Assistant Director Walter Skinner looked up with the beginnings of a scowl when Kimberly came into his office. He had left specific instructions with his ever-efficient executive assistant that he was not to be disturbed. Navigating through one of Agent Mulder's case reports required his undivided attention plus several aspirin on good days. To put it bluntly, Mulder's reports made his teeth ache. Today he had found matching, and obviously contradictory, reports from the X-Files division waiting for him. Apparently Agents Mulder and Scully had defaulted the ultimate judgment on the case to him.
"Most people get presents from Santa and his elves; I get field reports from Agents Mulder and Scully," he grumbled.
Five pages into Mulder's report, a massive headache moved into position. By the halfway mark, the headache was calling up reinforcements for an all-out assault. At this rate, he would be spending this New Year's Eve battling a migraine instead celebrating with a nice bottle of bourbon. At least it would provide the perfect excuse to avoid the useless small talk at the director's party.
"Sir?" Kimberly interrupted his attempt to make heads or tails of one of Mulder's convoluted lapses into the psychology of abduction experiences. Her soft voice belied her efficient and capable handling of the complex routine of his office. For just a moment, Skinner was tempted to close his eyes and hope whatever problem she was bringing him would disappear. Exasperated at this momentary wavering of his professional demeanor, he recalled some of the choicer phrases of his drill sergeant and felt his resolve stiffen back into place.
"What is it?" His voice came out rougher than he intended. The slight tilt in Kimberly's left eyebrow was the only notice she deigned to give to his breach of etiquette. Skinner got a grip on his irritation. Kimberly was *not* the person he wanted to shred and scatter as his own personal New Year's Eve confetti.
Wordlessly he apologized with a slight nod and eyes that softened a hair's breath. Kimberly acknowledged neither the rudeness nor the apology, but both of them knew she accepted and understood.
"Sorry to bother you, sir, but this registered letter came in marked personal." Kimberly handed him a thin envelope, letting her fingers linger for a heartbeat longer than necessary on the envelope as if trying to offer a silent gesture of support through the paper. She was preparing him for bad news and he wondered what new problem was about to land in his lap. His headache advanced and took up position in his temples. It felt as if the headache was using his veins as the strings on a bass guitar.
Skinner wondered why, of all the people in the FBI, he was the one who ended up with an executive assistant who demonstrated, on a daily basis, a psychic ability that would have earned her a place in Mulder's X-Files.
"Thank you," he dismissed her with a nod. "Shouldn't you be leaving?" Skinner suggested firmly. He would not be pampered, not here at his command post.
"I'm on my way out now, sir. You are going home soon, aren't you, sir?" Kimberly gave him a level stare that left no doubt she did not regard reading reports was a suitable way to celebrate New Year's Eve. "Oh, by-the-way, I put some extra-strength aspirin in your left lower drawer, just in case," Kimberly added as she closed the door behind her.
Skinner watched her leave and listened to the familiar sounds of her close-the-office routine. He had no one to blame but himself for this foul mood. Kimberly was carefully slipping the dual reports from the X-Files division at the bottom of a pile of routine paperwork from the other divisions he oversaw when he walked in on her. Like a true noncom, she was making decisions in his own best interests. It was not her fault that he preferred to have advance warning about repercussions from Agent Mulder's headlong pursuit of the truth.
As he recalled, she had given him a steely look of her own when he held out his hand for the report before handing him two reports. He correctly interpreted her subsequent expression as - 'trust me next time.' Now he had a bitch of a headache to prove that she was right.
He knew that he was not altogether an impartial administrator where Agents Mulder and Scully were concerned. When he wasn't lecturing them about procedure and protocol, he was battling OPR or some of the weasels who infested the director's office to keep them in the field. So far the victories had outweighed the defeats, but the outcome of the war was still in doubt. At least he had an excellent training in the art of fighting ghosts who waged war with no rules and no quarter.
Skinner wondered what he had done right to luck out and get Kimberly as an executive assistant, much less keep her. He knew for a fact that she had gotten several offers to move up into the director's office and serve as an executive assistant to one of the director's aides. Still she remained firmly entrenched in his outer office, blithely enduring the swirling cigarette smoke that polluted his office as well as his honor, running interference, as much as anyone could, with Agent Mulder, and, most of all, keeping his office running smoothly and efficiently.
With a clean slice he slit open the envelope, absently noting the return address was a Wisconsin law firm. As far as he knew, Agent Mulder had not been anywhere near Wisconsin, so this probably wasn't a formal complaint about his erring agent's actions.
The contents consisted of just one sentence that froze his spirit and awakened memories of a hell he had left behind, but could never forget.
"This is to notify you, as per instructions, of the death, in the Madison Veterans Hospital, of Lance Corporal Albert Vincent on December 28, 1997."
Pilgrim, dead. He remembered a man, no, a boy too young to vote, but not considered too young to give up his future for his country. Legs shredded beyond repair by grenades and a mind shattered by drugs and flashbacks, Pilgrim had been the silent member of their impromptu squad of war refuse. Silent, except when his spirit moved him to sing - blues, gospel, even folk rock lyrics poured out of him in a sweet baritone that hushed everyone on the wards within earshot. To this day, Skinner could not listen to blues music without flashing back to the agony of his healing wounds mixed in with the soulful voice of a tormented young man whose future was reduced to a bed and a room in a VA hospital because of a war he did not understand and an enemy he never saw.
Now, even that future was gone and Lance Corporal Albert Vincent had gone to join his comrades who had already paid the full price for their devotion to flag and country. Skinner felt his chest contract until he thought his heart would be squeezed until nothing was left but the pain and loneliness of being the last.
Unable to sit at his desk and pretend that he could continue with the day's routine, Skinner got up and went to his window to stare out over the grimy, gray city. He watched the encroaching twilight bury the grimy slush and dirty walls of the surrounding buildings in a forgiving shadow. The neon glow of leftover Christmas lights gave a false sense of cheer and goodwill to the commuters streaming out of their offices. Soon the battle in the streets would begin as drivers fought to get to their New Year's Eve parties as fast as possible.
His mind went back nearly thirty years to the stateside VA hospital where he had been deposited, still more dead than alive, after an interminable drugged trip across the Pacific from the Saigon hospital where he had been reborn to life. Eight other revived corpses occupied his ward in the rehab unit which would be his new home for nearly a year.
At first no one spoke, no one cared who shared their individual corners of hell. It was enough to know that he was not alone to face the daily agony of learning to reuse his body and then the torture of breaking free of the drugs they had given him to ease the pain that had grown more necessary to him than breathing. By the time he was interested in making contact outside his personal battleground, there was one empty bed and only seven voices to reply to his questions. Imprisoned in a maze of splints and pulleys, unable to do more than stare at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of breathing, bodies shifting on stiff sheets, and the muffled moans of men in agony. His entire world narrowed down to their voices.
Three marines, three army grunts, and a godforsaken navy medic made up their squad. Corpsman Justin Flannery was the heart of their squad. An educated man, who had dreamed of being a doctor until punji stakes robbed him of his bowels and limbs and sent him to a stateside hell to try to piece together a life.
Flannery had badgered, cajoled and coerced them all into living. Even Special Forces Sgt. William Thackery, sightless and wearing the unique brand of facial scars from a close encounter with a shrapnel booby trap, could not hold out long against Flannery's persistent enthusiasm for living. Thackery's ruined face would keep him hidden away from public view for the rest of his life, but behind the profanity and the bitterness lurked a poet's soul. If Flannery was their guide, Thackery became their soul. Grudgingly they had all followed Flannery as he led them back into the land of the living.
The tontine had been Flannery's idea. A symbol of their emergence from hell into life; a promise that someone would remember their journey. The last survivor would serve as a living memory for the rest of them. Someone to give a final toast to old memories and the bond formed between men who had lost everything, but hope. Seven unlikely comrades formed a brotherhood of war. The terror of combat walked in their nightmares. They had tasted the fear that rose like bile in their throats as they had paced cautiously into the jungles praying that the enemy would choose some other patrol to ambush. Traps, meant to tear human flesh and shatter bones, had waited for their unwary feet as they gambled their lives with each footstep. They had known the horror of seeing friends torn into bleeding, whimpering shreds of human flesh as a scythe of bullets harvested men like wheat.
So many memories boiled down to searing flashes of images burned into his nightmares, and sometimes during his waking moments when a smell or a sound caught him off guard and he was once again Sgt. Walter Skinner, a marine caught in an impossible war against an enemy who was a deadly, implacable ghost. Charlie had fed on the blood of the Japanese, the French, and finally the Americans until he was an unbeatable force of nature. He became a demon rising up out of the land itself to cast out the invaders.
Lost in the past, Skinner watched the twilight of the present yield to the artificial glow of light that man had erected against the darkness. He came back to himself with a start and realized that it was nearly seven o'clock. He had made no plans, though he knew he was welcome at several parties if he chose to go. He shuddered at the thought of spending the evening in casual small-talk with men who could not understand the hell of surviving while all around you died.
Skinner turned back to his desk, carefully marking his place in Mulder's report before closing it. For a moment he stared at the report. He had no real friends to turn to who would understand his grief. Even fewer acquaintances who could even begin to comprehend the shattering loneliness he felt right now. As strange as it seemed, he sensed Mulder would understand the pain of being the one left behind. He had seen Mulder's agony when Scully had been taken from him and recognized the pain, the guilt of a survivor.
Of all the people he knew, Mulder was perhaps one of two people he would be willing to share this night with. The man was infuriating, insubordinate and, on occasion, downright dangerous to himself and everyone around him. There were more times than he cared to count when he wanted nothing more than to beat some sense into him. Yet, he sensed that Mulder knew the violence that dwelt in some men's souls and had seen that same horror lurking in his own soul. They were kindred spirits, killers clothed in a watchdog's skin, but there was a line that could not be crossed between them if they were to survive. No doubt Mulder was somewhere facing his own demons, in his own way.
All the way back to his apartment, Skinner forced his mind away from the memories of his past. Shifting his brain into neutral, he allowed his automatic responses to get him home in one piece. Thankfully, few of the celebrants had gotten drunk enough yet to hit the streets and pose a danger. His apartment, what passed for the illusion of home, was stark and sterile, but offered sanctuary. He changed out of his government uniform of shirt, suit and tie into a dark sweater and black jeans. The heavy black bombardier's jacket held, after all these years, the faint scent of his father's after-shave. Dark leather gloves and wool cap completed his transformation into something very different from the urbane Assistant Director of the FBI. What the suit and starched white shirts barely concealed, this dark sleek look revealed -- the feral hunter he held at bay by rules and regulations. Tonight, however, he would allow the tiger within to honor fallen comrades in a way the A.D. could not.
Using the metro line to get within walking distance of his goal, Skinner advanced across the wide expanse of winter-brown grass until he had reached his goal. Now, before the granite wall that plunged back into the earth from whence it had been torn, he took his place as a single silent sentry. He didn't need to walk the Wall to find his friends' names. Their locations were blazoned in his memory from other walks. Soon, after the holidays no doubt, another name would be engraved in careful letters on a distant tombstone to mark the passing of another soldier into the ranks of the dead. Skinner wondered if the ghosts of the men who died young would recognize their comrade come late to the burying ground.
Covered in shadows, Skinner stood at sentry-rest, his hands clasped behind him as he marked the slow passing minutes. The bell of his memory tolled the passing of so many lives. Seven men, cast ashore like driftwood, had found hope and purpose in refusing to surrender to their wounds. Seven names tolled like victory bells amid the solemn assembly of the dead.
Now, he was the lone survivor, the man who had to bear the hopes and fears of all his comrades. One more burden added to his strong shoulders. He was their success story, the only man to leave the world of the VA hospital and re-emerge into the normal world. He was their testament to the horrors they survived. His life marked their courage in fighting for every single day of life beyond what Charlie had allotted them. He was their living memorial.
In the far distance Skinner could hear the cacophony of bells and cheers and knew the old year had passed into its grave at last. Answering to the memory of old parade-ground commands, Skinner came to attention and with slow, precise movements saluted the dead and held the salute for three long minutes before returning to attention for a moment. Relaxing with a sigh, Skinner reached down and collected the package he had brought with him. Across the dark expanse of lawn, the lights of a single bar beckoned him. There he would share a final toast with men and women who had been baptized in war and suckled on death.
Skinner picked up the single package he had brought with him and strode across the park just short of a run. He hadn't realized how cold it was until now and the overheated bar looked inviting. The music was loud and blared raucously out the door when he opened it, but this was home. He felt the welcoming warmth of the bar enfold him and draw him in as it drew in all who had served in the jungle hell of Vietnam. Looking about the room, trying to see faces amid the shadows and smoke, he heard a familiar voice.
"Hey, man. Over here. Long time, no see. Get your ass over here," the short grungy-looking man shouted at the top of his lungs as he attempted to stand up and give a very unsteady wave.
Skinner relaxed, letting the warmth of the bar and old friendships ease the tight pain in his chest. Well, maybe Santa was trying to make up for missing him on Christmas. He began maneuvering his way through the tightly packed crowd.
"Frohike, you are drunk." he commented as he arrived at the back booth Frohike was hogging.
"I'm on my way," Frohike said blearily. He gave Skinner a careful scrutiny and sobered up. "Bad day?" he asked cautiously.
Skinner pulled the bottle of cognac he had bought the day he checked out of the VA hospital out of the brown paper sack he was carrying. Carefully, as befitted its age and rarity, he set it down on the table between them. He sighed when Frohike's eyes went wide, then narrowed as he suddenly looked up at him.
"Vincent died. I promised them a final salute. A drink with anyone who remembered how it was. I think you count," Skinner said.
"I'm honored," Frohike replied quietly.
Without a word, Skinner opened the bottle and poured the golden liquid into glasses provided by the silent bartender. Frohike grabbed a glass and stood up, weaving slightly.
"ATTENTION!" he bellowed, his voice drowning out even the Grateful Dead song blaring from the jukebox. The music cut off abruptly in mid-note as the hushed expectation of held breaths filled the bar. Frohike nodded to Skinner who slowly rose to his feet.
"A toast to old friends and comrades who have finally gone home," Skinner said quietly. His words echoed around the silent bar. Every drink imaginable was raised in response to his words. A soft clink from Frohike's glass sealed the toast. The cognac going down burned new fire into his spirit and Skinner began to feel himself come alive again. Frohike quietly, almost reverently poured out more cognac and they sat back down as the bar once more exploded into noise.
The Director could have his fancy catered parties. This was his home. Who better to spend the dawn of a new year with than family?