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Date Archived: 04/08/02
Spoilers: One Breath
Permission to Archive: Just ask.
Series or Sequel/Prequel: Follows Debriefing.
Notes: It's not vital to read "Debriefing", but it wouldn't hurt.
Warnings: Josan, thoughtful beta that she is, warns of high Kleenex quotient.
Disclaimer: Standard Fanfic Boilerplate: Don't own 'em. Don't make a penny, peso, drachma, yen, ruble, euro, yuan or pobblebead off 'em.
Summary: Skinner/Doggett. Follows "Debriefing". Skinner faces his past.
November 13, 1982
Washington D.C., The Mall
The Dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The public momentum that had gathered before the dedication resulted in crowds far larger than anyone had anticipated. On that crisp sunny fall day, the national attitude began a radical shift. Vilified soldiers from a war no one wanted to remember were finally welcomed home. For all the publicity that had swirled around the event, the mood of the crowd was an odd combination of vindication and catharsis and sadness and humility and hope. There were the usual protestors, but their stridency seemed subdued and far away and, ultimately, misplaced.
They had come from all over America, in every form of transportation, by plane and bus and wheelchair, as if drawn by some ghostly bugler. The shiny black granite wall reflected the hundreds of searching faces, the thousands of reaching hands that sought some connection, to tender some recompense for the sin of not offering welcome to the homecoming warrior. As many reasons as there were people, thousands were there that day for the unveiling of The Wall.
Field Agent Walter S. Skinner stood in the jostling crowd. In his pressed white shirt and conservative tie, and a long dark coat that hovered around his knees, he stood out against a sea of fatigues and flak jackets and camouflage greens. He had missed the short ceremony and had finally managed to get away from a tedious day of background and ballistics checks as evening began to set in on the Mall. He made his way through the throngs, inextricably drawn to the reflective black granite embedded into the rising ground, with its lines of whitely glowing names. 58,040 of them. Names without rank, listed by the chronology of their deaths, no one name more prominent or important than any other. Guides in yellow hats hovered amongst the crowd all day to help in finding the names of loved ones.
Like many, Skinner simply found the year he was seeking and stood before the panel, his eyes reluctantly scanning the names.
His eyes swept down through the names from the top of the panel. And then he found them. Like too many other platoons, they had all been killed in the same ambush and hence were listed together on The Wall. By some twist of fate or divine intervention, Walter Skinner now stood, twelve years later, reflected in the polished granite, looking at their names. And, like so many people started to do from that day forward, he reached up and skimmed his fingers over the engravings, the need to touch primal and compelling.
"Skinman?" the voice was soft, barely lifted over the general hubbub of the crowd around him.
Skinner wasn't even sure he heard it; it was almost ethereal, like the whisper of ghosts. He turned around sharply, scanning the congregation. A figure detached itself from the crowd. He was hunched a little against the encroaching evening's cold, his still-boyish face scruffy from need of a shave, his clothes drab and weather worn. Half-fingered gloves revealed dirty fingernails, and there was a slight tremor in his hands. Red-rimmed grey eyes looked up from underneath a battered baseball cap, the half-smile shy and hesitant.
"Zeke..." Skinner's voice wasn't much louder than a murmur. He tried again, more confidently. "Zeke Grimes?"
Automatically, he stepped forward, his right hand extended in practiced formality. Zeke responded, and their hands clasped tightly, not letting go.
"I heard you made it." There was wonder in the tired rough voice, an unaccustomed lightness in the once-youthful, once-handsome face.
Skinner looked apologetic. "What happened to you? You got a new squad and I lost track - "
Zeke shrugged, his hands clinging. "Medical discharge. First class seat to the VA hospital on the West Coast."
Skinner reached up with his left hand, needing somehow to increase the breadth of his hold. Zeke glanced down at their tightly-clasped hands. The wedding band on Skinner's hand glinted gold in the late afternoon glow.
"Hey, Skinman," his eyes were suddenly over-bright. "You got married!"
Suddenly uncomfortable holding hands, both men took a half step back, breaking the connection. Zeke dropped his gaze, but when he looked up again, there seemed to be more pain in the face that Skinner remembered once as innocent and young.
Skinner tried to be nonchalant. "Miracles can happen."
"I heard you were a miracle." Zeke was visibly struggling to regroup. "Heard you woke up in a body bag."
Skinner glanced away, uncomfortable with lack of specific memory. "Yeah, they thought I was dead. Hell, I thought I was dead."
The slight shake in Grimes' hand became stronger. He made a fist to still it and ducked his head, the set of his shoulders belying years of a losing struggle against pain and drugs and loneliness and despair. "There's days I wish I were, too," he said quietly.
Without thinking, Skinner closed the gap between them, and put his arms around the younger man. He hugged him tightly, fighting the tears that started unbidden. He could feel Zeke relax after a moment, slipping his own arms around the taller man. They held each other in a way that was sad in its uncharted intimacy. In the milling crowd, they weren't the only two ex-Marines clinging to each other.
It was a long way from the war, but it never seemed closer.
Assistant Director Skinner's office
"Agent Doggett," Kim looked up in surprise, as the agent walked in, files in hand. "Was he expecting you?"
"Nah, not really." He waved the files absently at her. "Paperwork. Thought I'd drop it by."
"Slow news day?" Kim smiled at him.
Doggett grinned back at her. "Busted. Nary a bug-eyed alien or spaceship anywhere."
Suddenly serious, Kim looked at him levelly. "He's not here."
The Mall at lunchtime on a bright spring day had its share of people. Many were Beltway denizens on their way somewhere, important issues tucked in their briefcases, in a hurry like transplanted New Yorkers. There were the tourists, taking in the cherry blossoms and lofty monuments. And then there were the D.C. residents, who, like Doggett, every once in a while took in the green grass and blue skies and centuries of history. And Doggett, like many of the newer D.C. residents, had promised himself time and again to visit the monuments, the museums, Arlington National Cemetery, the Capitol; berating himself for negotiating only the familiar streets and expressways between Falls Church and the J. Edgar Hoover Building in his daily drive.
He approached the low-slung black granite wall that was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, stark against the spring greenery. A soft unseen veil of tranquility settled over him, as he descended the path towards the monument. Even the Mall traffic seemed to recede behind the rising mound, and a natural reverent quiet permeated the air. The list of names on each panel grew as he approached the apex of the wall. Along the base of the wall, in between the footlamps, remembrances left by visitors; flowers, cards, etchings, letters, photographs, children's drawings, poems, US flags large and small, stuffed toys, a commendation medal, a combat ribbon, handwritten stories, touching farewells.
It was humanly impossible not to be affected.
Doggett took his time, knowing that the man on the bench was fully aware of him. Skinner sat with his elbows on his knees, without his usual straight-backed stiffness. Beside him on the bench was a Federal Express box and a newspaper, folded out to a particular page. He seemed to be gazing at nothing.
"Good afternoon, Assistant Director," Doggett kept his voice neutrally formal.
"Agent Doggett." Brown eyes flickered over him briefly, and then returned fixed on the middle distance.
Doggett took the few steps towards the wall and gazed up at the panel before him. 1970. The white-etched names stood in neat rows in simple elegant lettering, stamped across the black granite, forever a testament to youthful ideals lost in the killing heat of the firefight. The names of men without rank. The names of boys.
"About a third of the way down from the top," Skinner's voice reached him. "Thirteen of them. My old platoon."
"Night raid." Skinner stated blandly. "VC ambush."
"They got the jump on us. Everyone was killed. Everyone." Skinner looked pointedly at Doggett, and plunged on. "I remember floating high up, looking down. It was real quiet, peaceful. There was blood everywhere on the ground, pools of it. They were dying all around me, and they were -- leaving. But I was still there. Watching the VC strip our bodies, take our weapons. Watching me." He drew an unsteady breath; he'd had this conversation once before with Fox Mulder, in the distant past. Its soul-searing familiarity still sounded strange to his own ears. "I woke up in a field hospital two weeks later."
Doggett walked slowly back to the bench and circled around it, looking out over the mall towards the Washington Monument, penny-bright with its new facelift. He glanced down at the newspaper beside the AD. It was folded open to the obituaries.
"Who's Ezekiel Grimes?" he asked.
"The only other man from my platoon to survive. He was a sweet kid, the baby of the bunch, just turned eighteen." Skinner replied. "He didn't make it out on the raid that night. Stuck in the infirmary with food poisoning." He chuckled mirthlessly. "He did three tours of duty. He got injured his last time out."
"Zeke died three days ago in a homeless shelter."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"The first time I saw him after 'Nam was at this dedication." Skinner glanced over at the name and the grainy photograph in the paper. "I was a field agent then, still pretty green. Sharon and I had just gotten married. Zeke was -- already having a rough time."
Doggett waited, the unasked question hanging in the air.
"Drugs. Alcohol. Was in and out of rehab for years." Skinner shook his head. "I kept in touch with him, until he started doing coke a few years ago. Couldn't keep a job or a home. He was always alone. And I always wondered - "
Skinner trailed off, grinding to a stop. Doggett stepped around and sat down beside him on the bench, ducked his head a little to catch the older man's eyes.
"Wondered what, sir?"
"I always wondered why I survived and they didn't," the words came out just above a whisper. "Why I had a life and he couldn't."
Without thinking, John Doggett reached out and laid his hand on Skinner's arm and neither of them moved. Clear blue eyes locked onto troubled brown ones.
"You told me a few weeks ago, sir, that it was survivor's guilt. That's all." Doggett leaned in a little more. "If you ask me, I think you survived because you were supposed to. Just like I was supposed to." He looked up, releasing Skinner's arm to indicate the Hoover Building several blocks down the Mall. "Because we're supposed to be here."
"Now you sound like Agent Reyes," observed Skinner wryly.
Doggett shrugged. "It's either that or drive yourself nuts going in circles." He glanced down at the paper again. The face, once young and ingenuous in its appeal, stared back out at him through prematurely aged eyes. "Is there anyone to take care of him, sir?"
Skinner shook his head. "No family. The only friends I knew he had died in that ambush. The people at the shelter said that he put my name down as a family contact." He finally reached for the box beside him, opening it slowly. "I had them send me his personal effects."
Inside was the meager detritus of a forgotten life. Old comb, battered toothbrush, some change, unidentified keys. A worn-out plastic ID holder that kept identification and social security cards held together with a dirty rubberband. Scraps of paper with scrawled phone numbers. Rusty razorblade. Nail clipper. Small bottle of aspirin. Half pack of cigarettes. Wrigley's doublemint gum. Matchbook. The legacy of a life that fit entirely into a medium-sized shipping box.
Skinner searched briefly and pulled out an old creased photo, smiling sadly. He handed it wordlessly over to Doggett. The picture showed two young men, in battle fatigues, tropical jungle thick behind them, smiling back out through the purpling years of the photograph. The taller of the two had his arm slung around the shoulders of the other, and both looked incredibly young and devoid of tragedy. The Walter Skinner in the photograph had serious eyes unhidden by glasses, and although cropped jarhead-short, a full head of hair.
"Hey, the rumors aren't true," said Doggett. "You were one of us once."
Skinner smiled, despite himself.
He pulled out two other items. Dog tags. The ubiquitous identification that always seemed to follow ex-servicemen through life long after their tours of duty. As if to forever remind the bearer that one small part of his soul would always belong to something bigger than himself. The other item, on its worn violet ribbon, its brass slightly tarnished, was a Purple Heart. It had long since parted ways with its case and the certificate that went with it. But as Skinner held it up in the light, it was still singular in its eloquent beauty.
"He was injured in a firefight. Held off the enemy single-handedly overnight, kept half his squad alive until help could get there the next day." Skinner held the medal in the palm of his hand. When he spoke again, his voice was tinged with deep regret. "He always had it together over there, better than the rest of us. He just couldn't keep it together back home.
"We were close, over there. All of us. Had each other's backs." Skinner turned the photograph over in his hands. "He and I were the last ones, and I hadn't seen him for years."
He tucked the items back in the box and closed the lid. He stared down at his fingers that were now ringless. He continued, mostly to himself. "When he found out I'd gotten married ... he must have felt really alone. Betrayed." His words were barely above a whisper.
The AD looked up at that moment directly into Doggett's gaze. The sharp blue eyes were steady and clear, compassionate and completely without bias. Doggett held Skinner's gaze until the older man dropped it. He leaned forward and placed his hand silently on Skinner's arm and held on tight.
It was a bright beautiful morning, the cool sunlight throwing the neat manicured rows of white grave markers into stark relief against the green spring grass, undulating over the gently rolling hillsides of the cemetery. Cherry blossoms in voracious bloom fluffed white and pink against the clear blue sky. A chill breeze kept the tiny funeral procession in their overcoats. The small military detail outnumbered the two mourners present.
The service was short and full of the precise ordered ritual of a military funeral. There was the chaplain who performed the service, the three Marines that made up the firing party, and the single bugler. John Doggett stood beside his superior, remembering another more painful funeral at which they had stood together. Skinner did not move throughout the service, barely reacting to the three-gun salute, standing stoic through the clear ringing sadness of the lone bugle playing "Taps". They watched as the flag was folded between the Marines into a neat compact triangle and handed over to Skinner, who stood with it in his hands long after they were gone.
Finally, he reached into his overcoat pocket and pulled out a flat case, flipped back the lid. Inside, resting on the velvet lining, the Bronze Star gleamed dully in the sunlight. Reaching into his pocket again, Skinner retrieved Zeke's Purple Heart, and carefully and lovingly laid it inside the case alongside the other medal. He gazed at it for a moment longer before closing the lid, and placing the case on top of the casket. Then he nodded briefly to the attendant and stepped back, as the plain coffin began to sink into the earth. Bending, he picked up a handful of the dark rich dirt, and stood and tossed it on the descending casket.
"Rest quiet, Zeke," he said softly. "Sweet dreams."
Then he turned and walked up the rise to where John Doggett was waiting for him. He stopped for a moment and looked back across the cemetery grounds. The tombstones fell away in neat ordered rows, like squat soldiers in dress whites standing inspection. A breeze whispered through the cherry blossoms and spring green grasses, wafting around the two men like the caress of spirits.
"Thank you for being here, John," said Skinner. "You didn't even know him."
"No, I didn't," Doggett agreed. "I'm just here to salute the last one standing."
In 1982, there were 58,040 names on The Wall. Today there are 58,226. 8 of them are women.
There are 5 Scullys, 1 Mulder, 2 Doggetts, 19 Reyes and 17 Skinners listed on The Wall. No Kryceks, though.
There is a Walter Francis Skinner on The Wall. He was a Private First Class in the Marine Corps, from Soledad, California. He was killed in Quang Tri on Sunday, February 25, 1968. He was nineteen.
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