Frontiers: 1. Westward Leap


Mulder stormed out of Skinner’s office, and almost threw himself down the stairs in his haste to get out of the building.


“Jerk…” he muttered under his breath. “Anyone would think I was 15 years old, not thirty five.” He ran all the way down several flights of stairs, slammed every door he encountered and finally wound up beside his car. It had been a long and difficult meeting, and Mulder was still flushed bright red from the humiliation and embarrassment of it. Skinner had kept him standing throughout – on purpose, of course. “Just one of his ‘humiliate the agents’ tricks.” Mulder muttered, pounding the open palm of his hand against his car and then screwing up his face as he realized that little display of bad temper had hurt.


He had stood for half an hour in Skinner’s office, justifying the methods he had used in his latest case, and explaining away 2 wrecked cars and another missing-presumed-dead cell phone. Half an excruciating hour, while Skinner had prowled around the room, pulling him up on certain points, making him explain everything over and over again, and all the time unnerving him with that slow, insistent pacing. Mulder had just about managed to hold onto his temper as Skinner had spent the last ten minutes of their meeting systematically bawling him out and giving him the sort of lecture that reminded him of his teenage years when he had broken curfew. Damn! he cursed, hating Skinner, hating everything. He got into his car and screeched out of the garage, still muttering to himself under his breath. Skinner had just stopped short of putting him on tape surveillance for which he supposed he should be grateful, but frankly, Mulder was still smarting too much from that lecture to feel much gratitude.


It was late by the time he got home. He threw himself down on the couch with a take out pizza and several cans of beer and flicked idly through the channels. Cheery music assaulted his senses, and he groaned as he saw an unnaturally happy little girl bounce and skip her way down a grassy hill. “Little House on the Prairie? I don’t think so,” he said firmly, flicking to another channel. His attention was caught by a posse of men in cowboy outfits riding towards a ranch.


“Ah, the Ponderosa. I haven’t seen Bonanza in years.” He leaned back and took a bite of pizza, watching as Ben Cartwright delivered a lecture to a young miscreant called “Jamie.” After a couple of minutes, Mulder shifted uneasily. This was eerily reminiscent of his own meeting with Skinner earlier, and he didn’t want to be reminded of that. He switched channel again to find Jim-Bob Walton being given a dressing down by his father, John. “Oh for god’s sake. What is this? ‘Cute Homespun Frontier Schmaltz’ evening? Even the TV is against me,” he fumed, switching channels again. Albert Ingalls was making a mumbled apology to a stern-faced Pa. “Stop it!” he zapped once more, and sat back with a sigh, as he recognized Sam Beckett. “Quantum Leap. Thank god. I should be safe from lectures here.” He took a swig of beer, closed his eyes, and immediately fell asleep.


When he opened his eyes again, the television screen had gone dark, except for a swirling black and white geometric pattern which grew wider and wider as he watched. “Ah…Time Tunnel…great…” Mulder mumbled, still half asleep. A few moments later the black and white image opened up, leapt out of the television, and swallowed him whole.


Mulder had a sensation of being swirled around, his whole body rocked and buffeted, and then he felt himself falling from a great height. He landed with a thud that knocked all the breath out of him, and sent a shooting pain up his ankle. His head crashed against a stone, and he cried out, before losing consciousness.


“Son? Are you all right?”


Mulder struggled to open his eyes. It was dark, and his head hurt. He tried to move and gasped as a sharp pain stabbed in his ankle.


“It’s okay. Where does it hurt? Your ankle? Hold on.” Mulder felt gentle hands probe his leg.


“I don’t think it’s broken, just a really nasty sprain. Now, I don’t know where you came from, but I think you need some help. Can you put your hands around my neck?”


Mulder managed to open his eyes a fraction, and then opened them wide in shocked surprise. He was lying on a patch of grass in the middle of a field – and the man leaning over him, talking to him gently, was none other than his boss, Assistant Director Skinner.


“Sir…what are you doing here?” he croaked, his voice sounding strange to his ears. “Where is here?” He tried to remember what had happened. He’d been sitting in his apartment, hadn’t he?


“It’s okay, son. Hold on. I’m going to carry you back to the house. Ready?” Skinner’s face broke into a reassuring smile as he put his arms under Mulder’s shoulders and knees.


“No…I’ll get up…you can’t carry me, I’m too heavy…” Mulder broke off as Skinner swung him effortlessly into his arms.


“Heavy? Nonsense!” Skinner grinned. “You’re a scrawny young thing. How old are you? You can’t be more than what, 15? What on earth were you doing out here?”


“I don’t know.” Mulder stared at his boss in surprise. 15? What the hell was the other man talking about? His head hurt too much to make sense of it though, so he just lay back, held on tight to Skinner’s neck, and allowed himself to be carried back to the house.


The “house” turned out to be a small wooden farmhouse, not much more than a cabin really.


Skinner laid him in a cot, and pulled a blanket over him.


“Hold still, son. I’ll get some water and clean up that gash you’ve got there.” He gestured to Mulder’s head. Mulder lay back, weakly trying to process this information. Skinner returned, with a bowl of water, which he placed on a hand-carved table next to the bed.


“It’s…pretty…” Mulder fingered a pattern of oak leaves and acorns that adorned the small table.


“I carved it myself.” Skinner smiled, dipping a washcloth in the bowl and gently dabbing at Mulder’s forehead. “I carved most of the things in this house. I like working with wood.”


Mulder winced, and Skinner paused. “Sorry, son. It’s a nasty cut you’ve got here. Now I don’t think you’re well enough for a lot of questions, but can you tell me your name at least?”


“Mulder…Fox Mulder.” Mulder muttered, starting to shiver.


“Fox. Okay. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance then, young Fox. My name’s Walter Skinner.” Skinner held out his hand and Mulder shook it, noticing how his own hand was dwarfed by the other man’s big paw. “Look, Fox – you’re shivering and I’m worried about your injuries. I’m going to get Dr. Scully to take a look at you.”


“Dr. Scully?” Mulder put a hand on the other man’s arm, his heart beating loudly.


“That’s right. I’m sorry I can’t afford the real Doctor, but I’ve always found Dr. Scully to be a mighty fine substitute. I always called her out to my boys when they were sick. Between you and me, I’m not very fond of Dr. Colton.”


“Her…? Scully?” Mulder whispered.


“Yeah, she’s a lady doctor. I know that’s unusual. She’s not properly qualified of course, but her father was the local doctor hereabouts for years on end and he taught her everything he knew. Like I said, I’d trust her over that Colton fellow any day, and I always call her Dr. Scully whether she’s got the piece of paper to prove it or not. Now, I’m going to leave you tucked up here while I saddle up my horse and go and find her. Don’t you go moving, young Fox, d’you hear me? I won’t be long. I’ll leave you some water here, and I’ll put another log on the fire to keep it burning. Will you be all right, son?”


“I think so,” Mulder whispered. He watched as Skinner got up to go. The other man was wearing a thick, creamy-colored shirt and dark, mud-stained pants. He looked as if he’d spent all day in the fields, not behind a desk. Mulder felt suddenly scared at the thought of being left alone in this strange house, in this even stranger world.


“Hey, it’s all right. I’ll be back soon,” Skinner promised, ruffling his hair. “I promise, and I always keep my promises, Fox. Close your eyes and you won’t even notice I’m gone.”


“Couldn’t you just call for help?” Mulder suggested. “Don’t you have a cell phone?”


“A what?” Skinner frowned. “I could call, maybe, but even if I hollered my head off, I don’t think anyone would hear me all the way out here! Now close your eyes and get some rest.”


Mulder did as he was told, listening as the big man left the house. He heard hooves clattering and then fading into the distance, and as soon as they had gone, he sat up, and got out of the bed. He nearly fell over as soon as he stood up. His ankle hurt so much, and his head was still throbbing. He dragged himself over to the fireplace, and looked around. He was, to all intents and purposes, in an old-fashioned frontier dwelling. He saw nothing in the house that he could place as belonging to any time period later than the 1880’s, but his mind refused to process the implications of that observation.


He ran his fingers over an ornately carved christening cup, and then saw an old photograph in a carved wooden frame. He glanced at it, then looked back again, picking it up. It was black and white, and relatively new, but he recognized two of the faces in the photo. One was Skinner, a few years younger than he was now, his hand on the shoulder of a teenage boy. The other person he recognized as being Sharon Skinner. She was holding a wriggling baby on her lap. Another boy stood in front of them both, his face serious and unsmiling in the style of old photographs, yet with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.


“Family group, huh?” Mulder was about to put the photograph back when he caught a glimpse of himself in a small mirror. “Shit!” The words came out of the innocent, sweet-natured face of a boy of about 15 years of age. He had clear skin, not even the faintest hint of a beard, and wide eyes with long, thick eyelashes. His nose was less defined, and his dark brown hair hung down over his eyes. Mulder was reminded suddenly of Sam Beckett – only this was no stranger’s body he was inside. It was himself, utterly and undeniably himself, about 20 years younger than when he had last looked at himself in the mirror. Mulder stared for several long seconds, and then, soundlessly and gracefully, he dropped to the floor in a dead faint. The photograph hit the floor with a crash, smashing glass in all directions.


“Fox! Damn, boy, I told you not to move. Excuse my language, Doctor.” Skinner rushed towards the body of his prone guest, and picked him up carefully, carrying him back to the bed and laying him down.


“Sir…” Mulder stirred, and glanced up. “I’m sorry… your photograph.” He gestured, feebly at the scattered remnants on the floor.


“Never mind – it’s just paper and glass, you’re real flesh and blood. I thought I told you to stay put?”


“You did. Sorry, sir.” Mulder smiled weakly. He’d only been in this “universe” or wherever it was for a couple of hours, and he was already in trouble. Skinner just smiled at him. “I’ve brought the doctor to see you.” He beckoned, and Mulder held his breath as the tiny, beautiful figure of his red-haired partner came into sight.


“Scully? I’m so glad to see you,” he whispered.


“It’s Miss Scully to you, young man,” she scolded. “I hear you’ve been up to no good.”


“I fell.” Mulder shrugged.


“I can see that.” Scully swept close and Mulder noticed that, like Skinner, she was wearing old-fashioned clothing – a white cotton high-necked blouse, and a sweeping black skirt. Her long red hair was coiled up into an elegant knot at the back of her head, but a few tendrils had crept out and were tickling the sides of her pale cheeks. She laid a cool hand on his forehead, and smiled down at him.


“You look beautiful like that, Scully,” he whispered, and heard Skinner roar with laughter.


“He’s quite the charmer for his age,” Scully commented with a stern look at him. She ran her fingers gently over his ankle. “It’s not broken, but it’s badly swollen. Do you have an icehouse, Mr. Skinner?”


“Yes. I’ll go and get some ice now. I should have thought of that before, but I was so surprised to just come across the boy like that.” Skinner disappeared and returned a few moments later with some ice, which he wrapped in a handkerchief and gave to Scully. She laid it on Mulder’s ankle and it soon went coldly, and pleasantly numb.


“I don’t think there’s any permanent damage done. He’s just taken a tumble. Maybe he fell from his horse?” Scully suggested.


“Is that what happened, Fox?” Skinner asked.


“I don’t remember,” Mulder replied. Now was not the time to start talking about the FBI and the X Files. He had a feeling it would just convince his erstwhile colleagues that he was suffering from concussion.


“What about your home, your family?” Skinner asked. “It’s late. They’ll be worried about you. I know I would be if you were my boy.”


“I don’t know.” Mulder muttered miserably, unable to explain.


“You don’t remember your family?” Scully exchanged a glance with Skinner.


“No. I don’t.” Mulder lied.


“Well you’re too young to be out and about on your own. Why you’re no older than…” Skinner stopped, biting his lip, and Scully laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. Mulder gazed from one to the other, wondering what was going on. “You can stay here for now,” Skinner continued. “I don’t have much, but what I do have is yours until we can find out where you came from,” Skinner told him firmly. “For now, let’s just get you better, shall we?”


Mulder nodded and closed his eyes, suddenly feeling sleepy. When I wake up, I’ll be home, he thought to himself. Home…he drifted off, dreaming of his apartment, his work, his car, all the trappings of his normal everyday life. Home.


Mulder awoke to the most delicious smell. He opened his eyes and sat up, wondering where he was.


“You’re awake then?” A voice said. He looked up into a pair of friendly dark eyes, and the events of the previous evening came flooding back.


“Oh shit,” he whispered.


Skinner frowned. “I don’t know what sort of home you come from, Fox, but I don’t like language like that in my house. Please remember that.” He smiled, and ran a hand through Mulder’s tousled hair. Mulder drew back, and immediately felt guilty as he saw the look of sadness flash across Skinner’s face.


“Sorry. I used to do that to my boys all the time. You’re not either of them. My apologies. Are you hungry? There’s bacon, pancakes…” Skinner let out a roar of laughter as Mulder got up and eagerly limped over to the sturdy wooden table. “Growing boys are the same everywhere – always starving!” The big man commented. “Here you go then, Fox. Eat well.” He spooned an enormous breakfast onto Mulder’s plate, and Mulder was surprised to find that he was starving – just as Skinner had said. He forgot about his predicament as he devoured his food. “Looks like you’re feeling better then.” Skinner commented. “You certainly look better. Last night you were as white as a sheet. Do you remember any more, Fox?”


“No.” Mulder mumbled, his mouth full of food. Skinner shook his head.


“Don’t speak with your mouth full, Fox,” he scolded mildly, “and slow down. The food will still be there if you eat slowly.” Mulder did as he was told, savoring the delicious breakfast. “Your clothes are filthy.” Skinner glanced at them. Mulder looked down, and realized for the first time that he was wearing a shirt several sizes too big for him, and his dress pants, which were at least a foot too long for him. He remembered having taken his tie off before he sat down to watch television. Skinner was right – his clothes were filthy, and they were torn in places as well.


“I’ve got some clothes that will fit you.” Skinner said, and his eyes were sad. “I’ll get them out. You can wash outside under the pump.”


“The pump?” Mulder looked up. He longed for a warm shower but he had a sudden realization that what he was going to get was a very cold dunking instead. “I’m not that dirty,” he muttered.


“Yes you are.” Skinner told him firmly. “If you’ve finished you can wash up straight away.” He took Mulder’s plate and held the door open for him.


Mulder limped half heartedly into the yard and stood by the pump, glaring at it. “Come on, boy. Clothes off.” Skinner ordered. Mulder stared at the man miserably. “Quickly. Come on.” Skinner motioned, and, flushing to the roots of his hair, Mulder slipped out of his enormous clothing and ran shivering beneath the water, as Skinner worked the pump. Skinner made him stay there until the blood and dirt were washed from his hair, and he was quite clean, by which time Mulder was sure that he would never be warm again. He was also shocked and dismayed by his body. He was so skinny! And small – and in one area in particular much smaller than he remembered which wasn’t good news at all. He didn’t have any hair on his chest, and his legs and arms were like sticks. Mulder sighed. As he far as he could recall, 15 wasn’t a good age to be. It was an age of raging hormones, and arguments with parents. It was an age when you had piles of homework to do every night, and the whole world was against you. What the hell was he doing here, he wondered? And how the hell was he going to get back to where he belonged?


Skinner finally released him from the water torture, and he half limped, half ran back into the house, and crouched beside the fire, wrapping himself in the large sheet that Skinner had thoughtfully laid out for him. Skinner opened up a big old chest, and brought him a shirt and pants, similar to those he was wearing.


“They’re a little bit big, but they’ll do.” Skinner smiled. “Here’s a pair of boots too. Those fancy shoes you were wearing were far too big for you, and the workmanship is atrocious. Some people take no pride in their work.” He shook his head, examining Mulder’s shoes and then placing them on the fire, along with his other clothes. Mulder opened his mouth to protest, but the deed was done, and the clothes had been torn and dirty so he closed it again. Mulder pulled the new clothes on, and then Skinner crouched down beside him and ran a comb through his tangled hair, taking care not to hurt his head wound.


“There. Good as new – and smelling a lot fresher too!” Skinner grinned, holding up the mirror for Mulder to look in. Mulder stared back at himself glumly. He saw a bright, shiny, newly washed teenager, and he wasn’t at all happy about it. He wasn’t happy at all.


“I went into town early this morning and put up some signs about you,” Skinner told him. “I expect someone will turn up to claim you, sooner or later.”


“Maybe.” Mulder shrugged, feeling fairly certain that nobody would. “What if they don’t?” He glanced anxiously at Skinner.


“I told you last night – you can stay here.” Skinner smiled. “I could use an extra pair of hands around the place when you’re feeling better.”


“What about when your wife and kids come back?” Mulder asked. “I mean…there’s not much space here…”


“They won’t be coming back,” Skinner said softly. “Now, I’m going out to do some chores. Why don’t you make yourself useful washing the breakfast things? Then take a nap. I want you to get as much rest as possible.”


“Yes, sir.” Mulder nodded, wondering where Skinner’s family was. In his own world, Sharon had divorced her husband, so maybe that’s what had happened here too.


“You are strange.” Skinner stopped, and looked at Mulder suddenly, a quizzical expression on his face. “One moment so polite, calling me ‘sir’, and the next using foul language. I don’t quite know what to make of you, Fox.”


“Would you rather I called you something else, sir?” Mulder asked.


“Well…sir will do for now, but it’s a bit formal. Maybe later on we can think of something else. If you’re still here later on.” Skinner added. Mulder felt a sensation of dread grip him. He was all alone in this strange world, and although he had memories of a different place, and time, of being older, he didn’t feel older. The longer he spent in this 15-year-old body, the more he felt as if he was 15 years old again. He felt as if he had more energy, but he was also gawky and graceless as well. He sighed. Skinner gave him a smile and tousled his head again, clearly forgetting that he had promised not to.


“Don’t worry, Fox. I’m not going to throw you out, ” he said reassuringly. “I said you can stay here and you can.”


“But, supposing I never regain my memory – and supposing nobody comes to claim me?” Mulder blurted, feeling anxious. He didn’t have the skills to survive in this world. Damn, he was used to electricity and cell phones – he didn’t know anything about living in this age, and he was 15 years old, and thin with it. He wasn’t sure he was strong enough in this body to do a full day’s work in the fields, or on the railroads, or wherever else there might be work. He doubted that he could look after himself in this universe, and he was pretty damn sure there were no social services or child welfare people to see to it that he was fed and clothed.


“Then you’ll stay here for as long as you want.” Skinner said firmly.


“You don’t even know me!” Mulder blinked, brushing a long strand of hair out of his eyes and wondering when he had grown bangs. “I could be anyone! I could be a…a…murderer or something.”


“I doubt that.” Skinner grinned. “Maybe we’ve never met before, Fox, but I feel as if I know you. One thing I do know for sure – just by looking at you – is that you’re not a bad boy, Fox. Lively, and high spirited I have no doubt, but that’s the way it should be with a boy your age. Not evil, or malicious, or bad though. You’re certainly no murderer – I’d stake my life on that.” He gave Mulder another reassuring smile, and then left the house.


Left alone, Mulder cleared the table and tried to think through the events of the past twenty-four hours. Everything felt like a dream, and he couldn’t make sense of it. One moment he had been watching television, and the next he had been whisked here, to this world, where Walter Skinner was an impoverished farmer, Dana Scully a country doctor, and he…he was a 15 year old boy. It didn’t make sense. He looked at himself in the mirror again, still unused to his appearance, and tried to figure out some sort of reason for all this. The only logical thing he could think of, was that somehow the programs he had been watching had entered his psyche, and his subconscious mind was now jumbling them up as he dreamed. Yet it didn’t feel like a dream. It felt real. Unable to come up with any better analysis than that he was dreaming and would soon wake up, Mulder began to wash the dishes.


Mulder spent the next few days mooching around the homestead with Skinner, doing some chores, talking, and trying to gain any clues to his strange situation from the big man. This Skinner seemed fairly like his counterpart that Mulder knew from the FBI. He was strong, hard working, and not particularly chatty. He was also very good at giving orders, as Mulder soon found out when he was set to work performing various chores.


Skinner laughed his head off as it became painfully obvious that Mulder didn’t know one end of a cow from another and was thus hopeless at milking. He didn’t know how to saddle or ride a horse either, which Skinner found perplexing. He spent several long hours teaching Mulder the basics until Mulder was heartily sick of Skinner’s sturdy gray mare, Alice, although she was as patient with him as her master had been.


“So, you can’t ride, or milk, you have no idea how to plow or harvest, you’ve never trimmed a lamp, and you don’t know how to chop firewood…what can you do exactly?” Skinner asked him one evening as Mulder grumbled over the number of logs he’d had to chop before his boss, surrogate father, or whatever Skinner now was to him, would allow him to sit down and eat his dinner.


“I can read and write pretty well.” Mulder replied defensively, somewhat embarrassed by his lack of knowledge of even the rudiments of everyday life in the late 19th century.


“Show me.” Skinner took out a slate and handed Mulder some chalk. Mulder looked up, inquiringly. “I won’t waste good paper and ink on you until I know what you can do.” Skinner told him. “Freddie and Ben used to do their homework in rough on that slate and show it to me before I’d allow them to copy it into his school book.”


“Freddie and Ben?” Mulder asked.


“My sons.” Skinner glanced at the photograph that was resting on the mantle, nestled in a newly carved frame but without glass as yet.


“Where are they now?” Mulder asked, curious.


“Never mind.” Skinner pointed to the slate. “Just show me this writing that you’re so proud of.”


Mulder did as he was told, and wrote a sentence on the slate. Skinner sighed, and shook his head.


“You call this writing?” He asked.


“What’s wrong with it?” Mulder challenged, perplexed. It was his usual loopy scrawl.


“This is what I call writing.” Skinner wiped away Mulder’s effort, and wrote the same sentence again in a perfect copperplate hand.


“That’s not writing…that’s goddamn calligraphy!” Mulder exploded.


“Fox.” Skinner’s tone held a warning.


“Sorry,” Mulder mumbled.


“You really must learn to watch your tongue, boy,” Skinner remarked. “Or you’ll find yourself getting into all sorts of hot water at school.”


“School?” Mulder looked up, aghast. Just when he thought this nightmare couldn’t get any worse, it proved him wrong by doing just that.


“Well, this clinches it for me.” Skinner waved his hand at the slate. “You need some schooling, son. I’m in favor of education – it can improve a man’s lot in life. I’m content being a farmer, but you might not be. One day you might want something more.”


“I don’t want to go to school!” Mulder exclaimed. “I’m too old!”


“You’re 15. That’s not too old in my book,” Skinner told him firmly. “I’ll take you there tomorrow. I have to go into town first thing anyway. I’ll walk you there and meet you afterwards to walk home again, so that you have some idea of the route. After that you can make your own way there each day.”


“Please, sir, this really isn’t necessary. I know everything I need to know…” Mulder began. Skinner held up his hand.


“It’s been decided.” He said, in a note of such finality that even Mulder knew that further arguments would be useless.


He stomped off to bed, grumbling to himself, and pulled the blanket over his head. School? At the age of 35? It was embarrassing. Humiliating. Worse than that, it would be boring. Sitting in desks, learning algebra and reciting spellings. His stomach clenched at the very thought. Then another thought occurred to him, and his stomach not only clenched but it did a little somersault as well. This was not an enlightened age, and as he recalled, schools in this era were on the strict side – corporal punishment being a favored means of maintaining discipline. Mulder groaned. He remembered being paddled once or twice by the school principal during his youth, and it was not an experience he wished to repeat. That had been in the seventies though, when corporal punishment had been dying out. In this day and age it was still very much a fact of life. Mulder made a vow that he would be a model student, and not get into any trouble. Surely he’d wake up from this nightmare soon?


It was a four mile walk into town. Mulder sighed – eight miles of walking every day, followed by chores before his new “father” would even allow him to sit down to supper. How did children in this age ever reach adulthood, he wondered to himself, without dying from a combination of boredom and overwork first? No TV, or computers, no video games. In short, no fun whatsoever. Mulder was surprised to find that the concept of “fun” had a peculiar appeal to him in his 15-year-old body. When he had first woken up in this strange place, he had imagined that he was still “himself” – a 35 year old trapped inside a teenager, but the longer this nightmare went on, the more he found himself thinking, feeling, and behaving like a teenager. It disturbed him. It didn’t help that he looked so young, of course. He had always looked younger than his years as an adult, and it was the same now. Maybe you automatically started to respond to the way people treated you – he looked like a kid, so people treated him like one, and he started behaving like one.


Mulder stole a glance at Skinner as they walked along. The man was humming to himself. Every now and again he would stop and point out some landmark or other to Mulder, or would grin as Mulder ran on ahead, eager to see what lay just beyond the next hill. Yet underneath the man’s gruff but affectionate exterior, Mulder sensed some great sadness that Skinner never spoke about. He longed to find out more, but this Skinner was as close-mouthed as his counterpart in Mulder’s world, and he clammed up whenever Mulder’s curiosity got the better of him.


“You ask too many questions, boy,” he would say, gruffly, and somehow Mulder sensed that it wouldn’t be a good idea to push this man. He remembered the many occasions when he had pushed his own Skinner, in his own world, and the consequences of those actions. Skinner riled and in full “growl” mode, was not a pleasant sight.


“Here we are, Fox. I’ll introduce you to the teacher.” Skinner walked him into the church, which clearly doubled as the school, and Mulder fought back a sudden urge to run away as fast as his skinny legs would carry him. Skinner had a big hand on his shoulder though, and instead he found himself walking down to the front of the small building, towards a young man with dark wavy hair…Mulder stopped, dumbfounded, watching as Skinner went up to the man.


“Jeffrey – I have a new pupil for you.” Skinner said.


The teacher glanced at Mulder then back at Skinner. “Walter? I’ve missed seeing you around. You were always one of our more conscientious parents. The school board seems incomplete without you.”


“Well…maybe I’ll rejoin, now that I have an interest in the school again. I seem to have acquired a foster son. His name is Fox.” Skinner beckoned Mulder forward. “Fox, come here and say hello to Mr. Spender.”


Mulder’s legs wouldn’t move, and his throat was dry.


“Mr…Spender?” He croaked. It was true – the man standing by the blackboard, looked exactly like his old adversary. “Mr. Spender?” he repeated incredulously, all his old animosity resurfacing. “I…can’t call him that!” he exclaimed.


“No, you’ll be calling him ‘sir’.” Skinner smiled, still beckoning. Mulder shook his head mutinously.


“I will NOT!” he said firmly. Skinner looked surprised by his vehemence. He returned to Mulder’s side, took him by the arm, and led him into a corner to talk to him privately.


“Fox, Mr. Spender is our teacher and he does a good job. You’ll treat him with the respect he deserves.”


“He’s a weasel…a ferret-faced, lying little…” Mulder got no further as Skinner’s fingers dug painfully into his shoulder.


“That’s enough. Now you will go up to Mr. Spender, shake his hand and say hello. Then you’ll be polite to him, and do as he asks, and heed his lessons. Do you understand me?”


Mulder weighed up his options, as he stared into those firm, no-nonsense dark eyes.


“Yes, sir.” He spat at last.


“Good boy.” Skinner shook his head, his grip on Mulder’s shoulder loosening. “Are you remembering anything, Fox?” He asked at last, looking at Mulder keenly. Mulder shook his head. “Well then – if you have no reason for disliking Mr. Spender, I trust you’ll behave yourself today. I don’t want to hear that you’ve caused him any trouble. Is that clear?”


Mulder bit down on his immediate reply and nodded. he thought to himself, as Skinner dragged him over to his new ‘teacher’, and Mulder shook his enemy’s hand and mumbled an incoherent “hello.”


“Good to have you with us, Fox.” Spender said. “Why don’t you take a seat over there next to Daniel.”


Mulder nodded, and made his way over to a desk, taking his seat next to a red haired boy whose face was covered in freckles.


“Hi.” The boy whispered. “I’m Danny.”


“Yeah. Fox.” Mulder glared at the boy, and then his eyes opened wide in surprise. “Pendrell?” he gasped.


“Daniel Pendrell. That’s right.” The short, skinny boy nodded. He wore glasses and had “victim” written all over him.


“I see you’ve finally found someone who can stand the smell of sitting next to you, stinky.” A voice behind them said. Mulder felt desperately sorry for Pendrell as the boy flushed, and tried to ignore the taunting.


“Didn’t you hear me? I was talking to you.” The boy behind hissed, poking Daniel in the back with the sharp point of a pencil, making him squeal. This was too much for Mulder. He turned around angrily, and slapped away the assailant’s hand, before lunging for his neck and delivering a punch to the boy’s face, throwing him onto the floor and kneeling on top of him. Then he stopped, his fist still raised, and gasped:


“Krycek!” He was staring into the green eyes of his old enemy. Krycek may only have been about 14 years old, but it was clearly him.


Mulder didn’t have a chance to say anything else, as two big hands descended on his shoulder and plucked him off.


“You’ve only been here two minutes and already you’re in trouble.” Skinner’s voice boomed in his ear.


“Alex – I might have known you’d be involved in this.” Spender said, pulling Krycek to his feet. Mulder glared at his adversary. Krycek was slightly smaller than he was, but he had a tough air about him.


“He started it – he jumped on me!” Krycek said accusingly, pointing at Mulder.


“You know my rules – I don’t care who started it. If I catch anyone fighting you both get punished.” Spender said. “Now, normally that would earn you both a good licking, but Fox is new here and doesn’t know my rules, so you can both stand in the corner until you’re prepared to behave in a civilized manner.”


“In the corner?” Mulder gasped. “I will NOT.”


“Fox.” Skinner said warningly, grabbing hold of him under the arms and swinging him over to the corner before he could say another word. “What on earth has happened to you, boy?” He asked, shaking his head. “Back home you were as good as gold, but now you seem to have turned into some sort of wildcat.”


“Take me back then!” Mulder pleaded. “I don’t want to stay here. I’ll be good if you take me home, sir. I promise.”


“Fox – you’ll stay here and get some schooling.” Skinner told him firmly. His expression softened as he saw the misery in Mulder’s eyes. “I’m sure you’ll soon settle down. I expect to hear a good report from Mr. Spender when I come to pick you up.”


“Yes, sir.” Mulder said wretchedly. Skinner smiled and tousled his hair.


“Good boy,” he said, encouragingly. Then, much to Mulder’s surprise, he dropped a kiss on his forehead. Mulder felt an entirely irrational surge of joy, which soon dissipated as he watched the big man walk out of the schoolroom, abandoning him, with Krycek making faces at him from the opposite corner. Mulder leaned his head against the wall with a groan.


he wailed silently.


Mulder wasn’t sure how he got through the day. He spent an hour staring at the corner, trying to work out survival mechanisms in his head, and was grateful when he was finally allowed to return to his desk. Pendrell gave him a beaming smile which restored his spirits slightly, even if Krycek spent the rest of the day kicking the back of their bench whenever Spender wasn’t looking. As for Spender, Mulder wasn’t entirely sure about their so-called “teacher.” He had been nice enough when Skinner was there, but as soon as the other man left, Spender reverted to the type of man Mulder remembered from his own universe. He was a bully, and he had taken an instant dislike to Mulder. In fact, Mulder was sure that only Skinner’s presence in the room that morning had saved him from the licking Spender was clearly itching to hand out. The man had an unpleasant habit of wandering around the room wielding a cane, which he tapped against his palm while he was waiting for his questions to be answered. It was unnerving. Luckily, Mulder was quick-witted, much to Spender’s obvious disappointment. Slower children found the cane descending on their hands if the weren’t able to come up with the right answers in time. Even Krycek was caught on a couple of occasions much to Mulder’s delight. By the end of the day, only Mulder and Pendrell had escaped, but Mulder’s nerves were raw with tension.


It was one of the longest days of his entire life, and he was grateful when it was over. He ran outside with the other kids, and his heart jumped when he saw Skinner’s large frame, resting in the shade of a tree. He loped over there, and was surprised to see Skinner’s eyes light up when he saw him.


“Fox!” Skinner put an arm around his shoulder. “Well, how did your first day go?” The big man asked, as they set off home.


“Well…okay I guess.” Mulder murmured, glancing at his “boss”.


“Good. There – what did I tell you? Mr. Spender is a fine man, and a good teacher.”


“Mmm.” Mulder mumbled, wishing he could tell Skinner that Spender was not what he appeared to be. He didn’t think he’d be believed though, so he just shut up and walked wearily back to the farm.


He was exhausted, but as soon as they got home, Skinner slapped him on the shoulder, and said: “Run along and do your chores, Fox. Then we can eat.”


“Chores?” Mulder looked at the other man in disbelief. “Do I have to? I’m so tired…” he began. Skinner frowned.


“Chores, then supper, then homework,” he said firmly.


“Homework?” Mulder closed his eyes and managed to bite back the expletive that came to his lips. “Chores, supper, homework. Fine.” He repeated glumly, doing as he was told.


He almost fell asleep over supper, and only his agile brain helped him finish his homework. Skinner sat next to him, reading his newspaper and glancing over to see what Mulder was working on every few minutes. When Mulder had finished, Skinner looked over his work, and made sure he’d done everything that Spender had set for him. Mulder was too tired to express his anger and humiliation, but it settled into the pit of his stomach, waiting to explode. He couldn’t wait to fall into bed, and was astonished to find that it was only 9pm.


Skinner had established a nightly ritual of saying goodnight to him as he lay in bed, but tonight he sat on the bed next to him, and ran his hand through Mulder’s hair.


“You’ve been very quiet tonight, Fox,” he murmured.


“Just tired.” Mulder pulled his face away from under Skinner’s hand, and the sad look in Skinner’s eyes as he did so immediately made him feel guilty.


“Are you sure there isn’t something bothering you?” Skinner asked.


Mulder tried to think what to say. People in this universe seemed to have similar personalities to the people he remembered back home. The Skinner he knew had always been firm, but fair, and had backed him against the smoking man on more than one occasion. Maybe it was worth a try.


“Please don’t send me back to school tomorrow,” he begged. “Spender…Mr. Spender…isn’t what you think. When there aren’t any other adults there he’s cruel. He hits some of the kids.”


“I’m sure he does if they deserve it.” Skinner remarked.


“No. He hits them when it’s not even their fault. If they’re too slow, or get their sums wrong. They’re really scared of him.” Mulder insisted. Skinner thought about it for a moment.


“Freddie said something similar once.” He frowned. “It’s hard to find good teachers who are prepared to work out here, in the middle of nowhere,” he told Mulder. “Unless you have a more substantial complaint than that, I won’t raise this with the school board.”


“But…” Mulder knew it was no use as soon as he opened his mouth. Skinner had always required proof in relation to the X Files and wasn’t likely to be any different on this matter.


“I’ve spoken.” Skinner said, in a tone that brooked no disagreement. “And you will go back to school tomorrow, Fox. I saw your work – you’re clearly very clever and I’m going to make sure you get all the schooling you need in order to make something of yourself.”


Mulder dragged himself back to school the next day with reluctant feet. He was so tired, and Skinner had him doing so many chores, that he had barely had time to think of a way out of his predicament. To be honest, there didn’t seem to be anyway out. Nobody else but him seemed to be trapped in this weird alternative universe. He had resolved to simply go along with things for now, hoping a way out of this nightmare would soon become evident to him. In the meantime though, that meant another long day at school with the loathsome Mr. Spender. Mulder found he was pleased to see Pendrell waiting for him when he arrived in the school-yard. He had started dividing the people in this new world into camps of friends and enemies, and he definitely counted Pendrell in the former camp. On the other hand, having a geeky friend clearly wasn’t going to do his street cred any good. As he greeted Pendrell, Krycek came up behind him, and pushed him roughly.


“Later, Fox.” He grinned. “You ran off before I could get you yesterday, but you and I are going to fight this out during the lunch break today.”


“Spender doesn’t approve of fighting,” Mulder began and he had to admit it sounded pretty lame even to his own ears. “If we get caught…”


“Oh I’m really scared.” Krycek made a face, and swaggered off. Looking up, Mulder was aware that his adversary’s performance had been staged at least partly for the benefit of two watching, giggling teenage girls. Both were pretty, with dark hair and big eyes.


“The Green sisters.” Pendrell whispered. “Phoebe and Diana.”


“What?” Mulder gasped, doing a double take and recognizing a young Phoebe Green…and Diana Fowley! “Oh shit.” He sighed, as his worst fears were realized. “Ex-girlfriends – that’s all I need, and me looking like this.” He glanced down at his skinny adolescent body.


He couldn’t get a handle on the ages of people in this universe. Skinner seemed to be the same age as he had been in his own universe, but Scully was older than either Phoebe or Diana, who had been her contemporaries, and Pendrell was about his own age. Spender was clearly of a similar age to Scully. It didn’t make sense.


Mulder could hardly concentrate on his lessons all morning. He didn’t know what to do about Krycek’s threat to fight him in the yard during the lunch recess. A significant part of him wanted, as always, to sink his fists into Krycek’s flesh and wipe the smile off of his old enemy’s face, but he was also anxious not to get into any trouble with either Spender or Skinner. Lunch-time crept closer and closer, and Mulder decided that he would just ignore Krycek if he tried to make trouble. he told himself, but somehow it was hard to be convinced on the subject when he was stuck in this teenage body.


“Don’t fight him.” Pendrell whispered as they walked into the school yard during the lunch break. “He fights dirty, Fox.”


“I know.” Mulder replied grimly, watching as Krycek strutted over.


“Okay, Fox, prepare to die. It’s you and me.” Krycek beckoned. Mulder shook his head.


“What’s the matter – you chicken?” Krycek taunted. Mulder shook his head again, but his heart sank as he noticed Phoebe and Diana watching the proceedings. Some primal instinct not to look a wimp in front of his old girlfriends took hold of him, and he felt himself bristling as Krycek went around the school-yard doing his best chicken impersonation.


“Fox, no!” Pendrell cried, but it was too late – Mulder lost control and threw himself on his old enemy, punching blindly. He got in one solid blow to Krycek’s body, but then the other boy head-butted him, making him howl in anguish, momentarily blinded.


They rolled around on the floor for a moment, but Krycek soon had the upper hand and split Mulder’s lip open with a vicious punch, following it up with another to the side of Mulder’s face. Mulder flailed back, but he had so much less strength than he was used to in this body, and he was aware that he was losing this fight dismally. He was also aware of the crowd around them suddenly falling silent and dispersing, and then Krycek also fled, and he was left lying in the dust, blood from his split lip running down his chin. He couldn’t figure out why all the kids had run off, until a hand descended on his shoulder and he blinked, looking up into Spender’s angry eyes.


“Fighting again, Fox?” Spender asked.


“No. I fell.” Mulder replied brazenly. Spender shook him until the teeth rattled in his head. “Don’t take me a fool, boy!” Spender hissed, glancing around the school-yard. “Who were you fighting with?”


“Nobody.” Mulder mumbled, some ancient schoolboy instinct about not ratting on other kids kicking in, even if the kid in question was Alex Krycek.


“Tell me!” Spender shook him again.


“Nobody.” Mulder repeated mutinously, and he saw the anger flare in Spender’s eyes at being so openly defied.


“Fine. Then I’ll make you.” Spender growled. “Lunch recess is over,” he called. “I want everyone inside – now!” He took hold of Mulder’s arm, and propelled him into the schoolroom, standing him by his desk. When all the other kids were seated, Spender turned his attention back to Mulder.


“It would seem that there was a fight. I want the other boy involved to own up, or Fox here will take his punishment for him.” Spender said. Nobody moved. Mulder glared meaningfully at Krycek, but the other boy refused to meet his eye. As Krycek had no visible signs of injury on him, there was nothing else to give him away. “Fine.” Spender picked up his cane, and Mulder shuddered. “Hands out, Fox.” Spender said. Mulder glared at him, his mind working overtime as he examined his options, but he couldn’t think of a single way out of this mess. Finally, slowly and reluctantly, he opened his palms and offered them up. Tears sprang unbidden into his eyes as the first blow struck home. Mulder couldn’t believe how much the cane stung. He bit on his lip to stop himself crying out and thoroughly humiliating himself in front of the whole class.


“Who was the other boy?” Spender asked, rapping down several blows in quick succession.


“I don’t know.” Mulder said, glaring at Spender.


“Then we’ll just have to keep going, won’t we?” Spender gave him a malicious smile.


The caning soon turned into a battle of wills. Mulder had no intention of naming names, and Spender had no intention of giving up. Soon, Mulder’s hands were covered in red welts, and he could hardly stop himself from sobbing out loud as each blow landed. What was worse was the feeling that Spender seemed to have totally lost it, as he laid into Mulder, raising the cane over and over again. Mulder felt as if the room was a haze of pain, and silent, watching eyes – Krycek’s green ones, Diana’s brown ones, Daniel’s blue ones…all watching, aghast and shocked by the contest they were witnessing. Mulder felt as if he were spinning off into space, the pain truly more than he could bear, when he suddenly heard someone speak.


“Sir…please…” It sounded like the voice of sanity, and it seemed to wake Spender up from his frenzy. His eyes snapped back into focus, and took in Mulder’s swaying frame, and the sweat pouring from his forehead. Mulder looked around the room, trying to locate the owner of the voice, and his eyes fell on Pendrell. He gave the other boy a weak smile of thanks.


“Very well.” Spender ran a hand through his wavy hair, clearly annoyed by the way he had lost control. “Take your seat, Fox.” He gestured with his head, and Mulder slipped back to his desk. His hands felt as if they were on fire, and when he glanced at them he could see the raised welts. He couldn’t even move his fingers to write, and he sat there for the rest of the day, just staring into space. Luckily Spender left him alone.


As soon as school ended, he ran out of the door, ignoring Krycek’s green-eyed stare, and Pendrell’s plaintive “Fox…wait!” He took off, running over the hill and through the wood, along a wagon trail, running and running as he always used to back in his own universe, whenever he was upset. He finally came to a halt, and sat under a tree overlooking Skinner’s farm, watching as his surrogate father worked in the fields. He longed to go down, to have something to eat and drink, but a part of him was scared about what his reception would be. Skinner was pretty strict, and for all Mulder knew, he might end up on the receiving end of another thrashing.


He sat there for a long time, watching as Skinner saw to the stock, and returned to the house. The big man came to the door several times, looking out, wiping his hands on a cloth, clearly worried. Finally, Mulder couldn’t bear it any longer. He had to face the music. With a slow, reluctant stride, he walked down the hill, and along the path towards the place he had come to view as his home. The door opened, and Skinner appeared.


“Fox.” The big man strode out to greet him. “It’s late… I was worried…” Skinner stopped short, taking in Mulder’s disheveled appearance, his split lip and bruised cheek. “Well…” He ran a gentle, assessing finger over Mulder’s cheek. “I’ve seen worse. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”


Mulder almost sobbed with relief as Skinner took him into the house, and sat him down, bringing a bowl of water to clean up the wounds, then standing back and shaking his head at him. “I take it the other boy won?” Skinner asked. Mulder nodded, silently. Skinner chuckled and tousled Mulder’s hair. “There, all done. Why don’t you set the table and I’ll serve up. Supper’s ready.” Mulder nodded again, accepting the wooden plates that Skinner handed to him, and then immediately dropping them with a yelp of pain. “Fox?” Skinner asked, concerned. Mulder looked down at his feet, hardly able to bring himself to look at Skinner as the other man took hold of his hands and turned them over, then sucked in a sharp intake of breath. “I take it you were caught then?” Skinner asked. Mulder nodded again, fearing a lecture, or worse, but instead Skinner brought over a bowl of clean, cold water and placed it on the table in front of him.


“It’ll sting a bit, but the best way is just to dunk them straight in.” Skinner told him, gesturing. Mulder looked up, finally daring to meet the man’s eyes, and found them kind and sympathetic.


“Aren’t you angry?” He whispered.


“With you?” Skinner asked. “No. Show me a teenage boy who hasn’t been in a fight.” The set of his jaw made it clear that he was angry with someone though. “Did Mr. Spender whip the other boy as hard as he whipped you?” Skinner wanted to know. Mulder shook his head.


“I wouldn’t tell him who it was. He went crazy. He wouldn’t stop hitting me,” he whispered. Skinner looked even angrier now.


“Rules are rules, and you knew what the penalty for fighting was,” he murmured, “but I don’t approve of anything like this.” He gestured at Mulder’s swollen fingers. “The punishment seems to have greatly exceeded the crime. Come on, get it over with and then I’ll put some salve on them,” he said.


Mulder nodded and took a deep breath, before plunging his hands into the cold water, gasping as it made contact with his sore flesh.


“Good boy.” Skinner tousled his hair in a way that Mulder was starting to like, and went to get a towel. He wrapped Mulder’s hands gently in the towel, and patted them dry, then he carefully smoothed the salve over the raw welts and blisters. “I’ll be having a word with Mr. Spender tomorrow,” he said grimly. “A licking’s one thing, but this goes a long way beyond that. You’re a brave boy, Fox, to take this, and stick by your own code of honor. I’m proud of you.” Mulder felt something inside him snap, and the tears rose up in his eyes. He found himself choking, and then he was enveloped in a pair of strong arms and pulled into an embrace. Skinner held him for several long minutes until his sobbing had subsided, then pushed him back into his chair.


“A good meal, and then straight to bed.” He smiled. “You’ll feel better with something in your belly, and I’ve always found a good night’s sleep helps to put things into perspective. Tomorrow evening I want you to come home straight from school.”


“Why?” Mulder glanced up, wondering if this was Skinner’s way of punishing him for getting into the fight.


“I’m going to teach you how to use your fists.” Skinner grinned. “If you get into trouble for it, that’ll be your own look-out, and I won’t have any sympathy for you, but at least you should know how to defend yourself, so we don’t have a repeat of this.” His gentle fingers brushed against the bruises on Mulder’s face.


“You’ll teach me?” Mulder looked at Skinner’s burly frame, and silently conceded that the man would undoubtedly make a good teacher on the subject.


“Yes. You’re skinny, but the secret of being a good boxer is to use your brain and make the most of whatever brawn you have, however much or little that may be. I used to do a great deal of boxing in my youth, so I know what I’m talking about.” He smiled. “You deserve a fighting chance, Fox,” he said, nodding, “and that’s what I’m going to give you.”


Mulder went to bed that night feeling happier than he would have thought possible after such a nightmare of a day. He went to sleep instantly, and therefore didn’t see Skinner sit down next to him and gently stoke his hair, watching over him as he slept.


Mulder didn’t know what Skinner said to Spender, but from that moment on, the teacher didn’t lay a finger on him. He seemed almost wary of asking him any questions in class, and his school life eased considerably as a result. Krycek stayed away from him for a few weeks as well, although he didn’t have the grace to thank him for keeping silent about who he’d been fighting.


Mulder found that he enjoyed Skinner’s tutorials. The other man was an excellent teacher, and they spent several evenings stripped to the waist, sparring together in the barn, until Skinner was finally convinced that Mulder would be able to hold his own. Although Krycek hadn’t challenged him since that day, he knew it wouldn’t last – the animosity between them still simmered under the surface and it wasn’t long before it resurfaced. Krycek still teased Pendrell, and Mulder stood up for his friend, inevitably causing hostility. He wasn’t surprised to find Krycek waiting for him in the school-yard one evening after school.


“I’m think we should settle things once and for all,” Krycek told him. Mulder stared at the other boy, coolly. “Just because you didn’t dump me in it with Spender, doesn’t mean I’m going to let you get away.” Krycek insisted. “Unless you’re chicken?”


“You are so unoriginal.” Mulder sighed. “All right – I’ll fight you, but not here. I’m not having Spender lay into me again.”


“Where then?” Krycek’s green eyes glowed eagerly.


“The woods.” Mulder said. Krycek looked slightly disappointed that there wouldn’t be any witnesses to his victory, and that the girls wouldn’t see him beat Mulder to a pulp, but he was too keyed up at the prospect of a fight to protest.


“I’ll come.” Pendrell said. Mulder glanced at him in surprise. Pendrell’s father was a strict man, and Pendrell was under orders to come straight home from school every night. Mulder knew that his friend was terrified of his father and didn’t dare to disobey him. “You’re fighting him because you stick up for me.” Pendrell said with a shrug. “I won’t let you do it alone. I’m not much good as a fighter, but I’ll hold your jacket, and I’ll be on your side,” he said firmly. Mulder felt a wave of affection for his friend for this show of courage and smiled his thanks. Having met Pendrell’s strange, distant father, he was sure that the boy would get into trouble, so he appreciated Pendrell’s support.


They were barely in the woods, when Krycek suddenly turned and charged at Mulder without warning. Mulder was momentarily startled, but he soon remembered Skinner’s lessons, and before long he had the upper hand over the surprised Krycek, who had assumed that he would have as easy a victory as before. Mulder pinned the other boy to the ground and pummeled at him relentlessly until finally Krycek gave in, sobbing and whimpering, begging Mulder to stop. Mulder paused, enjoying his victory.


“Apologize to Daniel,” he insisted.


“Sorry, Daniel.” Krycek mumbled.


“Louder.” Mulder slapped Krycek’s face.


“SORRY DANIEL!” Krycek yelled.


“And promise never to tease him or be cruel to him again.”


“I promise.” Krycek said, tears of humiliation mingling with the blood that was running freely from his nose.


“I don’t want you bothering me again, either.” Mulder slapped his old foe across the cheek.


“I won’t.” Krycek whispered.


“Good. Then we’re even.” Mulder got up, and retrieved his jacket from Pendrell, and they both left without looking back.


“Thank you.” Pendrell said in a soft voice. “It was worth…you know…to see this. You’re a good friend, Fox.” Then he ran off, speeding as fast as his legs could carry him. Mulder watched him go and smiled, whistling to himself as he walked back to the farm. Maybe this universe wasn’t all bad, he thought to himself. He was getting used to it, and the fight with Krycek had reminded him of old times, of going to work in the… He stopped suddenly, trying to remember the name of the place where he had worked in his old life. “FNI…no FBI…and the…a building beginning with ‘h’.” Mulder frowned, trying to remember, wondering when the facts stored in his memory had started to slip away. Finally, he gave up, and continued home.


Skinner was unsaddling his mare as Mulder strode up the path. He stopped what he was doing and watched his young charge for a while, smiling.


“I take it you won then?” He commented.


“How did you know?” Mulder demanded incredulously. “How did you know I’d even fight him today?”


“I didn’t.” Skinner grinned, catching Mulder’s hand and glancing at the grazed knuckles, “but you walked up that path like a victor this evening.”


“It was fantastic.” Mulder smiled. “I don’t think he’ll trouble me again.”


“Good.” Skinner tousled his hair, and handed him the saddle. “Here, take this inside for me.”


“Sure.” Mulder said, walking towards the stable, still grinning. Then he stopped and looked back. “I…I want to say thanks,” he muttered.


Skinner waved a hand at him. “Idiot!” he grinned. “I’m just glad you proved yourself. I think this calls for a celebration don’t you? I’ll make your favorite supper, and you can stay up late tonight. Doctor Scully dropped by with some newspapers and magazines – they’re pretty out of date, but you could read through them if you want.”


“Excellent.” Mulder punched the air with his fist, and took the saddle into the barn. Then he stopped, wondering when the prospect of reading a pile of old newspapers had become so attractive. he sighed to himself. A different pace of life too, different expectations.


Life out here was hard, and it was a daily struggle making ends meet. He knew Skinner didn’t have much money – the man made extra by carving furniture for people in the town – and there were times when Mulder saw the look of worry on Skinner’s face as he counted the meager quantity of cash he kept in a jar on the mantle shelf. Mulder had also noticed that although Skinner’s boots were falling apart, he had bought Mulder a new pair first, when his had started letting in water. There wasn’t enough money for two pairs of boots. “Maybe after the harvest.” Skinner had told him with a wry smile, stitching the sole of his own boots back up again for the fourth or fifth time. “It looks good this year, so we should make enough to see us through for awhile.” Mulder had become acutely aware of how different this age was from the throwaway society he was used to living in, and he admired Skinner for his sturdy self-reliance.


Mulder still hadn’t worked out what had happened to Skinner’s family – and it wasn’t a subject he dared pursue – but he was surprised to find out how much the other man had come to mean to him. He was honest, dependable and fair. He might occasionally lecture Mulder, and often nagged him about chores and homework, but despite that, Mulder knew that deep down inside, he had come to feel a very strong affection for this surrogate “father” he had acquired. Skinner’s good opinion mattered to him, and he was delighted that his one-time boss took such pleasure in his victory over Krycek.


Mulder was astonished to find Krycek waiting for him on the path leading to the school the next day. The other boy didn’t say a word. He just fell into step beside Mulder and they walked up to the school together without talking. He did the same on the way home, waiting and then falling into step beside Mulder. This went on for several days, until Krycek suggested that they went fishing.


“I don’t know.” Mulder paused, thinking about it.


“I’ve got a fishing rod and line. I keep them by the stream.” Krycek urged.


“I’m expected back home. There are chores…” Mulder hesitated. He hated doing his chores, and the idea of going fishing was appealing. Krycek grinned at him, and then started to run in the direction of the stream, and somehow Mulder couldn’t stop himself following on after.


They didn’t catch anything – Krycek’s home-made fishing rod was somewhat inadequate for the task, but, lying in the evening sun, up to his knees in water, Mulder found himself enjoying the other boy’s company. He soon found out that Krycek was the only son of a gypsy family camped on the plains. He had eight sisters, but being a boy, Krycek was the only one of the children to be sent to school.


“So you don’t have any chores to do?” Mulder sighed.


“Nope.” Krycek grinned. “Just tell your dad you don’t want to do them.”


“I don’t think so.” Mulder choked with laughter at the very thought.


“Why not?” Krycek asked, his tone curious.


“You’ve met my dad haven’t you?” Mulder pointed out, wondering idly when he had started to think of Skinner as being his “dad”.


“Yeah.” Krycek grinned. “Yeah. I suppose. I can see why you might be a bit scared of him.”


“Oh, he’s okay.” Mulder shrugged.


“Your cheesy feet are scaring the fish away.” Krycek said.


“So are yours.” Mulder pointed out. Somehow, and he wasn’t sure how, the friendly squabble became a mock fight, and then they both fell into the water.


Mulder arrived home an hour later, soaked through, and feeling slightly uneasy about how Skinner would react – both to the lateness of the hour, and the state of his clothing. He opened the door, and stood there for a moment, dripping onto the floor. Skinner glanced up from his seat by the fire, and raised an eyebrow.


“Fishing I presume?” He asked.


“Um, yeah.” Mulder grinned.


“Well your chores are still waiting for you, and your homework still has to be done.” Skinner stated implacably turning back to his paper. Mulder sighed theatrically. “Any arguments?” Skinner asked ominously.


“No, sir. None.” Mulder said quickly, turning to go and see to his chores.


“Fox?” Skinner called him back. “Did you catch anything?”


“No.” Mulder sighed. “Alex said…”


“Alex?” Skinner frowned. “Since when has he been your friend?”


“I don’t know. Since the fight.” Mulder shrugged.


“Well, he’s a bad kid, Fox. His family let him run wild. What’s happened to Daniel? I thought he was your friend?”


“He is, but he has to go straight home after school. I can have more than one friend can’t I?” Mulder said defensively.


“Of course.” Skinner shrugged. “Just don’t let Alex Krycek get you into any trouble.”


“I won’t!” Mulder flared.


“I mean it.” Skinner said firmly. Mulder glared at him for a moment, then turned on his heel and walked out into the yard, muttering to himself.


The following weekend was the 4th of July celebrations in town. Skinner opened up the wooden trunk at the bottom of Mulder’s bed and found him a new set of clothes to wear.


“Did these belong to Freddie?” Mulder asked.


“No, to Ben.” Skinner smiled. “You’ve worn holes in all Freddie’s clothes now. Ben’s were far too big for you, but I’ve had Mrs. Scully take them up.”


“How long has it been?” Mulder asked.


“Since I found you? Six months.” Skinner smiled. “You still don’t remember anything of your previous life do you?” He asked gently. Mulder shook his head.


he thought to himself.


“Tell me about Ben,” he asked as they drove the wagon into town, not expecting a reply.


“Ben was the quiet one. Not like you.” Skinner grinned at him. “Freddie was bright as a button, inquisitive, always into everything, always getting into trouble – but Ben was studious. He liked to read. You’re a bit like him in that respect. Ben was clever – I hoped he’d become a doctor. He was bright enough to win a scholarship. I couldn’t have afforded to put him through college myself.” He looked sad for a moment, and Mulder wondered if that would signal the end of the conversation. He had found out only snatches about Skinner’s family, and he still didn’t know what had happened to them or where they lived now. “Ben had light hair, blue eyes. He didn’t look a bit like me – he took after Sharon.” Skinner had never mentioned his wife’s name before and Mulder looked up, startled. “Freddie looked like me. Cassie was too small to look like anyone.” Skinner smiled fondly. “She had big chubby baby cheeks, and she was bald like me.” He gave a wry grin, shaking his head at the memory.


“What happened to them?” Mulder asked, but at that moment they drew up into town, and Skinner jumped out of the wagon and started to unhitch the horse. Mulder sighed. He had never been so close to finding out about the mysterious Skinner family before. Now he had names for all of them – Ben, the eldest son, Freddie, a few years younger, and baby Cassie.


He soon forgot about the Skinner family, as Krycek and Pendrell both found him and he ran off, caught up in the excitement of the celebrations. He glowed with pride when Skinner won the wrestling competition, but the highlight of the event was the evening, when the fireworks were set off. Phoebe and Diana both pretended to be scared by all the loud bangs, and that was an excuse for the boys to comfort them, making the most of the opportunity to hold hands and steal sly kisses.


“They’re so pretty.” Diana sighed. “I wish we could have fireworks every day.”


“You could. They’re not very difficult to make.” Pendrell commented.


“I bet you couldn’t make them.” Krycek said scornfully.


“I bet I could.” Pendrell flared.


“We could put on our own display for you then.” Mulder said, enjoying being able to squeeze up close to the girls, and put his arms around their waists.


“Yeah!” Krycek grinned. “Let’s do it.”


“I don’t think that would be a good idea.” Pendrell muttered nervously.


“Why not? You just said you could.” Krycek pointed out.


“Yes, but I didn’t say I would.” Pendrell countered.


“I’d love to have our own fireworks display, just for us.” Phoebe sighed, nestling closer to Pendrell. He licked his lips, looking worried.


“We’ll do it.” Krycek said. “Tomorrow evening. We’ll come to your house, hide behind the storage outhouse, and set the fireworks going. It’ll be dark. We’ll run away before anyone can catch us.”


“Oh yes.” Diana smiled. “Will you do that for us?” She asked Mulder.


“Well…” he hesitated, then broke into a grin. “Okay,” he said, elbowing Pendrell in the ribs. “We’ll be there.”


“That was the best day of my life.” Mulder sighed, as he climbed into the wagon, beside Skinner later that evening.


“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.” Skinner’s teeth gleamed in the darkness as he smiled at his young charge.


“So nice…” Mulder murmured, yawning, his head lolling against Skinner’s shoulder as he fell asleep. Skinner smiled to himself, and arranged the rug around Mulder. The boy still hadn’t woken up when they reached the farm, so he plucked him out of the wagon, and carried him into the house, laying him down on the bed and tucking the blankets around him.


“Sleep well, Fox.” Skinner kissed the sleeping boy’s forehead. “Thank you for coming here and bringing some joy back into my life.”


Mulder awoke the next day feeling vaguely apprehensive. Then he remembered the deal they’d made about the fireworks the previous evening. Something told him that this was not a good idea, but he pushed his niggling worries to the back of his mind. It was Sunday, and when he’d done his chores he was free to do as he pleased. Skinner was not a religious man, and, unusually for this era Mulder thought, he didn’t go to church. Mulder met up with Krycek and Pendrell later on that afternoon. Pendrell had a box of supplies with him, but he didn’t look very happy.


“I don’t think we should go through with this,” he said.


“Don’t be stupid – the girls will think we’re the best if we pull this off.” Krycek told him.




“No buts.” Mulder said firmly. “We’re going to do it.”


They arranged to meet up after dark, and Mulder made his excuses to Skinner after supper and slipped off to bed early. He felt slightly guilty, but he reasoned that he could slip out while Skinner was reading in front of the fire, as he usually did, and slip back in again after Skinner had gone to bed. The other man wouldn’t even notice that he was missing. There was no reason why he would ever find out.


He managed to slip out easily enough. Skinner had nodded off, which made it even easier. Mulder met up with the other boys as arranged, and they hid in the yard behind the storage outhouse at the Green house. Krycek threw a stone at an upstairs window and Diana appeared, waving to them.


“Get on with it.” Krycek hissed, and Pendrell opened the box with fumbling fingers, mixing together the powders he had begged, borrowed, and stolen from various sources over the years, to feed his obsession with all things chemical. Mulder held the fuse wire, and Pendrell handed Krycek the taper, lit from the lantern they had brought with them.


“You do it,” he squeaked.


Krycek grinned, and lit the wire, and there was a whooshing sound. The home-made firework exploded into the air, fizzled around crazily for a while, then nose-dived into the window of the outhouse, breaking a pane of glass, and exploding around the storage area with a series of ear splitting screeches and crackles that would have woken the dead. A moment later, there was a loud bang, and a plume of smoke emerged from the outhouse.


“It’s on fire!” Mulder yelled, getting up and starting to run. He didn’t get very far as pandemonium broke out. Mr. Green emerged from the house, with his wife close behind him, and several neighbors had run into the yard with buckets of water, seeking to put out the flames. Mulder found himself caught up in a pair of strong arms as he tried to flee. Krycek and Pendrell hadn’t fared any better – and soon all three boys were deposited by the house with the local blacksmith standing guard over them. Pendrell was white with terror.


“Oh god!” He whispered. “What have we done? What will my father say?”


Krycek simply shrugged his shoulders, but Mulder was feeling pretty uneasy himself. He had no idea what Skinner’s reaction to this piece of mischief would be, and he didn’t look forward to finding out.


By the time the flames had been extinguished, and the neighborhood had returned to bed, Mulder, Pendrell and Krycek had been forced to recount the entire story to Mr. Green who had sent for their parents. Mulder quaked as he saw the grim expression on Skinner’s face. Skinner put a hand on his shoulder and looked him over, wiping some soot from his forehead.


“Are you all right, Fox?” He asked.


“Yes, sir.” Mulder couldn’t meet his eye.


“Good.” Skinner nodded. “Now perhaps someone will tell me exactly what went on here?”


At that moment Pendrell’s father put in an appearance. He rushed up to his son and delivered a stinging blow to his ear. Mulder bit on his lip, and Skinner’s hand tightened on his shoulder.


“You’ll suffer for this.” Pendrell’s father hissed, hitting him again. Glancing up, Mulder saw Skinner shaking his head.


“Take the boy home, Jonathan,” Skinner said, interrupting Mr. Pendrell in the process of delivering another blow. The other man looked up.


“He’s my son, Walter. I’ll treat him as I think he deserves,” he growled. “You’d be better off seeing to that foundling you’ve got there. I’ll bet he and the gypsy boy are behind this. Daniel would never dream up anything like this by himself.” Mulder bit guiltily on his bottom lip. That was a true enough assessment of the situation.


Krycek’s father rolled up at that moment, smelling suspiciously of drink. He gave Alex a lazy grin and beckoned him over.


“C’mon, son. The womenfolk are all clucking around about this. You’d best get home and entertain them with the whole story.”


“It certainly isn’t an entertaining story.” Mr. Green bristled, recounting what had happened. Mulder glanced up to see how Skinner was taking it, and then wished he hadn’t.


“I’m out of pocket and I expect you to pay for the damage your sons have caused,” Mr. Green insisted. Mulder winced, knowing how little money Skinner actually possessed.


“We’ll certainly pay. Of course.” Mr. Pendrell blustered.


“Well I won’t.” Krycek’s father smiled. “I haven’t a cent to my name, as you well know, Green, so you can whistle for your cash.” He made off down the street, lurching from side to side. Alex gave Mulder a wink, then set off after him. Mulder saw Skinner frowning and guessed that he didn’t approve of Krycek’s father any more than he approved of Pendrell’s.


“I’ll work off the debt, Nathaniel.” Skinner told Mr. Green earnestly. “I promise.”


“Well, your word is good enough for me, Walter.” The other man said, nodding curtly. “Now take your sons home. I don’t want them coming near this house ever again.”


Skinner walked Mulder out to the wagon, and they started the drive back to the farm in silence. Mulder was shivering, and it had nothing to do with the cold. He wondered just how angry Skinner was, and what he intended to do with him. After a little while, Skinner cleared his throat.


“I have one question, Fox,” he said.


“Yes, sir.” Mulder nodded.


“The story Mr. Green told us back there – is it true? Or do you have some defense for your actions this evening?”


“I…” Mulder racked his brain for some adequate defense, but failed to come up with anything. “It’s true, sir,” he said finally.


“You’re sure?” Skinner sounded faintly despairing, and Mulder felt a moment of dread, wondering if Skinner would throw him out, and then wondering where he’d go if he did. “I’m giving you a chance to defend yourself here, Fox.” Skinner said quietly.


“Yes, sir, I know,” Mulder replied, “but it was pretty much as Mr. Green explained it, sir.”


“I see.” Skinner lapsed into silence again, and Mulder sat frozen to his wagon seat. He was sure that agonizing journey lasted for a lifetime. He stole little glances at Skinner every now and again, but the man’s face was set in granite, and he looked more angry than Mulder could ever remember seeing him.


They finally drew up at the farm, and Skinner got off the wagon and went to unhitch the horse.


“Fox, I want you to go and wait for me in the barn,” he said quietly.


“In the barn?” Mulder clambered down from the wagon, and looked at Skinner in confusion. “What’s going to happen, sir?”


“I’m going to whip you.” Skinner told him. “Now go and wait for me in the barn. I’ll see to the horse, and then I’ll be along.”


Mulder’s stomach did several flips, but he didn’t dare disobey Skinner when he was so silently furious. With quaking footsteps, Mulder began the walk down to the barn, letting himself in, and hanging up the lantern on the nail on the wall. He paced around the barn nervously, wondering what exactly Skinner meant when he referred to a whipping. Skinner’s anger scared him, just as it always had before – back in that other world that he could hardly remember. He briefly considered making a run for it, but where would he go? He didn’t want to leave this place that he had come to think of as his home. Apart from anything else, a nagging voice at the back of his head told Mulder that he was only going to get exactly what he deserved. All the same, his whole body shook as he thought of being on the receiving end of a whipping from Skinner. Somehow he knew that this wouldn’t be like the caning Spender had given him. This would be worse, much worse, and the fact that it was Skinner who would be handing it out made it doubly so. Mulder could barely admit to himself how much he had come to like his old boss during the time that he had lived with him, and it hurt him deep inside to think that this kindly, patient man, would shortly administer a whipping to him.


The barn door clattered open all too soon for Mulder’s liking, breaking into his panic-stricken thoughts, and he looked up into Skinner’s dark, angry eyes.


“All right, Fox, come here.” Skinner said softly, and Mulder obeyed instantly, his heart and stomach exchanging places, then flip-flopping back again. Skinner put his hands on Mulder’s shoulders and turned him around, pushing him towards the hay bales stacked on the barn floor. “Pants down, Fox, and bend over the bales,” Skinner instructed. Mulder unfastened his pants with quivering fingers, and pushed them down to his knees. Then he arranged himself over the bale, feeling the straw scratch against his bare flesh. Skinner tugged down his shorts and Mulder buried his head in his arms, feeling horribly exposed.


Skinner unbuckled his belt, and wound it around his hand, then placed the other hand in the small of Mulder’s back. He put one of his feet on a bale of straw to gain some purchase, and Mulder tensed.


“I’m very disappointed in you, Fox.” Skinner said, bringing the belt down hard on Mulder’s waiting backside. Mulder gasped out loud from the sting of the blow.


“I’m sorry…” he whispered.


“I know you are, son, but you still have to be punished.” Skinner delivered another stinging blow, and Mulder jumped.


“Ow…” he wailed, hating himself for crying out loud.


“What on earth possessed you to carry out such a stupid prank?” Skinner demanded, landing two more licks in quick succession.


“I don’t know. We wanted to impress the girls…Unnnhhhh. Owwwww! ” Mulder sobbed.


“I’m sure that you ‘impressed’ the entire neighborhood.” Skinner told him, the belt rising and falling again, and again. Mulder pressed his face into the straw, willing the torment to stop. It was humiliating to be here, in this position, receiving a whipping like the 15-year-old that everyone thought he was, but more than anything else he hated the fact that Skinner was so disappointed in him. He was also really worried about where Skinner would find the money to pay for the damage that they had caused.


“I’m so sorry…owwwwww.” He yelled again. Another lick caught him a stinging blow across the top of his thighs, and he tried to get up, bellowing his distress. Skinner’s hand caught him up and pinned him back down again, as another two licks were laid across his now burning butt.


“You could have been hurt.” Skinner laid a particularly hard swat across his backside. “Or you could have hurt someone else. Playing around with explosives – it’s stupid and dangerous and you deserve a hard whipping for your part in it.”


“I know. Owwwww. Unnnnnnnh…please…” he sobbed.


“I’m not sure that you understand just how foolhardy that was. I hope this whipping makes you understand, Fox.” Skinner paused for a moment and then went to work even harder. Mulder couldn’t stop himself wriggling under the onslaught, but Skinner’s hand was firm on his back and there was no escape. Finally the floodgates opened, and Mulder cried his heart out, barely noticing the two further licks that Skinner delivered. He just lay there, sobbing, and after a few minutes, he was suddenly aware that the whipping had stopped. He glanced up at Skinner through tear-filled eyes, watching as the other man buckled his belt back on.


“I’ll give you a few moments to collect yourself,” Skinner told him. “Then I want you to come back to the house. We have some talking to do – and you look like you need a good wash as well.” He observed, as soot and tear-stains had combined to give Mulder a distinctly murky appearance.


“Yes…sir…” Mulder gulped, easing himself off from the hay bale, and glancing over his shoulder to survey the damage. He had several large red lines across his backside, and he knew without touching them that they’d hurt like hell if he tried to sit down. Still hiccuping, he carefully pulled his pants back up, and then leaned against the side of the barn, until his breathing had slowed down. What would Skinner do next, he wondered? The man still seemed angry, and Mulder dreaded that he’d get to the house and Skinner would order him to leave. Why not? He had no obligation to Mulder. In fact, Mulder was just a drain on his resources, a mouth to feed when he had little enough money to see to his own needs.


Mulder walked slowly back to the tiny house, every step reminding him of the punishment he had undergone, and he pushed open the door. Skinner was sitting in his usual spot by the fire, a bottle of whisky in his hand. Mulder felt an old, semi-remembered fear leap into his mind.


“I guess I’ve driven you to drink.” he whispered, wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt.


“Nearly.” Skinner held up the unopened bottle, “but not quite. I promised Sharon I’d never touch this stuff again and I’ve kept that promise. How are you?”


Mulder glanced up, surprised, but found only genuine concern in Skinner’s eyes.


“I hurt,” he replied honestly.


“Yes. I expect that you do.” Skinner nodded. “Come here.” He pointed to a spot by the fire and Mulder walked over, wondering what to expect next. He didn’t expect what happened, which was that Skinner enveloped him in a hug and kissed his forehead. “You really are a mess.” Skinner said fondly, wiping a streak of salty soot from Mulder’s face.


“I’m sorry…” Mulder felt the tears welling up again. He could have coped with Skinner’s anger, but this affection and concern was too much for him. He broke into heaving sobs and burrowed his head in Skinner’s shoulder. The big man’s hands drew comforting circles on his back.


“It’s all right.” Skinner murmured. “I’m sorry too. I hated having to whip you so harshly, Fox. I know you’re not a bad boy, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to learn. It’s been a long time since I took my belt off to my sons, and it’s not something I do lightly. I’d rather we didn’t have to go through this again.” Mulder’s sobs started to tail off, and he looked up.


“Again? You mean you’re not throwing me out?”


“What?” Skinner sounded aghast. “Of course not! I’m sure I got up to worse pranks in my time.” He grinned. “I wouldn’t throw you out for anything, Fox. Having you around has given me someone to live for again. You belong here, with me.”


“You’re sure? I take up space, and eat too much, and you couldn’t afford those boots because of me, and now it’s even worse because you have to pay back Mr. Green…” Mulder started to cry again.


“Ssh!” Skinner laughed. “I’m not saying I’m not angry about what you did tonight – but more than anything I’m sad that you deceived me. Slipping out of the house like that.”


“I know.” Mulder nodded.


“I’ll find the money somehow. You can help by taking on more work around the farm, while I make more furniture. I’m sure we’ll get by. Now – I’ll warm you some milk while you go outside and wash yourself down.”


Mulder nodded and made for the door.


“Fox.” Skinner stopped him, and Mulder looked back, questioningly. “You’ve been punished. As far as I’m concerned that’s where the matter ends,” he said firmly. Mulder nodded again, a feeling of relief washing over him.


When he returned to the house Skinner nodded him towards the bed, and then brought over the warm milk while Mulder eased himself cautiously under the sheets on his stomach, wincing as he did so.


“You can’t drink lying down like that.” Skinner commented reasonably.


“I can’t sit up.” Mulder complained.


“Of course you can.” Skinner waited patiently, while Mulder eased himself gingerly into a painful seated position in order to take his drink. “Did your real father never have cause to whip you?” Skinner asked, sitting down on the side of the bed.


“No – he used to get drunk and lash out. He cut my head open once. He scared me.” Mulder said, then looked up in a panic, realizing that Skinner had caught him out.


“So you do remember him?” Skinner asked gently.


“Yes. I remember flashes.” Mulder frowned. “It really is only flashes…” he said, suddenly realizing that had become the truth.


“Maybe you ran away from him because he drank and used to harm you.” Skinner suggested, looking at Mulder keenly.


“No. I don’t think that’s it.” Mulder said.


Skinner studied his own fingers for a while. “I used to drink myself,” he confided, taking a deep breath, and then looking Mulder in the eye. Mulder gripped the mug he was holding tightly. This was clearly something that Skinner was deeply ashamed of. Mulder wondered if that was why Sharon and the children had left.


“I…” Skinner paused, as if mustering the courage to complete this confession. “It was hard when we first came here,” he said, and Mulder felt a wave of pity for the man. “I worked all the hours god sent…but still, it was hard keeping my family fed and clothed. I started drinking to blot out the worries. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I lost my temper one night. It only happened once.” He looked up, and Mulder was surprised at how guilty his eyes were. “Once is enough though.” Skinner shrugged. “My family were terrified. I’m too big to throw my weight around – I could have hurt them. I can still remember the look of terror in my son’s eyes. I don’t ever want to see that look again. I haven’t touched a drop since then, not even when…” he broke off, buried his face in his hands for a second, and then looked back at Mulder. “I just wanted to reassure you. I’m not like your father. I won’t get drunk and harm you. I promise.”


“You were holding that whisky bottle tonight.” Mulder blurted. “I drove you to that. You might want to change your mind about having me around.


“I wasn’t considering drinking it because you drove me to it!” Skinner laughed. “I wasn’t seriously considering drinking it at all. I was just miserable because I’d had to punish you. I didn’t like seeing you cry. I’ve come to love you as if you were my own son, Fox, and I want to do right by you.”


He smiled and took the empty mug from Mulder’s nerveless fingers. “Good night. Sleep well.” He kissed Mulder’s hair and left, taking the lamp with him. Mulder stared after him, his mind reeling from the events of the night. Then he closed his eyes and cried himself softly to sleep, not because of the pain in his backside, but because Skinner had said that he loved him.


End of part one


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