TITLE: A Wind in the Palms
AUTHOR: Julian Lee
CATEGORIES: S/J (basically); AU
RATING: PG+ for words not approved by the MPAA (bastards).
ARCHIVE: Take it away! Just tell me where you put it, please.
DISCLAIMER: Boy, here’s me wishing I owned these characters. And, boy, here it is not happening. No copyright infringement intended; no profit being made; no disrespect intended to that most opulent of locales, the Don CeSar.
SUMMARY: Had they been in love, or just marking time?
MORE NOTES THAN YOU CAN SHAKE A PALM FROND AT: 1) This is an AU dealing with one of the big “‘ITSOTG’ what-ifs”: what if Josh hadn’t stopped in New York to see Sam? Mental & emotional anguish, apparently. 2) I called it Sam/Josh, but there’s Josh/Donna & Sam/Lisa floating around in there, so be prepared to duck. 3) Takes place somewhere between “The Midterms” & “Noel.” 4) In this universe, the New York slashback in “ITSOTG” never happened, but there’s something about the “what are you doing?” conversation that I find so compelling that I lifted it wholesale & put it in here. 5) The Don CeSar is a real place I hope to stay at someday (when I am filthy rich, ha ha ha); Ybor Gold is a real beer I hope to drink. Both of these were Beth’s suggestions. She is an inspiration, an endless font of information, & a great friend - even when I’m a pain in the neck. Thank you. 6) Super-thanks to those who gave me other fabulous insights into Florida, Palm Pilots, and all things smokeable: Flip, Heidi, suki, Artemis, Cal, Elizabeth Sparrow-Song, Eilidh, Gaea, Anna-Maria Jennings, B.B., Alexi, Becky, Nomi, & Jess. You guys are what keeps me writing.

*

A Wind in the Palms by Julian Lee

The lobby of The Don CeSar had real palm trees and a looped tape of bird calls – very tastefully done – piped through the speakers. The management strove for an aura of calm and relaxation – and they believed they had achieved it. Harmony. Serenity. Birds and palm trees. Peace. Tranquility.

Sam Seaborn hadn't been this jumpy since his wedding day.

The irony of the comparison wasn't lost on Sam, who knew painfully well how many different kinds of pissed his wife would be if she discovered what he had undertaken to get a room in this hotel for this weekend. Strings pulled, favors called in, machinations of questionable morality and legality perpetrated and condoned. For this hotel – this weekend.

For the mere chance of a meeting that Lisa would understand on all too many levels – but not on the ones that mattered.

Sam sat in the lobby. Sam paced in the lobby. The files he'd told Lisa he was coming downstairs to read lay on a chair, untouched. 3:45. They were supposed to have arrived at 3. He knew they couldn't be expected to be precisely on time, but didn't they know that there were people waiting for them? People who were finding live palm trees and piped-in bird calls less calming and more irritating as the seconds crawled past. 3:48.

"Where the hell are you?" he muttered.

What if he'd been wrong? What if the rumor that had come down to him like a sign of God's own forgiveness had instead been a sign of God's fucked up sense of humor biting Sam Seaborn on the ass yet again?

3:56. An old, familiar tightening rushed through Sam's chest as a swarm of imposing men in black suits and reflective sunglasses descended upon The Don CeSar and forced the protesting guests out of the lobby. Looked like he wouldn't get to see Bartlet. Despite his respect and admiration for the man, despite having voted for him and having sent a respectable – though anonymous – donation to his campaign, Sam couldn't have cared less.

Bartlet wasn't the one he'd gone through all this shit to see.

A flurry of activity blew through the lobby. Sam could almost hear the hotel staff bowing and scraping to the Commander in Chief, and he craned his neck in a desperate, futile attempt to see the Presidential entourage. Now, only now, was he worried that the black-suited basilisks would not release him in time.

The instant the Secret Service agent in front of him stood aside, Sam raced back into the lobby, panic as tangible as bile in his throat. Up ahead, the back of a head that might belong to Bartlet was surrounded by a cloud of hangers-on, and he saw no one else who looked like part of the administration. Shit. Did they always traveled in a pack? If they were all with the President–

Or – Christ. What if he wasn't on this trip at all?

The staff blasted into the lobby. Sam reached back and pawed at a chair to keep his balance as his knees collapsed in relief.

A balding, bearded, scowling man strode across the terrazzo with the force of several officious natural disasters, arguing with a tall woman Sam recognized as CJ Cregg, the press secretary, and a short Asian woman he didn't recognize at all. A few steps behind them, a slim, pert blond in a severe suit flipped through a day planner and threw a rapid string of clipped sentences over her shoulder to–

"Josh!"

Josh stopped and turned slowly, like an old hound who wants so badly to believe he's caught a scent but knows his nose sometimes plays tricks on him.

"Josh Lyman!"

And then they were facing each other across the lobby, and Josh's face split into that embarrassingly wide grin that meant his brilliant mind had shut down a little. Sam's mind shut down completely. "Jesus. Sam."

Sam wasn't sure which of them crossed the tiled floor, but he found himself melting into that strong embrace and realizing how much he'd missed being able to hug Josh whenever he needed to. "Hi," he said.

Josh laughed and slapped his back and pulled away, and when Sam looked around he realized they'd both closed the space, which had to be a good sign, right?

They held each other at arm's length, assessing, and, Christ, why did it have to be so *hard*?

"You look–"

"You, too."

"Me?" Josh laughed ruefully and passed a hand over his forehead, which had grown considerably since they saw each other last. "Look at you, man. You haven't aged a fucking day. I mean, you look *exactly* the same as when–"

**Oh, Josh, you would have to bring that up.** "I, uh–"

"Uh, yeah." His brown eyes skittered around in search of anything safer to focus on and came to rest on the efficient blond. "Donna! Donnatella, come over here!"

The woman crossed to them briskly, giving Sam a look he couldn't identify but knew he didn't like, not saying anything, just tilting her head to the side like one of Hitchcock's bright-eyed birds.

"Donna, this is Sam Seaborn, one of my oldest friends from – ever." Josh's smile showed a few too many teeth. "Sam, this is my fiancée, Donnatella Moss."

Of course. Of *course.* Beautiful, obviously competent at whatever it was she did, probably smart – of course she this would be Josh's woman. And of course, Sam was here with his wife, so he couldn't have expected that – Sam realized he'd been shaking her hand and not saying anything for a good twenty seconds. "Er, um...very nice to meet you, Donnatella."

"It's Donna. Only Josh and my grandmother call me Donnatella. But it's nice to meet you too, Sam." Donna transferred the look Sam didn't like to her future husband. "Are you coming?"

He straightened his shoulders, girding himself for battle. "You're kidding, right? Donna, it's *Sam.* I haven't seen Sam in–"

"Leo wants Senior Staff in his room ASAP. Ehrenreid's shaky for tomorrow night." She spoke with an almost bruising gentleness.

"I know," he said, less belligerently. "I'll be there." She nodded and turned on her heel, clicking away across the whorled marble, and Josh let out a long breath and rubbed the sides of his face. "Sorry. She can be a little–"

"Schoolmarmish?"

Josh couldn't decide whether to be amused or offended by the unexpected characterization. "She's damned good at her job."

"She's your assistant, isn't she? You're marrying your assistant."

"I know it looks awful, and I am trying to find a replacement. But Donna – Donna's the only one who's stayed with me." He smiled and looked embarrassed. "You remember how I ran through assistants."

"Ran them through was more like it."

"That’s not so much fair."

"Except Heather. Heather was there the whole time we–" Sam's gaze locked on the cold, shining marble at his feet.

Josh took an almost involuntary step backward and gripped the fraying strap of his backpack. "So, uh–"

"Miss Congeniality!" Josh and Sam whirled around. The grating voice belonged to the bearded man who had looked so irate before. Who still looked irate. "Bartlet administration. In or out?"

"Hold your shirt on, Toby!" Josh barked, then turned back to Sam and hitched the bag higher on his shoulder. "That's Toby Ziegler. I have to go."

"Go. Lead a nation."

He shook his head. "Go make sure that, despite the current state of our relations with Israel, it would still be appropriate for the President to speak at a nursing home full of blue-haired Jewish ladies." Josh flung his arm out. "For such is my life." He brought the arm in and pointed it at Sam as he backed away toward the glowering Toby Ziegler. "It was...it was beyond great to see you, man. Unbe*lieve*able."

Sam took half a step forward. "Josh! 743."

He frowned. "What?"

"743. My room number."

"Yes! Right. 743. Shit!" This as Toby grabbed the free strap of the backpack and yanked it sideways, and Josh scrambled to keep his feet.

Sam was whistling as he settled into a chair to read his files.

 

**********

osh bounced on the balls of his feet as he knocked on the door of 743. Sam Seaborn. Of all the crazy things – of all the crazy, *wonderful* things...he'd pay dearly for the look he’d brought to Donna's face when he introduced them – a look like she’d found a puzzle piece she hadn’t suspected was missing – but for now that didn't matter a damn. Sam was on the other side of that door.

Only of course Sam wouldn't be the one who opened the door, would he? Josh rocked back, and his voice stuck in his throat. "Lisa."

She hadn’t changed much. She was trying to pull off a look that was ten years too young for her, and she had that air like the entire world bored her. She also seemed mightily pissed. "Joshua."

Then he remembered. He hadn't seen *her* in six years either, now, had he? That had to be worth something. "Lisa!" he said again, sweeping her enthusiastically into the kind of crushing hug she hated – the kind that mussed her hair and put wrinkles in her clothes that she hadn't paid for. "It's so good to see you."

She extricated herself quickly and gave him the smile she held at the ready for unpleasant but unavoidable situations. "Sam stepped into the bathroom for a minute." She sounded like a damned stewardess. "He should be–"

"Lis, I think I forgot my – Josh!" Sam stood in the middle of the hotel room, holding his hand towel in a death grip, gaping at Josh. "You really came up."

Josh grinned. "I really did." He became painfully aware that Lisa was standing off to the side glaring at them both. "Listen, Sammy, you wanna come outside with me for a minute?" He pulled a pack of Nat Shermans from his pocket and waved them at him. "Cigarette break."

Sam's eyes narrowed as he draped the hand towel carefully over the back of a chair. "You don't smoke, Josh. Since when do you smoke?"

All-too-familiar irritation crept up Josh's spine, and he shoved the pack angrily back into his pocket and crossed his arms. "Since – since I do, all right? You coming outside or not?"

Sam looked at Lisa, who stared out the window, though Josh was certain she wasn't taking in the view, then he sighed and nodded. "Sure." He put his hand on Lisa's shoulder, and Josh had to give her credit for not flinching. "I'll be right back, okay, Lis?"

"Whenever, Sam," she said quietly. "I'll be here." She sounded like she was about to start sobbing.

They were silent on the way down, Sam staring at the plummeting numbers of the floor display, Josh scowling at his reflection in the elevator door. Sam jolted as the elevator dinged softly to announce their arrival at the ground floor. "Oh," he said in quiet surprise, "we're here."

"Yeah." Josh didn't look at him as they left the elevator and crossed the lobby to a side door. He nodded to a Secret Service agent who nodded back curtly and whispered into the mic in his sleeve. "I, I don't know about this place," Josh said. "To me, any hotel named after a salad is, ah, inherently untrustworthy."

"I sincerely doubt it was named after the salad, Josh. It isn't even spelled the same."

Josh shrugged. "Whatever. It's still, you know, I think it's sketchy. And those palm trees and fake bird calls in the lobby? Definitely something not right here."

Josh tapped a cigarette out between his fingers, then offered the pack to Sam, who raised an eyebrow, and Josh jerked his shoulders and put the pack away. Something about the sight of his Josh puffing at a Nat Sherman caused Sam to shiver, despite the heat. "Seriously, Josh. When did you start smoking?" he asked.

"Campaign," Josh replied sheepishly. "Mandy – my girlfriend at the time – she smoked, and I guess she got me hooked somehow."

"But Christ, man, you got *shot.* And your father died of cancer. Don't you think you should quit?"

"No, *Mom,* I don't."

Sam was shocked by the resentment in Josh's eyes and voice. "Okay. Okay. No need to get your knickers in a twist." Sam leaned against the sliding door and looked at the ocean, rolling slowly and inexorably towards them and then away again. "Will I get to meet her?"

Josh frowned. "You met Donna."

He shook his head. "No, Mandy. The old girlfriend."

"Oh." Josh dropped his eyes. "She, ah, doesn't work for us anymore."

Sam bit back a knowing smile. "You wouldn't have had anything to do with that, would you?"

"Now, listen, Sam–"

"Hey, I'm just saying. You never did know how to maintain a professional relationship with your ex’s."

They both had to look away.

"Hey!" Josh called suddenly. "A companion in exile. Good evening, sir!"

Across a clump of bushes, another cigarette flared. "Josh? That you over there?"

"Yes, sir."

Sam's knees started knocking, and he grabbed Josh's arm. "Josh," he hissed, "is that President Bartlet?"

"It sure as hell ain't Smokey the Bear." Josh grinned and pried Sam's fingers off his arm. "Want to meet him?"

"D– do I– would I–"

"I'll take that as a yes. Come on." Josh skirted the hedge, Sam following behind him, expecting to pass out at any moment. "Mr President?" Josh said.

"Ah, Josh. You've come to join me in my vices. Excellent." Bartlet peered into the darkness. "Who's your friend?"

"Mr President, this is Sam Seaborn, an old, old friend from my days with Brennan." He smiled at Sam. "Sam, President Bartlet."

Sam wiped his sweaty palm on his pants, then held his hand out to Bartlet. "Mr President," he said, pleased with the steadiness of his voice. "May I say how honored I am to meet you, sir?"

Bartlet smiled and shook his hand. "You may." He took another drag off his cigarette. "So, what do you do, Sam?"

"I'm an attorney, sir."

Josh snickered, and Bartlet looked between the two men. "Do you not agree with that statement, Josh?"

Josh stomped out his cigarette. "I have no problem with it, sir, except that Sam saying he's a lawyer is like you saying you dabble in politics. He's a partner at Gage Whitney Pace in New York."

"Impressive firm." Bartlet didn't sound impressed.

"Thank you, sir."

"Big firm."

"Yes, sir."

The president ground out his cigarette and looked at the two younger men. "I'm going back inside." He put his hand out to Sam, who shook it almost violently. "Nice to meet you, Sam. Every friend of Josh's I get to know gives me another chance to figure out where it all went wrong." Josh couldn't tell if Bartlet noticed how uncomfortable the laugh was that his joke got from Sam. Halfway to the door, the president turned back. "Say, Sam, would you be interested in joining us for dinner tomorrow night?"

Now Sam nearly did pass out. "Sir, I – I mean, I would–"

"Sir," Josh interrupted, somewhat harshly, "I'm sorry, sir, but we have the fundraiser tomorrow night, and–"

Bartlet groaned. "Ah, yes. Stupid Ehrenreid and their stupid fundraiser. Well, then." He looked at Sam. "Sorry about that. Some other time? If you're ever in DC–"

"Of course, sir."

"Excellent." Bartlet opened the door to the hotel. "Good night, Josh."

"Good night, Mr President."

"Good night, Mr President!" Sam called. Bartlet waved distractedly and wandered off across the tiling.

Josh let him stand there, starry-eyed, for exactly ten seconds. "You know he didn't mean that, right?"

"Huh?" Sam came back to himself with a thud.

"The thing about looking him up if you're in DC. I mean, five minutes from now he's going to have completely forgotten he said that."

"I know that, Josh," Sam sniped. "Five minutes after that he'll have forgotten my name, and five minutes after *that* he'll be hard-pressed to recall that he ever met me. I realize that he's the President of the United States, and that he's got more important things to remember than old friends of his staffers." His shoulders slumped. "Couldn't you have let me hold on to my harmless delusions a while longer?"

Josh snorted, pulled the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, reconsidered, and dropped them back in. "That's right. The same old Sam, burying his head in the sand and pretending everything will work out for the best."

Sam wasn't surprised by the tears stinging his eyes. "Shit, Josh. Why – why did you come up tonight?"

"I don't know, Sam," he shot back, scuffing his toe against the cement. "Why did you call me in the lobby?"

"I, uh–" Sam said a prayer of thanks that the darkness concealed the blush spreading across his face. "I hadn't seen you in six years. It was quite a shock, you know?"

"Yeah." Josh stared through the door into the lobby. "Yeah. Quite a shock." He shook himself and looked at Sam. "I, uh, I should head back before Donna sends out a search party."

Sam chuckled humorlessly. "She didn't seem like the overprotective type."

"She's not – for the most part. She just – ever since Rosslyn..."

He nodded. "Right. Listen, Josh, about that–"

"Sam, please."

"Let me – I wanted to apologize for...I never came to see you."

"No, you didn't." Josh shrugged. "I wasn't surprised, though."

He blinked. "You weren't?"

"You didn't come to Dad's funeral."

"I couldn't get the time–"

"I mean, not that – no, I'm not saying the flowers weren't beautiful or anything, but still...you weren't there. So I didn't expect you when I was in the hospital." He tore a small branch off the hedge and began shredding it between his fingers. "Do I get the patented Sam Seaborn Perfectly Legitimate Excuse now?"

In the flickering light of the security lamp, Josh saw Sam's blue eyes flash, but his voice was calm. "No, Josh, you don't, because I don't have one." Josh startled. "I'd love to say that something came up, or that I thought I'd be in the way, or that Lisa asked me not to, but...but the fact is that I just...didn't. I thought about it, but I didn't. And I don't know why." He stared at Josh's shoes. "Maybe I was afraid."

"Afraid of what?" Josh asked quietly, softened by Sam's honesty.

Sam shook his head. "Afraid of how you would look after what had happened to you? Afraid of being totally out of place? Afraid of you, maybe."

"Afraid of me?" Josh reached a hand toward Sam's arm, yanked it back. "Sammy, you never have to be afraid of me. You have no reason to ever be afraid of me."

They both knew that was a lie. "I know," Sam said anyway.

Josh cleared his throat and turned his cheap red plastic lighter between his fingers. "I need to–"

"You do." Sam nodded.

"Listen, I'm going to be in meetings all day tomorrow, and then there's the stupid fundraiser–"

"Ehrenreid."

"That's right." He eyed Sam. "You know who that is?"

"I assumed he meant Ehrenreid Communications – which I have to say is a gutsy choice of company for the President to be keeping these days. Why? Was he talking about something else?"

"No. No, you were right; I just – I hadn't realized you still followed politics that closely."

"Josh," Sam said, disbelief clear in his voice, "that was my life. I didn't give it up just because I went to work for Gage Whitney."

"I wasn't sure, 'cause you gave up so many other things–"

Sam's face darkened. "You take that back, Josh Lyman." His voice was murderously quiet.

They stared at each other, wide-eyed and furious, for a long moment, before Josh drew back. "You're right, Sam," he said. "I'm sorry. I truly am." He dropped his lighter into his coat pocket. "I need to get back."

"Yeah." Sam was staring at the waves again.

"I, um, I'll come by tomorrow night when we get back from the fundraiser, maybe?"

A muscle in Sam's jaw twitched. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"Nevertheless."

He nodded. "Nevertheless, you'll be there. Of course."

Josh stepped up to the sliding door and wrapped his fingers around the handle. "Well, uh, g'night, Sam." Sam nodded and didn't say anything. Josh stared at him as though working up the courage to say something more, then he pulled the door open and disappeared into the hotel.

After some amount of time – could have been ten seconds; could have been ten minutes – staring blindly across the water, Sam jerked out of his haze and went inside as well, bypassing the elevator and trudging up the eight flights of stairs to his room.

Lisa took one look at his drawn features and pursed her lips, pressing her fingernails into the arms of the chair she was sitting in, but she kept her voice bright, bright as it would be for an interview with people she hated. "How's Josh?"

Sam forced his voice to be bright, too, bright as it would be for a Monday morning meeting with important clients. "Ah, you know Josh. Still stampeding around trying to change the world."

"So his brush with death didn't teach him humility?"

Sam gritted his teeth as he hung his gray polo shirt over a hook on the back of the closet door, and he didn't answer.

Lisa crossed the room and stood just behind him, not touching him. "It's great that you got this chance to see him," she said.

He whirled around, eyes blazing. "Lisa–"

She shook her head rapidly. "No, really. It may be for the best. I think – your memories of Josh may be...colored. So seeing him now – maybe you'll..." She looked at the floor.

"See the real Josh?" he asked, smiling sadly.

She nodded. "Something like that."

He rubbed his forehead hard. "I certainly saw plenty tonight."

Lisa cocked her head and touched his arm. "Come to bed." He nodded, and she went back across the room and climbed under the covers.

Sam lingered in front of the shallow hotel closet before sighing for about the millionth time that night and kicking off his jeans. He gave his head a violent shake, as though trying to rattle something back into place, switched off the lights, crawled into the bed, and reached for his wife. She put her hand up to block him. "Not tonight, Sam," she said.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because tonight I would just be a substitute." She stared at him in the darkness for a moment, then turned away.

He would've argued with her if she'd been wrong.

 

**********

 

"Josh?"

Josh turned his head, wondering how many times Donna had said his name. "Hey," he said, taking her hand.

"Did you and your friend have a good talk?" She sat on the arm of his chair.

Josh realized how tired he was, and that he was still wearing his coat. "Ah, you know. Old friends you haven't seen in forever..." He stared out the window. "We've headed in such different directions, it's like we're not the same people anymore."

Donna shook her head. "You aren't the same people. You work for the President; he works for an enormous corporate law firm. You got shot. He got married."

A short laugh exploded from Josh. "If you met the woman he married, you wouldn't think there was much of a difference."

Frowning, Donna pulled her hand away and looked at him. "Josh? I have to ask you this, but I don't want you to...please don't, you know, throw one of your fits if I'm wrong."

He pulled himself up in the chair, something dark curling around his brain. "I don't throw fits, Donna. I have never thrown a fit."

"All right," she said agreeably, and took a deep breath. "You and Sam...you were more than friends, weren't you?"

Sometimes, Josh thought, you can hear the click before the world collapses. Say no, and he'd be a liar. Say yes, and he would reduce an extremely complicated relationship to a simple – and inaccurate – label. A caricature. He owed Sam more than that. His face contorting with pain and anger, he muttered, "I don't think I want to talk about that."

Donna nodded. "I just...I wish you had told me, that's all."

"It wasn't like that!" he shouted, aware that he was somehow on his feet. He shut his eyes and waited for the dull red throbbing in his forehead to subside. "Sam and I–" He ran his tongue across his bottom lip. "Our relationship was never that simple."

Donna's almost complete refusal to be angry with Josh, no matter how much shit he put her through, should have been reassuring, but at moments like this it made him want to physically damage her, in the hopes that he could finally make her react. "I'm sure it wasn't, Josh," she said placidly. "I just find it odd that you claim that this man is one of your oldest friends, and yet I'd never heard of him before today."

"I don't want to talk about it," he repeated dully, fists clenched at his sides, gaze trained on the thick blue carpeting, feeling Donna's eyes boring into his head but refusing to look up.

At last, Donna moved away. "Are you coming to bed soon? Early morning tomorrow."

Josh's head jerked up and he took two stiff–legged steps toward the door. "Not just yet. I think...maybe I'll go see if Toby or CJ are still up."

"I doubt they will be, Josh."

"We'll see. 'Night, Donna." He yanked the door open and staggered into the hallway. Fifteen minutes later when he came aware of his surroundings again, he stood in front of not CJ's or Toby's door, but Sam's. He choked down a cold, wet lump in his throat and stumbled back to his room, crawling into bed fully dressed and passing out more than falling asleep at Donna's side.

 

**********

The next day, Lisa insisted on hanging out in the "cool" parts of town, and Sam let himself be dragged along, mainly because he knew Josh wouldn't be in the hotel. In the end, despite having to drive across the damned bridge when it turned out that St Pete didn’t *have* cool parts, the excursion turned out to be fun – or rather, funny – because this state was a haven for both cranky retirees and drunken co-eds, and Lisa seemed to be fitting in better with the former crowd than the latter.

All day, through the mess of Hyde Park, in all of the trendy, overpriced stores Lisa couldn't pass without entering – though they both knew she didn't intend to buy a thing – Sam looked for Josh, despite knowing that Josh wouldn't be there, that he was, even now, dying a slow death in a roomful of blue haired Jewish ladies. And despite the fact that Sam was so mad at Josh that if he saw him, he'd probably slug him.

**'Cause you gave up so many other things–** Fuck you, Josh Lyman. Just...fuck you. Because what you meant was you, wasn't it? I gave up you when I came to New York. But what was there to stay for, by that point?

Sam couldn't deny that there was some truth to what Josh had said: he didn't face his problems head-on. And yet somehow he always ended up altering his life to accommodate them. Josh, on the other hand, talked about his problems until you wanted to scream at him to just shut up, but then he would go blithely on his way as though these awful things made no actual difference in his life.

And so their relationship had gone. Josh had no doubt assumed they could continue indefinitely the way they had begun: best friends who fucked, making no explicit commitments but each expecting the other to always be there.

There were memories burned into Sam's brain, memories he would cling to until the moment of his death – that he would likely be thinking of *at* the moment of his death. The rush of pride the first time Congressman Wheeler complimented him on something he'd written. The heat of Josh's hands later that day, the first time they'd had sex. The joy in his mother's eyes the day he married Lisa.

And there were moments he buried as deeply as they would go, only to have them rear up at the least convenient times. The look on Josh's face when Sam told him Lisa had asked him out again – and that he had finally said yes. The sickening certainty that a thousand other doors slammed behind him when he took the job at Gage Whitney. His overwhelming urge, the instant Lisa agreed to marry him, to call Josh and apologize.

And then there were things he tried to remember but was no longer certain of. Who was to blame for the way things had turned out between them all? Had his relationship with Josh faltered because he started spending time with Lisa, or had he started spending time with Lisa because his relationship with Josh had faltered? Had he and Josh been in love, or just marking time?

Was he marking time still?

 

**********

 

Sam hadn't expected to see Josh again, but when the knock on the hotel room door came at eleven o'clock that night, there was only one person it could be. He ignored Lisa's scowl and opened the door.

"I was a real schmuck last night."

"Hello to you, too, Josh."

"I'm serious, man. That crack about your job was totally uncalled for. Let me make it up to you?"

Sam drummed his fingers on the back of the door. "How?"

Josh grinned; if Sam hadn't rejected the offer outright and slammed the door in his face, he was almost sold. "Come downstairs and have a drink with us."

"Who's 'us'?"

Josh waved his hand back and forth. "The, you know, the Senior Staff. It'll be great; I promise. You'll love these guys."

"You mean it?" Sam's eyes were wide. "You really want me to meet the President's Senior Staff?"

"Yeah! They'll eat you up, man; you're totally their kind of guy."

Sam raised his eyebrows. "Corporate lawyers are their kind of guy?"

"Smart guys," Josh huffed. "Smart, well-spoken guys who aren't afraid of arguing with some of the most powerful people in the country." He put on his best pout. "Please, Sam? One drink? So I can prove that I'm not always a total jackass."

A light Josh hadn't realized he'd missed sparkled in Sam's eyes. "One drink," he conceded.

"Great!" Josh waved happily into the room. "Hi, Lisa! How's it going?"

"Joshua," she said icily.

**Just like old times,** Josh thought.

All the way up the hall to the elevator, down the elevator to the lobby, and across the lobby to the bar, Josh babbled about Bartlet's talk at the nursing home and about the Ehrenreid fundraiser, and Sam half listened, half reveled in the amazing, comforting familiarity of the situation. Josh had always been "the smart one" – at least, that's how Sam thought of it. Josh got these earth-shattering ideas, these world-changing flights of fancy, and Sam made them workable, presentable, intelligible to everyone not possessed of Josh's formidable intellect. Sam had been the moon, content to reflect the light of Josh's sun and not cast any of his own – because everyone knew you couldn't look directly at the sun.

Everyone Sam had seen in the lobby the day before was there, and a few others. When they spotted Josh they hailed him, slightly off from unison, and waved him over.

"Who is this, Josh?" The woman Sam had recognized as CJ Cregg swept him over with a gaze that made him feel naked.

"Guys, this is Sam Seaborn, a friend of mine from *way* back when."

"Siddown, Josh," the short, sandy-haired man at the head of the table growled amiably. "You aren't old enough to have a 'way back when.'"

Josh pointed at him. "That ray of sunshine is chief of staff Leo McGarry." Sam wanted to shake the hand of this great man who'd come through so many trials virtually unscathed, but Josh was going around the table too quickly, so Sam just stood at his side and hoped his admiration was coming through in his nods. "Toby Ziegler, communications director; his deputy, Suzu Kim; Charlie Young, Presidential body man and a, you know, amazing guy; and our talented and predatory press secretary, CJ Cregg."

"Hey," Sam said, at a loss.

"Hi, Sam," they chorused, which got Suzu giggling, and Sam allowed himself to relax a little.

"Isn't it unusual for all of you to be on one trip?" he asked. "Shouldn't at least one of you be..."

"Minding the store?" Leo asked and shrugged when Sam nodded. "It's a light week, and this is an important trip. The country knows where to find us if it needs us. Have a seat."

Josh slid into the chair between Toby and Suzu, and Sam, after a brief hesitation, sat between Charlie and CJ, who snaked an arm around his shoulders. "So, Sam," she drawled, her voice husky and her breath warm on his ear, "Tell us about yourself."

"Well, to start with," Josh said, "he's married."

The press secretary didn’t remove her arm. "I won't tell if you don't."

Josh shook his head as he tapped a cigarette on the pack. "Believe me, CJ, *his* wife would know." He stuck the Nat in the corner of his mouth and patted his pockets. "Where the hell is my lighter?" Toby shifted an enormous cigar to his right hand and used his left to pull a gold lighter from his pocket and toss it at Josh. Josh's eyes widened. "You're letting me use the Zippo?" He looked around the table. "What? Am I getting fired?"

"Just light your damned cigarette, Josh," Leo said.

"What do you do, Sam?" Charlie asked.

"Sam here," Josh said, waving at him with the cigarette, "is a partner at Gage Whitney."

Toby blew a smoke ring and regarded his cigar speculatively. "I'm feeling very poor all of a sudden."

The rest of the staff chuckled. "No kidding," Charlie said. "How does a partner at Gage Whitney come to know a guy like Josh?"

"Sam here," Josh said, "worked for Archie Wheeler when I was working for Brennan."

Toby looked at Josh out of the corner of his eye. "Does Sam here speak, Joshua?"

Leo leaned forward. "You worked for Dealer Wheeler?"

Sam sat up, knocking CJ's hand off his shoulder. She didn't seem to mind. "Yes, sir."

"Sam, Sam," Josh chided, slapping his hand, "this is *Leo.* Nobody calls Leo 'sir.'"

"Though it's not the worst idea I've ever heard," Leo said and returned his attention to Sam. "Tell me what it was like."

"Later, Leo! Sam and I don't even have drinks yet." Josh looked around. "Why don't Sam and I have drinks yet?"

"Well, you see, Josh," CJ said, her voice dripping patronizing sarcasm, "there's a bar over there, and there's a man behind the bar, and you go up to the man and–"

"Yeah, yeah, all right," he cut her off, tapping his cigarette on the ashtray and standing. "What do you want, Sam?" Sam pulled his wallet from his back pocket. "Hey, put that back. You know your money's no good here."

Sam's eyebrows dipped. "Are you sure? I make a whole lot more than you do." Their companions snickered, but Josh continued to scowl, and Sam put the wallet away. "Order me something local."

"Really?"

Sam peered up at him. "Why? Is the local beer tainted?"

Josh rolled his eyes and ignored his coworkers' barely concealed smiles. "No, you just always – never mind. One local brew, coming up." He sauntered off to the bar.

When he turned back to the table, trying not to drop Sam's Ybor Gold from one hand, clutching a Jack and Coke in the other, he saw his colleagues leaning forward in their chairs, entranced by what was probably Sam's retelling of the first time they met. Josh smiled; it was a great story, and Sam told it well. Occasionally they would interrupt with bursts of laughter or shouted comments about how Archie Wheeler had turned finagling into an art form or the tendency of Josh's mouth to get him into trouble, and once or twice a couple of them started side conversations sparked by Sam's story but having nothing to do with it. Josh froze, dumbfounded. **They're talking to him the way they talk to me – and to each other.** And Sam was taking their attentions in stride, tossing out witty comebacks of his own and even arguing with Toby – good God, arguing with *Toby* – about whether Wheeler had committed political suicide by voting against the Atkinson Crime Prevention Act.

The cold, wet lump was back in Josh's throat, and he was having trouble catching his breath. Sam had slipped into Bartlet's Senior Staff as though he belonged there, as though he'd been with them from the beginning. Hell, he could have been. He could have had a spot in the Counsel's office, maybe. Or even–

Josh shivered as he remembered the first time he heard something Sam had written. Sam had paced around that stupid, cramped efficiency he refused to give up, even though Josh offered the empty bedroom in his own apartment at least once a week – refused because he felt he had to learn to "make it on his own," as if having been hired by Archie Wheeler right out of college weren't proof enough that he could make it any damned way he chose. He had gestured dramatically – and dangerously, nearly smacking Josh across the face on one pass as Josh sat, mesmerized, on the ratty orange garage sale couch you could only sit in the middle of because of springs poking up at either end – and his blue eyes had blazed with unquenchable passion and idealism.

That had been the moment. Because at that point in his life, Josh would sleep with pretty much any willing female who crossed his path, but the men had to be at least as smart as he considered himself to be. And so Sam read this brilliant speech that Congressman Wheeler's spokeswoman might or might not deliver at a press conference that no one was going to attend; he read it with conviction and emotion, and that had been the moment Josh had sworn he would get Sam Seaborn into bed if it took him all summer.

That had been the moment, and that had been the first piece of writing Wheeler ever complimented Sam on.

God. Sam could've had Suzu's job.

Not that Josh didn't love Suzu like the crazed militant kid sister he'd never had. She was damned good at her job, efficient and professional, and she kept Toby in line with a ruthlessness that made CJ's most strident feminist tirades sound like love songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But somehow Suzu never quite *fit.* There was a barrier around her, and although Josh honestly couldn't say if she had erected it or if they had done it to her, the fact remained that she hadn't bonded with the rest of the Senior Staff the way the rest of the Senior Staff had bonded with each other. The way they seemed to be bonding with Sam right now.

The room grew wavy as Josh allowed himself to imagine what the campaign might've been like if had Sam been with them. Long days and nights; exchanges of energy and ideas – perhaps Sam's words in Bartlet's mouth. But above all else: Sam.

Josh had no idea how long he stood there before condensation on the side of Sam's beer threatened to pull it out of his hand. He raised his knee and balanced the bottle on it briefly to get a better grip, then went back to the table. Sam must have moved on to another story, because everyone was laughing so hard they were gasping for breath.

"What took you so long?" Sam asked. "Have to brew and bottle it yourself?"

"Oh, Josh," CJ gasped, "you just – I had no idea you'd–"

"Sam!" Josh thunked the drinks onto the table. "You told them the Yale story. I can't believe you told them the Yale story."

Sam spread his hands and grabbed his beer between giggles. "It's a good story, Josh."

"It's a fantastic story," Charlie corrected, wiping tears from his dark eyes.

"Now I understand why they never invite you to come back and speak," Suzu said, which was all Toby needed to go off, and soon everyone was doubled over again.

Slouched far down in his chair, Josh nursed his drink and his grudge, scowling around the table and assigning levels of punishment based on intensity of laughter. He had just decided that CJ would be suffering for the rest of her life when he was struck by a realization that had him bolt upright in half a second. "Where's Donna?"

Toby snickered again, but it was obviously at a thought far less amusing than the one he was leaving behind. "About damned time you noticed," he grumbled.

"No, seriously, you guys; I thought she was coming with us."

"She went to bed, Josh," said CJ, sounding ready to head that way herself. "She was tired."

Josh rubbed the corners of his eyes. "We're all tired, CJ."

"I haven't seen Donna so exhausted since her vigil in your hospital room," Leo told him. "What did you *do* to her?"

"I didn't do anything to her!" He slammed his glass on the table. "I didn't do anything," he repeated softly.

CJ and Leo stared at him; Toby and Suzu stared anywhere that wasn't him; and Charlie looked from Josh to Sam, his eyes narrowed. Sam was doing that thing where Josh couldn't tell what the hell he was looking at.

Charlie nudged his glass forward and stood. "I have a gruesomely early morning tomorrow; I'm gonna turn in."

Leo looked up at him. "You checking in with the President first?"

"Probably. I doubt he's still up, though."

"If he is, would you please impress upon him the importance of *reading* the Carnegie report before he tries to discuss it tomorrow?"

"I'll try," Charlie said, grinning. "Whether he'll do it..."

"Yeah." Leo chuckled. "Good night, Charlie."

"'Night. 'Night, everyone. Sam, it was good to meet you."

"You, too. Good night."

Toby leaned behind Josh and slapped the back of Suzu's chair. "You up to rewriting the speech for–"

"The speech is fine, Toby," she snapped.

"The speech is fine when, when I say it's fine, Suzu!" He sighed and rubbed the top of his head. "Come up to my room and help me work on it right now, and I promise you can write the President's opening remarks for Tuesday."

Suzu’s eyes lit up. "Really?"

"Really."

She pursed her lips. "Break your word and I’ll break your elbows, Ziegler."

“Elbows?” Leo echoed.

“For a writer, a far worse threat than broken kneecaps.”

"That’s a yes, right?" Toby asked, rising.

"Yes, damn you; I'm coming up." Suzu stood and smiled at Sam. "I like you," she told him. "You're nothing like Josh."

He blinked. "Uh, thank you, I guess," he said. CJ snorted. Toby did a half wave that was supposed to pass for good night, and he and Suzu walked out bickering.

Josh looked at the empty seats with something akin to panic, then rounded on his boss. "Leo, let me get you another – what is that, water?" He wrinkled his nose.

"It's club soda, Josh, and no thanks. I'm about done for the night, myself."

"CJ!" Josh said shrilly. "CJ's always up for another round." He turned to Sam. "This woman can drink the rest of the staff under the table."

"Not tonight, mi amor," she said. "Tonight the only thing I want to be under is a blanket."

"Come *on*!" He was whining, and he sounded undignified, and he couldn't help it. Once again, he and Sam were about to be alone together. "We just got here. Sam's gonna get a bad impression."

"Josh." Sam frowned and shook his head.

CJ turned to Sam. "Sam, we are horrible people. Liars and cheats, every last one of us. That's why Josh fits in so well." She looked at Josh. "*That* is a bad impression." CJ smacked the table with both palms and looked at Leo. "Are we out of here?"

He rose. "We are. It was nice to meet you, Sam."

"An honor, sir, really." Sam held out his hand, and Leo looked mildly surprised as he shook it.

"My, my," CJ purred, giving Sam that searing glance again, "a gentleman. Such a shame, you being married." Before Sam had time to recover and formulate a response, she had grabbed Leo's tie and dragged him out of the bar.

 

**********

Josh flung out his arms. "Josh Lyman, ladies and gentlemen."

"You always did know how to clear a room."

"Yeah." He twisted his empty glass back and forth, leaving dark rings on the coaster. "So, what do you think of your heroic Senior Staff now?"

"They're..." Sam shook his head. "They're insane. Brilliant, but certifiable." He gestured between the chairs CJ and Leo had vacated. "Are the two of them..."

"CJ and *Leo*?" Josh shuddered. "God, I hope not. Leo's – I think Leo's slept with Suzu a couple times, but they don't like each other much."

"And Toby?"

Josh chortled. "Pining hopelessly over a lost love." And, given present company, *that* wasn't as amusing as it might've been. "His ex-wife, I mean. Andrea Wyatt. She's, uh, she's in Congress, you know?" Sam nodded, and they both stared at the table.

"Um, Josh?" Josh looked up, but Sam was still looking down. "The thing Leo said...about Donna...when you were–"

"Yeah." It was an abrupt sound.

"I – I'm sorry. I hadn't realized she – I mean, I thought you were just..." He finally raised his eyes to meet Josh's.

"You thought I was just schtupping my assistant."

Sam dropped his eyes again. "Something like that."

Josh exhaled sharply. "When I was in the hospital," he said slowly, "Donna just – she didn't leave my room for three days. I had to kick her out to get her to go back to the White House, and even then she came back every night after work and every morning on her way in. I guess I...knowing someone cared about me that much–" Sam swallowed hard. "I guess our relationship grew out of that."

"You love her, don't you?" Sam's hands clenched the sides of his beer.

Josh frowned. "Sure I do. What did you think?" He shook his head. "Not all marriages are like yours, Sam." Sam hissed, and Josh dragged his hands across his face. "That was too much, wasn't it?"

"Just a little." Sam flopped backwards in his chair and stared at the ceiling. "So, explain something to me," he said suddenly.

Josh straightened his back. "All of my vast and superior intellect lies at your disposal."

Sam laughed. "You're such a humble guy, Josh." Josh made the spinning hand motion that usually accompanies a bow. Sam took a sip of his room temperature beer and grimaced. "Okay. So, the last I'd heard through the maternal grapevine–"

"God bless the mothers," Josh said, raising his empty glass in salute. "The mothers never rest."

Sam smiled. "I heard you were working for John Hoynes, and John Hoynes was going to be the Democratic Presidential nominee, and if he got into the White House he was going to take you with him. The next thing I know, Jed Bartlet's the guy to beat; Hoynes is second fiddle, and when the analysts talk about the people who made it happen, you're still one of the first they mention. You changed horses."

"Right in the middle of the stream." Josh grinned and settled back in his chair. "It's a tale for the ages, my friend." He scratched his head and stretched his legs out under the table. "So, I'm working for Hoynes, and he's a bastard, but he's going to be President, damn it, and he's going to give me a job in his White House. And then one day – out of, swear to God, no place at all – Leo McGarry shows up and asks me to come to Nashua, New Hampshire to hear Jed Bartlet speak. Now, I may be an idiot sometimes–" He looked at Sam apologetically. "–but I'm no fool. Hoynes is the prohibitive favorite for the nomination; he's got 58 million in the war chest; he can take Bartlet to the cleaners any day of the week. But it turns out Leo's not above emotional blackmail. He says this is what sons do for old friends of their fathers'." Josh stared at his hands, then shoved them in his pockets. "So I hop on a train and head to Nashua."

"New Hampshire," Sam said quietly.

Josh didn't hear the danger in his tone. "And when I get there – it was amazing, Sam. He's in this dingy VFW hall that's not even half full, and when I hear him speak, I realize that *this* is what I've wanted all along. This is the way I've been waiting for Hoynes to start talking. And he's never gonna do it – I know that – but he doesn't have to, 'cause Bartlet already is." Josh's brown eyes glittered in the bar's dim light. "The next day I take the train back to Washington and tell Hoynes I quit. And I go to work for Bartlet."

"In New Hampshire."

"Manchester, yeah; that's where the campaign headquarters were." He peered at Sam. "You're kinda hung up on New Hampshire, there, Sammy."

"You went," Sam began, and now there was no way Josh could miss how strangled his voice was, "from Washington to Nashua to hear Bartlet, back to Washington to leave Hoynes, and back to New Hampshire again." His hands were fists on the tabletop. "You passed New York *three times.* And you *didn't come to see me.*"

Josh cringed as Sam's words grated against him, and something inside him slipped a little. "Sam–"

"Not once. Not five minutes to say, 'Hey, Sam; haven't seen you in a while.' It wouldn't have been–" His breath rushed out of him. "It wouldn't have killed you."

Josh closed his eyes and fingered the loose change in his pockets, because Sam was wrong. "I...I wanted to," he said, pulling his hands out of his pockets and trying not to feel stabbed by the disbelief etched on Sam's face. "Every time I went through New York I thought, 'I could do it. I could go see Sam.'" What it had cost him, each time, to think that, Josh had long ago recovered from. What it had cost him to decide against it, he hadn't fully understood until tonight. Because he loved Donna – that was true – but he had never been entirely sure he was *in* love with her, and this weekend was making it achingly clear that he *was* still in love with Sam.

"You'll forgive me if I have a hard time believing that," Sam said darkly.

"Sam, I couldn't. I just *couldn't.*"

"Oh, why the hell not?"

"You're not the only one who listens to the grapevine, Sammy."

Sam shook his head impatiently. "That's not even–"

"I knew you and Lisa were engaged."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Because if I'd seen you even once, I would've asked you to come with me!" Josh was breathing hard and trying to remember how he'd ended up saying the thing he'd never meant to.

Sam's hands fell to the table as his body went cold. Josh hadn't come because of *Lisa.* Because he knew he'd ask Sam to sacrifice the life he and Lisa had constructed – and probably Lisa herself. Sam raised his eyes to Josh's, his stomach churning. It was on the tip of his tongue to say, "You should've come anyway," but he didn't know if that were true. Because if Josh *had* shown up at his door saying, "Come to New Hampshire and slay dragons with me," Sam might well have gone. Lisa would have left him, and he and Josh would have become the most dangerous thing they could be: two single guys working side by side for a cause they believed in.

Then again, maybe he would've laughed in Josh's face and gone back to Lisa and Gage Whitney, and at the moment he couldn't decide which would have been the worse decision. "I...I didn't know," he said, because they were the only words his tongue would form. "I'm sorry."

Josh looked off into the darkness of the bar. "Yeah. Well." He pressed his palms against the table's edge and scooted his chair back. "I think it's time for me to turn in."

Sam started to protest, to insist that Josh remain at the table until they had talked this through, but if he were honest with himself he had to admit that there was nothing to talk about. What could either of them say at this point that would change anything, or soothe this unbearable ache he knew they were both feeling? So he nodded and stood. "I guess I should, too."

Josh rose to his feet and looked at Sam with great trepidation. "I...I always *wanted* to come see you," he said, his voice so melancholy Sam had to struggle against an urge to run around the table and hold him.

"Okay."

"I just knew it wasn't–"

"Josh." Sam shook his head. Now that Josh was trying to hash the problem out, he realized he had no desire to discuss it.

Josh sighed. "To the elevators, then?"

They rode up silently, but when the car reached the fifth floor – Josh's stop – he leaned on the door to keep it from closing. "We're leaving at eleven tomorrow morning – can I stop by before we go?"

Sam pressed the small of his back against the brass railing and ran his hands along its polished surface. "Sure," he said.

"You'll be there?" he asked anxiously.

"Yes, Josh, I'll be there," he said, exhaustion and irritation creeping into his voice.

Josh heard it and stepped away from the door. "Good night, then."

"'Night, Josh."

The door was almost closed when Josh's arm shot back through, and he shoved the door open wide enough to stare into Sam's eyes. "You were getting married," he said. "I didn't have the right, anymore." He pulled his hand away and let the door slide shut. Sam rode the remaining two floors with his eyes closed tight, wishing he could cry.

 

**********

Josh stood outside Sam's door, trying to convince his hand that it wanted to knock. **One more time, buddy,** he told himself. **Get through this one more time and you can go home.**

Sam had been perched on the arm of a chair just inside the door since 10:30, waiting for Josh to show up, so the door was open before he had a chance to knock twice.

Josh blinked. "Uh. Morning, Sam."

"Hi." They stood staring at each other, Josh's hands stuffed as usual into his pockets, Sam's thumbs hooked in his belt loops while his fingers beat a nervous tattoo on denim. Sam stepped back and to the side. "Come in."

Josh ducked his head in thanks and slid into the room. After a quick look around, he asked, "Where's Lisa?"

"Down at the pool, I think."

"You're not sure?"

Sam shrugged and let the door fall shut, going back to his chair and leaning against its back. "So, um. You guys heading out now?"

Josh nodded. "Motorcade should be pulling up any minute now." Sam frowned. "I've got time, though," Josh added hastily.

"Okay. Good." Sam smoothed the legs of his jeans. "Hey, thanks for the beer last night. And for...introducing me to everybody."

"No problem." He smirked. "You made quite an impression. CJ's been talking about you all morning."

Sam shuddered. "CJ scares me."

"Nah, she's...she does that to throw people off, you know?"

"Well, she does a damned good job."

"Yeah." Josh laughed, and the sound reverberated for an unnaturally long time off the light fixtures and window panes.

"So." Sam pushed off the chair and grabbed a small leather case off the nightstand. "Do you want my card?"

"Do I – are you kidding me? Of course I want your card. I lost you for six years; you're not getting away again."

Sam smiled and pulled a light blue business card from the case and held it out. Josh took it and ran his fingers over the raised silver lettering. "Ooh, Sammy, you made the big time," he teased, dropping the card into his coat pocket. "Silver lettering on the cards and a little leather folder to hold them in."

Sam laughed. "What kind of cards does your fancy job at the White House get you?"

"Hang on; let me find..." Josh rifled through his wallet. He had to have his card somewhere; what Presidential deputy chief of staff went on important trips without his business card?

Josh Lyman, apparently.

"It's okay." Sam reached for the briefcase on the other chair. "Palm Pilot," he said, pulling the organizer out of a side pocket.

"Shit, Sam. You went all high tech on me."

"I'm swimming with the sharks, Josh," he said as he powered it up. "I have to have the best floaties."

Josh laughed at the image and crossed to stand just behind Sam's shoulder and ogle his toy. "How's it work, Sam, huh, huh? How's it work?" Sam was grinning. "Ooh, what's that thingie do? Is that the little pen thingie?" He tried to grab the stylus from Sam's fingers and earned a sharp rap across his knuckles.

"Hands off, Peter Pan." They grinned at each other for a minute. "Give me your damned number," Sam said.

Josh was halfway through reciting it when he realized what was happening. They were having, at long last, an angst-free moment. The awkwardness and remorse that had been beating them about the ears all weekend had suddenly and unexpectedly vanished for parts unknown, and it was like old times – for the first time since "old times" ended more than six years ago. Josh grabbed Sam's shoulder and pulled him around so they faced each other. "Sam, what are you doing?"

Unruffled, Sam pressed the stylus to the screen. "I'm saving your phone number so I don't lose it."

Josh rolled his eyes. "No, I mean – what are you *doing*?"

Sam nodded in understanding. "Mostly, I'm protecting huge corporations from litigation. Oil companies, fast food franchises." He shut the organizer. "Software manufacturers. They're our clients. They don't lose legal protection because they make a lot of money."

"I can't believe no one ever wrote a folk song about that," he joked.

Sam smiled sadly at that. "What are you doing?" he asked.

Josh spread his hands. "I do believe I'm changing the world, Sammy."

Sam grinned, and Josh found himself being hugged. "I think you just may be," Sam whispered, and Josh wrapped his arms around him tightly.

Josh gave Sam's back a quick rub and stepped away. "It was great to see you again, Sam."

Sam smiled. "You, too. You take good care of that fiancée of yours, you hear me? I get a feeling you don't deserve her – as an assistant *or* a wife."

"Oh, yeah, like I don't get that every day from CJ," he grumbled. "And, uh, tell Lisa I said 'bye?"

"Uh-huh, Josh," he said, crossing his arms. "I'll be sure to do that."

"Come on, Sam–" Josh protested, frowning a little.

"Yeah, yeah; I know." Sam spun Josh around and propelled him toward the door. "Go on; you wouldn't want to miss your little motorcade."

"I'm going; I'm going." Then he stopped. "Damn! I almost forgot the most important part. Turns out the President meant it when he said to look us up if you're ever in DC."

Sam's eyes shone. "You’re kidding."

"I’m really not. He mentioned it again at the staff meeting this morning. So next time you're in town–"

"I'll make up a reason to be in town," he promised, grinning uncontrollably.

Josh stood in the doorway, the door bumping against his shoulder. "Well, I guess this is good bye."

"I guess it is." Sam just looked at him, eyebrow slightly raised.

"Oh, come over here, doofus." Josh hugged him again, then took a step backwards so he was completely out of the room. "See you around."

Sam smiled. "Count on it." He shut the door, still grinning.

The President. Holy shit. The *President* wanted to get together with him sometime. He allowed himself to indulge in a moment of fantasy, imagining himself arriving at the White House for some gathering of dignitaries. He'd be all decked out in his tux, hobnobbing with Bartlet and the First Lady, greeting Toby and Leo and Suzu like old friends, perhaps engaging in a little harmless flirtation with CJ. And then, when dinner was announced, he'd walk with Josh to the–

Shit.

The instant reality set in was the instant panic set in. He'd forgotten Lisa, and he'd forgotten Donna. In his fantasy it was just Josh, like it had been in the old days, and he'd blocked out the parts that weren't that way anymore. So what did that mean? What would it mean for renewing a friendship with Josh?

It meant he couldn't do it.

He dove for his Palm Pilot and turned it back on.

<<ADDRESS>>

He was married, and soon Josh would be, too. Nothing could ever be the same again.

<<LYMAN, J.>>

But what if he could alter the way he looked at the whole situation? Josh had been his friend for almost a year before they'd started sleeping together, and they were two mature, intelligent men with a lot at stake; surely they could resolve any residual romantic tension for the sake of their careers and families and reform a friendship.

<<EDIT>>

Yeah, right.

<<DETAILS>>

But the thought of losing Josh again was almost more than Sam could handle. He had always known he missed having the guy around, but he hadn't realized until this weekend how much. Wouldn't it be worse for him to have to go on now without Josh, knowing how much brighter his life could be by making one phone call?

<<DELETE>>

And what about Lisa, Sam? And Donna? How would it be for them?

<<DELETE SELECTED ADDRESS ENTRY?>>

Sam stared at the gadget in his hand. "Quit pressuring me!" he told it. "Can’t you see this is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make?" He touched the stylus to the screen.

<<YES>>

 

**********

 

Josh could barely keep himself from skipping down the hall toward the elevators. After an entire weekend of mind-warping tension, he and Sam had had what he could only describe as a perfect moment. Even Sam's ribbing about not deserving Donna, even his exaggerated skepticism when Josh asked him to say good bye to Lisa – these things had been part of the pattern of the old days, and they had felt unquestionably *right.*

He grinned. Sam didn't belong at Gage Whitney any more now than he had the day he took the job. But now, Josh could help him. Josh could get him out. He'd heard from several reliable sources around the Counsel's office that one of the associates – Joyce? Brookline? Both? He could never remember which one was which, just knew that he didn't like either of them – was resigning at the end of the month. Sam would be *perfect.* He would talk to Tribbey; talk to the President and Leo – Leo already loved Sam – he was a shoo-in. Josh practically giggled at this testament to the inviolable nature of his friendship with Sam, that he was willing to talk to Lionel Tribbey to get the guy a job.

No. Not "a job." A job in the Bartlet White House.

Josh was so wrapped up in his scheming and smiling that, when the elevator door opened, he didn't check to see if anyone was getting off and bumped full-on into the woman who was. He stumbled backwards, apologizing automatically.

"You okay, Josh?"

He looked up, blinking himself back into reality. "Lisa."

Her electric pink bikini was still damp from the pool. She flashed an almost genuine smile and steadied the towel wrapped around her hair. "You taking off?" He nodded dumbly. "Well, it really was something seeing you again. I know Sam was thrilled to run into you."

Josh nodded again, slowly. "Yeah. Me, too." He backed into the elevator, and the door slid shut.

Josh leaned the back of his head against the elevator wall. Lisa. How the hell had he let himself forget the reason he'd bypassed New York three times in the first place? Sam was married, and soon Josh would be, too. Nothing could ever be the same again.

The elevator pinged, alerting him to his arrival on the ground floor. There was an ashtray across the vestibule – a champagne bucket filled with sand that had The Don CeSar's logo stamped into the top. Josh reached into his pocket, pulled out Sam's card, and folded it in half, creasing it with his thumbnail. He pushed it into the tightly packed sand of the ashtray and walked across the lobby, through the palm trees and bird calls, and out to the motorcade.

FIN

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