24/7 27. Here, There and Everywhere – Part 1



“I want you to get dressed,” Skinner told his slave early one evening, a week after he had branded him. Mulder gazed up at his Master in surprise from where he was lying, naked, on the bed. The last week had passed in something of a haze for him; he and his Master had been in love for a long time now, but they had never been this close or as intimate with each other as they had since the branding. Still on vacation, they had spent every day for the last week completely wrapped up in each other, making love, talking, or just lying in each other’s arms lazily, enjoying their closeness.


Mulder felt more than happy – he felt deeply and profoundly contented, existing in a state of total bliss. It both was and wasn’t the branding – he had loved his Master before he had been branded, and they had been happy before his branding too, but somehow the branding was a culmination of all those feelings that had gradually been building inside him since Skinner had taken him as his slave ten months previously. Now he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he not only belonged to and with his Master, but that Skinner understood him down to his core and was strong enough to take him and all the emotional baggage that came with him, and to love him no matter what.  


Strangely, the branding had not, in Mulder’s mind, been so much about himself proving his love to his Master by taking his mark on his body, but instead it had confirmed to him that Skinner was strong enough to be his Master – and so much more besides. Skinner hadn’t backed down from such a challenging expression of his love for his slave, and Mulder had known in that moment of being branded, that he had at last found someone strong enough to be his soulmate. 


“Dressed?” Mulder blinked, feeling confused. He hadn’t been clothed all week, save for the dressing covering his brand, and he would, quite happily, never be clothed again. He felt free in his nudity, and he loved the sensation of being constantly available for his Master’s use. 


“Yes. We’re having a few guests around later,” Skinner told him, striding over to the closet. 


“We are?” Mulder got up, feeling like an idiot for being so slow on the uptake. 


“Yeah.” Skinner glanced over his shoulder and grinned at his slave. “You don’t have any idea what day it is today do you?” He said. 


“No.” Mulder shrugged. “Should I?” He asked with a frown. 


“It’s New Year’s Eve,” Skinner told him. “And since you missed out on your branding party, I thought you’d be dying to show off that brand of yours to at least some of your friends.”


Mulder’s stomach did a flip; he had been enjoying his closeness with Skinner so much that he didn’t want to be jolted out of it in this way. The thought of the apartment being crowded with people was unbearable, and made him feel stifled. Skinner must have noticed his expression because he caught hold of Mulder’s shoulders and held them firmly. 


“Don’t panic. It’s just a few of our closest friends,” he told his slave. Mulder brightened.


“Ian and Perry?” He asked eagerly. 


“Yes.” Skinner nodded. “And Elaine and David.”  


“That’s it?” 


“Yes…well, except for a couple of mystery guests who may or may not show up.” Skinner smiled mysteriously.


“Mystery guests?” Mulder frowned. “You know how I hate mysteries, Master.” 


“Hmmm, yes I do. You seem to have built a whole career on that particular character quirk,” Skinner grinned. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to wait. Now go and take a shower while I lay out the clothes I want you to wear.”


He turned Mulder around, pointed him in the direction of the bathroom, and gave his ass a hearty slap for good measure. Mulder gave a little yelp of complaint but he was grinning as he scampered to the shower. He wasn’t sure when Skinner had organised this little party, as he was sure that they hadn’t spent a second outside of each other’s company for the past week, but then his Master moved in mysterious ways his wonders to perform, and Mulder knew better than to question him on the subject.  


He showered and washed his hair swiftly, suddenly excited at the prospect of being able to show off his brand to their friends. He’d only been able to see the brand when his Master had changed the dressing covering it, but he got a thrill out of it every time and was looking forward to being able to dispense with the dressing for good soon. True, the brand wasn’t exactly looking very beautiful at the moment, being scabbed over as it healed, but he was too proud of it to care much about that. Nobody had yet seen the brand except for himself and his Master; Perry and Ian had been supposed to drop by the day after Christmas, but Skinner had felt that Mulder was still on too much of a post-branding high to receive visitors. Beside, it just felt right that Master and slave spend some time alone together after the branding. However, their vacation time was drawing to a close, and although Skinner had been able to finagle them a few extra days they had to return to work shortly, so Mulder supposed now was a good time for his Master to re-acclimatise them both back to the everyday world again. 


Mulder skipped out of the bathroom, full of excited anticipation – only to stop short when he saw the outfit his Master had laid out for him on the bed. 


“No!” He said. “No, no, no, no, no. Absolutely not.”


Skinner grinned at him. “Ah, the little slave thinks he has a choice about what he’s going to wear this evening. How amusing.” 


“I’m not little, it’s not amusing and I’m not wearing this!” Mulder said firmly, waving his hand at the turquoise, gold-trimmed, gauzy and totally transparent harem pants lying on the bed, together with a gold harness. A pair of aqua blue, pointy-toed slippers was laid out on the floor beside the bed. This wasn’t the outfit that Skinner had dressed him in when they’d stayed at Murray’s beach house, but it was very similar, and, to Mulder’s eyes at least, just as repulsive. 


“Of course you are.” Skinner gave an infuriating beam of a smile.  


“What are you wearing?” Mulder’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. 


“You’re looking at it.” Skinner gestured to his chinos and the thin polo neck sweater he had on. 


“And Elaine, David, Perry and Ian – they’re just coming in jeans and casual stuff too, aren’t they?” Mulder demanded. Skinner’s grin broadened. 


“Yes, I should think so.” He nodded. 


“So why do I have to be dressed up like…like…?” Mulder glanced at the obnoxious outfit again, floundering for words.


“Like some kind of exotic slaveboy?” Skinner raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I don’t know – maybe because that’s exactly what you *are*, boy. My exotic, branded, *obedient* slaveboy.” The inflection on the word obedient wasn’t lost on Mulder. He had only been seen by one other person apart from his Master in a harem pant outfit and that had been someone Mulder didn’t know, so although it had been embarrassing, it wasn’t nearly as bad as this…and yet…on some level, Mulder knew himself to be deeply turned on by the scenario. He wasn’t seriously questioning his Master’s orders – they both knew he’d wear the harem pants but they both enjoyed his protests all the same – it added spice to their relationship. Skinner reached out and placed a hand on the back of his slave’s neck, both reassuring and threatening at the same time. “You know, I could have sworn that you signed a contract submitting yourself and your body to my total care and control,” he murmured, in a deep, sexy voice. “Hmm?”


“Yes, Master,” Mulder whispered, completely in thrall to that rich, dark, masterful voice. He loved it when his Master got all uber-top on him; it made his spine tingle and his stomach do somersaults.  


“So,” Skinner purred, running a hand possessively over Mulder’s body. “I think it’s time you got dressed in this nice outfit your Master has so thoughtfully provided for you. Right, boy?” His hand closed over one of Mulder’s butt cheeks and squeezed, firmly and affectionately, just enough to make Mulder squirm. Mulder considered continuing with his protest but he was too turned on by the way Skinner was holding him. 


“Yes, Master,” he murmured meekly. Skinner released his slave, giving him a firm little push in the direction of the bed, and Mulder went and picked up the gauzy fabric laid out for him. There was a time when he would have been horrified to be displayed publicly in such a costume, but now that he was being more honest with himself, and he was more relaxed in his slavery, he couldn’t deny that he felt a sexual thrill at the thought. He was glad his Master always insisted on him obeying his orders even when he baulked; Skinner usually knew what was best for his slave – and Mulder invariably ended up enjoying whatever his Master demanded of him. 


“I thought the harem pants would be best because they’d show off your brand,” Skinner told him, in a low, husky, seductive voice, coming up behind him and caressing his buttocks again with the casual caress of an owner touching his property. “And I want everyone to see your brand so there’s no point in you wearing jeans. Besides, I’ve always wanted to show you off in harem pants to a wider audience.” 


Mulder made a little face, but only for the sake of it. Skinner roared with laughter and turned his slave around to face him.  


“Okay, little one, I’m going to take your dressing off. You can keep it off all evening – I want Perry to examine how it’s healing in any case. Remember that you don’t have the dressing on though – don’t go bumping into things or it’ll hurt.”


“Trust me, Master, I know exactly how much it hurts,” Mulder said in a heartfelt tone.  


Skinner stopped what he was doing and bestowed a gentle kiss on his slave’s lips. There was no need for him to say anything; he was simply acknowledging what Mulder had gone through in order to have his Master’s mark imprinted so permanently on his skin, and what it meant to both of them that he did.


“All right – get dressed,” Skinner said when he released his slave. Mulder glanced down at his newly revealed brand with a dreamy sigh.


“You’ll be able to see it just as well through the harem pants,” Skinner pointed out, holding up the virtually transparent scrap of gauzy fabric. “In fact, it’ll look even better seen through the gauze while it’s still healing.” 


“Yes, Master,” Mulder agreed softly, unable to continue pretending that he wasn’t enjoying every single second of this. “Uh, Master…will there be any other…uh, accoutrements you’d like me to wear.” He thought of the butt plug his Master had inserted last time he had worn harem pants.


“No.” Skinner shook his head. “I don’t want anything to detract from that brand – or your pride in bearing it on your flesh. Enjoy tonight, Fox. You have my permission to show off.” 


Mulder gave a little grin of delight at that news and began to dress himself swiftly in the outfit he both loved and hated. 


“You will have to wear make up though,” Skinner added, just as Mulder finished dressing himself. “Mascara, eyeliner and some lip gloss to make that pouty lower lip of yours shine and shimmer so appealingly.” 


“Oh god,” Mulder sighed, but he was grinning despite himself and submitted quite happily to his Master’s ministrations until Skinner was finally satisfied with him. Then his Master stood Mulder in front of the mirror and had him take a good look at himself. Mulder’s heart usually sank at moments like this, but now it did a flip of excitement. He did, he had to admit, look pretty damn good. The harem pants clung to his long legs, accentuating them, and the brand was visible through the transparent fabric, yet also tantalisingly covered, so you could only get little glimpses of it as the fabric rustled and rippled when Mulder moved. The little gold harness showed off his nipple rings to perfection, and his gold collar nestled at his throat, complementing the harness. The pants weren’t open at the crotch and buttocks like the pair he’d worn at the beach house, and Mulder guessed that was why Skinner had selected them for this evening – beautiful those his slave was, it might be a little distracting if his charms were so completely on display during a casual dinner party. The slippers finished the outfit, and Mulder had to admit that he did look fabulously exotic with the eyeliner and the lush lips. He totally understood why his Master couldn’t resist kissing him passionately several times, resulting in him having to reapply the lip gloss as a result. Mulder had never had much interest in his physical appearance before becoming Skinner’s slave, but his Master was beginning to make him understand the importance of presenting himself to his best advantage, so that his Master always had something good to look at. Mulder had never viewed himself as a particularly good looking man, but over the past year he had gradually come to see himself through his Master’s eyes and now he was ready to admit that it was a compelling sight. He was so shocked by his lush appearance that he was still busy gazing at himself when the doorbell rang. Skinner grinned.  


“That will be Ian and Perry – I told Perry to get here early so he could take a look at how your brand is healing. Why don’t you go and greet your guests?” 


“*My* guests?” Mulder grumbled good-naturedly as he went to open the door, wincing dramatically at the way his pants flowed with his legs as he walked, making him feel utterly ridiculous. “Yeah, right, because I invited them, didn’t I? I had a choice in the guest list. I…” He gave a yelp as his Master delivered a firm slap to his backside which felt almost naked, covered only by the thin layer of gauze, and then grinned and cast Skinner a delighted glance over his shoulder. The truth was that he loved acting up just a little, in order to get his Master’s attention – and it was rare for him not to have his Master’s attention, as he well knew. Mulder scampered along the hallway and opened the door to his guests without so much as a twinge of embarrassment. He knew that not so long ago he’d have found being dressed like this in front of others excruciating, but the last ten months with his Master had shown him he had an exhibitionist streak, and he had stopped being ashamed of that fact.


His Master was right – it was Ian and Perry. Ian took one look at him and his face broke into a huge grin. 


“Oh god. Your Master is fiendish!” He proclaimed, stepping inside and motioning Mulder to do a twirl. Mulder obliged, grinning himself. Yes, this was ridiculous, but it was amusing too, and these were his closest scene friends who had seen him at both his best and worst – and in various stages of undress as well. There was nothing about his current costume that would shock them – although he did feel a twinge of humiliation at the way his virtually transparent outfit displayed his body so publicly while everyone else was comfortably covered up. 


Perry raised his eyebrows heavenwards at Mulder’s costume, and stepped around the two subs to present Skinner with a bottle of wine. The tops chatted for a few minutes while Mulder submitted to the indignity of having Ian laugh shamelessly over his costume, and then Skinner beckoned Mulder over. 


“Fox, come here – I want Perry to check out your scar,” he said with a click of his fingers. Mulder went obediently to where his Master was standing and knelt beside him. 


“Ah. You’ll have to teach me that trick,” Perry muttered with a rueful glance in Ian’s direction. “*My* sub just laughs when I give him orders.”


“Well, it does take some discipline – and a considerable amount of training,” Skinner commented, glancing down at Mulder who felt his ears beginning to flush. “It’s hard work…but the rewards make it worthwhile I think. Don’t they, boy?” His hand brushed Mulder’s head and Mulder leaned into his Master’s blunt, caressing fingers. He never could resist it when Skinner fondled him. 


“Yes, Master,” he replied, smiling up at Skinner somewhat hazily. 


“Hmm, well, he seems different…” Perry mused. “Not that he wasn’t obedient before but…well, no, let’s be honest, he did have his bad days.” He glanced at Skinner and Mulder remembered all too well the dark days after he’d mutilated the wound Krycek had left on his chest. “But…I don’t know, he seems to be practically glowing this evening. Can a branding make that much difference, Walter?” Perry frowned. 


Skinner shook his head. “I don’t think it was the branding so much as what it symbolised for both of us after all we’ve been through, Perry,” he replied. “But we’re in a good place right now. It feels as if everything finally came together last week when I branded Fox. We’re both still a little high on those feelings I guess.”


“I can see that.” Perry glanced down at Mulder appreciatively. “Okay…well, let’s take a look at the brand in question, shall we?”  


Skinner nodded, clicking his fingers at Mulder again, and pointing to the couch. Mulder slid his harem pants down a little way and sat on the couch, and Perry fished his glasses out of his pocket, perched them on his nose, and sat down beside him. He leaned forward and examined the brand silently, without touching it. He observed it for several long seconds, before finally glancing back up at Skinner again. 


“Is it okay?” Skinner asked, and Mulder didn’t miss the note of anxiety in his Master’s voice. Perry smiled, and removed his glasses.


“It’s healing perfectly, Walter,” he proclaimed. “I can see you’ve been following my instructions to the letter. There’s no infection – it all looks like it should…and it’s very well done too. A nice, clear mark.” He nodded approvingly. 


“Ah, I love it when he’s in Doctor mode,” Ian murmured to Mulder conspiratorially, leaning over his shoulder to gaze at the brand. “He’s so…”


“Masterful?” Mulder raised an eyebrow. Ian grinned. 


“Well, I guess it shouldn’t come as any surprise that *that* turns me on,” he said with a shrug. “Seriously though, Mulder – the brand is beautiful.” There was a note of reverence in his voice.


“You’ll be wanting one now,” Mulder replied. Ian glanced at Perry who had stood up and was busy talking animatedly to Skinner, and then back at Mulder. 


“I don’t think that’s something I could persuade Perry to do,” he said with a little shrug. “He’s great, Mulder, but let’s not pretend he’s anything like the great god of a Master you’ve landed yourself with. Perry…” Ian shrugged again. “We get on really well, Mulder. He’s the nicest person – incredibly easy going and we have a lot in common, but he’s never pretended to be as into the scene as I am. He does things to please me, but, well, I think branding would be a step too far…” He paused, and then gave a little sigh, “For me as well as for him,” he finished. Mulder frowned. 


“I thought…”


“I know…but the truth is that I think I prefer living vicariously through you than actually doing some of this stuff myself. It’s a good fantasy…but, not many of us can pull it off in real life the way you and Walter have, Mulder. It took me a long time to admit that to myself but it’s true. Some of us have to settle for being mere mortals, and for living a more normal kind of life. There have been times I’ve envied you so much, my friend, but the truth is that I couldn’t handle the kind of relationship you have with Walter. It works for you two, but it’d be too much for me. I’m glad someone is out there doing it, and I’m glad that I’ve stopped beating myself up about the fact that it isn’t me.” He gave a wistful little smile. Mulder gazed at him, still frowning. 


“I had no idea you were envious of me…Christ, when I think how badly and how often I’ve screwed up…” 


“Oh, you’ve screwed up spectacularly!” Ian agreed, with a laugh. “You’ve lived the life for all of us, Mulder, screw-ups not withstanding. Your life has been a rollercoaster, one huge drama after another, but I’m more of a steady, even keel kind of guy and I couldn’t cope with all the shit you’ve been through. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate that fact.” 


Mulder gazed at his friend uncertainly. Ian’s words bothered him on some level. He knew what Ian meant – his life thus far, and not just the past ten months either, *had* been a rollercoaster ride. Maybe he was addicted to the constant dramas and thrills, but, as he gazed across the room at his Master, he had the sudden sure knowledge that Skinner was not, and he felt a pang of guilt for taking this basically quiet, kind, steady person, and dragging him into the endless highs and lows that life with Fox Mulder entailed. He hadn’t thought about his life in these terms before, but suddenly he wondered whether Ian might be the one who had got it right, who had a sense of proportion about his sexual needs…and yet, he wouldn’t give up being his Master’s slave for anything.  


“Being Walter’s slave isn’t *what* I am,” he murmured to his friend, “It’s *who* I am. Everything that’s happened over the past ten months has basically arisen from me struggling to come to terms with that essential fact. Ian, you might have envied me all this time, but I envy you the way you’ve always been so comfortable with your sexuality. I might have Walter, but I’ve been all over the place emotionally on this journey I’ve been on. I’ve only recently come to terms with the more…uh, extreme aspects of what I need, and what he gives me. I couldn’t have sat here, dressed like this, a few months ago, and yet the truth is that I love it, deep inside. I’d have fought him about it not so long ago though – fought myself really I suppose, because I didn’t like myself for having these fantasies.”


Ian’s eyes were suspiciously misty and he patted Mulder awkwardly on the shoulder. 


“Maybe we should talk about football or something now,” he said, in a slightly choked voice.


Mulder laughed out loud at that and they changed the subject but he was still mulling over what Ian had told him. Supposing, he wondered to himself, that he was addicted to this kind of life, to the rollercoaster, the constant highs and lows? Supposing he was incapable of ever just settling down and living peacefully? Supposing he would always keep on sabotaging this relationship by continually creating some new crisis for himself and his Master to deal with? Mulder didn’t want to put either himself or Skinner through some of the wilder stunts he’d pulled over the past 10 months ever again and yet…the profiler in him was worried that it was so much a part of his pattern of behaviour that he’d never be able to break it. 


The doorbell rang again a few minutes later and he jumped, startled out of his reverie. He was pleased to be able to push these troubling thoughts aside, and was keen to show off his brand to the new visitors so he got to his feet eagerly and went to the door to find Elaine standing there, with her sub, David, in tow. Elaine rarely ever dressed informally – she was a woman who loved to show off her voluptuous figure and long, golden hair whenever she could, and she was therefore clad in a tight-fitting, blue velvet dress that matched the colour of her eyes – it was very similar to the one she’d worn to his abortive branding party only not as dressy. She wasn’t a slender woman, and the dress hugged all her curves in a way that was incredibly sexy. David certainly couldn’t take his eyes off her. He was dressed impeccably too, in charcoal chinos and a shirt the exact same shade of blue as his Mistress’s dress – although Mulder had the feeling that, like himself, David might have been ordered what to wear. 


“Well, you’re looking better than when I last saw you, Mulder,” Elaine said, sweeping him up against her ample bosom and bestowing a firm kiss on his cheek. Mulder shook David’s hand and then allowed Elaine to examine his brand through the gauzy fabric of his harem pants. “It’s beautiful, my dear,” she told him, patting his arm fondly. “And thank god it finally happened. I always said you wouldn’t really be content until Walter put his brand on you and now…well, looking at you now, I know I was right.” 


“Yeah.” Mulder could feel himself flushing slightly. “It’s such a big deal, Elaine. I had no idea how much of a big deal until it happened.” 


“I knew, and I think Walter knew…but you’ve always been a little clueless about your own needs, my dear,” she said gently. Mulder couldn’t argue with that statement, and at that moment the doorbell rang again.


“Ah, that’ll be Walter’s mystery guests,” he grinned. His Master appeared in the hallway, and Mulder glanced at him for permission to greet their new guests. Skinner nodded, and Mulder took a deep breath and then opened the door. Hammer was standing in the hallway, and, next to him, leaning heavily on a walking cane, was Murray. He was dressed in one of his usual flowing kaftans, in a bright red and gold pattern, but even the voluminous folds of the garment couldn’t hide the fact that he had lost weight during his recent serious illness. His cheeks were a little pale and sunken, but his eyes sparkled as brightly as ever with that insatiable zest for living that nothing, not even a serious heart attack, could suppress. 


“Ah, I see that the young cub has been taken by the scruff of his neck and finally offered up to the fiery kiss of the iron!” He proclaimed loudly, pointing at Mulder’s brand with his walking cane. 


“Oh god!” Hammer raised his eyes heavenwards. “This is the first time he’s been out since I got him back from the hospital, and I knew he’d ham it up.” 


“Murray?” Mulder shook the grizzled top enthusiastically by the hand. “Are you okay?” 


“Yes, my dear boy! I’m back! The rumours of my death were greatly exaggerated,” Murray announced, in a loud, stage whisper. 


“I don’t think anyone thought you were dead, Murray,” Skinner disputed, laughing as he came forward to greet his friends. “But you’re certainly looking a damn sight better than you did when I last saw you.”


“And that,” Murray declared in a loud voice, “is despite the true hideousness of hospital food, and this new diet Hammer has me on which is fare only suitable for those of the lapine persuasion.”


“He means rabbits,” Hammer said, making a face. “He’s been complaining about the new diet non-stop from the moment I got him home.” 


“There was a time,” Murray said, in that deep, booming, dramatic voice of his, “when a submissive knew his place – but this boy here,” He tapped Hammer lightly with his walking cane on his backside, “Hardly even listens to his Master these days,” he lamented. 


“Murray, when you talk everyone listens as you well know,” Hammer replied, and Mulder noticed how tenderly he took Murray’s arm, and helped him slowly into the other room. Murray might be able to put on a good show, but it was clear that he was still recuperating from his heart attack. 


At some point, and Mulder didn’t know when as he was sure he hadn’t let his Master out of his sight for the past week since his branding, Skinner had managed to stock the fridge with food. Maybe he’d ordered it online one night while his slave slept, Mulder thought as they ate a simple pasta dish with salad, followed by a delicious chocolate and coconut pie. The conversation around the dinner table was lively, and Mulder felt himself falling silent. He gazed at the talking, laughing faces around him and wondered whether he’d ever get used to this kind of easy normality. These people, somehow, slowly, and without him even realising it, had become his friends, and he’d never really had any friends before, except for Scully and Skinner himself. He felt as if he was really part of this gathering, that he actually belonged in this easy, dinner party intimacy, and yet that tiny, doubtful voice inside questioned whether he could be happy like this in the long term. If occasions like this were his life, instead of the dramas that had marked it so far, would that be enough? Would simple friendship and the company of people who knew and accepted him be sufficient for him, or would he always hanker after something more? Did he need those battles with Krycek, and his endless quest to chase his own tail looking for answers to questions he had long since stopped understanding? He didn’t know the answer even to that question, and was relieved when his Master noticed his silence and clicked his fingers to call his slave to his side and kneel beside to him. Mulder felt a sense of calm seep into his bones as he knelt there, excused from any obligation to be sociable, but all the same he knew this wasn’t the answer he had been looking for. He couldn’t use his Master to hide from the doubts he had about himself and his own personality, but for now, at least, it was relaxing to have permission to switch off from his problems. He enjoyed listening to his friends’ conversation, and it was easier not to feel he had to contribute; with Murray and Elaine present it was hard for anyone to get a word in edgeways in any case. After dinner their guests went to sit in the living room, but Skinner hung back and looked down on his slave.


“Is everything all right, Fox?” He asked softly. “You went very quiet.” 


“I know. I was…a bit overwhelmed,” Mulder admitted.  


“That’s fair enough.” Skinner nodded. “It’s been just you and me all week and it must have felt strange to you suddenly seeing all these people.”


“Yeah.” Mulder managed a wry smile. He hadn’t lied to his Master, but he hadn’t told him the whole truth either – he wasn’t ready to share these doubts just yet. He wanted his Master to have some peace, and he didn’t want to worry Skinner that there was even a possibility that he’d take off at any moment and embroil them both in another crisis just because he was addicted to a rollercoaster kind of lifestyle.


“Come on – we’ve left our guests for long enough.”


Skinner motioned with his head and they walked into the living room, where Ian was giggling hysterically over something Murray had said, while Hammer was shaking his head in mock embarrassment. Mulder waited until Skinner was seated, and then knelt beside his Master, resting his chin on Skinner’s thigh as he usually did.


“I have an announcement to make,” Elaine proclaimed when everyone was settled. Mulder lifted his head, feeling like a curious puppy. Elaine glanced at David and Mulder lifted his head even higher – David had an expression of anticipation in his eyes as he gazed back at his Mistress. “I’m delighted to announce that there’s going to be a wedding!” Elaine said. “A scene wedding of course!” She added with a grin. “I’ve decided to make an honest man of David and take him as my husband.” There was silence for a moment and then the room reverberated to the sound of congratulations, and Murray saying over and over again, “My, my, my!” as if he’d never heard such extraordinary news although he didn’t *look* very surprised so Mulder guessed that he probably already knew.


“A scene wedding?” Mulder questioned, wondering what that would entail. 


“Oh yes.” Elaine gave a broad grin. “Murray and Hammer have kindly lent us the use of their house for the ceremony, and Murray is doing us the honour of conducting the ceremony himself.” She leaned over and patted Murray’s hand affectionately and Mulder couldn’t help smiling at how delighted Murray looked. He guessed that having something like this to prepare for, and an audience to impress, was exactly what Murray required to aid in his recuperation. “I will have a carriage, drawn by real human horses…” Elaine continued.


“Can I volunteer to be one of your ponies?” Ian interrupted eagerly.


“I’d be delighted, dear,” she replied, patting his head fondly. “You’ll have to be dressed appropriately of course.” Ian’s beaming smile made it clear that he had been hoping that would be part of the deal. “I’m having my dress made especially for the occasion – and David is working on his own outfit.” She paused, and brushed her hand gently over her sub’s cheek. Mulder was grinning inanely now; David was a quiet kind of person, but Mulder had no doubt that the other sub adored his Mistress with every bone in his body – and that he was exactly the right man for Elaine. “I’m hoping that that all my dear friends here today will join us on our big day,” Elaine said, glancing around the room.


“When is it?” Walter asked, a note of anxiety in his voice. Mulder frowned, wondering what *that* was about, and watched as his Master got out his diary and started flicking through it.


“Six weeks.” Elaine pointed to the date in Skinner’s diary over his shoulder, and he breathed a visible sigh of relief.


“We will be going, won’t we, Walter?” Muder asked softly.


“You bet,” Skinner replied, squeezing his slave’s shoulder affectionately. “Elaine, David, this is wonderful news. I’m delighted for you both.”


“I had one more thing I wanted to ask of you, Walter dear,” Elaine said. “You and I have been friends for a long time, and while this won’t be a conventional wedding, I would be very pleased if you’d walk me to the altar.”


Skinner got to his feet, and bestowed a little kiss on Elaine’s hand. “I’d be delighted,” he said in a suspiciously husky voice. “I’ll visit Elliott next week and ask him to make me something…” He paused, and grinned, “appropriate to wear,” he finished. “And I’ll ask Donald to make something equally fitting for my slave,” he added, casting a glance at Mulder.


“Oh god,” Mulder muttered under his breath.  


At that moment they were all distracted by Murray’s booming voice informing them that it was exactly midnight and the new year was upon them, and there was a wild scramble to fill glasses with champagne and make a toast. Then, finally, an hour or so later, their guests took their leave of them, and Mulder and Skinner were alone together once more. 


“Thank you, Master,” Mulder said, as he closed the door behind Ian. “I enjoyed this evening.” 


“You’re welcome, boy.” Skinner bestowed a kiss on Mulder’s cheek as he passed him on his way back into the living room. Mulder hesitated, and then ducked into the hall cupboard, and drew out a large package, bound up with string. He followed Skinner into the living room, and handed him the parcel. “What’s this?” Skinner frowned.  


“Your Christmas present,” Mulder replied, with a guilty grimace. “I’m sorry – I’ve been meaning to give it to you all week but we were so…” He waved his hand in the air and Skinner grinned in acknowledgement, understanding the gesture, “That I kept forgetting. Then I thought that as it was a bit late for Christmas, it’d make a good New Year present instead. So – Happy New Year, Walter.” He settled down at his Master’s feet to watch him open the parcel. Skinner’s blunt fingers made short work of it, and he peeled back the paper to reveal the painting underneath. Mulder held his breath, hoping that his Master would like it. Skinner gazed at it wordlessly, but the expression in his eyes told Mulder all he needed to know.


“Fox…how…no, *when* did you…?” Skinner glanced from the painting to Mulder and back again. The picture depicted, in a few skilful lines, Skinner, gazing down lovingly and protectively at his slave, who was staring back up at him with an expression of appropriately worshipful adulation on his face. 


“There was an artist at that fetish fair you took me to,” Mulder grinned. “I commissioned him to do it and he made a few sketches without you noticing. I also sent him some polaroids so he could flesh it out some more. It isn’t as perfect as if we’d sat for him but I wanted it to be a surprise, and…” 


“It’s beautiful,” Skinner said, shaking his head as he gazed at the picture. It *was* pretty good in Mulder’s opinion. He’d been very impressed when he’d first opened the package; it wasn’t so much the details of their features that the artist had captured, as the expressions in their eyes, and the way they were looking at each other. It was the perfect representation of the Master/slave bond, and that was why Mulder loved it so much. 


“I thought we could hang it in the Playroom,” Mulder suggested. 


“I think I’d prefer to hang it in the bedroom – where we can see it every day,” Skinner replied. “Come here.” Skinner beckoned him over, and planted a loving kiss on his slave’s mouth. “Thank you,” he said softly, and then, without missing a beat, he said, in the same breath: “Wanda.”  


Mulder was surprised by the command, but he knew better than to hesitate or question the order, and immediately knelt down in front of his Master, lowered his harem pants, and held his butt cheeks open so that Skinner could enter him and use him. He loved being used like this, and his cock was half hard just from hearing the command and knowing the intent behind it. He leaned his upper body against the coffee table, and waited to feel his Master’s hard cock pushing into his ass – so he was completely taken by surprise when he felt a warm, wet tongue pushing inside him instead. He gave a little squawk and almost lost his balance, but his Master’s hands on his hips kept him steady. Skinner was an expert rimmer, and Mulder quickly surrendered to the sheer pleasure that skilful tongue was giving him. He moaned, and his cock was so hard it was leaking, but he knew better than to expect it to be given any release. 


“Keep holding yourself open for me,” Skinner growled, drawing back a little. “I want to really taste my slave’s fine ass.”  


Mulder shivered, desperately turned on, and then moaned as Skinner’s tongue dipped back inside him again, reaching even further this time, and exciting him even more. A few minutes later, after he’d been thoroughly rimmed, Skinner drew back, and Mulder opened up his legs and anus even further as he felt his Master’s hands on his buttocks and then the familiar sensation of Skinner’s thick, stiff cock sliding into his body. Usually his Master went hard and fast during these Wanda sessions, but on this occasion he went slowly, almost gently, his hands playing over his slave’s body like a musical instrument as he slid in and out of his anus. Mulder moved his hands forwards and gripped the coffee table desperately as Skinner’s slow, gentle thrusting reached a climax.


“You can come, Fox,” Skinner said and for a moment Mulder wasn’t sure he’d heard him right. He was rarely allowed to take his own pleasure during a Wanda session – the whole point of them was for him to make himself available to his Master for Skinner to use for his own pleasure, with no thought for his slave’s enjoyment.  


“Master?” Mulder panted, wanting to be sure that he’d heard correctly. 


“I said you can come,” Skinner purred into his ear on a forward thrust. “Any time you like, boy. Consider it a New Year’s present.” 


Mulder didn’t need telling twice. He reached down and massaged his hard cock to climax with a few strokes. He heard and felt his Master come inside him, and then Skinner rolled over onto the floor, taking his slave with him, his big arms pulling Mulder close against his chest. 


“Oh god that was good, Master,” Mulder murmured. 


“Mmmm. It was,” Skinner grinned. 


“If surprising.” Mulder glanced at his Master. “You’ve often given me the Wanda command, Master, but you’ve never varied how you use that command – until tonight.”


“Tonight I thought I’d surprise you, the way you surprised me with that beautiful present,” Skinner said, tracing a finger over his slave’s lush mouth and inserting it a little way inside. “It was also something by way of a reward. You’ve improved a lot since the early days but I never thought I’d get you to the stage where you submitted so quickly and obediently, and so often, to that particular command. I always said that when you did it would show how completely and happily you had accepted your slavery – and it looks like we’ve reached that stage. Happy New Year, Fox.”  


Mulder smiled, and snuggled in close to his Master. “Happy New Year, Walter,” he replied softly, tracing the outline of one of Skinner’s nipples through his sweater. “You know, this time last year I wasn’t your slave. I didn’t even know you hid this surprising alter ego under those stiff white shirts and that surly office demeanour.”


“I’m not surly!” Skinner protested mildly. 


“Sure you are,” Mulder grinned. “That’s partly why I fell in love with you. Doesn’t it freak you out though, thinking back to just a year ago and realising we weren’t together then? I spent last New Year’s Eve on my own, staking out a haunted house and freezing my ass off in the middle of nowhere…”


“On your own? Without backup?” Skinner gave him a dangerous nudge. 


“It was a year ago, Master, before I became your slave,” Mulder said quickly. “I was *bad* then.”


“Hmmm,” Skinner said, giving him a speculative look, as if he wasn’t entirely sure that Mulder was exactly *good* now. 


“Anyway,” Mulder said, continuing hurriedly, “My point is that I had no idea that in just a year’s time…” He hesitated. “My life would go from being a train wreck to being pretty damn perfect,” he finished with a grin. 


Skinner grinned back at him. “If I had the energy I’d fuck you again, right now, just because you’re mine and I can and yes, *that* still gives me a thrill, boy.” 


“Ah, and I thought my Master, the sex god, was always up for it.” Mulder snaked his hand down the front of Skinner’s pants to his cock. Skinner stopped it on its way there with his own hand.  


“I might be too exhausted to fuck you, but you can rest assured that my right arm is *always* available to hand out a good spanking,” he warned. 


“Ah, promises, promises,” Mulder teased, and then wished he hadn’t as Skinner suddenly sat up, pulled his slave over his knee, and administered several hard spanks to his backside. Skinner hadn’t spanked him for over a week, as he had been very wary about damaging his slave’s healing brand, but he arranged Mulder carefully over his lap and laid into his ass with a very firm hand until Mulder was wriggling animatedly. 


“I’m sorry! I take it back!” He hollered.  


“Now I bet you wish you were back staking out haunted houses on your own without backup,” Skinner commented. Mulder went suddenly still. 


“No,” he said softly, his ass glowing with pleasure at being so roundly and thoroughly chastised. “I’m exactly where I want to be, Master.” 


Skinner gave a little laugh, and his spanks degenerated into more playful caressing of his slave’s bottom, until finally he just sat there, stroking Mulder’s ass with those big, strong hands of his. “Me too, boy,” he murmured softly. “Me too. 


It felt strange to go back to work a couple of days later, dressed in his usual work suit, knowing that he wore his Master’s brand on his skin. Mulder couldn’t help brushing his hand casually over his thigh when he was walking, and got a thrill each time as he remembered that he was an owned, branded slave, with the most magnificent Master in the world. It had taken him a long time to reach this stage, where he was so happy in his slavery and no longer fought it, and he wondered, as he bounced down the stairs to his office, whether his new found peace of mind would alter his thirst for his work. He knew he had thrown himself into the X Files in order to both pursue and avoid some of the big questions he had about himself, and now he was so content, and his Master had helped him to figure out his feelings both about his sexuality and his guilt over his lost sister, he wondered whether he might have lost his edge. 


“Hey stranger…how was your Christmas?” Scully asked him the moment he stepped through the door. 


“My Christmas was…” Mulder paused and gave a stupid smile. “Fantastic,” he finished. 


“Hmmm, I can see that. You’re looking all…goofy.”  


“Goofy?” Mulder questioned in an outraged tone. “I don’t DO goofy, Scully. I’m far too cool.”


He ignored her giggle of sheer disbelief, and her muttered, “Dream on, Agent Mulder, dream on,” and sat down at his desk and began sifting through the paperwork that had built up in his absence.


“Ahem,” Scully said. Mulder glanced up. Scully raised an eyebrow. 


“Oh. Uh, how was your Christmas, Scully?” Mulder asked hurriedly.  


“Busy,” she replied mysteriously. Mulder sighed.


“Okay. I’ll bite. Why was it busy?”  


“Because I moved into John’s apartment,” she told him.


“You moved in?” Mulder asked in mock-incredulous tones. “Without a wedding ring on your finger, Dana Scully? And I thought you were a good little catholic girl!”


“Well…” Scully actually blushed, “We did think – should I move in with him, or should he move in with me – but there’s more room at his place for a baby…so his place won…” She trailed off, blushing even more furiously.


Mulder stared at her. “A baby?” He repeated, stunned. She bit on her lip, still flushing from the roots of her red hair to the tip of her chin. 


“A baby,” she repeated softly, her eyes shyly finding his. 


Mulder just sat there, trying to figure out how he felt about this. She stood by her desk, staunchly holding her ground and yet clearly worried about what his reaction would be. He would be lying if he said he didn’t feel a pang of something deep inside. He’d always had the feeling that in a different universe he and Scully might have been together and then this baby would be his… and yet, he knew that he wouldn’t trade the life he had with his Master for anything. Maybe many other universes existed, and in one of them he and Scully were together and had a baby, but he wondered whether, fundamentally, he could ever be happy in such a world, the way he was happy in this one. He suspected not, and felt a shiver run down his spine – it was the same feeling he’d had when he learned about the spaceship that had abducted Gibson Praise; he’d felt the strangest sensation that in another universe he had been taken by that ship. He felt the same way about Scully’s baby. It was as if they were all acting out variations on a theme, and some constants came up, like the spaceship and the baby, while others varied wildly, like his relationship with Skinner, and Scully’s with Doggett.  


“Scully, that’s wonderful,” he said, quietly and sincerely, getting up and taking her in his arms. He buried his face in her soft, red hair and inhaled the scent of her, a scent he knew so well. “I’m so happy for you,” he whispered.


“Thank you,” she replied, rubbing his back with her hands. “I’m glad. I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it. I know you have so much going on in your own life right now…but all the same…there was a time when…”


“When it could have been you and me? Yes. I know.” He nodded. “But I think that would’ve been wrong, Scully. This is right. This is the right way for it to have happened.” 


She gazed at him, startled. “You say the strangest things, Mulder.”


“I just have this feeling.” He waved his arms around helplessly. “Don’t you have it too, Scully?”


He stared at her and she bit down on her lip, and then took a deep breath. 


“I…I have to admit…Mulder, you probably know this but John had a son with his ex-wife…and the little boy was abducted and murdered. When I found out I was pregnant…I didn’t understand how it could have happened. You and I both know that…” She gazed at him, and then shook her head. “Well we both know it *shouldn’t* be possible, but somehow it’s happened, and so easily…I have to wonder whether this child was meant to be, for John as well as for me. For him because he lost Luke, and for me because I thought that after all that’s happened to me I couldn’t have children.” Her eyes were bright with tears which she blinked back. He knew how much this admission had cost her, and gave a little nod.  


“It’s not so hard to believe, Scully,” he told her simply. “After all we’ve seen, how can it be so hard to believe?” He thought of himself just under a year ago, running around blindly on a mission to self-destruct, and ending up, somehow, at the feet of the one person in the world who was strong enough and who cared enough to pick him up, take care of him, and help him sort out his life. What were the chances of that happening? Sometimes it was hard not to believe in the guiding hand of fate.


She gave a sigh of relief. “That’s just it, Mulder. That’s how I feel. I’m not questioning this – I feel too happy.”


“Good. That makes two of us then,” Mulder said, squeezing her hand and then releasing her. “I’m gonna be an Uncle!” 


Scully giggled at that and Mulder sat back down at his desk. He started working his way through the pile of paperwork that had built up in his absence, and then came across a stack of files, opened a couple of them, and frowned.


“What are these?” He asked, holding up the contents of one of the files. 


“Those? Resumes!” Scully told him cheerfully.


“And why would I need to wade through resumes?” Mulder asked ominously. “You’re not leaving me are you, Scully?”


“No.” She shook her head. “But we’re busy down here, Mulder, and I’ll need to go on maternity leave in a few months so you’ll need some help, and…”


“I managed fine before you showed up, I’m sure I can manage fine again when you go off and have your baby,” he said with a frown. “I don’t want anyone new in here asking stupid questions. It took me long enough to train you,” he added slyly.


“Hah! It was the other way around more like,” she muttered. “Mulder, I’m sorry, but we’re having help and that’s that.”


Mulder’s eyes narrowed. “Did you go over my head on this?” He demanded. Scully pursed her lips and made no reply. “Oh god. You went to Skinner didn’t you?” He sighed. “And he approved this?”  


“Yes. He thought it was a good idea. He thinks you work too hard,” Scully said. 


“We’ll see about that.” Mulder reached out a hand to pick up the phone when there was a brief knock at the door and his Master entered the tiny basement office. 


“Agent Scully. Agent Mulder.” Skinner nodded at each of them. “Ah, I see you’ve found the resumes, Agent Mulder. I thought you’d be calling me about now so I decided to save you the effort.” 


“There have been times, god knows, when the X Files department has needed help – usually when I have to go through my expenses report in front of that strange committee you always bring in when I go particularly over-budget.” Mulder frowned meaningfully at his boss and Master. “So if there’s any extra money going around I’d rather it was channelled into the work and not into hiring another person.” 


“I thought you’d say that, but there are more X Files cases now than ever before, and you could do with an extra pair of hands around here,” Skinner said pleasantly. “You work too hard, Agent Mulder, and while you might have been happy running yourself into the ground before, now that you’re more, uh, settled, in your home life, you aren’t putting in the hours you once were – so the cases are building up. To be honest, the X Files department has always been undermanned – but while you were doing the work of two people the FBI was taking advantage of that fact. It’s time that stopped. You’re too important to us for us to mis-use that unique mind of yours. Accept the help, Agent.”


“Is that an order?” Mulder challenged, suddenly acutely aware of the terms of his contract. He knew what his Master would say if he argued with him privately about this: You’re my slave everywhere, boy, not just at home or in the bedroom – you knew what the deal was when you signed on, and I expect your obedience here, there and everywhere.   And, in truth, was Skinner even saying anything unreasonable? He was actually paying Mulder a compliment by giving his department more help – and Mulder had to admit that it would be useful having someone else to handle the workload. 


“This one is called Monica Reyes and she supposedly specialises in satanic cults,” Mulder groaned, holding up a resume. “I bet all these resumes are similarly kooky. I’ll get applications from every nutcase working in law enforcement.” 


“Hey, spooky, who are you calling a nutcase?” Scully said. “I came to work here didn’t I? And you started the department and look at all the names you’ve been called.”


Mulder glared at Scully and then tried to glare at his Master, only to find Skinner’s dark brown eyes gazing back at him with just a hint of danger in them. Mulder swallowed hard, and tried to think this through. He trusted his Master to know what was best for him at home, and Skinner had never let him down there – maybe it was time to trust that he knew what was best at work too. Mulder knew he had a tendency to throw himself into his work to the exclusion of everything else in his life, and he also knew that his Master would only let him do that up to a point; the moment Mulder looked as if he was heading for self-destruct, Skinner would haul him back in. Sometimes that experience was painful, and sometimes it just made him angry, but Mulder knew that he trusted his Master with all of his life, and not just his sex life.


“Okay, okay.” Mulder held up his hands with a sigh. “I give in.” 


“Thank you, Agent,” Skinner said softly. 


Mulder glanced at his Master from under his eyelashes, and then brushed his hand meaningfully over his thigh, just where his brand was. Skinner smiled, noticing the gesture, and briefly touched his fingers to his stiff white shirt, which Mulder knew hid the exquisitely beautiful fox tattoo on his chest. They shared a little moment, just the two of them, both of them acknowledging the bond between them and how that had influenced Mulder’s decision, and then Skinner nodded at his agents, and left the room. 


Mulder spent the next few days alternately interviewing candidates for the new position in the X Files department and catching up on the case files that had been left on his desk over the holidays. He fell back into his work so quickly that he knew he had been worrying about nothing before; he still loved his job, only now he’d achieved a better balance between his work and his home life. He was surprised to find that Monica Reyes actually turned out to be a fascinating woman with a lot of relevant experience and an open mind – and she won him over, much to Scully’s disgust, by telling him how she had been following his work for years, and how in awe of him she was. He gave her the job on the spot. 


Later that week, Skinner took his slave to be measured for his wedding outfit. Mulder almost laughed out loud when he saw his old friend Donald, now looking for all the world like a younger Elliott. The two men wore matching grey suits, with the same pink handkerchiefs and ties. They looked immaculate – and completely and utterly besotted with each other. 


“So, how’s it working out, Donny?” Mulder asked as Donald measured him for whatever outlandish outfit he was sure his Master was going to make him wear. “I mean, with Elliott?” 


“It’s perfect,” Donald breathed, a rather silly smile spreading across his face. “Thank you so much, Mulder.”


“Don’t thank me – I’m pretty sure it was Walter who got you two together. I just got you drunk.” Mulder grinned, remembering that entirely memorable night. “Did Elliott tan your hide for that by the way?”


Donald flushed a shade of vivid pink, all the way up to his earlobes. “Mulder!” He hissed.


“Well, you watched my Master spank the hell out of me, so I don’t see why you should be so coy about it,” Mulder chided. “Come on, Donny – spill the beans.” 


“It’s private,” Donald hissed. “But yes…he was a little, uh, firm with me. He still is – but only when I play up for his attention and I don’t usually because… spanking *hurts*, Mulder. You never told me that!”


“Well, duh!” Mulder shook his head. “It does hurt, Don, but…it’s a good hurt.” He grinned. 


“Well, I like the idea of it more than the reality…although I love it when we play act it. I hate it when he does it for real because I don’t like knowing that I’ve upset him or disappointed him in some way. I just want him to be proud of me.” 


“Hell, I’m sure he is, Don,” Mulder grinned. “I can tell just by the way he looks at you.”


Donald gave a cheerful little smile in return and his cheeks flushed an even deeper shade of bubble gum pink. Mulder chuckled – Donald was the easiest person in the world to tease. 


“So, tell me, Don,” Mulder said, lowering his voice into a whisper, “what does Walter have planned for me to wear to this wedding?”


Donald straightened up and put away his tape measure. “I can’t tell you that I’m afraid, Mulder,” he said, with a totally professional, and entirely evil smile. “I’ve been sworn to secrecy. One thing I do know though is that you’re going to attract one hell of a lot of admiring glances.” And with that he sauntered out of the cubicle, leaving Mulder to reflect on the fact that Donald wasn’t the only one who was easily teased. 


Mulder spent a busy few days in New Orleans with Monica Reyes, investigating a case of apparent bodily possession by an otherworldly entity.  Reyes proved to be an able, if sometimes slightly annoying person to have around, with her endless questions and sunny disposition. Mulder found her new-age outlook on life thoroughly exasperating, and was keen to dispel any preconceptions she might have that working on the X Files was going to be some kind of a spiritual journey. In his experience, the X Files were about getting your shoes covered in acidic green slime and taking regular trips to the hospital, and he didn’t want her to be in any doubt about the reality of their work. A part of him was secretly hoping she’d give up and he’d be able to report back to Skinner and Scully that she hadn’t worked out, but, much to his annoyance, she seemed to love her first case, despite his best efforts to make the whole thing seem ten times more frightening than it actually was.


They returned to the office, where Monica began submitting the usual expenses report for a new pair of shoes and a cell phone, under Scully’s expert and well practiced tutelage, and Mulder began typing up the case report. He waited until Scully and Monica had left the office to visit the cafeteria, and then reached for the phone. 


“Skinner,” his Master answered tersely. 


“Hey. It’s me – I’m home,” Mulder replied. “Miss me?”


“You’ve only been gone 3 days,” Skinner pointed out. 


“Bet the bed’s been kinda cold without me though.”


“Wanda functions very well as a hot water bottle.” 


“Hah. Well, I know you missed me, and I’m sure as hell you missed my, uh, more personal services,” Mulder riposted seductively. 


“And I sure as hell hope Scully and Reyes aren’t there with you right now listening to this,” Skinner replied. 


“Nah – they went in search of muffins…which is, of and by itself, an X File. Before Reyes came along Scully only ate low fat yoghurt – now she can’t exist without regular infusions of pastries every few hours. There used to be a time when I could bribe her with muffins but now she eats several a day that just doesn’t work any more,” Mulder said mournfully.


“She *is* pregnant,” Skinner reminded him. “She’s eating for two now.” 


“Hmmm. So what have you been doing in my absence?”  


“I went back to my old gym – did some boxing.” Skinner’s voice sounded distracted. 


“You beat someone to a pulp without taking me along to watch?” Mulder asked mournfully. “You know I love it when you do all that he-man stuff.” 


“I didn’t beat anybody to a pulp. I got creamed. I’m completely out of practice.” 


“You okay? Were you hurt?” Mulder frowned, finding it hard to imagine anyone besting his tall, strong Master in a fight. 


“Just a little banged up. A couple of bruises but I’m fine,” Skinner said dismissively.  


“So, any chance of you leaving early tonight?” Mulder asked, with what he hoped was a purr in his voice. “I could rub something into those bruises…” 


“Sorry, Fox,” Skinner said, with a regretful little sigh. “But I’m snowed under here – I can’t seem to finish this mountain of paperwork, and I’ve got one hell of a headache that won’t go away.”


“Sounds to me like you need some attention from your favourite slaveboy to relax you,” Mulder suggested in a throaty voice. Skinner gave a wry, deep chuckle but it sounded strained. “You sure you’re okay?” Mulder asked anxiously. 


“What? Yes…just…I have to work, Fox,” Skinner said in a distant tone of voice, and with that he finished the call.  


Mulder sat and stared at the phone despondently. That wasn’t the welcome home he’d been hoping for; he knew he’d only been away for a few days but right now, as in love with his Master as he was, that felt like a lifetime. 


With a sigh, he turned in his chair and began wading his way through the little pile of case notes and evidence he had brought back with him. He worked steadily throughout the afternoon, until the phone interrupted him at about 4pm. 


“Agent Mulder!” A breathless, frantic voice said on the other end of the line. 


“Yes…who is this…?” Mulder stood up, a cold premonition seizing him. He had the feeling that something was wrong – very wrong. 


“It’s me…it’s Kim…I…Agent Mulder…” She sounded distressed and tearful. 


“Kim – what the hell is happening?”  


“It’s the Assistant Director,” she whispered, and Mulder felt his heart fall several feet into the soles of his shoes – and stay there.  


“What’s happened…? No, wait…I’m coming up there.” 


Mulder dropped the phone and ran for the elevator. He waited for it to arrive for all of 6 seconds before deciding he couldn’t stand there any longer and took the stairs instead, climbing them 3 at a time. As he ran, a hundred worse case scenarios flitted through his mind, the worst of them all shoving their way to the front and refusing to go away: Maybe Krycek was back…maybe he’d come back seeking revenge, had somehow got access to the building and had put a bullet through Skinner’s head. Or maybe those bruises Skinner had mentioned were more serious than he’d realised. Maybe he had damaged his heart. Mulder charged along the 5th floor corridor, barely able to breathe from anxiety, ran towards Skinner’s office, threw open the door, charged inside, and stopped short, utterly shocked. 


His Master was lying on the carpet in his office, with a makeshift pillow under his head. His face was white, the colour of chalk, and his eyes were closed, but what was truly shocking was the network of dark purple veins that criss-crossed his face, like a lattice. Mulder had never seen anything like them in his life before. 


“He just collapsed,” Kim said tearfully, from where she was kneeling beside Skinner’s body. “One minute I was talking to him, and the next…his face started to go like this…” She waved a hand at the dark lines covering Skinner’s face, “…and he went down like someone physically yanked his legs out from under his body. I’ve called for the paramedics…I put my sweater under his head…”


“Walter?” Mulder ran forward and knelt down beside his Master. “Master?” He whispered softly, placing his fingers against the big man’s neck. The raised dark veins pulsed almost obscenely beneath his fingers, but he was relieved that at least his Master was still alive. Skinner made no move though, and he didn’t open his eyes. “Walter?!” Mulder said again, more firmly this time, taking his Master’s head in his hands. There was still no response and he looked up helplessly at Kim.


“Damnit, where are those paramedics?” He yelled. 


“They’re on their way,” she replied, her voice catching in her throat. “Will he be okay? He has to be okay. He’s the nicest man…the best boss I’ve ever worked for…” 


Mulder grabbed one of Skinner’s hands and held it tight, not caring whether Kim or anyone else saw or heard him. “You can’t die now, Walter,” he hissed. “Not now. Not when everything’s so good. Christ, we went through all the shit we’ve been through just so we could reach this point, and you are not going to die on me now. You are NOT!” He said forcefully. There was no reply; Skinner remained oblivious to his slave’s entreaties. “Christ, what the hell *is* this?” Mulder wondered out loud, his long fingers sweeping across the broad expanse of his Master’s head again, examining the raised, pulsating veins. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” It had the feeling of an X File – and Mulder had encountered enough of those in his time to be able to identify one when it was right beneath his nose. He tried desperately to remember whether any of the files in his basement office contained information on something like this, but his worry made it impossible for him to focus, and a few seconds later he was pushed out of the way as the paramedics swept into the room. He watched, helplessly, as they examined his Master and then strapped Skinner onto a gurney. Mulder jogged alongside his Master as they took Skinner downstairs and into a waiting ambulance. 


“Sorry, sir,” one of the paramedics said, blocking his way as he tried to get into the ambulance. “You’ll have to follow on behind.”


“Like fucking hell! I’m coming with him,” Mulder replied, in a tone of voice that sent shivers even up his own spine, and seemed to have a similar effect on the paramedic, who backed away, startled. “I’m his next of kin,” he said firmly, suddenly thankful for the fact that Skinner had been so insistent on clarifying his slave’s legal status in the wake of Murray’s heart attack. 


Skinner didn’t move during the journey to the hospital, and he was still comatose when they wheeled him into the ER. Even then, Mulder refused to be separated from his Master. When they tried to get him to go into another room he point blank refused. 


“I won’t leave his side,” he said, shaking his head. I’m his slave, he thought to himself. If he dies I’ll sit beside his goddamn grave until I die too. He felt a stab of intense pain in his chest at the thought of his Master dying. He wasn’t sure he could live without Skinner – he couldn’t physically imagine a life without his Master in it, not after all they’d been through this past year, and not now, when he was more in love with his Master than at any point before. Supposing there was some kind of hideous symmetry about all this? Andrew Linker, Skinner’s top, had died after helping Skinner towards an understanding and acceptance of himself and his sexuality. Supposing this was history repeating itself? He pushed that thought away, and watched, as if from a great distance, as the doctors swarmed all over his Master.  


“Sir?” A sturdy, no-nonsense, black doctor took hold of his arm and forced him to look away from the scene in front of him, where his Master was having tubes inserted into his arms, and to look into her eyes instead. 


“What is it? What’s happened to him?” Mulder asked. 


“We don’t know,” the doctor said gently, seeing his obvious distress. 


“You don’t know what’s wrong with him?” Mulder shook his head incredulously. “Christ – surely he can’t look like that and it not be obvious what the hell is wrong with him!”


“Nobody’s seen anything like it, sir,” the doctor told him. “We’re making him more comfortable while we wait for the results of some tests.” 


Mulder couldn’t even follow what she was talking about. Everything seemed hazy. All he could see was his Master, lying pale and prone under a hospital sheet. “But…he was fine…I spoke to him earlier. He had a headache…he said he had a headache but he was fine…I don’t…” He paused and pulled himself together. “Is he going to be okay?” He asked quietly.


“We don’t know yet,” she replied honestly. “It’s touch and go right now but we’ll do all we can for him.”


“Touch and go…” Mulder repeated. “Are you saying that he could die from this? Could it kill him?”


“Yes, Mr. Mulder. He could die,” she told him quietly, and Mulder felt the icy fist that had been wrapped around his heart since he got Kim’s frantic phone call, tighten its grip. “He’s got severe circulatory problems to the extent where…” The doctor opened her mouth again, hesitated, and then continued. “It might be necessary for us to amputate his extremities,” she told him.


“What?” Mulder stared at her blankly. “What the hell do you mean?” 


“His arms and legs…if the blood flow gets worse then there will be tissue death – we might have to amputate his legs, and possibly his arms, to save his life. It might be necessary. We might need you to agree to the operation.” Her brown eyes were sympathetic but that did nothing to lessen the horrific import of what she was saying. 


Mulder closed his eyes and tried to visualise how his Master would feel about that. So much of Skinner’s personality was invested in his sheer, physical presence – he couldn’t imagine how his Master would cope with being disabled. Would he rather be dead than crippled for life? Or would he prefer to survive, whatever the price? Would he blame Mulder for giving them permission to operate? Or would he be grateful that Mulder had made such a hard decision for him? How would it affect their relationship, Mulder wondered? Not in a selfish sense, but simply in terms of practicalities. Could Skinner even *be* his Master in such circumstances? And could Mulder treat him as one? How much of both their perceptions of their roles rested on the fact that Skinner was able to physically subdue Mulder as part of a sex game and simply in the course of their daily lives, even down to the spanking he handed out to Mulder every day? Mulder knew it would alter their relationship irrevocably, but he also knew that he didn’t care about that. He loved Walter Skinner, the man, and not just the Master, and Mulder knew he wanted to keep the man he loved alive at any price. It didn’t bother him that Skinner would be handicapped – he just wasn’t sure that he could face life without the other man’s calm, sturdy presence. He knew that was selfish, and that made this decision even harder for him. Would Skinner want to be kept alive at any price? What would the other man want? He trusted Mulder to make this decision for him, and if he couldn’t then who the hell  could? Who knew Skinner as well as he did? He’d lived with the man for nearly a year; lived with him, worshipped him, loved him…he was Skinner’s slave for god’s sake! If he didn’t know then nobody would. If only it wasn’t such a hard decision to make. 


“Will it keep him alive?” He demanded, opening his eyes again.  


“We’re not sure. We think it’ll help improve his chances…” The doctor began but Mulder interrupted her, shaking his head violently. 


“No – if you don’t know what’s causing this, if you can’t even be sure that this will help, then no. There’s no way I’m authorising you to chop off his damn legs if you can’t tell me it’ll save his life. I’m not putting him through that.” 


She backed away, perhaps shocked by his vehemence, but he knew that in this instance he’d made the right decision. It might get harder if the option was raised again, if and when they had any more information, but for now he knew this was the right decision to make. 


They transferred Skinner to the ICU, and Mulder took up position in a chair beside his Master’s bed, unable to take his eyes off Skinner’s chalky white face, with those throbbing dark veins as raised and as angry looking as ever, hoping to see some sign of life. The hospital staff kept pumping the big man full of a cocktail of different drugs but still Skinner remained unconscious. The longer the hapless medical staff was unable to identify the cause of Skinner’s illness, or an effective treatment for it, the more Mulder was convinced that they wouldn’t find an answer in conventional medicine. 


He made what felt like hundreds of calls – to Scully first, and then to Perry, because they were both doctors. Scully told him she’d come straight over. Perry couldn’t leave work immediately, but he made Mulder outline what had happened – and couldn’t find any fault with the treatment Skinner was receiving. In fact, he seemed as flummoxed by it as the hospital staff. Mulder had never heard the laid back doctor sound so concerned – usually nothing could phase him, but on this occasion he had no answers. 


Mulder phoned his Master’s sister, Tabi, next. If this really was life threatening then Skinner’s family should be here. He hated the way her voice broke in distress when he gave her the news. She said she’d be there as soon as she could, and Mulder left contacting the rest of Skinner’s family up to her. From what he’d learned about them, he doubted whether they’d rush to be at his Master’s bedside, and that made him so furious he didn’t even want to think about it with everything else that was going on. 


Various other people started to arrive in response to his calls; first Scully, accompanied by Doggett, and then Elaine swooped in, clutching a thick, navy blue cardigan around her ample curves. All around him there was a haze of shocked faces, and all he could hear was the sound of his own monotone voice, explaining and explaining and explaining, telling the same story over and over again as if it wasn’t happening to him, as if none of this was real.  


Scully scanned Skinner’s medical notes with a professional eye and then turned back to Mulder. 


“Mulder, these readings are impossible. It’s almost as if he’s been infected by some kind of poison – but an active one – the readings keep changing all the time, as if someone is pumping doses of it into him which is impossible.” She glanced around the hospital room. 


“That sounds familiar. I think I’ve read…” Mulder paused, trying to recall something he’d seen in one of his files. “Shit…I think I know what this is…” He strode towards the door but when he got half way there he paused, faltered, and glanced back. His Master was still comatose and Mulder was torn. He didn’t trust anyone else to solve this. Nobody was as good an investigator as he was, and yet…he didn’t want to leave his Master either. Supposing Skinner died, and Mulder wasn’t there with him when it happened? Or supposing that scalpel-happy doctor stuck her knife into him when he wasn’t there to agree to an operation – or to refuse one either? Or supposing Skinner woke up and asked for him? Supposing he woke up to find his slave wasn’t there? Mulder couldn’t think of a greater failure of his duty as a slave to not be there for his Master when Skinner called for him. 


“I can’t go,” he said, turning back to Scully. “I can’t leave him. Scully, you have to do this for me. You and Monica – and John too if you’ll help?” Mulder glanced at Doggett. The ex-marine nodded firmly.


“We’re here for you, buddy – and for him.” He jerked his head in Skinner’s direction. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”


“There’s a file – something about nanotechnology,” Mulder told them. 


“Nanotechnology on a biological level is still in the theoretical stages,” Scully frowned.  


“Officially.” Mulder shrugged. “Unofficially…” He shrugged again. “There was an X File about 18 months ago, Scully. A woman in Tahoma died and her body looked pretty much like his does right now. Her arteries had literally been packed with carbon – you could have used them as a pencil. Suppose she was a test subject? Supposing they were trying to see just how much damage they could do with the technology?”


“But – how would Skinner have been infected, Mulder?” Doggett asked, frowning.  


“No – that’s the wrong question,” Mulder replied brusquely, meeting Scully’s shocked, blue eyed gaze. She knew. “The right question is *why* was Skinner infected. The how is easy enough – if this is what I think it is then someone wearing contaminated gloves could have brushed next to Skinner anywhere – on the metro, in an elevator – all it would take is contact with his bare skin – his hand, or wrist. Scully, you need to check ‘nanotechnology’ in my files. I’ve got it cross referenced on microfiche,” Mulder told her. She managed a faint smile at that. She often teased him about the incomprehensibility of his microfiche filing system but he always knew where everything was. “Look it up,” he instructed. “Find that file. Follow any leads you have on it. I think…no, I’m fairly positive, he *has* been poisoned, Scully.” 


She nodded, and hustled off with Doggett by her side. Mulder watched her go, still seriously torn. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps he *should* go. Supposing they were unable to solve this case without the benefit of his genius in this particular line of work? Supposing his Master died because Mulder hadn’t taken on the case himself? 


“Hush,” Elaine said, putting a hand on his shoulder, and he turned and gazed at her blankly. “You’re doing the right thing,” she said soothingly, and he wondered whether the machinations of his brain were that transparent, written all over his face.  


“I’m trying,” he said hoarsely. “It isn’t easy. All my natural instincts are…” He shook his head. He’d always been active, restless, needing to seek out the truth – that was as much part of his personality as his new persona as Skinner’s slave. Now he was seriously torn between the two warring parts of his personality. The slave wanted to stay with his Master. The investigator, the FBI agent, the relentless seeker after truth, wanted to get out there, and do something useful. 


“No, it isn’t easy,” Elaine told him, squeezing his shoulder softly. “But you’re doing everything right, Mulder. I’m proud of you – and he would be too if he knew how well you were handling this.” 


“I don’t feel like I’m handling anything. I feel like I’m holding on by the skin of my teeth,” he growled, turning back to Skinner and sitting down beside him again. He had become so accustomed to the ugly dark veins throbbing in his Master’s face that it took him a moment to realise that something had changed; the veins were darker, standing out more on the other man’s face, raised, livid and black, in stark contrast to his Master’s pale skin, and Skinner’s breathing was becoming more laborious.


“Oh shit!” He hissed. 


“What is it?” Elaine was by his side in seconds.


“Call the medical staff in here…no! Wait!” Mulder hesitated, something Scully had said to him coming back to him. “She said it looked as if someone was pumping doses of it into his bloodstream and that’s the only thing that can explain the fact that his condition is worsening like this. There’s someone here. Someone is doing this to him right now,” he said, racing towards the door.


“Mulder! There’s nobody here!” Elaine protested, glancing around the room.


“You don’t understand – once the nanocytes are in his bloodstream there doesn’t have to be someone physically standing next to him to activate them. They have a range so whoever is doing this has to be in the building, but they could be in the hallway, or in the elevator, or anywhere nearby,” Mulder told her in rapid tones. “Elaine – stay with him.”


He ran out of the door and into the hallway, drawing his gun as he went. He was barely out of the door when he caught sight of a man disappearing around a corner. He shouted at the man to stop but he just burst into a run. Mulder followed him, running as hard as he could. His Master’s life was at stake here, and that lent him speed. He saw the man disappear into a stairwell and ran after him, chasing him all the way down to the parking garage four floors below. Mulder emerged into the dimly lit garage, panting hard but grateful for the fact that he was in such good shape, owing partly to his Master’s excellent care of him and carefully prescripted diet and exercise regime. He had lost sight of the man, and walked cautiously between the cars, his gun raised. A sound alerted him and he threw himself down, slid across the garage, and ended up crouched behind a car, using it for cover. There was silence, and then a car slowly purred across the garage towards him, and stopped right next to the car he was hidden behind. A door was opened, a silent invitation to him, and he stood, equally silently accepting it. 


He stepped inside the car, and wasn’t surprised when the doors closed smoothly behind him, and he heard the click of a lock. The man who had lured him down here was seated in the front seat, next to the chauffeur – Mulder didn’t recognise either of them but he knew the man in the back seat – not well enough to know his name, but sure as hell well enough to know that he was an enemy. 


“Good day to you, Agent Mulder,” the man said, in his usual exquisitely cultured tones. 


“I’m surprised,” Mulder drawled in return. “I thought they’d send that cigarette smoking son of a bitch to have this particular conversation.” 


The Englishman gave a wry little smile. “I do hope I’m not a disappointment,” he said, those smooth tones hiding a core of hard, cold steel. Mulder sat back in his seat. 


“That depends on what you want,” he replied.


“We heard you were back on the X Files. You’ve been poking around again. It’s tiresome.” All pretence at civility was gone – the voice was as hard as the snap of his Master’s cane.  


“I’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s always been tiresome for you,” Mulder replied. 


“Ah, yes, but over the past year you’ve been…” the Englishman paused and then gave a deliberate little smile, “shall we say distracted? We’ve enjoyed not having you on the X Files but whenever you returned…” He gave a heavy sigh. “Well, you’ve become less…predictable than you used to be,” the Englishman murmured. Mulder gave a short bark of laughter.


“You mean I haven’t been as easy to manipulate,” he replied, thinking of the plane ticket Krycek had bought to try and get him to investigate that UFO in Oregon a few months previously. “Maybe I finally learned my lesson.” And it had been learned the hard way, he thought to himself, remembering a warehouse in Seattle, the sharp blade of Krycek’s knife slicing into his chest, and that long dark night of the soul as he waited for his Master to find him. 


“We did prefer you when you were more…suggestible, yes.” The Englishman inclined his head.  


“So you did this?” Mulder felt a tide of icy anger rise inside him. “You poisoned Skinner in order to manipulate me?” 


“Poison is a strong word.” The Englishman shrugged. “What we did was implant several thousand dollars worth of very expensive technology into his bloodstream.” 


“You’re killing him,” Mulder snapped. 


“We can reverse the effects at any time – he might be left with a few, minor side effects, but…” The Englishman shrugged. “Basically he’ll be unharmed.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small palm pilot which he placed on his knee. “With one press of this button, we can reduce the carbon build up in his bloodstream,” he said, fingering the palm pilot with one elegantly manicured fingernail. 


“It’s a leash,” Mulder said slowly. “You’re leashing me – if I don’t do what you say, then you’ll hurt him.” 


“Ah, well, I’ve heard you understand all about leashes,” the Englishman said, in a knowing, smirking tone. “This shouldn’t be such a difficult concept for you to grasp.” 


“For how long?” Mulder asked, keeping a tight grip on his anger.  


The Englishman raised an eyebrow. “We won’t be asking for our expensive technology back immediately,” he commented. “In fact, there’s no reason why it can’t remain in Assistant Director Skinner’s bloodstream for a very long time.” 


“You’ve gotta be kidding me.” Mulder shook his head. “You’re leashing me for an entire lifetime?” 


“I’ve heard that you’re not averse to such arrangements,” the Englishman replied, with just a hint of prurience in his voice. “Who knows, you might find our leash more comfortable than his. I’m sure we can duplicate your current contractual circumstances if you’d care to leave him and come into our warm and welcoming fold.” 


“What?” Mulder could hardly believe what he was hearing.


“You have certain needs. We can take care of them.” The Englishman shrugged. “We’ve always been very good at taking care of those who help us,” he continued, with an air of lofty superiority.  


“You wouldn’t know where to fucking start,” Mulder growled. Did it always have to come back to this? Was his sexuality such a problem? Did the outside world really think he could be manipulated, judged and held hostage because of who he chose to sleep with and the way he chose to enjoy sex? Did this man in front of him really think his entire life revolved around his sexuality to such an extent that he’d trade someone he loved for it? 


Mulder bit back his anger and despair, and tried to think this through rationally. What would his Master want him to do? What did *he* want to do? What were the implications for their future together if he agreed? He clenched his fists uselessly as he pondered that – did he and his Master even have a future together if he refused? And yet…Skinner had always refused to be held hostage, over his sexuality or anything else. That wasn’t something he’d found easy but it was something Andrew Linker had taught him, and he’d taught him well. Mulder knew that a life with them both dangling on the end of the Consortium string would be no life at all – for either of them – and he knew what Skinner would instruct him to do if he was here right now. The question was – could he do it?  


“No,” Mulder said finally, needing to say the word, to make it too late to take it back, knowing he could be condemning his Master to death. The Englishman raised an eyebrow.


“No?” He queried. 


“No,” Mulder said, with more finality in his voice. He leaned forward. “I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, ‘a servant cannot serve two masters’,” he said. “It simply isn’t possible for me to be what I am to him, and to work for you. He wouldn’t tolerate that and neither could I.” 


“Then join us. We’ll find you a new Master.” The Englishman looked as if he found the idea appealing. Mulder shuddered. 


“Not on your fucking life,” he snapped.


“The alternative is…extreme.” The Englishman fingered the palm pilot menacingly. 


“Kill him then,” Mulder replied, and this time, it was *his* voice which held a core of pure, raw steel. “But if you do,” he continued, “I will hunt you down, all of you, and I will kill you myself, with my own hands, starting with you. You know a little of my capacity to love – I’m sure you know what losing my sister did to me, and how I devoted my whole life to tracking her down. I have this amazing capacity for obsession you see, and I never have been and never will be as obsessed with anyone else or as in love with anyone else the way I am with Walter Skinner, so if you kill him my own life won’t matter to me. I’ll pursue you until the end of my days, and, if I die in the process, I’ll make damn sure that every single newspaper in the world understands why – and who killed me.” His voice was a savage, even monotone, and he meant every single word of what he said. 


“Very impressive.” The Englishman sat back, and gazed at Mulder with eyes full of a new respect. “It would seem that you’ve changed, Mr. Mulder. However, this new maturity you’re showing leaves us at something of an impasse.” 


“Agreed.” Mulder nodded.


“So…perhaps I could suggest a compromise?” The Englishman gazed at Mulder thoughtfully.  


Mulder inclined his head. “I’ll accept nothing less than a total cure for him – you give me the means to clear the nanocytes from his blood totally and completely. I won’t have this hanging over him,” he said firmly. 


“In exchange for what?” The Englisham enquired. “You’ve already told us that you’re not for sale – so what else do you have to offer?” 


Mulder took a deep breath. “The X Files,” he replied. “Or at least, my presence on them. I’ll resign. Immediately. Someone else will take over but that’ll be your problem, not mine.”


“You’d give up the X Files?” The Englishman looked intrigued.


“Yes. I don’t promise to stop investigating anything I damn well choose, but I’ll do it without my FBI badge, and without the power and authority of the FBI behind me,” Mulder replied.


“You’ve fought for years to keep the X Files,” the Englishman said, pursing his lips as he considered this. “Are we really to believe you’d give them up like this, without a fight?”


“To save his life? Yes. I would. Without even thinking about it – but that’s the last goddamn concession you bastards get out of me,” Mulder replied, in a low, deadly tone. “Well? Is this a decision you can make yourself, or do you need to call someone?” 


The Englishman refused to rise to that bait. He just chuckled and shook his head. “Oh, I’m perfectly qualified to speak on behalf of my associates. You have yourself a deal, Agent…no, *Mr* Mulder,” he grinned. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.” 


“I wish I could say the same,” Mulder replied grimly.  


The Englishman snapped the palm pilot shut and then held it out. “Everything you need to know is detailed in here,” he said.


“Fine. The minute the doctors have confirmed that his blood is clear, my resignation will be…” Mulder paused, and then sighed, and passed a hand over his eyes, “On his desk,” he finished, wondering whether Skinner would even accept the letter he had to write, and yet knowing that neither of them, Master or slave, had a choice. His hand closed around the palm pilot, and it was only then that he felt a pang of finality about his decision. Had he done the right thing? He wasn’t sure he could imagine a life without the X Files – they had defined him for so long. What was he without them? *Who* was he without them? 


Your Master’s slave – what else do you need to be? A little voice whispered inside his head. Was that enough though, Mulder wondered to himself? Or had he, in saving Skinner’s life, somehow destroyed the glue that helped keep Master and slave together?  


It took the doctors, working closely with Scully, 12 hours to reduce the nanocyte activity in Skinner’s bloodstream and another 12 to eliminate it altogether – yet still his Master remained unconscious. 


“Why the hell doesn’t he wake up?” Mulder snapped at the doctor, wondering whether somehow the Englishman had double crossed him. Sleep deprivation was making him more paranoid than usual, and he longed to have his Master back. 


“His body has been badly stressed by the experience,” the doctor replied. “We can’t tell if he’ll regain consciousness after what’s been done to him – we just don’t know. We don’t have any data to go on.” 


“Christ, this is a fucking nightmare!” Mulder growled, slamming his hand against a wall.  


“Even if he does wake up…we don’t know what residual effects the nanocytes might have left him with,” the doctor told him softly. “This is so completely outside our experience.”


“He’s strong, Mulder,” Scully added, and he could tell she was trying to reassure him by the tone of her voice, but she didn’t know anything either – nobody did. Nanotechnology on this level didn’t even officially exist yet so how could they know for sure that Skinner would recover from what had been done to him? The Englishman had mentioned ‘a few, minor side effects’ but what the hell did that mean? 


“If he’s so strong why the hell hasn’t he woken up?” Mulder demanded of them both. 


“We don’t know.” The doctor shook her head. “Like I said, this is completely outside our experience. It could be any number of reasons – it could just be the level of stress to his system, or it might be that he was run down before this even happened and he isn’t recovering as quickly as we’d like as a result of that.” 


“Run down?” Mulder repeated blankly. He had always seen his Master as this big, invincible top – it had never occurred to him that Skinner might actually find the role so exhausting that it was having a physical effect on him.  


“Also, you should be aware that there are indications of an inexplicable residual nerve inflammation that may or may not be a result of the nanoctyes,” the doctor added gently. 


“Which means?” Mulder looked first to the doctor, and then to Scully for an interpretation. It was Scully who gave it to him. 


“Which means that even if he regains consciousness, he might never walk again,” she told him softly. “Or at least it might be hard for him. He might never regain full mobility.


Mulder bit down his anger. He would be grateful if his Master just survived, but was *this* what that English bastard had meant by ‘a few minor side effects’? Had he given Skinner back his life, but in the sure knowledge that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it in the same way as he had before? 


Mulder glanced back to where Skinner was lying on the bed. His Master’s face was no longer criss-crossed with those ugly, raised veins, but his skin was still deathly pale, and there were dark shadows under his eyes. Mulder knew that if the Englishman were here right now, he’d squeeze his hands around the man’s throat and never let go for what he’d put his Master through. 


People came and went, a succession of worried frowns and whispering voices.  Mulder was dimly aware that Skinner’s sister, Tabi, was there, her face almost as pale as her brother’s beneath her tan. Her dark curls were tied behind her head and she looked tired and concerned, her face a mirror of the way they were all feeling right now. She came and went, just as Doggett and Scully, Elaine and Ian, Hammer and Perry and everyone else came and went, and he barely even noticed them. Every single ounce of his being was focused on the man lying on the hospital bed, as if he could will Walter to get better by sheer force of his devotion alone. People tried to talk to him but he ignored them, and eventually they all left. All except one. 


“Mulder.” He was aware of Elaine, standing beside him, her hand on his shoulder. She was the only one in the room. “He’ll pull through,” she told him, squeezing hard, forcing him to acknowledge her. 


“Maybe he won’t. You heard the doctor. He’s run down.” Mulder gave a low, bitter laugh. “I’m not fucking surprised either after the year he’s had.”


“It’s been the best year of his life,” she told him, drawing up a chair and sitting facing him, beside Skinner’s bed. 


“Yeah. Right. I’ve given him the runaround all year, Elaine – we both know that.” Mulder gazed sightlessly at his Master’s pale face. “And then this happened to him – because of me, and my fucking quest. First it nearly ruined Scully’s life, and now his – and let’s not even talk about what it’s done to my life. I shouldn’t love people, Elaine. I’m like the fucking kiss of death. Like Typhoid Mary. Wherever I go I end up causing pain and loss.” 


“He chose you,” Elaine said softly. “He chose to be involved with you and it’s not as if he didn’t know that you came with some baggage.” She gave a little smile, but he couldn’t return it. “He knew what being your Master would entail,” Elaine insisted in a firmer voice. “He accepted that duty because he loves you and he wanted you in his life. He knew it wouldn’t be easy.”


“Well that’s a goddamn understatement,” Mulder growled. They were silent for awhile. Her hand stroked his where it lay on the bed beside Walter’s pale arm. 


“He had a cold just before Christmas,” Mulder murmured. “And all I could think about was the damn branding…and then there was Murray…he was worried about him…and I just gave him more to worry about.” 


“No. That’s not true. I’ve never seen him so happy. Walter’s strong. He’ll get through this, you’ll see,” Elaine said, squeezing his fingers firmly. 


“He was happy with Andrew,” Mulder said softly. “He was happy being the Guardian, doing his job, having all those young men worshipping at his feet before I came along.”


“No. He wasn’t,” Elaine told him. “He was just treading water until you were ready to ask him for what he wanted to give you. He was content, yes, but not happy. Not the way he is with you. I saw him, Mulder. I was his friend. I know how many lonely evenings he spent. We often had dinner together and although he was fine on the outside, he seemed…just a little lost on the inside. He was waiting for that one big, transforming love of his life and he found it.” Her fingers curled around his, impressing that point upon him.  


“Transforming…?” Mulder frowned. 


“Yes. Did you think that all that had been happening this past year was him transforming you? Him changing your life?” She shook her head. “You’ve changed his just as much. You’ve changed him.” 


Dozens of memories crowded Mulder’s mind. He remembered the first day his Master had brought him back to his apartment, and how arrogant, stupid and selfish he had been back then. He had honestly thought he could play Skinner, treat him like every other top he’d been with, consume him and then move on when, as was inevitable, Mulder felt a need to jump ship before his tops grew tired of him and rejected him. Only that hadn’t happened; Skinner had taken every single piece of shit Mulder had thrown at him, and somehow remained strong, steadfast, and utterly implacable. The more Mulder had wriggled, like a fish on a hook, the more Skinner had calmed him, utterly refusing to let him go, until he’d finally allowed himself to be reeled in. It had never even occurred to Mulder that he might have been a positive effect on Skinner’s life. To him, it was as if Skinner had appeared in his life out of nowhere, swooped in when he was heading for the certainty of an early grave, and forced him to face up to himself.  


“I guess I hadn’t even thought what Walter might have been getting out of the bargain,” he commented. “Well, besides all the sex and worship,” he said, managing a faintly ironic grin for the first time since this nightmare had begun. 


“He got a lot more than that, trust me,” Elaine said, returning his grin with one of her own. “Mulder…” she began and he saw the anxiety in her eyes. 


“Elaine, you don’t have to worry about me,” he told her softly. “What Walter knows, what *I* know, is that despite all the shit I seem to attract, I’m as tough as old boots inside.” He gave her a little smile. “I’ll be here for him, Elaine.”


“The doctors say he might be an invalid,” she reminded him. “Can you live with that, Mulder? He won’t be your fantasy sex god any more. He’ll just be…”


“What he’s always been,” Mulder interrupted her. “My lover, my best friend, the person who knows me best…and my Master. He’ll always be that, Elaine, even if he never walks again. He’s my Master, and I’m his slave – it’s as simple as that.” And it really was. Nothing that happened could ever change that one fact; it was the bedrock on which his life was built. “He’s not just my Master for show, for the scene, for some kind of sex game – he’s my *Master* and I’m his slave. That’s all there is to it.”  


Elaine didn’t say anything. She just took his head in her hands, pressed a kiss to his forehead, and then left the room. 


Mulder felt strangely serene after their conversation, as if he was existing in a dream. He believed that he and his Master belonged together, that they were united by some force he couldn’t even begin to understand, and that he was lucky; in other universes, in other places and times, this hadn’t happened, and he and his Master were no closer than colleagues who occasionally butted horns. In this universe, he felt that he’d lucked out, and found the one person in the world who he was meant to be with. There was nothing left for him to do but accept whatever happened next, just as had learned, over the past year, to give up his own selfish whims, and accept his Master’s will. He was a slave, first and foremost – Walter Skinner’s slave – and that was the role he would fulfil to the best of his ability. Everything else came from that.  


Mulder busied himself in that role for the next few days. He read to his Master, bathed him, massaged his limbs, and oversaw every aspect of his treatment. He no longer fretted about the future, or what would happen if Skinner didn’t regain consciousness or never walked again. Instead he just focused on his slavery and on tending to his Master, until, a week after Skinner had first collapsed, Mulder was sitting in silence beside the bed, stroking his Master’s hand softly, when he felt the faintest pressure on his fingers. He glanced up, surprised, to find his Master’s fingertips gently squeezing his own, and then Skinner’s eyelids fluttered open. Mulder held his breath, and a few seconds later his Master’s deep brown eyes focussed on him, and Skinner gave a tired little smile.


“Hey,” Mulder said softly. 


“Hey,” Skinner murmured. “Wass happening?” 


“You clearly got jealous of my status as the dramatic one in this relationship, and felt a need to stage a theatrical hospital visit of your own,” Mulder told him dryly.


“I…I was talking to Kim…” Skinner frowned.


“Yes – and then you collapsed. You’ve been out cold ever since. It’s been a week. You were infected with a poison – courtesy of the consortium,” Mulder told him softly. “But you’re going to be fine.” He stood up, leaned forward, and planted a gentle kiss on Skinner’s cool forehead. “Master,” he whispered softly under his breath. He felt Skinner tense as the full implications of what Mulder had told him sank in.


“The consortium?” he hissed. 


“Yes.” Mulder sat down again. “But it’s okay. I took care of it.”


“Took care…how, Fox?” 


“It doesn’t matter,” Mulder told him. “You’re the only thing that matters right now.”


“You okay?” Skinner croaked, gazing at his slave anxiously. “They didn’t hurt you?”  


“I’m fine,” Mulder told him firmly. “You’re the one who’s in a goddamn hospital bed, Walter. You have to stop worrying about me and concentrate on getting better.” 


Skinner gave a wry chuckle at that. “Old habits die hard,” he murmured. Then he frowned. “My legs…” He glanced down. “They’re tingling. They feel kind of prickly.”


“Yeah.” Mulder nodded slowly. “The poison affected the nerve endings, Walter,” he said gently.


“What the hell does that mean?” Skinner attempted to sit up, and then gave a grimace and sank back down again, weak as a kitten.


“It’s okay. It just means that you’re going to need some physical therapy to get walking again,” Mulder told him, placing a hand on the big man’s shoulder. “And it might be tough – but you will do it. I’ll help you.”


Skinner’s face looked grey against the white hospital pillow and his eyes were shocked.


“I can’t walk?” He whispered, a shadow falling across his face. 


“You will walk,” Mulder told him firmly. “Only it might take some time. You have to take it easy, Walter.” 


“I…can’t walk.” Skinner looked haunted and devastated at one and the same time. “I can’t…I don’t want to go through this again, Fox.” Mulder frowned, wondering what his Master was referring to. “I was just talking to Kim…I…poison?” Skinner looked to Mulder for confirmation, totally confused. Mulder took hold of his Master’s hand and squeezed, gently.


“Yes, but it’s okay, Walter. It’s going to be okay,” he said softly, stroking Skinner’s fingers affectionately with his own.


“You look like shit,” Skinner observed, gazing at his slave searchingly. “Christ – I’ve been out for over a week? Are you sure you’re all right?”


Mulder shook his head, and gave a wry little chuckle. “Oh no, I told you, you don’t worry about me, Walter. I’m fine and I think you’ve done your share of worrying about me and taking care of me these past 10 months. Now it’s my turn to take care of you,” he said firmly, but with the utmost respect. Mulder squeezed the other man’s fingers again. “I mean it, Walter,” he said. “Just relax and get better. You don’t have to take responsibility for everything.”


“Sure I do,” Skinner muttered. “I’m the Master, remember?”


“And I’m the devoted slave, remember? It’s a two way street, Walter. You’re my responsibility as much as I’m yours, and your health and wellbeing are my first, last and only consideration.” Mulder shrugged. “It’s really that simple. Now let go, Walter, and let me be the slave you and I both know I can be. Let go and I’ll catch you, Master.”


Skinner gazed at him blindly for a moment, and then gave another little sigh, closed his eyes, and lay back on the pillows, and already, by the time Mulder called for the hospital staff a few minutes later, he thought that some of his Master’s pallor had gone, and the other man’s face had lost that spectral sheen. 


Mulder took his Master home a couple of days later; he was out of immediate danger and there was nothing more the hospital could do for him. They strongly encouraged him to go to a rehab facility but he refused point blank, and Mulder was confident in his ability to take care of his Master so he didn’t press the issue. Mulder figured that with Hammer, Perry and Scully as their closest friends, he wouldn’t lack for help and advice on nursing and generally taking care of his Master. Skinner faced a difficult recuperation though, and nobody was sure whether he would walk again or not, and if so how long it would take. He seemed pleased to be home, but he was still weak and got tired easily, and, more worryingly, he seemed gripped by depression. He sat in bed, with Wanda curled up beside him, looking pale and listless. Mulder wasn’t unduly worried; he knew that Skinner coped with huge personal crises by withdrawing into himself, just as his slave coped by hitting out and flaring up. It was just the way they were. All the same, he hoped this mood wouldn’t last for too long. 


Mulder continued to do what he’d started doing at the hospital; he bathed his Master, massaged his damaged limbs, prepared Skinner’s food, read to him, talked to him, and generally took care of him. When Skinner was resting, Mulder knelt by his bed, in position, in case his Master needed him, and he went about his duties with devotion and dedication. He didn’t surprise himself, and he didn’t think he surprised his Master either, but he knew he surprised their visitors.  


Ian paused by the front door after one his visits and gazed at Mulder with a serious look in his brown eyes.


“Mulder, things might not go back to the way they were before,” he warned. “You’re acting the slave for all its worth right now, but supposing he doesn’t fully recover? Supposing he’s never able to be your Master again? Not properly anyway – what happens then?”


Mulder shook his head. “Ian, you don’t get it. I’m not *acting* the slave – I’m just being what I am. You know, once, last summer, when we were at Murray’s beach house, Walter said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. He accused me of only behaving like a slave when he was behaving like a Master. He asked what came first – the chicken or the egg – the slave or the Master – and he said he wanted us to move on from where we were, so that we each of us inhabited our status with confidence, knowing what we are. Right now he’s tired, he’s weak, and he’s recovering from an illness that nearly cost him his life – he might not have the energy to be the Master, but that doesn’t mean I’m relieved of my obligations to be his slave. On the contrary – now’s precisely the time to show him that I can uphold my part of our deal, no matter what…and that’s exactly what I intend to do. He deserves that, Ian. He’s been my Master 24/7 for 10 months without a break. He’s never once told me he’s too tired to care, or pushed me away and told me to sort out my own life. This is the least I can do in return – the very least.”


Ian gazed at him in surprise. “I didn’t know it went this deep for you,” he said. “I guess…I always thought it was a sex game – at heart.”


“It never was. He told me that at the beginning but I didn’t understand what he meant then. I do now,” Mulder replied.


Mulder hired the best physical therapist he could find to help Skinner walk again, but it was hard work. His Master did his exercises to the best of his ability, his wide forehead furrowed with lines of grim determination, but he still seemed stunned by what had happened to him and by how quickly both their lives had been turned around. He withdrew even further into himself, and did no more and no less than his physical therapist ordered, as if it were an unpleasant duty to be endured rather than a real opportunity to get his health back. Mulder longed to see just a glimmer of the man he’d come to know and love over the previous 10 months but Skinner was like a stranger, and barely spoke to him. Mulder continued to do his best anyway; he still tried to give his Master his early morning wake up call, even though Skinner’s cock had stopped responding to his enthusiastic ministrations, and he still knelt by his Master’s bed, waiting to fulfil the big man’s every need. All the same, he couldn’t help wondering how long this would last – and whether Ian had been right, and his Master was gone forever. Mulder began to wonder whether there was something else he should be doing, or whether Skinner just needed time – his Master was recuperating from a life threatening illness after all. It was bound to take awhile before he felt right again.


Tabi visited whenever she could get time away from her work commitments. Mulder didn’t have the energy to try and hide what he and his Master were to each other but she didn’t seem phased by Mulder’s attentions to his Master, and seemed to take his slavery in her stride, which was a relief, as the battle for her heart and mind over the issue of his sexuality wasn’t one that Mulder could face right now.


After one particularly painful visit, during which Skinner had barely even managed to exchange a few words with his sister, Tabi took Mulder to one side.


“Mulder…I know you mean well, but I don’t think this is working,” she told him.


“What?” He asked cautiously. “What isn’t working?”


“You – you’re being incredible, totally supportive…but it isn’t working. He needs something different. He needs an incentive to get better. While you’re seeing to his every need he doesn’t have one – and I think, deep down, that he’s afraid of trying to walk again.”


“Afraid?” Mulder frowned. “What do you mean?”


“He’s afraid that if he really tries, if he gives it everything, and *then* he fails, then it’ll be real, and he’ll know for sure that he can’t walk again. Right now, he’s just going through the motions, and he can cling to the hope that one day, somehow, a miracle will happen and he’ll get his mobility back.”


Mulder thought about this for a moment, and then took a deep intake of breath. “When he was in the hospital, he told me that he couldn’t go through this again. What did he mean?”


“He was talking about Vietnam,” she told him quietly, sitting down on the couch and tucking her legs underneath her body. “He was badly wounded, Mulder, and when he came back he wasn’t the loving, kind big brother I remembered. He was angry and bitter. He was only 18 years old and he felt he’d lost his entire life. He was young, and he’d just been growing into his strength – and now he had to sit in bed and watch everyone else get on with their lives. Mom converted our front room into a bedroom for him because he couldn’t get up the stairs. I used to go and sit on his bed and draw pictures for him and talk to him. He was always kind to me, but even though I was just a little kid at the time, I knew he was deeply unhappy.”


“So how did he get better last time?” Mulder asked, leaning forwards eagerly, searching for clues as to how he could help his Master.


“Well…” Tabi made a face. “I expect he’s told you that he and Dad didn’t have a very good relationship. In the end, Walter moved heaven and earth to get better, by sheer willpower alone, because he wanted to get out of the house – and as far away from our father as possible. He was very badly injured, Mulder. I mean, they thought he was dead for god’s sake! They actually zipped him up in a body bag – it was only luck that one of the corpsmen noticed a faint movement and got him to the hospital. Maybe, if our home had been more comfortable, and his relationship with Dad had been better, he’d never have had an incentive to recover the way he did. I really do think he felt he didn’t have a choice – he *had* to get better, despite the seriousness of his injuries, because he simply couldn’t face living under Dad’s roof as an invalid for the rest of his life. Dad said some cruel things to him about the fact that he couldn’t walk, that he would be dependent on him and how that would be a drain on the family finances, how Walter was a parasite and even…that it would have been better for everyone if he had died.” Tabi shook her head and Mulder had to force his anger down. That was about the worse thing anyone could say to Skinner, and Mulder wondered whether his Master had carried it around with him ever since – at least until he’d met Andrew Linker. He wondered, also, whether that comment had come back to haunt Skinner now that he was incapacitated once again, and was preying on his mind as he sat upstairs feeling weak and useless. “It was evil, looking back, but maybe, just maybe, it was what Walter needed to force him to get better,” Tabi continued. “You know as well as I do what a strong will he has.”


“Yeah,” Mulder chuckled, thinking of many occasions on which his Master had been resolutely implacable.


“He just needs a reason to start relying on that will again,” Tabi told him. “I don’t know how though, Mulder,” she sighed. “I wish I had all the answers, but maybe that’s a starting place?”


Mulder nodded, mulling this over. He wasn’t sure what he’d do with the information, but there had to be some way to galvanise his Master into believing in his own ability to get better.


He talked it over with Elaine, and they agreed that she would be the first one to try to do just that. She swept into their bedroom the following day, took one look at Skinner lying in the bed, and dropped her bombshell.


“My dear, you’ll have to make more progress than this. My wedding is in 3 weeks and you’re walking me to the altar, remember?”


Mulder glanced sharply at his Master, hoping for some reaction, but Skinner just shrugged. “Elaine…that’s impossible,” he told her with a shake of his head. “You’ll have to get someone else to do it. Hammer maybe?”


“Walter, I’ve asked you and you agreed to do it. I don’t *want* anyone else,” Elaine told him firmly. “I’m not going to postpone my wedding and you *are* going to walk me to the altar, whether you do it on crutches – or even if Mulder wheels you there in your wheelchair.”


“I am not going anywhere in public in that fucking wheelchair,” Skinner snapped.


“Then you’d better learn how to walk again,” Elaine told him in an uncompromising tone.


“I’m doing my goddamn best!” Skinner roared.


Mulder winced. He hated watching his Master struggling to walk, like a lame lion, his pride being trod underfoot with every stumble, and every faltering step of his weakened legs. He was sure that Skinner genuinely did think he was trying his best, but his efforts were so dispirited that they seemed doomed to fail. Mulder didn’t think the problem was all physical – he was more convinced than ever after his chat with Tabi that a large part of it was psychological.


“Well your best isn’t good enough!” Elaine told him firmly. “Walter – you’ve had all the brooding time I’m going to give you. Now it’s time for you to give 110% or 150% or however much it takes, because that’s the only way you’re going to get better. Yes, something terrible happened to you, but now it’s time to put that behind you.” She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “I mean it,” she told him. “I know you, Walter, and I know you’re capable of so much more than this.”


Skinner just grunted and she picked up her gloves, walked over to the bedroom door, and paused, her hand on the handle. “And that slave needs a good spanking,” she said, with a nod in Mulder’s direction. “That’s something else you’re shirking, Walter.” And with that she opened the door and swept out of the room.


Skinner didn’t say a word for the rest of the day, and Mulder wondered whether, far from helping him, Elaine might not have pushed him even further into his black mood. Mulder slipped into the bed beside his Master that night and lay there, unsure whether to speak. He missed the old, easy intimacy and familiarity he had with the big man, and he wasn’t sure how to get it back. If he spoke, Skinner answered in monosyllables, and although his Master remained polite, there simply wasn’t any conversation between them. Skinner was too sunk in his own gloom, and Mulder could understand that; one moment Skinner had been Master of his own universe, the proud owner of a newly branded slave, secure and happy in his work and his home life, and the next it had all been torn away from him. Skinner was reacting to this devastating change of circumstances by shutting down and Mulder didn’t know how to breach the silence.


Unable to sleep, he got up and wandered around the apartment. He found his feet carrying him upstairs, into the Playroom that had been the scene of so many of their most explosive love making sessions. Mulder turned on the lights and walked around the room, lost in thought. There had been a time when he would have felt a thrill of disobedience at being in this room alone. He had been forbidden to enter it unless in his Master’s company or ordered here by the big man. Now those days seemed a lifetime away. Mulder reached out and touched the harness, a smile tugging at his lips as he recalled his Master fastening him in here that first time they’d made love properly, and then taking him, possessively, forcefully, lovingly. He missed the sensation of Skinner’s thick, hard cock inside his anus, filling him, and bringing him to the most exquisitely pleasurable orgasms. He loved Skinner, even incapacitated as he was now, but he also missed his Master being his Master. He remembered his words to Ian – no, he wasn’t only the slave when his Master was being masterful, but didn’t the Master also have a duty to his slave? Their contracts depended on them both fulfilling their roles, and while their relationship had long since transcended their contracts, their roles as Master and slave were still very important to them both. Skinner’s libido had been totally inactive since his illness – even without the use of his legs, he could still spank his slave, and make love to him, but he did neither. Mulder had been barely able to get a rise out of his Master during his usual morning wake up call either, although that didn’t stop him trying every day anyway.


Mulder opened a cupboard, and lovingly fondled one of the paddles hanging there. He opened another, and gazed, longingly, at the row of sexy, fantasy costumes that hung there, wondering whether Skinner would ever encase those long, lean limbs of his in a pair of tight leather pants again. He massaged his Master’s legs every day so he knew that the muscle tone was still there, and Skinner had feeling in them now – in fact, more feeling returned with every day that passed. Skinner’s muscles might be stiff, and Mulder knew that his Master did have bad days when the nerve endings were inflamed, making movement incredibly painful, but he believed his Master had the capacity to walk again. It was, as Tabi had pointed out, just a question of giving him good reason to do so.


Mulder went and sat on the throne, gazing out of the huge row of windows at the city beneath them. It was beautiful up here. He could remember nights spent hanging in the harness, his ass on display, looking out, lost in the beauty of his own slavery. There were ghosts of their former selves everywhere in this room – the spanking horse looked eerie, standing there in this quiet, lifeless room; he could vividly remember several occasions when he had been tied over that horse and marked with a cane, could see his Master in his mind’s eye, prowling and striding around this room, totally in charge of everything that went on here, while his slave knelt in awed supplication, just watching as Skinner handled harnesses, the St Andrews Cross, and all the wonderful implements in the row of cupboards lined up on one side of the room. Mulder remembered the low whisper of erotic poetry said in a dark, molten chocolate voice, the soft thud of flogger on flesh, the screams of pleasure and pain intermingled, and the joyous shout of countless orgasms. This room had seen so much, and he had loved every single moment of the time he’d spent in here, even when shivering as he waited for the kiss of the bullwhip on his back. Mulder awoke from his memories to find that while he had been dreaming Wanda had stolen into the room and was sitting on his lap, purring.


“Ah, you miss him too, don’t you, princess?” He crooned, fondling her ears. She glanced up at him, her emerald eyes radiating her joy at being both petted and allowed into the room she was so rarely given entry to. Mulder knew the feeling. “I know, he’s here, but he’s not himself,” he murmured to Wanda. “He barely even notices you, let alone me, and we both know how much he adores his little mistress.” He tickled her ears again, and she stretched out her little body, blissfully soaking up the attention. “He’s the most devoted slave in the world to you,” Mulder murmured, and that thought gave him an idea. He put Wanda down and returned to the cupboards. It took him a little while to find what he was looking for but when he did he took it out and stood staring at it for a moment. Would it work? He had no idea – but he had to do something, and this was worth a try.


Mulder picked up Wanda and held her with one hand, her warm body nestled against his chest, walked over to the door with her, and then paused to give the Playroom one last, lingering glance.


“We *will* play in here again,” he said, his voice utterly determined, and with that he turned off the light, closed the door behind him, and locked it once more before returning back downstairs, with Wanda still in his arms.


Mulder didn’t even attempt to give his Master his usual wake-up call the following morning. Instead, he got dressed in a pair of grey sweatpants and a red tee shirt, and then he laid the items he had taken from the Playroom the previous night on Skinner’s night stand, placing a cup of coffee beside them. Skinner stirred, hazily, and glanced at his slave with his usual lack of interest in the day ahead.


“Things are going to be different today,” Mulder told him. Skinner gave a grunt, as if he hadn’t heard his slave – or, if he had, that he didn’t care about what he had to say. “These are for you,” Mulder said. He took the beautiful silver collar and cuffs from the nightstand and placed them on Skinner’s lap. The word ‘Bear’ was engraved on the surface of the metal – they were the symbols of slavery that Skinner had given to Mulder to celebrate his birthday the previous year, when Skinner had allowed Mulder to top him for the first, and – so far – the last time. Mulder had had them engraved a few days after his birthday with Skinner’s slave name – Bear – as a gift to his Master, and a memento for both of them of a wonderful day that they’d both enjoyed.


“What the hell are these for?” Skinner growled, pushing the collar and cuffs disdainfully off the bed. They landed on the floor with a resounding clatter. Mulder took a deep breath – these items were special, both to him and his Master, and he had never known Skinner treat them with anything other than respect. It hurt him to see his Master so lost in his own dark mood that he could just sweep them aside with a sneer in his voice. All the more reason for Mulder to continue with what he had planned.


“They’re for you,” he said calmly, retrieving the collar and cuffs and replacing them on the nightstand.


“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not in any mood to play any goddamn games,” Skinner snapped.


“Oh this isn’t a game,” Mulder replied. “You said that yourself, Walter, when you first took me as your slave. You said it was for real and that doesn’t change just because the circumstances have altered.”


“You want me to sub to you when I can’t even damn well walk?” Skinner asked, glancing at the cuffs and collar on the nightstand.


“No. I want you to be my Master but if you won’t be that then I’ll accept you as my slave,” Mulder replied firmly. “You choose, Walter, but you do have to make a choice. Last summer, at the beach house, you told me that I was only prepared to be your slave if you were being my Master – visibly and demonstrably. I learned a lesson that day, and it’s one I’ll never forget. You *are* my Master, Walter, and I’ve been the best slave I know how to be for every single hour of every day during your illness. I will always be your slave, whether you can walk or not – but just as you could never be Master to an unwilling slave, I can’t be slave to an unwilling Master. I’ll walk through fire for you, Walter, you know that. I’ll be by your side for every step you take. I’ll hold you up and I’ll help you down – but you have to meet me half way. You have to show at least a desire to get well. Now, if you don’t feel you can be my Master right now, and I’ll understand that completely, then you can be my slave. I’ll take good care of you, but there will be some changes around here – and quite a few more expectations.” Mulder crossed his arms and surveyed his Master. Skinner didn’t look good. His face was pale and there were dark shadows under his eyes, but Mulder felt sure that most of his problems right now were psychological, and this was the only way he could think of tackling them.


“You mean you want to get your rocks off and I’m not obliging,” Skinner growled, his dark eyes flashing accusingly. Mulder took a deep breath, utterly winded by that comment, but he knew this wasn’t his Master speaking. This was Walter – lost, hurting, and desperately in need of his slave’s help. “This is all about sex for you, Fox. It always is,” Skinner continued, digging the knife in even deeper, and twisting it.


“No.” Mulder shook his head. “Sex is the last thing this is about. I love you, Walter, and I’m not going to stand by and let you fuck up your life over this.” He considered his Master for a moment, and then turned, deliberately, and walked towards the door.


“Are you running out on me?” Skinner snarled from behind him. “Did the going get too tough, Fox? Isn’t it the truth that if you can’t have me as your Master then you don’t fucking well want me at all?”


Mulder turned, feeling more sure than ever that he had to stand firm right now, no matter what accusations Skinner threw at him. “No. I’d never run out on you,” he said softly. “You know that. Just as you never ran out on me at any point over this last year, although god knows I gave you enough reason.” His hand went to the scar on his chest where Krycek had carved his initials and he shook his head. “Never, Walter. You know me. God knows I have my faults but I’m a tenacious bastard – I never give up and I never let go. I’m not about to do either right now. I’m going downstairs. I’m not going to wait on you hand and foot any more. If you want me to resume my full duties as your slave then you’ll have to start acting like my Master – and that means showing some commitment to getting well. I’m still your slave, Walter, but I think I can serve you better right now by backing off, and letting you think things through.”


“What happens if I need to use the fucking bathroom?” Skinner growled, as Mulder continued on his way out of the door.


“Then you’ll have to ask for my help and I’ll walk you there – I told you before that you can lean on me and I mean it – literally,” Mulder told him. “If you don’t want to ask for my help then you can make your own way there.”


He heard Skinner give a low bellow of anger but ignored it, and continued on his way out of the room. It took all Mulder’s willpower to go downstairs, make himself a cup of coffee, and then sit on the couch with the newspaper. He didn’t read a word – just stared at the pages blankly, Wanda curled up by his side. He didn’t know whether he’d done the right thing, or what would happen next, but something had to break; they couldn’t continue the way they had been.


Hours passed, and Mulder figured that his Master had to be feeling hungry, or at least need to pee, but still there was no sound from the bedroom. Mulder made himself some lunch, which tasted like sawdust in his mouth, and sat back on the couch again. He wanted to call someone, to talk this through, but he sensed there was nothing anyone could tell him. This was his problem and his alone. He wondered how many times his Master must have felt the same way over the past year as he, seemingly effortlessly, sorted out so many of his slave’s problems. Mulder had always thought that Skinner had some kind of sixth sense that told him what he should do in any given situation, but, now he was facing a similar crisis, he wondered whether Skinner hadn’t felt exactly the same way he was feeling now each time he had handled one of Mulder’s problems. Mulder had always respected his Master, but now that respect was even more heartfelt as he realised how hard it was to know what to do for the person you loved when they were struggling. He thought of himself, slowly unravelling after Seattle, and the patience, kindness and occasional uncompromising strictness that his Master had shown to him. He remembered lying on a beach as Skinner kissed his scarred chest by candelight, and showed his slave just how much he loved him, whether he was perfect or not. His Master had never failed him and he, in turn, would never fail his Master. Skinner needed him to step up to the plate and take responsibility, and it didn’t matter who was the Master and who the slave – both men were strong and weak in their own ways. They complemented each other and they needed each other – now more than ever. Mulder had to be the strong one right now, and he was surprised to find how undaunted he was by that fact. He had come a long way since that day, nearly a year ago, when Skinner had taken him as his slave just at the point when he had been on a course to self destruct. Now he was strong, and felt safe inside his own skin, and he knew that he owed that to his Master. No, he would never let Skinner down. Never.


Mulder was interrupted in this reverie by a crashing sound upstairs. He got to his feet and ran up to the bedroom, taking the stairs 3 at a time, his long legs powering him as fast as they could to his Master’s side. He found Skinner lying in the bathroom, just as Skinner had once found him lying in the bathroom with blood dripping down his chest and a razor in his hand. His Master was spreadeagled on the tiled floor, a slight bruise rising on a bump on his broad, naked skull.


“Was this easier than asking me for help?” Mulder asked, kneeling down beside his Master, and reaching out a hand to check Skinner’s bruised head. Skinner batted his questing fingers away, savagely.


“I can fucking manage,” he hissed.


“Not without my help,” Mulder insisted, holding out his hands.


“We’ll see,” Skinner snapped. He reached out and grabbed the towel rail, and then tried to slide his way up the wall and onto his feet again, but his legs were tired, and he slipped and fell once more. Mulder didn’t even try and catch him although just watching was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Skinner’s face was paler than ever from the effort, and there were beads of sweat on his forehead. Mulder crouched down in front of his panting Master, and looked deep into those brown eyes he knew so well.


“Please let me help you, Walter,” he said softly, reaching out a hand to gently touch the side of Skinner’s face. Skinner turned away sharply, flinching, as if the touch burned him.


“What did you have to give them?” He rasped, in a low, dark, despairing tone.


“What?” Mulder frowned, rocking back on his heels.


“What did you have to give them in return for my life?” Skinner growled. “You said the consortium did this to me. You said you sorted it out. They had me by the fucking balls, Fox, and they didn’t let go just because you told them to. You gave them something.”


“Yes,” Mulder said simply, sliding down so that his back was against the bath tub.


“They wouldn’t accept anything less than your help. Your co-operation. You – period,” Skinner said, his voice choking. “That would be their style – a life for a life. When do you have to start working for them, Fox? Or maybe you are already? Did you sell yourself for me? Is that what you did?”


Mulder stared at his Master, utterly amazed. Of all the things he had imagined were going on in Skinner’s head, this hadn’t even been close. Trust his Master to be thinking about his slave, even in these circumstances.


“I couldn’t sell myself to them, Walter,” he said softly. “Only you could sell me, and you always said you never would.”


Skinner’s eyes widened. “Oh for god’s sake! You think they give a fuck about our contracts?” He snarled.


“No – and right now, neither do you,” Mulder pointed out. “I didn’t sell myself, Walter. If you taught me one thing it was how to stop myself pushing my self destruct button.”


“Then what did you give them?” Skinner asked wearily, thumping his head back against the wall as he spoke. “It had to be something big. Something to make it all worth their while.”


“It was,” Mulder agreed.


“What?” Skinner asked, in a hoarse voice. “What did you give them?”


“The X Files,” Mulder replied softly. “They were all I had to give, and you know how much I love them. Like you said, it had to be something of value – I was bargaining for your life after all. It wouldn’t have said much about what you mean to me if I’d bartered away something that didn’t cost me anything.”


“No.” Skinner’s eyes were bleak. “NO!” He said again, his voice closer to a roar. His entire body convulsed in a fit of frustrated anger, and all Mulder could do was sit there and watch.


“Hey – it didn’t hurt me that much,” he whispered when Skinner was done. “In fact, when it came to it, it was pretty easy.”


“No.” Skinner shook his head quietly. “You love the X Files, Fox. They’re your life.”


“I love you more,” Mulder told him simply. “You’re my life now.”


“Fuck that!” Skinner snapped. “I never asked you to give up your work, Fox. Not once. When I took you as my slave I told you I’d expect you to keep working. You made the X Files, Fox. You started them. You turned them into what they are today. They need you.”


“They’ll survive without me. Scully’s still there, and Reyes is turning out well. Then there’s Doggett – I’ve got a feeling that when he knows there’s a vacancy for a new head of department in the X Files division he’ll apply pretty damn fast. Of course his career will go down the drain but…” Mulder gave a wry shrug. “That goes with the territory. He knows that.”


“I can’t let you do this,” Skinner whispered, looking small, sad and defeated.


“It’s already done. I wrote the letter. It’s waiting for you on your desk when you get back to the office. How else did you think I managed to get all this time off work while you were ill? I resigned, Walter. It’s a done deal. It’s over. I’ve left the FBI and, just between you and me, I really don’t think the FBI is gonna miss me.”


“Fox, you don’t understand,” Skinner said in a tired voice. “It seems like an easy enough decision now, but it’ll destroy us, in the end. Once this immediate crisis is over, when I go back to work and you don’t, when it really hits you what you had to give up for me…you’ll come to resent me, Fox.”


“No.” Mulder shook his head firmly. “I’m not a victim, Walter, and this wasn’t your decision to make – it was mine. Yes, I loved the X Files. I built them up from nothing and for a long time they were my life, but, trust me, now that I’ve resigned I don’t intend to sit around with my thumb up my ass. Once you’re better, I have some plans for what I want to do. Big plans.” Mulder gave a grin, and warmed to his theme. “Walter, this is just the beginning for me,” he said. “You taught me that there’s more to life than the X Files – you showed me a whole other world out here that I never thought I could belong to but somehow, slowly, I’ve found myself fitting in.”


“So what – you’re going to become a professional submissive and hang out permanently on the scene?” Skinner asked scathingly.


“Hardly,” Mulder grinned. “For one thing, I don’t think my Master would approve…” He glanced speculatively in Skinner’s direction, “…and anyway, I have other plans. Think of all the notes I’ve made about the X Files over the years, Walter. I want to go through them all, see if I can find a pattern, a reason behind everything I experienced – something to tie it all together and make sense of it all. I figure that at worst I’ll get a bestselling book out of it.” He broke off to grin again. “And at best…well, at best I might just get to save the entire planet,” he said.


“Ah, ever my modest Fox,” Skinner commented, and Mulder detected a glimmer of his old Master showing through.


“I told them I’d resign from the FBI. I never made any promises about the private work I’d do,” Mulder told his Master. “I’m not giving up the X Files, Walter. I’m just finding another way to pursue my interests – and this way I’ll have more leisure to spend with my demanding Master. Uh, talking of promises,” Mulder glanced at Skinner through his eyelashes. “I expect I’ll get into plenty of trouble even without the X Files, Walter. I’m still going to be an investigator – I don’t think even the Consortium could stop me being that. It’s part of what I am. As a matter of fact, I’m looking forward to working outside the FBI. It’ll make a change not to have you breathing down my neck all the time.”


“I’ll still be your Master, boy,” Skinner growled. “If there’s any breathing down your neck to be done then I’ll be there, doing it.”


Mulder gave a heartfelt sigh of relief. “I’m very pleased to hear it,” he said softly, “I’ll still need your help – from within the Bureau,” Mulder added. “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that compromised your job, but I’ll still need your help occasionally. It’s important work, Walter. It needs to be done – and maybe this has come at the right time. Maybe it’s better for me to be working on the outside from now on. The FBI always did cramp my style a little. You must see there’s some sense in what I’m saying?” Mulder gazed at Skinner questioningly. “You know the job was only a means to an end, Walter. I needed the FBI behind me to get my hands on these cases in the first place, but now I know enough to be working on my own, without the FBI tying my hands behind my back.”


“That’s always been a good look for you,” Skinner commented. “Hands tied behind your back…”


“Naked. Erect. Freshly spanked…” Mulder continued. Skinner gave a wry grunt.


“At least you know what suits you, boy,” he said.


“Yeah. I know.” Mulder grinned. He paused, and then said, in a more serious tone: “I have contingency plans in place, Walter. In case you haven’t noticed, between us we have a lot of friends. I’ve spoken to the Lone Gunmen, and they’re watching our backs for us right now. I can’t promise that the Consortium won’t try to screw with us again, but if they do, I’ll be ready for them – they won’t take me by surprise again.”


Skinner gazed at him thoughtfully. “You’ve changed,” he said.


“That’s what that English bastard said. He was wrong. I’m exactly who I’ve always been – it just took the love of a good Master to help me figure out what that is,” Mulder replied. “Now, if we’re done here, perhaps you’ll let me help you back to the bedroom?”


Mulder got to his feet and held out his hands to his Master again. Skinner gazed at them for a moment, and then, with a sigh, he put his hands in Mulder’s and allowed his slave to help him to his feet. It wasn’t easy – Skinner was a big man – but Mulder was more than strong enough to take care of his Master. He slung one of Skinner’s arms around his neck, put his arms around the big man’s body, walked Skinner slowly into the bedroom, and deposited him on the bed.


“So, have you made your decision?” Mulder asked softly, picking up the cuffs and collar that were lying on the nightstand. “Slave or Master? What’s it to be, Walter?”


Skinner glanced at the cuffs and a flicker of some unreadable emotion passed across his face. Mulder waited, patiently. Skinner glanced up at Mulder, and then over his slave’s shoulder at the portrait of the two of them Mulder had given him on New Year’s Day.


“It’s going to be hard, whichever option you choose,” Mulder said softly.


“I know.” Skinner shook his head. He looked like a big, wounded bear as he bowed his naked skull and glanced at his hands for a long moment. When, finally, he looked up, Mulder was in no doubt about the decision he’d made. “Come here, boy,” he said gruffly, holding out his arm. Mulder felt his heart do a little zing of pleasure. He would have accepted whatever his Master had chosen, but he was relieved that this was Skinner’s choice. Mulder went willingly to his Master, and Skinner pulled him down on the bed beside him. Mulder nestled in close against his Master’s body, and felt Skinner exhale a long, heartfelt sigh. “In a minute you’re going to help me into the shower. Then I’m going to lie on the bed and you’re going to open your ass cheeks and ride me into tomorrow. After that…” Skinner took a deep breath. “After that…we’re going to do some exercises. How long is to Elaine’s wedding?”


“Three weeks…Master,” Mulder said softly, and he was relieved to be able to address Skinner by that title and for it to mean something again.


“Okay. Then I’m going to walk that woman to the altar if it’s the last goddamn thing I do,” Skinner said in a determined tone.


“She said she’d be happy if you used your crutches or the wheelchair. Just as long as you’re there,” Mulder pointed out, wondering, privately, whether Skinner was setting himself an unrealistic target.


“I’ll walk,” Skinner said, in a granite tone. “I’ll damn well walk, Fox.”


Mulder nodded, quietly, and then pressed his lips to his Master’s solid chest. “I believe you,” he said softly.


“Has…” Skinner started, and, looking up, Mulder was startled to see a look of vulnerability in his Master’s brown eyes. “Has this affected the way you feel about me? Seeing me like this? Weak.”


“No. I think they all wondered – Ian, Elaine, Perry…maybe even Scully. They kept looking at me, as if they thought I was going to break and walk out, but you know me better than that, Walter.”


“Tenacious. Yes. I know.” Skinner nodded. “But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about our lives, and the roles we have. I know how much they mean to you. Has my illness affected that?”


“Don’t be an idiot,” Mulder said. “Master,” he added, as an afterthought. “You’re my Master – I’m your slave. Here, there and everywhere, Walter. You know that.”


Skinner gave a little grunt of acknowledgement but Mulder noticed that his arm tightened around his slave’s body. They lay there for a few minutes, gazing up at the ceiling. Then Mulder turned and propped his head up on his hand.


“Tabi gave me a little history lesson about what happened to you after Vietnam,” he said. Skinner stiffened. “You never told me,” Mulder added.


“It was a long time ago. Sometimes I feel like it happened to a different person,” Skinner murmured.


“I’m sorry. It must be hard enough for you to go through this once. Twice…” Mulder shrugged. “I’m sorry.”


“Don’t be.” Skinner shook his head. “I’m really very lucky you know, Fox. Very lucky.” He bent his head and bestowed a kiss on his slave’s forehead. “Now go and turn on the damn shower.”


“Yes, Master.” Mulder got up, but fell back down again as his Master grabbed his wrist and pulled him down over his lap. He caressed Mulder’s ass for a second, and then pulled down Mulder’s sweat pants and delivered 6 stinging slaps to his slave’s bottom. “Ow,” Mulder complained, rubbing the sting out of his bottom when his Master allowed him to get up, although he couldn’t hide his gleeful grin all the same. “What was that for?”


“Elaine was right. You do need a good spanking. In fact, we both know that you should never go too long without being spanked. It makes you antsy,” Skinner said. “And also there was one thing I wanted to make absolutely clear; I’m in charge around here, boy and don’t you forget it.”


“I won’t…if you won’t,” Mulder replied softly. Master and slave shared a long, meaningful look and then Mulder turned and went to the bathroom to do as he had been bidden.


End of Here, There and Everywhere – Part 1

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