Welcome To The Harem

Christmas Traditions by KristenK2
Summary: Deslea's rec: "Over the last year, I've had the privilege of watching Kristen soar as a writer. What could have been just another sweet-and-there's-nothing-wrong-with-that Christmasfic is infused with meaning and hope. Skinner and Kim complement one another beautifully in this tale of renewal." PG, Skinner/Kim.

TITLE: Christmas Traditions
AUTHOR: Kristen K2
ADDRESS FOR FEEDBACK: kristenk2@deslea.com
SUMMARY: Skinner contemplates what Christmas means to him.
SPOILERS: What? Does this mean I have to follow canon? Eh,
a few years post-Avatar. Any other similarities to the
show are pure coincidence.
DISCLAIMER: The characters herein belong to 1013 and Fox,
except for Joe. He's all mine.
FEEDBACK: Read and re-read and savored.
THANKS: to Lara for beta, and to Deslea for convincing me
that "all couples need a schmoopy holidayfic".

Once upon a time, I enjoyed the traditions and celebrations
of Christmas. The pungent aroma of evergreens and holly
amid the joyous sounds of carolers. The thick eggnog
sliding over my tongue. Kissing my wife under the

I even relished the arduous process of untangling the skein
of tree lights, the same damn ones that the year before I
had gone to great pains to roll up neatly. It never
mattered; they were somehow always a nasty snarl when we
unpacked the decorations. Sharon would have to sit down and
catch her breath from laughing at the scowl on my face
which appeared when I flipped open the lid of the ornament

For the longest time, I thought it was that peal of
laughter that I missed the most.

After the separation, the rituals became fewer, and the
ones that did remain, distinctly joyless. The first
Christmas after she died I went to my sister-in-law's,
invited out of pity, and subjected myself to sad looks and
quiet pats on the shoulder, surrounded by too many people
with the same facial features as my late wife. The second
Christmas was spent in a bar, drinking Scotch with the
other misfits. We all pretended that none of us cared that
we had no one but a group of strangers to celebrate that
most familial of holidays. After that, I decided to spend
my Christmases at home, alone.

Now my entire month of December is spent cringing inwardly
as the merriment swirls around me. There are brain-numbing
office parties, off-tune Christmas Muzak in the elevators,
endless trays of bland cookies, and a non-descript pile of
gifts from my staff -- the requisite fruitcake and red ties
-- stacked up on my conference table. Kim even convinces me
to put a poinsettia on the credenza behind my desk; I allow
it because I'm just grateful she doesn't push me to put up
a tree. That would be too painful, and I think she knows
that, because she's never made the request. She understands
me that way.

There is still one ritual left that I look forward to every
year: Christmas card signing. I know, it must sound
strange. Who enjoys that? All that licking and stamping and
labeling. As the Assistant Director, I am duty-bound to
send cards to all of my staff, as well as many peers and
higher-ups, and of course, to colleagues in other
government departments. All told, almost 400 cards bearing
the personal signature of 'Walter Skinner' hit the
mailboxes every year on the Monday after the first weekend
in December. Kim insists we do it as early in the season as
possible, I think because by about the 15th, I'm unbearable
in my miserable self-pity.

So then, you ask, why do I find pleasure in this thankless

Because it's the one day of the year I spend with Kim Cook
outside of the office. We used to set up an assembly line
of cards on my conference table, and I would sign, stuff,
and hand her the envelope for sealing and adding the label
and stamp. It would take us days to complete, bogged down
by the multiple interruptions of the phone ringing or
Mulder barging in, even when we attempted it on Saturdays.
Finally, a few years ago, I suggested doing them at my
home. She agreed, and here we are. It's the same system,
but for some inexplicable reason, it doesn't feel like
work. We're both clad in jeans and sweaters, and our change
into everyday attire may be a factor in our change in
attitude toward each other. Without our suits of business
armor defining us, we aren't AD Skinner and PA Cook. We're
just Walter and Kim.

Kim. Sometimes I just enjoy saying her name.

Efficient, accomplished Kim, without whom I probably would
have been demoted back down to Special Agent by now. I know
she's been offered promotions, but for reasons known only
to her, she's refused them all. Every time I hear of
another AD or Director trying to woo her away from me, I
give her an enormous raise. She's got to be the highest
paid staff employee in the Bureau by now.

She has earned every penny. My skills lie in maneuvering
through the labyrinth of office politics, in standing up in
battles, in negotiating the twists and turns of the X Files
and somehow making sure everyone survives. Hers lie in
keeping me on time and on point, in dabbling along in the
undercurrent of the gossip and back-stabbing among the
other staff members to keep me informed of any possible
attacks, in shielding me from outsiders when the grind has
worn me down too much. Our strengths fit well together, and
my relationship with her has been one of the most
rewarding, and satisfying, of any I've ever known, both
professionally and personally.

Lively, sexy Kim, who makes my blood stir a little quicker,
my mood lift a little higher, every time she walks in the
room. She sits next to me now, her cheeks still flushed
from the cold outside, her busy hands moving along the
piles of cards from half-done to complete. When she's
concentrated on a task, as she is now, her lips purse
together and a little line between her eyebrow forms. It's
disturbingly cute to me.

"Walter?" she queries, her hands ceasing their movement.
"Would you like to take a break?"

We do this often; hand cramps and sore shoulders are common
on this day. Four hundred cards is an all-day project, and
she's been here already for three hours, I note as I glance
at my watch.

"Yes. It's just about lunchtime. Are you hungry?"

She smiles and nods, so I make my way to the kitchen. As a
single man who spends most of his waking hours at his desk,
I normally don't have much in my fridge, save some leftover
take-out and a couple of yogurts. But the weekend before
this event, I hit the grocery store with a vengeance,
stocking up on all her favorite items. I'm not sure if she
thinks it's coincidence or deliberate, but I like seeing
the delighted look on her face when I bring out something
I've noticed she enjoys eating at her desk. Last year, I
thought she was about to kiss me in gratitude when I walked
out of the kitchen with two Ghiradelli chocolate bars for
dessert. Milk chocolate for her, dark with almonds for me.
As good as it was, though, I wouldn't have minded the kiss
instead of the chocolate.

She comes into the kitchen as I'm putting the lasagna into
the oven to re-heat. I made it last night, because a good
one needs a day to let the flavors settle in. A trick I
learned from Sharon many moons ago.

"Do you need some help?" Kim asks out of habit. She asks, I
turn her down. Every year.

"No thanks, I've got it. Did you want some wine with
lunch?" I know that she's going to decline, but it wouldn't
be right not to ask. I always buy a bottle, she says 'no
thank you', and I end up drinking it alone once she's gone.
The depressing part of my annual tradition.

She surprises me by accepting. "Actually, I would. I'll
open the bottle and let it breathe while that heats up.
Where's the corkscrew?"

I point to the utensil drawer. We maneuver around the
kitchen, as I hand her the bottle from the rack, then reach
into the fridge for the salad makings. Kim's smiling to
herself as she watches me rinse and tear the lettuce.


"You're one of the few men I know who can actually cook.
Gives me a little hope."

I cock an eyebrow at her. "Hope?"

She laughs. "Yeah, that maybe someday I'll find someone who
can do it for me. Boiling water is beyond my capabilities."

"Cooking's not that hard," I reply, masking my surprise.
Kim doesn't discuss her personal life. She does tell me
about herself, of course, but the topic of significant
others rarely comes up. I'm astonished she's even said this
much. "I could teach you, if you like."

Tapping her finger against her lip, as if she's considering
the offer, she says, "I'd like that. Thank you, Walter." A
warm thrill runs down my spine as it sinks in that she's
serious. There's something different about this year that I
can't quite put my finger on, something intangible yet very
real. I can't puzzle out what it is yet, but I like it all
the same.

When the salad's finished, I pour us each a glass of wine,
and we clink glasses before sipping. The vintage is a good
one; the man at the liquor store recommended it for its
earthy, slightly woodsy flavor. Since I'm more of a scotch
drinker, I relied on his expertise. A wise move.

"Mmm," she hums appreciatively, then looks at the label.
"I'll have to remember this one."

"I agree. The lasagna's going to be a while. Do you want to
tackle some more cards, or have a seat in the living room?"

"Let's sit and enjoy the wine. I think we earned the rest."

I flip on a lamp behind the couch as Kim nestles into one
end of the cushions, curling her socked feet under her
legs. The sky is overcast, and the light coming from the
sliding glass doors doesn't provide enough illumination. We
sit comfortably, sipping and talking a little, while I
appreciate the soft glow of the lamp shining off her
coppery hair.

After a few minutes of idle chat, I notice she's got a
little frown across her features.

"Is something the matter, Kim?"

Her eyes dart from where they'd been gazing out the balcony
door, to my face. "No, I...I just noticed it's starting to

"If you'd like to head on home to miss the storm, I can
finish the cards myself," I offer, praying she declines.

She gives a startled laugh. "What? Oh no, there's too much
to be done all on your own. I'm not worried about getting
home." She looks down into her wine glass, a tinge of blush
on her cheeks. Finally she sighs, and mumbles, "I guess
I'll just have to change my annual tradition."

She looks back up to see my confused expression, and says
with a shy smile, "I always go buy my tree after we finish
the cards. It's sort of a ritual for me. I think of it as
the perfect way to end one of the most enjoyable days of
the Christmas season."

The realization that this day has its own meaning and
built-in pleasures for her has never occurred to me. I've
always assumed she did this out of common courtesy for her
lonely, gruff, old boss.

"Don't you enjoy going home to your parents'?" I know she
spends the week between Christmas and New Year's with her
family in Nebraska. She leaves on the 23rd at noon like
clockwork, and is back at her desk on January 2nd. It's the
only extended vacation she takes all year.

"Sure. I love seeing everyone, and I certainly keep busy.
But the stuff we do..." she pauses, fishing around to find
the right words, "well, those are *their* traditions, you
know? Today is mine, and, um...ours. I like that."

I'm far too old to have watched the Grinch Who Stole
Christmas cartoon, but I do know the story. And as I watch
Kim Cook gaze at me with her lovely bright eyes, I feel
just like the Grinch when he re-discovers the powerful joy
of the holiday previously lost amid the commercial

My heart grows to three times its normal size.

I stand up quickly, holding out my hand out to her. "Come
on, let's go before it starts to really come down."

"Go where?" she asks. This isn't a part of our normal
routine, but suddenly I feel an overpowering urge to start
a new ritual. One that's long overdue.

"Let's go buy you a Christmas tree, Kimberly."

Her eyes widen as she realizes I mean it. "But the c-
cards..." she sputters.

"Screw the cards," I declare, and a shocked and happy laugh
bursts out of her, followed by my own deep one. She's
grinning as I help her to her feet.

"How long have you wanted to say that, Walter?" she teases.

"Years," I reply, as I take both wine glasses into the
kitchen, and turn off the oven. When I return, she's
staring at the full table with a satisfied smirk. She
tosses a glance up at me as I cross the dining room.

"I cannot tell you how good it feels to walk away from
these right now. But I promise, I'll come back tomorrow and
we can finish them."

I take her by the shoulders, and gently steer her toward
the door. "Kim, has anyone ever accused you of being too

Giggling, she starts to put on her outer gear. "Once or

I follow her in my car to her place in Alexandria, and park
behind her on the street. It's strange, but I think she
lives only a few miles from Mulder's place. I'm certain
I've passed this street dozens of times over the years. She
meets me at my car door, her eyes dancing with excitement.
A light sheen of snowflakes has fallen onto her shoulders
and hat so I grab a ball cap from my trunk for myself, and
zip up my leather bomber jacket.

"The tree lot is only a couple of blocks away. It'll be
easier to walk it back."

We make our way to a formerly empty parking lot, currently
full of a wide choice of Christmas trees of all sizes and
varieties. The fragrant aroma hits my nostrils before we
get to our destination. Scotch pine, blue spruce, Douglas
firs, green spruce, Frazer firs, all honeycombed up in
plastic netting, and stacked according to size, smallest to
largest, in at least three aisles that I can see. Because
of the coming foul weather and the early date, there are
very few customers, so the lot is full of trees and devoid
of people. Once inside the fence surrounding the lot, I
steal a side glance toward Kim. She's bouncing on the balls
of her feet in anticipation.

A wizened man, seemingly more elf than human, wearing a red
plaid jacket and a matching hat with black flaps over his
ears, walks over to us, smiling and putting his arms out to
her for a quick hug.

"Happy holidays, Kim! You're here early. I wasn't expecting
you until at least five."

She busses him on the cheek. "Merry Christmas, Joe.
I decided to come early to avoid the snow." She indicates
me with her eyes and her hand. "This is my friend, Walter."

The man extends his hand to me as I tamp down on the strong
streak of disappointment of being labeled a 'friend'. On
the other hand, I'm pleased she didn't introduce me as her
boss. "Nice to meet you, Walter. You both getting trees

"You too. No, only one," I answer. But the idea holds an
appeal it hasn't for some time.

"Fine, fine. I guess you won't need me to get one of my
grandsons to help you this time, Kim," he says, his blue
eyes twinkling at her. "'Tis a shame, too. Steve was
bragging that this year he might steal a kiss under the
mistletoe from you."

She laughs, covering her mouth with her gloved hand. "My
goodness, he's just a kid!"

"Sixteen now. His mother calls him a walking bag of

Kim dissolves into a fit of giggles, then slips her hand
into the crook of my elbow. "Tell him he missed his chance.
Maybe next year," she jokes, leading me into the first row
of trees. When we're out of earshot, she mutters, "How
embarrassing. Sorry you had to hear that, Walter."

I wait until her eyes lift to mine, then smile. "I think
Steve has very good taste," I say in the same light tone as
she's been using, but I show my seriousness about that with
my eyes. Her lips form a small O as my words sink in.
Flirting has never been a skill of mine, but I think I hit
just the right note with that line.

After a long beat of staring at me, Kim startles, as if
being woken out of a deep sleep. "My, my, Walter Skinner,
if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were angling for
your own mistletoe kiss."

I think I am, too. Until this very moment, I don't I've
ever admitted how much I want this woman standing in front
of me, her cap and scarf as green as her eyes, as green as
the wall of trees surrounding us.

I tug on her arm to get us moving again. It's cold out
here, even with the warmth seeping through my veins. We
break gazes, and Kim starts walking down the narrow path,
running her hand along the netting to her left. She seems
to have a specific destination set in her mind, and stops
quickly at the end of the aisle.

"I like the spruce the best," she says. "Scotch pine's too
ordinary. But I can never decide between blue or green."

"We used to get a blue spruce," I remark quietly, as she
spins her head in my direction. "Sharon liked the color

Her astonished eyes process my words. Kim knew I was
married, of course; that's not something you can keep from
your admin. But I didn't discuss my late wife, not before
or after her death. To do so even now seems discomforting
to me, in a way.

"Which one did you like?" Kim finally says, her tone
gentle. Like someone who comes upon a wounded animal in the
woods and is trying to calm them down.

"I think spruce are the best, by far. Their character is
strong - dense needles, branches set close together, and
frankly, I think they smell better." I stop, and brush my
glove along Kim's jaw line, as a non-verbal assurance that
I'm fine with this topic. It's the first time since
Sharon's death that I think it might be true. "But
secretly, I always liked the green better. It just looks
more traditional."

Kim hesitates, then gives me a warm smile. "I guess you're
in luck this year. Green it is."

We start inspecting trees, discarding too-skinny or too-
short ones immediately. Once we've narrowed the choices
down to about four, I hold the first up for a closer look
inside the netting to check for dead branches or unsightly
gaps. It's strange how easily I remember how to do this.
And even stranger how *not* saddened I am by my actions.
For the first time in a very long time, I feel peaceful.
Almost happy.

"That one's too tall, I think," Kim says. "Now that I'm
looking at it in comparison to you, I can tell it won't fit
in my apartment."

"Are the ceilings that low? Should I plan on ducking when I
get there?" I laugh.

She gets this odd look of hopeful surprise, as if she
didn't realize I would be in her home. Her face reddens as
she shakes her head and quickly lifts another tree to a
vertical position. "No, I think you'll fit just fine,
Walter," she says quietly. "Can you come stand by this one
so I can measure?"

"Perfect," she smiles, when she steps back to view both the
tree and me. Our eyes catch for a brief second, then we
hoist the tree up to walk it to the gate. Joe strolls over
when he spots us, and Kim hands him some money from her
pocket. She gives him a hug good-bye, but he stops her
before she can join me by the tree.

"Hang on a sec. I've got something for you," he says, and
Kim shrugs at me when he steps away. He comes back with a
sprig of mistletoe. "Merry Christmas to you both."

Joe, the resident match-maker, I assume. God bless him. Kim
blushes even harder, and shoves the gift in her pocket,
deliberately not looking at me.

Once we get the tree upstairs to her apartment, we're both
a little out of breath, and coated in snowflakes. She
unlocks the door, and waves toward the window for me to
carry it to the waiting tree holder. Apparently she'd
already prepared the area before she left for my place; the
furniture is grouped around the tree holder and the
fireplace, and there's a neat stack of cardboard boxes
labeled 'Xmas Decorations' in her unmistakable handwriting.
Once she's got the tree screwed into place, I find a pair
of scissors on the fireplace mantel and cut open the
netting, as she gets water for the holder. We fluff out the
branches, then take a step back.

"Wow," she laughs. "That went fast. Usually it takes me an

I bow toward her. "Walter Skinner, Christmas tree arranger,
at your service."

She gives me a sweet smile. "I appreciate it. How are you
with lights?"

"That, my dear, happens to be my area of expertise."

Laughing, she sheds her hat, and starts on the buttons of
her pea coat. "Oh goody. Now I don't even have to bribe
you, like I do with Steve."

"Oh, I don't know. What do you usually offer him?"

"Hot chocolate."

I unzip my jacket. "I can be bribed."

As she takes our coats to another room, I glance around
this one. I haven't spent a lot of time imagining Kim's
home, but it's as I expected. Warm, neat, inviting. Just
like her.

I head over to the boxes, assuming she's as organized with
this as she is in everything else, and she doesn't
disappoint me. The lights are looped around a board, with
notches at either end to hold the beginning and ending of
the string in place.

But it's strange, because in a way, I am disappointed.
There won't be any scowls or accompanying peals of laughter
this year, and the absence gives me pause. I've avoided
this moment for four years now, afraid of letting Sharon go
completely. The truth is, she was gone long before that,
and I'm the one who pushed her away. The reality of our
failed relationship didn't lessen my grief; only time did.

Kim makes a surprise appearance at that moment, looking at
me worriedly. "Walter, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," I say as I begin to unravel the first string
from the board. Her frown deepens.

"You don't seem fine." She chews her bottom lip, looking
from the board in my hands to my face. Then she puts her
hand on my arm to stop my movement. "Walter, please. Talk
to me."

The phrase sounds remarkably familiar. I look down at her,
and her eyebrows are scrunched together in her all-too-
familiar worried look she often gets around me. Sharon once
told me that I was too strong to let her in, and it strikes
me that I'm already falling into the same pattern with Kim.
That isn't something I'm willing to do again; one colossal
mistake with a woman who matters to me should be enough for
one lifetime.

"I am fine, Kim," I say, more gently than my first answer.
"I was just thinking about my wife."

Her expression softens in empathy. "She made you do the
lights, too, huh?"

"Yes." I lift the board up, determined not to ruin this
chance I've finally decided to take. "But I never thought
of this trick. She would have been impressed."

"I'm glad to know she'd approve." Kim squeezes my arm. "Are
you sure you're okay with this? You don't have to--"

"I want to, Kim. Really." She looks unconvinced. "I want to
enjoy Christmas again. And there isn't anyone I'd rather do
that with than you."

Her hand lifts from my forearm to my cheek for a brief
caress. "That's what I want, too," she says quietly. We
look at each other for a long moment, both finally seeing
each other the way we've been pretending we don't. Before
either of us can speak again, the kettle starts to whistle
in the kitchen, and she moves her hand from my face with a
satisfied sigh, then heads to the back of the apartment.

By the time she returns, two mugs in her hands, I've
started on the top portion of the tree. Wordlessly, she
joins me on the other side, and we work together, passing
the string from one to another, getting a second, then a
third, string out and attaching it to the first, until it's
complete. I step back, and Kim plugs it in, then stands
next to me while we gaze at the tiny white lights twinkling
merrily at us.

"It's beautiful," she says, her folded arm brushing mine.

"Yes, it is. Do you want to start on the ornaments?"

She shakes her head, and leads me to the couch with a small
graze against my forearm. We settle in, sipping our hot
chocolate, and admiring the view.

"Sometimes, I don't even want to put anything else on it,
just leave the green and the lights as they are," she
sighs, tipping her head against the back of the couch, then
rolling her neck to face me.

I give her a smile. "You could, you know. Make it a new

Matching my smile, she leans her arm back behind the couch,
and takes the sprig of mistletoe from the table behind us.
"Only if you help me," she says, spinning the stem between
her fingers. "I think we should start a bunch of new
traditions, Walter."

Then she lifts her hand so the mistletoe is over her head,
still looking at me with those warm, sweet green eyes that
encompass everything in my world. So I accept her
invitation, and lean in for a kiss.

The taste of chocolate and Kim blends in my mouth. Such a
perfect combination of flavors. Her lips soften under mine,
opening and accepting me, just as I am.

When she drops her hand to stroke my head, the mistletoe
bounces off the top of my scalp. And I hear the sound of
Christmas that I missed the most. An old and a new sound.

Two peals of laughter - hers and mine.

"Oops. Sorry," she mumbles. "Butterfingers."

She starts to pull her arms away from my neck, but I stop
her with a brush of fingers against her cheek. "Merry
Christmas, Kim," I say, and her eyes light up as brightly
as I am sure mine are.

"Merry Christmas, Walter," she smiles.

After this year, there are going to be a lot of new
Christmas traditions in our future. I suspect card-signing
will soon be relegated to the bottom of my list of


Happy Holidays, everyone!