she takes the phone call, Mulder's thumb rubbing against her palm. The gist is this: a good portion of the apartment was actually untouched by the fire, and a great deal of her personals can be recovered. Scully's relieved to hear that the boxes of things she kept from her mother's house were untouched, and that Daggoo is fine since he was staying at a neighbor's last night. (She'd left him at the neighbor's because she'd fully expected to head to Mulder’s last night, but they hadn't talked a lot last night because of a silly, good-natured bet that neither of them could go the whole meal without talking. Insecure from all of the silence, she'd ordered that driverless car halfway through the meal, and had instantly regretted it as the meal dissolved into a giggly rush and odd, adrenaline-induced escape.) But despite that, half of the house is destroyed. It's unliveable, the chief says, and he suggests that she find somewhere else to stay for the time being.

“Bad news?” Mulder asks sympathetically as she hangs up, squeezing her hand again.

Scully shrugs. “Looks like Daggoo and I need to find somewhere to stay.”

He gives her a funny look, tipping his head to the side. “You can stay with me,” he says, as if it should be obvious. “You and the mutt. Of course you can.” There's a degree of hesitance in his voice, like she wouldn't want to—the same way she hesitated. They've been closer lately, they've been together lately, but this degree of hesitance remains. They haven't talked about her moving back since the case in Henrico County. She's spent two Christmases with him, she's spent more nights with him than alone, but they still haven't talked about any of this yet. She thinks a part of her is still scared to move back, to say anything definitive about their relationship.

“Oh, thank you, Mulder,” she says, and leans her head on his shoulder on an impulse. “I just… don't want to impose.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” he says, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “It'll give me a chance to give you a better birthday dinner.”

She chuckles softly. “This is good,” she murmurs, motioning to the diner counter, and he smushes a kiss to her hair. “As long as the house is drone-free,” she adds.

“Oh, it'd better be,” he says with a chuckle of his own. He rubs the length of her arm, squeezes her elbow. “Want to go pick up your stuff?”

“Yeah, we might as well get some of it,” she says with a sigh, sitting up and taking a last sip of her coffee. “Some clothes. Daggoo. I should go ahead and take him off the neighbor's hands.”

He offers her a small smile, reaching down to take her hand again. “Stay as long as you like,” he murmurs, and she grows warm with the sentiment. She cranes her neck back to kiss him on the mouth, swings his hand a little as they leave the diner together.

---

Ryan is exiting the cafeteria, bumping into his friends as the mass of students file out, when he sees Mrs. Seers, healthy-looking and grinning in the middle of the hallway. The American History teacher hugs her with one arm, a couple students offer her high fives. Ryan, however, stiffens, freezing straight where he is until someone crashes hard into his back and shouts a protest right into his ear.

Ryan mutters an apology and ducks away, closer to the lockers, his neck bent, facing away from her. He's trying to avoid her; he isn't exactly sure if she really is possessed, or if she was possessed but the ghost is gone now (because it's never stayed any longer than a day or so, right, it usually leaves after its work is done), or if she was never possessed in the first place. But whatever the case, he doesn't want to talk to her. He ducks around a cluster of freshman and involuntarily meets her eyes, and that's when he realizes she's moved. Not towards him, but in the direction he's headed, further down the hall.

Ryan turns away, instinctively, and moves further down the hall. But when he looks back over his shoulder, Mrs. Seers is still there, moving a few feet away from him. She is following him, he realizes, and his heart thuds harder. He shoves past a cluster of seniors, probably too hard, and nearly runs into a pencil vending machine in an effort to turn a corner, but she is still there. The hallways are clearing out a bit, and Ryan moves faster, nearly running in an effort to evade her. But there she is, her heels clacking audibly on the tiles. Or—no, he corrects himself, the same way he did in the hospital the last time he saw Mrs. Seers: it's not her. He's almost positive, now, that it's not her.

Ryan ducks into the bathroom as the bell rings, shrilly. It's a feeble attempt—he doubts the ghost cares about sending the woman it has possessed into the boy's bathroom—but it's an attempt worth taking. He goes into a stall and locks the door, leaning hard between the wall and the toilet tank, his overstuffed backpack still on his back. His heart pounding too hard, his breathing too rough, his hands sweaty as he clutches the backpack straps. For a second, it is silent except for the blowing of the air conditioning.

And then he hears the scrape of the door against the tiles, the clacking of those heels.  

He presses harder against the wall, trying to tuck his feet awkwardly behind the toilet, frantically cursing himself for not crouching on the toilet in the first place. The bulk of the textbooks are hard against his back. The heels are growing closer. He can see Mrs. Seers's feet outside the stall. He holds his breath.

She's stopped in front of his stall. She's standing there, facing him. Ryan tries not to breathe, silly as it is; he knows she can probably see his feet. He waits for her to do something, to shake the door of the stall, to break it down, to menacingly warn him that it isn't over. (He knows, he knows it isn't over; he's known for a long time.)

But she doesn't. The ghost doesn't speak or move through the body of Mrs. Seers. It just stands there for what feels like forever, silently. Ryan gives up holding his breath, and tries to breathe quietly. But he doesn't move, and neither does she, until she finally turns, still silent, and clacks right out of the bathroom. The door shuts hard behind her.

---

At the sprawling farmhouse in Farrs Corner, Daggoo makes himself right at home. He's not unfamiliar with the property; Scully usually brings him with her if she's planning to stay more than one night. He hops right up on the couch and falls asleep, curled in the direct center of a cushion with his usual disregard for the space of others.

The house doesn't feel as empty now. That's what Scully keeps noticing, every time she enters: it doesn't feel as empty as it did right before she left. It's just Mulder and sometimes Daggoo there with her, but seeing them there is incredibly relieving. Things have felt different since they found their son. Almost lighter.

In the months since they found their son and lost him again, they've gotten to some strange state of simultaneous hope and acceptance. Acceptance that he is gone, for now, but that he is fine, hope that he will come back someday. They keep the snow globe upstairs in Mulder's room, the DVD of the footage of Scully talking to him right by the television. The photo of William playing baseball as a child pinned up on the fridge. (Mulder had told her that he'd taken it a few days after they'd gotten back from Norfolk, and she hadn't hesitated to put it on the fridge. It was some small reassurance that he'd had a childhood, a life after she gave him up; some reassurance that it hadn't all been pain and fear and visions. Afterwards, she'd felt nearly guilty about it, putting up a photograph of a child that was essentially someone else's, someone else's photo, from someone else's life. But it wasn't too different, she told herself, from the photograph she had tucked away of Emily on her birthday. It was something. Something that they had of their child. So it has stayed on the fridge.) They've spent a lot of time together since those few days in Norfolk, weeks at a time. They've spent a lot of time talking about what happened in Norfolk, what happened with their son. Whether or not they should go after him. They ultimately decided not to, simply because they don't want to scare him off. Scully hasn't been able to see him since, hasn't had any dreams or visions, but she has the vaguest feeling that he's all right. And unless that feeling changes, unless they get some inkling that he isn't all right, they've decided to leave him alone, as much as it may hurt. It's enough to know that he's alive out there, as much as they worry that he's hurt or scared or in danger; it's enough to know things about him, about his life and what he looks like and that he's thought of them all this time. It's enough.

Mulder helps Scully carry her boxes inside from his car, the few things she decided to bring. She already has a lot of things over here, anyways, things she's slowly migrated over, and she's still not sure if this is going to be permanent. They haven't discussed whether or not this is permanent. They haven't talked about it. Scully gets the sense that Mulder is a little hurt that she didn't want to bring all of her things, but he hasn't said a word about it. Neither of them have. He carries her boxes upstairs and helps her unpack and kisses her sweaty forehead in the doorway.

They collapse on the couch downstairs together, Mulder's arm draped over her shoulder. She rests her head on his own shoulder, mumbles, “Thanks for coming to get me last night.” She still can't believe he came. She remembers the wave of relief that accompanied the sight of his face on the other side of the screen, even as fear filled her to the brim. He got her out, he came for her and shielded her with his own body, the way he's done in the past. She doesn't know why it's such a surprise, why it makes her want to cry. She grips the hem of his shirt with a sudden possessiveness.

“Mmm.” He rubs his chin against the top of her head absently. “Who says I came for you?” he jokes. “I was running from the drones, remember?”

She pokes him in the side jokingly, her forehead against his collarbone. “Well, whatever the reason, thank you,” she says dryly.

“You're welcome,” he murmurs, and she can almost feel his smile. He rubs her side warmly with his palm. “I'll always come for you, Scully.”

She smiles, too, hidden against the side of his chest. “Ditto,” she says, and he squeezes her tight. They stay like that for a long time.

---

Later in the day, they are still on the couch. Scully is reading the book she left on the bedside table last weekend, her shoulder pressed to Mulder's. Mulder is flipping TV channels, the mutt curled peacefully in his lap. (He has to say that the dog has grown considerably more likeable in the years since Scully's gotten it. He mellowed with age. Mulder can relate.) It's the peaceful, domestic situation that he's been imagining on and off ever since they started things up again, the type of thing he imagines for when she moves back in. If she ever moves back in. (He's ashamed of it, but as soon as he saw that her house was on fire, he'd halfway hoped she'd ask to move back in after that. But she has given no indication that she wants to make this a permanent thing; she didn't even bring over all her stuff.) But this is enough, he tells himself. It's been enough for a long time. It'll be enough if this is far as it ever goes.

He's mentally wrestling with what to do for dinner tonight—That soup Scully likes? Something fancier? Maybe spaghetti?—when his phone beeps with an email alert. “Who's that?” Scully asks without looking up, turning a page. “Skinner?”

Mulder grins as he reaches for the phone; she recognizes all of his different notifications by now, and it's incredibly endearing. “I doubt it,” he says, scooping up the phone. “Remember, you wrote the report on that werewolf case from last week, and he actually likes your reports.”

“They weren't werewolves, Mulder,” she says absently, scratching Daggoo's head.

He sticks out his tongue and opens the email, raises his eyebrows in surprise when he sees the sender. “Actually, it's from Ryan Caruthers.”

“Seriously?” Scully sets her book down in surprise. “You haven't heard from him in a while, have you?”

“Not since last fall,” he says. The lapse in the Willoughby case had been almost convenient, coinciding with their trip to Norfolk—he doesn't know if digging further into the Willoughby case would've been a good idea, what with all the similarities to their own life. He'd nearly forgotten about the whole thing, embarrassingly enough, but looking at the email now, he wonders if things have gotten bad with the Specter. He suddenly feels guilty for never following up with Ryan, even though it was never really an official case.

“What did he say?” Scully scoots closer, leaning to read over his shoulder.

Mulder scans the email, and something like worry bubbles up in the pit of his gut. “He's scared,” he says, and he feels Scully looking at him in surprise. He passes the phone to her, recounting more of it: “He's afraid the ghost is going to hurt someone else. He says that his house is safe, that it's… protected somehow, but that the ghost can still hurt people he cares about.”

Scully's eyes move across his phone screen as she reads the email, as she looks back up at him. “He thinks that Joy Seers is possessed?” she asks, astonished. “Mulder, I don't think…”

“We discussed the possibility of possession last fall, remember? Ryan believed that his Uncle Jared was possessed when he committed those murders. And it seemed like Jared believed that, too.”

“But I thought that we agreed that there was no way to prove that,” Scully says, not unkindly. “And even if this hypothetical ghost did possess people, why would it target Joy Seers?”

“Could have something to do with the classroom hauntings in 2016,” says Mulder. “Or her car accident… I'd say there's at least a decent possibility.”

“But Ryan doesn't elaborate as to how he knows she's possessed. Or even what he's afraid of. He just says he'd rather explain in person.”

Mulder leans close to look at the email again. “He wants us to come down there,” he says. “He wants our help to make this stop.”

She chews her lower lip. She puts her hand gently over his knee. “Do you think that's a good idea?” she asks softy. “To go down there? We haven't officially investigated in Willoughby since 2016, and there hasn't been a real crime there in the time we've known about it, aside from arson and breaking and entering on the behalf of Ryan Caruthers.”

“You forgot the missing dog,” Mulder says teasingly, covering her hand with his own callused palm.

She shoots him an indulgent look and squeezes his kneecap. “Do you want to go and investigate? Aside from the fact that the police didn't ask us to come down the way they did in 2015, I doubt Skinner would approve us going down there to investigate nothing.”

“We could always just go off the clock for a couple days. Sort of a continuation of our unofficial investigation last fall.” He rubs her knuckles with his thumb. “It's not as if we haven't done that before.”

“That's an understatement,” Scully says dryly.

“Mmm.” He pats her hand gently. “Do you want to go, Scully?” he asks understandingly—he would get it if she didn't. After the dream he had the night before they went to Norfolk—after what he told Scully about the dream—he doesn't blame her. He'll admit that he feels a little bit of apprehension about the whole thing himself. But that's part of the reason he wants to go; after what he went through with his son, the premonition of his faked death, he understands Ryan's fear. He doesn't want anyone else to go through that.

She shrugs. She's chewing her lower lip again, almost nervously. “Oh, I don't know, Mulder.”

He pats her hand again, takes it in his. “You still think it's a waste of time,” he says knowingly.

“Maybe a little bit.” She shrugs again. “But I can see… where your interest in this case comes from.” She speaks awkwardly, but he understands what she means: she's talking about Jackson. She's thinking about their son.

There's a sort of silent understanding between them. Scully's knee bobs up and down a bit, that same nervous energy. Mulder says, “Why don't we go over there for a couple days and check it out? Tomorrow's Sunday, anyway, so we don't have to go into work. And it's not like it's a long drive.”

She's quiet. She says, “Okay.”

He wraps an arm around her and she leans right in. Daggoo, sitting between them on the couch now, clambers up onto her lap and noses at her hand. She smiles a little, stroking his head. Mulder kisses her cheek. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she says, dropping her book on the coffee table. “It's just been a long day.”

“That's an understatement.” He rubs her arm with his palm. She drops her head to his shoulder. He puts his lips to her hair and murmurs, “Hey, if you'd rather not go to Willoughby…”

“No, no,” she says, shaking her head. “I'm fine, Mulder. Really. If there's nothing worth investigating there, we can come back. But I don't think it's a good idea to ignore this email, not if Ryan Caruthers is really scared he's in danger.” She sighs a little, tucked into his side. “The least we could do is make sure that he's okay.”

---

In the late morning, they drop Daggoo back off in Maryland and leave for Willoughby. It's a quick preparation process, considering that Scully is still packed from the day before; she'd mentally planned to unpack today, had been weighing how much she could unpack, where she could unpack, if she could just skip unpacking completely. She feels as if she's walking a thin line, and she doesn't entirely know which side to land on. Whether she wants to move back in or not, whether or not Mulder even wants her to come back permanently. She really had expected to stay at Mulder's last night, after her impromptu, incredibly strange birthday dinner. (That's the last time you get to pick the restaurant for a while, she'd told him that morning on the way to the diner, and he'd shaken his head ruefully, pulled her hand up to his mouth and kissed her knuckles.) But the longer they'd gone without talking, the longer they kept looking at their phones, the more awkward it had felt. After all this time, she still doesn't know where they stand.

Scully drives. Mulder works the Bluetooth, switching the Pandora stations sporadically and making Scully wrinkle her nose until he finally turns it off and shoots her a grin. She rolls her eyes playfully. “Do you think we should get in touch with the sheriff, Mulder?” she asks. “Let him know we're in town?”

He shrugs. “I don't see why we should, especially if we're only here for a little while. We didn't tell him when we came to investigate at the school, right? Since there's no specific crime we're investigating, I say we hold off.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” says Scully. “I just don't want to create some kind of rift between us and local law enforcement by making it seem like we're hiding things, in the event that some sort of crime does occur. It's not as if that sort of thing has never happened before.”

“That's true. But it just feels silly to involve them now. We're just coming into town to check on Ryan.”

“Have you communicated with Ryan since last night?” she asks.

“Yeah, he wanted us to meet at that Italian place from a couple of years ago,” he says. “He says he has something he wants us to see… some of kind 'proof,’ he said.”

“Proof?” Scully flips on her blinker as they approach the exit. “Proof of what?”

“The Specter, I'm guessing.” He pokes her jokingly in the side.

She rolls her eyes again, swatting at his hand and shooting him a small half-smile. “Proof like those videos that Joy showed us of the classroom? Proof that could be easily doctored?”

“You know those videos weren't doctored, Scully. We saw evidence of the hauntings in in the school on Halloween.”

You saw evidence, Mulder,” she says quietly, trying not to think about all the things she has seen, all the things she's probably imagined. “I didn't see anything. And whatever you saw wasn't necessarily connected to the videos.”

He pokes her in the side again, making a face. “Well, whatever you believe, Scully, I am interested to see what this proof is, whether it's a video or not. But I'm questioning what motivation Ryan would have to lie at this point.”

Scully taps her fingers on the wheel as they come to a stop at a stop light. “Isn't Ryan's uncle due for parole soon?” she asks finally.

His forehead furrows in thought, and he nods. “Yeah, I think he is. I'm not sure how soon, or if it's already happened… Why do you ask?”

“I think it's just interesting,” she says. “That Jared Caruthers getting out of prison is coinciding with Ryan Caruthers being afraid that someone is going to get hurt.”

---

Ryan Caruthers is waiting at the restaurant, as promised, fidgeting in a corner booth with nervous energy. It's only been a couple of months since they've seen the kid, but it feels like an eternity to Mulder, what with everything that's happened. He looks exhausted, dark circles under his eyes, and he doesn't greet them with much more than a tight, polite nod. That seems to solidify the truthfulness of Ryan's fearful email in Mulder's head; he's clearly scared out of his wits and trying like hell to hide it.

He's got a soda, a plate of mozzarella sticks, and a closed laptop on the table, and he's tapping his fingers on the top when they sit. “Hey,” he mutters. “Agent Mulder. Agent Scully.”

“How are you doing, Ryan?” Scully asks, almost surprisingly gentle.

He shrugs, nearly aggressively. “Kind of explained it in the email.”

“You said you thought that Joy Seers was possessed,” says Mulder. “What made you suspect that?”

“All the weird shit she's said or done in the times I've seen her since she woke up,” Ryan says pointedly, tapping the corner of the laptop. “She's been acting really, really weird. When I went to see her in the hospital, she told me that it wasn't over. What the hell does that mean?”

“So… you think it was the ghost telling you that it wasn't over?” Mulder asks. “What do you think it is?” Scully bumps her foot against his under the table, which probably means, This sounds insane, Mulder. He nudges her foot back with his and otherwise ignores her, listening to Ryan.

“This,” says Ryan, waving his hand wildly. “The torment it's been inflicting on me, whatever. I think the ghost wants to hurt me somehow, and it's building up to something big. I…” He swallows anxiously and ducks his head, like they won't believe him. “I saw it possess my Aunt Annie. It was going to make her stab herself with scissors. I can't risk that happening to anyone else.” He wipes his eyes quickly, in a spastic motion that suggests he doesn't want anyone to see it. “It already got my parents,” he says quietly.

Mulder gulps uncomfortably, looking away. Trying not to think of the three body bags they rolled out of the Van de Kamps's house that night, two deaths and one near-death that are probably his fault. The only family his son has ever known, gone.

Beside him, Scully asks gently, “Ryan, does this have anything to do with your uncle getting out of prison?”

“No!” Ryan snaps, immediately. And then he seems to backtrack a bit, reconsidering. “Not in the way you're thinking. He didn't murder my parents, okay? If anything, he's in danger because of me. Not the other way around.”

“You think the ghost is going to target your aunt and uncle,” says Mulder.

“Yeah, or anyone I care about. Me, even. I dunno. I just know it isn't safe.” The kid grits his teeth, works his jaw back and forth. “And I think it might use Joy Seers to do it. The way it used Uncle Jared.”

Scully holds up her hand, as if to say, Stop. “Ryan, it isn't that we don't want to help you,” she says. “It isn't. But I'm just… not sure what we can do. It's not as if there's anyone we can arrest. I'm just not sure… what did you call us here to do, sweetie?”

Ryan looks briefly disgusted, although Mulder isn't sure if it's at the sweetie or Scully's reluctance to help. “Isn't it obvious?” he asks, his voice full of disgust as well. “I want you to get rid of the ghost.”

Scully does look surprised at that, and Mulder has to admit that he is, too. “You want us to, ah… get rid of the ghost?” he says hesitatingly.

“Yeah. Exorcise it or whatever.” Ryan crosses his arms defensively, shoots them a defiant look. “I researched you, you know. I know about all the shit you've dealt with. You've gotta know some way to get rid of a ghost.”

Scully clears her throat, either from uncomfortableness or from stifling a laugh. Maybe from both. Mulder says, “Um, Ryan, I think you might have us confused with exorcists. Or ghost hunters.”

“Well, what are you if you aren't that?”

“We're FBI agents,” Scully says bluntly.

“Who investigate weird, paranormal shit,” Ryan fills in stubbornly. “You have more experience with this stuff than anyone else I can think of! You gotta be able to figure out how to get rid of a ghost.”

“Ryan, even if we could perform some sort of… exorcism or banishment...” Mulder begins delicately, “... I don't know that we could displace a ghost that is this… entrenched in the history of this town. This isn't just a minor poltergeist, or a recently deceased malevolent spirit; this is a well-known legend that has existed for hundreds of years. I wouldn't even begin to know how to…”

“You think I give a shit?” Ryan hisses, so loud that the couple two tables down shoots them a strange look. “The Specter has been tormenting me for my entire life! It wants to hurt me and my family! And my parents died trying to get rid of it.”

Mulder flinches, automatically, even though he already knew that. And he can practically feel Scully's flinch beside him. Ryan's voice softens, his face still and serious. “So I can't do it,” he says quietly. “Just banishing it from my house ended in a sprained ankle and my aunt nearly getting killed.”

Scully exhales slowly beside Mulder. He can feel her tension, can feel her thinking; she's thinking about their son, he knows. Thinking about their son, wherever he is. “Listen,” she starts, gentle again, “Ryan…”

“I have proof, okay? I have proof of how dangerous it is.” He slides the laptop across the table at them insistently. “Back in November, I made a video of a seance I did. I was fooling around with a Ouija board, whatever…. Anyways, I got it on camera, and I tried to send it to you guys back then, but it wouldn't send. So it's saved on here.” He taps the laptop with one finger.

Mulder reaches hesitantly towards the laptop, but Ryan shakes his head insistently. “Watch it in private,” he says. “If you watch it, you'll understand why you've got to get rid of the ghost.”

“You want us to take your laptop?” Scully asks.

“I want you to watch the video,” Ryan says pointedly, motioning to the laptop again. “Please. Please just watch the video.”

Mulder takes the laptop then, pulling it to their side of the table. “We'll take a look, okay?” he says. “We'll try to figure something out. But this might not work. I don't know if we can actually get rid of this ghost.”

The kid crosses his arms, sullenly and stubborn. “Well, I think it's worth a try.”

Scully nudges her foot against his again, which is probably an indication on her part that he shouldn't give false hope. And Mulder doesn't want to give false hope. But he also doesn't want to ignore the possibility, the chance he has at making this stop. This family—this town—has been tormented by this ghost for years. Hell, he's had his own share of torment from this ghost. If he can do something about it, if there's even the slightest possibility that he can help, he's not going to ignore it. “We’ll do the best we can,” he promises.

---

They head to the hotel after their meeting, picking up some takeout on the way and opting for one room, as has been their practice since the case in Henrico County. (Whereas Scully may have been paranoid at another point in their life about disapproval from their superiors, a mark on their record or rumors or getting fired, she doesn't care now. Their marriage record is public domain, and if Skinner or Kersh or anyone higher than them cares, than surely they would've said something already.)

In the room, Scully sits up against the pillows and digs through the takeout box with chopsticks. Mulder crouches at the end of the bed, looking for Ryan's laptop for the video. She sighs, a little affectionately, and says what she's been thinking ever since they left the restaurant: “Mulder, I'm not sure our response to what happened back there was very wise.”

“You mean promising Ryan I'd do my best to get rid of the ghost for him?” Mulder asks wryly, scrolling through a list of files. “You're probably right. But I didn't know what else to do, Scully. That kid wasn't going to let up, and I want to help him out if I can. I think we can both agree that this haunting—phenomena, whatever—needs to stop.”

Scully does find it hard to argue with that. She shifts in place, setting the takeout box on the bedside table and crossing her legs. “I just don't know how we can stop this, Mulder. We're not exorcists. We have no experience in things like this, even if this phenomena is being caused by something we could stop. I just don't understand how—”

“Check it out, Scully, I found it,” Mulder says suddenly, waving at her, and he scoots up on the bed, clicking on a video with a Ouija board taking up most of the frame.

The first thing they see is Ryan's hand, moving what looks like a wedding photo, tucking it under the board. Scully swallows, almost painfully; she's assuming that the people in the photo are Ryan's parents. Ryan swirls the planchette around the board a couple of times, the planchette scraping the board, before inhaling sharply and saying, “If there are spirits here tonight, please make yourself known using the board and only the board.”

But nothing happens. Or at least not anything that Scully can discern as paranormal. She can hear Ryan sigh, and then the planchette starts to move again—she assumes that he is moving it, because it's moving pretty gently. He spells out Mom and moves the planchette to the D before it yanks hard, spelling H-E-L-L-O. Mulder jerks to attention beside her, which she assumes is an indication that he believes the ghost is moving it. They hear Ryan say, “H-hello? Mom, Dad? Is that you?” The planchette moves to YES.

“Mulder, Ryan could very well be faking this,” Scully whispers, just out of caution. As a child, she'd been to plenty of slumber parties where someone moves the planchette and says it's a ghost. (She'll admit, she doesn't know what Ryan's motivation for faking a seance would be, but it's certainly a possibility.)

“I don’t think this is fake, Scully,” says Mulder, and he motions to the screen again. Ryan is whispering something inaudibly, and the planchette begins to move: first to YES, and then spelling out W-E L-O-V-E Y-O-U. Scully gulps.

“I love you, too,” Ryan says softly, his voice quivering. Scully hears the faint rumble of thunder in the background. Ryan clears his throat faintly and says, “Mom, Dad… I need to ask you something. If you remember it.”

Nothing moves on the board. Mulder leans closer to the screen, watching the video carefully. Ryan speaks again, unsteadily. “That night… uh, with Uncle Jared… did he… Did he… did he mean to kill you? O-or was it not him?” Something like lightning flashes in the background. Ryan continues, stammering: “Was it the Specter? Was the Specter using him? D-did the Specter kill you?”

The planchette moves to NO. Scully would tempted to point out this denial to Mulder, since she's never put a lot of stock into the idea that Jared was possessed, but since the source of said denial is a Ouija board, she keeps her mouth shut.

Ryan is protesting the board, asking if Jared really is responsible, and when the planchette slides to YES, he begins to deny it vehemently. The planchette moves more rapidly, hitting the YES again and again, almost violently. Mulder's breath catches in his throat, and he touches Scully's arm in what seems like excitement or anxiousness. He's watching with his eyes practically glued to the screen of the laptop.

“Mulder,” Scully starts gently, “do you think that this is real? I mean, how do we know this isn't all faked? There could be wires… magnets…”

“Scully, look,” he says, nudging her. The planchette is moving more rapidly now, shooting back and forth between letters—spelling a word, Scully assumes. Ryan's hand reaches for the planchette, and it goes flying, off-screen, and lands with a thunk on something that sounds vaguely human. There's a crash of thunder, and then the feed freezes. Just freezes, static slicing across the screen, the new silence almost eerie.

Mulder, tense as a taut wire, mutters, “What the—?” and reaches for the laptop mouse. But before he can touch it, it moves, jerking back violently of its own accord.

Scully jumps, letting out a startled yelp, as the laptop goes flying across the room and hits the wall with an almost sickening crack.

Chapter Text

seventeen.

february, 2018

In the aftermath of the broken laptop, Scully seems to be very on-edge. Jumpy, tense, jerking whenever Mulder touches her shoulder. He suggests that he go out and buy a new laptop (he feels like the least they should do is replace Ryan's broken one), and she immediately insists on doing it herself, like she doesn't want to be left alone in the room.

After the laptop had flown across the room, he'd expected her to immediately come up with several rational explanations for how it had happened. He'd expected her to dismiss it as a normal occurrence. He hadn't expected her to be afraid, although he can't blame her. He is plenty spooked himself after everything. But it still throws him to see her reacting this way. In the aftermath of the crash, she hadn't said anything. She'd just stood there, fists clenched. As he went to go examine the broken machine, he'd thought he saw her fingers shaking.

They end up going to get the laptop together, simply because Mulder doesn't particularly want to be in the room alone, either. He'd expect her to tease him about being scared, just a little, but she stays quiet, winding a scarf around her neck under the sharp edges of her hair. They drive to the store together, taking the broken laptop, and pick one out that looks fairly similar.

Scully is unflinchingly stubborn about the entire thing. She doesn't want to talk about it. When Mulder brings up setting up some sort of device to monitor further paranormal activity in the hotel room, Scully says, “No, Mulder,” and that is that. No explanation as to why. She refuses to engage in further discussions on the subject. And he'd be willing to leave it alone if he didn't see the way she tenses up when they re-enter the room and her eyes fall on the dent that the laptop left in the wall. She's stiff, her hands clenched in her coat pockets.

Mulder steps close to her and puts a gentle hand on her back, murmurs, “Are you okay, Scully?”

She tenses even more, but when she turns around to face him, her response is less hostile than he'd expected: firm, but surprisingly gentle. “I'm fine, Mulder. Okay?” No room for argument.  

He rubs circles on the small of her back habitually; he doesn't believe her. “I'm a little on edge, too,” he says. “That was pretty unnerving.” Still nothing. Her gaze is somewhere between neutral and defiant. He runs his palm along her spine. “Do you want to get a different hotel room?” he offers. “Maybe at a different hotel?”

Her nose wrinkles, and she shakes her head automatically. “Don't be ridiculous. That's entirely unnecessary.” She steps away from him, setting her bag down on the little table. “So, what's the plan for tomorrow?” she asks, changing the subject smoothly. “I feel like one of us should go and see Joy Seers. Just to check in, maybe see what she remembers. Maybe talk to her husband, too, since he knew the girl who died before the Caruthers did in 2002.”

He doesn't push. He doesn't want to push too hard and drive her away. “That's a good idea,” he says. “I'd like to do some research, too, into ways to get rid of the ghost. Find out if there's some way to get rid of it without involving a priest.” He chuckles a little, and Scully shoots him a wry smile. But it comes out a little wobbly. “But we can both go to visit Joy, if you want,” he offers, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

She shakes her head. “No, you should focus on this research. I can pass on your well-wishes.” She bumps her elbow against his as she sits beside him. “Besides, we don't know if Skinner or Kersh are going to figure out where we are, and insist we come back,” she adds. “Tomorrow's Monday, remember?”

“Oh, nobody ever comes down there to check on us,” he says dismissively, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. She doesn't shrug him off, resting her cheek against his shoulder. He kisses the top of her scalp. He murmurs into her hair, “Are you sure you're okay, honey?”

He can feel the clench of her jaw. “I'm fine, Mulder. Really.” She lifts her head and turns to kiss his cheek. “I'm going to take a shower, okay? We should get some sleep.”

She stands from the bed and begins pulling things from her overnight bag. Mulder watches her go, a little wistfully. He wants to reassure her, somehow, but he doesn't know how to. She's stoic, closed off, and she doesn't even believe in ghosts.

---

Scully can't sleep. It's ridiculous, but she can't. She can't relax enough. She's tense, jolting at every little sound: the air conditioning, the floorboards outside of their room, the wind outside their window. It sounds just the way it did on Halloween night of 2016 in their hotel room; it sounds like a human wail.

Mulder sleeps through all of it, snoring softly beside her, turned over on his side. She wishes, now, that she'd taken his offer to move to another hotel, but she is too embarrassed to admit that he was right, that she is frightened. He admitted that he was on edge, too, he gave her every opportunity to confess her nervousness, and she still held back. She can't admit how much seeing the laptop fly across the room scared her, she can't admit how frightened she's been by the things she's seen ever since they started coming to Willoughby. And as much as she's tried to rationalize the whole thing, she just can't.

She curls up against the warm plane of Mulder's back, her nose pressed against his shoulder, and shuts her eyes. Whatever she's seen, she reminds herself, he's seen it, too. Halloween of 2016 in the school. The night the assassins broke in, the night before they went to Norfolk, both times in dreams. She's seen it twice in dreams, she thinks—definitely after they came back from Norfolk, and possibly the night before the fire in Willoughby, back in 2016 (she thinks she remembers it that way)—and twice in person. Once in this very hotel, and once in her own home. And then tonight, whatever tonight was. It feels like nowhere is safe. She doesn't know what it is—whether it's a hallucination or paranoia or really, actually a ghost—and she doesn't know why she and Mulder keep seeing it, but she knows that it is not good. She knows that she is starting to agree with Mulder: that this thing needs to be gotten rid of. She just doesn't know how.

She finally falls asleep, uneasily, her chest to Mulder's spine and her hand on his hip, feeling the rise and fall as he breathes. When she drifts off, she is telling herself that she needs to tell Mulder, that she has to find a way to be honest with Mulder. But she falls asleep before she can figure out how.

---

In the morning, they have breakfast in the lobby. Scully thinks that Mulder must notice the circles under her eyes, but he doesn't say anything about them. Instead, he talks about some articles he found online. “There's lots of different options for getting rid of hostile spirits,” he says, “but I'm not sure how many of those would help in our situation. I don't know what Ryan did to get the ghost out of his house, but I don't think we can sage an entire town.” He chuckles, and Scully offers up a half-hearted attempt at a laugh. He takes a bite of toast, adding, “I thought I could walk to the library today. Kick it old school. Isn't there some book with a section about the Specter?”

“Sounds familiar,” says Scully, taking a sip of her coffee.

“Could be useful.” Mulder tears off a corner of toast and folds it around his last bite of bacon. “You going to talk to Joy?” he asks around his mouthful.

“I think so. I need to call her.” She takes a bite of yogurt, staring at her plate. “It doesn't feel right to just drop in,” she adds quietly.

Mulder reaches across the table to pat her hand. And then he asks it. “Are you okay, Scully?” he murmurs. “It looks like you didn't sleep at all last night.”

She yawns, and tries to stifle it. Tell him, a small voice in her head urges. Just tell him. You need to tell him. But she can't find the words. “Guess I was just restless,” she says. “But I'm okay.” She smiles toothily at him across the table, forcing the corners of her mouth to turn up.

He doesn't look convinced. He squeezes her hand. She tries, lamely, to change the subject. “Anything from Skinner yet?”

“No, not yet. I'd say we're in the clear, but it's still early.”

He smiles wryly, and her forced smile shifts into a genuine one. She loves him. She loves him so much, it hurts sometimes, and she's missed him desperately for years now. And here he is. She squeezes his hand this time. “I'll join you at the library when I'm done at the Seers's,” she says.

---

Scully calls Joy Seers after breakfast, using a number she finds listed in the phone book (she has Joy's cell from 2016, but after well over a year, who knows if it's still in use?). Fortunately, Joy seems open to a visit, subdued but still somewhat cheerful on the phone. She remembers Scully, and she tells her to come on over.

Scully finds the house easier than expected and parks on the street. The door is answered by a bearded man with glasses, who gives her a polite but questioning look. “Can I help you?”

“My name is Dana Scully,” Scully says, offering her hand to the man. “I’m an FBI agent. I… know Joy. I spoke to her about coming here?”

“It's okay, babe,” a voice says from behind the man, and then Joy appears in the doorway. She's a bit thinner than Scully remembers, hair down past her shoulders, but she smiles broadly at her and motions her in. “Agent Scully, it's good to see you again,” she says. “This is my husband, Ben, by the way.” Ben nods politely at her, shaking her hand as she enters.

“It's good to see you, too,” says Scully, really meaning it. “Mulder and I were so… worried, when we heard what had happened. And very, very relieved to hear that you were okay.” She feels awkward, unsure of what to say; a part of her wants to reassure Joy, tell her, I was in a coma, too. I know what it's like to have missing time. But she feels like it would be hollow, considering how different the circumstances are; she spent much less time in a coma, for one thing.

“I can tell you that I was very relieved as well,” Joy says with a soft laugh, motioning Scully towards the couch she'd sat on during her last visit. She waves at her husband as he disappears further into the house and folds her hands in her lap as she sits opposite Scully. “So what's up? I guess you guys are back in town because of the Specter? Has something happened?”

“Sort of,” Scully says, shifting uncomfortably. She's not exactly going to disclose that they are in town partially because Ryan Caruthers thinks she is possessed. She gives her the least descriptive summary she can. “We’re… here, more or less, because of Ryan Caruthers. He seems afraid of the… ghost.” After all this time, she still finds it hard to say the word. “He wants us to find some way to get rid of it.”

Something flickers over Joy's face, some dark sense of agreement, before it's replaced by neutrality. “I can't disagree with that sentiment,” she murmurs, shifting uncomfortably in place. She clears her throat and continues. “So, I guess you want to talk to me about that night?”

Scully nods, uncomfortable herself. This always was the hardest part, after she'd had to endure countless interviews of her own about various traumas and losses. Just tell us what happened. She hates it. “If you don't mind,” she says softly. “Whatever you can easily recall.”

“No, it's okay.” Joy offers her a small, considerably muted smile. “I still remember… some things from that night. Some things since.” She shrugs. “I remember… my necklace breaking by some invisible force,” she says, and it's only then that Scully notices the empty space at Joy's collarbone. “I remember driving home,” she continues, a little unsteadily. “I was just driving along, and… the radio just came on. I didn't touch it. I couldn't turn it off; I was just frozen. And then, I-I felt something come over me.” Her jaw is clenched, her teeth tight, and she is practically shivering in place. “I couldn't do anything, or stop it,” she finishes. “I couldn't stop it. I looked into the backseat, and I saw something, and it lunged at me. And then everything went black.” She shrugs, a little shakily.

Scully doesn't say anything. She doesn't know what she could say. She doesn't want to ask the obvious question—What do you think that was? The answer seems obvious.

Joy clears her throat and continues. “I-I don't remember anything after that. I just remember waking up in the hospital.” She pushes curls behind her ear and offers Scully a muted, polite smile. “I assume,” she says, “that it had something to do with the hauntings. I know it sounds so silly, but… after everything that happened that night… I don't know what else it could be. All the things moving by themselves, all the things I had no control over…”

“I understand,” says Scully, and it feels like a confession, like the closest she'll come to admitting what she hasn't been able to tell Mulder. It almost feels like a betrayal, and that's what is truly silly. She should be able to tell people; she should be able to tell her husband.

Joy nods, running her fingers through her hair. “I don't know what to make of it,” she says. “I still have nightmares, sometimes, where I can't breathe, can't move… I still hear things sometimes that I think might be a ghost…” Scully is tempted to suggest sleep paralysis, but she keeps her mouth shut. Joy fidgets, nervously. “And things have been so strange, since I woke up…” she says in a soft voice, nearly a whisper. “I-I'm constantly on edge. I can't relax. I always feel like someone's watching me. And there are long periods of time that I can't rem—”

Joy stops, suddenly, mid-sentence, freezing in place. Her face goes stiff and expressionless; her eyes go blank. She quivers a little in place. “Joy?” Scully asks, and then, with more fear when she doesn't reply, she repeats, “Joy?”

The woman quivers again, blinks slowly, and shakes her head. “I'm sorry,” she says, almost delicately. “I am afraid I lost track of what I was saying.”

“Are you all right?” Scully asks, feeling Joy's forehead with the back of her hand. “Does your head hurt? Do you feel dizzy?”

“I am perfectly fine,” Joy says, surprisingly composed. She smiles, but there's something different about it. Something more biting. Scully removes her hand from her forehead.

“Is there anything el—?” she starts to ask, but Joy seems to have zeroed in on something else. She's staring at Scully's collarbone, her cross and her wedding ring, peeking up above the collar of her shirt.

Self-conscious, Scully starts to tuck the necklace away, but Joy reaches for it first, gesturing to her cross. “This necklace is very beautiful,” she says in a soft voice.

Scully shivers inadvertently. She vaguely remembers having a discussion with Joy about their similar necklaces, but she isn't sure whether or not Joy remembers that. She wonders if Joy's necklace was lost after the accident. “Thank you.”

“A lovely cross. And is that your wedding ring?” Joy traces the shape of the ring in the air with one finger. Scully swallows, nods. Joy looks up at her, her eyes dark as they meet. “I assume your faith in God is quite strong,” she says. “As is your faith in all other situations. That you trust your God to protect you. Am I correct?”

Scully swallows again, roughly, and looks away. “I suppose so,” she murmurs. She's uncomfortable, her spine crawling, her heart thudding. “I appreciate you talking with me like this, Joy,” she says, tucking hair behind her ear. She suddenly remembers something, a lame grab at shifting the subject. “Actually, do you think your husband would mind if I asked him some questions? I know that he knew the girl who committed suicide back in 2002—Holly Smith.” She has a sudden revelation and shifts in her position, away from Joy. “And he had the theory about the ghost being malevolent, right? The one you told us about last Halloween?”

“Yes,” Joy says, subdued. “You wish to speak to him?”

Scully's eyebrows raise. The change in Joy's demeanor, in her pattern of speech, is vaguely concerning, but she doesn't say anything about it. She's still unnerved by their earlier interactions. “Yes.”

“I will go get him.” Joy stands and starts for the door. To Scully's shame, she lets out a little exhale at her exit. She feels horrible, but Joy's shift in behavior threw her. After a nearly sleepless night, she doesn't think she can handle more tension.

A few minutes later, Ben Seers pads in, absently pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Joy said you wanted to talk to me?” he asks. “Agent Scully, right?”

“Yes. I would like to have a word, if you don't mind.” She starts to stand, but Ben motions to the couch, and she sits back down. He sits in the chair across from her. Scully clears her throat, picking at a cuticle, feeling awkward. “I wanted… to ask about Holly Smith,” she starts, and Ben's eyes almost immediately cloud over, a familiar look of grief. This is always one of the hardest parts. “You-you were close with her before she died, right?” she continues awkwardly

 Ben laughs bitterly. “We were dating,” he says. “Is this because Jared Caruthers is going on parole this week? Or because of the Specter legend?”

Scully pushes at her cuticle. “Sort of both,” she admits uneasily. “Do… do you believe in the legend?”

Ben bites his lower lip, shifts in his chair. “Back then, I thought I did,” he admits. “It was… exciting, and mysterious, and I wanted to believe in ghosts. Hol and I, we both loved ghost stories. We did research together in our spare time, I was thinking about writing my thesis on local history, and it made sense… Joy told you about my theory, right? That the Specter is—was, whatever—demonic?” Scully nods. “That wasn't my theory, not exactly. It was Holly's. I found all the pieces, but she put them together. We kept digging further and further, to form a hypothesis; I know she was talking to Jared about it. She actually got excited when she told me that she was seeing the ghost, as if it couldn't absolutely destroy her.” Ben laughs again, rubbing his eyes wearily. “I don't know if I believe in the ghost anymore,” he says. “Fifteen, sixteen years ago, my girlfriend and I research the ghost, she starts seeing it, and then she commits suicide. A year and a half ago, my wife tells me about her classroom supposedly being haunted, and then she has a car accident and falls into a coma for a year and a half. Part of me wants to make something more of it, and part of me just wants to leave it alone. Jared tried to figure out why Holly died, if it wasn't her fault that she died, and he ended up killing his brother and sister-in-law. I may be selfish, but I don't want to look any further, you know? I don't want to risk anything else happening. I'm just grateful that Joy is okay.”

“I understand,” says Scully, because she does. She pushes at her thumbnail with her pointer finger. She tries a different approach. “Can I ask you about Jared Caruthers? I guess you must have known him pretty well in the time before he committed the murders.”

“I did.” Ben nods. “He was Holly's best friend. Since childhood. They hung out a lot, and I know they really loved each other. And to be honest, I liked him a lot, too. He was a good guy. He was absolutely devastated when Holly died. Tried to convince me that the Specter was responsible.” He rubs at his eyes again, his forehead. “I don't know why he committed those murders. At first, I didn't think he had committed those murders. I couldn't believe it; I thought he must've been framed. And now? I don't know. I hope he takes this chance on parole to turn his life around.”

“You didn't see any indications that he was going to hurt anyone?” she asks. She is trying to cover all of the bases. She still doesn't know if she believes that Jared Caruthers was possessed or not. “Any signs?”

Ben shakes his head. “I didn't. But then again, I wasn't really looking. I was grieving, and I didn't see a lot of him after I rejected his theory of the Specter's involvement.”

Scully nods. She has more questions she feels like she should ask—she thinks that Mulder would want to ask more questions—but she doesn't want to push. She understands the pain, the worry, the grief; she's seen it a thousand times, felt it a thousand times. She picks up her bag and stands. “Thank you so much for speaking to me,” she says. “You and Joy.”

Ben nods. “I hope I could help,” he says. “Although I'm still not entirely sure what it is you're investigating.”

Scully laughs quietly despite herself. “Neither do I, half the time,” she admits, and Ben smiles politely. She starts to walk off, but the sound of footsteps further in the house makes her pause. She remembers Joy's strange behavior, the sudden way she seemed to change: right in the middle of a sentence, something about long periods of time since she woke up. It's stuck in her mind, she can't let it go. She steps a bit closer to Ben's chair and says in a soft voice, “If you don't mind me asking… how has Joy seemed since she woke up?”

Ben looks surprised. “S-she's seemed fine,” he says. “Pretty healthy… maybe a little odd at times, but I figured that was to be expected, with the adjustments… Why do you ask?”

There are the footsteps again, heading towards the living room. Scully straightens up, replying, “No reason,” in an even voice, and hating the fearful tingle traveling up and down her spine. “I just wanted to check in.” You are being ridiculous, she scolds herself silently. There is nothing to be afraid of. There's nothing to be afraid of. She smiles brightly at Joy when she re-enters the room.

---

Mulder calls her en route to the library. Scully presses the Answer button and tucks it between her ear and her shoulder, answering, “Hey,” in lieu of her usual Scully. She admittedly loves the advantage of caller ID.

“Hey, Scully, it's me,” Mulder says, the same way he did twenty years ago. (Despite the caller ID.) He sounds stunningly solemn. “I just got a call from Skinner. He's got a case for us.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It's, uh… it's a child.” His voice is grim now, almost apologetic. “The son of a local law enforcement officer in a little town called Eastwood, Connecticut. Found dead in the woods.”

Scully winces on instinct. “That's horrible,” she says.

“It is.” Mulder sighs on the other end, weary and emotional. She knows that emotion. She recognizes it as well as she did the things that Joy and Ben Seers were feeling. This is going to be hard.

She tries to change the subject. “So, why are we being called in? What's the X-File?”

“Local police are saying it's an animal attack, but the FBI thinks otherwise,” says Mulder. “Skinner wants us to take a look; he's sending the file our way. But I think the general theory is that it may be a murder, and Skinner seems to think it has the M.O. of an X-File.”

“Well, whether it's a murder or an X-File, I think it's worth looking into,” says Scully. As it much as it hurts to say it—as much as she knows it will hurt to work this case—she knows it needs to be solved. For that child, for his family. “Especially if the local police are ignoring facts.”

“I agree,” says Mulder. “And Skinner told me that no one else was available to fly out to Connecticut, anyway.”

Scully bites her lower lip and nods. She drums her fingers on the steering wheel, still tense and jittery. “When do we leave?”

“In a couple hours. There's a flight at one. I think, if you're up for it, we could probably take a look at the crime scene at maybe examine the body today. I'm headed back to the hotel to pack up.”

“I'll meet you there,” she says. “I'm on my way back from meeting with Joy Seers.”

“Okay,” Mulder says. “Oh, how was Joy doing? Did she remember anything?”

“She did,” Scully says. “It's a long story, I'll fill you in.”

“Okay. I'll see you in a few.”

“See you in a few,” she says, and he hangs up.

She exhales deeply, dropping her phone in the passenger seat. She's tired. She's very tired. And she knows this case is going to be incredibly hard. She's been thinking of her son frequently for years now, and almost constantly since December, and she knows that this case is probably going to just make it harder. Operating on almost no sleep and a fearful demeanor won't help, either. She's going to buy a cup of coffee at the airport and possibly try to nap on the plane.

Scully flips on her turn signal as she prepares to change lanes. Her eyes shift up absently to her mirror and note the car behind her. And then land directly on the dark, humanoid shape in the backseat.

Scully screams, shrill and fearful like a child, and slams down on the brake. The car screeches to a stop abruptly; a horn honks longly and indignantly behind her. She looks over her shoulder at the backseat, and then back at the rearview mirror. There's nothing there.

Her heart is thudding too hard against her ribs, she's breathing too rapidly. A tear wells in her eye, and she frustratedly wipes it away. Grits her teeth, takes a deep breath, and takes her foot off the brake. There's nothing to be afraid of, she tells herself. There's nothing to afraid of.

But the more she thinks it, the more it doesn't sound true.

---

After school, Ryan's doing homework at the kitchen table, trying his best to concentrate on that and not worry about his aunt at work, or wonder why he hasn't heard from Agents Mulder and Scully yet, when the doorbell rings.

Ryan clambers to his feet immediately and heads for the door, assuming it must be the FBI agents. But when he opens the door, he finds a kid standing there with rumpled hair and a Spiderman sweatshirt. It takes a few seconds, but he finally recognizes him: it's Robbie O'Connell, much taller than Ryan remembers. (He hasn't seen very much of the kid since the fire, for obvious reasons; the sheriff was pretty amicable about the whole thing at the time, and he knows that Annie is still friends with Bonnie O'Connell, but it's not like they're getting invited to barbecues anymore. And certainly, there are no more offers to babysit.)

“Rob,” Ryan says with shock. “What… what are you doing here?”

“Mom and Dad told me not to come,” Robbie says, rocking back and forth on his heels. Ryan raises his eyebrows at the kid, and he continues. “But I wanted to come. I didn't know who else would know what to do.” The kid looks up at Ryan, almost shyly. “And I don't think you set that fire to hurt Dad. You wouldn't do that.”

“Oh,” Ryan says awkwardly. “Um, thanks, kid.” Robbie is still staring at him with those little-kid eyes, so Ryan adds, “W-what's going on?”

“I'm seeing the ghost again,” Robbie says in a rush, bouncing up and down on his feet, fiddling with the hem of his sweatshirt. Ryan's eyes widen instinctively; in the back of his head, he thinks distantly: Oh, shit.

Robbie's still talking, nearly rambling. “I've seen it four times since Christmas, Ryan, and I'm really, really scared,” he says. “The last time that happened, my dog ran away, and my dad and my Uncle Kenny almost died. I don't want that to happen again!” His lip trembles like he is going to cry.

“Hey, hey, buddy.” Ryan leans forward and pats the kid's shoulder. He's never been great with kids—marked by both the fact that everyone in town thinks he's a criminal, and by the fact that he's never really been around them, anyways—but he'd always felt pretty okay with Robbie. He pats Robbie's shoulder, trying his best to be reassuring. “It's going to be okay,” he says, and hopes desperately that it's not a lie.

“D-do you know what to do to stop it?” Robbie asks softly.

Ryan meets the kid's eyes, and tries his best to look serious. To convey seriousness and comfort with one look. “I'm working on it, Rob,” he says. “I promise you, I'm working on it.”

He knows what Robbie is fearing. He's been seeing the ghost, too, and it's been more frequently than normal, which is saying something. He's worried about what it could do to his family. Jared is going on parole in a couple of days, and now Robbie is seeing the ghost again, and it all feels too convenient. His house is safe—he thinks, he hasn't seen the ghost inside the house since last December, but he can't really know for sure, can he? He's scared, too. He's scared, too.

Robbie sniffles, dragging the back of his wrist across his nose like it's running. And Ryan suddenly remembers something: Robbie didn't used to be scared of the ghost. Robbie used to think it was cool. Robbie used to want to see the ghost. “Hey, Robbie?” he asks tentatively. “What happened? Last I remember, you used to like the ghost. You thought it was really cool.”

Robbie looks up at him, his eyes huge. “The ghost always shows up before bad stuff happens, but he never tells you what to do about it,” he says—incidentally the same case Ryan has been making for years, but he lets it slide. Having just one more person believe him about the ghost being evil feels like a victory.

And—” Robbie continues pointedly before pausing, licking his lower lip thoughtfully. “You remember how I used to feel when I saw the ghost? Real good, like it was an angel?” he asks, and Ryan nods. “Well, it doesn't feel like that for me anymore. It feels bad. It feels scary.”

It'd never felt that way for Ryan. He's been seeing the ghost since he was little, and it has never once felt good.

---

Ryan sends Robbie home, mostly because he hardly wants to be on the O'Connells's bad side. Before the kid leaves, he promises he's going to do everything he can to help him. “You remember those FBI agents who came to town when your dog was missing? The ones you called Men in Black?” he asks, and Robbie nods. “I called them,” Ryan says, feeling almost proud of himself. “They're going to help. They're going to try to get rid of it.”

But that isn't exactly true, he finds out a few minutes later. He calls Agent Mulder from the number he saved into his phone last year, to let him know that Robbie saw the ghost, and also to see if they've made any progress. But Agent Mulder doesn't pick up immediately. And when he finally does, it's with apologies. Apparently they've been called out of town to Connecticut. Some case that apparently takes priority over this one. “I'm sorry, Ryan,” he says, “but we were in such a hurry to get out of town, I forgot to get in touch with you…”

Anger rises in Ryan's throat—sudden, like bile—and he blurts, “That's bullshit!” Agent Mulder tries to say something on the other end, but Ryan keeps going, plunging like a freight train. “You said you'd try to help me. You said you'd do your best!”

“We will do our best, Ryan,” Agent Mulder says, his voice annoyingly patient. “We want to help you. These orders to work this case are coming from above us, and it's more or less urgent… it's a murder investigation. It's more of an actual investigation in general… We couldn't justify staying in Willoughby over this case.”

Ryan works his jaw back and forth, grits his teeth until his bones ache. “That's bullshit,” he mutters, quieter. It does make sense, he guesses, but at the same time, it doesn't. Why would they come here if it wasn't a priority? What will he be able to do if he doesn't have any help from them? The local police won't be any help—they’ll just laugh at him and tell him the Specter isn't dangerous—and he can't do it by himself. He can't do it by himself.

“Ryan, I'm sorry,” Agent Mulder says, and he does sound almost genuinely sorry. Almost. “There wasn't anything that could be done… How about this, okay? If anything happens… if anyone is in danger, or gets threatened, if anyone gets hurt… call me and Agent Scully and I will be there as soon as we can.”

Ryan shuts his eyes with frustration. He feels like a little kid, the way this guy is talking to him. It infuriates him to no end, the promise of help just to have that hope taken away. “Yeah, whatever,” he mumbles angrily, kicking a leg of the table. “Whatever. See you later, I guess.”

“Wait, wait,” says Agent Mulder before Ryan can yank the phone away from his ear. “What did you call to tell me about? What happened?”

Ryan thinks of Robbie, weepy and frightened on his porch. He thinks of the ghost outside his door, Annie's or Mrs. Seers's blank eyes, the scissors raised in the air. He thinks of the fact that they're pretty far away, and that they didn't seem to think they could help anyway. Especially Agent Scully.

“Nothing,” he snaps. “Good luck on your murder case, I guess.”

“Ryan—” Agent Mulder starts, but Ryan has already hung up. He drops the phone on the table and drops his face into his hands.

---

That night, Ryan can't sleep. Can't relax, can't stop thinking. He gets up and checks the salt lines along his windows, a habit he's developed in the weeks since the banishing incident. He replaces them weekly, all over the house, and frequently sages. Annie has stopped questioning it. She doesn't argue, but Ryan can tell she doesn't exactly approve. He doesn't know if she believes in the ghost, the danger; he doesn't care.

Ryan rechecks the salt line and notes, satisfied, that the line is still there, unbroken. He straightens up, looking out into the dark night as he reaches for the shade, and then he freezes. His eyes land on a hulking figure down by the tree in the backyard. A small light flicks to life, almost like a lantern.

Ryan clenches his jaw to keep from huffing in disgust and yanks the shade down, hiding the shape from view. He checks the line one more time: still unbroken.

He tries to scoff it off, tries to act like it's no big deal. But he can't stop shivering, as if freezing, as he climbs into bed. His hands won't stop shaking.

---

march, 2018

A few days later, Ryan gets a call from Jared, who is officially out on parole. They've more or less made up since their argument in December, although Ryan senses that Jared is still upset that he tried to banish the ghost, and he is still hurt that Jared scolded him for trying to protect himself. But whatever the case, Ryan has been trying to keep up with the parole process. He's scared to death about what's going to happen now that Jared is out. It has been something of an awkward process with his aunt's resentment for her brother, but he's somewhat been making it work.

“I just wanted to check in,” Jared says when he calls. “An old friend from in here who got out a few years ago agreed to let me stay with him; he lives in Winchester.” (The next town over from Willoughby.) “He's just picked me up, we're headed over now. I just wanted to tell you that you're welcome whenever—”

“No, no, no,” Ryan interrupts, waving his hands in the air frantically like he can erase the words. “No, you can't go there, Uncle Jared. You gotta come here. You gotta come straight here.”

There's a moment of empty silence on the other end, and then a nervous laugh on Jared's part. “Ryan, I-I don't know that that's a good idea,” he says. “Your aunt, she… she doesn't want to see me.”

Almost as if on cue, Annie walks into the room and sees him on the phone. Her eyes narrow, as if she's zeroing in, and she mouths, Is that Jared? Ryan nods impatiently, turning in his side so he doesn't have to awkwardly stare at her. “It doesn't matter. You've gotta come anyway. It's the only safe place; I've made it safe. The Specter can't hurt you if you're in the house.”

Ryan can sense Annie's discomfort behind hm. “Ry—” she protests briefly, but he ignores her. “Please,” he says, his voice husky. Ever since the FBI agents left town, he's been on edge. Worrying about himself, his friends, his family. Robbie O'Connell and his family. He can't stand worrying anymore. “Please come here.”

Jared laughs again, uneasy. “Oh, Ryan, I don't know…”

“Come here. Straight here.” He stabs the tabletop with his finger. “Aunt Annie is fine with it.”

“I have a hard time believing that.”

“She is, I swear.” Ryan turns in his chair to face his aunt again, and throws her a pleading look. She looks pissed, her arms crossed, but she's not shaking her head. She leaves a sigh, rolling her eyes, and shrugs. “It's fine,” he insists into the phone—it’s not entirely a lie. “Seriously. Please come here. W-we need to figure out what to do about this. We need to figure out how to stop it.”

Jared sighs, almost the same way as Annie did. “Fine. Fine, fine, fine. I'll come, but not permanently, okay? This isn't going to be easy, Ryan.”

“ I know. I know. Just please come here, okay? It'll be fine,” he says, irritated. “Be careful.”

“I will,” Jared says with a sigh. “Ryan, I don't want to doubt you… but are you sure it's this dangerous right now? You've been seeing the ghost for years, right? Why is right now so important, after everything that's happened over the past sixteen years?”

Ryan sighs, rubbing his forehead with his palm. He thinks of Robbie seeing the ghost, of seeing the ghost outside his window that night. That's not the first time it's happened, and that's not the last time, either; he's seen it several times since. It all coincides: Robbie seeing the ghost, him seeing the ghost, Mrs. Seers being possessed, Jared getting out of prison… He knows what people are saying around town. They're saying that Jared is coming back to kill him and take his final revenge, or that he's coming back to team up with him, and the Caruthers will go on a killing spree around town. It's the stupidest thing he's ever heard, but he's probably not doing a very good job of steering clear of those rumors, asking Jared to come here. But he doesn't care. He just wants to keep the people he loves safe, and with those FBI agents out of town, he doesn't know how else to do that. “It just is,” he says. “Trust me, okay? Let's not have history repeat itself.”

Jared chuckles humorlessly, bitterly. “That's a low blow, kid,” he says. “I'll be there in about an hour, okay?”

“Okay,” Ryan says, pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “Okay, thank you. Thank you. I'll see you then.”

When he hangs up, he looks up to find Annie staring at him, eyebrows raised. “You know, kid,” she says, “I figured you'd want me to spend some time with my brother after he got out. I just didn't think it would be so soon.”

Ryan sighs heavily. “I'm sorry, Aunt Annie. I just…”

“It's not safe anywhere else but here?” she asks incredulously. “What the hell does that mean, Ryan? Are you still scared of the Specter?”

“It's a long story, okay?” he replies, nearly whining. “Can you just… trust me? Can you trust me about this? I'm doing all of this to keep us safe.”

Annie shuts her eyes with frustration, shaking her head. “I just don't get it,” she says. “I want to support you, Ryan… I want you to do what you need to do to get over what happened… but I just don't understand how you could feel safe around that man, after what happened. After what he did to your parents.” She groans, rubbing her temples as if she has a headache, and shakes her head as if to erase the words. “I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't say those things to you, but… I know something's going on. It's been going on for years. And I've never completely understood it, but… can you explain it to me? Can you try?”

Ryan's not looking at his aunt directly anymore. He's looking over her shoulder, through the kitchen window. By that same tree in the backyard is the familiar form of the Specter, sans lantern. He's turned away so Ryan can't make out his face but it's him, he'd recognize him anywhere. And then as Ryan blinks, he's gone. As if he was never there.

“I'd tell you…” Ryan says in a tremulous voice. “But… I just don't think you'd believe me.”

Chapter Text

eighteen.

march, 2018

In Eastwood, Connecticut, there are witches and hellhounds and small-town fury. And dead children. That is the hardest part. Mulder and Scully are something of an audience to the crumbling of this town, and specifically of two families, two police officers and their wives and children. A little girl named Emily that they couldn't save. They can't get out of town fast enough.

The pleasant bickering—gallows humor, the back and forth they've been good at for years—from the crime scene fades away the longer they drive in the dark. They end up at a hotel near the airport, simply because neither of them wants to fly back tonight. There are two beds in their room; they use one, climbing in together after showering. Mulder wraps an arm around Scully's shoulders, and she lets her cheek fall to his chest. “You okay?” he murmurs to her scalp.

She chuckles humorlessly and shakes her head. “Not really.” She can't admit that she's been seeing or hallucinating (or whatever) the Willoughby Specter, but she'll admit this, that she's not okay. It's a step, she thinks. “That was a… difficult case,” she adds softly.

“I know.” He kisses her hair. “Cases like that are always hard.”

“Those little kids…” she croaks, curling a hand around the hem of his t-shirt. She can still hear that woman screaming her daughter's name. Emily. She shuts her eyes as if it could protect her from the image. It's still so hard sometimes, remembering everyone she has lost. Her daughter. Her son, lying on a morgue table just like Andrew Eggers; that tiny shape under a sheet.

“I know, honey,” Mulder says, and his voice breaks. “I'm sorry. I should've told Skinner we couldn't take it.”

She sniffles, rubbing her chin against his shoulder. “We knew what we were getting into when we took the case. I just wish we could've done something to stop it,” she says, lifting a hand to stroke his hair. “Besides, what would our excuse have been? I'm not sure we could've justified staying in Willoughby, no matter how upset Ryan was.”

“Hmm.” He thumbs her cheekbone, underneath her eye. “This case kind of reminded me of Willoughby, you know,” he says. “Albeit a more extreme version, of course… Small town. Prejudiced, superstitious townfolk. The gates of hell.”

“Where are the gates of hell involved in Willoughby?”

He nudges her. “Remember Joy's story about the potential origin of the Specter? The man who supposedly worshipped the devil and was found frozen on a mountain?”

“Fire and ice,” Scully says dryly, leaning her forehead into his neck. “The difference is that no one has died in conjunction to this case since 2002.”

“That we know of,” he points out.

“That's not helpful,” she chides, and he squeezes her close. “Do you think that everything is okay in Willoughby, Mulder?” she adds after a few minutes. “Ryan sounded pretty upset on the phone.” She's remembering the call that Mulder had gotten a few days ago, after they'd landed in Connecticut.

“I don't know,” says Mulder thoughtfully. “Ryan didn't seem very willing to offer up information, but I told him to call me if anything came up, or if it got dangerous. And I haven't heard from him, so…” He tucks the blankets around them, strokes a gentle finger down her jaw. “We'll need to meet with Skinner back in DC tomorrow, of course, but we could head back to Willoughby after we're finished with this case,” he adds. “What do you think?”

“We could do that,” Scully says hesitatingly, although she's not sure. She's been a bit apprehensive about the whole thing for months now, and their last visit only made things worse, what with the laptop in the hotel room and whatever it was she saw in the rearview mirror. The things that Joy Seers said to her, about faith and God; it's silly that it should bother her, but it does. Especially if they really were at the gates of hell tonight. It feels like a pattern now, like some sort of dark force is following her, and it somehow feels different from every case that she and Mulder took back in the day. It shouldn't, but it does.

Mulder is still talking. “It seems like a good idea to me,” he says, running his fingernails over Scully's scalp until she shivers. “I think whatever happened in that hotel room, coupled with Ryan's fear, is a good sign that something bad is happening in Willoughby. And I don't want to let it go too far. I don't want it to end up like—” He breaks off mid-sentence, and she knows that he's thinking of the case they just closed, of their son, out there on the run somewhere. It's hard not to; she sees their son in almost every case with a child, the same way she sees Emily. Mulder told her the other night that he'd told Anna Strong that he had a son the other day; I haven't told anyone I have a son in sixteen years, he'd said, his voice thick, and she'd wrapped her arms around him. William— Jackson —has weighed heavily on their minds ever since they found him, and therefore, so do cases like the one in Eastwood (the same way they always have, but a little harder now), and so does the case in Willoughby.

“I know,” she says. She lifts her head to kiss his cheek; his eyes are half-shut, like it hurts. She finds his hand, his callused palm, with hers and holds tightly. He hums low, brief thanks in his throat. “Oh, Mulder,” she murmurs, squeezing his fingers, “how the hell do you want to stop whatever's happening in Willoughby? I don't know if there's anything we can do.”

“Assuming it is, in fact, a ghost…” he says in a teasing tone that she knows is reference to the fact that she doesn't believe in it (or that he thinks she doesn't believe in it). He lets out a dry chuckle; gallows humor again. “Maybe the Grimoire of the Eastwood Witch could help us.”

She nudges him hard in the side, shaking her head. She keeps seeing Anna Strong go up in flames. She's thinking about what Mulder said at the crime scene: There is no getting out of this town, Scully. Not these days. She's thinking about Jared's story at the prison a couple of months ago, that he and his brother and sister-in-law were trying to exorcise the ghost when they were murdered.

She doesn't want to go back to Willoughby. She doesn't know if she believes in the ghost, and she's too afraid to find out. Anna Strong was trying to finish what she started, Holly Smith and Ben Seers were trying to prove that the alleged ghost was not malevolent, Marion and Jared Caruthers were trying to get rid of it for vengeance and protection. And look what happened to them. She doesn't know what she believes, she's afraid to believe (just like she told Mulder all those years ago), and she's afraid to find out what will happen to her and Mulder if they keep trying to get rid of it. He says he's seen it, too. She wants, desperately, to be selfish.

But if she is selfish, if they don't go back, she doesn't know what will happen to Ryan Caruthers. And she doesn't know how they can help, or if they can help, but she won't leave that kid behind to whatever it is that is tormenting him because she is selfish. She won't.

She has to tell Mulder, she decides. It's only fair. She doesn't know what she's even telling him, she's still halfway trying to rationalize the whole thing (what if Ryan Caruthers is making this whole thing up to protect his uncle, what if he's given Mulder and Scully something to make them hallucinate, drugged them somehow, didn't she see the ghost for the first time after they first met Ryan?), but she still has to tell him. She has to be honest, no matter how much it scares her; she needs to make sure he knows. She barely been knows how to begin, how to explain why she hasn't told him already—will he be angry that she hasn't told him already and accuse her of working against him, the way he had a long time ago? No, she doesn't think he would do that now, but it's hard to tell; she doesn't know why she hasn't told him already, she should've told him two years ago.

She starts gingerly, tugging gently at the tail of his shirt. “Mulder,” she whispers, “do you really believe in this? In… in the Willoughby Specter?”

It sounds so silly, coming out of her mouth, but she is ready for a quick confirmation, because of course he believes, he's said so more than once. And then they can move on, and she can tell him what she thinks she's seen. But there is no immediate answer. Only silence in response, followed by a grumbly snore.

Scully lifts her head and sees that Mulder, once an incorrigible insomniac, has fallen asleep.

---

Annie Caruthers has not seen her older brothers in sixteen years.

It's stupid, but sometimes she feels like she lost Jared when she lost Ian. Like she's an only child now. She hasn't seen Jared in person since the trial, and she could barely even look at him then. (She once thought he was innocent. She once thought they'd prove him innocent, and she'd have at least one brother. But he barely even tried to defend himself. The evidence was all there, and he practically admitted to it, and that was it. And she hasn't wanted to see him since.) She hasn't seen her brothers since 2002, and in reference to Jared, she would be completely fine with never seeing him again. But here she is, waiting for her big brother who murdered her other big brother to come home. The one thing she swore she'd never do, and something she can't not do, or she risks alienating her nephew further. God, her family is fucked up.

Annie and Ryan are waiting in the living room. Just waiting—the lack of activity is strange, and the tension in the air is palpable. Ryan is pacing—around the rug, in front of the stairs, in front of the door, where the salt line sits untouched. (He's been watching her closely ever since they got back from the hospital in December, and he flipped out the first time she tried to clean it up, so she hasn't touched it since. Easier to just let him sprinkle salt in front of the doors; maybe it'll work, will bring them some good luck.) Annie sits on the couch, fidgeting, her knee bouncing nervously. It's a habit she's carried since childhood; it used to drive her mother insane. ( Stop fidgeting, she'd say. Relax. ) They're both watching the door, their eyes flitting back and forth; Ryan keeps craning his neck to see the driveway. He's as anxious as she is.

Annie chews her lower lip, picking at a thread on a throw pillow. “Did he say when he'd be here?” she asks quietly, resisting the urge to tell him to call Jared and order him not to come.

Ryan scratches at the back of his neck. “No. I think he said an old friend had picked him up, and he was headed back to Winchester with him. Prison's not too far away.”

“I know,” Annie says quietly. She's driven Ryan that way many times. (Ryan used to try to get her to go talk to Jared with him. He really wants to talk to you, he said. He misses you .)

Ryan turns to face her, bouncing up and down on his feet. “Aunt Annie,” he starts in a faltering voice, “I'm really sorry that… I mean, I didn't want things to…”

The doorbell rings before he can finish.

Ryan heads for the door, casting a nervous, apologetic look over his shoulder. A silent plea for her just to go with this. Annie sighs and gets to her feet reluctantly. She hates awkward situations like this.

Ryan opens the door and motions him in. The man who comes into the room makes Annie's breath catch involuntarily in her throat. Her big brother. The last time she saw him, he was unshaved and messy in a courtroom, tangled hair and bloodshot eyes. Now, he's surprisingly neat, dressed in plain clothes, more muscle than she remembers. He's grown a beard, and he seems taller, which is impossible, but that's just how it seems. Annie looks at the ground, a lump in her throat.

“Hey, Ryan,” Jared says, shaking Ryan's hand awkwardly. Ryan greets him, shifting just as awkwardly. Annie isn't listening. She's still looking down at the rug, picking out the patterns with her eyes. She wants to be about anywhere else right now.

And then she hears him speak to her, in a strained, nervous voice. “Hi, Annie.”

Annie swallows and looks up. Tries to mute the combination of anger and affection that swirls up when she looks at him. He killed our brother, she thinks involuntarily, and gulps. “Hi, Jared,” she mumbles.

Jared gulps, too; she can see his Adam's apple bobbing. “I-I hope it's not overstepping to say that… I've really missed you,” he says. He offers Annie a wobbly smile.

Ryan looks between them hopefully, his eyes wide like a child of divorce who has watched The Parent Trap one too many times.

Annie forces a smile. It feels too fake and plastic, too wide. She wants to say, It is overstepping, but she doesn't.

---

The day after the Eastwood case, Mulder and Scully spend most of the day clearing up what happened, after their arrival back in DC. The agents who picked up the case before handing it off to them aren't too happy with the lack of a clear perpetrator in the deaths, but a phone call from Officer Wentworth (who essentially served as Mulder and Scully's ally in the whole situation) confirms that there is no other clear explanation, and people seem to just want to lay the whole thing to rest. The report that Mulder wrote on the flight home is met with some disapproval, but that's more or less what they're used to.

By the time they finally get out of their meeting, Mulder has several missed calls from an unfamiliar number, but he recognizes the area code. “These calls are from Willoughby,” he says, showing Scully the screen of his phone as she unlocks the office. “And it doesn't look like they're from Ryan.”

Her eyebrows raise. “Do you think something happened?” she asks.

“I don't know,” Mulder says as they enter. He presses the return call button and tucks the phone under his cheek as he sits across from Scully as the desk.

It rings only a few times before a frantic man answers on the other end. “This is Deputy Jacobs from the Willoughby Police Department. Agent Mulder, is that you?” he says in a rush.

Mulder blinks in surprise. “Yes, this is Agent Mulder,” he says. “I was returning your phone calls.”

“Are you in Willoughby? Mike thought he saw you and Agent Scully at the Chinese place last weekend.”

“Um, we were in Willoughby, by request of Ryan Caruthers—he was spooked about the Willoughby Specter, you know… but we got called out of town on a case a few days ago. Is something wrong, Deputy?” Across the desk, Scully raises her eyebrows questioningly, and he shrugs.

On the other end, Jacobs takes a tremulous breath, lets out a sigh. “You remember the sheriff's son, Robbie?” he asks. “He's missing. He's been missing for a couple hours.”

Mulder freezes, his stomach thunking at the deputy's words. “R-Robbie's missing?” he repeats, putting the phone on speaker and setting it down between them. Scully's eyes widen in panic. “What happened?”

“He was supposed to walk back home from a friend's house—it’s only about a block, but Bonnie O'Connell says he never showed up, and the friend's mother says he definitely left. Joe's out looking for him, but we're not entirely sure…” Deputy Jacobs's voice breaks. Scully has gone sheet-white, leaning closer to the phone and listening intently. “I-it's probably nothing,” he says thickly. “But Robbie told his parents that he'd been seeing the ghost lately, and I thought that might…” He breaks off, taking a few shaky breaths.

Scully clears her throat and says, “Deputy Jacobs, we can be in Willoughby in ninety minutes if we leave right now.” Her voice is determined, steely and fearful at the same time.

Jacobs clears his throat. “Actually, I was hoping to ask you another favor,” he says. “We have most of the force out looking for Robbie, the general consensus is that he probably wondered off… but there was something that Bonnie—Robbie’s mom—was worried about. Today is the day that Jared Caruthers got out on parole.”

Mulder swallows dryly; his throat is stunningly tight. This feels like Eastwood all over again; except this time, they may be able to do something. “And you think that he could be involved?” he asks. It's hard to reconcile that with the man they met in the prison a few months ago, but it's certainly possible.

“I don't know. But that seemed to be a theory of Joe's. And considering Jared Caruthers's connection to… to t-the Specter, and to Ryan… I just thought…” Deputy Jacobs trails off. He sounds like he is in tears.

“You want us to find Jared Caruthers and see if he's responsible,” Scully supplies.

“Yes,” Kenny says gratefully. “Just to check. Joe got in contact with the prison to see if Jared was coming back here, and they said he was living in the next town over, in Winchester. I have an address.” He rattles it off, and Scully scribbles it down on a Post-It note. Her eyes are bright and unwavering, and she looks like she's somewhere between crying and ready to hurt someone. And afraid, Mulder realizes. It's small, and it's muted, but she is afraid—and not the I'm-scared-I-won't-be-able-to-save-this-child afraid. A different kind of fear, somehow. He covers her hand with his on the desk.

“We'll go and check in on Jared Caruthers,” he says into the phone. “And we'll come to Willoughby and help out after we're done. Give me or Scully a call if there are any changes, okay?”

“Sure, sure,” says Deputy Jacobs, sounding a little distracted. “We… we're hoping it's not too serious, of course… That kid…” He breaks off mid-sentence, clears his throat. “I-I can't thank you enough for your help.”

“Of course,” Mulder says, but he's inadvertently thinking about what he told the police in Eastwood when they asked what the FBI were doing there: The FBI has jurisdiction over the killing of the immediate family of a law enforcement officer. He's hoping—he’s praying —that this won't be the case here. He doesn't think he could stand being unable to save someone else. He never should've left Willoughby in the first place, never should've seen this case as easily dismissable; if he'd stayed, maybe he could've figured out some way to help Ryan and exorcise this ghost, and this never would've happened. Or maybe—he hopes—that the kid has just wandered off, and he's perfectly fine, and there's no connection. But he has a feeling that it's not.

As if sensing that he's distressed, Scully squeezes his fingers. He rubs one finger over her knuckles and says into the phone, “Deputy Jacobs, did you say that Robbie had been seeing the ghost?”

“Yeah, he has been.”

“Has he said anything to you about it?” Mulder asks. “Anything noteworthy?”

Scully meets his eyes across the desk. He'd expected her to have some sort of disapproval, some sort of chiding, but instead, she just looks spooked.

“Uh, yeah,” says Jacobs. “He said that… he said that it felt different this time. That before, he'd felt safe, but he didn't anymore. He felt scared when he saw it this time.”

It's too much like what Ryan said to them earlier in the week. Mulder sighs, rubs a hand over his face, pressing his fingers into his forehead. “We'll be there as soon as possible,” he says into the phone.

---

Annie Caruthers is a good cook. It's been more or less a learning process—Ryan remembers, as a little kid, back when they were still living with his grandparents, a lot of cooking lessons on behalf of his grandma, and eating a lot of chicken nuggets and mac-and-cheese (both because it was easy and because that's what he enjoyed at the time)—but she's improved considerably since the beginning. But it's clear that she hasn't put a lot of effort into this dinner. She makes two frozen pizzas—a dinner that Ryan wouldn't usually complain about, but he kind of expected something a little fancier for this dinner. But Jared doesn't protest. “I've been living on prison food for sixteen years,” he jokes, grinning awkwardly at them. Only Ryan smiles back.

The dinner mostly goes like that. Jared stops trying to make conversation after a couple minutes and focuses on picking at his pizza. Annie stays silent, absorbed in her plate and glass of Coke. So it's mostly left to Ryan to make conversation. Which isn't something that he's very good of (at holidays, most of the time his family has no trouble finding subjects to discuss endlessly, and he can just fade into the background), but he makes a good effort. He tells Jared funny family stories in an attempt to lighten the mood, but it seems like it just brings back bad memories. (Jared tries to smile and mostly fails, and Annie avoids everyone's eyes and wipes her own a few times.) Ryan offers up a few stories about school—the ones that don't involve near suspension or juvenile delinquency—and those seem to go over a bit better, but not by much. He asks Jared a couple questions about how he's been doing, but those just seem to piss Annie off more. He realized that he's never really had a conversation with Uncle Jared outside of discussing the ghost or his parents.

Ryan tries one last desperate bid to change the subject. “So, Uncle Jared, have you talked to Grandma and Grandpa today?” he asks. His grandparents live in Oregon, and he knows they went years without talking to Jared, but they started to tentatively rebuild their relationship with him shortly before Ryan did; they were part of the reason that he got up the courage to ask to go and see Jared.

“I talked to them a couple days ago, actually. I think Mom wanted to try and have dinner… try and reconnect… the next time they come into town,” says Jared, his mouth twisted in an expression somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

At that, Annie scoffs, before either of them can say anything else. “Unbelievable,” she mutters under her breath.

Ryan turns to her incredulously; she is rolling her eyes. Jared says, uncertainly, “Annie, I'm sorry…”

“Sorry for what?” she snaps. “Sorry you killed our brother?”

“Aunt Annie!” Ryan snaps. Jared leans his forehead hard into his palm, his eyes screwed shut.

“Ryan, I'm sorry, but I can't do this, okay? I can't do this!” Annie stands, waving an angry hand in Jared's direction. “I can't just sit here with him and pretend that everything is okay! H-he killed my brother,” she says, and her voice cracks, her face white.

Jared rubs at his forehead hard, standing himself. “I knew that this was a bad idea,” he mutters, wiping his eyes, shaking his head. “I-I should go.”

“I think you should,” Annie says coldly.

Ice water seems to shoot through Ryan's veins, and he stumbles to his feet. “You can't go,” he insists, grabbing at Jared's sleeve. “You can't! It's too dangerous.”

“Ryan, I can't stay here,” Jared says in a soft voice. “It's going to be okay, though. Nothing bad is going to happen tonight…”

“No,” Ryan says in a low, furious voice. “No, you're wrong. This fucking ghost… it hurt my parents, and it hurt me, and it's tried to hurt Aunt Annie… it's not going to stop until it's finished the job, and it's going to try tonight.” His voice rises in a while; to his disgust, he can feel tears welling up, his eyes and nose stinging. He feels like a child throwing a tantrum.

Jared seems to be searching for words, a combination of guilt and distress visible on his face. Annie, however, is staring at them both in disbelief. “Jesus Christ, Jared,” she breathes. “What the hell have you been telling him? H-have you been telling him that you aren't responsible for what happened to Ian and Marion? That a ghost is? What the fuck ? No wonder he's been having nightmares!”

“Annie,” Jared says with a sigh, “it's not what you think.”

“How the hell is it not what I think?” she snaps, nearly shouting. “He gets into trouble, he burns down a building, h-he breaks his ankle doing some banishment spell for a ghost he's been seeing all his life, and you think that doesn't have something to do with you? You can pin it all on some fucking ghost? The fucking Willoughby Specter?”

Ryan is speechless, hurt beyond words. Jared is pale and horrified, his eyes wide. He says softly, “You're right, Annie. It has everything to do with me. Just not in the way that you think.”

He turns towards Ryan, reaching out to clap him on the shoulder. “I'm going to leave, okay? I'm going to call my friend to come and get me. It's going to be fine.”

There are furious, hurt things that Ryan wants to say, but somehow, he can't get the words out. He nods, numb. Jared claps his shoulder again before turning and offering an apology to Annie. She says nothing in return.

When he's gone, the door slamming behind him, there's something of a tense silence in his wake. Ryan covers his face with his hands. He thought that they'd be safe if they just stayed here, but he should've fucking known it wouldn't work. He should've expected something like this.

“Ry, I'm sorry, but…” Annie starts.

He lowers his palms and shoots her an indignant, searing look. “Is that really what you think of me? That I'm fucked up because of Uncle Jared? Have you ever believed me about the Specter?”

Annie's mouth opens, closes. She starts uneasily: “Ryan, it's not that I don't believe you…”

“Yeah, got it,” Ryan snaps.

He moves, automatically, to the coat hook by the door, and grabs his coat. Then he yanks the door open. “Ryan, where are you going?” Annie calls, her voice tight and nervous, and maybe a little angry.

“Out!” Ryan shouts in response, letting the door slam behind him.

He runs down the driveway and past Jared, who is standing at the curb, assumedly waiting for his ride. He shouts a similar question of Ryan's whereabouts as Ryan passes.

“I need to check on someone!” Ryan shouts in response. He might as well give the truth to Jared—they’re more or less in this together, or so he thought. He's honestly not sure anymore.

Ryan keeps running, taking the familiar turns, going up familiar streets. He's going to check on the one person who has mentioned the ghost recently who isn't possessed. That seems to be the only responsible thing left to do.

The O'Connells's house is only a few blocks away, so Ryan makes it there in a pretty decent amount of time. He's breathing too hard, cold sweat running down his back; he sags forward, his hands pressing into the bark of the big tree in the front yard. He remembers this tree from babysitting—Robbie used to love to try and climb it. He shuts his eyes, his face wet, and takes a deep breath. He stands and stretches, walks up the front walkway and rings the doorbell.

Almost instantly, the door is being pulled open. Mrs. O'Connell is on the other side, and her expression is almost eager until she sees who it is; it immediately falls. “Ryan,” she mutters, in about the coldest tone he's ever heard from her; she's always been a lot nicer to him compared to her husband. “What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Mrs. O'Connell,” Ryan says, trying his best to sound polite, and not panicked. “I wanted to, uh, drop in and say hi to Robbie. Is he here?”

Mrs. O'Connell laughs harshly, her mouth around in a grim frown. “Unbelievable,” she says vaguely, as if talking to no one. “No, he's not here. He's been missing since sometime this afternoon.”

Ryan's stomach drops out from under him, his knees going weak. “He's missing?” he stammers. “W-what happened?”

“We don't know. My husband is out looking for him.” Mrs. O'Connell crosses her arms, nearly glaring at Ryan. “You know, this whole thing seems to coincide pretty conveniently with Robbie's claims of seeing the Willoughby Specter. A story I seem to remember you getting him interested in.”

Ryan's stomach twists again; he sways a little in place. “Y-you're blaming me for this?” he stammers. It's not an entirely off-base assumption—the Specter probably wouldn't be targeting Robbie and his family if it weren't for him—but the accusation still floors him.

Mrs. O'Connell sighs, rubbing her temples. “Look, Ryan, I don't know what's happening here, but—” Her voice breaks. “Y-you let our dog out, you almost killed my husband, and now my son goes missing after getting scared of a ghost you told him about? It's not a coincidence. It can't be.”

Ryan feels faint. He clutches the door harder. “I-I didn't let out your dog,” he whispers.

It's true. It's the one thing he didn't do in this whole giant mess: he didn't go anywhere near the damn dog. His suspicion is that the Specter possessed Robbie to let the dog out, just based on what he heard Robbie and Sheriff O'Connell had said about that night. But it wasn't him. Everything else was his fault, but not that.

Mrs. O'Connell's face falls further. Crumples. She looks like she's on the verge of tears. She says softly, “I'm sorry, Ryan. But I think you should go.”

She starts to close the door, but Ryan holds onto it, holds it open. “I-I really want you to find Robbie okay,” he stammers. “I-I-I'll go look for him. I'll go help look…”

Mrs. O'Connell looks at him and looks at him. She's sad; the look she's giving him is almost sympathetic. “Do whatever you want, Ryan,” she says. Slightly pitying and slightly disgusted. “I'm sorry.”

She tries to close the door again, and this time, he lets her. The door slams hard.

The tears rush up, and Ryan doesn't even try to stop them. He covers his face with his palms and sobs like a baby.

After a few minutes of crying, his ribs heaving, his cheeks wet, he decides it's silly to just keep standing on the porch of a woman who basically just told him to go away. He swipes wildly at his eyes and walks down the stairs and over to the sidewalk. He's walked several houses past the O'Connell house, sniffling and considering what the hell he's going to do now, when his phone starts to ring in his pocket, buzzing insistently. Expecting it to be Annie, a call he'll probably ignore, Ryan pulls out the phone and looks at the screen. But it's not Annie. It's an unfamiliar number.

Ryan sniffles a few more times, wiping his eyes and nose again, as he answers the phone. “Hello?” he says, praying his voice is steady.

There is only silence on the other end. Staticky, rustling sounds. And then, just as he's about to hang up: “I assume that you are feeling a considerable amount of distress, Ryan Caruthers.”

The voice sounds like Mrs. Seers, but Ryan knows it's not. It's the way she's sounded ever since she's woken up. It's harsher, more threatening. It's the type of voice that Ryan imagined as a child, huddled in a corner with his hands over his ears, his eyes shut, pretending that there wasn't a ghost in the room. It's the type of voice that might've haunted his nightmares.

Ryan intakes a sharp breath, his ribs tightening, and whirls away from the houses, as if the residents are listening to him. He cups his hand around the phone speaker and his mouth and whispers furiously, “You have Robbie, don't you?”

“Perhaps.”

He grits his teeth furiously, his hands clenched into fists. He's so furious, he can barely breathe. “Where the hell did you take him?” he hisses, clutching the phone hard. “What did you do?”

“That remains to be seen.” The voice is almost unfamiliar, like any inflections of Mrs. Seers have been scrubbed away. He wonders how long the ghost has been there, if there's even anything left of his old teacher. “I could do a lot of things. I have been watching the child for a long time.”

Ryan balls his hand in the top of his hair. He doesn't know if the Specter wants to do this to implicate him, or to lure him there and hurt him instead of Robbie, but he doesn't care. He doesn't care. He's not going to let anyone else die. “You want me?” he growls. “You'll get me. Where is he ?”

“I am surprised you cannot figure it out.” A pause on the other end. Usually, when people pause on the phone, you can hear people breathing, but Ryan can't hear a thing. It's all quiet. “It is the place where you have felt me closest.”

There's a sharp click on the other end, and then nothing.

---

The drive to Winchester is mostly quiet. Mulder drives, mostly to focus his anxious energy on a task . Scully sits in the passenger seat, fidgeting, flipping through the Willoughby files Mulder had grabbed from the filing cabinet before they'd left. The tension in the car is unmistakable. They both are nervous, stuck in the place of Eastwood and children they couldn't save.

At one point, Scully reaches across the center console to squeeze Mulder's arm. “You know it wasn't your fault, right?” she says in a soft voice. “We had to leave. There's probably nothing we could've done.”

Mulder chews at his lower lip, squinting at the road. “You're right that we had to leave,” he says, “but I don't know that there was nothing we could've done.” He's thinking about Ryan's phone call on the day they left, how there seemed to be a reason for Ryan's call that he couldn't disclose. He doesn't know if that has anything to do with this, but he's got a feeling that it does. “I think the most we can hope for is that we'll be able to bring about a good outcome here,” he adds.

Scully sighs, squeezing his arm briefly before letting go. “What do you think is going on here, Mulder?” she asks in a subdued voice that catches him off guard. “Why do you think this is happening?”

He blinks a few rapid times, thrown off. He doesn't know if she's trying to start some sort of debate or not, and he's definitely not in the mood for a debate. “I think it's all connected,” he says. “Ryan, Jared, Robbie, the ghost.” He casts a brief, sideways look at her, expecting her to refute the ghost claim, but she doesn't say anything. “I would suggest some other explanation, but after what happened in our hotel room, I don't really have one,” he continues. “I think that whatever's happening is connected to the Willoughby Specter. I think that's kind of undeniable by now.”

He expects Scully to have a retort to that, some kind of alternate explanation, but she says nothing once again. He sneaks another glance and finds her sitting quietly in her seat, looking down at where she's got Google Maps open and directions to Jared Caruthers's new address pulled up. She seems almost disinterested… or scared. The way she seemed back at the office when they got the call from Deputy Jacobs.

Some things are suddenly starting to make sense to Mulder, to fall into place. He remembers the way Scully seemed spooked in the aftermath of the laptop flying across the room, the way she seemed apprehensive about coming back to Willoughby in the first place. And there are older memories as well: her reactions when he told her about seeing the ghost—the dreams he had before the Perlieu incident and before they went to Norfolk, and the time that he physically saw it, in the school—and, further back, the way she reacted when Joy Seers showed them the videos of the haunting in her classroom. He remembers being thrown by her behavior there, the way she seemed to be spooked by all of this. He remembers thinking that it was unlike her, that this is unlike her. And he wonders—probably too late—if something is wrong.

He sneaks another look at her as they turn up a street. She's still quiet, cradling her phone in her lap. He speaks gingerly, trying to let her know that he is not judging her or expecting anything of her, as he looks out at the road: “Scully? Do… do you believe in the ghost?”

More silence, a longer silence than he expected. Mulder looks at Scully briefly again, and sees that her neck and cheeks are red as if she has a fever. (Or as if she's embarrassed.) She clears her throat as if preparing to confide, but what she says is not that. She says, “The turn's up here, Mulder… here, this next left.”

If he knows Scully, than he knows that this is efficiently a shutdown of the subject. He takes the left, into the parking lot of a sprawling apartment building. “Deputy Jacobs gave us the apartment number, right?” he asks.

“Second apartment, fourth floor.” Scully clutches the phone hard, turning it off with the flat of her thumb. “Mulder…” she starts, uncertainly. Almost apologetically.

“It's okay.” He reaches for her hand on an impulse, pulling it away from the phone and squeezing briefly. “It's okay,” he repeats, looking her right in the eyes. Her cheeks redden further; she looks away. He squeezes her hand again before turning and opening his door. “We should probably get going.”

He hears her door open. “Yeah,” she agrees, “we probably should.”

They ride the elevator to the fourth floor in silence. The second apartment is directly adjacent to it, and Scully raps on the door, her stance hardening and her face flattening out into a serious expression. They both pull their badges as a man on the other side of the door shouts, “Coming!” They hear a series of footsteps before the door creaks open, a man who is definitely not Jared Caruthers standing on the other side. His face falls a bit at the sight of their badges, his face growing stonier as if he's putting up his defenses.

“FBI,” Scully says calmly. “Is Jared Caruthers here?”

The man's eyes dart back and forth between them as he shifts in the doorway. “Why do you want to know?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.

“We'd just like to ask him some questions,” Mulder says. “Is he here?”

“Dan, it's okay. I've got this.” Jared appears next to the man in the door, his expression somewhere between nervous and polite. He scans their badges quickly before meeting their eyes. “Agents Mulder and Scully? Did my nephew call you?”

“Actually, we're here in conjunction with the disappearance of Robbie O'Connell,” says Scully.

Jared's face falls, his mouth dropping open in surprise. The man next to Jared—Dan—crosses his arms and snaps, “He's been with me most of the day, you know. I picked him up from the prison in Pennsylvania, I brought him here to get settled, I dropped him off at his sister's for about an hour, and I picked him up about twenty minutes ago. I don't know who this Robbie O'Connell is, but—”

“Dan, it's fine, it's fine,” Jared says, holding up a hand as if to quieten him. He addresses Mulder and Scully: “I don't know Robbie O'Connell. I-I think Ryan might've mentioned him to me before, but… I've never met him. And I didn't take him, or hurt him. If you want to take a look around…” He sweeps his arm broadly across the doorway.

They don't have a warrant for Jared's apartment—and on top of that, Mulder thinks he’s probably not responsible. He'd had his doubts before, and this exchange has all but confirmed it. He could be wrong, but it seems like Jared is not involved. “Can your sister confirm that you were there the entire time you were outside of this man's presence?” Scully asks, her voice stern, and Mulder follows her line of thinking: Annie Caruthers has no reason to cover for her brother. He doesn't think he's ever gotten Annie's direct opinion on Jared, but he remembers Jared saying that his sister hated him.

Jared nods grimly. “I don't think she'll like it, but… yeah. Yeah, give her a call.” He motions them inside and rattles off the number for Scully, who steps aside to make the call. Her eyes slide over the room as the phone rings, looking for signs of anything amiss. Jared's friend, Dan, shoots them another suspicious look as he slips into the back of the apartment.

Jared is speaking to Mulder in a frantic voice. “I know you have no good reason to believe me,” he's saying nervously, “but I swear, I never came into contact with that kid. I wouldn't even be able to pick him out of a lineup. And I swear to God, I would never hurt him… I don't want to hurt anyone…”

Mulder chews at his lower lip, doing his own quick scan of the apartment. He offers, “Jared, this is probably an odd question… but do you think that this disappearance could have something to do with the Specter? We… We'd heard that Robbie had been seeing the ghost recently, and with his connection to Ryan…”

Jared's jaw works back and forth, as if contemplating. “It certainly sounds like it,” he says softly.

“Ryan called us in last week because he was scared of the ghost,” Mulder admits. From the look Scully is giving him, he assumes she thinks he's oversharing, but it doesn't seem to matter. Right now, it seems like Jared may be the best person to have a conversation with about this ghost. “He wanted us to… try and get rid of the ghost,” he adds sheepishly, the shame of their lackluster effort rushing back.

Jared grimaces a little, rubbing at his mouth. “That makes sense,” he mutters.

“Why's that?”

“Because he first contacted me in an attempt to get rid of the ghost,” Jared explains. “He wanted my help. He figured out what Ian and Marion and I were doing when they died, somehow, and he thought he could do it successfully. His attempts were… less than successful. He-he set a fire two years ago in an attempt to make the flurry of sightings stop, and he tried to exorcise the ghost himself just in December… and it ended in him spraining his ankle, and—according to him—Annie being possessed and nearly hurting herself. And when he called me to tell me what happened, I… I reacted badly.” He winces again. “I was so scared that he was going to get hurt. Or killed. And I think… I think he was kind of defeated after that. More scared. I… I guess that's why he called you two in.”

“He seemed to think that it was getting more dangerous,” says Mulder. “He gave us a video he took of a seancé—as proof that things were dangerous—and in the middle of watching it, the feed froze, and the laptop went flying across the room out of nowhere.”

Jared has a regretful, knowing look on his face. “Have either of you seen the ghost?” he asks. “Just… out of curiosity.”

“I have. A couple of dreams last fall, and once back in 2016. I don't think that Scully has.”

“I've been seeing it, too,” Jared admits. His voice is tight and afraid; it's small, like a child after a nightmare. “More than usual. Today, Ryan insisted that I come straight to the house because the house was protected, and I'd hoped he was just being paranoid. But now… now I don't think that's the case.”

An uneasy silence falls over them. Mulder's gaze shifts to the floor, unsure of what to say. He doesn't know how to stop this. He wishes desperately that he did.

“Okay,” says Scully across the room. “Thank you.” She hangs up, slipping the phone into her pocket, and crosses the room. “Well,” she says to Jared, “your sister confirmed your alibi. She says that she saw you standing at the end of the driveway after you walked out, and that she saw you getting picked up when she was leaving.”

“Okay,” Jared says awkwardly, one hand in his pocket. “Okay. And, uh, did she say where Ryan went? She was going to get him, right?”

“No, she didn't know where Ryan was,” Scully says. “Actually, she said she was out looking for him when she picked up.”

“Shit.” Jared rubs at his mouth stressedly. “Shit. I thought he might’ve been home by now. Shit, he… he said he was going to check on someone. I bet he knows about Robbie… I bet he's out there looking for him.” His eyes are shut tight in frustration, his voice wavering with fright. “Fuck. That kid is going to get himself… hurt.” He stops awkwardly, as if wanting to avoid the possibility of something worse than hurt.

“Do you think there's a possibility that he's found Robbie?” Mulder asks, his mind working. Scully raises her eyebrows at him questioningly. “Do you think that they could be in the same place somehow?” he continues. “If all of this is happening for the same reason?”

“Mulder, are you thinking that we may be able to find both of them somehow?” Scully asks.

“The line of thinking is that the Specter is connected to their disappearances, right?” he offers. “So by that logic…”

“You could probably find them both if you looked for one of them,” Jared says, his voice infused by sudden hope. “Y-you have to go look for them, please. I think I have an idea of where they might be.”

Mulder meets Scully's eyes again. She looks uncertain, saying, “Mulder, I don't know… I'm not sure that it's the best lead to follow.”

“Deputy Jacobs said most of the force was out looking for Robbie, right? What's it going to hurt if we follow this lead?” Mulder prods. “What if it's the right lead?” Scully doesn't look sure, and so he prods further. “Besides, Ryan Caruthers is missing, too. By pursuing this lead, we're pursuing them both.”

Jared is looking between them apprehensively. Scully sighs and nods. “I should call Deputy Jacobs, though, and let him know what we're doing,” she says. Mulder nods back and passes her his phone, where he has the number saved.

“I need to come with you,” Jared says insistently to Mulder. “I think I know how to find them.”

Mulder is tempted to argue—he knows that Scully would—but it doesn't feel worth it. There are two kids out there who need help, and he needs to make sure he doesn't fail them this time. “Where do you think they might be?” he asks.

“This is going to sound crazy, but… I've always had a feeling that the Specter was stronger in a certain area,” says Jared. “I think it's on the block of the old church, the one that's been around since before the town was founded. I think it has some sort of… power center there. I know that sounds crazy.”

“You think Robbie and Ryan are there?” asks Mulder.

“Somewhere on that block… It makes sense, right? Aside from the possibility that it's a power center, it's also the place where Ryan's parents died.” Jared gulps, his face white and rigid with fear. “It makes sense that they'd be lured there, right? If it started there… it makes sense that it would end there.”

It does make sense that it would be there. It almost makes too much sense; it's too perfect. Mulder can't help but wonder if this is all by design, if Jared is supposed to be drawn back to the scene of his crime the night that he gets out of prison; he can't help but wonder if they should leave him at home.

Scully hangs up the phone. “Deputy Jacobs seemed fine with us pursuing this lead,” she says, handing it back to Mulder. “Maybe even a little confident in it.”

“So they haven't found Robbie yet?”

“No, and he said there was no new leads,” says Scully. “He said he hasn't even heard from Sheriff O'Connell since he called to inform the department that Robbie was missing.”

---

The house being built on the property where Ryan's old apartment used to be is finally finished. It has a full structure, bricks and mortar and a roof. The wind whistles over the shingles as Ryan approaches it from the sidewalk, and he thinks involuntarily of the night of the seancé. Of the Ouija board bursting into flames.

He's too scared to go in. He knows he has to go in, but he's too scared to go in. Even with the knife. He'd stopped back by the house to get the knife—Annie was gone, presumably out looking for him—in a small attempt at self-defense, but he's worried that it's going to condemn him rather than save him. His uncle stabbed his parents, after all, right here. Right on this property.

His throat hurts, thick with fear, and his hands are shaking. He considers, briefly, just running away and calling the cops.

But no, he can't do that. That might get Mrs. Seers arrested, and he knows that this is not her fault. If she survives the night, she doesn't deserve to go to prison. And besides, there are no guarantees that the ghost won't just kill Robbie if the cops come. And he doesn't know that the cops can even stop the Specter.

It has to be him. He's the one it wants.

The door to the new house begins to move, creaking open excruciatingly slow, the hinges squeaking like they're fifty years old instead of just a couple months. There is no one behind it.

Ryan takes a deep breath and begins walking up the dirt-lawn to the house. He wonders when the property will be ready to sell, wonders if they'll tell the people who buy it what happened here. Everyone loves a good ghost story, he thinks bitterly. Everyone certainly loves this one, but nobody knows the details. The true story, here, is one that gets people killed.

He steps over the threshold and into the dark house. The door slams shut behind him, making him jump. He looks frantically in front of him, to either side, over both shoulders; he doesn't want to be caught off guard. But there is no one there.

Ryan takes a deep breath. “Hello?” he calls out, his voice trembling, and is instantly disgusted with himself. He doesn't need to resort to horror movie clichés, no matter how on edge he is. Where the hell are they? he thinks, gritting his teeth. He steps further into the front hall, walking towards the next room. It's furnished, albeit sparsely—by the real estate company, he assumes—and it looks cheesy as hell, but he's strangely grateful for the furniture, the corny decorations. It keeps this empty house from becoming his parents’ empty apartment, the empty rooms and the graffiti on the wall and the overturned crib in the nursery. A shiver runs sharply up his spine, and he shudders. He walks through another, sprawling room and finds nothing.

It's in the next room that he sees it: the two shapes lying on the ground, one large and one heart-stoppingly small. Ryan seizes his phone in quivering fingers and turns on his flashlight, shining it on the shapes. The faces snap into place: it's Robbie and the sheriff, the kid tucked securely under his father's arm. Neither one of them are moving, are alert.

Ryan's breath catches in his throat, and he rushes over to crouch beside them, letting it drop to the floor. “Robbie?” he whispers frantically, his voice rasping. “Robbie, can you hear me?” No answer.

Praying, frantically praying that he isn't too late, Ryan reaches down and presses two fingers to Robbie's pulse point in his neck. There it is, beating reassuringly strongly. Ryan breathes a sigh of relief, and checks the sheriff's pulse. Equally strong. They're both alive, but they're both unconscious, and Ryan has a feeling it's not a natural sleep.

He grips Robbie by his bony shoulders and begins to lightly shake him. “C'mon, Rob, wake up,” he whispers insistently. “You've gotta wake up.” But there's no response from Robbie; he's limp, his limbs flopping like a rag doll. “C'mon, kid,” he whispers, but Robbie's face stays still.

Ryan moves on to the sheriff, poking him hard in the arm; the guy's too bulky to shake. “Sheriff O'Connell?” he hisses. “Can you hear me? We gotta wake up, we gotta get out of here.”

A floorboard creaks behind him. Footsteps echo across the unfinished wood.

Ryan's breath catches in his throat. He fumbles instinctively for the knife tucked into the waistband of his pants, as bad as an idea as that may be. His fingers close around the handle just as it speaks.

It's the voice, the one that almost sounds like Mrs. Seers, but not quite. It's too far removed. It sounds like something else, something darker, something Ryan can't quite put his finger on. Something inhuman.

“Ryan,” it says. “I'm so glad that you're finally here.”

Chapter Text

nineteen.

may, 2002

Marion is still chopping tomatoes when Jared steps outside, retrieving the pack of cigarettes from his jacket. Somewhere further in the house, he hears the baby crying and Ian shushing. This apartment is too small; he doesn't know how they stand it. It's still weird to see Ian with a baby, after years of bickering and wrestling and name-calling and mutual picking on Annie. He's a good father, Jared thinks wryly. It's always such a surprise to remember.

He shuts the door behind him softly and leans tiredly against the wall. He's been on edge for days. For a month. Ever since Holly died. The fact that the seancé didn't work isn't helping. He really thought tonight might be the end of it all, some kind of bizarre revenge for Holly, some assurance that his brother's family would be okay. He sticks the cigarette between his teeth and lifts his lighter, staring at the opposite wall with a sort of blankness.

What the hell are they going to do now? Mar is seriously freaked out, and fairly fixated on the idea of getting rid of the ghost (and he honestly can't blame her), but Ian seemed a little put out with the whole process to begin with, and he certainly seems done now. Jared and Marion could keep doing this without him, but the fact that the seancé failed doesn't seem like a very good sign. They may never be able to exorcise the ghost if it can't be summoned. Maybe it failed because there was never a ghost in the first place, he thinks cynically. Maybe this is all an illusion, and Marion imagined the ghost, and Holly's death had nothing to do with the ghost, and Jared's just insane. He sighs, letting a thin line of smoke drift out of his mouth. This entire ordeal is exhausting. He just wants it all to be over. He wants Holly back.

The baby is still crying somewhere inside. Jared sighs, putting his cigarette out on the wall. He loves his nephew, but boy, does that kid have a pair of lungs on him.

Down the hall, Jared hears the sharp sound of floorboards squeaking. Figuring it's Mar and Ian's neighbor come home, he looks towards the door, lifting his hand to wave politely.

But it's not the neighbor. Whoever it is, he's too tall to be the neighbor. It's some sort of dark, hulking figure with a hat pulled down over his face, but Jared doesn't recognize him. He figures it's somebody looking for the neighbor. He finishes his wave, stiffly, and lowers his hand, eyes shifting to the wall. He debates whether or not to have another cigarette.

The floorboards creak again, insistently. When Jared looks back at the figure, he sees that he's drawn closer. He's halfway down the hall, a lot closer than Jared would've expect. The fluorescent light above them flickers. The figure casts no shadow.

Jared swallows roughly. He suddenly, inexplicably feels uneasy, nausea curdling in his stomach, and he has no idea why. He drops the box of cigarettes back into his pockets and turns towards the door.

The floorboards begin to creak again, as if the figure is drawing closer. Jared grabs the doorknob and attempts to turn it, but it won't move. It is stiff under his hand, his sweaty palm slipping on the metal as he fails to turn it. The footsteps keep coming. Jared yanks on the doorknob hard, again and again like a scared child. He briefly considers banging on the door and yelling, before shaking his head to clear his mind. This is ridiculous, he thinks. He is getting spooked for no reason. His mind must still be stuck in the moment in the seancé, in the moment of nightmares about Holly, about losing someone else. Turn around, he chides silently, he's probably passed you by now. He shakes his head again, ruefully, and turns a bit, expecting to see an empty hall.

But he doesn't. He sees the figure, looming large over his shoulder, his face shadowed and twisted in a cruel smile. The figure is towering over him, cornering him against the wall, smirking at him in a way that makes him shudder with fear. He's frozen, stiff and unable to move, and this is when he understands what is happening. When he realizes that the seancé had worked, and that they should've kept going, gone through with the exorcism. He wonders if this is what Holly felt, right there at the end.

The last thing he sees, before it all goes black, is the image of the Specter reaching for him.

---

march, 2018

Mrs. Seers stands over Ryan and the O'Connells. She almost looks normal; if you didn't look too hard, you might think nothing was wrong. She's wearing one of her dorky teacher t-shirts—All the best science jokes Argon—and she looks like she could be standing up at the front of the classroom, talking about genetics. (Ryan wonders how much of his old teacher is still left in there.) But the eyes are where it becomes clear; when you look her in the eyes, you see that she isn't there. It's all something else.

Ryan bites back a shudder, looking back down at the kid. He's not as babyfaced anymore, but he still looks very small, lying prone in the floor and tucked into his father's side.

“Let Robbie go,” Ryan says, angry, as he looks down at Robbie's surprisingly peaceful face. “Let him and his father go.”

“And why would I do that?”

The voice barely even sounds like Mrs. Seers anymore. It's deeper, ominous. Ryan scrubs a hand over his face. “Because you don't want them,” he says tiredly, climbing to his feet. He feels too vulnerable, crouched on the ground. “You want me, cause of what my parents and Uncle Jared did.”

“And you think that means I am finished with them?” It sounds almost amused. “I have an increased interest in these two, you know. I have been watching them for a long time.”

Ryan's face grows red with some kind of righteous anger. “How the hell did you even get them here anyway?” he blurts, though it's a totally irrational question to ask. (What does that matter?)

He can practically feel it smirking. “Joy Seers is not the only one that I control.”

Ryan ducks his head to look down at Robbie and the sheriff again. Robbie needs a haircut, needs to trim those overlong bangs and the hair in the back; Sheriff O'Connell has circles under his eyes and stubble along his jaw; he looks exhausted, a fact which is probably partially colored by the fact that he's unconscious. He sighs, screwing his eyes shut. “Let me take a wild guess at your plans, okay? You're gonna make me kill them. Robbie and Sheriff O'Connell, and maybe even Mrs. Seers. That way, everyone thinks I'm a psycho, just like Uncle Jared.” He swallows hard, his mouth dry at the thought, cold sweat breaking out on the back of his neck. “Everyone’ll think they were right about me all along.”

There is silence to that, in lieu of an answer. When Ryan looks back, he sees no clear indication as to whether or not that's the plan. Mrs. Seers's face is still, stony and neutral.

“Or maybe not,” he says. “But either way, you shouldn't do it. You shouldn't make me hurt Robbie. You don't want me to hurt Robbie. He's still a little kid, and you've been haunting him for such a short time. You've been haunting me for years now, way longer than him. If he dies, you can't haunt him anymore.”

Still no response from the ghost. Ryan rocks forward on his heels, climbing into a standing position. “Put Robbie outside,” he prods. “Him and his father. I don't think you want to see them dead, not really. I think you want a chance to keep torturing them.”

I do not think you know anything of what I want, Ryan Caruthers.”

“Maybe not.” He crosses his arms, ignoring his trembling hands; he's scared shitless and trying like hell not to show it, but he's also being urged on by some crazed shot of adrenaline, maybe even courage. He has to get Robbie and his father out of here, no matter what the cost. He's not going to let another kid's life be ruined by this. “But I know you want to see me hurt. And I don't think the way you want to do that is by making me kill Robbie. I think you used him to lure me here.”

The ghost says nothing. Ryan has no idea if this is going to work—these crazy assumptions about why the ghost won't hurt Robbie—but he knows he has to try to convince it. Who is he if he doesn't try? The next step is scooping up Robbie and somehow trying to carry him out of the house—which probably won't work, but he has to try.

He shifts in place, arms crossed tightly over his chest, glaring just a little. “Let them go,” he says evenly. “You wanted me, but this wasn't part of the deal. Let them go.”

---

Willoughby is a surprisingly short drive from Winchester; they're in the town, and halfway to Church Street, within ten minutes. Scully drives, as quiet and tense as she was on the ride up. Mulder is talking with Jared, turned around in the passenger seat to face the backseat. Jared is explaining his theory about Church Street being a center of power, of sorts, holding a messy file he'd taken from the apartment before they left on his lap. “I know it sounds crazy,” he says, “but I've done some research. There seems to be a divide between sighting the Specter before a bad occurrence, and the Specter actually causing the bad occurrence by way of possession. For example, in the entry about the Specter in Folklore of Rural Virginia discusses the soldier who lost his arm in World War I seeing the ghost in France. That accident wasn't caused by the soldier himself, and the sighting was miles away from Willoughby. In comparison, the sightings in Willoughby vary from simple visual sighting to actual causing, but it seems to be related to distance from the church.”

“How do you figure that?” Mulder asks, leaning over the back of the seat.

“The most obvious example is Marion and Ian's deaths.” Jared grimaces a little, shaking his head. “They lived right down the street. And by my calculations, most of the fatal or near-fatal sightings that aren't related to natural causes took place within a two-mile radius.” He flips the file on his lap open to a map of Willoughby. “The fire that Sheriff O'Connell was in, the one that Ryan set—Ryan told me about it, and he suspected that the Specter possessed the sheriff to lure him back into the building, and then led him out at just the right time. I know it sounds crazy, but…”

“No,” Mulder says, remembering the day of the fire. The strange way that the sheriff acted just before they left for the cemetery, the way that he tried to convince Mulder to go back in. The period of time he couldn't remember that coincided with the time he went back into the building. “No, that actually makes sense.”

Jared looks a little relieved. He nods, and taps the map again. “Here is a car accident that Deputy Kenneth Jacobs was in, November of 2015. Two blocks over from the church. In comparison, the car accident on Halloween of 2016—I think the person who crashed was Ryan's teacher—was only one block over. And Holly's death…” He takes a deep, slow breath and taps a woody-looking area. “Holly died less than a mile away from the church, back in the woods behind the church. In addition, the battle that made General Willoughby famous took place about a mile from the church, right here… and I'm not sure whether or not the ghost possessed the general or not, but there were certainly a lot of deaths in that battle.”

Mulder cranes his neck to look at the map. Jared's circled a lot of spots with brief notes as to what happened on that spot. Ruined crop, ruined tests/haunting in classroom, dead parakeet, eviction, break-in… The more mundane stuff does seem to be more distanced from Church Street. “Your theory does make sense,” he says, studying it closer. “You said you've been seeing it, right? In Pennsylvania? Did it ever cause anything?”

“No, it just… haunted,” Jared says with a shrug. “What about you?”

“Pretty much the same. I've only ever seen it conscious in Willoughby. Everything else has been dreams.” Mulder runs a thumb across the map, from red circle to red circle, and lands directly over the church. And that's when he remembers something: the washable cross tattoos Ryan used to wear on the back of his hands. The cross necklace Joy Seers was wearing the night of her accident, that stretched out in mid-air with nothing holding it and snapped. The story that Joy Seers told, about the Specter being the spirit of a man who worshipped the devil, of the ghost itself being demonic. “Why do you think that the ghost's power is centered at the church?” he asks. He's thinking of hallowed ground. Of the crumpled silver chain in Joy Seers's palm.

“I figure that it has to do with the cemetery,” Jared says. “Holly and Ben told me years ago that they buried the man convicted of murder and devil worship there, albeit in an unmarked grave just off the grounds, on the edge of the woods.”

That does seem to make some sense. “I was wondering about that,” says Mulder, “because I figured that it wouldn't be able to enter hallowed ground…”

“Mulder.” Scully nudges him in the arm, and he turns to look at her. “We're turning onto Church Street,” she says softly.

Mulder nods and turns around to watch the road, the houses passing by. “You still think Robbie and Ryan are at the site of the old apartment building?” he asks over his shoulder. “The original building burned down, they might have built something else…”

“I recognize the property,” Jared says in a hushed, tight voice. “It should be coming up here on the right…”

“Mulder,” Scully says, and she's suddenly seizing his arm tightly. “Mulder, there's people right over there, and they're lying on the ground.”

His breath catches in his throat as he sees what Scully is looking at: two figures, lying on the dirt outside of a brand new house, one large and one small. “Jesus Christ,” Jared breathes.

Scully abruptly pulls the car into Park at the edge of the driveway and the three of them pile out. Mulder reaches the figures first as it becomes clear who they are: Robbie and Joe O'Connell, clustered together at the foot of the steps to the house. He kneels beside them and takes their pulse as Scully and Jared catch up to them. “They're still alive, they're still alive,” he gasps out.

Scully pushes past him and leans over to examine them. Mulder gets to his feet and reaches for his cell phone. “I'll call Deputy Jacobs.”

“Wait a second,” Jared says, his voice suddenly imbued with panic. “Where's Ryan?”

Mulder looks up and scans the area looking for signs of Ryan somewhere nearby. Nothing. Only the quietened surrounding houses, the newly finished house before them, and the trees behind it. There is a loud crash inside the house, and his stomach lurches instinctively. Jared runs for the door and yanks on the handle; when it doesn't open, he begins pounding on it with his hand.

Mulder starts towards the door, but stops at the feeling of Scully's hand on his arm. “I think they're both fine,” she says, her voice full of relief. “I think they've just been drugged, although I'd like to do a more comprehensive exam, if possible.” She gets to her feet beside him, her eyes shifting to the house. Another cacophonous crash comes from inside, and Scully winces, tensing beside him. “Is Ryan in there?” she asks, nervous.

Another crash occurs, closer to the door this time, and Jared smacks the door hard with the flat of his palm. A few seconds later, the door swings open hard, catching Jared in the ribs. He stumbles down to the bottom of the stairs, just as someone begins to come out of the house, practically falling out the door. “Whoa!” Mulder yelps, surging forward to catch the person as they start to tumble down the doorsteps.

The door slams shut hard behind them; Jared stumbles back up the stairs to yank on the door, but it is solidly closed, not coming open at his tugs. He shouts his nephew's name, going back to pounding on the door.

Mulder lowers the person to the ground as it becomes clear who it is: Joy Seers. Scully kneels beside her to examine her, reaching down to take her pulse, but Joy yanks away at the contact, wincing as she opens her eyes. “Ouch,” she murmurs, lifting a hand to her head.

“Joy? Are you okay?” Scully helps her to sit up.

“W-what happened?” Joy asks foggily, blinking blearily as she scans her surroundings. “Where am I?”

“You're outside a house on Church Street,” Mulder offers. “Do you remember anything?”

“Are you feeling dizzy? Nauseous? Is your vision fuzzy?” Scully asks, bending her head to look at Joy's pupils.

Joy waves her off absently, shaking her head. “I'm fine, I'm fine. I just have a headache… What am I doing here? What hap—” She breaks off, grimacing fiercely. “Shit. It happened again, didn't it?”

“What happened again?” Mulder asks.

“I-I've been experiencing… missing time, I guess, since I woke up. Things I can't remember doing…” She rubs at her forehead, her eyes shut with frustration. “T-the last thing I remember is a call from the sheriff… A really weird call. I don't really know the sheriff that well, but, uh… he wanted me to come to the…” Her eyes widen, as if realizing something. “The new house on Church Street.” She rubs her forehead again. “That's the last thing I remember. After that, it all went black.” She scans the area again until she sees the sheriff and Robbie, slumped together on the ground. “Oh, shit,” she says, her voice numb and full of panic. “Is that… is that the sheriff and his kid?”

“Yes,” Scully says gently, getting to her feet. She offers a hand to help Joy up, and Joy takes it. “They seem to be okay. I think they've just been drugged.”

Horror spreads across Joy's face; she immediately pales, stumbling as she stands. “Drugged?” she repeats. “D-did I…?”

Scully immediately looks like she regrets saying anything. Mulder says, as delicately as he knows how, “We don't know for sure. But whatever happened… I don't think any of it was your fault.”

Scully shoots him a look, either to say, We don't know that, Mulder, or, Don't tell her your possession theory, Mulder, or you'll scare her. Joy buries her face in her hands. “Fuck,” she mutters. “Fuck. This is some fucked-up thing left over from what happened that night of my accident. Whatever I felt overtake me in that car never left.”

Another enormous crash comes from the house, and all of them jump. Jared takes a break from pounding desperately on the door to turn to them. “You were in there?” he asks Joy, and she nods uncertainly. “Is my nephew in there?” he says, his voice cracking. “Please, you have to tell me, please…”

“I-I don't remember,” Joy says apologetically, her voice soft and unsteady.

Jared shakes his head hard, his jaw clenched. “W-we have to get in there,” he blurts. “We have to find him, Agent Mulder, I-I can't let this happen again…”

“We're going to find him,” Scully says, holding a hand up as if to calm him. She exchanged a quick look with Mulder, as if silently saying, We need to get these people out of here, Mulder. She slips past Jared and tries the door herself, tugging hard.

“That hasn't been working,” Jared says impatiently.

“It’s okay. We're going to find a way in.” Scully's voice is strained, as if she's trying to hold onto her patience. “Mulder, you should probably call Deputy Jacobs and get him down here to deal with all of this.”

He clears his throat, and jerks his head at Joy Seers and, just past her, the O'Connells. “I dunno that it's a good idea, Scully,” he says softly, trying to convey what he's thinking. Depending on what happened here—or what someone may think has happened here—they could possibly convict Joy Seers or Sheriff O'Connell on kidnapping charges. He's not sure exactly what Sheriff O'Connell's involvement is, but he's assuming that the man would never willingly drug his son and himself and put them in danger.

She sighs, shaking her head. “Okay, but one of us needs to stay out here and make sure—”

There's another loud crash inside the house, followed by a loud yelp. Jared's face goes whiter than it was before, his eyes widening, and he reaches on the ground and grabs a rock, throwing it hard at a window. The glass shatters.

Scully whirls on her heel. “Jared, stop,” she says, almost pleading, but Jared isn't listening. He peels off his jacket and wraps it around his hand, knocking the excess glass out of the window. He shakes the little flakes of glass off of his jacket, puts it back on, and starts to boost himself up.

Scully's at his side immediately, tugging him back. “Jared, stop!” she says again, sterner this time, as Mulder appears behind them. “You're not law enforcement. You can't go in there.”

“And this is not a criminal!” Jared snaps, nearly shouting. “I have to go in there, Agent Scully, he's my nephew. He's my nephew, and I can't… I can't lose anyone else…” His voice breaks, and he slumps away from the house, wipes his eyes, his head hanging down in defeat.

“You're not going to lose anyone else,” Mulder says softly, reaching out to grip Jared's shoulder. “But, Jared, if you go in there, there's no telling what could happen. It could go the way it did before, remember? The ghost could use you again.”

He winces. He nods, biting his lower lip. Mulder nods, too, and looks instinctively over at Scully. Her jaw is clenched, and she looks almost shaken—which may be spurned, a bit, by the crashing sounds coming from the house—but when she sees him looking, she seems to purposefully loosen up. “I'll go in,” she says.

“Scully, you don't have to do that—” he tries.

“Mulder, I'm the only one who can fit through there,” she chides, gently, shooting him a look. “It'll be fine. I'll go in and get Ryan, and we'll get them out of here.”

Mulder nods, a bit reluctantly—he would really rather go in, just because of the danger the ghost poses, and because he's not sure that Scully even believes in the ghost (she never gave him an answer in the car), but he can tell that there's no use arguing with her. “Sure you don't want me to go with you?” he asks.

“No, you stay out here with them,” she says. “If Robbie or the sheriff wake up, make sure that they aren't feeling dizzy or sick. I'll be out in a second, okay?”

Mulder nods, and gives her a boost up. She climbs through the window, landing gingerly on the other side. “Ryan?” she calls, cautiously, drawing her gun and moving further into the house—out of sight of the window.

“I don't think it'll help,” Jared says from behind Mulder. He turns to look at him questioningly, and the other man shrugs. “Getting out of here. The most we can hope to do is get far enough away that it can't hurt us too badly, but that might be further than we can go. My sister's house is two and a half miles away from here, and the ghost still managed to send Ryan down the stairs and threaten Annie with scissors. And the hospital and the police station both are only a mile away. I don't know that we can get away from the Specter… I don't know that we ever could.”

“Agent Mulder?” He turns around again to see Joy shooting him a confused look. She's holding something in her hand, and when Mulder draws closer, he recognizes it: prayer beads, just like the kind Scully used to keep at the house. Albeit, they look a little cheaper, but he recognizes them. Joy smudges a bead between two fingers. “These aren't mine,” she says. “But I found them in my back pocket. Do you have any idea where these came from?”

---

Almost as soon as Scully enters the house, her call for Ryan still echoing off the empty walls, the crashing sounds stop. So abruptly that she freezes a little in the entryway, still clutching her gun. She starts to wonder if it's a bad idea to have her gun out—she can almost hear Mulder's amused voice saying, You can't shoot a ghost, Scully. Normally, that sort of statement would be received with, It's a good thing ghosts aren't real, Mulder. But she's past that now, at least on this case. She's far past that. She doesn't completely understand what's been happening here in Willoughby, but she knows it can't be boiled down to, Ghosts aren't real.

She keeps her gun out. She walks further into the house.

Whatever's happening in this house—be it a human perpetrator (she hopes), or an apparition of sorts—she’s glad she volunteered to come in. She doesn't know what any of this means, but she does know this: unless Mulder has been leaving out his own encounters with whatever this is (and that doesn't seem likely), she has seen this more often and more recently. And if that means what it seems to mean, then Mulder getting too close to the ghost could mean danger. It seems to make sense: she saw this before her mother died, she dreamed about it the night before she thought Mulder was in a fire, and she saw it directly after the ordeal in Norfolk. Aside from the strange period in her apartment just before the case in Henrico County, all of her experiences have been linked to losing or almost losing someone she loves. And she doesn't want to risk that, as silly as it sounds; she doesn't want to risk Mulder. She'd just like to find Ryan and get him to safety, to leave Willoughby and forget all of this. She really just wants to go back home.

Scully goes into the next room—what she guesses is the living room, based off of the furniture—and is stunned by what she sees. It looks like a hurricane has ripped through here: the furniture is turned onto its side, the cheap decorations that the realtor probably put out are scattered or shattered around the room. Her breath catches in her throat and she calls out, more nervous than before, “Ryan? Ryan, it's Agent Scully.”

There's nothing, at first. And then she hears a muffled, angry voice: “Go away!”

Pain explodes suddenly in Scully's skull, as if a knife has sliced through it. Accompanying this pain is a sharp, painful ringing sound that rattles against her eardrums. Scully cries out softly, clapping a hand to the side of her head, wincing. She shakes her head hard, as if to shake the feeling, and it only increases, the ringing sharpening in intensity. Her stomach rolls; she stumbles a little. “Ryan, where are you?” she calls, biting back a whimper of pain.

“You have to get out of here!” Ryan shouts. “You can't fucking be in here!”

“Ryan, we're here to help you,” Scully calls out again, putting a hand to the wall for balance. Her vision is fuzzy, her head spinning; she wonders if she hit her head somehow. She resists the urge to call for Mulder. “I-I came to get you out of here!”

Something yanks hard on her hand, and her gun tumbles out of her hand. She blinks hard, crouches on the floor and reaches for it, but it goes flying out of her reach. Another sharp pain shoots through her head, and she bites back a groan. She starts to reach for the gun, but a force slams hard into her, pushing her backwards. She smacks into the wall with her shoulder, her head bumping against it, and slides bonelessly to the floor.

The ringing fades, but the pain remains. She presses her fingers to her forehead and takes a deep breath, another. She's thinking that this was unwise. She's thinking that it was silly to come in here alone. She presses her hand hard to her face and rests her pounding head against the wall. She doesn't know how to get out of here. She has to get Ryan out of here, but she doesn't know if she can move. She considers calling Ryan again. She reconsiders calling Mulder.

She hears footsteps creaking on the floor, the crunch of what sounds like broken plastic underfoot. “Agent Scully?” she hears Ryan asks, and his voice doesn't sound as angry now. She pulls her hands down from her face, lifting her head with a groan, and immediately gasps at the sight.

Ryan's face is bruised, and so are his arms, yellow-brown spots blooming on his skin; his eye is black, his lip is split. It looks like he has been in a fight, or like someone attacked him. “Jesus,” she breathes, trying her best to sit up. “Ryan, are you okay?”

“You've got to get out of here,” he says quietly. “It wants you, and it's not going to let you go.”

She swallows, a bitter taste in her mouth. “I'm getting you out of here, Ryan.”

“No, you're not,” he murmurs sadly. In his right hand, he's clutching an unopened pocket knife.

Behind Ryan, Scully hears a sudden creaking sound, like more footsteps. She sees a dark shape over his shoulder, like the shape she saw in her mirror once. Something seems to sputter in her chest, seize up with fear; she freezes, unable to move.

There's a sudden, sharp yank, and her cross necklace is pulled sharply to the side. She coughs, chokes as the necklace bites into her neck. Her fingers scrabble at the chain, trying to pull it away; her mind lands on Joy Seers, her own broken cross necklace and the red line across her neck. She gasps for air, her eyes jerking around the room and landing on the gun. She tries to move towards it, lunging forward; the chain yanks tighter, pulling so hard her vision turns red for a second, before it snaps. She can hear the sound from here.

Gulping in air desperately, Scully tries to move towards the gun, towards the door, but it's too late. The dark shape is already looming over her. She feels something cold overtake her.

The last thing she hears is Ryan saying, “I told you,” just before it all goes black.

---

“It sounds like you've been possessed,” Jared is explaining to Joy Seers. They are clustered with Mulder at the side of the house, attention shifting from the house itself to the O'Connells. Mulder is as distracted as Jared, who seems to be channeling his energy into explaining things to Joy Seers. He's explained his theory about the church, and now they're discussing the weird activity that Joy's been experiencing. Jared keeps rocking back and forth on his heels, eyes darting to the house, gesturing with his hands. Mulder is mostly listening, filled with nervous energy as he keeps looking back at the house for Scully. He's silently trying to figure out what the hell they're going to do about this. If the Specter is hurting Ryan this way, this can't go on any further—it shouldn't have gone this far in the first place. (It probably wouldn't have gone this far if Mulder had just stayed and tried to figure out a way to banish the ghost in the first place. If he'd listened to Ryan instead of dismissing it as something that could be put off. This is probably as much his fault as anyone else's.)

“That makes a lot of sense,” says Joy in response to Jared, a decent degree of guilt in her voice. She squeezes her eyes shut in a brief grimace. “I just… can't believe that I'd… I don't know what I did to the sheriff and Robbie, and Ryan… Or what else I did during the times I can't remember…”

“It's a lot to deal with,” says Jared, his own voice thick with guilt. He runs a hand over his face, grimacing hard. “But… whatever it made you do, it wasn't really you. That's one thing I've had trouble remembering, but it's something you have to remember, or you'll drive yourself crazy. It wasn't you. It wasn't in your control.”

Mulder nods in absent agreement; he rises up on his tiptoes to look in the window of the house and sees nothing. It's almost frighteningly silent in there. Jared sees him looking, and nervousness dances over his face; he cranes his neck to look in himself. “What do you think is happening in there?” he asks, and Mulder has no answer. He'd go inside himself if he wasn't worried about leaving the rest of them alone.

At that moment, there is the sound of someone stirring on the dirt. Mulder turns in time to see Sheriff O'Connell sit up, blearily and confused, rubbing at his forehead. “Wha-what happened?” He looks down at his son, asleep on the ground, and lays a hand over his head. “Rob?” he whispers, horrified.

It reminds Mulder too much of the parents in Eastwood, even though Robbie is more or less fine. He moves to the sheriff's side, crouching beside him. “He's okay. He's just fine,” he says warily. “My partner examined him—she’s a doctor—and she thinks that you've both been sedated, but she says you should both be fine.”

“Who… How… Who the hell sedated us, Agent Mulder?” O'Connell snaps, wrapping his arms protectively around his son. His eyes scan the scene and fall on Jared, full of malice. “D-did that fucking criminal hurt my son?” he hisses. “What the hell is he doing here?”

“He's out on parole,” Mulder says, hoping his voice sounds soothing—he wishes Scully was here, she's better at this type of thing. “He had nothing to do with this. Agent Scully and I went to pick him up so we could look for Ryan. Your deputy asked us to check for an alibi, which he had. Jared thought that Ryan might've gone looking for Robbie, and he thought he could help us find them. But he didn't touch your son.”

Jared looks away from them, down at the ground with his hands in his pockets. Sheriff O'Connell is still furious. “Well, then, what happened? Where the hell are we, and who brought us here?”

“You're outside that new house on Church Street,” says Mulder. “As for how you got here…” He trails off, genuinely unsure of what to say.

Joy Seers steps up, standing beside Mulder and peering apologetically down. “Sheriff, my name is Joy Seers,” she says. “Do you remember calling me earlier today?”

“No,” the sheriff snaps, his brow furrowed.

“You called me and asked me to meet you here,” Joy prods, gently. “You don't remember that?”

“I—” O'Connell breaks off mid-sentence, his face crumpling in horror. “I-I actually think I do remember that,” he whispers. “I… why the hell would I do that?”

Mulder doesn't know what to say. The obvious conclusion in all of this is that Sheriff O'Connell brought Robbie here, but it's a hard thing to reconcile. “It might not have really been you,” Joy offers grimly.

O'Connell looks confused, but Jared, on the front steps of the house, speaks before O'Connell can question that claim further. “Agent Mulder, look at this.”

Mulder stands and turns to face him. The door of the house is open, just slightly, the knob under Jared's hand. “I just touched it—just slightly—and it swung open,” he says, giving Mulder an urgent, pleading look. “I-I still can't hear anything.”

The silence coming from the house is eerie. No footsteps, no voices, no crashing sounds. The silence is more or less what seals the deal for Mulder.

“I'm going in there,” he says. He considers, briefly, drawing his gun, but he's not sure what the point would be. You can hardly subdue a ghost with a gun. “You all stay out here,” he says firmly, taking his gun out only to unload it, dropping the bullets to the dirt. (The last thing he wants to do is be forced to shoot someone. Another repeat of the Modell incident.) “Keep an eye on Robbie.” Joy and Jared nod. Sheriff O'Connell says nothing; he looks down at his son in his lap and strokes his hair.

Mulder nods back, tucking the empty gun back in his holster, before taking a deep breath and entering the house. He halfway expects the door to slam shut behind him—a complete horror movie cliché, but he's seen a cliché or two in his lifetime—but the door stays half-open, the cold air from outside leaking in.

The front hall is dimly lit. Mulder walks further into the house, pulling a penlight out of his pocket and pointing it ahead of him. “Scully?” he calls out. “Ryan?” There's no answer. He shines the penlight down the hallway, along the shadowy staircase. There's no signs of anyone in here.

“Scully?” he calls out again. He passes an open doorway, with a room a bit more lit from the dim light outside, and pauses at the sight of the room. It's in shambles; it looks as if a tornado has ripped through. Stepping in the doorway, Mulder's breath catches in his throat as he recognizes something in the mess of furniture and tacky knick-knacks: Scully's gun, sprawled out on the floor.

He rushes to scoop it off the floor, gasping a little, and scans the room for any other signs that she's been here. He spots a scuff mark on the floorboards that he recognizes as the heels on her shoes scuffing across the floor—she fell, or something pushed her—and then, upon looking further, he sees a crumpled chain of gold on the ground. A tiny, familiar cross, and beside it, an equally familiar circlet of gold. One he recognizes from sliding onto her finger, bumping it over her knuckle, kissing her outside a DC courthouse.

His throat tightens instinctively, and he bellows her name. Drops to his knees and scoops up the cross and the ring, tucking them into his pocket. “Scully?” he calls out again, his voice cracking. He stumbles back to his feet, her gun in his hand, his heart pounding in his chest. He's thinking, involuntarily, of every person who's ever been hurt by the Willoughby Specter, the things that have happened to them and the things they've been driven to do; he's thinking of Joy Seers and the broken cross, the night that she had her car accident. He pushes into the next room and the next with no sign of Scully, until he reaches the kitchen and finds the back door hanging open. “Scully!” he shouts, pushing out on the back step.

There's no answer. He peers desperately out at the trees behind the house, one hand on Scully's gun and the other clutching her cross and ring so hard in his pocket that he knows it will leave a mark on his palm. And then he sees it, out among the dark foliage: a flash of bright hair.

---

The three adults sit where Agent Mulder left them, in front of the house. No cars drive by, and no neighbors come out to find out what the hell is going on; Joy is grateful that Willoughby is such a sleepy town: that the houses usually aren't too close together, and that people don't really come out after eight or nine o'clock. The last thing they need is for someone to see them and call the cops.

The men seem even tenser than she is. The sheriff is absorbed in his son, holding him on his lap; Jared Caruthers is watching the house, his jaw clenched, waiting for signs of his nephew. They all jump when they hear Agent Mulder bellow for his partner, somewhere behind the house. Jared clenches his jaw and shakes his head. “I don't like this,” he says tightly. “I have to do something. I-I can't just sit here and let this happen again.”

“Agent Mulder told us to stay out here,” the sheriff says in a tense, emotionless voice. “Who knows what will happen if you go back there.”

Jared chews at his lower lip, clutching his knees. And then an idea seems to overtake him. He shifts and turns to Joy. “I think I have an idea,” he says. “If you don't mind me asking, uh… you're married to Ben Seers, right?”

“Yes, he's my husband,” Joy says, wishing that the words didn't fill her with a strong, selfish desire to go home. She's already lost so much time with him; she's missed him so much. “You knew him because of Holly, right?”

“Yeah, we were, uh… acquaintances.” Jared licks his lower lip. “Anyway, I don't know if you know where I was arrested, but…”

“It was here,” Sheriff O'Connell says suddenly, and he waves a hand at the steeple visible down the street. “We found you back in that cemetery, right there.”

Jared nods, tensely. “Right.” He turns back to Joy. “W-well, I was there because of something your husband told me. He told me that the man he believed to be the Specter was buried in that cemetery, right back there. And I had something of a theory at the time; I thought that if I destroyed the body of the man who became the Specter, the Specter would be destroyed, too. Which fits with my theory that the cemetery is sort of a center of power for the Specter.” (He'd explained that one to Joy in the period before Agent Mulder went into the house.) “It's silly,” he adds awkwardly, his eyes darting towards Sheriff O'Connell as if expecting ridicule from him, “and it probably wouldn't work, but…”

“No,” Joy says, her mind working. Ben has always been more tentative about talking about the ghost since Holly—in the time she's known him, he really only talks about the Specter when he's drunk or in the midst of a research project, or when Joy herself has gotten fired up about the ghost—but he's mentioned the cemetery almost as often as he's mentioned his demonic theory. “No, I think it makes sense, at least a little bit of sense. I think if we could find the grave, it's worth a try as much as anything else is.”

They both look at the sheriff almost instinctively, as if expecting him to disapprove. Digging up a grave, even the three-hundred year old grave of a criminal, seems unethical, not to mention illegal. But the sheriff looks more annoyed than disapproving. Looking down at his son in his lap, he shrugs dismissively.

“Let's do it,” Jared says, his voice nervous and excited all at once. “I'm not going to just sit here while that fucking demon hurts my nephew. I've got to do something to try and stop it.”

Joy nods determinedly and gets to her feet. If you'd asked her yesterday if she expected to spend her evening running around with a convicted murderer out on parole and grave-robbing, she would've thought you were full of shit. But at the moment, that doesn't seem to be so important. She's spent half her time since waking up from a coma being possessed by the demonic spirit that destroyed her classroom and caused the coma in the first place, a spirit that has apparently caused the death of several others. She's more than willing to break a couple laws if it means getting rid of that spirit.

The two of them begin walking down the sidewalk towards the old church, towards the steeple rising over the houses.

---

Mulder stumbles towards the woods without a second thought, towards the flash of Scully's hair. He doesn't call her name again—some unexplainable instinct seems to warn against it—and he realizes what a good idea this is after a few seconds. He catches glimpses of Scully in the trees ahead, flashing in and out of sight, and it looks very much like she has Ryan Caruthers by the arm and is marching him through the woods. In her free hand, he sees the flash of moonlight on metal. He knows then, immediately, what is happening.

Simply for the reasoning of wanting to avoid being possessed himself, he takes Scully's cross out of his pocket and twists it awkwardly around his wrist like a bracelet. He needs to help Scully, and he needs to get Ryan out of here before he gets hurt, and he doesn't want to risk losing control and hurting someone himself.

It feels right. Before, when Scully had lost her cross, he would always wear it in some small attempt to hold onto her. This feels a little pathetic in comparison, but it's still something. He tucks Scully's gun into the waistband of his pants—his holster is full, and he doesn't want to end up pointing the gun at Scully or the kid—and follows them at a faster pace, his feet pounding the dead leaves.

The closer Mulder gets, the better he can hear what is happening; Ryan is protesting, loudly, but not in the way that you might expect. It's more of a contemptuous type of protest. “So what's your plan now?” he snaps, trying to yank his arm away. Mulder can't see Scully's face, but he sees that she is stiff and unyielding, clutching Ryan's arm hard without loosening her grip. Ryan stumbles a bit, digging his feet into the dirt. “Let me guess. The FBI agent is gonna kill me and feel guilty, and then everyone else feels guilty because I died? Maybe you frame Uncle Jared for the murder? I get stabbed, just like my parents did? You're pretty unoriginal, even for a ghost.”

There's no response. But as Mulder pursues them, far enough back that he's still halfway hoping no one will see him until he can figure out what to do about this, he sees Scully yank hard on Ryan's arm, making him whimper a tiny bit in pain as he stumbles again. He sees the flash of metal, the blade of a knife, as she lifts her hand. And that's when he pushes forward through the trees finally. “Scully, stop!” he says firmly, reaching out and grabbing her wrist, pulling her hand away from Ryan's arm, prying her fingers off. He forgets, momentarily, that this is not Scully.

She turns towards him, and at the sight of her, it is not hard to remember. Her face is blank, hard and full of malice; she has never looked at him like this, not even in their worst moments. Her eyes are blank and fierce. It's her face, but she's not in there.

He halfway expects the knife to come swinging at him, but there's no movement. Scully—or the ghost inside of Scully—just stands there, staring at him as if contemplating. Ryan isn't being held in place anymore but he still doesn't move, standing dumbly in place, watching like he's waiting for something to happen. “Ryan, get out of here,” Mulder commands. His hand is still on Scully's wrist, but it's not Scully, it's not Scully.

Ryan's mouth is hanging open. He says tentatively, “I'm not sure I should…”

Go,” Mulder snaps, so firmly it almost stuns him.

Ryan hesitates only a moment longer, looking between them nervously, before he takes off in a run, back towards the house. Mulder half expects the ghost to pursue, but it doesn't move. It just keeps watching him, beneath the shell of his wife.

He wonders if she is aware of what's happening, if this is somewhat like the situation with Modell. “Scully, can you hear me?” he asks gently.

She tips her head to the side, and chuckles. When she—it—speaks, it is like further confirmation. The voice doesn't sound like Scully. It sounds like a thin, bitter parody of Scully. It barely even sounds like a person.

“Fox Mulder,” it says. “I have been watching the two of you for some time.”

“I want to talk to Scully,” he says roughly.

It tips Scully's chin, just a bit, and Mulder involuntarily remembers all the times one of them has been imitated or taken over or the like. “I do not think that would be wise.” It smiles, and it is so easy to remember that it's not Scully, because that's not Scully's smile, nothing about this is like Scully. Mulder bites back a shudder. “I like to fuck with the two of you. I have enjoyed it for a couple of years now. I like to see your pain and worry—yours and Dana's. But you never stay in town for long. And now you are here… it would be a lost opportunity if I did not take advantage of this.”

“Let her go,” Mulder growls, furious. He can feel her pulse under his fingers, frantic and rapid; she's in there, she's somewhere in there. “Just let her go. Take me instead.” It's a futile attempt, and one that probably wouldn't solve very much, but he thinks that Scully would be better at handling this.

“I do not think so. I think that it is fitting that Dana be the one to do this. I have spent much more time with her, and I know what she fears.” It smiles cruelly again. “And I know what you fear. I can feel your fear right now.”

“That's all well and good, Pennywise,” Mulder snaps, fed up, “but I still don't understand what the hell you want with us.”

“It is not obvious yet? You are not nearly as intelligent as I believed.” Scully's hand lifts seamlessly, the point of the knife slicing through the air. But the blade doesn't move towards Mulder, as he may have expected. It moves towards Scully, towards her neck. “I wonder which would be better,” it says contemplatively. “To have her hurt you… or to have you watch her die.”

Something in Mulder snaps, a wonderful fury rising in him. He grabs Scully's other wrist, harder than he should, and tries to yank the knife away from her. With the other hand, he releases her arm and reaches out to press his own wrist—the wrist with her necklace around it, the cross charm biting into the soft skin underneath his arm—against hers, against the V in her suit collar where the necklace would normally rest. He presses the charm against her skin in some small attempt to get the ghost out.

But it doesn't work the way he expects. Scully yelps, as if in pain—and that time it sounds like her, it sounds just like her, her pain—and tries to yank away. With one hand, she seizes his wrist, her hand on the chain part of the necklace (fingers avoiding the cross), and pulls it away harder than he'd expected. With the other hand, she slashes at the air. The point of the knife descends and catches Mulder directly in the arm. He lets out his own yowl and releases her involuntarily.

As soon as he lets go, she's gone, the spirit in her body driving her further into the woods. Mulder swears, pressing a hand hard to the torn section of his jacket, to the cut seeping blood underneath. He'd thought that he might be able to get the ghost out with the cross, but it had clearly hurt her, caused her pain. He doesn't know how he can help her if his attempts only hurt her; the ghost is like a parasite, the ghost practically is Scully now, and he'll have to separate them to be able to protect Scully. But he doesn't know how to do that if his only attempts hurt her.

He swears again, tucking his hurt arm close to his body and scanning the horizon, and that's when he remembers: the ghost still has the knife. Scully is possessed, and she still has the knife, and there's nothing standing in the way of the ghost forcing her to hurt herself now.

Mulder takes off at a furious run after them.

---

Joe has been sitting on the ground so long his ass hurts, his son lying limply across his lap. He's still breathing, breathing steadily and healthily, but it's not a lot of reassurance. His son is sedated. His eight-year-old son is sedated, and he doesn't know for sure, but he has the sinking suspicion that it's because of him. That it's his fault somehow. He feels absolutely sick to his stomach at the thought; he would never, ever hurt Robbie on purpose, but the missing stretch of time coupled with the teacher's claim that he called her here is making him nervous.

He strokes his son's fine hair, shuts his eyes with frustration. He just wants this night to end. He just wants to take Rob home. He doesn't know how he is ever going to explain this to Bonnie. He wouldn't blame her for one moment if she kicked him to the curb.

At the pounding of footsteps, Joe opens his eyes. A moment later, Ryan Caruthers appears around the side of the house, panting hard, his ribs heaving as he gasps for air. His face is bruised; it looks like he's been in a fight. He casts his eyes around desperately and lands on Joe and Robbie. “S-s-sheriff,” he stammers, nervous. He seems to zero in on Robbie, his eyes widening. “Is Robbie okay?” he whispers.

Joe swallows uncomfortably. The few times he's actually seen the kid since he got out of juvie have been awkward as hell. What happened with the fire was enough to turn Bonnie away from Ryan permanently, but strangely enough, the incident almost warmed Joe to the kid. He cried in the police station, for fuck's sake; he swore up and down that he didn't know that Joe was in there. He looks exactly the same now as he did that night: wide, teary eyes, pale and frightened. He looks like a scared child, and the sight of the bruises on his face makes it even worse. A year or two ago—hell, maybe even an hour ago—Joe might've blamed Ryan for everything, but tonight, he finds he cannot.

“I think he's okay,” Joe says quietly. He scoops Robbie into his arms, gangly limbs flopping every which way and head lolling on his shoulders, and gets to his feet. “Why don't we get out of here, Ryan? Get you to safety.” He still isn't sure what, exactly, is happening here, but he knows that it probably has something to do with the Specter, and that it is dangerous.

Panic dances over Ryan's face, and he shakes his head tightly. “I don't think that's a good idea,” he says. “It's too dangerous. Just… just take Robbie home and leave me here.”

“I'm not going to do that,” Joe says stubbornly, Robbie's weight heavy across his chest. He's just a kid, he thinks stubbornly, and is suddenly ashamed about everything he's ever said about Ryan in the past. He's just a kid; he's just a scared, hurt kid, and he became a cop to protect scared, hurt kids.

“You have to. It's the only way you can get out of it and get to safety,” Ryan snaps, his hands clenched into fists.

Joe is barely even thinking at this point, past the instinctual urge of, Protect your son, protect this kid. It doesn't matter what he's done or what Ryan's done, not right now; all he needs to do is get them out of here. “I'm not going to,” he says sternly. He's almost ashamed that Ryan would ever assume he would leave him. “I'm not leaving you in danger, Ryan. Either you're coming with us, or Robbie and I are staying here.”

Ryan's jaw clenches. He looks heavily irritated. He shakes his head reluctantly and sighs, “Fine.”

Something in Joe is filled with relief. Whatever happens next, at least he can get Robbie and Ryan to safety. “Okay,” he says in a gentle voice, cupping the back of Robbie's head. He jerks his chin to the left, towards the place he dimly remembers parking. “Let's go to my car.”

---

There's a shed at the east end of the cemetery, nestled up against the side of the church. The padlock is open, to Jared's relief; behind the door, he finds a shovel leaned up against the wall. He picks his way through the cemetery to the copse of trees where Joy headed, maneuvering around the graves. He stops dead in his tracks (pardon the shitty metaphor) when he comes across two graves side by side. Ian Caruthers. Marion Wilson Caruthers. His breath catches in his throat. He's never been here before, not since they were buried; he's never had the chance.

He bends forward, his hand hanging loosely, and presses his palm to the marble stone of his brother's grave. “I'm so sorry,” he whispers. “I'm so, so sorry. To both of you.” Tears drip down his cheeks, off the end of his nose. “I never wanted this to happen,” he adds. “Any of it.”

The stones remain silent, of course. Cold under his palm. He rubs callused fingers over the carved letters. “I'm going to protect your son,” he says, his deep voice cracking. It doesn't feel like he's doing anything right now—it feels like he's doing absolutely nothing, like he should be in those woods searching for Ryan, physically helping him. But this is something, he tells himself. This might be the only thing that will save Ryan; if he gets too close, he may end up being possessed again, and that's the last thing he wants. He doesn't want to hurt Ryan, under any circumstances, and he doesn't want to hurt anyone else. So he'll do this instead. “I promise,” he whispers.

Joy Seers's voice rises from the trees, on the other side of the low stone wall. “Jared? You find a shovel?”

“Be right there,” he calls. He rubs his palm over the front of the stone, whispers another apology. He scoops up the shovel and moves through the cemetery towards the edge of the wall.

Joy stands just out of sight of the cemetery, knelt over a old piece of wood. “I think I found it,” she says, poking it with the toe of her shoe. There is a series of initials and the years—1687-1738—carved sloppily on the wood, the letters and numbers faded.

“Are you sure?” Jared asks.

“Yeah. These initials match the historical records Ben showed me.”

A scream comes from deeper in the woods, followed by another one. Neither scream particularly sounds like Ryan, but the sounds still send a shiver up Jared's spine. He grits his teeth and sticks the shovel blade-first into the ground. “Here, I'll dig,” he says. If prison offered him anything worth holding onto, it's the manual labor. “Do you know how to make a fire?”

---

Up ahead, Mulder can hear feet pounding the dirt, the dead leaves. His arm stings, blood warm on his skin, his heart pounding too hard against his ribs. “Scully!” he shouts stupidly, though he knows she likely can't hear him. There is no answer.

He's scared. Terrified. He's worried he's going to be too late, he's worried he won't be able to stop it from hurting them. He used to think that ghosts couldn't hurt you, not really, but a long string of ghost-related cases was enough to convince him of the opposite. He fully believes that he and Scully would've bled out in that house in Maryland if they hadn't realized it was all in their heads—the ghosts did suggest that they'd shot each other, that they might do it again. And now, here is another ghost threatening them with a knife. He can barely fathom it.

Mulder pushes through the trees and nearly runs into Scully. She's standing still in front of him, her face still blank, her eyes still empty. She's still not there. He gulps instinctively, his ribs seeming to tighten, when he sees it: the cross-shaped mark across her collarbone, as if she'd been burned. The knife in her hand, raised and turned so that the point is directed right at her neck.

“You are valiant, Fox Mulder,” it says. “But you are as foolish if the others if you think you can stop me.”

“Please don't do this,” he says softly, his voice faltering. “Please. Please don't hurt her.”

“Are you saying that you wish to die by her hand? That may be selfish of you. You see how it is for those who do the killing afterwords.”

“No one has to die,” he says, pleading. “Why does anyone have to die? Why are you doing this? Why have you been doing this?”

There's that cruel smile again; it's almost taunting him. It lifts Scully's hand, moving the blade rapidly closer to Scully's neck.

No!” Mulder shouts on instinct, grabbing her wrist in one hand and lurching forward and into her, almost tackling her. He grunts with pain at the landing, but she doesn't make a sound. A wave of guilt washes over him, and he has to remind himself, This is not Scully. She's still in there somewhere, and you need to get this thing out of her. He manages somehow to wrench the knife away from her hand, cutting his palm and fingers a few times in the process, and throws it hard into the woods. She digs her fingernails hard into his wrist, and the sudden stab of pain is enough to get him moving; he stumbles off of her, but keeps ahold of her wrist. She fumbles for the guns at his waist, and he grabs her other wrist, hauling her as gently as possible to her feet and holding tight. It's not her, it's not her, he reminds himself, but it's not enough to reassure him. “I'm so sorry,” he whispers, although he instantly regrets it.

The Specter is coolly looking at him with his wife's eyes. “She cannot hear you,” it says blankly. “You cannot save her.”

Mulder's eyes cast about desperately and land on the steeple rising above the trees. He thinks in a flash of the cross.

“Wanna bet?” he growls. And he starts to pull her towards the grounds of the church.

---

Jared digs. Joy can hear the thud of the shovel as she gathers wood, can smell the dirt. It makes her spine crawl a little, at the thought of what they're doing; they're essentially grave-robbing and burning a body. It sounds like something from a Gothic novel, and it's not even the worse thing that she's done tonight. It makes her head hurt to think about it.

The dirt cakes under her nails as she piles the sticks, as she rummages for the lighter she usually keeps in her purse. She can hear the shovel cutting through the dirt. She can hear the sounds, far off, of a car starting, of the FBI agents out in the woods. The wind howls, freezing and cutting to the bone. She wraps her arms around herself, shuts her eyes. She thinks involuntarily of that little kid asleep on the ground, of the taste of medicine on the back of her tongue, of the black void left in place of days she should have for herself, to spend with her husband, enjoying the fact that she is alive. She thinks of the dark shape in the backseat of her car, of the screech of metal and the explosion of glass. A shiver travels sharply up her spine, and she bites back a shudder. She suddenly gets the unmistakable feeling that someone is watching her, is lurking right behind her; she opens her eyes and whirls around, expecting to see the dark shape of the Willoughby Specter. Instead, she finds nothing.

Joy does shudder this time, shaking her head hard. She rubs her fingers over her goosebumps-covered arms and turns back around. She finds receipts crumpled in her post and throws them onto the pile of wood.

A few feet away, Jared keeps digging.  

---

The distance to the church doesn't seem too far from where they are, but it feels like an eternity. She is fighting him every step of the way, and it gets harder and harder for Mulder to remember that this isn't Scully. He briefly considers just making a run for it, under the assumption that it will follow him, but he doesn't know for sure that it will, and he doesn't want to risk it hurting Scully by leaving her alone. His eyes are burning as if he's about to cry but he keeps moving, struggling with Scully all the way. She's fighting hard—scratching, kicking, elbow to the gut. Her head butts hard against his chin; he grunts with pain, gripping her tighter. They stumble a few more steps; he can see the headstones through the trees.

“This will not work,” it intones. Her elbow hits him hard in the chest. He hauls her closer in an attempt to scoop her up, and her knee plunges into his stomach. His back hits a tree trunk as he stumbles backwards. Her knuckles smack hard across his jaw.

She yanks away, moving a few steps, before Mulder catches up to her, wrapping her in his arms as if embracing her. “I'm sorry,” he whispers again, tugging her back towards the church. They're close to the headstones, he can see the back door of the old stone building.

“You're sorry,” it repeats, and he wants to cry all over again. All he wants right now is to hear his wife's voice, and this is not it. He stumbles a few more steps. “Oh, you are very foolish, Fox Mulder.”

As they move further, Mulder hears the pound of a shovel in the dirt. Can see a brief glimpse of Jared Caruthers and Joy Seers through the trees. Wind howls through the trees, nudging at their hair. Scully's shoulder slams into his chest, knocking the wind out of him. “I'm ending this,” he mutters through gritted teeth.

And then he feels her hand brushing over his hip. Feels her lift something heavy and press it to his stomach. Hears what is either the safety clicking on or off on one of their guns.

Panic washes over him like cold water and he shivers. He lifts her a little so her feet aren't touching the ground, the muzzle of the gun slipping up his front. He stumbles backwards in a half-attempt to run before losing his balance, falling backwards and getting the ground hard, Scully's weight falling limply on top of him. The top of her head hits his chin again; he groans. The gun falls to the ground; he can't tell if it goes off or not, but by the hollow clunk, he can tell that it's the one that he unloaded before. Thank God.

The wind howls again, harsher and shriller this time. Something sharp seems to cut through Mulder's skull, a sharp and hard ringing sound. He groans again, squeezing his eyes shut, pressing a hand hard and protectively over Scully's head. Her eyes are shut, her face still, almost as if she is asleep. He shifts them to their sides, laying Scully's head on one arm and cupping the back of it. The side of his head softly hits the ground.

---

Scully wakes slowly, muzzy and hot, as if she has a fever. She blinks slowly, spots across her eyes, sore areas along her arms and at her collarbone. There's a hard surface under her, and a softer one under her head, something feels a little bit like Mulder's bicep. She lifts her head a little, and grimaces as the world seems to spin. She's lying on a grassy lawn, trees looming at her feet, and Mulder is lying in front of her, his fingers spread across the back of her head, his eyes shut. There's a purple bruise forming at his jaw.

Panic blooms in her at the sight, and she reaches out to touch his cheek with tentative fingers, whispering lowly, “Mulder.”

He opens his eyes. First fear, and then relief, washes over his face. He whispers, “Scully,” and then he's hugging her tightly, his arms around her shoulders, his face in her hair. His fingers digging into the back of her jacket. He mutters something that might be an apology into her neck, but she can't quite understand him.

Overwhelmed, all she can do is hug him back, press her lips to his tousled hair. He's holding her so tightly that it's starting to concern her—especially considering that she has no idea why she's here—and then the last thing she remembers starts to become clearer. She was in the house with Ryan Caruthers. She lost her gun. Something broke her cross necklace, the same way that Joy's necklace had been broken. But she can't remember how they got here, and she has no idea why she's aching so much, why it kind of feels like she's been burned along her collarbone. “Mulder, how did—” she starts, pulling back a bit from his embrace, and then she sees the blood leaking from the cut along one arm. A cut that doesn't exactly look like an accident.

She gasps a little, pressing her palm hard over the wound. “Mulder, what happened?” she breathes, lifting her chin to meet his eyes. “What—”

He doesn't answer right away. His eyes are wide and he has an almost guilty look on his face. He pushes hair behind her ear and doesn't answer. When he lifts his other hand, she sees a gold chain, what looks like her cross wrapped around his wrist.

She remembers more, suddenly: how she was afraid that the ghost was going to hurt Mulder to hurt her. How she felt something cold overtake her in the house, just before it all went black.

Horror overtakes her, instantly, and she presses her hand harder over the wound. “I… I didn't…?” she whispers, looking at Mulder questioningly, as if hoping he will confirm what she already knows.

He still doesn't speak. Guilt is still painted all over his face, and she recoils, horrified. But he stops her with a hand pressed to her shoulder. “It wasn't you, Scully,” he says gently.

She avoids his eyes, shakes her head like a stubborn child. She can tell what's happened; she doesn't need him trying to spare her feelings. She has a sneaking suspicion that the ghost might've used her to get to Ryan, too, and horror and shame rise up, reddening the back of her neck. She can't speak.

“It wasn't you.” He covers her cheek with his hand and crawls closer, his other hand on her arm. “It wasn't you. It was the ghost, Scully. I-it used you, the way it used Jared Caruthers.”

“What did I do,” she whispers, staring at the ground. Tears blurring her eyes. “Is Ryan alright?”

“I—Honey, yes. Ryan's just fine.” He thumbs the line of her cheek, leaning closer to try and meet her eyes. “You didn't do anything, okay? It was the ghost. It was in you, and it was controlling you, and I—” His voice breaks, just a bit. “I had to try to get it out of you, and I had to get you over here, and I… I think I hurt you a little bit…” A tear falls off the end of his nose, dotting the dark fabric of her pants. “I thought it was going to take you,” he whispers.

Her resolve breaks, and she can't hold it in any longer. She scoots forward, wrapping her arms back around him and burying her face in his shoulder. He's rocking her back and forth, his hands trembling, and she clings to him hard. She can feel the guilt coming off of him in waves, mixing with her guilt, and oh god, she didn't lose him. She could have lost him, but she didn't lose him. “It's okay,” she whispers, because she's figured out what he meant by, I think I hurt you—she can see the church over his shoulder, and she caught a glimpse of her burn, which was shaped a little bit like a cross (and Jesus Christ, how did her cross burn her, what has she been a part of?)—but it doesn't matter, because she knows he was only doing what he had to do to save her. “It's okay,” she repeats, her lip trembling. “I'm so sorry, Mulder.”

“I'm sorry, too.” He kisses the top of her head, squeezes her tight before letting go, pulling back to look at her. He reaches down and unwinds her cross from around his wrist. “I found this…” he says, pulling it away and pressing it into her palm. She tenses at the contact, halfway fearing that it will still burn, but it doesn't. It's warm from being on Mulder's arm; she closes her fingers tight around it in relief. He always finds her cross for her.

He's rummaging in his pocket; he comes up with a small circlet of gold, cradled gently in his palm, and she breathes a sigh of relief when she sees it. Her ring, the one she kept on her necklace for such a long time. “I-I found this, too,” he stammers, and lifts a hand to pass it to her.

She lifts her left hand, intending to simply take it from him, but she can't bring herself to pick it up. Her hand stays extended, awkwardly, until he takes it in his. He slides the ring onto her finger, over her knuckles, his fingers warm and welcoming on hers the way they were in a courthouse almost nine years ago. She wraps her hand around his and lets her head fall forward, resting her forehead against his. They stay like that for a long time.

Behind them, the bells of the church begin to chime, marking the hour with an eerie, melancholy sound.

---

Ryan sits in the backseat of the squad car, Robbie curled up under a blanket beside him. Sheriff O'Connell had offered him a blanket, too, and he'd shaken his head. He's so tired that he thinks he might fall right to sleep if he wrapped himself in a blanket, and he doesn't want to risk that. He needs to be on alert. He realizes, suddenly, that this is the first time he's been in the back of a squad car without having committed a crime.

Sheriff O'Connell sits in the front, driving. He'd revealed to Ryan on the way to the car that Jared was at the church—apparently, he'd come with those FBI agents—and Ryan had immediately expressed his worry, insisting, We've gotta go back and get him. The sheriff had looked at Ryan with more sympathy than he'd expected, and promised that he'd come back later to get him. As soon as he got him and Ryan to safety. Ryan's still tense with worry for his uncle, for his aunt, for himself. He senses that this isn't over. It can't be over. The Specter intended to kill him out in those woods, and if it hadn't been for those prayer beads he ordered on Amazon and Agent Mulder's interference, he'd probably be dead right now.

Ryan rests his head against the cold window pane, watching the town flit by. He's so tired; he just wants to go to sleep. He lets his eyelids droop, just a bit, against his better judgement.

Far off, he can hear the chime of the church bells. A cold feeling falls over the car. Ryan knows that feeling.

His head shoots up, his eyes opening widely. He scans the car frantically before landing on the formerly empty passenger seat. Formerly empty. His throat grows dry when he sees what is there now. The dark, hulking shape of the Specter. The flame in its lantern flickers to life as it turns, looking over its shoulder to smile coldly at Ryan. The sheriff stares straight ahead. He doesn't seem to see it.

“Sheriff,” he whispers frantically, his voice rasping. “Sheriff.

“What's up, Ryan?” the sheriff asks, his voice a bit tense. He doesn't look away from the road.

The Specter grins wider, reaches out a hand towards Sheriff O'Connell's shoulder. He's still not looking. He doesn't see the ghost. And that's when Ryan knows; it is too late. He can't stop the Specter. He's very probably going to die, as soon as the Specter takes over Sheriff O'Connell, and he can't save himself or Robbie and his father. He can't do a damn thing.

He shuts his eyes hopelessly as the Specter reaches for the sheriff.

---

Jared digs so far that the muscles in his arms start to burn. He's starting to wonder if they're even digging in the right place when his shovel hits something hard. The lid of a moldy, rotten wooden coffin that looks cheaply made.

He manages to get the lid off, although it almost snaps in half in the process, and reveals the decomposing body underneath. The cluster of molding bones. It looks smaller than he expected, Jared realizes; the Specter has always loomed so large in his mind that it comes as a surprise that his physical form could be so small.

Looking down at the skull, the empty eye sockets, and hearing the crackle of the fire Joy made off in the distance, this suddenly feels immensely wrong. He's going to destroy a body because there's a slight chance that it might be the body of the Willoughby Specter? What if he's gotten it wrong? He's been in prison for almost sixteen years now, and he's pretty sure that this is not what they had in mind when they granted him parole. Standing in a grave, over a body he fully intends to destroy, makes him feel like a criminal.

Not far off, he hears the church bells chime. It seems to snap him out of it, jar him out of his hesitation. Looking down at the body, he sees his brother and sister-in-law: sees the blood on their faces, their open, staring eyes. The Specter took them away from him, and now it is trying to take his nephew. This may not stop it, but it might. It might, and the least he can do is try.

He gathers the bones up in his arms bridal-style, wincing as they jostle and threaten to come apart. He clumsily climbs up out of the hole gets to his feet and walks into the woods where Joy has made a fire. She looks up when she hears him coming, and immediately winces. “Now that we're doing this, it feels like a bad idea,” she murmurs.

“I know,” Jared says. His skin is crawling, he's shivering with fear or revulsion, but he can't completely bring himself to care. He's going to protect his family this time; he's going to do the right thing. “I know it does. But we don't have a choice.”

And with that, he drops the bones into the fire.

---

Ryan's eyes are still shut when he hears it: a piercing, agony-filled scream. It slices through his skull, quivers with its sheer volume. The car seems to shake, rocking back and forth. Something that feels like Robbie's head bumps up against his thigh.

“What the hell?” the sheriff mutters from the front seat. He pulls off onto the edge of the road and puts the car in Park.

Ryan opens his eyes, expecting to see the Specter before him, expecting to see the blank, unfamiliar look of possession in Sheriff O'Connell's eyes. But all he sees when he opens his eyes is an empty passenger seat. When the sheriff turns to look at him, there is no sign that he's been possessed. “Ryan, what's going on?” he asks, his voice thin with confusion. “What was that?”

Ryan swallows tensely. “Y-you heard that?” He's genuinely never heard a sound like that before, in all the years of the Specter haunting him; he has no idea what it means.

A little voice pipes up from beside him: “Daddy?” Robbie sits up on the seat, hair rumpled, rubbing his eyes. “Ryan?” he says sleepily.

“Rob!” Relief and worry dance over the sheriff's face in a pair. “Oh thank God,” he breathes, and launches himself out of the car, running around to Robbie's door.

Robbie reaches out and tugs Ryan's sleeve. “Hey, kid,” Ryan says weakly, forcing a smile, “how are you feeling?” He still has no idea what's happening. He doesn't know why he's not dead, how the hell is he not dead?

Robbie shrugs, yawns. As his father yanks the door open, he says seriously, “It's over now, Ryan. It's all over. The Specter is gone.”

Ryan swallows tensely, his throat sore, his heart pounding. He wants so badly to believe that. “How do you know?”

Robbie wraps an arm around his father's neck and goes willingly into his embrace, but he keeps looking at Ryan, his face stony-solemn. More solemn than Ryan's ever seen it, more solemn than a boy so young should look. “I just do,” he says.

Chapter Text

twenty.

march, 2018

They end up back at the police station. One of the sheriff's deputies—Deputy Jacobs, Ryan thinks—meets them at the station and leads them inside. “I sent everyone else home,” he says. “And I called Bonnie and Annie Caruthers for you.”

“Thank you, Ken.” The sheriff sounds exhausted, shifting his son in his arms.

Ryan shuffles quietly in behind them, his hands in his pockets. “Am I in any trouble?” he asks sheepishly, and the two men look at him in surprise, like they weren't expecting him to say that. (Although, after everything, Ryan doesn't know how they could not expect that.) Sheriff O'Connell shakes his head.

The FBI agents arrive at the station shortly after they do, with Jared and Mrs. Seers in tow. All four of them look exhausted. The FBI agents are both bruised and weary-looking; Agent Mulder has what looks to be a torn scrap of shirt wrapped around a bloody cut on his arm. (Ryan guesses it has to do with Agent Scully's possession.)

He goes and gives his uncle a hug as soon as they enter, which feels very little-kiddish of him, but he doesn't care. He thought he was going to die tonight. He thought that they were both going to die tonight, or get hurt, or end up back in prison, and he's fucking relieved that they are both okay. Even as badly as things ended.

Jared looks as shocked as the cops did, earlier, but he hugs him back tightly, winces when he sees the bruising on Ryan's face. “You okay, kid?” he asks, and Ryan nods.

Their little troupe settles awkwardly in Sheriff O'Connell’s office. Mrs. Seers is avoiding everyone's eyes, like she's embarrassed. Agent Scully crosses the room and quietly asks Sheriff O'Connell if she can check on Robbie—apparently, she is a doctor. The sheriff nods gratefully.

Everyone seems to fall into some sort of quiet acknowledgement of the things that have happened. Deputy Jacobs, the only one—Ryan assumes—who wasn't out there tonight, seems to take the whole thing in stride. Silence overtakes the room until Sheriff O'Connell finally speaks. “What the hell are we gonna do about this?” he says, waving a wild hand. “How the hell are we gonna resolve this? Who's getting arrested here?” Jared visibly winces at that. The sheriff is wincing, too, holding out his wrists like he's going to be handcuffed, as if he believes the answer should be him. (Ryan's guessing he figured out that the Specter possessed him to get Robbie to the building.) “Agents?” he asks, addressing them. “You have any advice?”

Agent Scully ducks her head lower as if she, too, is embarrassed; Ryan wonders what all she's figured out about what happened in the woods. Agent Mulder fidgets, as if he wants to speak, but Mrs. Seers beats him to it. “Arrest me,” she says, sitting up in her seat. “I deserve it. I'm the most culpable here…”

No one is culpable here,” Agent Mulder says, speaking with a strange mix of authority and pleading, like he doesn't think they'll believe him. “No one needs to be arrested because none of you did anything wrong.”

“Agent Mulder, my son…” Sheriff O'Connell begins in a tight, guilty voice, his hand on the back of Robbie's head.

“Your son is fine,” Agent Scully says, getting to her feet. She offers Robbie a small smile, tousling his hair, and he smiles shyly back before hiding his face in his father's side. She addresses the sheriff: “I would keep an eye on him to make sure, but there doesn't seem to be any negative effects.”

The sheriff wraps an arm around Robbie, squeezing him tight. He looks down at the floor. “What happened tonight…” he begins, his voice breaking.

“What happened tonight was nobody's fault,” Agent Mulder says firmly, and he seems to be addressing everyone in the room, but his eyes keep flitting back to Agent Scully. She avoids his gaze. “None of you committed a crime, at least not of your own free will.”

Sheriff O'Connell shakes his head, as if dismissive. Beside Ryan, Jared fidgets. Mrs. Seers says, “Vandalism… grave robbing, at least, if not kidn—”

Agent Mulder speaks again. “What happened tonight wasn't under our control. That's what I saw. What happened was the result of an outside force, a force that the two of you went to the necessary lengths to stop.”

No one says anything for a long minute. Ryan looks down at his hands in his lap, his bruised knuckles. If this is really all over—and after almost sixteen years, it is hard to accept that it may be all over—the last thing he wants is to send his uncle back to prison, after everything. He doesn't think he could bear that.

And then Deputy Jacobs speaks up. “I think Agent Mulder is right,” he says, covering the sheriff's shoulder with his hand. “No one got hurt tonight aside, from a few cuts and bruises. I don't see any reason to arrest anyone.”

Sheriff O'Connell laughs, holding his son tighter as if he's afraid something is going to drag him away. “What are we supposed to do, Kenny?” he asks bitterly. “Just forget this ever happened?”

“Yeah,” Ryan says, for the first time in a while. When they look at him, he continues: “We don't even really know what happened tonight; almost all of us have gaps in our memories. And besides that, Agent Mulder is right. None of us did commit any crimes. It wasn't your faults.” He's saying it as much for them tonight as he is for the Jared of 2002. For everything that has happened because of a moldy old folktale that has followed this town for so many years. It's fucking ridiculous, and it needs to end here. “We have to forget it,” he finishes, twisting his fingers in his lap. “We have to move on.”

Nobody says anything to that. The sheriff, hugging Robbie close, looks around the room questioningly, from Deputy Jacobs to Mrs. Seers to the FBI agents. Mrs. Seers clenches her jaw, as if she's not sure what to say. Agent Mulder nods, as if encouraging them to listen to him. Beside Ryan, Jared squeezes his shoulder encouragingly.

Outside of the office, he hears the door slam. A couple minutes later, Mrs. O'Connell and Annie push through the door, headed for their respective families. Jared steps away from Ryan quickly, like he's been burned.

“Oh my god, Ryan,” Annie's saying, and she's wrapping her arms around Ryan before he can decide whether or not he wants to protest. (He decides that he doesn't. He hugs her back, clinging to her like a little kid. They could've died tonight, it could've just as easily been Annie as any of them.) “Are you okay, honey?” she whispers, squeezing him hard.

He swallows. He nods, gingerly.

---

Joy opts to go home. She's exhausted, too exhausted to try and process any of this. She's guessing, based on what little she remembers, that she's not the one who drugged little Robbie O'Connell or his father, but that doesn't alleviate her guilt. She more or less participated in a kidnapping tonight. She hasn't had complete control of herself since she woke up—since the night of her accident, for fuck's sake—and she still doesn't quite feel like she does. The bones burned, she saw it happen—and Ryan says that he saw the ghost disappear—but it still doesn't feel real. What if it is still here somewhere? What if it isn't over? This thing has been following Ben since the death of Holly, and now it has followed her. It's over, she tries to tell herself, but what's left is the memories. The knowledge of what it made her do.

She apologizes to the O'Connells before she left. Mrs. O'Connell gives her a funny look, but the sheriff just shakes his head. “It's okay. It's okay,” he says. “We're going to forget it, right? Let's forget it.” And that's the end of it. Robbie offers her a small smile from under his mother's arm and she smiles wobbily back. Thinks, Thank god that kid is okay. Thank God both of those kids are okay. As she leaves, she spots Ryan clustered with his aunt and uncle and Agents Mulder and Scully in a corner of a station. She hopes that things will get better for him, now that this is all over.

The drive home is tense. She looks instinctively towards the backseat every few minutes, as she has done every time she remembers driving since the accident. Waiting for something to pop out again and cause her to crash. There is never anything there.

At the end of the driveway, Joy knocks, as if it were not her own house. When Ben opens it, a worried look on her face, she falls into him without a second thought. She's missed him. She's been awake for three months now, and she still misses him. It feels like they've lost so much time.

His arms come around her, tightly but tentatively. “Joy,” he whispers into her hair. “Baby, what happened? I was worried.”

“It's a long story.” She sniffles, wiping her eyes. She pulls away to look at him, her eyes full.

He smooths hair away from her face with the flat of his hand. He has an almost knowing look on his face. “Is it about the Specter?” he asks softly, and she knows he must be thinking of their discussion with Agent Scully a few days ago. A discussion that she doesn't remember the ending of at all. Ben has a great deal of fear on his face, and she knows it has to do with what happened to Holly. She realizes, suddenly, that if he's had any inkling of her possession, these past three months must've been some kind of hell for him. As was the year before that she was in a coma.

She grabs Ben’s hands and squeezes them hard. “It was about the Specter,” she says. “But… I think that's over now.” She exhales slowly. Her heart is still pounding, but it's starting to slow a bit, fall to a resting rate. She thinks that things might be okay now.

“We got rid of it,” she says in a hushed voice, and leans forward to embrace Ben again. “It's not going to hurt us anymore.”

---

Joe tells his wife the whole story. He tries to censor the details a bit—mostly for Robbie's sake, who is curled comfortably in Bonnie's arms—but it still sounds horrible to his own ears. He has to look away several times, from the questioning eyes of Bonnie and Kenny. “I-I'm so sorry, Bonnie,” he says softly, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “I-I don't know how to explain it… I don't know why I would…”

“I think I know,” Kenny says suddenly. When Joe and Bonnie look at him in confusion, he shrugs. “It wasn't you, Joe. You were possessed.”

“I don't…” Joe shakes his head. Be hasn't thought a lot about the existence of ghosts since 2015—since he saw the Specter twice. He’d nearly forgotten about it. Two years ago, he wholeheartedly believed in the Specter, but so much has happened since then. Possession sounds so ridiculous, even after everything Ryan and Robbie both have said, even after the period of time that he can't remember. “But it was me,” he says.

Robbie shakes his head, pressing his cheek to his mother's shoulder. Kenny says, “I know you, Joe. You wouldn't do that. You'd never do anything like that. That's why you don't remember doing it.” He swallows, his Adam's apple bobbing. Joe shakes his head again, and Kenny reaches out to clap him on the shoulder. “Do… do you remember my car accident?” he asks. “The way I blacked out just before I crashed? I… I think it might've been for the same reason as what happened tonight. Maybe even the same reason that you don't remember going back into that apartment building Ryan burned down.”

Joe's throat is sore. “Ken,” he mumbles, “you don't have to…”

“Joe,” Bonnie says suddenly, “I talked to Ryan tonight.” He turns to look at her; she's got a sort of determined realization on her face. “I-I brought up everything that's happened… between him and our family… and when I brought up Bear running away, from a few years ago… he said he didn't do it. He didn't let Bear out. A-and you always said that it looked like someone either had a key or opened the door from the inside, right?”

“Bonnie…” he tries, helpless. He doesn't want them making excuses for him, for what he's done. The guilt is thick in his throat. He can barely even look at them. He feels so ashamed, rubbed raw and red by the horribleness of this night.

“Don't feel bad, Dad.” That's Robbie speaking, and Joe looks down at him suddenly as he climbs off of Bonnie's lap and onto his. He hugs Joe tight around the waist. “Uncle Kenny is right,” he says. “It wasn't you. It wasn't any of us. That's what Ryan's been trying to tell us. The Specter was bad, and he made people do bad things. But they didn't wanna do those things.”

Joe blinks back tears and hugs his son tight. He meets his wife's eyes, halfway still expecting anger, and instead finds a sad, gentle reassurance. She reaches across the space between them to pat his hands. “It wasn't you, hon,” she says softly. She kisses her fingertips briefly and presses them to his knuckles. “You wouldn't do this. You would never hurt Robbie, or anyone else… You got him out of there tonight. You saved him, and Ryan, and you saved yourself.”

Joe shuts his eyes, presses his lips to his son's head. A tear slips out from beneath his lids.

Kenny speaks again, gently. “It's like you told Mrs. Seers,” he says. “It's over now. It's time to forget it.”

---

Ryan is all set to defend Jared to Annie—to reassure her that he didn't do this, that what happened tonight wasn't his fault—but Agent Mulder beats him to it. “If you suspect that your brother has something to do with Ryan's current state, I can assure you he doesn't,” he says before Annie can accuse. “He's been with us all night.”

Annie looks from Jared to the FBI agents suspiciously, an arm wrapped around Ryan's shoulders. “Then who did it, then?” she snaps.

“It was the ghost, Aunt Annie,” Ryan says, the words spilling out of his mouth. When she turns to look at him, he instantly regrets it. “I-I know you don't believe me, but…”

“It's true,” Agent Mulder says, and Ryan honestly isn't sure whether to be relieved or annoyed that he’s confirming all of these things. “I saw it.”

Annie's mouth hangs open, looking between them. “I don't… I don't understand,” she says uncertainly. “The… the Specter did this to you, Ry? How is that possible?”

“It's always been able to do things like that,” Ryan mutters in a low, hurt voice. “I-it messed up my room one time. It pushed me down the stairs. It's been possessing Mrs. Seers for months. It…” He falters, looking down at the ground. “It possessed you once. It wanted to hurt you.”

Annie looks reluctant, almost like she doesn't believe him. But she doesn't argue. She squeezes his shoulders. “And what did it do tonight?” she asks softly, her voice low and breaking.

Ryan can feel the other adults looking at him, but he ignores them. He tells his aunt what happened, the easiest version of what happened. He leaves out the parts that would just cause issues—the fact that Sheriff O'Connell probably drugged his own son while under the Specter's influence, the fact that Mrs. Seers and Agent Scully threatened him while possessed. When Annie, astonished and worried, asks how long this has been going on, he tells her, Ever since Robbie started seeing the ghost. Maybe even longer, but that's when he first realized that it had to be stopped, and stopped quicker than he originally assumed when he wrote Jared.

Annie looks at him—not quite like she believes him, but not quite like she doesn't believe them, either. And then she looks at her brother, clustered with the FBI agents. “And what were you all doing there?” she asks. “If none of you were possessed.”

It's actually Agent Scully that speaks this time, after being surprisingly quiet all night. (Or maybe not surprising. Ryan knows she must be pretty shaken by the whole possession thing, especially if she has anything to do with the bloody wound on Agent Mulder's. Or no, not her. The ghost. It was always the ghost.) “Deputy Jacobs called us and asked if we'd go see if Jared had anything to do with Robbie's disappearance,” she says steadily. “You remember, we called you for his alibi.” Annie nods. “Jared knew that Ryan was missing, and believed that he might've gone looking for Ryan,” she continues. “He thought he might know where they'd gone. He wanted to go there and try and find them, see if we could help them.”

Annie's eyes widen, as if she didn't expect that. She looks to Jared, who nods as if to confirm it. She takes a shaky breath, looking down at the ground. She says quietly, so quietly it's almost indiscernible, “Jared, could I speak to you a moment?”

His jaw clenches, unclenches. He nods. They step off to the side awkwardly, Annie's shoulders and spine too stiff, Jared's head hanging loosely as if he's ashamed.

Ryan is tempted to try and listen in, but one of the FBI agents speaks before he can. It's Agent Scully, and he can tell before he even looks at her that she's making the same kinds of apologies as Mrs. Seers and the sheriff. Maybe even more of one; her voice is thick with guilt. “Ryan…” she begins in a low voice, and when Ryan turns back towards her, he can see the heavy regret in her eyes. He wonders if it's even worse to know what she's done since she's a cop; he wonders how much her partner told her. “I just wanted to say that I am so incredibly sorry…”

Ryan shrugs, a little aggressively. “It wasn't your fault,” he says. “It's like I told the others.”

Agent Mulder has a reassuring hand on her back, as if he's trying to convince her of the same thing. Agent Scully shakes her head. “It was stupid of me… I wanted to get you to safety, but instead, I just put you in more danger… I don't know what…”

“Look,” Ryan says, probably louder than he should, considering that his aunt's in the room. “We need to forget it, okay? Seriously. You didn't mean to do it. I know you didn't mean to do it. We all do. I accept your apology, if that makes things better, but look…” He sighs, irritable, and shakes his head; he had tried to warn her. “Look, I told you to get out of there, didn't I?”

Startled, her eyes wide, Agent Scully laughs. It takes them both by surprise. She shakes her head, her eyes downcast. “Yeah, you did tell me,” she mutters.

Agent Mulder rubs his partner's back. (That might be a little weird, Ryan thinks idly, if they're not actually together.) “What happened tonight is more of my fault than anyone else's,” he says. “I'm the one who left town when you asked me to stay and keep investigating. I'm the one who didn't take your claims as seriously as I should've.”

He doesn't seem completely off-base—it’s certainly what Ryan's been thinking ever since they left town—but now, after everything that's happened tonight, it just sounds ridiculous. Ryan rolls his eyes so hard it actually hurts. “That's bullshit,” he says. “Seriously. There's no way you would've been able to stop tonight from happening. I thought maybe you could, but I don't think anyone could. What's important is that nobody got hurt.” He crosses his arms irritably. “In fact,” he adds, nearly pandering, “you two probably saved my life. When you found us in the woods and told me to run away, you distracted the ghost for long enough for me to get away, for Uncle Jared to destroy the body in time to stop it from hurting me. If the two of you hadn't been involved, I would've gotten hurt.”

They both look a little dumbfounded at that. Agent Scully still looks guilty, rubbing a hand over her mouth. Agent Mulder laughs a little humorlessly. “I… I guess that's a good way to look at it,” he says. “But… we just want you to know how sorry we are that everything went down this way.”

Ryan shrugs. “I am, too. But it's over now.”

Agent Mulder nods, and Ryan is grateful for that. He is tired of talking about this. He shifts his attention, turning back to Annie and Jared. He hasn't heard most of the conversation, but he senses a shift in the tide; Jared is crying, he sees, and he suspects that Annie is, too. He watches with something like amazement as Annie reaches out and shakes Jared's hand. He can't believe this is happening. Earlier today, he wanted this so badly, and now he can't believe it's happening.

Jared walks away from Annie, over to him, and hugs him with one arm around the shoulder. “You okay, kid?” he mutters.

All Ryan can do is nod. “W-what happened?” he asks softly.

Jared shrugs. “Things'll be okay now,” he says, tousling Ryan's hair like he's a little kid. “I'll see you soon, okay?”

“I'm not five,” Ryan says with the slightest inflection of disgust. But he hugs his uncle tight. He can feel his eyes burning with tears. “Thanks for getting rid of the ghost,” he mumbles.

Jared chuckles nervously, quietly. “Anytime,” he says. He tousles Ryan's hair again before walking off. Behind him, Ryan can hear him asking the agents for a ride.

Annie approaches next, patting him gently on the shoulder. “You ready to go home, Ry?” she asks quietly. “Get an ice pack?”

Ryan nods, stifling a yawn. “What happened between you and Uncle Jared?” he asks quietly. “Are you… are you still mad?” It sounds so babyish, despite his proclamations that he is not five.

Annie shrugs. She gives him a one-armed hug of her own. “It's… it's complicated, Ryan. There's a lot to unpack. I… I'm not quite done being mad at him.” Her voice breaks a little, quivering.

“Oh.” He swallows, nodding. “Yeah, I understand.”

“But,” Annie adds, voice full of purpose, “I said I wanted to try.”

His eyes widen in surprise. “Seriously?”

“Uh-huh.” She rubs his shoulder again. “We decided to try.”

A wave of relief washes over Ryan and he sighs a little, shoulders drooping. “Thank you, Aunt Annie,” he says. “I… I appreciate that.”

Annie shrugs. Digs into her purse for her car keys. “It’s a start,” she says. She pulls away, shifting her bag on her shoulder, and offers him a small smile. “It's a start,” she repeats. “Are you ready to go home?”

He is more than ready to go home. He nods and follows her out of the building.

It’s dark outside, more dark than Ryan remembered. A street lamp across the street has burned out, leaving the sidewalk shrouded in shadows. Ryan finds himself habitually scanning the shadows for anything out of the normal, any hulking, mysterious shadows. Trying to keep his guard up.

And then he realizes: he doesn't need to. There's probably other ghosts out there, but the one that has been tormenting him, specifically, is gone. It really is over now. It's done.

---

Mulder and Scully drop Jared back off at his place, after promising to confirm his alibi if anyone asks about it, and then Scully drives straight to the Winchester hospital. Scully probably would've insisted they go to the hospital in Willoughby if they hadn't had to take Jared home, and if they hadn't both been anxious to get the hell out of Dodge. Ghost gone or not, after everything that happened, neither of them wanted to stay in the town a moment later. Mulder is pretty damn tired of creepy, cursed small towns.

He tries to tell Scully that he doesn't need a hospital, that he feels fine and they both could use some sleep. The pain underneath the scrap of shirt wrapped around the wound, itchy from dried blood, is mostly gone. And he just wants to take her home. But she insists. Jaw clenched, avoiding his eyes, she insists, “You need stitches, Mulder. You're going to the hospital.”

He senses there is no use in arguing. She's pale, so pale he can count all of her freckles. He reaches out to take her hand, but she keeps it wrapped securely around the wheel.

Scully's face is red when she checks them in. Embarrassed. She slips away pretty soon after that, leaving Mulder alone in the emergency room. It's a long wait, long enough to make Mulder really start to worry; he pulls out his phone and texts her, Are you okay? He doesn't get an answer.

He doesn't see her until later, after he's already all stitched up and waiting to talk to the doctor. She slips into the room, her head bent, and when she lifts it to meet his eyes for the first time in hours, he can see that she's been crying. “Hi,” she says quietly.

He swallows thickly. He wants to ask her if she is okay, but he doesn't want to push, doesn't want to drive her away. “Hi,” he says instead, and scoots over on the table as a sort of invitation.

Thankfully, she comes over and slips up beside him, shoulder to shoulder on the table, still avoiding his eyes. She doesn't move her hand away when he brushes his fingers tentatively over them, so he takes it, and she reciprocates with a hard, reassuring hold. “How's your arm?” she asks quietly.

“Better,” Mulder says, and leans down to kiss the top of her head. Just so she knows how he's feeling right now. She doesn't pull away. “Barely even hurts anymore.”

She goes stiff at that, her fingers rigid between his. “Mulder,” she says softly, “I am so…”

“Scully, no,” he says, a little sterner this time. “You don't need to apologize, okay?”

“Yes, I do.” She lifts her chin to look at him, guilt and defiance and a plea for him to understand blending in her expression. “It may not have been my actions,” she begins, “or under my control, but it was still me. I was used to hurt you, and I could've hurt a child, and it's hard to come to terms with that.” She squeezes his hand. “You should understand,” she says gently, “after some of the things we've been through. It was never your fault, but you always felt horrible, and that's the way I'm feeling right now.”

“You're right,” he says immediately. “You're right, and I'm sorry, but I… I want you to know that it wasn't you, and there is absolutely no reason for you to feel guilty.”

“But there is reason for me to feel guilty,” says Scully, with so much vehemence that it almost surprises him. Her knee is bobbing up and down, a nervous habit; she's looking down at her feet. He reaches out to touch her chin, tipping her head so she meets his eyes, and she looks ashamed, but she holds his gaze. “I… I knew that it was dangerous before I went in. I don't think I fully understood how dangerous—I’m not sure I ever did.” She grimaces, rubbing at her temples with the heel of her free hand. “But… I did know. And I… I wanted to go in alone because I was scared of what would happen if I didn't.” She reaches down to wrap her other hand around his, holding it in both of hers against her ribs. “I was scared that you were gonna get hurt,” she admits quietly. “So I went in by myself.”

He looks down at their hands, their tangle of knuckles. He rubs one of her palms with the flat of his thumb and murmurs, “Why were you afraid I was going to get hurt?”

Scully swallows. Swallows again. She runs her finger over the line of his knuckles. “I've been seeing the ghost,” she says with an exhale, a guilty relief to her voice, as if she hadn't wanted to say it but has also been waiting a long time to. “I've… I've seen it several times since we first took the case back in 2015.”

Mulder is quiet, caught somewhere between surprise and knowing sympathy. He'd suspected this earlier in the night; he'd asked her as much in the car, remembering the strange way she'd reacted to things on this case, the laptop in the hotel room. His initial reaction is a little hurt—hurt that she didn't tell him until now, after more than two years on this case. But despite that, he can remember his own horror after seeing the ghost, his anxiety over what would come from the things he saw, and he's horrified at the prospect of Scully experiencing that. He reaches out gently with one hand to touch her shoulder gently.

She's still talking, her voice trembling, her eyes shifted away from him and her cheeks and neck blotching red. “I've dreamed about it several times… I think I saw it in my house, before the case in Henrico County. I saw it in the backseat of my car last week, on my way back from talking to Joy Seers. I dreamed about it the night we came back from Norfolk, after Jackson…” Her voice trails off, breaks. Shatters. “I… I saw it the night before Mom died.”

Shock clenches his chest, contracting his ribs, shock and sympathy and pain, and he wraps his arms around her shoulders. “Oh, honey,” he breathes into her hair, and she sniffles, her cheek against his shoulder. “I'm so sorry.”

She sobs quietly against the creased fabric of his jacket. She croaks something muffedly, and it takes a few moments for him to understand: she is saying, I'm sorry. He pulls back to look her in the eye, wipes tears off of her face and whispers, “Scully, what? What in the world are you sorry for?”

She takes a deep breath, two, before taking his hand again, bending her head down so that he can't see her eyes anymore. “I-I should've told you about this a long time ago,” she whispers, and the quaking of her voice betrays what she is thinking instantly. He suddenly remembers times in the past, where she has told him about this sort of thing—a ghost in the bathroom, a seraphim making light flash through empty, eerie churches—and his reactions. His chest clenches all over again. He pulls her hand to his mouth and kisses the base of her thumb. “It was compromising the case not to tell you…” Scully murmurs, her voice thick with shame. “Either of us could've been killed tonight because I didn't tell you.”

“Scully, no,” he whispers. He kisses the line of her knuckles, holding her hand against his cheek. “You couldn't have known what was going to happen. You didn't compromise a damn thing, okay?”

She sniffles, her head bent. He seizes her other hand in his and squeezes. “I know you,” he whispers. He leans forward, resting his forehead against hers the way they did outside of the church. “I can't imagine what you must have been feeling, Scully. I know… I know how hard that must've been for you.” She squeezes his hands now, tightly. He holds their fingers against his chest, to the thudding of his heart. “You don't have to explain a goddamn thing to me, Scully,” he says softly. “You have your beliefs, and I respect your beliefs, and I… I saw the ghost, too, and I could barely handle it. I was so terrified of what it meant, of the possibility of losing you… You don't have to explain anything, Dana. You didn't compromise this case. You didn't put us in danger—I’m not sure if anything tonight would have gone differently if I'd known or not, but the important thing is that everyone is okay.” He draws back to kiss her temple. “If anyone's at fault here, it's me,” he adds quietly, thinking of all the times he noticed something was wrong but didn't ask her about it, about times long ago when he might've accused her of betraying him after a revelation like this. “I should've picked up on it sooner. I should've been there for you.”

Scully laughs waterily, shakes her head. “I tried to tell you,” she admits quietly. “The night after the case in Eastwood. But you'd fallen asleep. And I couldn't get up the courage after that. I-it always felt so silly that I didn't just tell you.”

“Why would you tell me?” Mulder murmurs, half joking, half self-deprecating. He strokes the side of her head. “I've been such an ass to you about these things in the past, Scully. I don't blame you for hesitating.”

She chuckles humorlessly and shakes her head again. “But that was a long time ago, Mulder,” she says softly. “Things were different then.”

“Still.” He rubs his fingers over the back of her hand, over her finger where she's still wearing her wedding ring. “I'm sorry I was such an ass to you, Scully,” he whispers. “I'm so sorry if I made you feel like you couldn't tell me.”

She smiles, just a little. She reaches up to push sweat-dried hair away from his face. “It's okay,” she whispers. “It was a long time ago. And it wasn't the reason I didn't tell you. It… it was a lot of things, but it wasn't you. I told myself more than once to tell you. I wanted to tell you…” She bites her lower lip. “I need to be more honest with you,” she says. “We both need to be more honest with each other. I've spent a lot of time pushing you away, Mulder, and I regret it. I don't want to do that anymore.”

“I don't want to do that, either,” Mulder admits, thinking of those lonely years holed up in his office, walking through a silent house, going upstairs to a silent, cold bed. All the hurt and resentment they'd never discussed. He wants to forget all of that. He wants to move on; he wants to be there for her. He leans down to kiss her forehead.

She leans close, bending her head to examine his stitches, peeling back the bandage on his arm. “Neat enough,” she mutters in the begrudging tone he remembers from a thousand emergency room visits. “How does it feel?”

“Feels fine,” he says. “I've had a lot worse. At least this time, it's not zombie bites and I don't have to wear a sling.”

“It's the little things.” She recovers the wound, covering it warmly with her palm, before looking up at him, apology in her eyes. “Mulder, I—”

“I know.” He leans down and kisses her softly on the mouth. “Let's go get a hotel,” he whispers. “We're both exhausted.”

She thumbs the corner of her eye and nods, taking his hand as they climb off of the table. They walk out of the room with their fingers tangled between them, the cool metal of Scully's ring like an anchor between them.

---

Case #X-29336, Willoughby, Virginia

Addendum to 2002 Investigation (Case #X-43187) by Agents Doggett and Reyes; 2015 Investigation by Agents Mulder and Scully; 2016 Investigation by Agents Mulder and Scully

March, 2018; Agent Fox Mulder, Agent Dana Scully

The paranormal activity in Willoughby seems to have come to an end. After a pattern of sightings occurring since late 2017, following noted activity in 2015 and 2016 [reference: attached witness statements of Ryan Caruthers, Jared Caruthers, Joy Seers], things escalated to an extreme point, escalating in a confrontation on the property of the site where Marion and Ian Caruthers were murdered in 2002 [ref: attached summary of the murders of Marion and Ian Caruthers, ref: witness statements of Ryan Caruthers, Jared Caruthers, Joseph O'Connell, and Joy Seers].

There are two things I have deduced from this confrontation: first, that the Willoughby Specter was controlling the actions of several of the humans involved in an attempt to hurt them; and secondly, that the ghost has ceased to exist due to action taken by Jared Caruthers and Joy Seers. As a witness to paranormal activity taking an effect on Agent Scully, I can confirm the first with absolute certainty. As for the second, Ryan Caruthers has testified that he heard a piercing scream shortly before the Specter disappeared from the car he was traveling in [ref: statement of Ryan Caruthers], and I have no reason to doubt him. My personal experiences with the ghost, particularly the experience that occurred on the same night as the ghost's destruction, have left me certain that this entity was determined to do harm to all of the people gathered at this site, and would not have stopped voluntarily. Furthermore, the apparent lack of activity that has occurred since this confrontation has all but confirmed this theory. Considering the near-constant hauntings in the months preceding this event [ref: statement of Ryan Caruthers], as stated above, it seems improbable that the ghost would've stopped this assault voluntarily. Therefore, it would seem likely that the destruction of the body of the human believed to have been the ghost in life was successful [ref: statements of Jared Caruthers and Joy Seers]. I think it is also safe to say, in reference to the original report made in 2015 [ref: report by Agent Mulder, December, 2015], that the moral intentions of the ghost can be assuredly classified as evil. Although the limits of what is “evil” and what is not could be considered objective, it is safe to say that the belief expressed to Agent Scully and I in 2015that the ghost was angelic—is inaccurate. Joy and Ben Seers believe that the Willoughby Specter was demonic [ref: statement of Joy Seers, ref: report by Agent Scully, 2016], and I am inclined to believe this as well. Considering the vast history of hauntings, tragedy, and discourse over the past few centuries, I would certainly call it beneficial that the ghost is gone. Perhaps, now, the citizens of Willoughby can live in peace.

Case #X-29336 is to be considered officially closed.

---

The morning after the incident at the church, Mulder and Scully go home. Back to their home, the unspoken lynchpin, the place they have not been together since the day he offered to let her stay with him. (As if it wasn't always her home to begin with.) Returning home, after picking up Daggoo from the neighbors, Mulder almost can't believe it's been so long since that night, Scully's ill-fated birthday. (Looking on the half-destroyed bulk of Scully's originally temporary home is almost an astonishing wake-up call. Scully groans, “Shit, I have to call Dr. Gerhard, and I have absolutely no idea how to get in touch with her,” and hope rises in Mulder's chest before he realizes that she'd have to do that whether she's moving back in or not.) It's almost a relief to walk through the door.

The next morning, Scully has come down with a nasty stomach flu. She throws up twice in one morning before letting Mulder tuck her into bed, stubborn as ever. “I'm fine, Mulder,” she protests, and he shakes his head and kisses her forehead and crawls into bed next to her, working on his report while she naps. She's sick on and off for the next few days and he calls in sick to work for the both of them, lying in bed with her and reading aloud from her book so she can rest. (She's never been able to read for very long on car trips because it makes her carsick, so he figures it's the same concept here.) “Mulder, you should go to work,” she mutters at some point, her eyes screwed shut, her head lolling in his lap. “When you catch this from me, you'll have wasted all of your sick days.”

“I won't get sick, Scully,” he says absently, and squints irritably at the blurring page. He's going to have to bite the bullet and dig out those new glasses.

He hears her scoff. “You're ridiculous, Mulder,” she says, but she takes his hand in hers and kisses his knuckles. He's started wearing his ring again, too; she hasn't taken hers off yet.

Within a few days, she's feeling better, and true to his word, he doesn't get sick. They take her cross to be repaired and she starts wearing it again, fastening it gingerly around her neck at first, and then with more certainty. The mark on her collarbone has faded considerably, but he knows the guilt still lingers. She tells him on Friday that she's planning to go to Mass on Sunday, which he knows she's more or less lapsed in attending during the past few years. “I want to try and come to terms with what happened,” she tells him, her hand clutching her cross like a lifeline. The gold band on her finger flashing. “I know it's silly, but… I can't shake the idea that something potentially demonic was controlling me. I need to figure out a way to come to terms with that.”

“It's not silly,” he says immediately, squeezing her shoulder. “Not at all.” She smiles a little at him, and he leans down to kiss her cheek. She twists her ring absently as she lets go of her necklace, a habit he hasn't noticed her doing since before they left.

When they get home that night, he notices her unpacking a couple of boxes before dinner.

---

It's such a relief to be back at Mass after weeks of not going. Scully hasn't been able to shake this murky feeling inside her since that night in Willoughby, the guilt at everything that happened. She knows it's not her fault, not really, but she can't shake the feeling that her own stupidity caused this. Led to her hurting Mulder, putting them both in danger. Led to her being taken over by something demonic. She's trying her best to move past it. This feels like the best way to do it. To cleanse herself, in a way.

Being back in Mass makes her think of her mother. Of the quarter necklace she's been carrying on her since they got back home. She rubs it absently between her thumb and forefinger in her pocket as the priest talks.

Her phone buzzes as she's walking away from the front of the church after Communion. It's a text from Mulder. Skinner has a new case and he wants us to leave right away, it says. But I'll tell him if you're not up for it.

She's up for it, she knows immediately. She's feeling a lot better from that stomach flu already, and she deeply wants for things to be normal again. To be working cases again. To not feel so awkward in her home with her husband, to not see dark shapes and demonic ghosts when she closes her eyes. Mulder's arm is working fine, and she's not sick anymore, and there is no reason not to work, absolutely none. She leaves the church immediately, dipping her fingers into the holy water as she goes. I'm fine, she texts Mulder on the way to the car. Ready to work. Be home in a few.

---

The case, as it turns out, is in New York. Three men dead—one with his organs removed, the other two seeming to have done the removing. The organs delivered to a nearby hospital. In New York, the police provide little help, so they move forward on their own. Splitting up from the crime scene, Mulder decides to check the dark web for signs of organs, while Scully opts to research liver transplants. She finds everything accounted for.

She beats Mulder back to the hotel they'd agreed upon, but something catches her eye before she can go and check in: a cathedral across the street. She's crossing at the light almost immediately, thinking of the service she did leave in the middle of earlier today, of the cross around her neck and the quarter in her pocket. And there are people inside, and lights on. She texts Mulder to let him know where she is, and that she has info for him when he's done.

She ends up at the front of the church, lighting the prayer candles. It feels like the right thing to do. There are so many things to pray for. For forgiveness, for herself, for Mulder. For their son. Her fingers linger over her necklace, the one that she's had for such a long time, before reaching for the match.

She's in the midst of lighting one when Mulder appears behind her. “Well, I didn't burst into flames when I crossed the threshold, so I guess they really do forgive a lot,” he says in a not-very-quiet whisper.

She blows out the match and puts it back before turning to him. “In the last twenty-four hours, there have been twelve liver transplants in a 450-mile radius,” she says in her own stage whisper. “All of the donors have been accounted for.”

“Well, I checked the Dark Web, and there's no organs for sale in this region,” he replies. “But the, uh, the dead surgeon, uh…” He squints irritably at his phone. “Doctor…  Oh, God help me.” She raises her eyebrows at him, amused, and he murmurs, “I'm sorry,” with a gesture at the ceiling before pulling out his glasses, the ones he'd had before at the crime scene. “Rednon, Dr. David Rednon,” he reads from his phone, “had his medical license revoked for ‘over-prescribing’ opioids to the Bratski Krug drug dealers, the Russian mob. And the kid who was with him was a street-level gangster.”

“I think we should hand this over to the NYC Organized Crime division, Mulder,” she says. “I don't think this is an X-File.” He doesn't say anything to that, but she can tell by the look on his face that he's considering the same possibility “I'm gonna need some time here,” she adds. “I can meet up with you later, or you can wait for me.”

She smiles at him, and he offers her a small smile back and pats her shoulder before walking away and sitting in one of the pews. She doesn't know why she's so surprised that he opted to wait, but she is, and the pleased shock courses pleasantly through her. When she turns back to the prayer candles, she is absently twisting her ring.

---

Mulder waits for her the entire time, unmoving from the pew. He doesn't get up when she walks over to join him, either, scooting over and allowing her to sit while he flips idly through a Bible. They fall into a comfortable silence that Scully is immensely grateful for. She absently watches the girl talking to the priest at the front of the church, thinking about her prayers, the things she's been thinking about all week.

When the girl begins to walk away, passing them in the aisle, Mulder finally speaks. “Look at this, Scully,” he says, pointing to the page in the Bible. “Today's scripture. Romans 12:19. ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.’ That was on the organ cooler.”

“Well, it's a common biblical passage,” she says, not quite dismissive but not quite in agreement. She offers him a tight smile as he tucks the glasses into his coat pocket. She says suddenly, on an impulse, “Did I ever tell you how I came to believe in God?”

He shakes his head. “No.”

“When my brother Charlie was a baby, he got seriously ill,” she starts. “I think I was about four. I later learned that it was rheumatic fever.” Mulder nods. “Every night, Mom would tell us to get on our knees and pray for his recovery,” she says, thinking of clasped hands and the rug burning her knees and the way Missy whispered aloud when she prayed. Tears on her mother's cheeks. She hasn't thought about this in a long time.

“Your prayers were answered,” says Mulder knowingly. “He lived.”

“Only, after the first couple nights, I wasn't praying for him,” she says. “I was praying for a puppy.” They both laugh quietly; she smiles absently at the memory. “And we got one, that Christmas. I thought God had performed a miracle.”

“I finally know why I'm not a Christian, Scully. My parents never got me a puppy,” Mulder jokes, and she chuckles softly, her eyes sliding closed. They lapse into a brief silence. “So are you praying for another miracle now?” he asks.

There could be so many different answers to that question. The easiest one is this: she says, “I don't know if I believe in miracles. But I do know the power of faith.” She reaches into her pocket and pulls out her mom's quarter. She's been carrying it since the encounter with the Specter for reasons she can't explain. Tribute to a warning that wasn't a warning, and that she couldn't have done anything with anyway. But she doesn't want to dwell on that. She just wants to think about her mom. “I saw it in my mom, the strength that she received,” she says to Mulder. “I could use some of that strength now.” She tucks the quarter into her pocket. “I need what you have,” she adds, and he looks at her in surprise. “You always bear north, Mulder… no matter which way, or how hard the wind blows against you.” He knew long before he did that she needed to come home, he's been ready for so long. And he's been waiting. He held her together when they thought they'd lost their son, he reassured her after something took over her body and forced her to threaten him; he came to find her when drones descended on his house, without a second thought. She envies his strength, his ability to keep going. She wants that quality, wants it badly. She smiles at him before she looks away, back up at the front of the church.

“I think all I have—” Mulder whispers, leaning in, “—all any of us have are the results of all the choices that we've made. And at the end of the day, we just hope that we made the right one.”

Her eyes shut again at his words, instinctively. She's made so many choices she's regretted, done so many things she'd like to forget ever happened. She doesn't feel as if she's made the right ones. “And what if you haven't?” she whispers, her voice small.

She opened her eyes as he rubs a hand over her arm and down to her elbow, cupping it in his palm. “Don't know that it's that simple,” he says softly. “I think it's more complex than that. But…” He pauses, lengthily, and she can tell by his tone that he's talking about himself as much as her. “... that doesn't mean it's too late,” he says finally.

She can feel her tense muscles loosening, heaving like a sigh. She lets her head drop to his shoulder, and he puts his arm around her. They sit in silence there for a long time.

---

They decide to try to solve the case. They're headed out to the car to try and get in touch with the Organized Crime Division when Mulder notices three stakes missing from the church fence and matches them to the victims. That's almost all the indication they need. They head back into the church and locate the priest to see if he has any information.

He directs them to the house of the Bocanegras, telling them that one of the daughters, Olivia, has been missing for a couple months, and that he's noticed a vengefulness in the other daughter, Juliet. That he's afraid she is taking the law into her own hands to find her sister. A trip to the Bocanegras house all but confirms it; the mother is willing, but Juliet won't let them in, is dismissive and defensive. She tells them that her sister has joined a cult. Mulder believes that she's involved, that there's no way she's not.

Back at the hotel, Scully looks through a file on Olivia's disappearance. Mulder flips through the notepad of notes he made while researching organ sales. Scully keeps looking over at him instead of at the file. It's too easy to look at these statements made by Juliet and her mother, at the report of the investigation, and think of Mulder’s own experiences with things like this. Even though every indication is that Olivia left home willingly. If Juliet is avenging her sister by murdering people, then she's certainly just as much at fault as the people stealing the organs, but considering the loss she and Mulder both have experienced, it's hard to not sympathise with it. If she believes her sister is in danger, then why wouldn't she do everything she could to save her? Scully can't exactly see herself as an avenging angel, staking people to the ground, but she knows that she'd do whatever it takes to save her family: Mulder, her son. She thinks of the attempts by the killer (who is likely Juliet) to donate the organs, some small attempt at doing good.

And then she remembers: the organs can't be used. Considering everything those surgeons went through to get them, it's not unlikely that wherever they came from would try to steal them again. If Juliet's sister joined a cult, and that cult is connected to those surgeons, then letting the organs be stolen would be more beneficial than arresting the attempted thief. If they could track the organs, they can track the cult.

Mulder is sufficiently impressed with her plan. He suggests she be the one to call the hospital and suggest it, considering that she's had more experience in a hospital setting. It takes nearly an hour on the phone, discussing things with the head of security, but Scully finally convinced them to arrange for the organs to be stolen and tracked. She hangs up the phone with a weary sigh. “Hospital security doesn't like being told what to do by the FBI any more than local law enforcement does,” she says, crossing her arms over her chest, “but I finally convinced them.”

Mulder is taking his own look at the Bocanegra file, and he glances at her over the top of his glasses. “Of course you did,” he says absently. “You're very convincing.”

“They said they'd call us when they had more information,” Scully says, crossing the room to join Mulder on the bed.

She yawns a little as she sits down, and Mulder covers her knee with his palm gently. “It’s late,” he says softly. “Let's get some sleep until they call us.”

She nods. They take turns in the bathroom, changing into pajamas, and then climb into bed together. One bed. One hotel room. They hadn't even hesitated when checking in. It's only been a couple weeks since her house burned down, but casting her mind back, Scully can't remember the last time she slept in a bed without Mulder. She relaxes when Mulder wraps an arm around her from behind, pressing his nose to the nape of her neck. Her eyes loll half-closed as she reaches to turn out the lamp; she reaches for his hand, taking it in hers, and is reminded that he's wearing his ring again. They're wearing their wedding rings.

“It's been a long few weeks,” she murmurs.

Mulder chuckles self-deprecatingly. “You can say that again,” he says quietly, his voice dark. “House fires. Lost children. Lost sisters.” A kid in Willoughby who reminds us of our son, Scully fills in silently and winces. She still hasn't gotten over the fact that she threatened Ryan, that she threatened Mulder.

“I could use a vacation,” she says huskily, thinking of Mulder's words at the crime scene: Sometimes I wonder why we keep doing it, Scully.

“Mmm.” He kisses the spot under her ear. “I'll take you on one,” he whispers. “Soon.”

She shuts her eyes, feeling as if she is going to cry. She can't remember the last time she slept alone, and she doesn't mind one bit. She presses her cheek to their joined hands. “That sounds amazing,” she whispers. “I would love that.”

---

The organs are stolen, just as expected. They track them to an apartment building, the residence of former actress Barbara Beaumont. The super claims never to have seen her in the seven years he's worked at the building. They go to her apartment, and the woman who claims to be Barbara Beaumont appears to be too young to be Barbara Beaumont.

They're attacked by cult members, who promptly throw Scully down a dumbwaiter system. She's saved by decades worth of trash. Juliet Bocanegra bursts in and kills Barbara Beaumont and a Dr. Luvenis who appears to also lead the cult, having surgically attached himself to Olivia Bocanegra. The police arrive and arrest Juliet, who tells them not to feel sorry for her. Olivia goes to the hospital. Mulder and Scully give their statements in the super's office, to the same cops from the crime scene that regard them a bit warily.

Scully doesn't really care, at this point. She's exhausted and bruised and relieved, at this point, that the case is over and the majority of the victims seem to be okay. That Olivia is okay. The cops tell them that they can take it from here, and neither Mulder or Scully argue. They're both exhausted.

Outside, at the car, Mulder walks around to the passenger side to open the door for Scully and wraps his arms around her in a tight hug before she can climb in. “Jesus, Scully, you've got to stop scaring me like that,” he mumbles into her hair.

She hugs him back, her face against his jacket. “Ready for that vacation now?” she jokes and he chuckles, squeezing her tight. He doesn't seem to have any intention of letting go anytime soon. She can feel his heartbeat through his shirt. “You're going to smell all gross now,” she warns him.

“Good thing I'm sitting next to you on the plane,” he whispers, and she clings tighter suddenly, her eyes burning like she's going to cry again. She loves him. She loves this man with everything in her. They stand like that until the sirens of the nearby police car jar them out of it. Mulder kisses the top of her head sweetly as she climbs in the car.

---

Back at home, Mulder offers to write the report again, setting up stock at the kitchen table. Scully slips upstairs to shower, considering taking a nap, but she finds herself unable to relax. Unable to stop thinking about all the things that haven't happened. She stumbles onto the boxes from her house that they've been keeping in the guest room. She feels an uncontrollable urge to finish unpacking, but as soon as she actually starts, she finds she can't finish. She'll take something out of the box and then pause. Wonder where it should go, wonder if there's even any room for it. Wonders if Mulder still wants her to move home, wonders if it's too late. Tells herself she's being silly. But she still can't shake the insecurities. She shakes her head hard and sits down on the edge of the guest bed, the place she used to sleep before they'd worked any of this out, before they were back together—or whatever phrase is most appropriate. The bed in the room she used to think of as William's room, involuntarily, in the years after they moved in. If William—if Jackson—were here, this is the room they'd have set aside for him.

Scully looks down at the folded skirt she's holding in her hand, at the cross hanging over the collar of her shirt. At the ring on her fourth finger. And she makes a decision in an instant.

She gets up off the bed and walks downstairs to the kitchen. “Mulder,” she asks softly, “would you mind driving me to church?”

---

It's an odd request to make—she could easily drive herself to church—but Mulder doesn't question it. He drives her into DC, and he stays at the church with her even though she tells him he doesn't have to, poking around and giving her space to pray.

He approaches her some time later, when she's lighting the prayer candles again, just as one she's just lit flickers out. “That must be a sign,” she says lightly. “I'm all out of miracles. Turn back. Give up. Accept your place in the numbing embrace of the status quo.”

(It's not an entirely out of place sentiment. She wasn't lying, yesterday, when she told Mulder that she didn't know that she believes in miracles. She thinks she did once, but not anymore.)

But Mulder shakes his head a little. He picks up a match of his own. “I will relight your candle and extend your prayers through mine,” he says.

“What prayers?” She watches the flame spring back to life, renewed.

He shrugs. “I can't tell you. They won't come true.”

“It's a prayer candle, Mulder,” she says, amused. “Not a birthday cake.” He chuckles.

“Prayers aren't meant to be sentiment,” she continues, thoughtful. “It's a conversation. You can do it like a meditation, or if your needs exceed your grasp, you can ask God to act on your behalf.” He's listening, attentively, his eyes on hers. “But you don't believe in God,” she adds. “So you'd essentially be talking to yourself.”

“Well, I-I may not believe in God, but I believe in you,” he says. “Therefore, I speak to him through you. Through the transitive property of equality. If A equals B, and B equals C, therefore, A equals C.” Nobody likes a math geek, Mulder, she thinks, and her mouth quirks up at the edges. “Reason and faith in harmony,” Mulder continues. “Isn't that why we're so good together?”

She's smiling at him. She's smiling, but the quintessential question is there at the back of her mind, and it has to be asked. “Are we together?” she asks, and the smile slips from her face.

Mulder's face falls a little, too; he opens his mouth gingerly as if to say something, but she speaks first. She needs to say this. “You know, I believed I could protect our son, and I failed. I believed that we could live together, and I fled,” she says. He's nodding a little in understanding, and she's  thinking of what he said yesterday about choices. These are her choices, and she feels like they were not right; she believe, now, that they could've protected William if she hadn't given him up, if she hadn't been such a coward. And with them, their relationship… she was a coward then, too. They had their issues, and they've worked through them, but she can't stop thinking about all the time they've lost. That she left him at his worst because she was scared. She doesn’t know if she can forgive herself for that. “I gave up on that, too,” she says quietly, wistfully. She's given up on so much.

“If only you'd fled earlier,” says Mulder, his voice full of regret. She looks at him in astonishment, and he looks back at her with that same regret as he keeps speaking. “You know how many times I've envisioned that scenario, where you left that basement office before I even needed glasses? You'd have your health, your dog, your sister. You'd be Kersh's boss at the FBI, and be married to some brain surgeon, and have a bunch of kids that you wouldn't have to give up.”

She shakes her head. She says, “Mulder, I don't begrudge you any of those things,” because she doesn't. She doesn't. She chose to leave, but she also chose to stay, and even after everything, she can't completely regret that. She can't say that there aren't  things she wouldn't change if given the opportunity, but Mulder was never one of those things. She doesn't blame him and she doesn't regret him. Doesn't regret choosing him. Never. “That's not what I was talking about,” she says.

“Well, what are you talking about, Scully?” he asks. “Because I don't know if any God is listening, but I am standing right here, and I am listening. Right beside you. I'm all ears. That's my choice.”

He's made his choices, and she's made hers. And she knows what she wants to choose now. She looks around the church and sees that no one is there, which shouldn't matter, except that she doesn't want anyone to hear this but them. She wants this to be for them alone.

She leans close, rising on tiptoes to whisper in his ear. “I love you,” she whispers. “I've missed you. I want to try again. I want to come home.”

When he pulls away, he's looking at her in a way that she can't quite read, but she knows this much: it's not a rejection. “That's not my four-year-old self looking for a miracle,” she tells him. “That's my leap of faith forward. And I'd like to do it together.”

He nods. He nods, just a little, swallowing. He says, “I've always wondered how this was gonna end.”

He could mean any number of things by that, but it's enough for her. It's all she needs.

He reaches for another match and lights another candle. Another prayer—one, she thinks, for the both of them. He shakes out the match and turns to her. He leans in and kisses her softly, sweetly with two fingers tipping her chin up. “Please come home, Scully,” he whispers, and she nods, her fingers curling around his elbows. She nods and nods, and he holds her close, and she is overwhelmed and overwhelmingly happy and thinking that this is very appropriate. When they got married, it was in a courthouse, and she was more than happy with that. But it feels appropriate now that they are here, together before God. Before the altar like newlyweds.

---

“I think things are going to change now,” he tells her as they walk to the car. She shoots him the same skeptical look that she has a thousand times before, raising one eyebrow, and he laughs and kisses the back of her hand. “I think things are going to be better from here on out.”

“Oh, Mulder,” she says, smiling at him wistfully, “how could you possibly know that for sure?”

“It's just a feeling,” he says, fumbling for the car keys one-handed while holding onto her hand with the other. She makes a goofy face at him, and he grins. “It's a good feeling,” he says, unlocking the car. “I think things are gonna be good.” She nods; she rests her head against his shoulder. “And… I think we're going to see him again soon,” he adds softly, his nose pressed to her hair. “Our son. I think… I hope we're going to see him soon.”

He can't see her face, but he can hear her sniffle. She snuggles closer. “I think so, too,” she whispers. She lifts her chin to look at him; her eyes are full of hope. “I think you're right, Mulder,” she says, and his heart swells with a tremendous amount of love for this woman, his partner, his wife. “I think we're gonna be okay.”

---

The early days of March can be either freezing or hot as hell. Right now, it's just pleasantly warm, the sun soothing on Ryan's back. He kneels in the grass, slightly squashed bouquets of flowers at his knees. The two headstones before him stand still against the sky.

He reaches out and brushes a hand over his mom's headstone, the name and dates carved into the marble. He clears his throat awkwardly. “It's over now,” he says. “It's all over. The ghost that killed you, it's gone now. Uncle Jared got rid of it.”

There is no answer, of course; Ryan didn't expect one. He brushes his hand over his mom's stone again, his dad's. Part of him is thinking of that night with the Ouija board, that brief moment where he thought his parents were telling him that they loved him. Maybe it was them, maybe it wasn't; he isn't sure he'll ever know. Part of him wishes that he could have that experience again. Part of him knows that it's not necessarily something to wish for. He's had enough contact with ghosts to last a lifetime. But still. He misses them.

“Things are getting better, too,” he adds. “Uncle Jared… he's out of prison. He's living in Winchester with his friend Dan. Aunt Annie lets me go visit them… She and Jared are kind of getting along now. They've been talking when she drops me off and picks me up. We've had dinner once… we're gonna do it again when Grandma and Grandpa come into town. It's… it's going okay.” He takes a deep breath. “Maybe someday… we'll be doing the whole happy family Thanksgiving and Christmas thing. Maybe. I dunno. It won't be the same without you guys… but it'll be something.” He smiles a little. “It'd be a good something.”

The wind blows behind Ryan, ruffling his hair. He presses his hands into the grass and dirt. Lifts one to scoop up the bouquets and set them on their graves. “I miss you guys,” he whispers. “I miss you so much.” He touches his dad's carved name, his mom's. Gets to his feet and brushes dirt off of his knees. “But I'm okay,” he adds. “I wanted to let you know that. Everything's okay.” With him, with Robbie and his parents, with Mrs. Seers… everything's okay. He hasn't seen the Specter in three weeks.

He looks at his parents’ graves again, peaceful and well-tended, sitting side by side. The wind begins to blow again, colder and harder this time. It howls through the trees behind the cemetery, shrill and loud like a human voice. Ryan shivers, his eyes shifting through the woods. They're vast and dark as always, the green foliage rustling in the wind. As the branches shift, Ryan thinks he sees a shifting out there, like someone moving through the woods. Dead leaves crackling underfoot, branches snapping.

Ryan swallows, clenching his jaw. Turns away from the woods, reaching for his car keys. It's over now. He's done. Everyone can be at peace.

He walks towards the parking lot and doesn't look back.

---

A winding road, a briefly rural area outside of Winchester. Patches of trees, cornfields, small farms and rustic red barns. It's a short ride; five minutes after leaving Winchester, you'll see the sign, old and rustic with an antique feeling in comparison to the standard green road signs along the interstate. WELCOME TO WILLOUGHBY, it reads, WHERE EVERYONE IS YOUR FAMILY. It's a nice little town, homey with hints of Southern comfort. It has an interesting history that traces back to a Revolutionary War battle whose Patriot general lent his name to the town. But underneath the happy, close-knit feeling of the town, there is a darkness. The town is haunted, you see, by a spirit whose origin is mysterious and whose history is perhaps older than the town itself. Ask any Willoughby citizen if they know any good ghost stories; they'll all likely give you the same answer. They'll tell you the story of the Willoughby Specter.

— Excerpt from Folklore of Rural Virginia, written by Tabitha Cooper