Frontiers: 3. Home is Where…



Mulder didn’t really have a clear idea where he was going – he just knew that he had to leave the safety of Skinner’s house behind him, and make his own way in the world. He glanced down at his skinny body ruefully. He wished that he was taller, and stronger – he might have been able to get work on the railroads then – but he knew that he didn’t exactly look as if he could put in a hard day’s work. If anything, with his freckled face, and a certain innocence to his expression, he looked younger than his fifteen years. He did feel a pang of pity for Skinner. He knew that the big man would be saddened to find his note, but he was also sure that once Skinner thought about it, he’d see that it was for the best.


Mulder decided to head for the next town before looking for work. He was too well known at Pine Creek. He walked for miles, then sat down and ate the lunch he had packed for himself before leaving. He was tempted to eat the whole lot in one go, he was so hungry, but common sense told him that he didn’t know where the next meal was coming from, so he reluctantly saved some of the food, and packed it away again.


He made camp under a hedgerow and lay looking up at the stars. It was a beautiful evening, and still warm, although fall was coming on, and the leaves were just starting to turn brown. He closed his eyes, and in his mind’s eye saw Skinner, sitting alone at his supper table. He tried to banish that thought, but instead all he could think of was his comfortable bed, and the daily routine of chores that had been his life at the farm. Mulder sighed and turned over, trying to block out these thoughts. That was the past, and he had to move on.


Mulder began by asking for work at the farms he came across. Some people were generous, and took pity on the boy, giving him a meal in exchange for a couple of hours of labor. Others were less kind, and ordered him off their land curtly. Mulder grew thinner as the weeks passed, but he was determined to press on. He found work for a few days, doing chores for an old lady in Clarktown while her grandson was sick, but had to move on when the boy recovered. Sometimes Mulder was so tired, and hungry, that he cried himself to sleep, and then he would dream that Skinner was sitting beside him, smoothing the wet hair out of his eyes.


One night, he was sleeping under a hedgerow when he was awakened by barking dogs. He got up, and looked around, panic-stricken, and disorientated. Three hunting dogs ran through the darkness towards him, their teeth bared, baying furiously. Mulder stood quite still, sure that they would rip him to shreds, but they were called off at the last moment. A tall, thin man, carrying a gun, strode towards him, flashing his lantern, and grabbed Mulder by the collar.


“What are you doing here, boy? Poaching?” The man demanded.


“No, sir.” Mulder gulped, pointing to his blanket, and meagre belongings. “I’m just passing through.”


“You’re trespassing!” The man spat.


“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”


“Hmm. All right.” The man’s face broke into a cruel smile. “I’ll take you at your word and let you go.” Mulder breathed a sigh of relief. “But I think we’ll have a little sport with you first,” the man said. “You’ve got…” he glanced at his pocket watch, “half an hour’s head start, then I’ll set the dogs after you. Let’s see if you can make it off this land by then.”


“Please, I…” Mulder glanced at the dogs, who were straining at their leashes, still barking.


“29 minutes.” The man grinned.


Mulder picked up his belongings, and fled.


He crashed through the undergrowth, panting, his body protesting at the exertion after the weeks of poor nutrition, and living rough. He could still hear the dogs barking in the distance, and he despaired of finding his way in the dark. He ran down a slope, and found a stream at the bottom, waded through it, trying to disguise his scent, and then ran on again. He was running through a wood, when he heard the dogs again, and he picked up his pace, his breathing coming in sobbing gasps. The branches of the trees whipped against his face, but he could hear the dogs closing on him, and he carried on blindly. He was running so fast that he didn’t see the tree root until it tripped him. He fell head over heels down a slope, his ankle throbbing from where it had been caught, and knocked his head against a stone, cutting the side of his face. He put out an arm to break his fall, and felt a pain drive through his wrist. All the breath was crushed out of his body as he came to a halt, winded, and then, mercifully, he lost consciousness.




When he awoke, the first thing he was aware of was the heat, stifling him, and the distant sounds of people going about their daily business. Mulder opened his eyes, and tried to move, then cried out, as his whole body protested.


“I’d keep still if I was you,” a voice said. Mulder saw a little old woman sitting on a stool beside him in the stable.


“Where am I?” He croaked.


“Mr. Cator’s stable, and you’re lucky to be given this much shelter. Trash like you don’t deserve such kindness,” she hissed, poking him with her walking stick. Mulder’s head hurt, and he didn’t know who Mr. Cator was, he just knew that his straw was warm, and he didn’t want to move. “The doctor’s comin’, although I was in half a mind not to bother. Trash like you should be fed to the hounds,” the woman mumbled, rocking her gnarled old body back and forth.


“Could I have some water?” Mulder asked, his throat rasping and dry.


“Horses drink from the trough.” She nodded. “I’m not your servant. Get your own.” Mulder struggled to sit up, but his head hurt too much, and he slumped back down again, feeling nauseous.


“I’m hungry…” he whispered. The old woman laughed.


“You won’t be fed. The cheek of it. The pup wants to be fed.” She shook her head and looked at him disapprovingly. Mulder lay back on the warm straw and closed his eyes, too ill even to care.


A noise outside woke him a few hours later. He opened his eyes, and winced as the bright light seared straight through his optic nerves and into his pounding head. His chest felt tight and his throat hurt. The commotion in the yard materialised into the large burly frame of a man, who ran across the stable towards him, accompanied by a small, red haired woman.


“Fox? Is it you? Fox!” Mulder felt a big hand on his forehead, and found himself looking into a pair of dark, joyful eyes. “We’ve found you.” Skinner said, kneeling in the straw beside the boy, and taking hold of Mulder’s hand. “Dana – is he all right? Tell me he’ll be all right.” Skinner looked at the doctor, and Mulder found himself gazing into her blue eyes as she came into his field of vision.


“Where does it hurt, Fox? What happened to you?” She asked.


“Hurts everywhere.” Mulder croaked through parched lips. “Ankle, arm, throat…ribs…please, water…”


“The boy wants water!” Skinner looked around.


“In the trough. I told him to get his own.” The old woman cackled.


“You did what? He can’t walk!” Skinner drew himself up to his full, threatening height, and the woman’s cackle died down.


“Don’t look at me like that. I said to send for the quack – the lady doctor.” The old woman nodded her head at Scully. “They said to just let him die or get better, but I said to send for her.”


“But you couldn’t bring him water?” Skinner asked. The old woman shrugged.


“The pup had no business being on this land. Mr. Cator’s men should have shot him and had done with. Poachers don’t deserve any…”


“My boy is not a poacher.” Skinner stood up straight, and the old woman backed away from him. Skinner turned away from her in disgust and went to get the water, bringing it back in a pail and cupping it in his hands to hold it against Mulder’s parched lips.


“Your boy, your boy,” the old woman cackled. “What’s the boy doing out and about on his own, huh? Up to no good, that’s what.” Skinner ignored her, and looked at Scully.


“Is he okay?” he asked.


“Yes, or at least he will be if we can get him somewhere warm and clean. He’s got a broken ankle, a sprained wrist, and some bruising on his ribs. I don’t think they’re broken though. I’m more worried about the fever – he’s having trouble breathing, too.”


“Fox – what happened?” Skinner asked, crouching beside the boy.


“Man set his dogs on me…ran, and ran, but they kept coming. I fell…it hurts…man said I was poaching. I wasn’t, I was just sleeping. I was just sleeping, sir…” Mulder said desperately, as if it were very important that Skinner understood that.


“It’s okay. Hush.” Skinner soothed the boy. He stood up and turned to the old woman. “Where is Mr. Cator?” He asked.


“He won’t speak to your sort.” The woman spat. “You can speak to his gamekeeper – he brought the boy in. Should have left him if you ask me.”


“Go and get him.” Skinner growled. She looked as if she wanted to argue, but Skinner was so large, and his expression so forbidding, that at last she turned and wandered off, grumbling under her breath as she went.


The old woman returned a few minutes later with a tall, thin man, with yellow teeth. He was carrying a gun.


“You’re the boy’s father?” The man asked. Skinner hesitated for a moment, then nodded.


“Yes. You’re the man who set dogs on my son?” He asked, his expression furious.


“He was on Mr. Cator’s land.” The man shrugged.


“And that’s an excuse to hunt him down like an animal?” Skinner demanded.


The man shrugged again. “The boy shouldn’t have been here,” he replied. “I could have left the dogs to tear him apart. Be grateful that I didn’t.”


“You bastard. I’ll make sure Mr. Cator hears about this.” Skinner growled. The man just shrugged again.


“He don’t care much.” He grinned, showing those yellow teeth. “Now I suggest you take your pup and get him off this land before sundown, or maybe I’ll let my dogs loose on you, too.”


“I’d strangle them with my bare hands if you did,” Skinner told him, “and then I’d turn my attention to you.”


The gamekeeper paled for a moment, and then deliberately slammed some bullets into his gun.
“Just be leaving, and there won’t be any trouble,” he said.


“The boy’s ill! He can’t be moved.” Skinner protested.


“Maybe you don’t understand.” The gamekeeper moved his gun menacingly. “You, and the boy, and the pretty lady are gonna leave. Now. Although…” he leered at Scully. “I reckon the pretty lady could stay if she wanted.”


The gamekeeper barely saw Skinner’s fist as it shot out and caught him square on the jaw, sending him flying. Skinner grabbed the man’s gun from his hands as he went down, and then stood over him, a look of utter contempt on his face.


“If we ever meet again, off this land, then I’ll finish the job,” he said, in a low, quiet growl. “Nobody does this to my boy and gets away with it, understood?” He threw the gun into the hay, and turned back to Scully and Mulder. “All right, Fox, we need to get you to the buggy. Can you put your arms around my neck?” He asked. Mulder nodded, weakly, and Skinner crouched beside him, and picked him up. Mulder winced, and buried his face in the man’s shoulder, every muscle in his body aching, and his ankle hurting so much that he almost passed out. “All right, son. Hold on,” Skinner said, striding out to the buggy with Mulder. Scully climbed into the buggy and helped Skinner to get in beside her. There was only room for two passengers, so Mulder remained in Skinner’s lap, the two of them crushed into the small seat. Scully gave Skinner the blanket she kept in the buggy, and he wrapped it around the shivering boy, and held him close. Mulder closed his eyes, and tried to forget the pain in his ankle, and his aching body. He rested his head against Skinner’s chest, and Scully began the slow, jolting drive back home.


Mulder didn’t remember much about the next few days. He remembered that the journey home had taken forever, and he remembered that it had been dark by the time Skinner had lifted him down from the buggy, and carried him into the house. He remembered being placed on his bed, and undressed, and Scully’s gentle fingers examining his ankle, and bruised ribs. At some point his sprained wrist and cut head had been bandaged, and his broken ankle had been set with a splint, but he didn’t remember that. The next thing he remembered was Skinner standing over him, looking down, and then sitting beside him, wiping his sweaty forehead with a cool washcloth. He knew that he was feverish, and that he cried out a lot, and occasionally he was wrapped in a blanket and held in a pair of big, muscled arms while his sweat-soaked sheets were changed. He woke up briefly, and saw Mrs. Scully sitting beside him, knitting, and he remembered crying out for Skinner. As soon as the big man came to sit at his bedside, he immediately fell asleep again.


At some point his chest felt so tight that he couldn’t breathe. He coughed and coughed until his whole body ached, but he still felt as if he were drowning. In a moment of clarity, he saw Skinner’s grave, serious face, and watched Scully shake her head, and whisper the word ‘pneumonia.’ The big man was angry for a moment, and paced the small room. Mulder wanted to comfort him, but he couldn’t move.


“I won’t watch it happen again, feeling so damn useless.” Skinner snapped to Scully. She placed a gentle hand on his arm, and gazed at him sympathetically. Mulder watched in amazement as Skinner’s eyes filled with tears, and he turned away and left the house. Mulder couldn’t be sure, but he thought it was some time before Skinner returned. When he did, he seemed to have regained his composure, and radiated a new sense of calm and purpose.


“I have other patients,” Dr Scully told the big man. “I’ll be back. In the meantime – he’s having trouble breathing. The fact that he’s lying down doesn’t help – the fluid just gathers on his lungs. Keep him sitting up as much as possible.”


Skinner nodded, and Mulder watched as Scully kissed the big man’s cheek gently.


“Let’s just pray that he pulls through,” Scully told him as she packed up her bag and walked towards the door.


“I’ll do anything in my power to make him well.” Skinner replied, his voice low, and fierce.


“He was so run down, and thin, or the infection wouldn’t have caught hold like this.” Scully shook her head.


“I know. I looked.” Skinner’s voice broke slightly. “I looked for weeks, but he just vanished. If only I’d found him sooner, if only I’d woken up that morning, I could have stopped him…”


“It wasn’t your fault.” Scully said firmly. “Regrets and recriminations won’t get you anywhere. Please don’t fall into that trap again, Walter.” Skinner nodded, gazing at his feet, but Scully placed her hand under his chin and made him look at her. “I mean it. Just concentrate on getting Fox well again.”


“I will.” Skinner nodded, and opened the door for her. “Dana – thanks for your help.”


“You’re welcome, as always.”


Skinner closed the door behind his guest, then returned to Mulder’s bedside.


“Ah – you’re awake.” He smiled down at the boy. Mulder opened his mouth to say something, but his tongue was stiff. He started to cough. “Easy.” Skinner held him up, as the coughs spasmed through Mulder’s frail body. Skinner placed even more pillows behind Mulder’s head and shoulders, until the boy was almost sitting. “Get some rest, Fox.” Skinner smoothed Mulder’s hair, then got up to go. Mulder made a faint noise of protest, and Skinner came back.


“Stay.” Mulder whispered, his voice rasping. Skinner obliged, sitting on Mulder’s bed for several long hours. Every time he tried to leave, Mulder protested, until finally Skinner got up and stretched.


“I’ll get a sore back sitting like this,” he said, with a wry grin. “I have a better idea.” He leaned over the bed, and wrapped Mulder up in a blanket, and then he picked the boy up in his arms and walked him over to the rocking chair in front of the fire. Skinner sat down and arranged Mulder so that he was sitting comfortably in his lap. Mulder laid his head against the big man’s chest, and closed his eyes.


When he awoke again it was dark. The fire still glowed, and Skinner was still rocking the chair. Mulder stirred, and Skinner looked down on him, then wordlessly reached for the cup of water that was on the floor beside him, and held it to Mulder’s lips. Mulder drank, then sank back listlessly against the big man’s chest.


“I used to live in another world.” Mulder murmured.


“Uh-huh.” Skinner nodded, smoothing Mulder’s hair aimlessly.


“Scully was there. I was tall – taller than I am now.”


“Hmmm.” Skinner carried on rocking. Mulder gazed into the distance, seeing that half- remembered world, so close that he could almost touch it.


“She was my partner. We used to do things together. Go out hunting for…monsters.” Mulder looked up at the big man, and Skinner nodded.


“Monsters. Yes,” he said, his fingers still soothing Mulder’s hair.


“You were there, too.” Mulder mumbled.


“Was I?” Skinner smiled.


“Yes. You were a bit older, I think, and you didn’t dress like this.”


“Was I a farmer, or did I go hunting for monsters too?” Skinner asked, one big arm keeping Mulder upright, and nestled safely against him.


“No, not a farmer…” Mulder frowned. “You had a desk. You worked in an office. A big office. You were important.”


“Hmmm, I’m not sure I’d like to work in an office,” Skinner commented, with a wry smile.


Mulder smiled back. “I’m not sure you did, now I think about it. You growled a lot.”


“I’m not surprised. Being cooped up all day.” Skinner shuddered. “I must have been a bear with a sore head.”


“Yeah. You were.” Mulder closed his eyes again, and saw a world he could only dimly remember.


“What was I to you there?” Skinner asked. “A friend? A father?”


“I don’t know.” Mulder shook his head. “I think…we worked together. I was big,” he said again. “I wasn’t like this. My sister disappeared…” His voice broke off, and he was aware of something wet falling down his cheeks.


“Hush – it isn’t real.” Skinner hugged him close, using the tip of the blanket to wipe away the tears. Mulder bit on his lip, and snuggled his head against Skinner’s shoulder.


“I don’t want it to be,” he whispered. “I want this to be real.”


“This is real,” Skinner said. Mulder smiled, and closed his eyes again.


When he next woke up, he was in bed again. His head was pounding, and he was shivering. A few minutes later, Skinner came and sat on the edge of the bed, holding a bowl.


“This is some broth. You need nourishment,” Skinner said. Mulder shook his head and turned his face away, having no appetite. Skinner reached out and turned it back again.


“No arguments,” Skinner said firmly. “Just eat.”


Mulder considered keeping his mouth closed, like a mutinous two-year-old, but there was no resisting the look in Skinner’s dark eyes, so he reluctantly swallowed down the broth. He felt a bit better afterwards, and asked if he could sit up in the chair again. Skinner nodded, wrapped him in a blanket, and walked with him over to the rocking chair. Mulder felt safe like this, wrapped up, held close, lulled by the motion of the chair, and the warmth and security of Skinner’s body.


“What date is it?” He asked.


“October 19th.” Skinner replied.


“Oh.” Mulder sighed. “I missed my birthday.”


“We’ll give you another birthday, when you’re better. I have a present for you.” Skinner told him.


“The one you made?” Mulder looked up, his vision blurring.


“That’s right.” Mulder felt Skinner push the hair out of his eyes. “I’ll cut your hair for you too.” Skinner smiled. “It’s grown pretty long.”


“I should get back. Scully will be missing me,” Mulder murmured.


“She visits you every day!” Skinner exclaimed.


“My Scully will be missing me. I had my own apartment.” Mulder informed him sleepily. Skinner looked down, his expression anxious. Mulder felt a wave of pain spasm through his body, and he gave in to a fit of racking coughs. He felt too warm, and pushed the blanket aside, the sweat breaking out all over his body, and running down the side of his face.


“You’ll be so mad at me for missing work,” Mulder muttered. “I need to get back…I need to explain it to you. I left…you were mad at me when I left…I need to apologize…I was such a brat…” Skinner held Mulder tight, resting his chin on the boy’s head.


“Let’s think of all the things you want to do when you get better,” Skinner said. Mulder gazed around. Everything seemed blurry, and he was sure that if he could just close his eyes he would fall asleep, and never wake up. Skinner nudged him. “Fox. Tell me what you want to do when you’re better,” Skinner repeated insistently.


“Want to ride like you do,” Mulder whispered.


“Do you want me to teach you?” Skinner asked. “It’s hard work. You’ve never shown any interest before.”


“Want to.” Mulder nodded. “Want to ride fast across the hills. Faster than running.” He closed his eyes, and imagined riding, then soaring through the sky like an eagle, staying there, forever. Skinner nudged him again.


“What else?” He asked. “Apart from riding.”


“Like to visit the city…but I like it here, with you. It was good before. Well, not school,” Mulder made a face, “but the rest…was so good.” He bit on his lip. “Until I spoiled it.”


“You didn’t spoil it.” Skinner said.


“I have demons.” Mulder broke into a fevered grin. “They make me do stuff I shouldn’t.” His eyes caught sight of the strap hanging on the wall. “Are you going to whip me for running away?” He asked Skinner.


“What? Of course not!” Skinner exclaimed, his expression outraged. “I’m just glad to have you back. You certainly know how to cause the maximum amount of trouble, young man. I went looking for you. I was so worried. I searched and searched for weeks. I can’t believe that you were only a few miles away, all this time.”


“Must have gone around in circles. I didn’t want to go. I just thought…” Mulder began to cough again, and Skinner stroked his back until the spasm passed.


“It’s all right. I know,” he said. “When Dr. Scully came by the other day, saying she’d been called out to an injured boy found wandering on the Cator land, I just prayed it was you. I sat in her buggy hoping and hoping it was you. I almost couldn’t believe it when it was.”


“Something’s wrong with time,” Mulder told him solemnly, “and nothing can go forward again until it’s put right. I don’t know how to do that. Maybe he knows. In the other world.”


“Fox, please…” Skinner whispered hoarsely, pulling him close. “Don’t talk like this.”


“Melissa would understand,” Mulder rambled. “Melissa Ephesian…she’s probably here somewhere…” He trailed off, talking to himself, while Skinner just held him tight, rocking them both backwards and forwards.


When Mulder next awoke, he felt cool. The pounding in his head had gone, and he could breathe more easily. He was sitting in the rocking chair, his head resting on several pillows. Weak sunlight filtered through the window, and he could smell food cooking. He saw Skinner standing in the kitchen, whistling softly to himself as he whisked up something in a bowl.


“That smells good,” Mulder commented. He tried to get out of the chair and immediately fell over as his weakened muscles and broken ankle all protested at the same time. Skinner ran over and helped him up.


“You must be feeling better if you’re hungry.” Skinner grinned. “I’ve had to force food down your throat for the past couple of weeks. Did anybody ever tell you that you’re a lousy patient?”


“Um, I think they did, yes.” Mulder grinned back. “Does this mean I’m going to get better?” he asked, as Skinner carried him over to the table, and went to get him a plate of food.


“It certainly looks that way,” Skinner replied, placing the plate in front of him. Mulder attacked it with the gusto of the truly ravenous.


Mulder’s condition improved dramatically in the next few days. When he complained of boredom, Skinner wrapped him up in a blanket and took him outside. He sat him on the horse and led him slowly around the farm. Sometimes he read to his invalid, and Mulder came to love the sound of that low, deep voice, lulling and soothing him.


“You’re good at this,” he murmured when Skinner paused for breath. Skinner laughed.


“I’ve had plenty of practice. All of my children used to love being read to when they were younger. I’ve never had to read to a fifteen year old before, and the books are a bit different to the ones I read to my boys when they were small, but the technique is still the same.”


“What happened to them?” Mulder asked quietly, then wished he hadn’t. An expression of intense pain passed across Skinner’s face, and he got up.


“I’m sorry.” Mulder whispered. “I shouldn’t have asked.


“It’s okay.” Skinner rubbed a weary hand over his forehead, and took a deep breath. “Why did you run away, Fox?” He asked, unexpectedly.


“I said in my note. The crops…the hailstorm…it wasn’t fair to expect you to pay for my keep…” Mulder shrugged.


“No. The real reason.” Skinner looked down at him intently. “Was it me? Was I cruel to you?”


“No. Never!” Mulder looked up in surprise. “You were too nice. I liked it here too much. I felt like I belonged for the first time – for the first time anywhere, but I was nothing but trouble. I always am, wherever I go…I didn’t want to cause problems for you…” A sudden fit of coughing overtook him, and Skinner passed him a cup of water, then sat back down beside him.


“Is there anything else? Were you scared I’d drink again?” He asked.


“No…maybe a little.” Mulder admitted. “I…” He hesitated.


“Go on.” Skinner said gently.


“I had a dream that you killed them when you were drunk.” Mulder said, shame-faced.


“Them? My family?” Skinner inhaled sharply, then exhaled again.


“Yes. I know that’s not true, but sometimes I wonder what happened to them – you seem to blame yourself.”


“I do. It was my fault.” Skinner glanced down at his hands, and then up at the ceiling. “I should have told you before, but I never talk about it. It hurts too much. Maybe there hasn’t been enough trust between us, Fox. If I talk about this, will you promise to talk to me about the things that hurt you, rather than just running off?”


“Yes.” Mulder nodded. “Yes. I promise.”


“All right then.” Skinner took another deep breath, then looked Mulder in the eye. “Five years ago, the farm was doing well. I wanted to buy another horse – my old mare was so slow I could walk around the farm quicker than she could. There’s a big stable, run by an Irishman called O’Neal, over near Jonestown. I decided to go and see what he had to sell. Sharon told me not to go – she’d heard there was some kind of sickness in Jonestown – but I didn’t intend to actually go into the town, so I ignored her. I found the horse I wanted. I was so busy looking the animal over that I didn’t take any notice of the groomsman’s cough – or his complaints of a sore throat.” Skinner hesitated, and Mulder found himself putting a hand on the other man’s arm. “The illness was diptheria.” Skinner looked straight into Mulder’s eyes again. “And I brought it home with me. I came down with it first, but look at me – I’m strong enough to fight back. It was touch and go apparently, but I pulled through. When I woke up, I found that my wife and daughter were already dead. I didn’t even see them die. They’d fallen ill, died and been buried while I struggled against the disease. Freddie and Ben were still ill. I nursed them day and night, and Dr Scully did all that she could…Ben died first.” Skinner’s arm was trembling under Mulder’s hand. “Pneumonia set in and he just couldn’t fight it.”


“Oh.” Now Mulder understood Skinner’s distress when Scully had diagnosed his own pneumonia.


“I buried him next to his mother and sister. Freddie…Freddie seemed to pull through. He wasn’t the cheeky boy I’d known – he’d lost a lot of weight, and he was listless, but I thought he’d toughen up again. We became very close, and then suddenly…” Skinner hesitated again, and looked at Mulder, as if for reassurance. Mulder tightened his hand around the man’s arm. “Suddenly he just went downhill. Dana said afterwards that she’d seen this before. It’s as if the heart is just worn out by the illness and suddenly it gives up. That’s what happened to Freddie. I buried him with the rest of my family. All gone – in the space of four months. One moment I’m living here, surrounded by people, laughter, the sounds of children playing, and the next I’m alone, with nothing but my memories. Hell, even the noise Cassie used to make when cutting a tooth would be a pleasure to me now, and that girl sure could make her presence felt.” Skinner shook his head, a faint smile on his lips, which soon faded. He cleared his throat. “When you came…when I just found you, on my property, with no memory, and nowhere to go – I felt as if I’d been given a second chance. I blew the first one through my own arrogance and selfishness.”


“It wasn’t your fault.” Mulder told the big man, shaking his head. “You couldn’t have foreseen it.”


“I should have listened to Sharon. If I had, she’d still be alive.”


“You don’t know that!” Mulder protested. “She could have still got sick. Please, don’t blame yourself any more.”


“I’ll always blame myself.” Skinner said softly, and Mulder knew that nothing he could do or say would change that. “I live with it better now than I used to.” Skinner admitted. “I barely left the farm for the first couple of years after…and I won’t go to church. I won’t pray to a god who allowed my family to die.”


“Have you ever thought about reincarnation?” Mulder asked.


Skinner frowned. “Being born over again?” He asked. “No, I can’t say that I have.”


“Well it might happen. You might meet Sharon and marry her all over again, in a different time and place.”


“Now you’re talking like you did when you were ill.” Skinner gave a wry smile. “But thank you. It’s a nice thought. I hope I’ll do things better next time around.”


Mulder shrugged off the cold shiver of foreboding that passed through him. “One day it’ll work out right,” he said, crossing his fingers.


“I hope so.” Skinner smiled then shook his head. “I miss being called ‘Pa’,” he said with a sigh.


“I could call you ‘Pa’.” Mulder said, then bit on his lip. “I mean…I never know what to call you. What I said earlier, about running away – I wanted to stay, I wanted to belong, but I knew that I didn’t, not really. I’m not really your son, and this isn’t really my home. I suppose I just felt I should go out and look for something of my own.”


“There was no need. You already have that here.” Skinner pulled him into a hug. “I’d be honored if you’d call me ‘pa’,” he whispered.


“I will then!” Mulder broke into a delighted smile. “Pa.” He tested it out and found that it sounded fine, better than fine. It sounded right. “I’ll save ‘sir’ for when I’m in trouble,” he grinned.


Skinner tousled his hair. “Let’s hope that’s not too often,” he grinned back.


Mulder was soon well enough to begin the riding lessons that Skinner had promised him while he was sick. He wasn’t exactly a natural, but Skinner was a good teacher, and Mulder soon learned. He came to love riding around the farm and through the hills, his body almost merging with that of the horse, making him feel wild and free. He came home after one such gallop to find Dr. Scully’s buggy in the yard, and he burst through the door, eager to greet her, only to find the house full of people. Daniel was there, and Mrs. Scully – Skinner of course, and the diminutive figure of the doctor. Mulder looked around in surprise.


“I thought it was time to celebrate that birthday.” Skinner grinned, gesturing to the table that was laden with food, including a large birthday cake. Mulder stared, feeling a lump in his throat, and wondering how Skinner had afforded this, but he was soon surrounded by people and he wasn’t speechless for long.


“I don’t remember a birthday ever being this good.” Mulder said later, as he slipped into bed.


“Really?” Skinner looked down at him, shaking his head. “I don’t know what kind of life you lead before you wound up with me, but I’m glad you’re no longer leading it, Fox.”


“Me too.” Mulder grinned. “But…how did you afford it? You shouldn’t have wasted money on me.”


“Don’t be an idiot.” Skinner grinned. “The Scullys contributed – they’re very fond of you, and…well, I swallowed my pride when you were ill, and sent word to my family back east. They’re not rich, but I’d told them all about you in many letters, and they were anxious to help.”


“You have family?” Mulder was curious.


“Of course! My mother and father are still alive – they live in Boston now. They’re dying to meet you, but it’s a long way to go, and not much chance of us ever being able to afford it.”


“I didn’t know.” Mulder mused on this.


“Well, maybe I should have said, but the topic never exactly came up.” Skinner shrugged.


“You hated asking them for money, didn’t you?” Mulder asked.


“Yes.” Skinner shook his head. “But you were ill, and I couldn’t work while I was taking care of you. They’re good folks and they wanted to help. My pride was only a little bit dented.” He grinned. “Now – I saved this until we were alone together.” Skinner went over to the door and opened it, bringing in something covered in a blanket. He placed it on Mulder’s lap. “This is what I made you. I hope you like it.”


Mulder opened the present reverently, savoring the moment. He didn’t remember ever feeling so special before in his entire life. Inside the blanket was an intricately carved wooden box, with hinged sides. Mulder ran his fingers over the box, and saw that it was decorated with images of foxes – running, playing, sleeping.


“It’s beautiful,” he whispered, glancing up at Skinner.


“I know you don’t have much to put in it right now, but everyone needs a private place to keep things. There’s a lock on it.” Skinner pointed, and handed Mulder a tiny silver key. Mulder opened the box and gazed inside at the padded velvet interior. He dimly remembered a time when presents were more expensive and impressive than this simple wooden box, but he didn’t ever recall receiving a gift that meant more to him.


“Thank you,” he said, lowering his head, and hoping that Skinner hadn’t seen that his eyes were full of tears.


“There’s something else,” Skinner said. “You’ve enjoyed riding so much, that I thought you might like a chance to work with some real horses – racehorses. I rode over to O’Neal’s stables last week, and he says you can work there on Saturdays, if you want. He’ll pay you. It’d be good for you to make some money of your own. It’s only if you want to do it, though. I just thought you might enjoy it.


“I’d love to.” Mulder replied, still fingering the wooden box. “When do I start?”


“Next week.” Skinner grinned. “O’Neal’s got a temper on him, like all the Irish, but he’s a good man, and a damn fine rider. His horses are the best in the county. Work hard and show willing, and he might let you ride one of his racehorses.”


Mulder glanced up, his eyes shining. Ever since he had been ill, he had harbored a fantasy of flying through the air, or riding a horse at great speed. To get a chance to ride a racehorse was a dream come true. Skinner saw that he was overwhelmed, and pulled him into a rough hug, partly to hide the fact that he was tearing up too.


“Time you were asleep,” he mumbled gruffly.


O’Neal was a small man, who talked non-stop, but he was a good employer. He took Mulder under his wing, and soon the two of them were firm friends. Mulder looked forward to his time spent at the Irishman’s stables all week, and couldn’t wait to ride over there on Saturdays. He missed spending time with Skinner at the weekend, but he loved seeing the sleek racehorses being put through their paces. O’Neal raced the horses at local meets, and sometimes travelled further afield with them. He also bred the finest horses in that part of the world, and people came from far and wide to buy them. Mulder’s favorite was a black stallion called Midnight, and he would spend hours just watching the horse being put through his paces. Sometimes he dreamed of being able to ride the racehorse, the animal’s powerful muscles eating up the ground, until Mulder floated through the air, just like he dreamed. He seemed to remember a different time and place, where he had looked out of a tiny window and seen the clouds beneath him, and he remembered a little girl with braids who had been taken away into the sky. Mulder wanted to follow her.


Mulder was busy rubbing Midnight down one afternoon, when he tensed, smelling smoke and hearing a voice that was somehow familiar to him. He looked up and saw O’Neal showing a man around the stables.


“This horse might be just what you’re looking for, Mr. Cator,” the Irishman said, ushering the stranger into Midnight’s stall. Mulder clenched his fists.


“You’re selling Midnight?” he asked, his heart pounding.


“If Mr. Cator wants him, then yes.” O’Neal grinned at him. Mulder looked at the stranger, and his heart beat even faster. The man was tall – taller even than Skinner, but older, with a lined, sagging face, and yellowed, smoke-stained hair. He held a cigar in his black-gloved fingers, and Mulder was afraid of him. He remembered the name too – Cator. The man whose land he had been found on – the man whose dogs had almost torn him to shreds. Cator glanced at Mulder, then glanced at the horse, but his sinister gaze returned to Mulder.


“Do I know you, boy?” He asked, frowning.


“I don’t think so, sir.” Mulder swallowed, not wanting to remind the man of the incident on his property.


“You seem familiar.” Cator mused.


“He’s Walter Skinner’s boy – and a good worker.” O’Neal smiled broadly.


“What’s your name?” Cator asked.


“Fox,” Mulder mumbled. Cator froze, then took another drag on his cigar, looking thoughtful.


“Fox, hmm? An unusual name. And you say that you’re Walter Skinner’s boy?” He questioned.


“Yes, sir.”


Mulder watched as Cator ran his hands over the stallion. He could tell that Midnight didn’t like the smoking man either. Mulder crossed his fingers behind his back, hoping against hope that Cator would choose not to buy the stallion. At last, Cator finished his inspection.


“A fine animal, but not quite what I’m looking for,” he said. Mulder breathed a sigh of relief, but his joy was short-lived as Cator glanced directly at him. Something about his stare made Mulder feel uneasy, and he was relieved when the man left.


Mulder became more and more concerned that O’Neal would sell his favorite horse. He longed to ride the animal, but O’Neal was adamant that he improve his riding skills first, and gave him several lessons on the other horses in the stables. It wasn’t enough for Mulder. He wanted to ride Midnight, and he wanted to ride the horse before it was too late, and the animal was sold. Finally he came up with a plan. He thought about it for several days, but once it was in his head he couldn’t forget about it – he had to put it into action.


He left the house early one Saturday, and rode to the stables. It wasn’t yet dawn, and nobody was awake. Mulder saddled up Midnight quietly, and then led the horse away from the house. He took the horse far enough away from the stables that his hooves wouldn’t be heard, and then mounted the animal. Midnight pranced around, doing some high steps, showing off, and Mulder soothed him. He dug his heels gently into the horse’s flanks and the animal responded immediately, taking off at a long, effortlessly graceful gallop. Mulder couldn’t believe how fast the horse was, and soon he was urging him on, to greater speeds. They rode over the prairie for an hour or more, when Mulder noticed that the sun was rising, and they were a long way from the stables. He turned the horse back, hoping that he could get him back to his stall and rubbed down before anyone woke up. It was a long journey though, and Mulder had to urge the horse to gallop as fast as he could in the hope of making it in time. They were nearly there, when Mulder felt Midnight stumble, and falter beneath him.


“What is it, boy?” Mulder swung himself out of the saddle, and saw that the horse was lame. Cursing his luck, he led Midnight the rest of the way, and breathed a sigh of relief to find that the stables were still in darkness. He returned the animal to his stall and rubbed him down, giving him a long drink, but he was worried sick by the horse’s lameness. He picked up Midnight’s wounded leg, and examined it, seeing that it was slightly swollen, and hoped that it was temporary, and the horse would soon recover, but he knew he couldn’t just leave it like that. When O’Neal came into the yard, he screwed up all his courage and went and told the Irishman that there appeared to be something wrong with Midnight.


“What the hell happened to him?” O’Neal mused, examining the horse.


“I don’t know,” Mulder mumbled. “He was just like this when I got here.”


“Well, I expect he’ll mend, but he’ll miss the race next week which is a shame. I was kind of counting on this fella to clean up for us there.” O’Neal patted the horse’s flank. “I don’t see how he could have gotten an injury like this standing in his stall all night. You’re sure you don’t know how it happened?” O’Neal looked at Mulder keenly, but Mulder just shook his head.


“No, sir,” he whispered. “I have no idea.”


“Hmm.” O’Neal frowned. “Well, I’ll get someone in to take a look at him.”


Mulder breathed a sigh of relief. O’Neal seemed to have bought his story about the horse, and no real harm had been done after all. The sick feeling in his stomach went away, and he resumed his work more cheerfully.


Mulder was out in the yard doing his chores the next day, when he heard the clattering of hooves. He looked up, and his heart sank. O’Neal was riding into the yard.


“It’s O’Neal.” Skinner glanced at Mulder in surprise. “What’s he doing here? You haven’t gotten into any mischief have you, Fox?” He teased. Mulder paled, and shook his head.


“No, sir,” he muttered.


Skinner glanced at him more keenly, then walked across the yard to greet their visitor. “Is this a social call?” He smiled.


“No, I’m sorry, Walter, it isn’t.” O’Neal replied, looking directly at Mulder. “One of my horses was injured yesterday. I think he was taken out for a ride without my permission. He’ll be out of action for a good couple of weeks.”


“I see.” Skinner stood there, working this through in his head. “What does this have to do with us?” He asked.


“I think young Fox here took him out for a ride before work yesterday.” O’Neal glanced down at Fox. “It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.”


“Did you, Fox?” Skinner asked quietly, turning to the boy. Mulder looked into the big man’s serious dark eyes, and made a quick decision.


“No, sir,” he said.


“Well, I think that’s a lie, lad,” the Irishman said, shaking his head, “and I’m disappointed in you, Fox. I thought we were friends.”


“If Fox says he didn’t do it, then that’s good enough for me.” Skinner stated firmly, clapping a hand on Mulder’s shoulder. Mulder felt a sick anxiety creep into his stomach again.


“Well I’m sorry, Walter. I don’t think your boy is being honest with us.” O’Neal replied.


Skinner considered this for a moment, and then led Mulder a few steps away. “Fox,” he said quickly, in a soft undertone, “if you’re telling the truth I’ll defend you to the hilt, but first of all you have to tell me that by doing so I’m not making a liar of myself.” He gazed at Mulder intently. “I’m going to ask you again whether you took that horse out and got him injured, and I want an honest reply.”


Mulder felt as if time was stopping, as if everything was zeroing in on this one moment. Should he lie? More importantly, could he get away with lying? He looked at Skinner’s earnest face, and knew that he couldn’t face watching the big man defend him against accusations that were the truth.


“Did you do what O’Neal accuses you of?” Skinner asked.


Mulder nodded, flushing bright red. “Yes, sir,” he whispered.


“You took the horse out, and when you got him injured you didn’t tell anyone how it happened? You lied to Mr O’Neal, andto me?” Skinner asked, his face furious. Mulder felt himself quaking in his boots.


“Yes, sir,” he whispered again. Skinner clamped a big hand down on Mulder’s shoulder, and propelled him back to where O’Neal was waiting, still seated on his horse.


“It would appear that you’re right, Seamus. My apologies for my boy’s actions.”


“That’s all right, Walter. He’s been a good worker, but I can’t have a liar working for me, y’understand? The boy’s lost his job, and I hope you’ll see that he’s well punished.”


“I will.” Skinner nodded. Mulder squirmed.


“If he hadn’t lied I’d have kept him on. I always liked the lad.”


“I understand.” Skinner nodded. “Fox – go and get my strap,” he ordered. Mulder stood there for a moment, not wanting to obey. O’Neal chuckled, and shook his head.


“Run along, laddie, and do as your pa says. It’ll be over quicker that way,” he said, with a wink. Mulder chewed on his lip, and finally turned on his heel and walked slowly back into the house. He took the hated strap off the hook and shuddered, remembering his last whipping all too vividly. He began walking back outside, to where Skinner was still talking with O’Neal, but his footsteps got slower and slower until he finally stopped. Skinner turned around and saw him, beckoning him impatiently, and suddenly, without thinking, Mulder dropped the strap and began to run.


He ran fast, knowing even as he did so that this had to be a really bad mistake. A few seconds later he heard the sound of a horse’s hooves behind him, and then he felt himself picked up by the scruff of his neck and thrown unceremoniously over the front of O’Neal’s saddle.


“Now you’re going to be thrashed, laddie, so I’d take it with good grace if I were you.” O’Neal chuckled, holding him tight and trotting back to where Skinner was waiting, holding the strap. Mulder’s heart sank in dread. “It’s not as if you don’t deserve it.” O’Neal told him, plucking him off the saddle, and handing him bodily to Skinner.


“I’ll leave this young rascal to you! I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes right now, Fox, laddie!” O’Neal winked and turned his horse around, galloping out of sight.


Mulder’s feet didn’t touch the ground. Skinner placed one foot on the low wall, and threw Mulder over his knee, yanking his pants and shorts down with one hand, while his other held Mulder steady. Mulder began to struggle and yell, but Skinner was too angry to be thwarted, and the strap rose and fell, planting 6 red hot welts across Mulder’s wriggling buttocks in quick succession.


“Ow…stop! Stop…it hurts!” Mulder yelled.


“Like that poor animal hurt.” Skinner replied tersely, bringing the strap down again another half a dozen times with vicious precision. Mulder began to sob, as each blow hit its target.


“Unnnh! Owwww! I’m sorry…” He cried. Skinner replaced him on the ground, and looked into Mulder’s tear-stained face.


“Inside.” He said, gesturing to the house. He stalked back, and Mulder adjusted his clothing, standing by the wall, uncertainly. He hadn’t been whipped as hard as he was expecting, and he wasn’t sure why Skinner wanted him to return to the house. Skinner paused at the door, and turned around, frowning when he saw that Mulder hadn’t obeyed him. He beckoned slowly with his finger.


“Now, Fox!” He boomed. Mulder started, and immediately hurried over to the big man, sidling past him, scared of receiving another swat on his tender backside. Much to his relief, Skinner replaced the strap on the wall. “I am extremely angry with you,” Skinner told him. Mulder shrank in size almost visibly at the big man’s words.


“I’m sorry, sir.”


“No you’re not. You’re just sorry you got caught.” Skinner snapped tersely. “I thought you were better than that. Now, the whipping I just gave you is for behaving like a coward, and showing me up like that in front of O’Neal. Running off…” Skinner shook his head, clearly outraged by such behavior. “The least you could have done was to accept the punishment you earned for yourself. I’m not prepared to let this pass, Fox. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time with you recently, but you’re clearly running wild and I won’t tolerate it. I’m going to do something to you that my pa did to me many years ago – and trust me, it’s not a lesson I forgot in a hurry.”


“What, sir?” Mulder asked, his throat dry.


“I’m going to spank you every night before bed this week – as punishment for lying to me today. Oh, don’t worry, I won’t use the strap. You can bend over my knee for a reminder of what my hand feels like on your backside. This time next week, I’ll ask you again to bring me the strap. Then I’ll give you the strapping you earned for what you did to that poor animal, and for disobeying Mr. O’Neal. Is that clear?”


Mulder stared at the big man, aghast. Seven nights of spankings and then a strapping to look forward to next Sunday? How on earth was he going to survive that?


“I asked if that was clear.” Skinner boomed, ominously.


“Yes, sir.” Mulder bowed his head to the inevitable, his heart quaking, and wished that he could turn back time. If only he hadn’t run away, if he’d just taken his punishment then and there it would all be over by now, and he wouldn’t be facing this week of agony.


“Good. Now go and set about your chores, Fox.”


Mulder hesitated, wanting Skinner not to still be angry with him, but the big man’s face was darkly furious, so finally he turned and did as he was told.


Supper was a dismal affair, conducted in silence. Mulder didn’t dare say anything, and Skinner clearly wasn’t in the mood for conversation. After supper Mulder did some homework, until Skinner finally glanced at his pocket watch, and then looked over to him.


“Time you were in bed,” he said. Mulder nodded, and began clearing away his books. “Change into your nightshirt, and then come back out here,” Skinner ordered. Mulder nodded again, his heart sinking. He realised that he had somehow been hoping that Skinner wouldn’t carry through on his threat this evening, but it was clear there was to be no reprieve. Mulder changed into his loose nightshirt, and then returned to where Skinner was sitting, in his usual chair in front of the fire.


“Come here.” Skinner beckoned, pointing at his lap. Mulder bit his lip, chewing frantically, but finally obeyed, and felt himself pulled down over Skinner’s knee. He yelped, as he toppled forward, and flailed out with his arms, but Skinner held him firmly in place. Mulder felt his nightshirt lifted, and then Skinner’s hand blistered down on his bare backside. It didn’t hurt as much as the strap, but Mulder’s face was bright red from the humiliation of it, and he clung on for grim life as that hand whacked down a few more swats. He cried out, and buried his face in the side of Skinner’s leg, as much from embarrassment as anything else. A small part of his mind still held the memory of being an adult, and being subjected to this kind of punishment was more than he could bear.


When it was over, Skinner placed him back on his feet again, and gestured with his head in the direction of Mulder’s bed. Mulder went, wordlessly. He lay on his stomach, and then the tears came – not so much because of being spanked like the child he was, but because he hated the silence between himself and the big man. He sobbed silently into his pillow, then took a series of hitching breaths, and a few moments later he heard Skinner coming over. Mulder felt him sit down on the bed beside him, and then the big man’s hand soothed his hair, gently.


“Come on, now.” Skinner murmured. “It’s not so bad, Fox.” Mulder sat up, and buried his face in Skinner’s stomach, sobbing some more.


“I hate it when you’re mad at me,” he stammered, between hiccups.


“Well don’t do anything to make me mad then.” Skinner replied, reasonably.


“I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone would find out. I didn’t want to be whipped,” Mulder muttered almost incomprehensibly. Skinner sighed, and soothed his hair, hugging the boy. Mulder wrapped his arms around Skinner’s waist, wanting to know that everything was okay.


“I know,” Skinner said, “but you do bring trouble down on yourself, Fox.” He smiled wryly, shaking his head.


“Are you still angry with me?” Mulder looked up, his tears framing his eyelashes and making them even darker and longer now that they were wet.


“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” Skinner smiled. “You do understand why I have to punish you though, don’t you, Fox?”


“Yes, sir.” Mulder nodded, wiping away his tears with the edge of his sleeve.


“Good boy.” Skinner smiled. “Time you got some rest. This will be a long week for you, I think.”


It was – in fact, Mulder thought that it was the longest week of his entire life. He hated it when Skinner was angry with him, but somehow it was almost worse when Skinner calmed down. They would be laughing over supper, and then Skinner would point to his watch and tell Mulder to get ready for bed, and Mulder’s heart would sink at the change in his surrogate father, from joking companion to angry parent. He loathed being over Skinner’s knee almost as much as he hated being whipped with the strap.


As the week wore on, Mulder also began to dread what Sunday would bring. He even thought half seriously about hiding the strap, but he was sure that Skinner would find a replacement implement, and wield it even more angrily if the strap had mysteriously gone missing. The bedtime spankings reduced him to tears every night, however hard he tried not to cry. Skinner’s always made sure that Mulder’s butt was flaming a painful red before he stopped. He also made sure that he gave Mulder a reassuring hug, and kissed his forehead before the boy went to bed. That was the only thing that stopped Mulder crying himself to sleep.


By Thursday, his butt was permanently sore from the repeated spankings, and sitting down was painful. Mulder had been as well behaved as could be all week so far, and he wondered if he could prevail upon the big man not to continue with the punishment. When Skinner nodded his head in the direction of Mulder’s bed, Mulder hesitated. Skinner stood there, his head on one side.




“Please, couldn’t you…I mean…I’ve learned my lesson. Please can’t you let me off now?” Mulder asked.


“No, I can’t do that, son.” Skinner shook his head. “I want you to understand that when you’ve done wrong, you’ll be punished, and that when I say something, I mean it.”


“But it isn’t fair!” Mulder snapped. He had been pinning his hopes on Skinner agreeing to his request, and he just couldn’t bear the thought that he would have to endure three more spankings before Sunday dawned.


“Fox, don’t whine at me. Go and get changed for bed, and then get out here.” Skinner told him firmly.


“I hate you.” Mulder growled, doing as he was told anyway. Skinner shook his head at the boy, but a wry smile tugged at his lips all the same. It was gone by the time Mulder returned.


“Over my knee.” Skinner pointed. Mulder stood there, wanting to defy the man. “Fox, make me wait one more second and this will be a spanking that you’ll remember for a very long time.” Mulder jumped at his tone, and finally walked forward, his face already red with a combination of anger and humiliation. Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to actually lie down over Skinner’s knee. Instead he just stood there. Finally, Skinner caught hold of his arm in exasperation, and swung him down easily over his knee. Mulder began to yell before the first slap hit home, but Skinner clearly intended this to be a long, painful event, and his big hand peppered Mulder’s butt with dozens of swats until Mulder was yelling at the top of his voice.


“Now, will you obey me tomorrow when I ask you to get over my knee?” Skinner asked, as his hand delivered another swat.


“Yes!” Mulder shouted.


“Without throwing a tantrum?”


“Yes, I promise…” Mulder cried, although it was quite possible that he would have agreed to anything by that point.


“Good.” Skinner delivered a couple more stinging swats for good measure, then swung Mulder back to his feet again. Mulder stood there, rubbing his sore butt with one hand, and his tear-stained eyes with the other. “Bed.” Skinner said firmly. Mulder glared at him, and then stalked off to the curtained alcove that was his bedroom, and slipped under the blankets.


“Do you still hate me?” Skinner asked, as he came to deliver his customary goodnight tousle to Mulder’s hair.


“Yes.” Mulder muttered into his pillow. Skinner sighed. It was definitely proving to be a long week.


Mulder spent the rest of the week in a sulk, and woke up on Sunday in a sullen mood. He spent the best part of the day glaring at the strap, or Skinner, whenever he was in the vicinity of either. Skinner mostly ignored him, and after supper he pushed back his plate, fixed Mulder with a stern look, and then got to his feet.


“I’m going to the barn. I want you to bring the strap and follow me down,” he instructed. Mulder bit on his lip, and nodded. He sat there for several minutes after Skinner left, dreading what would happen next, but there was no escaping it so finally he picked up the hated strap and began the slow walk down to the barn.


“I’m glad you could make it this time.” Skinner said, taking the strap that Mulder was holding out to him mutely. “Today I’m going to punish you for what you did to that poor horse. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in your actions last week, Fox. That animal suffered because of you, and I think it’s only fair that you should suffer in return. You know what to do.” He gestured with his head at the bales, and Mulder nodded, his whole body trembling. He quickly pushed down his pants and shorts and bent over the bales, waiting for his whipping. It was mercifully short, but none the harder for all that. Skinner made every stroke count, and the strap whistled fast through the air, landing painfully on his already sore buttocks. Mulder started crying before the third stroke hit home, and he was sobbing piteously by the time the whipping was over. He stood up, still shaking, and buttoned his pants back up. Skinner waited until he was finished, and then held out his arms.


“Come here,” he said. Mulder went, and Skinner enveloped him in a hug, holding him tightly while Mulder continued to sob.


“I loved that horse.” Mulder wept.


“I know.” Skinner sighed, rocking the weeping boy.


“I won’t see him again.” Mulder’s sobs reached a keening fever pitch.


“I know. I’m sorry.” Skinner soothed Mulder’s hair, and held him for a few moments as Mulder cried over his loss. Finally the boy pulled away, suddenly feeling relieved that the punishments were all over. He looked at Skinner and managed a wry smile.


“Glad to have you back.” Skinner said, returning the smile. “Come on.” He put an arm around Mulder’s shoulder, and led him back to the house. “I have something that I’ve been saving until this week was out of the way.”


“What?” Mulder asked, curious.


“You’ll see.” Skinner grinned mysteriously.


When they got back to the house, Skinner brought out a big envelope and handed it to Mulder.


“What’s this?” Mulder opened it, and looked at the legal papers inside. He glanced up at Skinner questioningly.


“Adoption papers,” Skinner told him. “You said you wanted to feel as if you belonged – really belonged – and I thought this might convince you.”


“You’re going to adopt me?” Mulder was astonished.


“Only if you want me too. It’s up to you.” Skinner shrugged. “Maybe after this week you’d like to change your mind.”


“Are you kidding?” Mulder grinned, shaking his head and then looking at the papers again. “No way! No way!” He got up and threw his arms around the big man, and then did a little dance. Skinner laughed. “What happens next?” Mulder asked.


“Well, we have to go and see a judge, and he’ll decide whether the adoption can go ahead. We have to go to court in a few week’s time.”


Mulder shook his head, wordlessly, glancing at the papers again, and then he took them over to his box, and placed them carefully inside, locking it afterwards.


“I can’t wait,” he said.


The judge was a kind enough looking man. He listened to them both, and then fixed Mulder with an assessing stare.


“You’re sure you don’t remember your real family at all?” He asked.


“No, sir.” Mulder shook his head.


“And it’s been a year since Mr. Skinner found you?”


“Yes, sir.” Mulder nodded.


“And nobody has come forward in that time?” The judge glanced at Skinner.


“Nobody.” Skinner nodded.


“Well, then I see no reason not to make the boy legally yours.” The judge smiled, and signed the papers, and Mulder felt a kind of peace descend on him, permeating his very soul. He was where he belonged, he was sure of that. Skinner pulled him into a bear hug and then they left the courtroom, still grinning. Back home, the Scullys had laid on an impromptu dinner to celebrate, and Mulder didn’t think he’d ever smiled so much in his life as he did that evening. His face ached from all the laughing.


It was late when they heard the carriage pull up outside. Skinner opened the door, and Mulder felt an icy hand clutch at his heart as he saw the column of smoke shrouding their unexpected visitor.


“Ah, Mr. Skinner. I’m Theobald Cator.” The man held out a black gloved hand, and Skinner took it. “I believe that you have my son.”


“What?” Skinner looked at the other man incredulously. “Are you talking about Fox? He’s my son. I adopted him this morning.”


“Nonetheless, I am his father.” Cator glanced over at Mulder, a malicious smile tugging at his lips. “Don’t you remember me, Fox?”


“No.” Mulder pressed his lips together. “You’re not my father.”


“But of course I am.” The smoking man took a deep inhalation of smoke, then puffed it out again, slowly. “Not your real father perhaps, but when my good friend William died, he left you in my guardianship. I have the papers here to prove it.” Cator laid a sheaf of papers on the table. “You can fight me in court if you wish,” Cator glanced contemptuously at Skinner, who looked completely stunned, “but there’s really no point. You won’t win, and I doubt you can afford the legal bill.” He smirked as he looked around the tiny house. “It was wrong of you to run away from me, Fox.” Cator told the boy. “I was so worried. You’ve been gone a whole year. I promised my friend that I would do my best by you – see that you got a good education, lived in a fine house. I intend to keep that promise.” He looked almost grim as he said it, and Mulder shuddered.


“You can’t just come here and take him. I won’t give in without a fight,” Skinner growled. Cator smiled, a creepy smile.


“You have a week, and then I’ll come and collect the boy. One week, Skinner.” He grinned, and placed a black gloved hand under Mulder’s chin, lifting the boy’s head and looking into his eyes. “You’ll soon be back where you belong,” he murmured.


Mulder felt a shiver creep up his spine.




End of Part Three


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