Frontiers: 2. The Gathering



Mulder crouched beside Skinner, helping the big man as he carved an intricate pattern into the oak table he was working on. Mulder handed him tools, and watched as Skinner applied the finishing touches to the last acorn he was carving, then stood back and surveyed his work with a smile.


“All done.” Skinner grinned at his helper. “This should bring us in a tidy sum. It’s a fine piece of work if I do say so myself.”


Mulder nodded, but he couldn’t smile. Skinner was busy enough as it was, working the farm, without taking on all this extra work in the evening, making and carving wooden furniture. It had been several weeks since Mulder had earned himself a whipping after the disastrous incident with the fireworks, but Skinner was still trying to pay off the debt he owed because of it. Mulder fought down the feeling of guilt, and busied himself clearing up the woodshed, tidying away the tools. He had been coming home straight from school in order to help Skinner, and he missed his fishing trips with Alex, and his resentment over that warred with his guilt over being responsible for this mess in the first place.


“Something up?” Skinner glanced at the quiet boy. Mulder usually ran about, keeping up a non-stop chatter that Skinner would listen to with half an ear, and a smile.


“No.” Mulder scuffed a foot through the sawdust.


“Yes there is.” Skinner looked at him searchingly.


“How long do you think it’ll be?” Mulder asked.


“Until what?” Skinner finished rubbing down his handiwork, and wiped his hands on a rag. He held the shed door open for Mulder, and they both walked back to the house.


“Until we’ve paid off Mr. Green.” Mulder mumbled, hating to bring up the subject of that terrible night.


“Ah.” Skinner clapped a big hand down on his shoulder and gave a squeeze. Mulder looked up into his smiling dark eyes. “Well, I’ve got high hopes for the harvest, Fox.” Skinner scanned the fields full of swaying crops. “It looks like it’ll be a big one this year, so that should set us up for the Winter. Hopefully we’ll be able to pay off Mr. Green, and buy us both a new pair of boots at the same time.” Skinner glanced ruefully at his worn boots, and Mulder felt a sensation of misery settling into his stomach again.


Although this was all his fault, the adolescent voice inside him complained that he’d been punished enough, first by the whipping, and then by giving up most of his already limited free time to help Skinner out for so many weeks. An almost-forgotten adult voice argued back that Skinner had to go on working himself so hard because of Mulder’s actions, and the least he could do was help out, but Mulder found himself ignoring his adult voice more and more these days.


“Chafing at the bit?” Skinner asked. Mulder looked up in surprise, and Skinner laughed. “I was your age once, and just as much of a handful as you are. You’re getting restless and you need to blow off some steam. Tell you what, why don’t you go off with your friends after school tomorrow. I can manage around here well enough.”


“You mean that?” Mulder’s eyes lit up, and Skinner laughed again, tousling the boy’s hair affectionately.


“Yes. I must be getting soft in my old age. My old man would have had me home straight from school every night for a year for the stunt you pulled, but you’ve been sensible and well behaved for so long now that you’ll probably explode if I don’t let you run wild for a day or two.”


“Thank you!” Mulder jumped into the air, then did a crazy little dance that made Skinner holler with laughter.


“Fox – a word of warning though.” Skinner said, as they reached the house and went inside. Mulder looked up, his smile fading. “I’m not going to forbid you to see Alex, because I think you’ve got a right to choose your own friends, but just remember the trouble he got you into last time. When you’re with him, you’ve got to use some good sense.”


“I will.” Mulder muttered, scowling, an adolescent irritation at having to listen to tedious parental warnings flaring inside him.


“Fox.” Skinner’s hand closed around his arm, and the big man pulled him around to face him. “I mean it.” Skinner said firmly. “I know that you’re 15 years old, and the consequences of your actions aren’t always on your mind when you’re having a good time, but if you forget, then I’ll be here to remind you. You can rely on that.” Mulder glared at him, but Skinner just laughed at the expression on the boy’s face, and tousled his hair again. “Be careful the wind doesn’t change and leave you looking like that,” he remarked, before setting off in the direction of the recessed area they used as a kitchen, in order to fix them some supper. Mulder continued to glare after him.


“Want to go fishing after school?” Mulder asked Alex casually the next day.


Alex gave him a sly grin. “Pa given you permission to stay out then has he?” Alex taunted.


“No.” Mulder flushed. “I don’t need permission.”


“Aw, baby too scared of big bad Papa Skinner that he has to ask if he can stay out late?” Alex made an irritating blubbering sound and waggled his lips with his finger.


“Oh shut up.” Mulder threw himself on the other boy, and delivered a couple of punches. Alex just grinned at him.


“I’m bored with fishing anyway.” Alex told him, pushing him off. “But…” he gazed at Mulder speculatively. “You can come back to the camp with me after school if you want.”


“The camp?” Mulder bit on his lip. There were all sorts of rumors about the gypsy families, who camped on the plains, and the townsfolk didn’t like them being there, but Mulder was intrigued. There was something wild and untamed about these people that fascinated him, and he longed to see where they lived. “Okay,” he said, coming to a decision. He couldn’t get into any trouble with Skinner just by going to have a look, he was sure about that. What harm could it do?


The gypsy encampment was a mess, and it smelled, and yet there was something curiously exotic about it. Horses roamed freely through the settlement, and a woman lay on the floor outside her tent, her petticoats up around her ears, snoring loudly.


“That’s grandma. She’s drunk.” Alex grinned. Mulder was introduced to what seemed like a multitude of Kryceks, ranging in age from 3 months to 103, or so he was told, although he didn’t believe it, even if the wizened old lady Alex said was his great, great grandmama, looked as if she was that old. A huge fire in the center of the settlement was lit, and most of the men were standing around, drinking, while they waited for their supper. Mulder chewed his way through some sort of weird-tasting meal, and thought ruefully for a moment, about Skinner’s cooking, and then there was some dancing – wild, gypsy dancing that enthralled Mulder, before a drunken fight broke the whole thing up.


“Is it always like this?” Mulder whispered as he and Alex slipped away from the fire.


“Yeah.” Alex shrugged. “Mostly.”


“No wonder you’re always in trouble with Spender for not getting your homework done then.”


“Spender. Huh.” Alex spat on the ground. “He doesn’t scare me.”


“I’ve never been anywhere like this before.” Mulder’s eyes glowed with the excitement of this place, and these strange, passionate people.


“This? This is nothing. You wait until the next full moon. We’re having a Gathering then – there’ll be other gypsies from all over the place congregating on the plains. Now that’ll be a party.” Alex grinned at him. “Want to come?”


Mulder hesitated.


“Whassamatter? Scared of old Pa again?” Alex taunted. “Scaredy Fox can’t go out without Papa  Skinner’s say-so?”


“No.” Mulder growled. “I can do what I like.”


“Liar – he whipped you so bad after that firework thing that you’re scared stiff of upsetting him now.” Alex laughed. “I don’t know why you even let him lay a finger on you. He isn’t your real father. You should tell him where to go. You could come and live here with us.”


“Live here?” Mulder glanced around the campsite, feeling a shiver at the thought of such an adventure.


“Yeah. I can do what I like. Nobody scares me.” Alex grinned. “Now, are you gonna come to the Gathering?”


“Yes.” Mulder nodded, feeling the need to match Alex’s bravado with some of his own. “I’ll be here.”


The house was in darkness when Mulder got home, but he noticed a light shining in the woodshed and frowned. Skinner must be working late. Mulder walked to the woodshed and opened the door – just in time to notice Skinner stand up guiltily, and throw a large blanket over something he was working on.


“What’s going on?” Mulder glanced over Skinner’s shoulder.


Skinner grinned. “Nothing.”


“Then what are you hiding?” Mulder asked, curious.


“All right, nosy, it’s something for your birthday, if you must know!” Skinner told him.


“For my birthday?” Mulder repeated blankly. “But that’s not for weeks.”


“October 13th, that’s what you told me.” Skinner said with a nod. “It takes time to make something, Fox, and I want this to be something special for you.”


“Really?” Mulder’s face split in two as he smiled. “You’re really making something just for me?”


“Of course. You’re my boy aren’t you?” Skinner said, picking up the lantern and putting an arm around Mulder, ushering him from the shed. “Now I don’t want you sniffing around to get a peek of it either. It’ll spoil the surprise.


“You’re making me something…” Mulder repeated as they walked back to the house.


“Listen to you! Has nobody ever made you a present before?” Skinner shook his head wryly at Mulder’s enchantment with the idea.


“No, I don’t think they ever have.” Mulder replied seriously, trying to remember. “I think they’ve bought me things, but I’m not sure that anyone’s ever made something, with their own hands. That’s kind of special.”


“Well you’re kind of special.” Skinner laughed, tousling Mulder’s hair in a way that Mulder had grown accustomed to. “Did you have a good evening? You’re late getting home.”


“Yeah, I had a good time. I went back to Alex’s for supper.”


“Uh-huh. And what did you think?” Skinner washed his hands, and dried them on the towel hanging by the basin.


“His folk are different, but I kind of liked them.”


“Yes.” Skinner nodded. “They have their enemies among the townsfolk, but live and let live is what I say. They don’t do any harm.”


“He says they’re having a Gathering next full moon. He asked me if I wanted to go.” Mulder held his breath, watching as Skinner looked up, his expression serious.


“Well, I’m sorry, Fox, but I’m afraid I can’t allow you to go to that.” Skinner told him. Mulder frowned, feeling a familiar resentment rising up inside him at being told he couldn’t do something.


“Why not? You just said his people were okay. You said…”


“Hush.” Skinner held up a hand. “They are okay, but their Gatherings have a reputation. They’re no place for a kid your size. I’d worry about you all night if you went. There’s a lot of drinking, and last time they had one, a man got stabbed. It’s too dangerous, Fox. Do you hear me?” Skinner came over and put his hands on Mulder’s shoulders. Mulder sighed and nodded, although secretly he was slightly relieved to be told so unequivocally that he couldn’t go.


“Yes, sir.”


“Good. Now, I have some news. Dr. Scully came by earlier and I invited her and her mother over for supper tomorrow.”


“You did? Excellent!” Mulder’s eyes lit up. It had been several weeks since he had seen his diminutive partner.


Mulder noticed that Skinner washed up and shaved, and changed into his best shirt before the Scullys arrived. He grinned to himself, and went to sit out by the road to watch for their buggy. It seemed that he wasn’t the only one who was looking forward to seeing Scully.


Scully drove a broken-down old black buggy, her red hair flying around her face like a halo. Mulder didn’t think she’d ever looked more beautiful, and, as he glanced around when he heard Skinner come out of the house, he was sure that Skinner felt the same way. Scully drove the horse like a crazy lady, and they came clattering into the yard making a noise. Skinner went up and quietened the animal with a few gentle words, taking hold of his bridle and talking to him. Then he went around and greeted Scully and her mother, helping first Mrs. Scully, and then her daughter down from the buggy, although Scully clearly didn’t need any help.


Mulder gazed at his partner. She was younger than in his universe, but not by much, and her hair was long, and her nose a lot more freckled. She also laughed a lot more. Her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows, and she looked as if she didn’t care much for tidiness or fashion. In fact she looked just like a tomboy who had never grown up.


“Hey, Fox. Any sprained ankles or bruised heads for me to take a look at?” She teased him. He blushed, and ducked his head.


“He’s kept out of the wars recently.” Skinner chuckled.


“Not for long, I expect.” Scully laughed, putting an arm around Mulder’s shoulder and hugging him. They were much the same height, which felt weird. Mulder was sure that he was more used to looking down on her, but now her bright blue eyes sparkled right opposite him.


“It’s a nice evening. Did you fancy a stroll down to the creek before supper?” Skinner asked the ladies.


“Yes please!” Mrs. Scully smiled. “That sounds delightful.”


“I’ll unhitch the horse and then we’ll set off. Fox can you give me a hand?”


“I’ve got some things in the buggy.” Mrs. Scully called as they took care of the horse. “A box of clothes I’ve altered for Fox. I expect he’ll be shooting up soon though and I’ll have to take them down again. He’s getting older.”


“He is, yes.” Skinner smiled at Fox.


“It’s my birthday in October.” Mulder blurted. “He’s making me something.” He gestured with his head in Skinner’s direction.


“Yeah, but it’s a surprise. He doesn’t know what it is.” Skinner grinned at the ladies.


“How old are you going to be?” Mrs. Scully asked, fondly wiping a lock of hair from Mulder’s eyes as they started their walk down to the creek. Mulder opened his mouth, but Skinner jumped in first.


“Fifteen.” he said.


Mulder stopped. “I’m fifteen now,” he said.


Skinner nodded. “That’s right.”


“So I can’t be fifteen next birthday.” Mulder pointed out. Skinner nodded again, and Mulder noticed a faintly glazed look in the man’s eyes.


“You’ll be fifteen.” Skinner repeated. Mulder glanced at the women, but they didn’t seem to think anything strange had been said.


Mulder stood stock still, a cold fear clutching at his heart. Somehow, he wasn’t sure how, he was caught in some sort of anomaly. He struggled with the word, and with the concept, completely unable to understand what was going on, and trying to remember what he could from his previous life in that other world that now seemed so distant. All he could think was that he was condemned never to grow up in this world, to always be fifteen for as long as he lived. He wouldn’t grow old, and neither would Skinner. Time would move on, seasons would change, but he would always be fifteen, a perpetual adolescent. He didn’t know how, or even why, he just knew that it was so.


“No,” he whispered hoarsely, seriously freaked by the conclusion he had come to.


“Fox?” Skinner turned around to look at him, perplexed.


“I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to be fifteen.” Mulder told the man.


“I don’t understand. You’re happy here aren’t you?” Even in the midst of his turmoil, Mulder recognised the hurt look that passed across Skinner’s face.


“Yes, but…” Mulder looked around, at the creek, and the fields of corn and wheat, as they rippled in the evening sunshine. This place looked idyllic, but it was a trap, and it had him imprisoned. “I have to go,” he said, and, ignoring the looks of amazement that everyone gave him, he took off, running as fast as he could, as if he could outrun the whole problem. Some instinct kicked in, an instinct that told him that he found solace while running, just running until his heart pounded and he couldn’t think any more, running until he was far away.


The buggy was no longer in the front yard when he returned later that night. Mulder pushed open the door of the house and peered in. Skinner was sitting by the fire, staring into space. He turned when he heard Mulder and jumped to his feet, striding across the room to take Mulder in his arms and give him first a shake, and then a hug.


“What the hell was that all about, boy?” Skinner exclaimed. “I was worried sick about you. Why did you run off like that? It was so rude apart from anything else. I didn’t know what to say to Dr. Scully and her mother, or how to excuse your behavior.”


“It doesn’t matter.” Mulder muttered, trying to pull himself free of Skinner’s embrace.


“It matters to me. I want an explanation.” Skinner held fast to Mulder’s shoulders, and looked him in the eye. “Now, Fox,” he said, his tone firm.


“I don’t have an explanation, not one you’d listen to anyway.”


“Dr. Scully…”


“Oh shut up about her! I don’t give a damn about her. I hate her and her stupid mother. I hate this whole stupid world! I fucking hate it, and I hate all of you.” Mulder fumed. His legs barely touched the floor as Skinner propelled him over to the basin, grabbed a handful of soap, and, to Mulder’s utter horror, thrust the soap into Mulder’s mouth and scraped it around the back of his teeth.


“Fuck! Let me go.” Mulder tried to wriggle out of Skinner’s grasp but the man was too strong for him, and the soap continued to scrape insistently around his mouth. Then Skinner took hold of the wet dishcloth and squeezed that into Mulder’s mouth as well, resulting in a soapy lather that made Mulder want to choke. Finally, Skinner picked Mulder up bodily and carried him into the corner, by the hearth, where he set him down facing the wall.


“Now stand there until you can be civil. I don’t want to hear another word out of you, unless it’s ‘sorry’.” Skinner growled. Mulder clenched his fists and was about to protest, and start swearing again, when he caught sight of Skinner’s face. The other man looked more darkly furious than he had on the night of the fireworks fiasco, and Mulder didn’t like to think what the consequences would be of pushing him any further. He ground his teeth together and then, for the first time, the truly disgusting taste of the soap kicked in. He spat it out on the floor, and rubbed a foaming lather from his lips, tears springing into his eyes. It didn’t matter how many times he swallowed, he couldn’t get rid of the taste. At last, utterly miserable, he laid his head against the wall, and began to cry.


The tears started slowly, then built up, and finally spilled out in racking sobs. Mulder was so caught up in his own misery that he didn’t notice at first that Skinner was standing behind him, and had placed a hand on his shoulder. Then Skinner swung him around and held him close, and Mulder cried his eyes out on the other man’s shoulder.


“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” he whispered, although he was apologising more for crying than for what he had said.


“All right. Hush…” Skinner soothed his hair back from his head, then led him to the table and sat him down. “What was that outburst all about, Fox?”


“I don’t know.” Mulder shook his head and buried his face in his arms.


“I don’t believe that, son.” Skinner said gently, one of his big hands massaging Mulder’s neck.


“I can’t say. You won’t understand.” Mulder muttered sullenly.


“You could try me.” Skinner offered. Mulder sat up, and stared into the big man’s concerned brown eyes.


“No.” Mulder said between hitching sobs. “It’s no use.”


“Well, I can’t make you,” Skinner sighed, “but I’ll say one thing. I won’t tolerate you speaking about Dr. Scully like that in this house. I also won’t tolerate that kind of language. If you use it again, then I’ll wash your mouth out again. Is that understood?”


Mulder stared at Skinner for a long while, every fiber of his being rebelling against the fact that he was trapped here, in this world, with no way of escape, not even by growing up.


“Yes, sir.” He ground out at last. Skinner looked unhappy with his tone, but didn’t take the matter any further.


“I think you should get some rest,” he said, standing up. “It’s late.”


“I’m hungry. I didn’t have any supper.” Mulder complained.


“Who’s fault is that?” Skinner raised an eyebrow.


“Are you telling me that I can’t have anything to eat?” Mulder demanded.


“I’m telling you to go to bed. Maybe the combination of a soapy mouth and an empty stomach will give you something to think about. Now get moving.” Skinner snapped. Mulder stood there for a moment, debating whether to argue the point, but he knew from previous experience just how strict Skinner could be, so he gave in, taking himself off to bed, and muttering to himself under his breath.


The atmosphere between them was strained for the next few days. Nothing could rouse Mulder from his sulk, and Skinner was unable to get through to him. Mulder refused to do his chores, and took off into the hills to think things through. He was reminded of Krycek, and his family, camped on the plains. At least they had a means of escape. Mulder knew that they stayed for a few months in one place and then moved on, but at least in roaming from place to place they saw something of the world. Maybe if he took up Krycek’s offer, and joined them, he would find some way out of his predicament.


Mulder chewed on his lip, looking down on Skinner’s house from his vantage point. He could see the big man moving around the farm, doing his chores, working in the fields, and Mulder felt a lump rise in his throat. All his safety and security in this world lay in that house, with that man, and that scared him. Maybe he needed to run away with the gypsies in order to discover how to survive. Mulder couldn’t help wondering why he had been stranded here, in this situation. Was he supposed to learn something? And if so, how could he possibly learn it cooped up on this remote farm?


He had just about made his mind up to go with Krycek when he and his family left, when he thought about Skinner again. The man was making him something for his birthday. He said that he loved him. Mulder closed his eyes to stop the tears falling down his face. He knew that he had been happy living with Skinner, that he had experienced something he had never known before, in this life or the other one that he could barely remember. Skinner had showed him so many things. How to fight, how to work the farm, how to ride. More than that, he’d given Mulder an unconditional love that he was sure he had never had before, and a calm sense of peace and security, a sense of belonging – not to the farm, or even to this century, but to Skinner. He was a part of something, and he liked it. He couldn’t say for sure, but he was fairly certain that last time around his childhood had been pretty unpleasant, that he had felt neither that he was loved nor that he belonged anywhere. Finding this Skinner, in this strange world, had, in a curious sense, been like coming home.


Mulder got to his feet in a turmoil of misery, and turned his back on the farm, wandering along the path until he came to the plains. He saw Krycek’s dark head from afar, and made his way towards the other boy. Krycek grinned when he saw him.


“Pa let you out for the day did he?” Krycek asked.


“Shut up. I wanted to ask you – were you serious about me coming with you when you move on?” Mulder demanded.


“Yeah. Why not?” Krycek shrugged lazily. “We’re going after the next Gathering. Just bring any money you have…” he grinned, “or that you can steal from Papa Skinner, and join us when we leave. He’s not your real father. He can’t make you stay.”


Mulder nodded, recognizing the truth of Krycek’s words, although feeling curiously dispirited by them. Alex was right – Skinner wasn’t his father, and he could leave his house whenever he wanted, and go wherever he wanted. It would probably be for the best anyway. Skinner was already in debt because of him. He was a nuisance. In fact, Skinner probably only allowed him to stay because of some mis-placed sense of duty. Mulder knew enough about the big man, both in this world, and that other one from his memory, to know that he took his duties and responsibilities seriously. Too seriously maybe.


“So are you going to come with us?” Krycek asked.


“Maybe. I’m not sure yet.” Mulder replied.


“Well, we’ll be leaving after the Gathering. So make your mind up by then.” Krycek grinned.


Mulder woke up with the sensation of a heap of spiders crawling around in his stomach on the day of the Gathering. He hadn’t told Skinner anything about what was on his mind. Instead he’d been rude and surly with the man, running off without doing his chores, skipping school. He knew it was only a matter of time before Skinner found out about his truancy, but he didn’t care. Maybe, deep down inside, he was even hoping that Skinner would find out, that he would push Mulder into a row so that Mulder could make his decision and walk out. As it was, Mulder hesitated. Skinner had been good to him, and, knowing that, and also knowing what he contemplated doing, just made Mulder feel even guiltier, which in turn made him even more defensive and surly. Skinner gave him a wide berth for much of the time, obviously figuring out that whatever Mulder was going through, he needed some time and space to sort it out.


Mulder sloped around the farm listlessly all day, trying to come to a decision. He ate his supper silently, and then stared at his empty plate for an eternity, wrestling with himself. Finally, he decided that he’d go to the Gathering just to see what it was like. If he hated it, then he’d come back, and forget about joining the gypsies. It seemed like a good compromise. Mulder got to his feet, and walked to the door.


“Going somewhere?” Skinner asked. Mulder stopped, his face flushing. He’d been so busy making this huge decision that he’d forgotten that Skinner had forbidden him to go to the Gathering.


“Yes,” he said defensively, in such a foul mood that he didn’t care whether Skinner approved or not.


“Well?” Skinner raised an eyebrow.


“I don’t have to tell you where I’m going.” Mulder replied sullenly.


“At this time of night? I think you do.” Skinner leaned against the fireplace, his eyes fixed on Mulder.


“I’m going to the Gathering.” Mulder spat. “There. Are you going to stop me?”


Skinner seemed to consider this for a moment.


“No,” he said finally. Mulder felt a surge of triumph, and turned to go once more.


“However.” Skinner added. Mulder stopped, a sense of foreboding creeping over him. He turned back. Skinner’s expression was unreadable, but his tone was firm. “You can go to the Gathering if you want, Fox. I don’t seriously think I could stop you if you’re hell bent on going. There’s no lock on the door, and I can’t stay awake all night watching you. However, I just want you to be fully aware what the consequences will be if you step foot outside that door this evening.”


“Consequences?” Mulder hesitated, his hand on the door. Maybe Skinner would throw him out, maybe he was going to make his decision for him.


“That’s right. If you disobey me on this matter, and leave this house this evening, then when you come home we’ll go to the barn and I’ll give you a whipping that I promise you’ll remember for a very long time. It’s up to you, Fox.”


Skinner stood there, his face uncompromising. Mulder stared at him, trying to come to a decision. He didn’t doubt that Skinner meant what he had said. However he also wanted to stick to his own decision. A small part of his brain told him that it didn’t matter what Skinner threatened, as he probably wouldn’t be coming back anyway. Some other part of him, deep inside, felt completely desolate about that thought, and the warring emotions overloaded his already fragile temper, making him explode.


“You can’t tell me what to do, or where to go,” he fumed, one hand reaching for the door handle, turning it.


“Fox, don’t do this.” Skinner implored him. “I meant what I said before – the Gathering isn’t a safe place to be.”


“I don’t care.” Mulder growled, wanting to regain some sense of control over this universe where he had been so unceremoniously dumped. He pushed the door open, stepped outside, and slammed the door back again behind him. Inside, a part of him was already trembling about what he had done, while another part of him felt exhilarated and free.


The Gathering was in full swing when he got there. He could see the fires and hear the drunken singing from miles away. Mulder joined the revelers, threading his way through the throng, looking for Krycek. It took a good half an hour to find him. Alex was perched on a barrel, laughing his head off, clearly drunk.


“Fox!” he grinned, beckoning to him. “Come over here and get yourself a drink.” Krycek draped an arm over Mulder’s shoulder. “There are lots of pretty girls here tonight,” he whispered noisily. “Shall we see if we can get lucky? Huh?” He grinned, and belched all over Mulder who drew back and wrinkled up his nose. A thought suddenly occurred to him.


“Alex, how old am I?” He asked.


“What? Who the hell cares?” Krycek replied.


“I do.” Mulder caught hold of Krycek’s arm. “Tell me.”


“You’re fifteen.” Krycek swayed and grinned, then belched again.


“And how old will I be next birthday?”


“What is this? A math lesson?” Krycek laughed. “You’ll be…uh…” Mulder saw a familiar glazed expression pass over Krycek’s face. “Fifteen of course.” Krycek laughed, and handed Mulder a tankard. Mulder took one look at it, then downed the contents in a single gulp.


Mulder wasn’t sure when he lost Krycek. In fact, he wasn’t sure of anything any more. He wandered around in a drunken haze, giggling to himself. The flames from the fires lit up the plain, making everything seem wild, and exotic, and the gypsy music played loudly, with a thrumming beat that made his heart pound in his chest, and his feet tap impatiently. Mulder whirled a girl around, and then another, and their faces became grotesque, laughing at him as he took another tankard full of liquor and swallowed it. The beat seemed to get faster, and he could no longer see his feet – everything was a blur. He crashed into another girl, and laughed, taking her in his arms and twirling her around. Then, all of a sudden, he felt someone grab him from behind, and he was thrown bodily away from the dance.


“She’s mine,” someone hissed.


“Okay, okay…” he slurred, walking unsteadily away from the fire, trying to get his bearings. He felt a sudden urge to be sick, and leaned over, vomiting up what felt like the entire contents of his stomach. His head hurt, and he wanted…he wanted to go home. You are home, a little voice told him, and that hurt even more than the pain in his head. He vomited again, and then he felt something sharp press against the back of his neck. He stiffened. What was it Skinner had said? There’d been a stabbing at the last Gathering?


“Hold still, kid. Let’s see if you’ve got any money.” A hand rifled through his pockets.


“Please…I haven’t. Please…” he whispered. The hand turned him around, and he could see the knife now, gleaming in the firelight. The man was large, and his hands were filthy. Mulder could smell the drink on his breath.


“Please…I have to be…” Mulder leaned over and was sick again on the ground. The man drew back in disgust, then turned Mulder over with his boot, and checked his front pockets. Mulder blinked. The knife was close to his throat, so close that he could feel the cold steel.


“Please…don’t kill me…” he whispered, wanting to retch again, and so scared that he could barely move. “I don’t have any money…” He blinked again, as the knife disappeared, and so did the man. Mulder sat up, his head protesting, and watched as someone large silently kicked his assailant to the ground, leaving him there, groaning and semi-conscious.




Mulder let out a sigh of relief, as he recognized Skinner. The man’s head seemed to glow in the firelight and his features were blurred to Mulder’s befuddled vision, but it was definitely him.


“He had a knife…he could have killed me.” Mulder babbled, as Skinner helped him off the ground.


“Yes, he could.” Skinner put an arm around Mulder’s shoulders to hold him up, and walked him away from the Gathering. “Come on. The horse is this way.” Skinner half dragged, half carried Mulder to the horse, then heaved him up onto it, getting on behind him.


“I’m going to be sick again…” Mulder said when they were halfway home. Skinner held him a little way from the horse, while he spewed his guts out, and then they continued back to the farm.


Skinner carried Mulder into the house and laid him on his bed, then brought him a cup of water.


“Drink it,” he said. “All of it. God, how much liquor did you drink, Fox?”


“I don’t remember,” Mulder groaned, feeling sure that he would throw up again. Skinner brought him a bucket, and placed it beside the bed, and Mulder heaved up the contents of his stomach into it obligingly.


“You’re not used to alcohol and the gypsies brew their own. That stuff is lethal.” Skinner told him.


“Yeah. I know that now.” Mulder mumbled. Skinner sighed and shook his head, smoothing Mulder’s hair out of his eyes.


“I was worried about you, son,” he whispered. Mulder closed his eyes to shut out the guilt he felt, and turned his head away. Skinner sighed again, and got up to go. Mulder reached out and grabbed the man’s hand.


“I’m glad you came after me. Thanks for rescuing me.” Mulder whispered, still unable to look at Skinner.


“You’re welcome.” Skinner placed his other hand over Mulder’s for a moment, and then let go.


“Get some rest, Fox,” he whispered. Mulder was sure that he felt Skinner’s lips brush against his head before he fell asleep.


Mulder awoke with a pounding headache. He sat up, and groaned, and then heard Skinner chuckle from where he was seated at the table.


“I take it you’re awake then?” Skinner said. He got up and came over to the curtained recess where Mulder slept. “How are you feeling?” Skinner sat down on the side of the bed and looked down on him.


“Awful.” Mulder muttered. His tongue felt furry and stiff, and he ached.


“Here. Drink this.” Skinner handed him a cup of water, and Mulder drank it down eagerly. “Drink as much water as possible. That’s what used to work for me in this situation.” Skinner said grimly. Mulder looked up, aware that this was a sensitive subject for Skinner.


“Thanks,” he muttered, as Skinner brought a jug over and filled his cup again.


“And eat.” Skinner told him. “You might not feel like it, but it does help. You’ll have to take my word for that.”


“Okay.” Mulder nodded. He got up cautiously, and went outside to relieve himself and wash. He felt better once he was clean – his clothes stank of smoke, alcohol and vomit, so he changed and finally sat down to the breakfast table, although he could tell from the position of the sun that it was a long way past breakfast time. Skinner handed him a plate of bread and cheese and Mulder did his best to eat it, despite the protests of his tender stomach. Skinner was right though. He felt much better afterwards. Skinner disappeared back out onto the farm, and Mulder took another nap. By the time Skinner returned later in the evening, Mulder felt much better.


“So, was the Gathering what you expected?” Skinner asked, as he washed up for dinner.


“Not really.” Mulder admitted, flushing. He sat down at the table, feeling sick again, but this time from apprehension rather than as a result of the alcohol he had consumed.


“Was that the first time you’ve been drunk?” Skinner asked, bringing them over some of last night’s dinner, which he’d reheated.


“Yes, no…I think so. I’m not sure.” Mulder replied, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. He played with his food, and watched the big man across the table out of the corner of his eye. Skinner seemed oblivious to his discomfort. He was eating his meal with his usual hearty appetite. He didn’t look too angry…but even so, Mulder was scared. At last he couldn’t bear it. As Skinner finished his last mouthful, Mulder asked him the question that had been on his mind all day.


“Sir…are you going to whip me?” He whispered.


Skinner glanced up. “What do you think, Fox?” He asked quietly.


“I think…that you will.” Mulder replied, his throat dry.


“Well, you’re right.” Skinner pushed back his plate, and took a sip of water. “I said that I would, and I will. You know me well enough by now to know that I keep my promises.”


“Yes, sir.” Mulder bit on his lip, and looked at his half-eaten plate of food. “When, sir?” He asked at last.


“You’re worried – I can understand that. The time spent waiting for a whipping has to be the worst in all the world. I remember once, when I was about your age, my father took some of our stock to market, leaving me to help my mother on the farm. She asked me to watch a big pot of clothes boiling over the fire, only I found something better to do with my time and they boiled dry, burning two of my father’s shirts. I remember waiting all day for him to come home, knowing that I’d get a whipping when he did. That was the longest day of my life.”


Mulder listened to this story, wide-eyed. He couldn’t imagine Skinner ever being naughty enough to deserve a whipping, but somehow he was pleased to learn that he had.


“Are you going to make me wait too, sir, to punish me more?” he muttered, still playing with his food.


“Of course not.” Skinner took a sharp intake of breath. “I wanted to make sure you were fully recovered first. Are you?” Skinner asked. He put out a hand and raised Mulder’s chin up so that the boy looked into his eyes. Mulder thought about it for a moment, and considered lying, but then he decided that would only delay the inevitable.


“Yes, sir.” He nodded, looking into Skinner’s dark, serious eyes.


“Very well.” Skinner got up, and went over to the big wooden chest in the corner of the room. He opened it up, and, while Mulder watched, intrigued, he rummaged through it. Finally he found what he was looking for, and pulled out a worn, faded strap. “This was what my Pa used on us when we disobeyed him,” Skinner told him. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”


He put a hand on Mulder’s shoulder, and opened the door, ushering the boy out into the yard and walking him down to the barn. Mulder wasn’t sure whether Skinner kept his hand clamped onto his shoulder to stop him from running away, or to keep him from shaking too much, but either way, he was curiously grateful. A part of him knew that he could twist out from under that hand and just tell Skinner that he wasn’t staying. He was sure that if he ran up to the gypsy camp he could find Krycek before it was too late, and go away with him and his family. However he knew that he didn’t want to. The Gathering had scared him. He didn’t belong there – he could have been killed. If Skinner hadn’t come along when he had…Mulder shivered, remembering the press of cool steel against his skin.


“Fox?” Skinner looked down at him.


“I was thinking about that man, the one with the knife. If you hadn’t shown up when you did…” Mulder whispered.


“I said it was dangerous.” Skinner told him, opening the barn door. “Maybe you’ll listen to me next time.”


“I will.” Mulder promised.


Skinner laughed out loud, a grim, mirthless laugh. “Well, we can only hope.” He shook his head.


Once inside the barn, Mulder shivered again, only from nervous anticipation this time.


“All right, Fox. I’m sure you remember what to do.” Skinner nodded at the bales of hay, and Mulder nodded and bit on his lip. He unbuttoned his pants and pushed down his shorts, then he bent over the scratchy bales. There was a wait that seemed to go on for an eternity, before Skinner laid the first stroke across his bottom. Mulder actually cried out in surprise as much as pain as the blow struck home.


“It stings, I know.” Skinner commented. “Pa’s strap always stung so bad. Worse than his belt, much worse.” Mulder yelped again as the strap whipped across his butt a few more times. Skinner paused.


“You’ve been behaving like a brat for days now, Fox. Maybe I should have taken you to task about it before, but it seemed like you had something on your mind. I’m going to be pretty tough on you, son, and this strapping is going to hurt like hell. Afterwards, I hope you’ll make up your mind to be the bright, helpful boy you’ve always been, and not the sullen kid whose been making everyone’s lives miserable recently.”


Mulder buried his face in the straw, and took a deep breath as the strap whipped down again. Skinner was going so fast that the pain of the strokes blurred into one another, until Mulder didn’t think he could bear any more.


“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” he repeated in a mantra, the tears running down his face. Skinner stopped, but kept his hand on Mulder’s back, making it clear that this was just a pause.


“Do you know why you’ve been behaving like a brat recently, son?” He asked.


“No…” Mulder gulped, and the strap lashed down again. “Owww!” he screamed. Skinner turned his attention to the tops of Mulder’s thighs, which stung even more than feeling the strap on his butt. Soon Mulder was sure that he’d never sit down again. “I promise I won’t behave this way again. I promise…” Mulder wept. “I know I disobeyed you, and you were right…I shouldn’t have gone…unnnnhh…owwww, I’m sorry.” He dissolved into incoherent moans as Skinner laid another couple of licks across his buttocks, then stepped back.


Mulder lay sobbing on the bale for a moment, then looked up. Skinner was looking down at him, his expression still stern, but softer than it had been earlier.


“All right, I’m going to give you a few moments to pull yourself together – then I want you to come back up to the house. You should know after last time, that a strapping isn’t over until we’ve had a good talk. I expect you to have something to say,” Skinner told him. Mulder nodded, and waited until he heard the barn door close behind Skinner before getting to his feet. He pulled his shorts up gingerly, and buttoned up his pants, then leaned against the barn wall for a while until his breathing calmed down. He could still feel the tears running down his face, though. Finally, not wishing to anger Skinner further by dawdling for too long, he walked slowly and carefully back up to the house. His butt hurt with each step he took, and it felt as if it was on fire. He pushed the door open, and saw Skinner seated at the table, waiting for him. The strap lay on the table between them. Mulder moved gingerly across the room, and got a pillow from his bed, then returned and placed it on his chair. He sat down very cautiously, tears still rolling down his cheeks.


“Fox.” Skinner put out a hand and tousled his hair, and Mulder felt the tears get worse, until he was sobbing again. Skinner got up and came around to his side of the table, enveloping Mulder in a hug, and Mulder cried against the big man’s stomach, his arms around his waist. Finally the sobs subsided, and Skinner sat back down again.


“What’s it all been about, Fox?” he asked.


“I’m not sure.” Mulder shrugged. He noticed Skinner’s face darken, and he also noted the strap lying on the table in front of him, and he winced. “That is…I got scared. Alex asked me if I wanted to go away with his people.” Mulder saw the pain on Skinner’s face as he made this admission, and almost wished that he hadn’t.


“And what did you say?” Skinner asked quietly.


“I wasn’t sure.” Mulder admitted honestly.


“I see.” Skinner got up, and walked across to the fire. He leaned against the wall for a moment, lost in thought. “I can’t keep you here if you don’t want to stay, you know that, Fox.” Skinner told him. “You’re not my son. If you want to go, I can’t stop you.”


“I don’t want to go.” Mulder cried. Skinner looked relieved, but the hurt expression remained in his eyes. “It’s just I feel so trapped. I don’t know why I’m here, and that scares me.”


“Well I’ve been thinking about that too.” Skinner said, steepling his fingers and looking into the fire. “I think you’ve been sent here for a reason, Fox. I don’t know why, or how, but I think you’re supposed to be here, with me. Why else did you arrive the way you did? Appearing out of nowhere – no sign of a horse, wearing those strange clothes, no memory of who you were. Nobody came looking for you either. It seemed right that you landed on my farm. Why else would you turn up here?”


“I don’t know.” Mulder admitted. “I don’t know.” He shook his head.


“Fox, I don’t have all the answers either. I know this is a small farm, and the world’s a big place – of course you’re curious – but there’ll be time enough for you to explore later on, when you’re grown up. For now, I think you’re supposed to stay here, and I want you to stay here.”


“I’m so much trouble.” Mulder whispered. “That man last night – he could have killed you.”


“I don’t think so.” Skinner snorted. “I can take care of myself – and I can take care of you. That’s my point. I want to take care of you, for now at least, and you do seem to need taking care of.”


“I…” Mulder felt the tears springing into his eyes again. “I’m sorry,” was all he could think of saying.


“I love you, Fox. I’ve told you that before, and I mean it.” Skinner said softly, coming to hug the boy again. “Now, are you going to stay?” He asked, looking into Mulder’s tear-stained face.


“Yes. I want to stay, I always wanted to stay.” Mulder replied.


“Well, if you’re going to stay then I think there’s something we must do.” Skinner told him gravely.


“What’s that?” Mulder looked up. Skinner picked up the strap and handed it to Mulder, who took it, nervously.


“My Pa used to keep this hanging on the wall, to remind us to behave ourselves. My own boys had a healthy respect for it as well. I think, if you’re going to be around, and getting into this much trouble, we should keep this hanging somewhere in plain sight as a reminder.”


Mulder gulped. “That won’t be necessary…I’ll be good from now on…I promise,” he said earnestly.


Skinner laughed. “I’m sure you mean that now, but you’ll forget. I was your age once – I remember how it is. I think keeping this in sight as a reminder might mean that we have to use it less often,” Skinner told him. “Here.” He got out a hammer and nail, and handed them to Mulder. “Bang that in over here,” he instructed. Mulder did as he was told, and banged the nail into the wall, then Skinner handed him the strap again. “Hang it up.” Mulder noticed that the strap had a hole punched in the leather at one end, and he placed it over the nail. “Good. Now – you didn’t finish your supper earlier. How about a snack now?” Skinner asked. “I still have some of those cookies Mrs. Scully brought over.”


Mulder nodded, his eyes transfixed by the strap. He already hated the thing and he’d only made its acquaintance this evening.


Mrs Scully’s cookies were very tasty, and Mulder felt his appetite returning now that the whipping was out of the way. He gazed at Skinner as he ate. The other man was still solemn, and Mulder wished that he hadn’t told him how tempted he had been to leave. His heart ached when he thought about how much trouble he had brought to this good, kind man. He’d been nothing but trouble since he had arrived, and now he had hurt Skinner with his lack of gratitude. He wondered again how long the big man had been alone, and what had happened to his family. He wished he knew some way of bringing happiness back into Skinner’s life, and making him smile again.


“Are you in love with Dr. Scully?” he blurted, surprising even himself.


“What?” Skinner exclaimed. “What sort of question is that, boy?”


“I just wondered.” Mulder gave a ghost of a grin. “She’s pretty isn’t she?”


“Dr. Scully is a fine woman, and I’m very fond of her, and her mother. They’ve both been very kind to me.” Skinner’s voice faltered.


“Why don’t you ask her out?” Mulder urged. A look of pain passed across Skinner’s face.


“That wouldn’t be appropriate.” Skinner replied stiffly.


“Why?” Mulder looked up, his mouth still full of cookie. “Is it…you never talk about what happened to your family. Aren’t you free to wed again?”


“That’s enough.” Skinner slammed his fist down, and Mulder jumped in surprise. Skinner wasn’t usually so quick to lose his temper.


“I’ll go to bed,” he whispered, sliding down from the table, and tiptoeing away.


He cried himself to sleep. He couldn’t do anything right, and everything he did to try to make things better just made them worse. He was a nuisance, and he was sure that Skinner resented him. He must be a constant reminder of the family the big man had lost, and last night he had proved just how much trouble he could be. Mulder shuddered again, as he remembered that knife pressed against his throat, and how Skinner had lifted him onto his horse, and taken him back here, to safety. The man had risked his life for Mulder, and Mulder knew in his heart that he didn’t deserve it. Tonight, when Skinner had demanded an explanation, Mulder had only been able to give him half of one, but he wasn’t the only one with secrets. What had happened to Skinner’s family, Mulder wondered? He had assumed they were dead, or that Sharon had taken the children away somewhere, but if they were dead why did Skinner look so guilty every time he asked questions about them, and why was he so defensive? It surely wasn’t Skinner’s fault that his family had died, was it? Mulder’s over-wrought adolescent imagination conjured up a scenario in which a rampaging Skinner had killed his entire family in a drunken rage one night. Mulder curled up into a tight ball, his heart aching as much as his backside as he fell into a troubled sleep, tears still falling silently down his cheeks.


Skinner listened to the boy crying for a long time, his hands clenched into fists by his side. Finally he couldn’t stand it any more, and got up, going to sit on Mulder’s bed, to try and comfort him, but he saw that Mulder had already fallen asleep, tightly scrunched up. Skinner reached out, and gently wiped away the tears that were still running down Mulder’s cheeks. He soothed the boy’s hair away from his forehead and stroked his head tenderly for several minutes, lost in thought. Mulder’s body relaxed and he sighed in his sleep. Skinner gave the faintest hint of a smile, and leaned over to kiss the boy’s forehead. Then he got up, shaking his head as he looked down on Mulder’s sleeping form.


As he turned to go, he noticed the strap hanging from the wall and sighed. Even now, he could still remember his fear of that strap from his own youth. Whenever he smart-mouthed his mother, or even his siblings, his father would point to the strap with a warning in his dark eyes, and Skinner would apologize immediately. He hadn’t liked seeing it there, but he was sure that having it in plain sight had saved him from a few whippings as a boy. It had proved to be a very effective deterrent, and if it would work the same magic on Fox, then it would go easier on them both in the long run.


Mulder got up cautiously the next day. His backside still hurt worse than anything he could remember before, and sent flashes of pain through his whole body when he moved too quickly. Skinner seemed subdued, and with a wretched sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Mulder knew that he had ruined everything. How could Skinner ever forgive him for his disloyalty? He knew that he had hurt the big man too much to ever expect him to think well of him ever again.


They had barely finished breakfast when they heard a whooping sound, and a horse clattered into the yard. They went outside to find Cal Hopper, from the neighboring farm, reining his horse to a halt.


“Good news! The gypsies are moving on! They’re striking camp and leaving!” Hopper yelled, before he set off again to deliver the news elsewhere. Mulder felt as if he had received a blow to the stomach, and then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up in surprise, into Skinner’s concerned eyes.


“He didn’t even say goodbye, did he?” Skinner said softly.


“No.” Mulder buried his face in Skinner’s chest, and closed his eyes, beyond tears.


“Well, there’s nothing to stop you from going to say goodbye to him.” Skinner murmured.


“It’s too late. By the time I get there, they’ll be gone.” Mulder replied, his voice muffled by Skinner’s shirt.


“Maybe – but if we took the horse we might get there in time. Is it worth a try?” Skinner said. Mulder looked up, his eyes full of hope. He was no horseman himself, but Skinner was. “Yes?” Skinner asked.


Mulder nodded. “Yes!”


Skinner got the horse saddled up, and pulled Mulder up in front of him, and Mulder hung on for dear life as Skinner galloped them over the hills and down into the plains. His backside hurt like hell as he was flung around on the horse’s back, but that wasn’t anything he was going to complain about, and certainly not to Skinner. They went as fast as was humanly possible, but even so they were too late.


Mulder’s heart sank as the plains came into view. They were strewn with the detritus of the campsite – old fires, dried circles of yellowed grass where the tents had been – but no people. A few of the fires still smoldered, sending up wistful columns of smoke into the blue sky.


Mulder dismounted, and wandered around disconsolately, while Skinner watched him from the horse, his eyes sad. The big man waited patiently while Mulder kicked over the remains of a fire, and stared into the distance for a long time, trying not to let his misery show on his young face. Finally, Mulder took a deep breath and returned to the horse. Skinner pulled him back on wordlessly, and set the horse off for the house, at a slow trot. His arms held Mulder tighter than before, and Mulder was glad about that. He closed his eyes and leaned back, wishing that he could block out the past two days of his life, or somehow re-live them.


“I’m sorry, Fox.” Skinner said some time later, as the house came into view.


“It doesn’t matter.” Mulder shook his head.


“Yes, it does. He was your friend, and he let you down. I’m very sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”


“I probably did.” Mulder slid off the horse’s back. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone.”


“Of course.” Skinner watched as the boy ran off, his long, loping strides taking him deep into the hills. He guessed that would be the last he’d see of Fox before supper.


Skinner was so busy working hard in the fields, getting the crops ready for harvest that he had little time to spend with Mulder for the next few weeks. Mulder was subdued himself, with no Alex to hang out with. School was in recess for the summer, and Mulder helped Skinner in the fields, and occasionally wandered over to Pendrell’s house to see his other friend. Mulder knew that Skinner had high hopes for this harvest – the big man’s sense of anticipation was almost palpable.


“It’s the best crop I’ve ever had, Fox.” Skinner said excitedly. “It’ll earn us a good sum. We’ll have enough to set us up for a couple of years. I can buy more stock, and we can expand the farm. I can plant more crops next year – maybe hire some people to help out. Soon I’ll have enough saved to send you to a proper school, maybe to put you through college…” he talked on, his eyes animated, and Mulder loved to watch him. He was suddenly aware, with an intensity that actually hurt him, that he loved this man who had been more of a father to him than his own had ever been, from the little he could remember. He loved the way Skinner’s grave features were transformed by his pride and pleasure in his work, and admired the way the big man worked so long and so tirelessly in the fields. “We’ll certainly have enough to pay off our debt to Mr. Green.” Skinner grinned, cuffing Mulder’s head lightly. Mulder grinned back, relieved at the thought of no longer having that hanging over his head.


“And you can buy yourself some new boots at last too!” Mulder laughed, joining in the big man’s infectious mood of optimism.


Mulder was awakened at dawn a few days later, by the sound of thunder. He tried to ignore it, but it grew louder and louder, and then a flash of lightning speared through the sky, lighting up the entire house. Mulder heard Skinner get up, and open the door, then he heard the big man curse.


“Fox, get up. It’s hail…oh god…” Skinner ran out into the yard, pulling on his shirt as he ran, and Mulder followed him. He watched, his mouth open in horror, as hailstones the size of plums rained down on them. “The crops…” Skinner went running down into the fields, and Mulder chased after him, but the storm was fast and furious, and there was nothing they could do.


They watched helplessly as the fruits of so many weeks of hard labor were destroyed before their eyes in the space of less than half an hour. Skinner’s bald head was bleeding where the ferocious hail had hit him on his unprotected scalp, but even so, it took Mulder hours to persuade him to return to the house. Even when the storm had passed them by, the big man refused to leave his stricken crops. Instead he walked around his fields, repairing the damage as best he could, but it was obvious that the storm had wreaked terrible damage – fully two thirds of the crop had been destroyed. Finally, Skinner allowed Mulder to pull him back into the house. The boy sat the man down in his chair by the fire, and went to get a bowl of water, cleaning the blood from the big man’s head, and then bringing him some hot, strong coffee.


Skinner sat, unmoving, in his chair for several hours, with Mulder crouched helplessly beside him, wishing he could do something, anything, to alleviate the tragedy that had befallen his beloved surrogate father. Finally, Skinner seemed to come back to life again.


“Oh well,” he said, his jaw clenching in a way that Mulder found oddly familiar. “No use will come of crying over what can’t be helped. We’re no worse off than before. These boots can be mended again.” He picked up his worn boots, and looked at them thoughtfully. “I can still carve – and people still need furniture. We’ll get by.” He nodded, as if to convince himself, but Mulder could see the worried look in his eyes, and he knew how poor they really were. There was no spare cash, and Skinner would be hard pushed to earn enough to keep them both clothed and fed during the long winter months, however hard he worked.


Mulder went to bed early that night, but he kept the curtain pulled a little way open, and watched from his bed as Skinner settled down to mend his boots for the hundredth time since Mulder had lived with him. At some point, Mulder drifted off to sleep, for when he awoke several hours had passed. He saw that the candle was still burning in the other room, and peered around the side of the curtain. Skinner was sitting where he had left him, but he had something in his hands. Mulder held his breath – Skinner was staring at the bottle of whisky he kept in the house, and he looked as if he was seriously tempted to open it, and down the contents in one gulp.


“Don’t.” Mulder said, before realizing that he had spoken. Skinner turned, and Mulder slipped out of the bed and went over to him. “Please don’t.” Mulder implored.


“Why not? What is there to stay sober for? Just a bit of this, and I’ll forget.” Skinner said, his big hands toying with the bottle.


“Please, you’re scaring me,” Mulder whispered. “I don’t want you to drink. My father used to drink…” He closed his eyes, remembering the smell of whisky, and his father’s maudlin alcoholic temper.


“Fox?” Skinner reached out a hand to touch Mulder’s shoulder, and Mulder, still lost in his memory, flinched. He saw the look of shock in Skinner’s eyes, then the big man got up and put the bottle of whisky back in the cupboard. He came and stood before Mulder, and smiled wanly. “If anything decided me, that did,” he said. “I saw that look in my sons’ eyes once. I don’t ever want to see it again.”


“How bad is it?” Mulder asked. “Will we have enough food?”


“We’ll be fine.” Skinner said, but Mulder wasn’t fooled. “We might have to tighten our belts, but we’ll get by. Now, I think you should get back to bed.”


Mulder nodded miserably, and did as he was told. He lay there, thinking everything through in his head, and finally came to a conclusion. Skinner might just get by if there was only one mouth to feed, but not two.


Just before dawn, he got up, and wrapped up his meagre belongings in a blanket. Then he wrote a note for Skinner, before tip-toeing silently across the room, and out of the door.




End of Part Two


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