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TITLE: Thirty Years of Tears
AUTHOR: Kristen K2
SUMMARY: Skinner struggles with losing his sight. A prequel to "To Sir, With Love".
KEYWORDS: Skinner, Kim, angst, discipline
SPOILERS: Post-ep for "Without".
RATING: NC-17 for an act of discipline; if that offends you, hit delete now please.
ARCHIVE: anywhere, just let me know
DISCLAIMERS: These characters belong to Fox, and 1013. No copyright infringement is intended.
EMAIL ADDRESS FOR FEEDBACK: kristenk2@deslea.com
WEBSITE: http://lzl.dreamhost.com/ExtFamily/Kristen/KristenMain.html
DEDICATION: For Xanthe and Sergeeva, who both inspire and encourage me with their lyrical, poetic, and thoughtful Skinner stories. Thanks to Ursula and Deslea for beta.


Is this a place I can rest my poor head
To gather my thoughts in sweet silence
Is this a place where the feelings aren't dead
From an overexposure to violence
And is this a place I can slowly face
The only one I truly can know

-"Thirty Years of Tears", John Hiatt

+++++

Thirty Years of Tears

The heavy thump of rotor blades jolted him awake.

He tried to open his eyes, but something foreign pressed against his lids, keeping them shut against his will. The pain of the futile effort pierced his skull, adding to the confused panic rolling his stomach. Lying vulnerably on his back, unable to move, in a helicopter, brought back stark memories of Nam.

Through the miasma of physical agony and disjointed noises, one clear voice, familiar and gentle, stood apart. She must have been watching him for signs of consciousness, he later realized, for she bent toward his ear before he had the chance to speak.

"Everything's okay, Sir," she declared, and the strength of her conviction soothed his jangled senses. "We're on our way back to DC. You're going to be fine."

"Agent Scully..." he rasped.

"She's in the Medivac behind us with Agent Landau. Both are going to be fine. She found Gibson Praise and he was unharmed," Kimberly continued, pre-empting his next question. "Agent Doggett has him safely hidden away."

The harsh scrape of a radio transmission collided with the arguing male voices in the background of the enclosed space. Skinner couldn't hold back his moan when the gurney rattled under him, and he felt her soft breath leave his ear area to issue a sharp plea to the medics. After another minute, something metallic pinched his forearm. Soon after, the pain around his eyes receded, just a little.

"Kimberly," he murmured so only she could hear, "I can't see."

A small, warm hand slid into the cup of his palm. It was the first physical contact he'd had with another human being since he'd lifted Gibson into his arms in the desert, and he welcomed it. His fingers curled around hers, letting the pleasure of her touch soften the brittle edges of his battered soul and ease him back into unconsciousness. He had no idea how she'd gotten to Arizona in the dead of night, but the vast relief at her presence superceded his idle curiosity. He needed her here, and here she was. How it happened he didn't care.

The last thing he felt before he went under again was her breath returning against his ear, and her whispers of encouragement were enough to make him believe.


He awoke into a silent dark. The wooziness from the drugs had abated, and pinpricks of pain surrounded his eyes. He kept himself still, getting his bearings. With what must be bandages around his eyes, he couldn't ascertain what time it was, but the warm spot on his chest felt like a ray of sunlight from a window. The harsh noises had disappeared, leaving a flat, dead air in their wake. Her comforting touch was gone from his hand, but amidst the hospital odors of antiseptic and floor wax, he could still smell her perfume. Floral and delicate.

After another moment of assessment, he heard a nearly inaudible intake of breath. Close, right by his forearm. He reached across his body toward the sound, and his fingers brushed against a patch of warm skin, then into a soft mass of hair.

She was there. Asleep in the chair by his hospital bed, her head resting on the mattress beside him.

He immediately pulled his hand away, but after listening to her even breaths for another long minute, the temptation soon proved impossible to resist. His fingers wandered closer, lingering over the loose tendril at her temple. His mind's eye tried to sketch for him how she must look, sleeping peacefully beside him, the sunlight from the window behind her shoulder dancing across her coppery hair in brilliant streaks. He liked seeing her in the afternoons, when she would sit across from him at his desk, taking notes and nodding absently while her pen scratched across the pad. Sometimes he would lose his place in his thoughts, distracted by the way the light kissed the hollow of her throat.

But sleeping? He couldn't imagine how her face must look at rest. Hers was such an expressive face, with kind, grave eyes that burrowed through his defenses and a smile that didn't come often enough anymore. Flipping through mental images of her like the pages of a photo album, it dawned on Skinner that he hadn't seen Kimberly look happy for a long time now. A year, maybe more. The last time had been just before he had been poisoned. Before Krycek had killed him, albeit temporarily, with the nanocytes.

He prayed that his blindness was just as temporary, if only to be able to view her smile again. Only three of his senses - sight, smell, hearing - were permissible in their relationship, and the idea of being denied another was acutely painful. He already longed for the other two enough.

There was a time, a lifetime ago it felt, that he thought that taste and touch might be allowed. It hadn't lasted that long, maybe a month or so, but the memory of that anticipation and hopefulness still buzzed pleasantly in his brain. So easy to recall the glances that lingered just a shade too long, the smiles that were just a bit wider than usual. Winter had recently faded into a warmer pre-spring air, and her outfits had lightened up accordingly. Gone were the bulkier jackets and sweaters, and Skinner got his first peek of the season at her graceful neck. He'd even taken up boxing to keep himself in shape; if he was planning on dating a younger woman - as he couldn't help but think about when he caught her curious gaze on his mouth - he wanted to make sure he was up for the challenge.

Then the nanocytes had come, with Krycek dogging their heels, and the moment passed. Now he was stuck in a hospital bed again, blind, helpless, his career and his illusions in tatters. Of no use to anyone, and unable to protect her from the dangers that lay between them. He couldn't protect Mulder, or Gibson, or Scully, and he would have to deal with the consequences of his failures. But to lose Kimberly too...that would destroy him.

No. He didn't want to think about that. Not now.

His mind struggled to find a method of releasing his simmering emotions. The pain around his eyes was too haphazard and dull, not keening enough to provide the necessary outlet and focus that pain from punishment did. He knew, though, that it was too soon to expect her to offer. It had only been two days since she'd used the belt for Mulder, and in his current incapacitated state, she would never agree to another session. Nor could he ask; it wasn't in him to verbalize his needs. The first time had been difficult enough.

So he would have to wait. In time, when he was physically healed and he had pushed his inappropriate feelings back underground, his absolution would be granted. Until then, he had to keep his thoughts and actions in check. Holding back what lay in his heart was something at which he was an expert; it shouldn't be that difficult to pull off again.

But right now, with his hand in her hair and her breath on his skin, it already felt like suffocation.

He heard a sigh catch in her throat, a rustle of fabric next to his bed. She was waking up. He yanked his hand back to his side and listened to the sounds of her stretching and settling back into her chair.

"Kimberly?" he said after a long silence.

Her voice was gentle, a thread of exhaustion weaving throughout. "I'm here, Sir. Is there something you need?"

You, he wanted to reply. But to admit that, especially now when such an admission would only put her in jeopardy, was not a mistake he was prepared to make. He'd already made too many in the last few days.

"Is it day or night?"

"It's afternoon. About two-thirty. How are you feeling?"

"Better, thank you," he lied.

"Would you like me to call the nurse?"

Skinner debated. "Not yet," he admitted, the silky texture of her still fresh on his fingertips. He knew he should ask her for updates on his wounded agents, inquire into the status of the search for Mulder, but he wasn't ready. He didn't want to be the controlled, passionless AD yet. He wanted to continue being the man that she could fall asleep beside, the one who was allowed to love her in the quiet ceasefire, for just a little while longer. It didn't seem like all that much to want, did it?

The sun on his chest slowly lifted the burden pressing down on his heart. As he drifted off to sleep, the image of the rays of light dancing in her hair captured his imagination. The last things he felt were her hand tucking back into his outstretched palm, and the mattress giving way as she rested her head beside him again.

For that one brief second, he pretended it was enough.


During the first week of his return to DC, a dress parade of visitors streamed through his hospital room, unending in their marching cadence, and discouraging in their news.

The doctors and otology specialists deemed it too soon to evaluate his chances for a full recovery. They were cautiously optimistic about the skin area around his eyes, informing him that "only time will tell" if the scarring was permanent.

He chafed against the uncertain diagnosis, and handed over the reins of Mulder's investigation fully to Agent Doggett. Not that he had much choice in the matter; one visit from Kersh had made it clear that Skinner's only role in the search was to be as a bystander. "You're too close to both of them, Walt," had been the official reason, but Skinner wasn't foolish enough to believe the weak rationalization. Too much bad blood had passed between him and his new boss for him to swallow that load of bull.

Doggett had sounded not nearly as surprised as Skinner anticipated when he gave his newest subordinate the news. Perhaps he'd had fair warning from Kersh; Skinner determined he would need to keep his eye on the relationship between the two men in the future. John Doggett came across as a straight shooter, but as Skinner had learned over the years, no one was ever as they appeared. He had Krycek to thank for that unforgettable lesson. Unfortunately, he couldn't 'thank' the man in person, Skinner rued grimly.

According to reports, the elusive fugitive had disappeared again after that last meeting in Skinner's office less than a week ago. Marita Covarrubias, from her office in the UN, could provide no information as to his whereabouts. Whether or not she was covering for Krycek was indiscernible over the phone, and Skinner was powerless to delve deeper.

There were two bright spots to his first week of convalescence. The first was from Scully; she phoned him from her separate hospital room, and assured him that both she and the baby were in good health. By then, Kimberly had informed him of Scully's fight with the Bounty Hunter, which added another layer to his guilt. No one else, not even Kimberly, was aware of Scully's pregnancy, so Skinner kept his worry to himself. With a firm eye on the potential dangers, Skinner assigned Doggett as Scully's partner. He wasn't 100% convinced yet of where Doggett's loyalties lay, but the ex-NYPD cop's reputation was solid enough to ensure that, at the very least, he would watch Scully's back. As Skinner was out of commission for the near future, he needed to know someone was watching out for his remaining X Files agent.

The other bright spot was Kimberly. Although eventually Skinner had shored up his defenses enough to persuade her to go home and rest that first day, she had returned the next morning without protest or wavering. Every day thereafter, from the first minute of visiting hours to the last, she was there, often convincing the staff to let her remain beyond then. His visitors dwindled down as that first week progressed, yet she continued to stay by his side.

At first, Skinner was concerned that someone might think her constant appearance unusual, but after a few days, he stopped worrying about it. Part of what she was doing was acting as his eyes. She warmly greeted every visitor by name, which let him know who had entered the room without him looking disadvantaged or weak. Otherwise, much like in the office, she didn't speak up much, letting him conduct business without interruption. The only difference was that here she sat so much closer than she normally did, and her scent stayed in the air all day. Whether it was a doctor or a Section Chief or an agent in the room with them, Skinner was always aware of her. He liked that. In a sightless world where he was now groping for purchase, her steady presence anchored him.

After that first week, it became apparent that his recovery was going to be longer than he had expected. Out of his own pocket he paid for a transfer to a private room equipped for VIPs. The sole reason he requested it was because it held comfortable chairs for visitors, and the only person visiting him by then was Kimberly.

She tried to install a quasi-office in his new room, but the nurses wouldn't allow her to set up a laptop or bring in an extra phone, despite her cajoling. When that failed, she lugged files from the Hoover and read aloud to him the various memos and case files. She took dictation for his replies, and whenever Skinner had to be moved to a different room for more tests, she headed back to the office to type them up. She was always back in her chair when he returned from his tests.

Before the end of the second week, Kersh put him on medical leave, and Skinner had to insist that she go back to work to assist in the re-assignment of his caseload to other ADs. Without any discussion, she made it a point to come to the hospital during her lunch hour and then again after work each day. Oddly enough, for the rest of his life, the pungent odor of a tuna fish sandwich would always bring back a wistful memory of that time with Kimberly.

Lunches were pleasant, upbeat affairs. She would arrive just a few minutes after the twelve o'clock news began, full of work tales and interoffice gossip and amusing anecdotes. Skinner made sure that his lunch tray had arrived before she did, and the orderly who delivered it was very helpful in directing him where everything was on his plate, and informing him what it was. He never ordered soup, or complicated dishes. Getting the fork from the plate to his mouth, without the benefit of seeing where it was headed, was humiliating enough.

Whether or not the effort to not dribble food on his chin was lost on Kimberly, he wasn't sure. He suspected that she deliberately didn't watch him eat, to give him a measure of privacy. There was no way her paper sack naturally made as much noise as it seemed to; the crinkling and the fussing she made over her own small meal sounded much more like an avoidance technique than real life. By their fourth shared lunch, his suspicions were confirmed. Twenty minutes to peel an orange was nothing but pure subterfuge.

It was one of the kindest gestures anyone had ever bestowed on him. His afternoons, when he wasn't being poked and prodded by the doctors, consisted of listening to the television or radio. He flipped from new programs to talk shows to soaps, with nothing catching his interest. When he grew annoyed at his inactive status, he would recall the elongated ripping sound of the orange rind, and smile.

Despite the fear that his eyes would never heal, despite the worry that Mulder would never be found, despite the despair he felt at being forced into idleness, Skinner had to admit that that small kindness gave him hope. It was almost enough.

Almost.


By the fourth week, it wasn't even close to enough. Skinner was ready to tear the bandages off his head and call a cab to take him home. The hours between her visits were some of the slowest he'd ever endured, and not being able to tell the difference between night and day threw his sleeping pattern out of sync. He couldn't exercise, he couldn't read the newspaper, he couldn't even take a shower by himself. Mulder was still missing, and from Skinner's latest phone call with Doggett, he knew the investigation had lost momentum as each lead dried up. Skinner's helplessness rapidly shifted into irascibility, and he heard himself snapping at the medical staff more than once.

He was sitting in a chair by the window one afternoon, assisted there by the same nameless, faceless orderly who had just given him a sponge bath and shaved his overgrown beard, when a muted knock rapped against his door.

"Come in, Kimberly," he said, unable to keep the weariness out of his tone. Without hearing or seeing his visitor, he knew who it was. He only had one.

"Sir? Have I come at a bad time?"

Skinner evened out his expression before answering; she hadn't done anything to merit being on the receiving end of his foul mood.

"No, it's fine. Please come in."

The familiar tapping of her heels across the linoleum brought a ghost of a smile to his lips. If he could recognize her stride from the passersby in the hallway, maybe some semblance of normalcy was returning. He used to play a game with himself, testing to see if, from his desk, he could separate Kimberly's walk out of a random group of people emerging from the elevator in the Hoover; it amused him that he usually could.

She pushed another chair next to his at the window, and he listened as she made herself comfortable.

"How was work?" he asked politely.

"Long. I have to admit, Sir, I'll be glad when you're able to come back."

"Why long? Who were assigned to today?" He knew from her lunchtime stories that Kim was on a round-robin between ADs and Section Chiefs while he was out, assigned to whomever had an assistant out sick or needed information from one of his cases that wasn't found in the files.

"Kersh," she said, adding a colorful oath under her breath. Her candor didn't surprise him. He'd known, of course, that her contempt for the new DD was as strong as his. And he'd learned early on that Kimberly had a temper that sprang to life when goaded long enough. After the Carinna Sayles incident, he'd overheard her hotly defending him in the coffee room. Her passionate outburst, at first, had shocked him, but under further observation, he came to understand that beneath her calm exterior dwelled a strong will and a fierce sense of loyalty.

They were two very similar people in that respect. Romantics loved to insist that opposites attract, but in reality that never seemed to work out, in Skinner's opinion. It was like-minded couples who lasted the longest. Even in a working relationship - which was all that he and Kimberly shared, he reminded himself sadly - it was that balance which garnered the most success. Out of all the opposite partnerships he'd observed over the years, only Mulder and Scully had beaten the odds.

Skinner shifted in his seat, not wanting his thoughts to head down that painful path.

"I'm sorry to hear your day was bad, Kimberly. I want to get back to work, too. Just sitting around like this...it's frustrating," he confessed.

She gave a small laugh. "I wondered how long it would take for you to admit you're bored."

Skinner felt the edges of his mouth twitch upward. "Four days to feel it, seventeen to admit it. How long did you think I would hold out?"

"My guess was maybe one more week, tops."

A ripple of contained laughter ran through his chest. This was the downside to someone knowing you too well. On impulse, he reached his hand across to her chair, and brushed his fingertips against her forearm.

"It's not because of the company," he said with subdued admiration. "I've appreciated your visits, very much."

She didn't reply immediately, and Skinner worried that perhaps he'd crossed an uncrossable line. But when she finally spoke, from the clear note of happiness that rang in her voice, he realized that she had been smiling.

He would have given anything to been able to see it.

"Thank you, Sir. It's been my pleasure."

They sat that way for a long time, not talking, just enjoying the moment. The warming sensations of her smile and of the setting sun were unseen but still felt, and the tension began to ebb away from Skinner's heart.

"Um, Sir, I, ah..." Kimberly hesitated when she began to stutter, leading him to wonder what on earth was causing her attack of nerves, "I'm sorry."

"Sorry? For what?"

A long minute passed before she answered. "I...I've been trying to think of things to do that would help relieve your boredom, and I'm drawing a blank. I was thinking maybe I could run down to the gift shop and see if they had something...like a deck of cards, or a crossword puzzle book, but..."

Skinner pieced together her dilemma. "But everything requires my being able to see," he finished for her, and heard her sigh in agreement. "It's okay, Kimberly, I don't mind you saying that I'm blind. That is the medical consensus, after all."

"It's not permanent," she said in a vehement tone.

"No, it's not," he answered, appreciating all over again her relentless support. Had even Sharon, as much as she had tried, ever been this encouraging and loyal? "But it's okay to discuss it. It's a fact of life right now for me. I won't take offense."

"Okay," she agreed, not sounding as if she agreed at all. Clearing her throat, she added, "I...ah, maybe I could read to you, if you like. I have a book with me, or I could still go down to the gift shop and see if they have something else more to your liking. Maybe there's a new Tom Clancy or Nelson DeMille down there--"

"What do you have with you?" He interrupted her rapid-fire flow as gently as possible. It was rare for Kimberly to get so flustered, but her nervousness held a sweet charm that disarmed him.

"Um...it's a murder mystery. Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout. It's a little old-fashioned, but, ah...I like to re-read it sometimes."

Skinner considered the offer. The truth was that he wasn't fond of crime novels; his job gave him more than enough insight into the horrors of a twisted human's mind. Stories of spies and counter-intelligence and grisly death sat too close to his everyday existence to hold any appeal. But he didn't want to reveal that to Kimberly. She was obviously trying to help him, and he didn't want to disappoint her.

"I'm not familiar with Stout," he commented, keeping any bias out of his voice. "What's it about?"

"Oh, it's part of a series that started in the 1930s. Nero Wolfe is this genius recluse detective, and his assistant, Archie..." she paused, a slight giggle in her breath, "he's great. He's sarcastic and streetwise, and even though the plots are easy to solve, it's his narration that really pulls everything together."

Skinner's mouth lifted in a brief smile. Her enthusiasm was hard to resist. "I'd like to hear you read it, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind at all, Sir," she said, the clear note of happiness echoing in her voice again. The springs in her chair creaked as she presumably leaned over and reached into her dropped bag. After another moment of rustling sounds, she cleared her throat and began to read.

As twilight shifted into evening, Kimberly read to him, and for all the nights thereafter, she continued reading, at his insistence. When the first book was complete, she started a second, and then a third. For the last few weeks of his recovery, every evening was spent in the chairs by the window, listening to Kimberly.

In the beginning of their new routine, he made his request because it clearly made her happy to comply. But as the nights passed by, each quicker than the last, Skinner's empty daytime hours were filled with his musings over their time together. Soon his own desire to continue eclipsed hers.

It wasn't the stories themselves that fascinated him; it was their structure and order. Listening to Kimberly, he began to understand why this particular series appealed to her. It was a world where the rules were so clearly drawn and adhered to, where the bad guys were caught and justice was served by the last page, where chivalry and good manners held more importance than swagger and bluff. It was the same world he used to believe in, before Mulder had disappeared into the Oregon night. Listening to Kimberly, Skinner's strength and faith in that kind of world began to spark back to life.

For the first time since his blinding, the realization that he would survive, that he would regain enough of his spirit and his equilibrium to make a difference again, began to coalesce into reality. This time, he vowed, it would be enough.


He hated his new glasses. Hated them.

That wasn't supposed to be the emotion of the day today. His vision was back to its regular myopic standard, the scarring was nearly non-existent, and he was finally, finally going home. He should have been ready to do cartwheels out the door. Instead he was standing in his private bathroom, glowering at his image in the mirror.

He couldn't wear these; they made every wrinkle on his face stand out in bas-relief. Looking back at his reflection, Skinner felt every minute of his fifty-one years. These were glasses a grandfather wore. That *his* grandfather had worn, long ago. Worse, no matter which way Skinner turned his head, there was no refraction of light. Wearing these would invoke his greatest fear: strangers would be able to look at his eyes, and know his every thought. There wouldn't be any shield. No safety zone at all, and he couldn't stand the idea.

The next five minutes were spent rehearsing his speech and fiddling with his tie. Although she'd been a blur of bold hair and pale skin when his bandages were first removed, his hearing, now tuned to her frequency, had easily discerned her excitement when she had given him her gift. Letting her down would require careful wording.

When he was ready, he smoothed his expression to neutral, and made his way out of the bathroom. The words he'd worked out so diplomatically evaporated unsaid as he spotted her standing beside the window. The sunlight burnishing across the upper strands of her hair, capping her innocence with an almost unnecessary halo, was outshone only by the wattage of her smile. Her eyes scanned his face as he walked closer to her, the joy on her face reaching into the depths of her irises.

It had been worth all the weeks of darkness if the final result was the lovely vision before him, he decided. The happiness and pride in her expression turned her natural prettiness into a rare, fragile beauty, and Skinner was loath to let that slip away. It didn't matter what he thought of his glasses; if they brought her this much pleasure, he'd wear them without complaint.

"Oh, Sir, you look...wonderful," she said, her voice laden with emotion. "Very handsome."

Then she looked away, her cheeks flushing as if she'd said too much. In the space of two heartbeats, he realized she had.

Theirs had always been a relationship more dependent on physical cues than verbal ones. A look across his desk, a shared smile, a furtive nod, even a tap on his belt buckle, replaced what neither felt comfortable in saying. By nature a taciturn man, he relished the moments in their relationship where language wasn't necessary.

His blindness had compelled him to seek a new method of communicating with her. The small demonstrative gestures from the beginning of his convalescence had quickly disappeared; as much as he still wanted to be able to hold her hand, it simply wasn't permissible or smart. Anyone could walk through the door and see what he had spent years trying to hide. He couldn't take that risk.

With all other avenues blocked, they were only able to connect through their voices. Listening to Kimberly all those evenings, her voice bringing the different characters to life with changes in her modulation and pitch, it had finally dawned on Skinner that he'd never really *heard* her before. He was amazed at how many emotions were held in her tones. When he replayed pieces of previous conversations against portions of her storytelling in his head late at night, he came to recognize that they had always been there. The pride and respect of her 'Archie' voice describing his boss, the camaraderie and affection when she spoke the parts of Archie's co-workers, the tightly reined-in annoyance in her 'Wolfe' reading - all of these feelings he'd heard in her voice before, in other contexts. He simply hadn't been listening hard enough.

And just now, while she looked at him, his health restored and his dignity recovered, he had heard love in her simple words of praise.

Love.

Kimberly loved him.

His hand was halfway to her cheek before he realized its destination. Just in time, he changed its course to instead push the wirerims against the bridge of his nose. With her gaze still pointed at the linoleum, she didn't seem to notice his clumsy move.

As badly as he ached to touch her, to fold her into his arms and tell her that he loved her too, he couldn't allow himself to do it. Women he touched, women he loved...they died on the battlefield where he fought his daily fight, and to put yet another innocent woman in jeopardy like that was unconscionable. He already wore the deaths of Sharon and Carinna Sayles as part of his hair shirt, and he couldn't bring himself to do the same to Kimberly. She was the only one who made him feel halfway normal, who made him feel secure and grounded in a world where all else was chaos. He needed her too much to risk losing her.

"Kimberly," he said in the same honorific, meaningful tone she used for 'Sir', and waited until she looked back at him before proceeding. Since his new glasses were unable to conceal his expression, he was certain she would see what was too dangerous to admit aloud.

"What you've done these last weeks...it's meant everything to me. Truthfully, I didn't think I would get through this, but, because of you, I did. And my glasses..." he paused to touch one frame briefly with his fingertips, the impersonal metal of the wirerim a poor substitute for her warmth, "will always remind me of your kindness."

She swallowed and nodded, her eyes dampening before she looked away again. It was the only signal she gave him that his implicit message had been received.


Fumbling with his keys at his doorway, Skinner felt as foolish, and as jittery, as a bridegroom about to cross the threshold. Visions of disarray on the other side of the door worried him, until he remembered that she had come here while he was in the hospital to retrieve some clothes and toiletries for him. Any mess he'd left here almost two months ago wasn't a secret. By now, he had very few secrets from her.

He let them into his condo, placing his bag at the bottom step of the stairwell while she closed the door behind them. A brief glance at his living room area revealed the glass-and-chrome coffee table buffed to a high gleam, not coated in dust as he had anticipated.

"I had a cleaning service come by earlier this week," she said shyly. "I hope you don't mind."

He gave her a nod of thanks, inviting her further in with an awkward wave of his hand. A new vase of orchids sat in the middle of his dining room table, their delicate petals incongruous amid the austere, monastic atmosphere of his home. She, too, looked as out of place as the flowers. In seeing her here for the first time, a fist of remorse sucker-punched him in the gut. She was young and beautiful and trusting; he had no right to squander the life brimming inside her, just to serve his own selfish desires.

He turned to face her, and her gaze was steady on him. Studying him. He'd seen this particular look in her expression too many times. She was trying to gauge his needs. But what he needed he couldn't have, so he diverted his eyes before it was too late.

"Sir."

He heard the coded question in her tone, and for a brief moment, he considered saying no. If he were a stronger man, he would have sent her away. Thanked her for her time and effort, had her transferred to another department, and let her go on to find someone who could give her all the things he couldn't.

He wasn't strong enough to do that.

She was his weakness, and his strength. Letting her go was tantamount to surrender. The inner reserves he'd been working so hard to re-build weren't close to full capacity yet, and Skinner doubted that they ever would be again. Too much had happened over the last few months, and more assaults were coming. His weeks of darkness had taught him that he had to rely on someone, and that someone was her.

"Yes, Kimberly," he replied, watching as something akin to sadness flit across her expression.

The familiar rituals of preparation guided them through the next few minutes. Wordlessly, they moved into the dining room, where she removed her coat while he waited for her signal to begin. He placed his new glasses next to the vase in the middle of the table, eager for the returned soft focus of his vision. Without sight, within the sweet silence that reigned between them, he wouldn't know any of her thoughts, nor she his. This was the only time he was grateful for some sensory deprivation around her.

This wasn't about power, or sexuality; Sharon had taught him long ago that this particular act was one of love, to be shared between partners. And while he didn't have the other kinds of intimacy with Kimberly he yearned for, in this area he came the closest. Here was the one moment in their relationship where he could show her that he saw her as an equal, that he trusted her with what he entrusted to no one else.

Yet there were still things that could not be said, boundaries that could not be crossed, and for that reason alone, he needed some kind of buffer. When his defenses collapsed and left him vulnerable in his needs, the artificial restrictions he had pre-arranged between them would prevent him from saying or doing too much.

Especially now, with his new comprehension of her feelings for him. In some ways, this had been easier to do when he hadn't known. He'd never asked her why she had changed her mind and agreed to this, but now he wondered if her acceptance had been her first declaration of love.

With no small amount of regret, he handed her the belt. Sharon used to use her bare hand before switching to a more powerful implement, but asking Kimberly to strike his exposed flesh with her own was inconceivable. For some strange reason, he feared that much intimacy might break his resolve.

The tiny piece of his brain that wasn't absorbed by the ongoing ritual appreciated the irony of the situation. He was standing before her, every hair on his ass on display for her inspection, and he was terrified that if she touched him, skin on skin, he'd shatter.

Yet shatter he did, the moment the leather first snapped in the air. The anticipated burn had only flickered into a dull heat when his eyes filled with tears. Too fast. Everything rushed to the surface of his soul too fast: the hurt, the regret, the need. He couldn't slow it down, and for the first time, he didn't want to. On the second stroke, it all tore out of him in a rush, and he heard himself begin to weep.

He felt her hesitate, then the belt swung down again, and again, and he was lost in the haze of welcome pain. The memory of young Gibson, his frightened eyes as wide as his oversized glasses, flew into Skinner's mind, but the accompanying sensation in his gut was that of emptiness, not the bulky knot of guilt he had expected.

"I'm sorry, Gibson," he choked out, but he still felt nothing, and the tears came faster.

As he knew from experience it would, the unrelenting pace of the belt didn't give him time for panic or wonderment. Each stripe blazing across his backside began to focus his tumbling thoughts into a roughly honed clarity. All of his deeply-repressed regrets and wants, now skimming against the forefront of his consciousness, were woven, one by one, into a single strand of awareness.

He suddenly understood he wasn't crying for Gibson.

He was crying because Gibson wasn't the sole reason behind this session. The boy was safe, and while Skinner knew that it wasn't due to his own actions, it wasn't that mistake which evoked his tears now. There were others he had let down, and in worse ways: Sharon, Mulder, Scully, Carinna Sayles, Jane Brody, Landau, even Melissa Scully. All bore the scars of his failures; many were dead because of him. Gibson had gotten off lucky, in as much as he was still alive.

He was crying for all of them. He was crying for a much-wanted baby, fatherless before the first trimester of its existence was complete. He was crying for his Nam buddies, their lives snuffed out before they reached adulthood. He was crying for John Doggett, on the precipice of a fight he wasn't ready to accept as his.

Most of all, he was crying for Kimberly. For her generous heart he knew he would bruise with neglect. For her sleepless nights spent reaching for someone who was there only in spirit. For her sweet, unshakeable faith in a man who doubted his own place in the world.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. Kimberly, I'm so sorry.

His body shivered and jerked from grief and culpability finally expressed, and after a time, he felt her go still beside him. He couldn't stop crying when it was over, even when the physical pain began to subside. The tears scored down his face, their path the same as where the scars from his blinding should have been.

The cautious touch of her hand, coming to rest on top of his as softly as a butterfly on a blade of grass, brought forth a fresh batch of sorrow. A lesser man than he would have had the bravado to turn his palm over and accept her comfort. A better man would bundle her into his embrace and offer her the same. He did neither.

The fiery sensation worked its way inward, from the porous layer of his flesh to his aching heart, but his tears did nothing to cool the burn. Only her hand, motionless and so small against his, provided the salve he needed. At his lowest point, no matter what his sins of commission or omission, the quiet way she stood beside him said everything he needed to hear. She forgave him even for the things he couldn't forgive himself.

And that, his heart convinced his brain, was enough.

When his control returned, he gave her the signal, and she complied, noiselessly moving away from the table. He wiped his face dry, then pulled back up his briefs and slacks without fanfare, his blurred gaze on the shining crown of her down-turned head. He didn't understand why she looked away; his shame came not from the nudity of his body, but from the nakedness of his soul. If she wondered about his feelings for her, one look at him right now would dispel any uncertainty.

He lifted her face with his hands, intent on letting her in as far as he could. Inside the cradle of his fingers, she was bittersweet grace. Her features were clear under his tender scrutiny; her eyes, tear-bright and full of hope, captured his. Her lips parted, the movement somewhere between an invitation and a smile. Not for the first time, he wished he could meet her kiss with his own.

Instead, he pressed his lips onto the lone ridge of worry on her forehead, keeping them there until the wrinkle yielded to his caress. There was nothing chaste in his kiss, only love. He felt her tremble against his mouth, then the air by his waist fluttered as she lifted her arms toward him. The minimal tug on the sides of his shirt told him where her hands had landed. Her touch was so light, he couldn't feel it through the fabric.

They stood there for a long beat, holding each other at arm's length. Caught between duty and decency, the compromise he chose for them was nearly unbearable. But until the battle was over - and Skinner couldn't even be certain that it ever would be over - this was the best he could do.

"Thank you, Kimberly," was all he said, leaving off the last, most important part.

Thank you, Kimberly, for taking care of me. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for letting me love you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you, Kimberly, for forgiving me.

He hoped she was listening hard enough.

THE END


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