Dana Scully considered herself to be a rational, logical sort of person. She got her seven hours of sleep every night; her breakfast was a grapefruit with toast most every morning; she wore very normal pant or skirt suits with very normal, low heels. Even in the heat of the moment, she could keep her head clear and her mind focused, and this had served her well in the Bureau.
So walking into the bunker-stroke-office every morning, meeting eyes with all of Mulder's crazy posters, being greeted at the start of the day with blurry, strange photos of God knew what – it could start to wear on a rational, logical girl.
So Scully wasn't in the brightest of moods when she sat down at her desk on a muggy Wednesday morning in D.C. The twenty nine year old special agent rubbed absentmindedly at her stiffened neck, flipping through her inter-office mail and just praying for one normal day in the X-File unit of the FBI. One day that involved counter-terrorism and not el Chupacabra; espionage and not ESP; gang violence and not...not...goblins.
That's when Mulder walked in.
“Good morning, Scully!” he seemed to crow, stretching out the Os in “good.” “Got a great one for you.”
“Did you remember the coffee today, Mulder?” she asked hopefully. Department funds were not being allocated to replace their dead brewer. It wasn't helping Agent Scully's mood.
Without warning, Agent Mulder snapped off the overhead lights, turning on the whirring, spitting projector. The smell of hot dust filled the stuffy office, but Mulder didn't seem to mind, even if Scully did. “Social Services out of Fredericksburg notes that six year old Courtney Breckinridge has gone truant; no history of missing school before, no history of abuse in the family.”
Agent Scully ran her small hand through the soft, red bob of her hair. It was true she had been wishing for a normal case, but this wasn't necessarily what she had in mind. And God knew Mulder never made anything easy. “Doesn't sound like an X-File,” she said with a sigh, picking up a notepad to begin her own, private analysis.
“It gets better.” He slid a plastic sheet onto the screen of the overhead projector, a copy of the social worker's field notes super-imposed upon a blank space of wall in the crowded bunker. “The social worker visits the school to talk to the teacher about her absence. Teacher has no idea who they're talking about.”
Scully sat forward in her chair, blinking blue eyes. “What?”
Mulder was in fine spirits, as opposed to his female counterpart, and he gleefully switched sheets to what appeared to be a birth certificate. The name Courtney Ann Breckinridge was in prominent display. “They go to Courtney's pediatrician,” he was continuing, rubbing large, dry hands together. “No record of her ever having been a patient.”
Agent Scully flopped back against her high-backed chair with a sigh. “Mulder, I swear, if you say 'alien abduction,' before you give me my coffee-”
The threat seemed to jog the older agent's memory, and he quickly fetched one of a pair of paper cups from his cluttered desk. It did not, however, stop his excited babble. “Finally, DHS confronts the parents.”
“Where do you buy this stuff?” Scully interrupted, wincing as she drank down the foul-smelling brew. “It's like pond water warmed over a propane tank.”
“An Indian bodega around the corner,” Fox Mulder replied, digging through his manilla envelope in search of some last piece of juicy evidence.
“Okay, so DHS confronts the parents,” Scully parroted back to him with a sigh, watching as his hands worked in frantic excitement. Mulder had slid on a pair of thickly rimmed wire glasses as he flipped through his slides and pages and notes. “Then what happens.”
Mulder's un-affectionate nickname through the grey corridors of FBI headquarters was “Spooky” Mulder, but Scully had to admit he did look spooky when he tilted his head up and grinned at her; his rounded face was lit from below by the yellowing light of the slide projector, and his teeth almost looked pointed in sharp relief. “That's where it gets good.”
“Mulder, you're the only person I know who could look happy saying something like that.”
With another flick of a switch, the projector shut off and the elder agent turned the dull office lighting back on, sitting on the edge of his cluttered desk with one leg dangling down. “Courtney's parents, the Breckinridges? Deny ever having a daughter.”
Scully was briefly aware that her red mouth had dropped open, and she sat up a little again. “That's crazy.”
“Still doesn't sound like an X-File?” God but he could sound pleased with himself, and he ran a broad hand through the muss of his brown hair where it fell forward on his face.
“Not necessarily, no,” logical Scully shook her head, setting aside the muddy coffee to think and gesticulate. “What did they have to say about the birth certificate?”
“They agreed it was their signature, but that it must have been a forgery,” Fox replied, taking a long, satisfied swig of truly unfortunate coffee. “The hospital listed? No record of the birth.”
Dana rubbed at the round point of her chin a moment, thinking quickly and clearly. “Photographs.”
“There aren't any.”
“You're telling me that this little girl has been alive for six years and no one has once taken her picture? Not even for school?”
“No,” Mulder purred, slinking off his metal desk and into a squeaky, wheeled chair, which he used to lightly push himself across the room toward his partner. “I'm saying that the photos have been erased from the memory of man.”
“How. Why. By whom.”
Mulder clapped his hands to his knees in giddy excitement before leaping to his well-heeled feet. “Let's find out together, Scully, huh?”
The put-upon special agent sighed, dumping the rest of her coffee into the dirt of a green-grey office plant. “Okay, Mulder. But if I'm going all the way to Fredericksburg, you're buying me proper coffee first.”
“Deal,” the agent grinned, handing the young woman her coat.
Traffic out of the capital was not horrendous, it being barely ten in the morning and mid-week, but it would still take them more than an hour to reach the sleepy Virginia town. It gave the duo time to think, slipping past low-slung brick buildings that slowly gave way to boggy creeks and marshy forests. Fall in the mid-Atlantic and it was damp, damp, damp. It made Scully miss her teenage years in San Diego. The wet heat penetrated everything, and Mulder had the air conditioning running full blast in an attempt to banish the muggy atmosphere of the car. Instead, it was just chilly and damp inside; no happy medium, it seemed.
“Mulder,” Scully began when she'd finished her first proper cup of coffee of the morning. “There are plenty of rational explanations for this kind of thing.”
“Let me have 'em, Scully, I'm all ears,” her partner assured with the slightest of wry grins pulling at the corners of his mouth. Mulder was so monotone and bland, except when his mind was whirling with the paranormal. Agent Scully really did not know what to make of him most days.
“For one thing, when a child goes missing, the most likely suspects are their immediate family, or at least other close relatives. It's not that hard to lie about having or not having a child.”
“Sure,” Mulder nodded in acquiescence, a forelock of brown hair falling forward to cover one slim eyebrow. “But Mrs. Breckinridge even submitted to a lie detector test.”
“That's neither conclusive nor admissible in court.”
“Scully, think for a second. Pretend you're a mom.” Mulder cast her a glance out of the corner of his eyes: Fox Mulder had very unique eyes, some strange shade that might best be described as hazel, but could run the gamut from green to grey on any given day of the week. They had a puppy-dog roundness that complimented the soft angles of his face, and when the rest of his face was blandly neutral, his eyes sparkled with mischievous interest. A man with entirely too much going on inside his head, Scully decided. “I don't see you pretending.”
“What, exactly, do you want me to do?”
“Close your eyes.” With a sigh, the woman obliged. “Great. Now, you have a daughter, a bright-eyed little six year old. Love of your life. If something happened, if she disappeared, would you be trying to remove proof that she ever existed?”
“Of course not, Mulder!” Scully sighed with exasperation, opening her eyes and fixing her blue gaze on her partner. “But I'm not an abusive parent. What you're ascribing to the supernatural could be nothing more than a very sick family who is trying to cover up a death, either accidental or neglectful.”
“And the teachers and doctors? You think the Breckinridges could bribe that many people into conveniently 'forgetting,' about their daughter?”
“It's possible,” replied Scully. “If you really want me to explore the realms of the fantastic, how's this for an outlandish proposition: maybe...” she struggled momentarily, her logical mind disliking wild speculation. “Maybe the Breckinridges and the teacher and the pediatrician are all part of a...sacrificial cult. Maybe that's the conspiracy being covered up.”
Mulder seemed to consider this for a moment, as though he actually liked the possibility. “Scully, I think I'm starting to rub off on you.”
“Oh, Mulder,” the woman sighed, her head dropping back against the car seat. “If you are, then we're both in for a world of trouble back at the office.”
The rest of the trip into tiny Fredericksburg was mainly silent, a sleepy town of less than twenty thousand nestled against the picturesque banks of the Rappahannock. Curious neighbors gave the two field agents furtive looks as they approached the Breckinridge residence – a slightly run-down ranch house, all brick facade and faded white windowpanes. Whatever reaction the pair had been expecting when they rang the creaky doorbell, it was not the one they got.
“Well!” Mrs. Breckinridge looked positively irritated, not the standard reaction when approached by two FBI agents, in Scully's experience. “More questions about this Courtney girl, I expect?”
Mulder made the first move, flashing his government ID while Scully followed suit. “Mrs. Breckinridge, I'm Special Agent Fox Mulder, this is my partner, Special Agent Dana Scully. Do you mind if we ask you a few questions, ma'am?”
“I already told the State Police everything,” the woman replied with an exasperated sigh, still refusing to open her patchy screen door. “There ain't no Courtney here, Trent's my only child.” Behind the denim-clad thigh of the woman, a pair of child's eyes blinked and sparkled dully in the grey afternoon light. Mulder cocked his head at the boy and gave a conservative smile. The boy, Trent, lifted his hand by way of greeting.
“Absolutely, ma'am,” Mulder was continuing, eyes glancing back up to the face of the woman, who looked somewhere in her mid-thirties. “I know how frustrating this must be, so if you could just give us a few moments of your time, we can get the matter squared away and let you get on with your day.”
“Well...” Mrs. Breckinridge seemed to consider that, nervous eyes dancing between Mulder and Scully, who did her best to make her face seem as open and non-threatening as possible. After a moment, the woman nodded, the fine lines around her eyes tightening as she squinted a bit. “Just a few minutes, we're in the middle of packing.”
The screen door opened and the federal agents slipped inside, taking in the atmosphere of the old place: it was sparsely furnished and out of date, with yellow and green carpeting that came straight out of the seventies. For all its humility, though, the house was clearly tended to with great care, and it was most certainly clean – excepting, however, that cardboard boxes were stacked nearly floor to ceiling, the house in a state of being taken apart, tack by tack. “Are you moving someplace, Mrs. Breckinridge?” Agent Scully asked as the older woman directed her to sit on a thread-bare sofa next to her partner. The woman sat across from them, but did not stop wrapping her plates in newspaper to be packed away.
“Yes,” the woman smiled brightly. “A new house! Last year, my husband was fired from his job at the mill. Negligence, they said,” she relayed to her guests with obvious venom. “Negligence my left foot. Michael had been writing to the company headquarters for weeks complaining about safety in the mill. Retaliation, that's what it was.”
“Must have been a tough year for you,” Fox murmured an uninterested reply, gaze fixed on the boy Trent, who sat in the corner, rolling a brightly colored ball between his two palms.
“It was,” the woman sighed tiredly. “But then, a few weeks ago, we got a call from the lawyer we'd hired to handle our suit – and would you believe it? They settled in our favor and agreed to recompense Michael – seven million dollars for lost earnings and emotional distress and I don't know what all!”
Scully blinked, red lashes a blur against blue eyes. “That's...a considerable sum for a settlement.”
“I know!” Mrs. Breckinridge sighed, laying a palm against her lined cheek. “The good Lord was looking out for us, I just know it. The meek shall inherit, you know.” Scully nodded. “So now we can afford a new house – roof in this place has been leakin' forever. And we've got money set aside for Trent's schooling, and a nest egg for ourselves, and...” The woman began to sniffle, newsprint streaking her hands and cheeks as she tried to brush aside the tears. “'scuse me,” she begged, blinking hard. “It's just still overwhelming. Everything I ever wished for, I...”
“Mrs. Breckinridge.” Mulder interrupted, his elbows leaned forward so that they rested against his knees. “We don't want to take up any more of your time than we have to, so if you could just answer a quick couple of questions for us, we'll be on our way and you can return to your packing.”
“Oh,” the woman sniffled and nodded, almost as though she'd forgotten the reason for their visit in the first place. “Yes, of course. What do y'all need to know?”
Mulder pulled a small notepad from his pocket, a pen at the ready. “Trent here is your only child?”
“Course he is,” the southern housewife murmured, seeming to return to her more irritable mood. “Who'd go makin' up a thing like that?”
“You have no relatives named Courtney?”
“I think I'd know if I did.”
“And you have no idea why the state has paperwork saying you have a daughter?”
“Lord only knows!” The woman threw up her hands from the newspapers, looking thoroughly exasperated. “All them government papers are screwy anyway. Last time I went to get my driver's license renewed, they said I didn't have enough documentation to prove who I was, as if anyone would want to pretend to be me! All them government fat cats are just trying to bleed us poor taxpaying folk dr-”
“Mrs. Breckinridge.” Mulder interrupted again and Scully glanced from her partner to the confused woman across the carpet from them. “Would you mind if we talked to Trent alone?” At mention of his name, the young boy's head perked up from where he had been rolling his ball; back and forth across the floor, back and forth, back and forth-
“To Trent?” she repeated, confused. “Whatever on earth for?”
“It's standard Bureau policy.”
“....well, I suppose,” she replied slowly, hesitantly rising from her seat. “Y'all ain't takin' him someplace, are you?”
“No, ma'am,” Fox calmly reassured with a poorly done smile. “We'll sit right here in the living room, it will only take a couple of minutes.”
“Well...alright, I guess. I've got linens to pack in the bedroom anyway...” With a wary eye cast at the pair of agents and then fixed on her son, Mrs. Breckinridge retreated to a back bedroom. Trent dropped his gaze back to his toy, which Scully suddenly noticed had a bright, glassy sheen to it. It didn't look like any rubber ball she'd ever seen a child play with before.
“Hey there, Trent.” Mulder was considerably warmer to the child than he had been to his mother, and he slid down off the sofa to sit on the slightly dusty floor. Mulder had always been good with kids, Scully noted with a smile, it was one of the things she admired about her partner. Perhaps because they were so much less likely to harbor secrets than the adults around them?
“'lo,” was the monosyllabic reply, and the boy's small hand steadied on the round ball.
“What do you have there?”
“It's a crystal.”
Mulder and Scully exchanged a glance – not the reply either had been expecting. Scully moved to the chair the boy's mother had just vacated in order to observe more closely. Trent Breckinridge was maybe eight years old, his dirty blond hair a bowl cut that was plastered to his head in the southern humidity. He was excessively quiet, with a slightly gaunt face and dark circles rimming blue eyes. He didn't look, from what little Scully could see, like a bruised or battered child. But then why that unnatural quiet? Surely it wasn't just shyness that prompted it?
“A crystal ball, huh?” Mulder was continuing, his palms flattened against the black fabric of his trousers at the level of his thighs. “Does it tell you the future?”
“No,” the boy replied in a quiet, yet clear, voice. “You turn it this way, and look inside, and it shows you your dreams.”
“Oh, really? I've never seen a crystal like that before. Where did you get it.”
Even Mulder seemed startled by the way the boy's head snapped up, haunted eyes fixed on the man's face. He bit a pale lip nervously, and actually looked near tears. “If I tell you, you...you won't believe me. Mama and Daddy, they don't believe me.”
“Trent.” Very calmly and slowly, Mulder lowered a hand onto the boy's bony shoulder. “I promise – whatever you tell me, I'll believe you.”
The watery blue eyes of the corn-fed boy gazed up at Scully where she leaned over the arm of the chair. The woman nodded comfortingly. “It's true. He means it.”
As if he had digested this information very slowly, the child let out a shaky sigh, one that seemed to hold the whole weight of the world and not the troubles of an eight year old boy. “The Goblin King,” he whispered.