Title: "In Dreams"
Rating: PG for language
Notes: Thanks to rac, Dawn, Karen, Ness, Leila, Kass. You are all wonderful friends!
Summary: After the episode "Via Negativa", Doggett's insomnia blurs the lines between Real Life and the world of dreams.
* * *
* * *
He is dreaming again. He realizes it with a kind of despair, because sleep has been nothing but pain and fear for a week now. He has slept no more than half an hour at a time since the night an entire cult was murdered in their sleep by their leader.
It wasn't the sight of the dead, all lying there, neatly butchered in their beds that keeps him from closing his eyes until he must. It wasn't finding the body of his friend, or even seeing his partner's severed head in his hands. It is the sudden reawakening of something the child in him knew and which the man had forgotten.
The monsters can get you when you sleep.
It is no more profound than that. He is a strong man. He is a person with few vulnerabilities and he has worked hard to become that man. But when he sleeps, nothing he has ever learned can protect him. No martial arts, no firearms, no determination can save him from the shadowy things in his head.
He wants to sigh. One moment, he was turning the corner and heading for the stairs down to his office. The next, he's walking down that damned telescoping hallway again, the one that just keeps stretching away from him, dwindling into shadows from which some pretty rotten things have emerged all week.
The world tilts sickeningly and something strikes him high on his forehead. There is a voice shouting and, when he opens his eyes, the hallway is gone. He is lying on his side, concrete cold and harsh beneath his right cheek and hand. Assistant Director Skinner is kneeling beside him, and the papers from the files he had been carrying are scattered all down the staircase.
"Agent Doggett? Are you all right?"
He can't help it; he stares at his boss and knows that his expression mirrors the stupidity of the question. After a moment, Skinner's lip quirks, acknowledging his own idiocy and surprising Doggett.
"I'm OK," Doggett rasps and slowly sits up. Skinner's big hand is helping him to lean back against the wall and he is grateful. It is the first real human contact he has had in a week. He puts his hand up to the numb spot on his forehead and his fingers come away bloody. He stares at them dully until Skinner puts a white handkerchief in his hand and pushes that hand back to rest against the wound. That formerly numb spot now hurts like hell. Why does he always wind up getting hurt in his dreams? Other people get to dream about sex with supermodels or having to recite "Jabberwocky" naked in front of the whole school; he gets his ass kicked, again and again.
"Look at me," Skinner says and hard fingers are under his jaw, bringing his head up. Doggett squints at the fluorescent lights that stab into his eyes, then forces himself to look straight at his boss. Skinner stares intently for a moment, dark eyes flickering back and forth minutely as he studies Doggett. "I don't think you have a concussion, but I'd like Agent Scully to have a look at you. Any idea why you suddenly took a header off the landing?"
Doggett shakes his head, then realizes that is a bad mistake. "I guess I just slipped." The stairs are damp in the middle from snow melting off people's shoes. The steel treads have been slick beneath his feet all day.
"No, I saw you, Agent Doggett. You stepped right off the top stair."
Doggett pulls the handkerchief away from his head and is irritated at how much blood is soaking into the linen. Head wounds always bleed like stuck pigs, he reminds himself. His hand has started to hurt now, too. When he pulls the handkerchief away, he sees the raw scrapes across his palm. Skinner is still looking at him strangely, but slides a hand under his arm and helps Doggett clamber to his feet. The world grays out a little, then snaps back into focus when he presses a firm thumb into his own temple, short-circuiting the pain for a moment.
Skinner helps him gather his spilled files silently, for which he is grateful. If he were less tired, if his head hurt just a little less, he suspects he'd be mortified. Instead, he's just happy that he doesn't have to bend over as much and feel that throbbing intensify.
"Get your partner to check you over, Agent," Skinner says, then he makes his way up the stairs, moving silently for such a large man.
* * *
Scully seizes him immediately when he comes back to their office. She pokes and prods and shines a penlight into his eyes. He tries to endure it with patience because she is being kind to him, a welcome change from her cool courtesy or her derisive pity for his inability to see the insane tangle of lies and conspiracy which she insists tightens around them all; Scully, Skinner and especially the vanished Mulder.
He doesn't want to think about that now, not as she cleans and bandages his scrapes. The stinging burn of the alcohol wipe is a nice distraction. He would like to think that it means he is not still dreaming, but he knows now that it means nothing. He has awakened in his bed too many times this week, patting himself down looking for nightmare injuries. His subconscious, which he has gotten to know all too well this week, is more than capable of throwing him down the stairs to land at his boss' feet in a bloody heap.
She is crumpling up the gauze wrappers and repacking the first aid kit when he hears himself say suddenly, "I haven't been sleeping too well."
This triggers a stream of questions from her, in what he has come to know as her investigative mode. He regrets saying anything at all, not the least of which reason is because she is no longer speaking to him in that low, kind voice that goes so well with her smile. He focuses on her mouth as she speaks and manages to make most of the right replies, he thinks.
"Go home, Agent Doggett. Get some rest. It's a long weekend. I'll see you Tuesday." Before he can even protest properly, she is bundling him into his coat and pushing him gently out the door. He would like to ask her if he is still dreaming, but realizes that she couldn't tell him. She hasn't been able to in any of the other dreams he has had about her, the ones where she still had her head.
He is a man who learns from his mistakes; this time, he takes the elevator. The other agents and Bureau personnel seem to look at him strangely as he makes his way toward the parking garage. His head throbs in time with each step he takes. He stops to rest for a moment, closing his eyes and leaning with his uninjured hand on someone else's car.
"Agent Doggett? Are you all right?"
It's Skinner again. Hell, can this dream or this day get any worse? Whichever it is, it sucks. He wishes he'd never heard of the X Files. He wonders briefly is Mulder ever had trouble discerning between his nightmares and reality.
"No, sir, I don't think so." Which is not what he intended to say at all.
"You are not all right to drive, Agent Doggett."
"I'm fine, sir." He straightens himself and pitches forward one step as his brain seems to rattle loosely in his skull.
"Just get in the car," Skinner says with more patience than Doggett would have expected. He watches bemused as Skinner pulls his keyring from his pocket and unlocks the doors of the car Doggett is leaning against. OK, that settles it. He is relieved to know he is still dreaming. Despite the minor head wound, this dream isn't too horrible actually. The only blood so far has been his own.
It isn't until he reaches to fasten his seatbelt that he realizes that he is still clutching the bloodied handkerchief in his hand. He stares at it, wondering what it is supposed to mean.
* * *
The snow has turned to ice and Doggett is marginally convinced this isn't a dream anymore. Skinner is swearing under his breath as the car fish-tails yet again. They creep forward another block and Skinner is beginning to repeat himself. It would take Doggett an hour to get home on a good day; on a night like this, it will be two or three hours. He feels abraded by the knowledge that Skinner lives much closer to work than that, that he is doing this merely because Doggett is such a fucking mess that he can't get home on his own.
"Look, there's a Metro stop on the next block. Just let me out there and ..."
"No, Agent Doggett." A calm-sounding clump of words in the middle of that viciously quiet stream of curses.
"Sir, I appreciate..."
His head throbs from where it hit the concrete landing. He leans back, suddenly too tired to fight it out. If Skinner wants to be a fucking martyr, let him. Doggett knows he is being unreasonable; knows that he isn't in any kind of state to get himself home; knows that Skinner is just doing the right thing, the kind of thing Doggett himself would do without a second thought, if the positions were reversed. He lets his head rest against the cool glass of the window and watches the sleet run down the outside.
It is warm inside the car now. The windshield wipers make a regular squeak-thump that he finds lulling. Even Skinner's whispered imprecations at the stupidity of other drivers is soothing, in a weird sort of way. He dimly registers Skinner talking to him, explaining something, giving him a choice. He closes his eyes for a moment, trying to decide.
The next thing he is really conscious of is that the car has stopped. Everything is gray and dim. The sound of Skinner's door opening echoes strangely, as do his footsteps on the concrete.
"You coming?" His supervisor's voice sounds tired, not irritable, just beat.
Doggett fumbles with the seatbelt for a moment, blinking quickly to try to clear away the fog. It doesn't work, but he manages to get the belt to release, then to drag himself out of the car. The parking garage is cold, the air damp and still. He stands for a moment, one hand on the trunk again, trying to get his bearings.
"Where are we?"
"Freezing our asses off in the garage under my building. You coming?" Skinner says again, a touch of annoyance creeping in. He turns on his heel and starts walking, footsteps sounding hollow. Doggett follows him, trying not to stumble. A little sleep has been worse than none at all. Gravity drags at him in the empty elevator. He flexes his knees a little and is shocked at how hard it is to straighten up again. They reach Skinner's floor in silence and Doggett concentrates on walking steadily after him, down the hallway to the last apartment on the floor.
Skinner's apartment is dark and cold. Doggett stands in the middle of the living room, watching Skinner's bulk move in the dimness. He is taller than the other man, but somehow, Skinner radiates a kind of solidity that Doggett has never felt. He was always a slender boy, tall and god help him, willowy. He worked hard to change that, lifting weights, playing soccer, gradually laying muscle on over his gawky frame. He knows he still isn't all that impressive in a suit. He misses the Corps for a moment; at least fatigues didn't disguise the strength in his chest or arms.
Sleet hisses against the windows, lashed by the wind, and Doggett shakes his head, trying to clear it. Skinner switches on a lamp and the light stabs into Doggett's tired eyes again. He blinks stupidly until Skinner's hands start working at the shoulders of his overcoat. Then he shrugs out of it and fumbles it as he tries to hand it to his host.
"When was the last time you slept, Agent Doggett?" Skinner asks as he turns to hang both their coats in a closet near the door.
Damn Scully. He feels like she has tattled on him and he knows that is stupid, but he feels it anyway. "I slept last night," he says and even he can hear how defensive his hoarse voice sounds.
"How much? An hour? Two?" Skinner's voice tells him that he already knows the answer.
"Enough," he says shortly, staring at Skinner's tie. Hadn't it been blue before? He blinks and rubs the back of his neck.
Skinner yanks his tie off and hangs it on the back of a chair in the kitchenette. Doggett keeps staring at it, waiting for it to turn into a cobra or whatever damned thing his subconscious can come up with. He figures he is still asleep in the car, stuck somewhere in traffic with Skinner still swearing at all the idiot tourists who don't know how to drive in snow.
A fanged tie that changed colors wasn't really much weirder than standing in the middle of his boss' apartment as he boiled rotini and heated a jar of sauce and the wind kept muttering and shaking the windows. Or listening to Skinner talk haltingly about his own sleep disorder and offer suggestions and strategies for coping. Doggett grunts at what he hopes are the right intervals and tries to eat. Spearing a piece of pasta seems to take most of his coordination at this point and he realizes that he simply isn't hungry enough to put up with the sheer annoyance of trying to feed himself.
Skinner doesn't push him to eat. Eventually, he stops talking and sends Doggett into the living room to watch TV. On the way out, Doggett stumbles a little against a chair and puts a hand out to steady himself. His fingers touch the cool silk of Skinner's tie and it is blue again. He shakes his head at the expected weirdness, then realizes that his own tie is now exactly the same color as Skinner's. With a sigh, he slips it off and lays it on the back of the chair, figuring that like ought to be with like.
The cable is out and the TV screen is filled with nothing but white snow. He finds it soothing but knows that it would be undeniably strange behavior to be found staring at a blank television, so he turns it off again. He has been trying so hard to keep his balance this week, to stay rational, to stay calm and not give into the desperate strangeness that he doesn't want to fail now.
When Skinner comes into the room, his sleeves rolled up and hands still damp, Doggett is sitting on the couch, carefully cataloging the room as he has been trained to do, looking for the details that would tell him about the occupant. Bachelor decor, he thinks, most of it bought around the same time, probably right after a divorce or widowing. No photos and a telling lack of knickknacks or plants. Relatively expensive entertainment system but no clutter of CD's or DVD's. A pile of what he tends to think of as middle class coffee table magazines - Smithsonian, National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly. A bookmarked hardcover on an end table, titled, "And One Was a Soldier: The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Robert E. Lee".
"What's your theory, Agent Doggett? Am I the perp?" Skinner's voice is flat, but there is something that might be a spark of humor in his eyes.
"It's hard to say at this juncture, sir. It's a little early for theories," Doggett says and is surprised as his tight smile is split by a yawn.
Skinner drops heavily into the recliner which is placed to share a reading lamp with the couch. Doggett finds himself strangely intrigued by Skinner's dark-socked feet and stares at them until Skinner says, "Make yourself at home, stretch out if you want."
Because there is no good answer to that, Doggett slips off his jacket and lays it over the back of the couch. Beyond the windows, he can hear the snow hissing and whispering. It is a cold sound and makes him a little gladder to be sitting in this pool of golden light. Part of him wishes he were home on the familiar battlefield of his own bed, but the rest of him is pitifully glad to focus on the distraction of another living person. Even Skinner's breathing and the creaks of his leather chair are enough to remind Doggett that he is not alone.
Skinner begins a halting conversation about hockey, which is Doggett's favorite sport. But Doggett's eyes keep drooping and the words eventually dribble to a stop and Skinner picks up his book. Doggett closes his eyes and waits for sleep to wash over him. Perversely, he is now more awake. Wind. Snow. Skinner's breath. The whisper of a page turning. The murmur of leather beneath him as he shifts restlessly and debates asking for a drink. He has been strong all this week and not reached for a bottle once -- and what has it gotten him?
Suddenly, he is aware of Skinner's gaze upon him. It is nearly a physical thing and he flinches from meeting it. He doesn't open his eyes, tries to breathe regularly, as a man asleep might. Skinner's voice, when it comes, is somehow gentler than he would have expected. "It's OK, John. I know how this goes." Then he begins reading aloud.
It is some odd musing excerpt from Robert E. Lee's diary and it's boring as hell. Doggett wants to laugh aloud. It is the best joke he's heard in a long time. An Assistant Director of the FBI reading aloud a bedtime story to one of his insomniac agents.
He is asleep before Skinner can turn the page.
* * *
When he wakes, it is dark. The wind is still gusting outside, the snow still ticking against the windows. It is late, one of those dark hours deep in the night in which anything can happen and usually does. Skinner is gone, the shadowy oblong of his book left on the end table. A comforter has been draped over Doggett and he wants to be mortified at the thought of Skinner *tucking* him in.
Instead, he sits up and wipes the sweat away from his face, salt stinging his abraded palms. He has had the worst nightmare of his life, one so bad that he could make no sound. No screams, no groans, not even the harsh sound of breathing to awaken him. His hands are shaking and he curls his fingers over the arch of his cheekbones, and it is the desperate grip of a man sliding over the edge of a cliff.
It was a dream, he tells himself. Now, after a few hours of sleep, sitting in Skinner's intensely practical apartment, reality and dreams ought to be farther apart than this. He should be able to sort memory and phantasm, like grain from chaff. He shouldn't be sitting on this cool leather and wondering if he felt his son's neck snap between his hands, shouldn't remember the heavy chill of his small body as he carried it into the woods.
"It didn't happen," he whispers, pleading with the shadows to show some mercy. But the dreams are as pitiless as they are random and he wonders if his mind has begun to flake away in tiny granite-edged shards. For the first time in days, he thinks that he would actually welcome one of the dreams in which he and Scully are shredded by the giant bat thing.
He clambers stiffly to his feet and stumbles into the coffee table, then goes looking for the bathroom. The cool tile feels good under his sock-clad feet and he stares into the mirror, seeing a murky fracture of himself reflected in the silver shadow of the mirror. That man, he thinks, that man there, the one in the mirror, he looks like he could kill a child.
The only warning he has is a weird flash of heat all over his body, then he is vomiting out his grief and rage as he has done so many times in the past. His nose is running, tears are streaming down his face, bile is a helpless, bitter taste in his mouth. His knees ache from hitting the floor so quickly and he braces his elbows on the toilet seat and presses the scraped heels of his hands against the throbbing in his temples.
After a while, he flushes the toilet to take away the sour stench of what he carries inside him all the time now. He gets himself back to his feet and lets the water run cool over his bruised hands. Then he cups them and splashes water over his face again and again, washing away the taint of dreams, the slick sweat of his fear of madness. He squeezes some toothpaste onto his finger and scrubs away at the bitter film on his teeth, then strips away the soaked bandages.
No, he thinks, as he drinks water from his hands, I'm not mad. I'm only tired and sad and alone. Alone. Cold and alone.
Water has run up his forearms and soaked into the sleeves of his crumpled dress shirt. He shivers and unbuttons it, watching himself in the dim rectangle of the mirror. His undershirt is mostly dry, so he leaves it. His slacks are wrinkled and itchy and damp from his splashing, so he takes those off. He has taken off his socks before he even registers how stupid he feels standing there in only his briefs and socks.
The tile beneath his bare feet leeches any warmth that might have been left in him. The carpet in the hallway is rough and snickers as he stumbles back toward the living room. The wind is muttering against the windows as he lays back down. The leather sticks to the bare skin of his legs and arms and he stares at the ceiling and prays for sleep, but his body is too tense, waiting for the return of the nightmares.
He doesn't know how long he lays there; it could be an hour, it could be ten minutes. It is long enough that his self-respect is gone and there can be nothing worse tonight than being alone. He is on his feet, then he is moving down the hall and finally standing at the door to Skinner's bedroom before the sting of bare flesh pulled too quickly from leather has faded.
Skinner has left the door half open. It swings noiselessly when Doggett's hand touches it. The shadows seem deeper here; there is less ambient light from outside to show him the shapes of things. He must rely instead on his mind to trace out the room's features in the dark. There is a long, low bureau to his right, just inside the door. It is bare except for the dull gleam of a watch and maybe a ring or some coins beside it. A tall dresser stands sentry to his left. An armchair across the room, pictures framed on the wall. Two small bedside chests flank a king-sized bed. Lamps on the tables, an alarm clock hissing, its face glowing ichor green to his nightmare tangled senses.
The room is dominated by the bed. In this efficiently sized apartment, the bed captures his attention as something vaguely out of place. It is too large, too sprawling, too empty to belong to the lone man who sleeps here. Skinner is not a small man, yet his large body at rest cannot fill even half the space. A pang of something that can only be called pity stabs at Doggett. Even all alone in his own house, three bedrooms empty of all but furniture and a family room without a family, even that house is not as echoingly empty as this bed with its one man sleeping neatly on his apportioned side of it.
Skinner's breathing is deep and regular and Doggett latches onto it again as a reminder that he is not alone. Time slips past him; he has no idea of how long it takes for him to grow cold and still, just watching. Even his shivering is without motion, just a suggestion of unreliability deep inside. His own breath sounds suspiciously like a small boy's tears might burst forth from beneath it at any moment. It comes to him that Skinner is still waiting for someone to sleep beside him again. He knows without doubt that Skinner lays down every night on the same side that he did throughout his marriage and that his wife will never sleep there again and he is saddened by the thought that Skinner knows even a fraction of Doggett's own longing for someone who will never come again.
"John?" The quiet rumble of Skinner's voice startles him and seems to trigger the shivering. He doesn't answer. There is a deep sigh, then a rustle of bedclothes. "Come here."
In time to come, when he remembers this night, Doggett hopes he can convince himself that he hesitated. But now, with the appalling honesty that darkness brings, he knows that he was in shuddering motion before Skinner ever spoke.
The space Skinner has left for him is blessedly warm and smells wonderfully unlike his own bed. A strong arm reaches across him and pulls the covers up to his neck, tucking the cold air firmly away. He can hear his own quivering breath, fast and shallow and loud, a syncopated beat out of rhythm with the storm outside.
"A bad one?" Skinner's voice is calm, steady and so damned normal that it startles him.
"The worst," he whispers, the shivering growing worse. He can feel the warmth of the down comforter over him, the imprint of Skinner's body on the mattress below him, but nothing seems to be able to touch the chilled space within. "I'm cold." His teeth want to chatter but he grits them instead.
Skinner sighs again, but it sounds more like recognition than impatience, and Doggett remembers that Skinner also fought a war, so he keeps staring up at a ceiling he can't see and shivers. Then there is a warm hand on his shoulder, pushing at him until he rolls onto his left side. Skinner pulls him back to rest against his chest, his arm a warm band around Doggett's ribs. The heat of Skinner's bare chest seems to burn through the thin cotton tee shirt. Skinner's thighs are hard and hot against his own and he unselfishly tucks his bare feet against Doggett's icy ones. They are sharing a pillow, Doggett realizes, as he feels Skinner's breath against the back of his neck. He wonders if he is dreaming again, but it doesn't seem likely.
The shivering is dying down finally. He is being cradled in someone's arms, kept safe and warm as he has not been in years. Doggett stares at the shadows reflected in the mirror on the bureau and wonders whether a man can die from mortification. "Fucking nightmares," he whispers weakly and wishes he had drunk himself into oblivion. Going on a bender and waking up in the DC drunk tank would have been so much less humiliating than crawling into his boss' bed in the middle of the night, like a child begging for a cuddle.
The arm around him tightens a fraction and Skinner pulls him closer. "Amen to that." There is a dark kind of self-mocking humor in Skinner's voice that reminds Doggett that he is not alone, that Skinner knows exactly what has been happening to him, how it feels, what he is thinking and what he will do tomorrow in the cold light of day. And the idea that someone will finally understand him is more bizarre than anything else that has happened to him today. But he has gotten more sleep here, in Skinner's cold, lonely apartment than anywhere else in the past week. Maybe it means something. Or maybe it's nothing, just another random thread in the fraying rope that is his life now.
"Am I dreaming?" Too late, he remembers the last time he asked that question; the answer had left his dream hands stained with his partner's blood, holding her severed head and watching a dead man float in the air.
"What - you want me to pinch you?" Skinner's voice, warmer this time than in his dream. He wonders when reality snapped back into focus for him. Maybe it is found somewhere in the drowsy timbre of Skinner's voice. "John, go to sleep." Maybe it is the soap-sweet scent of the sheets tucked around him, or the undeniable solidity of the body that lay next to him. He is so fucking grateful that he wants to shout aloud, but all he can manage is a sleepy, "Thank you."
Skinner merely grunts this time and his fingers rub a drowsy acknowledgment against Doggett's stomach. And John Doggett falls asleep, unafraid for the first time in a week.
* * *
Feedback cheerfully appreciated at: Jimpage363@aol.com
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Someday, I'll look back on all this, laugh nervously and change the subject.
(courtesy of am w) ---
Archived: May 15, 2001