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Chapter 1

The rain had lasted for days. Scully had almost forgotten the feel of warm sun on her skin. The District had fallen into grey. Real storms she could almost handle. Flashes of lightning and pounding thunder and a quivering sense of excitement lifting the fine hairs on her skin. Reminders of a hundred trips to blustery towns in the vastness of the Midwest. But there was nothing but dampness and grey in this city. The skies seemed to draw the color from her skin.

In recent winters the cold had exacerbated the early pangs of arthritis she habitually denied in the fingers of her gun hand. There was a lot she denied these days. Dana Scully was a doctor by trade, even if that was not her official job at the moment. Less than reliable fingers and a growing demand for reading glasses added to the insidious conclusion -- she wouldn’t have the option of assisting in surgery much longer.

Hitting the ground hurt more.

For a few years, a few relatively quiet and misty years, when she had been a working doctor by day and somebody’s warm body in the night, Dana had lived with her heart on her sleeve. At least around the people who mattered...the person. The person.

The misty bubble had shattered, and she had nearly drowned in unhindered emotion.

Walls were erected for a reason.

Denial was a comfortably worn suit. “I’m fine, Mulder.” A look away. Fashionable boots in place of sensible shoes, hair precisely waved in place of a messy bun, eyeliner and lipstick and all the armor with which she had carefully and painstakingly authored the entity that once had been Agent Scully. A suit she remembered and relished in its resurrection.

But the rain would not stop.

*****

“I’m sorry, you said, ‘Black-Eyed Children’?”

“Yes. Twice. No, I’m sorry, three times. Scully, are you even listening to me?”

“Yes. I’m sorry. Yes. I’m listening. I’m just...it’s hard to focus in the rain.” She pushed up in her perch on her stool, cleared her throat, and straightened her spine. “Continue. Please.”

Mulder hesitated. She kept her gaze steady and watched the predictable rush of analytical thoughts flicker across his pale eyes. A little offended that she hadn’t been listening (and she hadn’t, and she was actually sorry about that), a little weary that he was still losing her attention some days when he brought her what she deemed a creepypasta that he was presenting as a “casefile,” and then...then there was concern. Because she had been better about listening, lately, better about giving him the credit he deserved beyond the crazy, better about giving his theories half a chance...and if she was blowing him off in the first 10 minutes, well maybe something was wrong and he should ask.

For a moment butterflies gathered in her stomach, and she wondered if he would ask and if he did if she would answer. Because it was not then, anymore, it was now, and now they were two people who had once clung skin to skin in the dark, once spilled the most intimate secrets, once given utter trust and utter faith in every whisper and glance and caress and dropped each and every carefully constructed wall. So sometimes he asked, and sometimes she answered, and sometimes she didn’t, and it was all fucking confusing as hell.

“Have you heard of them?” was all he said.

She had no idea if she was relieved or hurt. “No,” came her simple reply.

“Should I start again?”

“Please.”

“Are you listening this time?”

She tamped down on her flare of annoyance. She deserved the snipe. “Yes. I’m listening.”

He cleared his throat with more show than necessary and brought up another picture on his laptop. A boy of no more than 12 stared out at Scully, a dark hoodie pulled close around his face and his wide eyes as black as oil. No whites at all. The picture, clearly Photoshopped, should have meant no more to her than the poster for a cheap horror film. But the moment the eyes connected with Scully's her stomach felt sick, ghosted by a shadow of a memory too deep and visceral to name. Marrow deep, quivering through her bones more than her thoughts. A dingy and yellow-lit stairwell, concrete with water stains, a smell of antiseptic and cold. Cold. Fear.

Mulder was looking at his notes as he began to speak and missed her reaction entirely. She was grateful. She couldn't have explained if she tried. “The popular theory is that the stories began with a post to a mailing list…" Mulder. She needed to listen this time. She deliberately lifted her gaze from the laptop to focus on Mulder's face. "...by a man named Brian Bethel in which he recounted his story of his own encounter with the black-eyed children in Abilene, Texas, and that the story became a growing urban legend from there with similar stories appearing all over the internet. And, although it is true that any number of sensationalist and clearly fabricated stories and even videos of encounters with the Black-Eyed Kids, or BEKs as they have come to be termed, have appeared across the internet in the intervening years, the phenomenon actually reaches back much farther than its recent popularity. Researchers have begun finding stories from experiencers that contain distinctive matching elements from decades ago and from cultures with little contact with the outside world. One such story came from an older woman living on an Indian Reservation in South Carolina. The woman had no knowledge of the Black-Eyed Children phenomena and no regular access to the internet."

"Okay. So, what's the case we're looking at?"

Her question failed to shift the trajectory of his prepared presentation. "Stories of encounters with these children follow a fairly predictable pattern. A person, usually alone, usually at night, is either at home or in his or her car, and one or two of these children will knock on the door, asking for entry. The children often arrive in groups of two or three, sometimes with one child clearly older than the others, ranging in age from 6 to 16 but most often appearing in the pre-teen range. The children are all described as having pale and flawless skin, wearing plain, dark clothes, and often hoodies that allow them to shade their faces until closely inspected. The children will often look down or remain in shadow for the first part of the encounter, so the experiencer doesn't notice the strangeness of their eyes until they've already been interacting.

"Typically, the children will ask to come inside and call their parents, or to use the bathroom. If it's a car, they will often ask for a ride home. The children will use phrases that are clearly chosen to engender sympathy, claiming to be cold, or lost, yet their vocal tones are described as being impassive or monotone, out of sync with the situation, and often even out of balance with the season. A child will claim to be wet and want inside where its dry when it hasn't been raining or claim to be freezing in the middle of summer."

Scully drew a deep breath, ignoring the uncomfortable pull of the image still watching her from the laptop screen. "So...Mulder...what happens? I mean...they're kids asking for help…" She looks up at him with eyebrows raised.

Mulder nodded, clearly ready for this question and not finished talking. "Those who encounter these kids have an overwhelming feeling of fear. Of wrongness and impending danger. Grown men with military experience will find themselves huddling in a corner in tears, hoping the children will go away. Trained attack dogs will run from the door and hide in a back room whimpering. But experiencers also report the kids having a sort of hypnotic power, and victims will sometimes find themselves about to open the door to these kids when they had had no intention of doing so, shocked to find they had stepped forward or unfastened the door lock."

"Mulder...this feels like a lot of different legends put together…," Scully said, eyes narrowed, teeth catching at her lip. "Mothman stories, alien abductions, hybrids, even the dark fairy legends of--"

"Admittedly, the stories bear strong similarities to those of other paranormal phenomena, yet this same distinctive pattern with the same landmark characteristics appears over and over again through the decades from all over the world. Including the unwavering conviction that a terrible fate awaits those who are lured into letting these children inside. One as yet unverified story tells of a couple who allowed two quite young Black-Eyed Kids into their house one cold autumn night, allowing them to stay only a short time before the 'parents' came to get them, but symptoms of illness began for the couple even as the children were in their living room, and in the weeks and months after the encounter both suffered a series of life-threatening illnesses and a general feeling of darkness and dread having descended upon their lives."

"Okay...so, what's the current case?"

"The case…" Mulder reached behind him and snatched a manila file folder from his desk. Case files were electronic, now, but Mulder was old school. He liked to print things, spread them on the floor, look for connections and patterns. He tossed the folder to Scully, and she barely managed to catch it between her hand and her knee, the loud slap echoing in their basement cave. She straightened the file and began paging through, grateful to have something to look at besides the image of the child on the screen. "The case is in a small town outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico," Mulder continued. "The Garcia family. Husband, wife, two children, and Mrs. Garcia's aging mother made up the household. Two months ago, the teenaged daughter, Mariela, posted a story on her YouTube channel talking about a visit to her family's house the night before by two young children claiming to be lost and demanding entry into their home. Her parents eventually gave in and brought the children inside, intending to call the local authorities to help the kids find their way home."

"Let me guess...the kids had dark hoodies and all-black eyes?"

Mulder pointed his pencil at her. "Nothing gets by you, Scully. The children were only with the family for under an hour before some adults dressed in black suits showed up at the bottom of the Garcia family's driveway and called for the children to come out and leave with them. The kids identified the adults as their parents and insisted it was okay to let them go."

"Okay. And the Garcia family is…" Scully turned another page in the paperwork balanced on her thigh, scanning the text and gleaning the essentials, "...oh my God." She looked up at Mulder, eyes wide, and he lifted his eyebrows in acknowledgment. "The grandmother died of complications from necrotizing fascitis?"

Mulder nodded, expression sobering as professional excitement yielded to respectful sympathy. "Afraid so. And the bad luck doesn't stop there."

Scully continued to page through the information. "The younger brother...has been hospitalized and diagnosed with hantavirus."

"And the father was killed in a single car accident, Scully. No traces of alcohol or other intoxicating substances in his blood. No history of high-risk behavior. The mother has been experiencing unexplained nosebleeds, while Mariela's latest vlog post is detailing a painful rash on her skin that the doctors can't seem to identify. Yesterday, a school friend of Mariela's came forward stating that she too had seen these black-eyed kids in recent weeks, lurking under a streetlamp not far from the Garcia home."

Scully skimmed through the rest of the report. A lot of medical and forensic details were missing. She would need to see a great deal more information before she could even begin to put this picture together. She closed the file, rested it on her crossed legs and met Mulder's waiting gaze. He was standing beside his desk, balancing a freshly sharpened pencil between his index finger tips, the point of the graphite pricking into the pad of his finger in a way that made her teeth itch. His suit jacket was off and his shirt sleeves rolled up and she was cold just looking at him. And maybe...something else.

"Mulder, this is a horrible story for this family. But, although necrotizing fascitis is rare and rarely goes untreated long enough to be deadly, it is a substantial risk in those with a compromised immune system, and an elderly woman in a poorer part of town may have had some underlying disease that predisposed her to be vulnerable to the virus. I would have to see the rest of her medical records. As for the hantavirus, New Mexico is prime territory for infection from rodent droppings. Again, the lower economic status may have placed the boy in places of risk, rat-infested apartment buildings, even a friend's garage or basement. Maybe he went hiking with a scout troop. Younger children are highly susceptible to hantavirus, both due to their weaker immune systems and their less than meticulous hygiene practices. The daughter's rash could almost certainly be attributed to stress caused by the series of horrible events befalling her family. The same could be said of the mother's nosebleeds, particularly at the elevation at which they're residing and the overall dryness of the environment. And as for the father, we don't have anywhere near enough information to declare that as anything but tragic. The car could have malfunctioned, an animal could have run across the road. The man could have suffered a heart attack or a stroke or any other medical condition that impaired his judgement."

Mulder nodded and the barest hint of a grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Impressive string of rebuttals before your morning coffee, Scully, and I can't say I disagree with anything you say. But it does all seem like one hell of a coincidence, don't you think?"

"You're willing to take on this case on nothing more than the odds against a coincidence?"

He shrugged easily. "Wouldn't be the first time."

"Mulder, do you have evidence of a single incident where someone reported a sighting of these Black-Eyed Children, let them inside their home or car, and was seriously injured or killed as a direct result of the children's actions?"

"That's the thing, Scully...I think...we only hear the reports of the near misses."

"What do you mean?"

"I think the ones who let them in...aren't around to tell the story."

Scully let go an exhale that fell somewhere between an incredulous laugh and long-suffering sigh. She almost dropped the carefully balanced file from her knee, grabbed at it, and scraped her finger on a sharp edge. Then her falling gaze whipped past that damned photo on the laptop screen and her stomach churned.

"Well?" He was watching her like a poodle hoping for a treat. "What do you say, Scully? Up for a little trip to the desert?"

New Mexico. He wanted her to fly to New Mexico. There wasn't anywhere near enough in this thin folder on her lap to make these events into a case. The occurrences were tragic for the family, but there was no clear connection from one to the other. Scully couldn't imagine how Mulder was going to spin this to convince Skinner this case warranted a requisition for travel from D.C. all the way to a small town in New Mexico. She should be shooting this down right out of the gate.

New Mexico. Warm. Even this time of year. Dry. Warm. Dry. She had goosebumps up her arms beneath her suit jacket. Her bones felt damp. Dammit, dammit, dammit…

"I suppose…," she swallowed hard. Dammit. "It couldn't hurt to give it a day. Talk to some of the locals, see if…anyone else has seen these kids, had anything happen to them. If there's nothing there, we'll fly home in the morning."

Mulder's expression faltered. His lips moved but he seemed unable to catch hold of any words. He gazed at her as though she had just insisted that grass was purple.

Scully drew a breath and tried like hell to come up with an argument that made her willingness seem even remotely rational. Something scientific, something about potential toxic exposure and contagion, government experimentation in remote areas, brain-washing cult behavior, a rare childhood illness that affected eye pigmentation, something that would make sense of this sudden receptiveness and make it seem like her interest was even vaguely professionally valid. At best there was a health hazard that required some sort of investigation, but even then it was far from a matter for the FBI, let alone for the X-Files, and in the end, Scully gave up all pretense, dropped her shoulders, and said flatly, "I'm cold."

Mulder's incredulous exhale would have been funny if it hadn't all been so sad.

"Just don't ask me to explain this to Skinner," she said, a certain sharpness cutting into her voice as she pointed the file at his chest.

Mulder raised his hands in exaggerated innocence. "Wouldn't dream of it." He finally flipped closed that damned laptop and scooped it against his hip.

Nothing was as dark as it had been before the glimpses of light. Because she knew, she knew no matter how complex and uncertain and fucked up it all was, even if it never really got fixed, she knew she could stretch out a blind hand and he would grab for her, hold her, keep her head above water and never let her drown in the torrential rains. She had little left to hide when it all fell down.

Yet she had tasted a warmth and a freedom that haunted her silent dreams. Comfortable was comfortable for the time being. She needed things to hold still and stabilize and rebuild. And this Scully, this government agent with sleek suits, careful lipstick, complex scientific theories, and a knack for paperwork -- this was all she knew. The voice in her head that was cataloging things like arthritis and presbyopia and new fluctuations in estrogen levels knew there was a precipice not far ahead. A point where a bridge must be built or an entirely separate path forged.

But for today...New Mexico called.

*****

"Come on, Scully. We're going to do something for fun. Just fun. You remember fun?"

They've been on the run for weeks. The warmth and togetherness have been beautiful in their own bittersweet way, but every smile has been a little bit tainted. Their son is still a gaping chasm of loss between them. Their work has fallen down around their ears. But they are together, again. On the road and in their element. No more longing letters and desperation for a single glimpse or touch. She has been able to sleep in his arms, able to sleep in a way she hasn't in what seems like forever.

They've been driving for hours and they are out of the desert and deep into the Midwestern planes. They pulled over for gas and have found themselves on the edges of a traveling summer carnival. Scully doesn't want to be on the edges of everything, anymore. Mulder must see her longing look at the carousel, because he takes her hand and leads her toward the wiry man at the gate with the dusty striped smock and the roll of tickets strapped to his belt.

"Mulder…" she drawls. She's trying for a protest, but the truth is, she has no valid argument. They have nowhere else to be, the weather is comfortably warm but not yet scorching, she's wearing sunblock, their gas tank is already filled, and…

"How much for that tilt-a-whirl thing over there?"

"The Green Machine?" the man questions, voice booming, like he has worked near loud machinery for too long.

Mulder nods. "Yeah, two for that, please."

"Green machine is three tickets a piece. We sell in rolls of 10, 20, 50, or 100." He points to the chalkboard sign listing the prices.

Mulder pulls out his wallet and hands over a $20 bill, working the whole process with one hand so he won't have to let go of her. Like they're teenagers at a school bizarre. "20 tickets," he says, and Scully chuckles softly, but she's enjoying the breeze and the feel of Mulder's fingers tangled with hers, and the idea of just forgetting it all for half an hour is dizzyingly appealing.

Nothing here is too crowded this time of day and this far out in nowhere so the attendant lets them ride the Green Machine twice in a row. It's one of those bench seats for two that swings out in flat circles at first, then raises up to weave in big aerial loops of its three arms, diving them down in little rushes of wind and thrill with each turn. Centrifugal force crushes Scully against Mulder's solid body on the outward swings and the downward rushes feel a little like heaven on her throat and her exposed shoulders, lifting the wild tails of her hair. The landing and stop are bumpy and awkward and it makes them laugh and ruins any style left to her hair. Mulder runs a warm hand through her tousled and sun-dried waves and looks at her like she's the most beautiful thing in this place or any other.

The sensory input pushes all thoughts of past and future from their heads and they are grounded in the thrill of the moment, waiting for the safety bar to release, and then kissing like a couple of kids, and being the last to notice they're supposed to get off the ride, now. Mulder helps her down, and she can't quite walk straight without his help after all that spinning and that just makes them laugh more as they stumble their way out of the ride pen and back into the main fair ground.

Mulder whacks a mole and wins her a pink panda. Scully shoots a ping-pong ball into a glass bowl and wins them a goldfish. She gives her prize to a starry-eyed little blonde girl, because life on the road is no place for a goldfish.

"You're so damned beautiful when you smile," Mulder says as they walk back to the car, his arm around her waist and her panda still hugged to her chest. She turns from her perusal of the endlessly green and blue horizon to look up into the almost blinding intensity of his gaze. Her eyes fall to his mouth, those soft and luscious lips full of brilliance and crazy theories and inexplicable notions that she is somehow worth sacrificing it all.

She lifts her gaze lazily back to his, tilts back her head in a mix of challenge and flirtation. "Took you long enough to say so," she says. There is nothing but affection in her smile.

"That's 'cause you scared the crap out of me, Scully." He says it with a laugh, but she knows it's true. She wants to stay in this moment forever, just keep walking arm in arm, and never let go.

****

"Scully?"

She jerked awake with a gasp. Airplane. She must have fallen asleep on the flight. On Mulder's shoulder.

"Whoa, hey...sorry," he is saying, long fingers settling over her forearm. "I didn't mean to startle you."

"It's all right. I'm sorry. I must have been more sound asleep than I expected."

His smile was gentle and patient and she found herself pulling upright and away, because she was still half caught in the dream memory and the scent of his aftershave and the mixed up sensations were confusing and unnerving and she didn't want to do anything stupid before she was fully awake. Mulder was still firmly grounded in 2018.

"It's all right," he said. "You must have needed it. The pilot just announced our descent. I wanted to give you a chance to get awake."

She nodded. "Thanks. Yeah." Her mouth felt like she'd sucked in some of the cotton of his sleeve and she reached for her water tucked into the seatback in front of her. The cool liquid felt extraordinarily soothing passing through her throat and chest.

She had been on so many flights with Fox Mulder in her life, they had the system down to a science. She knew which pocket in his laptop case held his boarding pass, what size water bottle he liked to buy at the Hudson News shop, how many seats in front of the wing he preferred to be, which kinds of peanuts and pretzels he would squirrel away for snackage at the motel and which ones he would spit out, how many hours the flight had to be before he would take off his shoes, and where in the boarding process he was likely to decide he should probably go pee.

And he knew her. He would reach up and turn the air vent away from her when she was cold, grab her favorite Snapple for the flight when he was buying his water even when she insisted she really should have the diet, flip down the armrest that never quite leveled with the seatback between them, so she could fall asleep on his shoulder without the edges digging into her flesh. They had only known one another two years the first time she had poured herself onto a flight, literally beaten up, beyond exhausted, dragging on autopilot, bandaged and bruised and just wanting to get home, and he had said simply, "Come here," and guided her to turn herself sideways on the seats, taking advantage of the empty windowseat beside them, and she had managed to curl on her side with her head in his lap. He had spread his winter wool coat over her huddled form and kept a protective arm across her throughout the red-eye flight, his deadly glare daring any flight attendant to point out the need for an "upright position" and proper use of the seatbelt. To this day she told herself he had never noticed the tenderness and comfort had made her cry. She had written it off as exhaustion.

Mulder had the case file folder open on his lap now, and Scully found herself confronted with yet another simulated picture of a Black-Eyed Kid. "What do you really think we're looking at here, Mulder? A hoax? A coincidence? Exploitation of some kind?"

He shrugged. "Honestly, Scully? I don't know. But whatever it is, I don't want to let it happen to another family if we can help it."

"Fair enough," she said, voice just a little stronger after the water, ground just a little solider as she wrangled free of the dream. "We start with the coroner?"

"Yep. 4pm appointment." He glanced at his watch. "Our flight is coming in a little behind, but we gained two hours, so assuming the rental car is ready on time, we should make it."

"Sounds like a plan."

****

(End Chapter 1)