Title: Stepping Out of the Shadow
Author: Xanthe
Email: Xanthe@xanthe.org
Website: www.xanthe.org All my X Files stories can be found here.
Pairing: Crossover - Josh/Walter Skinner from "The X Files".
Category: S, R, A
Status: Finished
Archive: Anywhere.
Feedback: Yes please! Friendly feedback to: Xanthe@xanthe.org
Author's Note: This is my first foray into "The West Wing" universe - please be gentle with me!
Spoilers: "The West Wing" episodes: "In the Shadow Of Two Gunmen", "Noel". "The X Files" episodes: "One Breath" and "Avatar".
Setting: This story takes place on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day - a week after Josh's diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on Christmas Eve in "The West Wing" episode "Noel".
Canon note: This story is consistent with "The West Wing" canon up to "Noel", as it was implied in an earlier episode that Leo McGarry and Jed Bartlet had known each other for a very long time. However, I believe (haven't seen any S3 eps yet cos I live in the UK) that Sorkin later specified they'd only known each other for 11 years. For the purposes of this story, I went with the earlier canon because I liked it better <g>
"Noel" is just about the best hour's television I've ever watched so this is my homage to it - although it comes nowhere close to emulating Aaron Sorkin's distinctive dialogue style, fast paced verbal wit, and complicated political situations and references.
Grammar Note: I used UK spelling in this one :-)
Dedication: To my dear friend Sergeeva on her birthday. This story is for you.
Huge thanks to Phoebe for the excellent beta.

*****

Stepping Out of the Shadow by Xanthe

"No, I'm not saying that. What I'm saying, Sam, is that…Donna, what's that?" Josh hooked the phone under his chin and glared at Donna as she deposited a shiny black tuxedo on the chair in front of his desk.

"It's your tux, Josh," she told him with the kind of sweet smile she reserved for whenever he was being particularly clueless.

"I can see that - what I mean is why have you…no, I am still talking to you, Sam," he said into the phone, "but I'm also talking to Donna. I can talk to two people at the same time – it's called multi-tasking. What's it doing here?" He hissed fiercely at Donna.

"It's for tonight," she said obliquely, before waltzing out of the room.

Josh gazed at her retreating backside for a moment, rubbing his forehead absently and ignoring Sam's detailed exposition on the vagaries of oil prices. Tonight? What the hell was supposed to be happening tonight?

*****

"Leo?" Josh put his head around the door to his boss's office and lingered for a moment on the threshold.

"Josh. I can give you three minutes," Leo McGarry told him, beckoning him into the office, while at the same time searching through a pile of papers on his desk, clearly looking for something. "Margaret!" he bellowed. Josh winced.

"Leo, what's happening tonight?" He asked.

"It's New Year's Eve, Josh," Leo reminded him, glancing at him over his glasses.

"Oh." Josh stood there for a moment. He knew that it was New Year's Eve – and he wasn't at all sure that he liked this new trend among his colleagues to handle him with kid gloves just because he'd spent all day on Christmas Eve cloistered in a room with a shrink. "New Year's Eve…" Josh murmured, gazing absently at Leo. He had intended spending the evening on his own, catching up on some much-needed sleep – sleep had been in short supply for him lately and New Year's Eve, as far as he was concerned, was vastly over-rated.

"Yeah…it's the thing." Leo moved the huge pile of papers on his desk and searched underneath them for something. "Margaret!" he bellowed again.

"I think she's gone to the bathroom," Josh supplied helpfully. "What thing?"

"You know, the thing," Leo repeated, tossing aside folders as he continued searching for whatever he was looking for.

"Leo! Leo – have you seen th…oh, hello Josh." The President of the United States barrelled into the room and stopped short as he saw Josh hovering by the door. Josh flushed. He didn't entirely remember the details but he seemed to recall that during his last meeting in the Oval Office with the President he had done a lot of shouting. Loud shouting. Inappropriate shouting. The President clearly knew about Christmas Eve as well because he was giving Josh that same kindly, patient smile everyone else had plastered on their faces whenever they spoke to him these days, and was studying him intently as if he expected his Deputy Chief of Staff to break down in tears at any second. It was starting to grate on Josh's nerves.

"Hello, sir. I was just asking Leo about…the thing." Josh shrugged, still having no idea what the 'thing' in question might be.

"Exactly!" The President beamed at him. "The thing! That's what I want to talk to Leo about too!" He waved a piece of paper in the air. "Leo, have you looked at the guest list for this evening?"

Leo gave a sigh, and threw his arms in the air. "Sir, I've been looking for that for the past half hour. Did you steal it from my desk?"

"Steal is a strong word, Leo. I might have borrowed it for a few minutes." The President grinned mischievously.

"Guest list?" Josh repeated, still a step behind in the whole conversation. "The thing has a guest list?"

"Sure. The White House Chief of Staff's annual New Year's Eve party wouldn't exactly be much fun without guests," Leo told him gently.

Josh stiffened and ran a weary hand over his face, uncertain if he was more dismayed by the fact that he'd forgotten the annual New Year's Eve shindig held by his own boss, or by the fact that he was undoubtedly expected to attend – or by the way Leo was treating him as if he was some kind of fragile flower who might be easily crushed by a stray harsh word.

"I don't know who draws up the guest list for these things, Leo," the President was saying, "but…"

"We do, sir," Leo interrupted him.

"What?"

"We draw up the guest list. Margaret gets a list from each department of people who we've dealt with during the course of the year who we want to say thanks to. When I say 'we', that's obviously me and Josh and the staff of the West Wing and not you, sir. You can have your own party."

"Thank you, Leo. I'll be sure to remember that." The President's temper was becoming just the slightest bit frayed as he struggled to remain excited by whatever it was he'd been excited about when he first barged into Leo's office. "Well, if you drew up the guest list, Leo, you'll already know who's on it and you won't need me to tell you," the President said a trifle smugly, holding the guest list just out of Leo's reach and studying it intently. Leo glanced at Josh and then gave a theatrical sigh.

"All right, sir, I give in. Who is on the list?" He asked.

"I thought you already knew," the President bantered.

"I might if someone hadn't stolen it from my desk half an hour ago," Leo muttered darkly. "Sir, I looked at the damn thing when we first sent out the invites but I seem to recall that I was dealing with a budgetary crisis at the time so I didn't memorise every single name on it. If I'd known that I was going to be tested on it at a later date then I can assure you it would have had my full attention."

"I'm pleased to hear it, Leo. And you still haven't guessed." The President looked mightily pleased with himself, and Josh relaxed against the doorframe, enjoying every single moment of the banter. Leo McGarry and the President, when they were on form, were two of the most entertaining men he'd ever known, and it was a joy to watch them in action. Leo was the only person he knew who dared talk back to the President – that was a right he'd earned through years of close friendship, going all the way back to their schooldays.

"Why don't you tell me, sir? You know you're longing to," Leo said, sitting back in his chair expectantly.

"Okay!" The President said brightly. "It's Walter Skinner, Leo. Walter Skinner is on the guest list!" He exclaimed, his eyes positively glowing. Josh glanced at Leo but it was clear the name meant absolutely nothing to his boss.

"Walter Skinner," Leo repeated slowly. "Okay, I give in. Am I supposed to know who Walter Skinner is?"

"I'll give you a clue," the President suggested.

Leo groaned. "Why can't you just tell me who Walter Skinner is, sir, and then we could dispense with the clue entirely."

"So we could – but where's the fun in that?" The President beamed. "Okay – here's the clue: Shrimp." He said the word as if he expected a light bulb of recognition to go on in Leo's head and was clearly somewhat crestfallen when it didn't.

"Shrimp…Walter Skinner is some kind of seafood retailer, sir?" Leo questioned.

"No, Leo! Honestly, I swear you're not even trying," the President groused. "Shrimp. Come on, Leo. I knew there was something familiar about this man's name the moment I saw it but it took me ages to figure it out. Even then I asked security to pull a file on him just to make sure he's who I think he is."

"And is he, sir?" Leo asked calmly.

"He certainly is, Leo!" The President couldn't keep from grinning. "Come on, Leo. Think back about 40 years…"

"Shrimp…" Leo mused out loud. "Shrimp…Walter Skinner…40 years…No! It can't be!" He got up, an animated expression on his face, and almost tore the guest list from the President's hand. "Walter Skinner – are you telling me that this guy is really shrimp? Our shrimp?" He asked excitedly.

"He sure is." The President grinned broadly at Leo's disbelief.

"Well, I'll be damned!" Leo shook his head, amazed. "What does he do now? And how in god's name did he end up on the guest list to our party?"

"Your party, Leo," the President reminded him with a grin. "I'll just be the guest of honour – you'll be the host."

"How come he's on the guest list?" Leo asked, ignoring the teasing. "Have I met him? Did I meet him and not even know it was him?" He took off his glasses and mused on this for a second.

"You didn't meet him," Josh piped up from the doorway. "It was CJ. She met him about that alien abduction thing."

"Alien abduction thing?" The President and Leo both turned to him with twin raised eyebrows.

"It was months ago," Josh explained. "The Press had gotten hold of a figure – there had been some kind of survey in which 15% of American citizens claimed to have been abducted and experimented on by aliens. The press – and I'm guessing it was a slow news day – decided that if the figure was true then we needed to stop worrying about threats from fellow Earth-dwellers and start figuring out ways to nuke the aliens instead."

"15% of Americans have been abducted by aliens?" The President looked astonished.

"You don't believe the figure, sir?" Leo questioned.

"No, I'm just annoyed that I'm not one of them," the President grinned.

"Well, maybe one day you'll get lucky," Leo said slyly. "So how come CJ needed to talk to Walter Skinner?" Leo asked Josh. "What does Shrimp do for a living anyway?"

"He's an Assistant Director at the FBI," Josh replied, a trifle smugly, pleased to be the only one in this room who remembered the 'alien abduction' incident of several months previously. His grasp of recent events might be a little sketchy, but his long-term memory was still pretty sharp.

"Why did CJ talk to the FBI about alien abduction statistics?" Leo asked, looking thoroughly bemused. "No, let's back up here – Shrimp is an AD at the FBI? Our shrimp?" He turned to glance at the President incredulously.

"Well, he was only 10 years old when we knew him, Leo. I expect he grew up," the President pointed out.

"I know but…Shrimp?" Leo shook his head. "He was such a little guy. We taught him how to box. Do you remember that?"

"I certainly do. He was one of those kids the others picked on," the President explained to Josh. "Half the size of the other boys in his class and scrawny. He wore those spectacles with really thick lenses that made his eyes seem huge, and was very shy." The President shook his head fondly at the memory.

"Yeah. He made a good target. Poor kid." Leo shook his head, and Josh smiled at the pair of them, lost in the memories of their schooldays.

"We were in our senior year when he arrived," the President explained to Josh. "It was Leo who found the kid crying in the bathroom one day, with a bloody nose. Leo brought him to see me, and we figured that the best way to tackle the bullying was to show little Walter Skinner how to take care of himself. So, every day after lessons, we took him to the gym and taught him to box."

"Did it work?" Josh asked, caught up in the story. He loved hearing about how the President and Leo had grown up together, all those years ago. It gave their current status a kind of mythic feel to it – they had come so far together, from that small school to the highest office in the land, and were both decent, honourable men who'd had their share of problems along the way.

Leo smiled. "As far as I can remember it worked very well; one day Shrimp took on two of his bullies and gave them both black eyes. They didn't bother him again. I seem to recall that I was in favour of changing his nickname to Tiger after that victory but Shrimp suited him – he was such a short, skinny little kid…and now he's an AD at the FBI?" He shook his head, clearly amazed.

"Maybe our boxing lessons set him on the path to righteous justice," the President mused. "Of course nowadays we have different methods for dealing with bullies but back then it was the survival of the strongest – in that school at least." The light faded from his eyes and Josh was reminded that the President's childhood hadn't been the happiest.

"That's such a nice story," Josh commented, trying to lighten the sombre mood.

"We got sidetracked," Leo remarked, clearly wanting to distract the President from his memories as well. "You were in the middle of telling us about CJ and alien abductions, Josh, and…why on earth did CJ go to the FBI for verification of this ridiculous alien abduction story?"

"They keep figures on it," Josh replied with a shrug.

"They do?" The President looked astounded.

"Yes…apparently they've got a whole department for it called...the..." Josh racked his brains trying to remember. "It began with a letter - the U Files I think."

"What does the U stand for?" Leo looked puzzled.

Josh thought about it for a second. "Unexplained?" he suggested. "No, wait, it wasn't the U Files - it was the X Files.

"Okay, so what does the X stand for?" Leo asked.

Josh spread his arms wide and shrugged, admitting defeat. "You got me."

"The X Files. Sounds more like a TV show than a government department," Leo commented acerbically. "Is this where the tax payers' dollars go? Let's hope they never find out."

"Oh, I don't know. 15% of them would presumably be reassured by it," the President grinned.

"Anyway," Josh continued. "Assistant Director Skinner was very helpful to CJ when she went to see him about the documented figures on alien abductions."

"Ah. So that's why he's on the guest list." Leo nodded sagely.

"Uh, no." Josh grinned. "I think his appearance on the guest list has nothing to do with his helpfulness in supplying statistics and a lot more to do with the fact that CJ was bowled over by the man when she met him. She lectured me on the importance of old-fashioned courtesy and good manners for at least 2 weeks afterwards, so I guess he made an impression."

"Ah. So our shrimp grew up to be something of a ladies' man did he?" The President laughed. "Who'd have thought? Well, all I can say is that I'm looking forward to seeing him again."

"Me too," Leo echoed. "Shrimp." He replaced his glasses and shook his head in wonderment over this blast from the past. "Shrimp Skinner. After all these years."

"It looks as if this party of yours might turn out to be interesting after all," the President said loftily, shooting Leo a sly grin before returning to the Oval Office. Leo rolled his eyes good-naturedly at the President's back as he went.

"Did you want anything in particular, Josh?" Leo asked, glancing at Josh. "How are you feeling anyway?"

"I'm fine. I wish people would stop asking me that," Josh snapped tersely.

"We're worried about you. You've given us all quite a scare lately," Leo commented mildly.

"I know…and I'm sorry, but I'm not made of glass and I'm not going to shatter at any moment so I just wish that people would stop tip-toeing around me. I'm going to be fine."

"Sure you are," Leo said easily. "But it's not as easy as just saying it is it? I'm presuming there's a process."

"Presuming? Don't tell me that you haven't read up on it. It was you who called Stanley in after all," Josh murmured, still leaning uneasily against the doorframe.

"Yes I did and yes I have," Leo nodded. "And there is a process. You don't get better just because someone sits down with you for a day and talks to you. It's harder than that. You'll have some good days and some bad days before you're over this. I just want you to know that I'm here for you on the bad days as well as the good; if you're struggling then tell me. If you need some time off then take it. God knows you've put in the hours over the years."

"I don't want any time off. I think…that would be the worse thing for me right now," Josh sighed. "I just wish everyone would treat me the way they used to."

"They will. You're not the only one who needs time, Josh," Leo replied soothingly.

"Speaking of which…" Josh stuck his hands in his pockets and chewed on his lip for a moment. "Leo, do you really need me at this party tonight?"

"Oh no you don't!" Leo replied swiftly. "You are not getting out of this party, Josh. I am not going through this annual torment from hell without you by my side."

"Leo, you just said I could take some time off!" Josh protested.

"That didn't mean party time. That meant work time," Leo riposted illogically. He glanced up at Josh and then sighed. "Josh, if you really don't want to come then fine - I don't want you to get stressed out about it. It isn't important. I'd just really like you there. We host this - it's the Chief of Staff's New Year's party and you're my deputy." He shrugged. "Look, why don't you just drop in and show your face for half an hour and then leave early? That'll stop the press making something out of your absence. Besides..." He made a face. "It's New Year's Eve, Josh. I don't like the idea of you spending it alone."

Josh gave a little smile. That last sentence was the crux of the matter and he was touched by Leo's concern. "I'll be there," he said softly.

"Good. You'll enjoy it when you're there -and that's an order." He grinned at Josh who sighed heavily, realising that on this occasion there would be no way out. A thought occurred to him and he tensed.

"Will there be music?" he asked, his heart pounding in his chest.

"Yup. It's a party after all. The Marine Corps Band will be doing the honours," Leo said.

Josh nodded glumly. "Okay," he murmured, before turning on his heel and leaving the room. He wasn't entirely sure how he felt about attending the party. A part of him wanted to go to prove to all of them that he was okay – to prove to himself that he was okay - but another part of him was scared that he'd freak out and do something stupid. He wasn't sure of himself any more and it frightened him. He used to know exactly what he was and how he'd respond in certain situations but not any more. Now it was as if he'd become a stranger to himself and he didn't know how to deal with it.

Josh returned to his office, shut the door behind him, and gazed at the tux lying on the chair. He wondered what response he'd have to the music. Surely now he knew that he was equating music to the sound of sirens, he'd be able to control that response - to have some kind of handle on the adrenaline surges, the flashbacks, and the memory of those bullets ripping through his body. The urge to test himself was overwhelming, and Josh knew that he had to go to the party, had to face up to his demons, to see just how much a stranger to himself he'd become. He might not like it, but he had to do it.

*****

Josh tugged at the stiff, formal collar of his shirt and surveyed the hall. It was packed with people and the sounds of voices and laughter – and, in the distance, music. Josh took a deep breath. He'd been at the party for over an hour and thus far he was doing fine. He'd shaken a lot of hands, nodded until he thought his head would drop off, and there was a fake smile plastered to his face that was making the muscles in his cheeks spasm, but at least the party was going well. The arrival of the President livened up the event – that man knew how to work a room and his very presence sent a buzz around the party that was almost tangible. Josh smiled, remembering a time when he'd been impressed by the trappings of the Presidency – not that he didn't respect it now, but when you saw the President on a daily basis you were more aware of the fact that he was a man as well as being the President of the United States, and while Josh still retained some of his youthful awe of the office itself, he had long since stopped being nervous and tongue-tied in the presence of its current occupant.

Josh wandered around the outskirts of the room. He was aware of the sound of the band niggling at the back of his mind, but thus far he was coping with it. He found it was better if he could actually see them playing – if he concentrated he was able to rationalise that it was just music and stop that sick feeling rising in the pit of his stomach and the inevitable accompanying flashbacks to the shooting at Rosslyn. Deep breathing and concentration – that was all it took. He could do that. Easy. Josh took another deep breath and grabbed a glass of sparkling mineral water from a passing waiter – it wouldn't be a good idea to drink anything stronger than water this evening; he needed his wits about him if he was to get through it. He knew that if he had told Leo the associations he was making between music and the shooting, that his boss would be sympathetic but that was the whole point – he didn't want Leo's sympathy. He didn't want to be treated differently and he didn't want anyone knowing the details of his counselling session with Stanley. He could handle this. Apart from anything else he didn't want any of them getting the impression that he couldn’t do his job. He loved his job, and if they thought he was having some kind of nervous breakdown then they'd have every right to sideline him. Yes, Leo had said that for as long as he had job then Josh had one too – but the job Josh wanted, the job Josh enjoyed with every fibre of his being, was that of Deputy Chief of Staff. Leo could find a dozen ways to shunt him sideways into a less responsible position if it looked as if Josh couldn't cope…so Josh desperately wanted to convince all of them that coping was exactly what he was doing.

Josh raised his glass to his lips and realised that his hand was shaking. He lowered the glass and looked around to see if anyone had noticed but nobody was standing nearby. He took a deep breath and realised there was sweat rolling down his forehead. Damn! He'd stopped concentrating – he'd allowed his mind to wander, and as a result he could hear the faintest sound of sirens reverberating around the room like a distant echo. It was the most peculiar sensation – on one level he could still hear the band playing but it was overlaid with the faint wailing of sirens. Josh grasped the glass he was holding even more tightly, trying to calm himself.

"Josh – have you found him yet?" Josh jumped, startled, as the voice boomed out by his ear.

"Leo?" He swung around, almost guiltily, but luckily his boss was too engrossed in his mission to notice Josh's behaviour. "Uh, found who?" He asked, keeping his hands firmly by his side, hoping that Leo wouldn't notice their trembling.

"Walter Skinner." Leo grinned jovially. "I have a bet going with the President over who'll find him first. I've distracted the President by throwing him to the head of the Press Reform Committee so I'm guessing he'll be held up for awhile...which means I can go a-hunting."

Leo glanced around the room in a predatory fashion. Josh looked over to where the President was standing with one hand in his pocket and a glum expression on his face, listening to what sounded like a litany of complaints from a tall, blonde woman with a very intricate hairstyle. Every time he tried to move away, the blonde lady started talking again and he was too much the gentleman to cut her short without good reason.

"So you haven't seen him?" Leo asked. Josh shook his head.

"I don't even know what he looks like. Why don't you go and ask CJ? At least she's met him," Josh advised. His fingers were starting to ache, clamped tightly as they were around the glass he was holding. He hoped it wouldn't snap – he could do without another cut hand. The stitches from the incident of a week or so ago when he had smashed his hand through his apartment window were only just healing.

"Good idea." Leo nodded. "You doing okay, Josh?" He asked, gazing at his deputy searchingly. Josh nodded and gave his brightest smile.

"I'm fine. We throw a good party," he commented.

Leo grunted. "Any time you want to leave then just go," he said.

"Leo, I told you, I'm fine," Josh protested, just a bit too testily, desperately wanting Leo to go so that he could get control of himself again and find a way to deal with the sounds that were building up in his mind.

"Okay. Why don't you find Sam? Someone should keep an eye on Sam," Leo muttered darkly, although Josh saw through the ruse easily enough. It wasn't he who would be keeping an eye on Sam but the reverse. Leo was clearly worried about him and didn't want him spending any time on his own. Leo gave him another searching look and then headed off to seek out CJ.

Josh took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. The music had risen to a crescendo of wailing sirens inside his head – his own fault for not concentrating more – and his hands were trembling in earnest now. His mouth was dry but he didn't risk raising the glass of water to his mouth. He needed to get out of here, to get some fresh air…Josh looked around, his movements jerky and becoming increasingly frantic. He knew that if he stayed here much longer he might panic and do something stupid and that was the last thing he needed in such a public place. He spied some large French windows leading out onto a portico, and pushed his way across the thronged room towards them. He could hear his breathing coming in hard rasps and his hands were shaking hard now. If he closed his eyes he knew he'd feel those bullets ripping into his chest, and then he'd be falling, and there would be the sound of sirens all around him, and… Josh reached the safety of the French windows and ran out into the cold night air. He gulped for breath as if he was drowning, and stood there for a moment, trying to calm himself. He knew what this was about, he understood his own condition, he was an intelligent man; he should be able to do this, damnit! His own weakness disgusted him. It was just music…nothing else. It couldn't really hurt him. That had already been done…he'd already been hurt…it was over. He was safe. He was in a room full of people including the President's security staff…he was safe…and yet he'd been surrounded by people at Rosslyn, and the President's security staff had been there then - and he'd still been shot.

Josh's limbs felt as if they'd turned to lead as he struggled to get enough oxygen into his lungs to be able to move further away from the sound of the band. He lunged towards a stone balustrade and rested on it, grateful for the support. His throat was dry and he longed to drink the water in the glass he was still carrying. He tried to raise it to his lips but his hand was shaking too much and he was very much afraid that he was going to pass out.

What happened next was clouded by confusion, but suddenly he felt a strong hand under his arm and then the glass was whisked out of his hand and pressed against his parched lips. He thought that maybe Sam had come to his rescue, and took several gulps of the water. His head started to clear almost immediately, and he leaned for a moment against a solid wall of flesh, trying to get his breath back. When his vision cleared he saw, to his dismay, that he had been rescued by a complete stranger…and that was when he stopped breathing for the second time that evening because the stranger literally took his breath away.

He was a big man, the starched white shirt under his tuxedo stretched tautly across an impossibly broad chest - but what Josh noticed first were his eyes; dark and warm as molten chocolate, they gazed at him sympathetically from behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. Josh felt a strange sense of calm seep into his veins; he knew instinctively that this was a man he could trust – and that wasn't a feeling he got all that often working in his profession. Josh was startled by his reaction – it had been a long time since he'd allowed himself to be attracted to anyone and he was taken completely by surprise by the force of the emotion.

"Thanks," he managed to gasp out. "I'm sorry…I don't know what happened…I think maybe it was the heat in there." He moved a shaking hand to his head and tried to neaten up his tousled hair. He could see from his reflection in the stranger's glasses that it was standing on end and he looked like some kind of mad professor.

"Are you okay now?" The man was still grasping his elbow in a big hand, keeping him up, and the warmth of human contact comforted Josh.

"I'm fine…I don’t…I'm sorry…I…" Josh held onto the balustrade for dear life. He was usually such an articulate man that his current pathetic condition unsettled him. What made it worse was that he wasn't sure if he was rendered speechless more because of his panic attack or because of his overwhelming attraction to the man standing next to him.

"It's okay. Just take your time." The big man gave a little smile that lit his sombre face like a beacon. Josh gazed at his white teeth, transfixed. Now that the danger of passing out was receding, he took the opportunity to study his rescuer in more detail. The other man must have been approaching 50, but he wore his years well. The set of his shoulders indicated that he was a man used to bearing responsibility – too much responsibility maybe, judging by the fine worry lines around his eyes. He was almost bald, but somehow that just added to the attraction. What was left of his hair was a silky, dark grey fringe around the back of his head. His jaw was firm, hinting at a strong will and a possibly obstinate personality, but that was tempered by the empathy in those dark brown eyes. Josh felt that this man knew everything about him…and understood, and it was that understanding that touched him to the core. The stranger's tux was immaculate, revealing his impossibly wide shoulders and then tapering to a slim waist and long, lean legs.

"Do you want me to get someone for you?" The stranger asked. His voice was deep and concerned, and he was gazing at Josh intently.

"No!" Josh said, too quickly. "No, I'll be fine," he added in less frantic tones. "Like I said, it was just hot in there."

"Uh huh." The stranger's eyes told him that he knew he was lying and Josh flushed. It was as if someone had looked into his soul. "No offence, and I don't want to intrude but…" The big man paused, and then gently touched Josh's shaking hand where it rested on the balustrade. "I know the symptoms of PTSD when I see them," the stranger said softly.

Josh felt as if he'd been shot all over again. Was it that obvious? Was he walking around with PTSD written all over his forehead? How could a complete stranger know this about him? Worse than that – supposing this man was from the press? Supposing this got out? All the trust he'd felt a few moments before dissipated and he drew his hand away angrily.

"Who are you? What the hell do you know about me? Did Leo talk to you? Did someone ask you to keep an eye on me? Are you a journalist? Did Stanley send you to check up on me?"

The big man took a step back, giving him his space, raising his hands calmingly as he did so. "Nobody told me anything. I was a Marine - in Vietnam," he said softly, and Josh felt as if the whole world had stopped. There was just him, and this quiet-voiced stranger; this stranger who seemed to have stepped out of nowhere to rescue him, this stranger who seemed to know him, who understood what he was going through because he'd been there himself. "I'm not a journalist," the big man added quietly. "I'm sorry I startled you…but I recognise you from the papers. You're Josh Lyman aren't you?"

Josh glanced at his shaking hands and shook his head. "I used to be," he murmured.

"You still are. Are you getting help for this?" The stranger gestured with his head to Josh's shaking hands. Josh nodded.

"Yeah. I saw someone…Christmas Eve…I haven't seen anyone since. They're making an appointment for me. Soon." He shrugged. "It isn't serious," he told the stranger defensively.

The big man's eyes were infinitely compassionate as he saw through the bravado. He nodded and they were silent for awhile and then he cleared his throat and started to speak and Josh was taken completely by surprise by what he said next.

"When I got out of the hospital after returning from Vietnam I went to the barber for a trim. I sat in the chair, just a 19 year old kid doing something he'd done a hundred times before…only this time…it was a hot day, and there was a fan whirring around on the ceiling. The barber started to cut my hair and the sound of that fan grew closer and closer, and all I could hear was the sound of helicopters coming lower and lower and I ducked. I swear I ducked out of that chair and hid under the counter with a nasty looking chunk missing from my hair where I'd jogged the barber's hand. I was shaking…it took them ten minutes to talk me out from under there. I really believed I was back in 'Nam. People didn't know much about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder back then – folks thought I'd gone crazy, but I got through it. You will too. Nowadays they understand about it – you'll get good help. You'll be fine." That deep voice was so soothing that Josh found himself relaxing.

"How did you get over it?" He asked, glancing at the big man beside him. "How did they even treat it back then?"

"They admitted me to a VA hospital for a psych evaluation but clearly I wasn't crazy - or I wasn't crazy enough so they released me again. Apart from that there was no treatment. I learned to cope. I had good folks. They encouraged me to apply for college and then kept me studying to distract me. It took a long time but I got better. A few years ago I…" He hesitated and then squared his shoulders and continued. "I had some bad nightmares. I thought it might be PTSD returning and saw someone about it."

"And was it that?" Josh asked, fascinated by the man.

"No. It turned out to be something else." The stranger took a deep gulp of the amber liquid in his glass. "But they gave me some counselling – that's when I realised how treatment had moved on in the years since I was that 19 year old kid. I did some research…" The big man paused again, as if not entirely sure why he was telling a complete stranger all this. Josh gave him a smile, encouraging him to continue. "In my spare time…I looked into the history of PTSD. I don't know why. Maybe having those nightmares reminded me of Nam – I wanted to look into my experience there in more detail. Did you know that they used to call it shellshock? Back in World War One, when the soldiers went home shaking, they thought it was because of the noise of the shells dropping on the trenches. Noise can trigger it of course, but that wasn't why those men trembled."

"No," Josh agreed. "With me it's the music," he murmured, relieved to finally be able to tell someone. He hadn't told anyone the full details of what had happened between him and Stanley in that room on Christmas Eve. "I don't hear it as music – it gets kind of…scrambled up in my brain. I hear police sirens instead and that just throws me back there, to the shooting, and then I'm being shot all over again, and I'm falling…it's the falling that scares me, because I have no control over my body. Everything hurts and I'm so helpless." He gazed up at his rescuer, and the big man nodded, understanding.

"The attempted assassination at Rosslyn?" He asked.

Josh nodded, wondering why he was sharing all this with someone he didn't know – CJ would give him a lecture that lasted all the way into the next century if she found out.

"I remember getting the page calling me into the office about 2 minutes after the shooting. I'm just glad that we found the bastards who did it," the stranger said.

Josh glanced up sharply. "We?" He asked.

"I'm sorry – I should have introduced myself. My name is Walter Skinner. I'm an Assistant Director at the FBI." Skinner held out his hand and Josh gazed at him blindly, his mouth opening and closing like a startled goldfish. So this was Walter Skinner? All he could think of as he shook the other man's large paw of a hand, was that Leo had said this guy had been a tiny runt of a kid --- and he wanted to laugh.

At that moment, Sam appeared on the portico.

"There you are. Leo sent me to look for you. He doesn't want you to miss out on any of the hard work…uh, I mean 'fun'. Yes – fun. I think that's the word he used." Sam grinned. "In other words he thinks you're shirking, Josh."

Josh shook his head, seeing through the all too transparent ploy to check up on him and see if he was okay. His colleagues' concern for him touched him even at the same time as he resented it.

"I'm fine. I was just talking to…" He was about to introduce Skinner when Leo came charging out of the French windows towards them.

"Josh are you okay?" He asked, an anxious note in his voice.

"Leo, I'm fine," Josh answered for what felt like the 100th time that evening. He wished Leo would stop asking.

"Did Sam tell you I was looking for you?" Leo demanded..

"Yes…" Josh began but Leo interrupted him.

"Then why didn't you come and find me?"

"Uh, because Sam only told me about 10 seconds ago," Josh informed him. Sam smiled seraphically. Leo grunted. Josh was about to sidetrack the conversation by telling Leo he'd found the famous and not so shrimp-like Walter Skinner when the President joined them, accompanied by his usual contingent of secret service agents.

"Leo, I swear if you introduce me to any more people who think they can run this country better than me then I'll hand them the keys to the White House and tell them to go right ahead," the President grumbled.

"Technically speaking you don't actually have any keys to the White House, sir," Leo pointed out. "There are always people there to open the door for you."

"Don't change the subject, Leo," the President replied. "Just tell me whether you've found him."

"Found who, sir?" Sam asked innocently.

"Walter Skinner. He's this little guy we were at school with." The President measured his hand at a height somewhere around his waist. "He was so small we used to call him Shrimp."

"I think it's reasonable to assume that he grew at some point in the past 40 years, sir," Leo observed dryly.

"He did, sir," an amused voice said from the shadows behind them. Josh grinned as the big man stepped forward.

"Allow me to introduce Assistant Director Walter Skinner," Josh said waving a hand around expansively. The President and Leo both did a double take as they took in the size and sight of the man they'd been so unexpectedly introduced to.

"Josh, perhaps I should remind you that one of the duties of a Deputy Chief of Staff is to help your President avoid making an ass of himself in social situations," the President told him in an exasperatedly amused tone as he walked forward, holding out his hand to Skinner. The big man took it and shook it warmly. "My god it's good to see you again after all these years, Walter. I'll refrain from saying 'my how you've grown', although it is still a shock to me. Last time I saw you, you were so high." He measured his hand against his waist again with a laugh.

"I was only 10 at the time, Mr. President," Skinner pointed out. "Leo McGarry – it's great to see you again. You both saved my life when I was 10 years old and I've never forgotten that. You would have gotten my vote for that reason alone, sir." He nodded respectfully to the President while he shook Leo's hand. The President grinned, and slapped Skinner's arm.

"We have some catching up to do, Shrimp," he said. Josh laughed out loud at anyone addressing this tall, broad, dignified man as anything as incongruous as 'shrimp'. Only the President of the United States could dare to do it and get away with it. Skinner seemed amused by it as well and Josh felt a pang of loss as the three men walked off together, chatting animatedly about the past. He had connected with Skinner out here on the portico, and he felt as if there was something unfinished between them. Josh had never met anyone else with PTSD, and he desperately wanted to talk through his fears and experiences with someone who understood – and he was honest enough with himself to admit that he also wanted to be the focus of that intense, dark-eyed, concerned gaze again. In fact, he didn't think he'd ever tire of that.

 

Josh managed to slip away from the party an hour or so later. He was just shouldering himself into his overcoat when he felt a hand on his arm

"Josh?" He swung around and found himself drowning in those dark eyes again. "We didn't get to finish our conversation. If you…" the big man paused, as if he wasn't sure of himself and that just endeared him to Josh even more. "I know I felt very alone when I came back from Vietnam. It would have helped if I'd known that what I was experiencing wasn't unusual – that other people had experienced it too. So…if you wanted to continue our conversation, here's my card. My, uh, home number's on the back." He slipped the card into Josh's hand and then they both stood there looking stupidly at each other for a moment.

"Thanks," Josh murmured, feeling awkward.

"Well…the President has invited me back to the Residence to reminisce about our schooldays so…I should…" The big man gestured with his head back to the party.

"Yes. Of course." Josh nodded. Skinner's eyes flashed with an unreadable emotion behind the wirerims, and then he nodded in response, turned on his heel, and left. Josh didn't take his eyes off that broad back until it was out of sight.

*****

Josh woke at 6am as usual, and cursed his body clock for not recognising the day as a national holiday. He lay looking at the ceiling for a few minutes and then decided that he wasn't going to get any more sleep so he got up. His tux was sprawled over a chair in the corner of his bedroom, his shirt, socks and shoes abandoned in a pile on the floor beside them. He had been so tired from the effort of keeping himself together at the party that he had dropped exhausted into bed as soon as he got home. Josh took a shower to freshen up, and then wrapped himself in his robe and began tidying up his clothes. As he put the jacket of his tux on its hanger, he was reminded of the dark eyed stranger he'd met the previous night, and he slipped his fingers into the pocket of the jacket and withdrew the business card his rescuer had handed to him.

Walter Skinner

Assistant Director, FBI.

Josh sat down on the side of his bed and turned the tiny square of card over in his fingers. On the reverse was a telephone number written in a firm hand in black ink. An image rose immediately in his mind of a pair of concerned chocolate brown eyes and the clean scent of a distinctive aftershave. He remembered the way Walter Skinner had felt so firm and solid and real as he had held him up, and he flushed as he remembered the unexpected surge of attraction he'd felt for the other man. Josh gazed at the card for a long time, then crumpled it up in his hand and threw it in the trash. This was a complication he could do without. In a few days he'd see a shrink, and while he didn't think for one moment that it would be easy working through his problems in therapy, at least it wouldn't mean him confronting the side of himself that he'd kept carefully buried in his pursuit of a high profile political career…or would it?

Josh lay back on the bed with a sigh and gazed at the ceiling once more. Could he seriously expect to conceal his sexuality from a therapist? Wouldn't it harm the very process of healing if he did? He closed his eyes, unable to shut out the feel of Walter Skinner's hand on his elbow, or the memory of the way the big man's shirt had stretched so tautly across his broad chest. There had been something so warm, so real and vital and alive about Skinner – and something intensely sexual about the effect Skinner had on him. Josh reasoned with himself that this was about being vulnerable – Walter Skinner had just happened to turn up when he was struggling with this PTSD thing and now he was knee-deep in a classic case of transference. Josh was savvy enough with all the psychobabble to suspect that he was avoiding his PTSD by resurrecting his old concerns about his feeling towards other men. It had been so long since he had allowed himself those feelings – last night had been an aberration, caused by his panic. Josh reasoned, intellectually, that this had to be why he had felt such strong emotions towards somebody he had only just met, someone he barely knew, but in his heart he wasn't convinced. He got up, went over to the waste paper basket and fished out the business card, then sat back on the bed and smoothed out the crumpled card, gazing at the handwritten number on it for so long that he soon had it memorised. It had felt good to talk to someone who understood, someone he connected with. He had been hiding his flashbacks to the shooting at Rosslyn for a long time; he couldn't talk to any of his closest friends because they were also his colleagues, and he didn't dare open up the floodgates to them in case they thought he couldn't do his job. Walter Skinner's dark, compassionate eyes had been those of a man who'd been there, done that – and had the emotional scars to prove it. Yet he was also big, solid, and reassuring – he'd suffered and come out the other side, and Josh wanted desperately to know that he would too.

Josh glanced at the clock on the nightstand. 7am. It was surely too early to call…and yet once he had made up his mind that was what he was going to do, he wanted to do it immediately, before he lost his nerve. Deciding that 7am was definitely too early to call on New Year's Day, he returned to his tidying up, put his tux away in the closet, shaved, got dressed, and then glanced at the clock again. 8.15. Still too early? He chewed it over and then decided he couldn't wait any longer. He picked up the phone and dialled.

"Skinner," a drowsy voice answered, several rings later. "Mulder, this had better be good," the voice added grumpily.

"Uh…it isn't, uh - Mulder? - Mr. Skinner, it's Josh. Josh Lyman. We met last night. I'm sorry. I've called you way too early. I'll call back later."

"No. Wait…" Josh heard the sounds rustling as Skinner presumably sat up in bed. "Sorry…the President kept offering me an expensive brand of whisky last night so I'm not entirely compos mentis."

"You could have said no," Josh commented jokingly.

"To the President of the United States? I wouldn't dare!" Skinner replied in an amused tone. "And besides, it was very good whisky so I'm not sure I wanted to...although I'm suffering for it this morning…is it morning?"

Josh gave a wry laugh. "Yes it is and please let me apologise again. I just…" He screwed up his face and gazed at the ceiling once more, and then fell silent.

"You want to talk?" Skinner's voice was deep and a little gruff, marking a change in tone from their previous light banter. Josh liked light banter. He felt safe with it, familiar. It was the language of his working life...and he knew he had a tendency to hide behind it. He couldn't let that happen this time. It was pointless to call Skinner and then to back off from the really tough stuff.

"I…yes." At least that was honest, but Josh had never felt like more of a total idiot than he did at this moment in time.

"You live anywhere near Crystal City?" Skinner asked.

"Not far," Josh shrugged, wishing the world would open up and swallow him.

"All right. Give me an hour and then come over. We'll go out – grab something to eat, and then we can talk some more."

Skinner gave Josh an address, which Josh only barely listened to – he was too busy cringing inside at having so brazenly invited himself into this man's life for reasons which he didn't entirely understand himself.

"Okay. See you later," he mumbled, finishing the call. He threw the phone down on the bed and then flung himself down beside it. Christ – what was he playing at? Did he really want to see Skinner to talk about his newly diagnosed condition or was he just fooling himself because he found his rescuer of the previous evening so damn attractive? And did that really justify him barging his way into the other man's New Year's Day at this time of the morning?

*****

Whatever the answers to his questions, Josh found himself driving out to Crystal City an hour later, dressed in pair of faded blue jeans and a pale lemon coloured sweatshirt and jacket. He didn't usually pay much attention to his own appearance but on this occasion had found himself spending more time than usual in front of the mirror struggling to get his unruly hair in order and checking that he looked halfway decent. He didn't fool himself that he was the most attractive man in the world, but he figured he looked okay.

Skinner lived on the 17th floor of a plush apartment block called Viva Towers. Josh stood outside the building for a long time, wondering what the hell he was doing here, and then squared his shoulders and went in. He wanted to see Skinner, needed to see him, more than he dreaded what the consequences might be – even if it resulted in him making a total ass of himself in front of a man he wanted very much to impress.

The doorman had his name on a list of expected visitors and waved him into the elevator. Josh cursed as he realised it was one of those elevators with a mirror interior. The obsessive side of his personality took over as he surveyed himself at all angles, wondering whether it would show if he developed a hard on just from standing next to Skinner in the elevator on their way back down…or maybe he was exaggerating his attraction, maybe in the cold light of day he'd come to his senses and be able to push these feelings back down and put that tight lid back on his sexuality the way he was usually so adept at doing. The flashing numbers of the floors passed all too quickly and Josh's heart flipped as it pinged on the 17th floor and opened. He stepped out onto a tastefully decorated landing, with a plush turquoise carpet and walked hesitantly down it, wondering, too late, whether he should have brought something – but what, seriously, did you bring someone when you visited them at 9.30 am on New Year's Day?

He found the right apartment and stood outside it for a second, and then, his throat dry, knocked on the door. He cursed himself for being the kind of man who could draft an entire political manifesto and deal with a dozen recalcitrant congressmen before lunch, but who floundered so abjectly in an emotional arena. At that moment the door opened and Josh knew that he was lost. Any hopes he might have had of squashing his attraction to Skinner went to the four winds as he surveyed the man in front of him.

Skinner had clearly just taken a shower and shaved as well because he smelt crisply, sparklingly clean. He was as tall as Josh remembered him from the previous night – but it wasn't so much his height as his breadth that took Josh's breath away. Skinner was wearing in a tight blue sweatshirt, which did nothing to hide how wide and solid his chest was. The shirt was tucked into Skinner's black jeans – in a strangely tidy gesture for such a rugged man. It was the big man's dark eyes that were Josh's undoing though, as they had been the previous night. He wasn't wearing his glasses, and those brown eyes were naked, full of warmth – and totally welcoming. Josh gazed into them, suddenly not knowing what to say.

"Come in, Josh – sorry, I'm not quite ready. Need to put something on my feet," Skinner said, filling the awkward silence, and, looking down, Josh noticed for the first time that the other man was barefoot – something that set his heart racing for reasons he didn't understand. Skinner's feet were oddly graceful compared to the large expanse of the rest of him, with incongruously dainty toes, and Josh knew he was in deep when he found himself wondering what it would be like to suck on them. Skinner, clearly having no idea what lascivious thoughts were going through his guest's mind, showed Josh into a living room and then disappeared up a flight of stairs.

Josh glanced around. The apartment was tidy and yet lived in. It felt warm and welcoming. He went over to the window and stared glumly out onto a balcony. Great, he thought mournfully. First you stalk this guy, and then you morph into some kind of foot fetishist. What next? What other embarrassments could possibly be in store for him on this day? He should go. Now. Before it got any worse. That was what his head told him, but his heart, after a lifetime of doing what it was told by his more rational side, discovered that it had found something it wanted to hang around for and it wasn't about to take orders from his head on this subject – and thus his feet stayed planted exactly where they were until Skinner returned to the living room a couple of minutes later.

"I know a place just around the block," Skinner said, shouldering his way into a jacket. He had a pair of heavy black boots on his feet and his wirerims were hooked into place on his face. "We can go there to eat."

"Sure. Fine." Josh shrugged. "Look, I must apologise again for calling you like that this morning. I just realised that I have no idea whether you're married, have kids you want to spend the day with or what…I'm sorry for just barging into your life like this."

"Josh, it's fine." Skinner gave him a genuine smile, revealing a set of straight white teeth. "I live alone. I had no plans for today. I'm glad you called – really."

He opened the door and held out his hand to usher Josh through. Josh felt his heart do another little somersault. Well, at least the object of his affection was unattached – or it seemed that way. And he was glad he'd called? Skinner gave a little chuckle behind him as they left the apartment.

"What?" Josh turned, wondering if he'd spoken that last thought out loud.

"Sorry, I was just thinking of the number of times I've been woken up or called out unexpectedly – this is the first time I've ever received an apology!" Skinner sounded amused.

"Work?" Josh found himself relaxing in the big man's company.

"Yes. Usually." Skinner grimaced. "Or at least work related if not technically the job itself. Or Mulder related which is the same thing usually."

"Mulder? You mentioned him earlier when I phoned. He's your boss?" Josh asked.

Skinner gave a great guffaw of laughter as he pressed the elevator button. "No – although sometimes he acts like he thinks he is. He's one of the agents under my supervision."

"Oh. Right." Josh realised, when he thought about it, that being an Assistant Director at the FBI was a pretty powerful job. He was so used to meeting people in jobs even more powerful that he hadn't even considered that aspect of Skinner's life. "The President told me a story about how he and Leo taught you how to box when you were a kid?" He said. Skinner nodded, a smile full of memories playing on his lips.

"I still box in a gym when I get the time," he said. "It's my favourite way of keeping fit."

"I think the President wondered whether they'd set you on the path to a career in law enforcement by teaching you how to deal with the bad guys." Josh leaned back against the wall of the elevator and studied Skinner as they rode down to the ground floor. The other man's eyes were thoughtful – Josh had intended his comment to be a source of wry amusement, but Skinner seemed to be taking it at face value.

"Maybe they did in a way." Skinner nodded. "They certainly taught me how to take care of myself and god knows I needed that lesson back then. For reasons which escape me now, I was a year younger than the other kids in my class and I didn't hit my first major growth spurt until I was 15."

"I bet the President loved talking to you last night." Josh smiled, knowing how welcome both Leo and the President would have made Skinner.

"It was good to see them both again. When Bartlet first won the Presidency I wondered if I'd run into them during the course of our work. It didn't feel right to approach either of them, and I didn't think they'd remember me anyway. I was surprised last night to hear I'd been the topic of conversation – and a bet, I gather, which you won by default I think!"

"I wasn't in on the bet." Josh grinned widely. "If I had I'd be at the White House right now, collecting my winnings. It isn't often that anyone wins a bet against Leo McGarry - he only bets when he's sure he can win!"

Skinner chuckled and shook his head, clearly delighted by the events of the previous evening.

*****

They walked a couple of blocks until then they reached Skinner's diner and went inside. Skinner was clearly known in the diner because the waitress addressed him as "Walter" which seemed somehow incongruous to Josh and he didn't know why – maybe because this man seemed to carry so much weight and authority that he was surprised that everyone didn't address him as "sir"…which, now he came to think of it, was how they addressed the President. Skinner had that same air of innate natural authority - Leo had it too. Maybe it was bred into them at that school they'd all attended, Josh thought, wishing he had a similar bearing himself, and wondering if it was something you could naturally acquire as you got older. Not that he couldn't kick ass himself, and very effectively too in the right circumstances, but he didn't radiate quite that same aura of power and confidence that Skinner, McGarry and Bartlet seemed to so effortlessly exude. Skinner for his part, addressed the waitress as "Susan", and smiled and nodded when she asked if he'd have his usual brunch.

"I'd recommend the steak and eggs." Skinner pointed to the menu. "It's the house speciality – I eat it far too often than is good for me." He gave a wry grunt and patted his washboard stomach, which didn't seem to be showing any ill effects from such a diet. Josh agreed to have the steak as well, not caring much one way or the other. They both ordered coffees and then a silence fell over the table.

Josh began to make small talk, chatting easily about the Washington power circles they were both familiar with, keeping it on safe territory – he knew exactly where he was when talking about his job and it was a relief to sound confident and knowledgeable, when he felt so lost and at sea emotionally. His job and his intellect were his anchors. He knew he'd be fine if he could only talk about his work all morning, but as he babbled on and on he noticed Skinner's dark eyes studying him intently from behind the wirerims. They were warm and kind – but they were also knowing, as if the other man sensed his inner turmoil. Skinner was seeing through him as easily as if he were made of glass. Josh came to a sudden halt in mid-sentence, and gazed down at his own hands. When he ventured a glance up again, those dark eyes with their watchful gaze startled him into reaching for a glass of water with a shaking hand. He was suddenly aware that Skinner's life experience had been a very different one from his own. As a politician he did the rounds, made the calls, and talked all the double talk that was expected of him – but this man wasn't a political animal of the same ilk. Sure, Josh suspected that Walter Skinner had been required to play a political game to get to where he was today, but he had made his career progression through the ranks of the FBI, had interrogated people in cells and looked beneath the surface, to uncover the truth. Walter Skinner knew bullshit when he heard it – he wasn't someone who played the smart Washington powerbroker game; Walter Skinner sat on a different side of the government fence entirely.

"Sorry. I talk too much when I'm nervous. I'm not comfortable with this recent diagnosis," Josh said honestly. He wondered whether he'd regret his honesty later; he knew nothing about Skinner after all – didn't even know what Skinner's political allegiance was. While his head knew that just talking to Skinner was dangerous, his heart didn't care, and didn’t want to stop. He had kept his heart in a box for too long, and, now it was paying him back for the long years of neglect.

"That's understandable. When I thought I was experiencing a resurgence of it a few years back, I was uncomfortable with it too," Skinner told him. "Like you, I was worried about my career."

"What happened? You mentioned it last night." Josh looked up at the other man and was surprised to catch a flash of pain in those dark eyes.

"It was a bad time for me. There was a systematic attempt to discredit me at the Bureau that nearly ended in my wife's death. I was under a great deal of stress. I…" Skinner paused and looked at Josh as if weighing up whether to trust him or not. Josh was suddenly aware that he wasn't the only one who might have something to lose from talking openly to a complete stranger. "I wondered whether I was hallucinating," Skinner finished quietly. "But the truth is that I didn't want to accept what might be happening to me – there are some parts of my past that I preferred to forget."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry," Josh told him quickly, wondering where Skinner's wife was now, his heart plummeting hopelessly as he considered the complete stupidity of falling for someone who was clearly irrevocably and ruggedly heterosexual.

"No, it's fine. It was a long time ago," Skinner shrugged.

Their meal arrived and they ate in silence for a while.

"I've just never met anyone with PTSD. That's why I called," Josh explained when the silence started to feel oppressive. Skinner had a mouthful of food. He considered that statement as he silently chewed and Josh felt himself starting to flush. That wasn't entirely the truth, and somehow he felt as if Skinner knew that. Those dark eyes seemed to search his face for what was hidden, as if Skinner had long years of experience at looking under the surface and searching for what was not said.

"You've never met anyone you knew had PTSD - that's a different thing, Josh," Skinner told him when he'd finished swallowing. "It isn't like some kind of brand you wear on your forehead. You can get your life back to normal, and the vast majority of people will never know. Trust me."

Josh gave the faintest glimmer of a smile. He did. He knew instinctively that he would trust this man with his life.

"I'm also happy to help in any way I can," Skinner murmured. He took a sip of his water, regarding Josh keenly. "But I'm wondering why you called me. You'll have a therapist to talk to soon."

"I've been going crazy. I put my hand through a window." Josh turned his palm face up so that Skinner could see the healing scar. "I have no control over the flashbacks. That's what scares me, Walter."

Skinner nodded, his eyes compassionate once more, and Josh realised that as long as he was honest, Skinner responded to him – but the moment he lied or told a half truth it was as if the other man knew, and backed off as a result.

"I'm used to being in control – I mean, I'm Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House for god's sake – and I love my job. That's why this freaks me out. I don't want them deciding I'm unstable, that I have to be…" Josh paused. "Replaced," he said in a tone barely above a whisper. Skinner had laid his knife and fork down and was studying Josh intently, giving him his full attention; Josh felt almost as if he was being rewarded for his honesty, and didn't regret baring his soul to this handsome stranger.

"I understand. I've been close to losing my own job at times." A shadow passed over Skinner's face. "It’s a complicated situation…but you don't get to be an Assistant Director at the FBI without making enemies along the way. I fight to stay where I am all the time because I have to be there, because I know that nobody else can do the job as well as I can." There was a fierce pride in Skinner's voice. "And because I know that I'm on the side of the people without a voice – the victims of injustice, the weak. Without me they have one less person fighting their corner."

Josh felt his heart do an almost lazy, sweeping whoosh in his chest. Skinner couldn't have said anything more likely to attract him. He already knew that he found the man physically attractive, but now he knew they were connecting on a level that transcended that – on a level that was at the fundamental core of Josh Lyman's soul.

"I feel the same way," he said, and it sounded lame for such a profound truth.

"But Leo McGarry isn't the kind of man who'd fire you for struggling with the consequences of being shot in the line of duty," Skinner said firmly.

"No. Please don't misunderstand me – Leo's been fantastic. It isn't him. It's me. I'm worried about my ability to do my job," Josh admitted, and he was aware as he said it that it was a truth he hadn't admitted even to himself – so he was startled to find himself admitting it to this man sitting opposite him. Skinner sat back in his chair and dabbed with his napkin at his chin.

"Josh, one of the symptoms of PTSD is a lack of confidence. When I came back from Vietnam I really felt worthless - good for nothing. People weren't exactly tripping over themselves to hire me to work for them. That war was not a popular one – and a lot of people viewed my decision to enlist and fight with suspicion. I felt useless. I couldn't control my flashbacks or the shaking in my hands - and the endless sleepless nights, the nightmares, the over-reaction to harmless everyday sights and sounds and the feeling of being disconnected and somehow out of sync with the rest of the world - none of that helped me feel any more confident. But I got better, Josh, and you will too. You haven't changed as much as you think you have - you're still the same smart man who did his job so excellently before Rosslyn. You just need to give yourself the time and patience – and compassion, to understand that."

Josh stared at Skinner. He had only ever viewed compassion as something you bestowed on someone else – not on yourself. Skinner's dark eyes were fierce, and determined, willing him to believe in himself and for the first time since he started getting flashbacks, he thought that maybe he did. It was as if the shadow that Rosslyn had been casting over his life shifted for just a moment, letting in the sunlight once more, and he thought that for the first time in weeks he could see a way out of the dark.

Josh wasn't entirely sure what happened next. He heard the sound of a woman's scream and then caught sight of a man with a gun at the counter. The man was a blur as he reached into the till, stuffed the contents of it into his jacket, and then began running for the door. Josh found himself getting to his feet, and later he thought it was strange because he felt completely calm. The sight of the gun didn't cause him to flashback to Rosslyn…instead he started running towards the till. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Skinner get to his feet, and, without hesitation, the big man charged out of the door, after the thief. Josh's heart stood still as Skinner caught up with the man in the street. The FBI agent had the element of surprise on his side, and he football-tackled the running man to the ground. The thief went down hard, then turned, trying to get his gun up to fire. He caught Skinner a glancing blow on the jaw with the gun as they struggled, but the big man disarmed him, punching him twice with a casual ease, and then it was all over.

Josh started to breathe again, sucking the air into his lungs like a dying fish. He found Susan sobbing and shaking by the counter, and gently guided her into a chair and brought her a glass of water. Other occupants of the diner were busy punching the buttons on their cellphones, calling the police, and within what seemed like seconds, he heard the sound of sirens…and stiffened. Sirens. Real sirens. He had heard them since Rosslyn but not so close and loud or in such circumstances, and he waited for the flashbacks to claim him. He was shaking as badly as Susan as he felt that shot rip into his chest, felt himself falling all over again, and the sirens were surrounding him with their noise and then there was Toby, finding him - the look of total shock on his face would have been almost comical if it weren't so appalled.

"Josh." A quiet, steady voice broke into the flashback and he jerked back to the present. "Sit down." A firm hand guided him onto a chair and then he found himself looking into Skinner's dark eyes. The big man was crouching in front of him, those beguiling eyes of his flashing with concern behind the glasses. "It's over. The police are taking him away. Nobody got hurt."

"You did." Josh raised a shaking finger and pointed it at Skinner's jaw, where a purple bruise was starting to rise on the tanned flesh.

"I'm fine. I've had a lot worse, believe me."

"Fuck this. Fuck it," Josh hissed, trying to still his hands, roaring out his rage at feeling less of a man for reacting like this. "Christ, you were the one who got hurt, not me. You were the one who chased him out there…I shouldn't be…I have no right…" He clenched his fists in an attempt to stop his hands shaking but his fists just shook instead.

"Stop that," Skinner snapped, in a firm tone. "Josh, I've worked in law enforcement all my adult life. I've been trained to deal with this kind of situation. You haven't. You're a politician."

"That makes it sound even worse," Josh growled. "I can't even handle the sound of fucking sirens without going to pieces while you chase after gunmen like it's nothing."

"Nobody else chased after him. Nobody was expected to," Skinner pointed out. "I had a gun and I had my training. I've faced far worse than a stupid young punk high on crack needing money for his next fix, Josh. This isn't about anyone's courage or the respective merits of their jobs."

"You have a gun?" Josh asked, startled.

"I'm an FBI agent – we have to carry our guns and badges at all times - you know that," Skinner said, his deep voice a soothing oasis of calm amid all the turmoil, his hand resting almost casually on Josh's arm, reassuring him by sheer force of presence. "Look, I think we're done here. Give me a few minutes to check on Susan and speak to the cops and then we'll go back to my apartment."

Josh nodded, the trembling in his body subsiding a little as reality came flooding back in. Looking around the packed, shocked diner he realised that apart from Skinner, he had been the only one who had got up after the attack, the only one who had gone to Susan's aid and that went some way to restoring his battered pride and self-image. What was it Skinner had said just before it happened? Something about compassion…yes - compassion wasn't something you just saved for other people. When he thought about it, with this event coming so soon after he'd nearly died at Rosslyn, he'd have been forgiven for turning to a lump of jelly in his chair, but he hadn't. In fact he'd been surprisingly calm during the crisis. He'd got up, run to offer help – he was still Josh Lyman beneath the trembling hands and sweaty fear – he still helped people. He still tried.

 

"Josh." Skinner was by his side again and he got to his feet and followed the big man out of the diner.

"Will you…" Josh cleared his throat, and glanced at the Assistant Director as they walked along the street. "Will you have to go and give a report on this?" He asked.

"Hell no!" Skinner snorted. "I have no intention of having the rest of my day spoiled by paperwork. I showed the police my badge, told them what happened, and asked to be kept out of it." Josh gave a faded smile at that. "Christ, I'm so sorry," Skinner said, looking down at him. "This was the last thing you needed after what's happened to you. I wish I hadn't chosen that damn diner. I couldn't have made a worse choice if I'd tried."

"I'm fine," Josh said, his still shaking hands and arms belying that statement. "And it wasn't a bad choice, it was a good one for those people in the diner, if not for me. Who knows what might have happened if we hadn't gone there today?"

"Serendipity." Skinner gave a rueful smile. "That sounds like a Mulder concept to me."

Josh wondered who this Mulder person was, or whether he even wanted to find out. It didn't escape his notice that whenever Skinner talked about him, there was always a wistful expression in those dark eyes of his. "Josh, I admire you. Considering what you've been through recently, you coped so well back at the diner. You don't need to worry about coping with your job if you can handle something like that. This..." Skinner put his hand on Josh's trembling arm, "…is just a reaction – an aftermath. It's the way you behaved during the crisis that's important. You should be proud of yourself."

Josh felt as if his heart would swell clean out of his chest. Praise from this man meant something – he sensed that it wasn’t given lightly, or often, but when it was it was utterly sincere. It was similar to the way he felt whenever Leo or the President praised his work – these were men whose good opinion he craved, and whose praise was worth winning. He walked the rest of the way as if he was floating on air.

 

When they got back to Skinner's apartment, the big man poured them both a glass of water and then he sat down as if his legs had been felled out from underneath him, his face pale.

"Are you all right?" Josh asked anxiously, pulling up a chair to the kitchen table.

"Yeah." Skinner took a deep breath. "That's not the first time someone's shot at me in a diner. A few years ago I took a bullet to the gut in similar circumstances. I should really eat in more often," he commented pensively. Josh laughed out loud. He noticed that Skinner's right hand was bruised where he'd punched the thief – and his jaw looked extremely painful.

"Do you have any anti-biotic ointment?" He asked. "I could clean those up for you."

"Thanks. Cupboard under the sink." Skinner gestured with his head and Josh got up, thankful to have something to do to distract him from his own problems. He found some cotton balls, dunked them in the ointment, and then caught hold of Skinner's large hand and dabbed at the knuckles. The big man winced. "Strange – I didn't feel a thing when I was punching that guy but what you're doing really hurts," he said.

"Ah, so you are human after all. I was starting to wonder," Josh grinned. "Hold still." He dabbed at the nasty bruise on Skinner's jaw and the big man tensed. Josh was suddenly aware that he was standing very close – too close. Skinner smelled of sweat and adrenaline and it was a curiously arousing scent. Josh had one hand on Skinner's chin, his long fingers gently clasped around it, and the big man was so near he could have leaned forward and pressed a kiss on that naked scalp…he wanted to do just that. Skinner's eyes were dark as they gazed up at him – brown and full of warmth, and Josh could feel himself drowning in them. His life flashed before him. For so many years he'd hidden this secret, kidded himself that it was because he was scared of losing his career if people found out but that wasn't all of it – he was scared of what lay within himself, of what might happen if he let the genie that was his heart out of its lamp and allowed it to take him places that his more rational self was afraid of.

"I'm so sick of hiding," he whispered, and, in a moment of utter madness, his heart took over, refusing to be kept caged any longer. He moved his hands to gently caress the side of Skinner's face, then leaned forward and pressed his lips against the other man's mouth in one smooth movement. It was like tasting honey - warm, rich and sweet, but the moment was all too brief - and reality came crashing in with a vengeance.

Josh threw down the cotton ball and was halfway out of the door before Skinner even reacted. Then Josh heard the sound of a chair being scraped back behind him and he hurried towards the front door, desperate to be gone, not wanting to face the consequences of what he'd done, fearing the reaction of a very big, very angry Assistant Director of the FBI. He just managed to get the door open when a large hand slammed it shut again, keeping him trapped inside.

"Josh," Skinner voice was low and hard.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean for that to happen. I'm sorry," he muttered, reaching blindly for the door again.

"Josh. Stop." Skinner's hand brushed his own away from the handle but he couldn't look up because his eyes were blinded by tears. "Josh!" Skinner caught hold of his shoulders, took his chin in one of his hands and raised Josh's face to look at him. What Josh saw in the other man's face took him completely by surprise; Skinner's eyes were kind - and full of passion. A few seconds later a warm mouth descended on his own and he hung on as Skinner kissed him more thoroughly than he'd ever been kissed in his life. Surprised, he surrendered, and then began to kiss back, matching Skinner's passion with his own, his mind reeling. When at last they drew back for air, Josh began to laugh, shakily.

"Come with me." Skinner took Josh's hand and led him back to the living room and they both collapsed on the couch, gazing at each other with "what the fuck happens next?" written all over their faces.

"I'm sorry. I don't usually go around making passes at men. In fact…I never do." Josh stopped, shame-faced, knowing he was flushing.

"I don't exactly make a habit of it myself…but…why did you run?" Skinner asked gently, He reached out to put a hand around Josh's shoulder, and stroked the back of his head.

"I thought I'd screwed up - big time. I didn't think you'd…" Josh flushed even more when he remembered the passion in that kiss.

"Josh, I knew there was a spark between us the moment I met you yesterday. I don't give my private phone number to just anyone," Skinner told him. "Not even the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. I thought…I thought you knew there was something more going on."

"I did. I just didn't know you knew it," Josh shook his head. "Walter, I'll be honest with you. I'm not ready to come out as the President's gay Deputy Chief of Staff. I've hidden this for my entire political career. I've even allowed my colleagues to think I've had crushes on some of the women I've worked with…although I think they've started to wonder why I never act on it - or if I do why it never goes anywhere. It's become second nature to me to hide what I am. When I got the PTSD diagnosis…" Josh sighed and leaned his head back further into those questing fingers that were gently caressing his hair. "I thought 'great – one more think I have to hide'. It's been 7 years since I last slept with a man. I'm too scared of being blackmailed."

"The President supports gay rights. He is not going to fire you because you're gay. You could try trusting the people you work with a little more," Skinner pointed out.

"The way you do?" Josh replied. "I'm guessing that you're not exactly out at the FBI."

Skinner gave a grimace and shook his head. "Touche," he said softly. "No. I'm not. I have enough problems there without throwing that into the equation, but I don't lie to myself about it. My marriage ended because I was having a hard time facing up to my sexuality. I loved my wife, but I was attracted to other men. Once we divorced, I felt free for the first time to explore that. It hasn't always been easy…like you, I have a lot to lose. When I met you last night I thought…I'm not sure…I guess I saw a kindred spirit."

"We have a lot in common." Josh shook his head wryly. "High powered jobs, political pressure, stress, a hidden sexuality, PTSD…when I met you I trusted you implicitly and god knows that doesn't happen often. I felt that you understood me." They gazed at each other for a moment, and Josh couldn't keep his eyes off Skinner's lips, wanting to go back for another kiss, yet fearing what would happen if he did.

"Seven years is a long time," Skinner murmured. "Are you going to go for an eighth, or…?" He left the question hanging.

"I think that would be best." Josh reluctantly tore himself away from the caressing fingers in his hair. "I have enough going on in my life right now. I don't think I can handle this too," he said, walking towards the door. If he could just get out of here then he wouldn't have to face this. He could bury it back down and throw himself into his work again, and once more avoid having to deal with the issue of his sexuality.

"Don't lie to yourself," Skinner's voice rapped out firmly behind him. "Lie to me if you want, but don't lie to yourself. I did that for a long time, and I regret it. Don't waste as many years as I did, Josh. Don't let that happen."

Josh stopped in mid-stride on his way to the door. He turned, slowly.

"How come you always know when I'm lying?" He asked. His legs were shaking again but this time he knew it had nothing to do with PTSD and everything to do with facing up to his own emotions.

"I can see it in your eyes, in your body, in the way you move your head. It might as well be written all over you."

Skinner got up and came over to him and now Josh's legs were shaking so much he couldn't move away so he just stood there, his whole body yearning for the other man's touch. Skinner raised a hand to his face and tenderly caressed his cheek with gentle fingers, and Josh knew that it was too late, that he was lost, that he would have to deal with this now because it couldn't wait any more, and no matter how many other issues and problems he had in his life right now, this one wasn't going to be sidelined by yet another of his monumental acts of willpower and self denial.

"I feel like I've known you forever," Skinner murmured with a little shrug. "Mulder would have a name for it – he'd probably say it was past life experience or some kind of crap like that, but I just know that the moment I saw you last night I felt like I knew you. And I wanted you so much it hurt. I still want you. We're on the same side, you and I."

"I've never felt such instant attraction for anyone the way I felt when we met last night," Josh told him honestly. "That reaction you saw – that wasn't all PTSD," he admitted, with a wry grin.

Skinner's eyes were suddenly too close and then Josh felt himself being kissed again and this time he didn't hesitate. He wrapped his arms around Skinner's body and kissed him hungrily. His heart swelled – after so long being denied it was now gloriously coming to life, vital and full of need. They only drew apart when they needed to take air into their lungs but their bodies remained entwined. Skinner brushed aside the fabric of Josh's sweatshirt and gently caressed his collarbone with blunt fingertips. Josh stole a dozen tiny kisses from the other man's face, his lips roving all over that wide forehead and down the side of the strong jaw.

"Upstairs?" Skinner asked softly, their hips gently undulating against each other, evidence of their arousal clear and unambiguous between them.

"Yes. Please," Josh whispered.

*****

Afterwards he had no recollection of how they found their way to Skinner's bedroom. He came back to reality only when he found himself standing by the bed, and he realised they were actually going to do this – they were going to make love - and then fresh fears rose inside him.

"I…they had to carve me up to repair the damage after Rosslyn," Josh muttered hoarsely, his fingers hesitating. He removed his sweatshirt, and stood there in his undershirt, uncertain what to do next. "It isn't a pretty sight."

He hadn't been aware that his confidence in his own appearance had taken a battering as a result of Rosslyn but he realised that it had. He had once been so sure of his body and what it could do, and it had let him down. It had once been strong and sure, and in just a few seconds it had become weak, and useless, rendering him helpless. Added to that, it looked different now – it bore the scars of the battlefield; ugly, raking scars that criss-crossed his chest and torso. He had never had to show them to anyone except his doctor, and now he faced a new setback – he wasn't sure he could reveal them to a lover. Skinner stopped undressing, and, seeing Josh's misery, put his hands on the younger man's shoulders and looked into his eyes.

"Josh, I was badly wounded in Vietnam – and I've taken my share of knocks since then, working in the FBI," Skinner told him. He took hold of Josh's hand and pressed it to his belly. Josh felt the shiny scar tissue and looked at the flesh, surprised.

"From when you were shot in that other diner?" He asked.

"Yes. There's more." Skinner traced Josh's fingers up to his chest, where they tangled in the wiry curls that covered Skinner's torso. "Here." Skinner pressed Josh's fingers against another scar, almost invisible under the mass of curls. "And here." He moved Josh's fingers to his side, under his arm, where Josh felt a sharper, longer scar. Skinner reached out and tugged Josh's undershirt out from his pants and then stood back, waiting. Josh nodded, steeling himself, and then grabbed the hem of the undershirt, pulled it over his head, and stood, trembling, awaiting Skinner's inspection. He felt impossibly exposed – more naked than if he had undressed completely. The scars on his chest were much darker and more livid than those on Skinner's body because they were much more recent. Skinner ran a finger over the scarred flesh.

"You survived, Josh," he said, with the tiniest trace of wonder in his voice. "You're alive – now you just need to live."

He bent his head and pressed his lips to the scarred flesh, trailed his way up a scar that reached almost to Josh's collarbone and then moved his head up to claim Josh's mouth in another deep kiss – a kiss that went further towards healing Josh than all the therapy in the world could hope to achieve.

 

Skinner's hands snaked down to Josh's pants as they kissed, and his fingers fumbled with the fly, and reached inside. Josh's cock responded hungrily to the other man's touch. It had been so long for him that he thought he might come from that light touch alone, but Skinner seemed to guess his problem and drew his hand away. He began divesting himself of his own pants while Josh slid his down his thighs along with his briefs. Then he was naked, his hard cock aching as it arched impossibly high. Skinner pushed him back onto the bed, and he went with a thud, coming to rest on the bed on his back, his body warm against the cool sheets. Skinner stood, looking down on him, and Josh stopped breathing for what seemed like several minutes as he surveyed the big man's naked body as it loomed over him.

Skinner's broad chest and massive shoulders looked even better naked than they had clothed, and his thick, heavy cock was standing proud and erect in front of his torso. Josh gasped, gulping for air as he remembered to breathe again. He opened his legs, and invited Skinner between them, and the other man sank down on top of him, covering him with his weight. They kissed endlessly, their eager cocks trapped between their bodies, and then Skinner drew back and fumbled for lubricant and condoms in his nightstand. Josh just lay there, boneless with arousal, watching the way his lover's muscles moved under the surface of his skin, fascinated by the sight, and smell of him, intoxicated by him. Skinner turned back towards him, and then stopped suddenly.

"What?" Josh asked. "Is there something wrong?"

"No…I just…you're a very good-looking man, Josh Lyman," Skinner said hoarsely.

"Me?" Josh shook his head. He had never really thought about his looks even before the shooting. He wasn't a vain man; he knew he wasn't ugly but he didn't consider himself to be anything special either. He really didn't care – his life had been about pursuits of the mind not the flesh, and he rarely gave his appearance much thought.

"Yes. You," Skinner growled insistently, running a finger over Josh's pale body, stroking idly at a nipple, playing with it, and then spreading his palm to encompass the patchwork of scars on Josh's chest.

Josh grinned, no longer ashamed of his scarred body. "Then that's one more thing we have in common, Walter," he said, drawing Skinner back down onto the bed.

It might have been 7 years but some instinct took over and he found that once he let the passion flow through him he couldn't stop. In fact he went into overdrive, as if making up for lost time. He rolled Skinner onto his back, straddled the big man's chest, licked his way down to Skinner's own nipples and sucked them insistently until the other man arched beneath him. Then he returned to kiss Skinner's mouth again and they rolled over on the bed, bodies pressed tightly together as if they were the same person, moving as one, in the rhythmic dance of arousal. Josh was amazed by how right this felt; he had always felt guilty whenever he'd given into his urge to make love to men in the past, but this didn't fell wrong. Walter's mouth, Walter's fingers, and Walter's cock - he felt as if they had been making love to him all his life, and he never wanted them to stop.

Skinner parted his legs, and slipped a lubricated finger into his ass and he found himself opening his legs wide, taking that finger and more, screaming out for his new lover's cock, needing it inside him. He had never trusted another person to make love to him like this the way he trusted Skinner. The moment he felt that large, pulsing cock enter his body it was as if he was merely welcoming it home where it belonged. Their bodies were locked for several long minutes as Skinner made love to him slowly, thrusting into him with that single minded sense of purpose that marked everything he did, every atom of his being focused on Josh and their mutual pleasure, his eyes never leaving Josh's face. Josh was lost in that dark-eyed gaze and the sensations of his body as he abandoned himself to their love making. Skinner came with a low, rumbling roar of release, and then he leaned forward and tenderly kissed Josh on the lips. They lay there for a moment, and then Skinner withdrew, and, rolling over onto his back, pulled Josh between his own legs, his meaning clear. Josh went easily, willingly. He slid his lubricated fingers into Skinner's waiting body, and then replaced them with his own hard, aching cock, surprised by how warm and welcoming the big man felt, his tight ass muscles milking Josh's penis. He couldn't hold his climax for long – he had spent too many years satisfying himself with his hand alone and the exquisite sensations of thrusting into this strong, handsome man beneath him was too much; he came within seconds. Skinner smiled, and pulled him down so that his face rested on his lover's furry chest, their bodies pressed close together.

"It's been too long for you," Skinner murmured, stroking Josh's hair.

Josh made a wry, grimacing face in agreement. "Yeah. I hope I didn't disgrace myself. I felt like a man dying of thirst who found an oasis in the desert."

"It was good." Skinner kissed him on the lips and wrapped his arms around Josh's body, holding them both even more tightly together, connected, Josh's softening cock still embedded within his new lover.

"So…15% of American citizens have been abducted by aliens, huh?" Josh commented. Skinner's eyes widened, startled at the topic of post-coital conversation. "Right now I feel like one of 'em!" Josh grinned, feeling a fit of verbal diarrhoea coming over him. Somehow he suspected he was always going to be the vocal one in this relationship. Walter Skinner was the kind of man who spoke rarely but always to the point…but Josh Lyman was on such a high right now he didn't think he'd ever shut up. "One of these days you'll have to tell me about the X Files, and this Mulder you mentioned, and Vietnam, and your years in the FBI…and all the rest of it," he murmured tiredly, resting his chin on Skinner's chest and gazing into those beloved brown eyes. His body felt more relaxed than he could ever remember. After all the pain of recent events, it felt so good to be able to experience sheer mind-blowing pleasure.

"We have all the time in the world. I'm not going anywhere," Skinner told him with a smile, reaching out a hand to brush a stray curl of hair from Josh's forehead.

"I sometimes talk too much," Josh said, grinning inanely.

"I figured," Skinner grunted.

Josh felt a strange sensation bubbling up deep in his gut and then it was welling up in the back of his throat and he found himself laughing so hard he almost fell off his perch on Skinner's chest. Skinner gazed at him blankly, a smile of his own tugging around his lips.

"Care to let me in on the joke?" He asked.

Josh gasped for breath and then reached down and put his hand around his lover's long, thick, heavy cock where it was nestled between them.

"I was just thinking…having seen this…" Josh squeezed his lover's cock between his fingers and, sated though it was, it still jumped eagerly in his hand, "…that we have to find you a more appropriate nickname…Shrimp really doesn't do any part of you justice!"

Skinner grinned and then he gave a low, rumbling bass laugh and clasped his arms more tightly around Josh, and then they were both laughing together.

When they finished laughing, Josh rested his face on Skinner's chest once more and closed his eyes, feeling happy to the core of his being. It was a strangely mellow sensation, full of peace, and he thought that for the first time since Rosslyn, he could feel the sunlight shining on his hair.

He had stepped out of the shadow.

The End

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