Title : Carpe Diem 2 : Learn from the Past, Live in the Present
Author : Sue C
Spoilers : ITSOTG
Pairing : Josh/Sam
Rating : PG-13
Disclaimer : I know they belong to Aaron Sorkin, but I can't resist having a little creative fun with these boys. I'll give them back when I'm done.
Summary : This continues the Carpe Diem A/U, picking the story up a week later from the first fic of what is now turning into a series. It develops from the decision made by Josh and Sam to disclose their relationship to Leo and Toby.
Archive : Yes, just let me know where.
Feedback : Please, even if you hate it, as long as it's constructive. I'm at susan.clements4@btinternet.com
Thanks to : Nomi, for her willingness to read yet another of my pieces. As always her comments and advice are more valuable than she knows. Also, her feedback stops my work sounding ever so British - she helps me achieve some degree of authenticity. Also to Beth (aka Elizabeth A Latshaw) for feedback which included ideas for inclusion in this particular universe - I have taken the liberty of including some of them here. Finally to Kathi, who has sent me many an e-mail about Carpe Diem - thanks for your support and encouragement. This one's for you, sweetie.

***

Carpe Diem 2 : Learn from the Past, Live in the Present by Sue C


MORNING 20 NOVEMBER 2000

I looked at my watch for what seemed like the fiftieth time that day. Normally, I've found work a solace whenever I'm upset or stressed. It helps me to focus, and I like to think that I'm not one of those people who let their personal problems get in the way of their responsibilities, if that doesn't sound too kiss-ass. But not today. And now I felt sick. The nervous feeling that had been building up for the last couple of days had finally got the better of me. In the week since Josh and I had told Leo and Toby about our relationship, I'd gone from feeling optimistic about our situation to a state of near panic over our forthcoming meeting with the President. It hadn't helped that since Leo had told him about this new development, he'd had to fly straight off to Europe for a visit culminating in a summit in London. It goes without saying that matters of state always take precedence over a little local difficulty such as this. So this was the day we would find out what he really thought about Josh and me. God, I felt sick.

I turned my attention back to my laptop where I was working on refining some policy statements. It just so happened that the one currently on the screen concerned stem cell research, a topic Josh and I discussed only a few days ago. I found myself staring blankly at it as thoughts of Josh, spinal injuries and medical research circled around inside my head. Making a conscious effort to wrench my thoughts back to the job in hand, I concentrated on the sentence I'd written a minute ago. "The benefits of this research are incalculable, however the ethical and moral implications..." I waited for the words to come into my brain, jump across the synapses of my nervous system and into my fingers poised above the keyboard. Nothing. I was totally blocked. The words, which were usually my most dependable allies, had deserted me.

The sentences I'd written began to blur. I debated whether I was suffering from eye strain or if it was just that my glasses needed cleaning. I rubbed my eyes hard until I could see lights dancing in the darkness behind my eyelids. I finally decided to give up trying to compose anything coherent. I saved and closed the document I was working on, logged off and shut the lid on my laptop. To occupy my mind further I slowly and deliberately removed my glasses, placing them neatly next to the pen that lay on my desk, stood up, walked to the coat rack and put my jacket on. I straightened my tie and ran my fingers through my hair. I took a deep breath - for some reason, I felt as if I couldn't get enough air into my lungs. This is absurd, I thought. You're going to sit down and talk to the man whose whole political philosophy is founded on impeccable liberal principles. You're going to sit there with your partner to discuss how your personal relationship is going to affect your working relationships. A personal relationship that just happened to be a same sex relationship. In the White House. And the upshot is that today is when we put those famous liberal principles to the test. Sitting back down at my desk I picked up a file on the proposals for the new education bill and began to read.

The phone rang and I snatched up the receiver so quickly it didn't get to the second ring. The voice at the other end was the one I'd been waiting to hear the whole morning - my favorite voice in the whole world.

"Sam, I'm in my office."

"I'll be right there," I said.

The sound of Josh's voice calmed me slightly - he sounded a lot more together than I was feeling. As I walked towards the door I glanced through the window on my right that faced into Toby's office. I saw that he was watching me in a reflective sort of way. I didn't know how long he'd been looking at me. We made eye contact, and he lifted his chin, jerking his head back slightly in what I took to be a gesture of reassurance. I was grateful for that. It had meant a lot to Josh and me that Leo and Toby had given a cautious endorsement to our relationship and job security. However, at this minute my confidence on a scale of one to ten was about minus twenty. No matter how much Leo and Toby supported us, it was still the President who called the shots, and Leo hadn't given us any indication of what his conclusions would be. All he said was that the President had wanted to take some time out to consider his position. Leo seemed to think this was a hopeful sign. I wished I could be as sanguine.

I gave a weak smile in Toby's direction, left my office and made my way out of the communications bullpen. En route to Josh's office I walked past Donna's desk and heard her come up behind me.

"Sam."

"Donna, I'm in a hurry."

She walked in front of me, effectively barring the path toward Josh's office.

"Sam, what's happening? Why are you and Josh meeting with the President? Wasn't the agreement that Josh wouldn't be attending meetings until he actually came back to work? He won't tell me anything, and he looks really distracted." She spoke almost in a stage whisper, which I thought attracted more attention than if she'd spoken in a normal tone of voice.

"It's nothing - it's just a ... a thing."

"Then why do *you* look so serious?"

"So would you if you had to meet with the President after he's just visited Britain - we're probably going to get a lecture on Queen Elizabeth II's lineage."

"So you're not going to tell me?"

"What, about Queen Elizabeth II's ancestors? The President may want me to ..."

"You know that's not what I meant," she said irritably.

"There's nothing *to* tell, Donna," I said as I put my hand on the door handle.

"Okay." She turned away, and as she flicked her hair back I could have sworn I detected a pout on her face. Well, depending on how the next hour goes she may well find out more than she expected.

Josh was sitting with his back to me, reading through a sheaf of papers and marking passages with a highlighter pen. I closed the door to give us a modicum of privacy.

"Hey," I said as I bent to place a kiss on his cheek, "you look nice."

And indeed he did. He was wearing a business suit and I noticed he'd had a haircut so that he didn't look as tousled as he had in the hospital. (Although I had to admit that tousled was so good a look on him.) However, today he looked every inch the confident, powerful political strategist.

"Well, I wanted to be in the right state of mind - this is like a rehearsal for coming back to work."

Josh lapsed back into silence and continued with his reading, the pen making regular sweeps across the text. I folded my arms and began moving around the rather cramped office.

"Stop it, Sam."

"What?"

"Pacing. You're pacing."

"I just feel a little restless."

Without lifting his head, Josh extended his arm to stop me as I walked past him for the third time.

"Are you nervous?" he asked.

"I feel like throwing up," I said.

"I already *did* throw up - I thought it was just the hospital food." Josh smiled up at me, trying to make me feel better. A tap on the door interrupted us, and CJ walked in, closing the door behind her.

"I just wanted to see how you both are," she said, moving her glasses down her nose and peering over them.

"We're - er - good...yeah, good," replied Josh.

She smiled suddenly. "Look, I haven't had a chance to say it, but you should know I'm really happy for you both, and I think you're really sweet together."

"CJ!" Josh exclaimed, "we're not a couple of cute kittens."

"But thanks," I interjected. "We appreciate your support - more than you know."

"Well, I hope everything goes well with the President - break a leg," she said.

"Don't you think I've got enough problems?" Josh quipped, causing CJ to pause for a beat, then burst out laughing when she realised he was joking.

"See you later," she said, leaving the room.

I was standing behind Josh and bent down, putting my arms round him so they crossed over his chest. I rested my cheek against his.

"You're wicked, do you know that?" I asked rhetorically.

We stayed in that position for a few more seconds. Before I knew it, CJ had stuck her head round the door and said, "See - just what I said - sweet."

"CJ!" Josh and I chorused as she disappeared and the door closed. I straightened up and glanced at my watch - that made it fifty-one times.

"Josh, we should go." Eleven thirty - the time Leo had said Josh and I should present ourselves to the outer office prior to our audience with the President. The phrase sounded pretentious, but to me, that's what it felt like. Not a conversation, not a meeting, but the Head of State and Commander in Chief of the United States granting us that privilege. I looked round Josh's office and told myself that an hour or so later our fates would be decided. This room would look exactly the same, but what would have changed? I only knew that despite my nerves being shot to pieces I was glad this moment had finally arrived.

Josh turned and laid his papers on the desk.

"Come here," he said, taking hold of my hand. He was quiet for a few seconds, as if gathering his thoughts. "You know that whatever happens today I'll always love you. If this doesn't go the way we would like, only understand this - I've never been happier than I am today." He lifted my hand and kissed it.

"Oh, Josh." I couldn't find the words.

"I know, I know." He gave me a lopsided grin which made me want to fall down on my knees and offer myself to him there and then. "I always know. Now, don't we have to see the President?"

I opened the door to let Josh exit first. Outside, the bullpen was crowded with people walking back and forth to their desks, a photocopier was churning out papers - miraculously, for once, without jamming - and the television was tuned to a Congressional hearing regarding corporate fraud. Just your average busy day in the West Wing. To me it was as if all this activity was happening at a distance - I could see and hear everything, but it was as if a thick pane of glass separated me from my friends and colleagues. The feeling of unreality was heightened by a slight hissing in my ears, presumably an effect of the adrenaline rush I was experiencing. In front of me, Josh maneuvred deftly through the crowded work area, until he was stopped by a large box containing files that prevented him moving between two desks. His spatial awareness was now so well developed that he could tell within an inch whether his wheelchair would go through a particular space.

"Sam, can you move this?" he asked.

At the same time, a young staffer named Steve jumped up from his desk.

"God, Josh, I'm sorry, I just didn't think ... " He helped me lift the heavy box onto his desk. I was glad of the activity; it helped bring me back from my weird feeling of detachment.

Josh smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry about it - but don't let it happen again." Steve looked thoroughly chastened. "That *was* a joke, by the way," said Josh.

As we went out of the bullpen through the lobby, making our way to the outer office, Josh complained, "Has everyone round here had a sense of humor bypass?"

"Well, maybe for the first few weeks you'll need to hold up cue cards saying 'Laugh', " I suggested, "or you could issue a briefing paper on 'The Wit and Wisdom of Josh Lyman'."

"Or CJ could make a statement to the press corps that despite terrible injuries, my sunny disposition has survived intact," said Josh, picking up the theme.

"CJ's good, but I don't think they'd buy *that*," I retorted, realizing that we were laughing as if we didn't have a care in the world.

"That's better," Josh remarked. "Do you even know how grim you looked back there?"

He pushed open the door to the President's outer office. None of the secretaries were there, but Charlie sat at his desk awaiting our arrival. He was making notes on an itinerary, but next to this document lay an open text book on constitutional law. If he had any downtime in his work for the President, he used it to catch up on his studies. Every minute had to be productive for Charlie.

"Charlie - how're you doing?" asked Josh. He looked at the material on the desk. "What's this - you're only doing two things at once? Is this how standards have been slipping since I've been away?"

"Well you can be sure I'll be back to some real multi-tasking now the President is back. He's already given me a rundown on Queen Elizabeth II's lineage and I'm sure he'll be asking questions later."

"You're kidding!" I said.

"No - why should I be?"

"Nothing - just something I was saying to Donna earlier."

Josh looked at me over his shoulder, with a "What the hell are you talking about?" expression on his face. He turned back to Charlie, the two of them going into a detailed discussion on the current ice hockey season. Watching them stirred up recent memories of how their usual easy relationship seemed to have gone for good. As we waited to meet with the President, I let my mind wander back to that time.

***

EVENING 26 JULY 2000

"CJ, you should talk to him," said Toby.

"Me? Why me?"

"He'll see you as sympathetic - he'll open up to you."

CJ fixed him with a look that would make a basilisk flinch. "You mean because I'm a *woman* he'll find me sympathetic. Does the word stereotyping mean anything to you? Why don't *you* do it?" She stood up to lean over the table to grab another slice of pizza. " On second thoughts, no, you shouldn't do it - you'll just end up yelling, throwing that rubber ball around, and making the situation worse. What about Leo? Leo, you know you can do all that gravitas thing. He'll take notice of you."

"I'm not falling for *that*, CJ. Anyway, it'll be like the big bad boss giving him an order, which I'm not gonna do. He's got to want to do it himself, not because I'm telling him to. Sam, you'll do it."

I shifted in my seat. I'd had a feeling this would happen. I had recently made the observation that now that Josh was fit enough to see as many visitors as he wished, Charlie always seemed to have some excuse for not visiting. The President needed him, he had to be somewhere with his sister Deana, he had to hand in an assignment at college. This went on until the excuses became so thin as to be transparent. Since Charlie and Josh had always been so close, ever since the day Josh had recruited him as the President's assistant, we had all assumed he would be one of the first people to go see him. His puzzling behavior continued, and what was more worrying, particularly to me, was the fact that Josh was becoming seriously agitated by his friend's apparent refusal to see him. One of the effects of his trauma was that he had become hyper-sensitive to even the smallest nuances in the reactions and behaviors of those around him. He was therefore starting to imagine all sorts of reasons for Charlie's absence.

The upshot was that here we were gathered in the Mural Room late at night, eating pizza, generally unwinding from what had been a particularly fraught day, and the discussion turned to what we should do about "the Charlie situation", as we'd taken to calling it. The one thing we all agreed on was that someone needed to speak to Charlie to find out just what was going on, and to persuade him to go visit Josh. What we couldn't agree on was who should do it. That is, until Leo issued his edict, and everyone's eyes swivelled towards me. I picked up a paper napkin, wiping my hands as I walked over to the waste paper bin.

"I can't make any promises that he'll talk to me," I said, as I crumpled up the napkin and threw it away. I was glad I had my back to the room so they couldn't see the effect Leo's statement had on me. After all, whilst Josh was confined to the hospital, we had put our personal relationship on hold. We had yet to make the physical and emotional reconnection that later happened on Josh's first trip out from the rehabilitation hospital. I got myself a cup of coffee and sat down.

"I think he's more likely to talk to you than any of us," said Leo, "if only because you're Josh's closest friend."

Christ, I thought, you don't know what you're saying. I shrugged.

"Maybe," I reluctantly concurred.

"So you'll do it?" asked Leo.

"Yes, Leo, I'll do it," I answered wearily. "But I can't make any promises."

"Look, if there's anything else any of us can do..." said CJ.

"It's okay. You're all off the hook. I've said I'll do it." I regretted the shortness of my tone as soon as I'd said it. "Thanks, CJ, but I think it'll probably be better if just one of us broaches the subject. I'll speak to him tomorrow."

***

EVENING 27 JULY 2000

So the next evening at seven o'clock I stopped in the doorway of the President's outer office. The West Wing was quiet and I'd already cleared it with Leo that Charlie could be spared for a half hour or so.

"Hey, Charlie, I need to speak to you. Come to my office will you?"

He looked at me questioningly. "What's up, Sam?"

"Just something I want to run past you. I thought we could do it over a couple of beers." I was trying to keep things as understated as possible. I didn't want to make too big a deal of it. "Come on," I said, gesturing toward the hallway with a move of my head, "you could probably do with a break."

"Okaaay," he said, drawing out the word in a thoughtful sort of way. Was it my imagination, or did he sound a little suspicious? Whatever, he followed me down the hallway and into my office.

"Sit down, I'll get you that beer."

Once we were seated, each with a bottle in hand, I looked at Charlie and gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. He took a swig of his beer.

"What's on your mind, Sam, because I don't think you've got me here for us to drink beer and shoot the breeze about sport or women," he said.

I placed the bottle I was holding on my desk and leaned back in my chair. I figured the best way to approach this was directly - if I tried a more subtle approach he'd obviously think I was underestimating his intelligence.

"Listen," I stood up, moving around to take the other spare chair in the room so the desk didn't form a barrier between us," I'm going to ask you a direct question. I would appreciate a direct answer. Why won't you visit Josh?"

"You know why - I've been busy. My job, college work, Deana." He came out with the same old tired excuses. He looked away and took a drink. I let a few seconds go by. I didn't want to interrogate him, but it was the only way I could see to get an honest reply.

"Right, I'm going to ask you again, and I'll keep on asking until you give me an answer, because I can tell you I'm not convinced that what you've just told me is the whole truth of the matter. Why won't you visit Josh?"

Charlie raised his eyes from scrutinising the label on the bottle. What I saw made me hate myself for what I was doing. I'm an attorney, I've worked for one of the biggest corporate law firms in Manhattan, I'm accustomed to asking the hard questions. But that didn't entail looking into another person's eyes and seeing the tortured expression I was seeing now.

"Come on, Charlie. It's me you're talking to. We both want to do what's best for Josh, and I can tell you that you not going to see him isn't doing him any good at all. He misses his friend."

"Just tell him...I can't. I can't face him."

"But you're going to *have* to face him sooner or later. You know we're working on the assumption that he'll eventually be well enough to come back to work. The doctors are very positive. What is it you can't face? Is it because he can't walk now?" I said this with an effort because I still found it difficult to actually say the words. Not so long ago I would have broken down. I pressed on. "Look, if you've never really known anyone who has a disability, it can be difficult knowing what to say, what to do. But I'm sure there's someone you can talk to about it, someone with more professional expertise. And Josh is amazing - he won't let you feel uncomfortable."

"It's none of those things," Charlie said explosively. "It's because I'm embarrassed and guilty ... because it's all my fault he's lying in the hospital." The words came rushing out, almost like a physical onslaught. " If I hadn't been at Rosslyn, if I hadn't been dating Zoey, if I hadn't come to work here, Josh would still be walking around, doing his job, and just ... just ... being Josh."

Considering his age, Charlie was one of the most mature people I'd ever known. He'd had to grow up fast when his mother was killed and he took responsibility for caring for his younger sister. He also held down a job working in one of the most demanding environments - and for one of the most demanding of people - in the world. But as he stopped talking and covered his face with his hands, trying not to cry, he looked incredibly young. I reached out and put my hand on his arm.

"You're *not* responsible. We all know who's responsible. You didn't do anything - it was the guys with the guns, those amoral, racist monsters." Charlie took his hands from his face and quickly wiped his eyes. He kept his head bent. "Charlie, look at me - Josh knows who's to blame. He won't blame you. It was an atrocity carried out by criminals."

He began talking again, as if now he'd begun, he was eager to let all the torment, all the pain, out.

"How can I see Josh when I know I was the intended target, but I came out of it all unscathed? How can I look him in the eye?"

"Charlie, we all feel that to a degree - how lucky we were not to get shot, how it makes us feel guilty. And don't say you came out of it unscathed - none of us did, whether the scars are physical or mental."

"But if go to see Josh, it'll just remind him. Seeing me will just make it worse."

"No, Charlie," I said, searching for the words that would convince him. "You just said that you wished Josh were here being Josh. Well, that's exactly what he still is. Have you ever known Josh to be vindictive, to bear a grudge?"

"Only to some Republicans," said Charlie with the ghost of a smile.

"Yeah, well, that's politics and they probably deserved it. No, what I mean is, on a personal level. Loyalty to his friends is so important to Josh. It's making him miserable you not seeing him - he knows something is wrong. Talk to him about it, and he'll show *you* that loyalty. Please, Charlie. Do it for me ... but mostly, do it for Josh."

I stopped there because I realized I was getting a little too close to showing Charlie how much *I* was hurting because Josh was hurting. I had to keep up the pretence of simply being the best friend acting as go-between.

Charlie sighed and shook his head.

"Will you at least think about what I've said?" I asked.

He raised his eyes. As he looked towards the window, the light from outside was reflected in them. It gave his gaze a far off quality as if he was searching for the answer that he knew I wanted to hear.

"Will you come with me?" he eventually asked.

"Of course. Tomorrow, about four o'clock? Josh usually has his physical therapy until about three thirty. I'll make sure we can both get away."

Charlie drank the rest of his beer and stood up.

"Are you all right?" I asked. "I'm sorry if I was a little hard on you. Do you need to take some time before you go back to work?"

"No - I'd rather go back now. I'm glad we've talked, but ... "

"What?"

"I'm still scared about seeing Josh."

"If you get worried beforehand come and talk to me, okay? I know how you feel."

He opened the door and turned to face me.

"No, you don't, Sam. With the best will in the world, you don't."

I had no response to that, so I was left sitting there with a vacant look on my face. I *thought* I knew how he felt, but I didn't. I was trying to make him feel better by letting him know how hard it had been for me. But I couldn't imagine his feelings any more than he could mine. You idiot, Seaborn, you stupid, patronizing idiot. Well there's one thing, Charlie, I thought, I'll bet Josh won't be as crass.

I left my office to tell Leo about the outcome of my conversation with Charlie. I just hoped I'd done the right thing.

AFTERNOON 28 JULY 2000

I was glad to see that my tactlessness hadn't deterred Charlie from keeping his promise. At four o' clock sharp the following day he presented himself at my office. We walked outside, where the July heat hit us like a solid wall. My car was baking hot as we got inside, so I turned the air conditioning on full blast. As we drove through DC the sun bounced off buildings, making me squint. I leaned towards the glove compartment and started groping around for my sunglasses.

"Here, let me," said Charlie. "Which pair do you want?"

"Huh?" I said at first, not understanding. I took my eyes off the road for a moment and looked at the two pairs of sunglasses Charlie held in his hand - one pair belonging to me, the other belonging to Josh. The shock of seeing something as simple as a pair of sunglasses stabbed me somewhere in the pit of my stomach. Josh must have left them there the last time he'd travelled in my car.

"Sam - which ones do you want?" He had a slightly nonplussed look on his face caused, no doubt, by my indecision.

I briefly took my hand off the steering wheel and for some reason picked up Josh's pair. I fumbled a little as I unfolded them and put them on one handed. Why did I put those ones on? As a way of feeling closer to Josh? Wanting to wear something that had been in contact with Josh? What did it matter as long as it gave me a connection with him.

"Thanks, Charlie." I flexed my fingers around the steering wheel. "Do you want to talk?" I decided to ask him directly rather than make aimless chit-chat.

"If it's all the same to you, I need some time to think."

"Sure. We'll be there in about twenty minutes."

It was actually closer to thirty minutes when I turned my car into the hospital grounds. I parked and we walked in silence into the building. The lobby was busy with medical staff and patients alike. As we went to the elevator I glanced at Charlie and noticed that he avoided looking at anyone who had an obvious disability. Maybe he didn't want to feel like a voyeur. Then again, it could be that he was feeling uncomfortable with the whole experience.

"We go this way, " I said, indicating left as we stepped out onto Josh's floor.

"Will you go and see Josh first? I'll wait here." Charlie stopped at the corridor which led to Josh's room.

"You're not getting cold feet?" I asked, trying to keep my tone light-hearted.

"No - I just want you to make sure he really wants to see me. I've got only your word for it."

"Charlie, you've got to trust me on this." I was starting to get exasperated.

"Please, Sam," he said, looking at me pleadingly.

"Okay."

I walked down the corridor and pushed open the door to Josh's room, which wasn't as soullessly clinical as the one at GW had been. There was a TV of course, and Donna had arranged for a DVD player to be installed as well. Books, newspapers and magazines were there in abundance, while Josh's mother had added a more personal touch by bringing in some framed photographs of the Lyman family. A vase of flowers stood on the window sill - the First Lady had sent a new display each week of Josh's stay in the hospital. I saw he was lying on the bed rather than in it, propped up on a pile of carefully arranged pillows. He held that day's copy of the Washington Post, which he wasn't reading. Instead, he was staring at the television, which was tuned to a banal daytime soap opera. Josh's face wore an expression of extreme boredom.

"Josh."

He turned his head towards me. I was pleased to see a fleeting look of pleasure on his face. But, as usual, just in case I wasn't alone, it was quickly replaced by a carefully bland expression, friendly but not affectionate.

"Hey." He picked up the remote control and turned off the TV.

I walked over to stand by the bed. His wheelchair stood at the other side, with a discarded tee shirt and shorts draped over it. Josh was now wearing the pyjamas CJ had bought him. She'd gotten him the wrong size, so they were too big. They made him look absurdly young and in need of protection. My heart contracted as I wished I could lie next to him, fold my arms around him and hold him close. I imagined the smell of him, the way his skin would feel against my lips as I kissed him, especially that soft, sensitive place just above his collarbone.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"You look so ... I want ... " Without thinking I laid my hand on the bed and started sliding it towards him.

"Sam, stop it, not here," he hissed, looking anxiously towards the door, which I had left open. "And can you sit down, you're getting on my nerves hovering over me," he said irritably. I surmised the emotional and sexual deprivation was getting to him as well, but that was the inevitable result of the tacit agreement we had entered into since Josh was hospitalized. No talking about our feelings, no touching.

Josh's outburst suddenly reminded me of the objective of my visit. "Josh, I've brought Charlie to see you."

He smiled. A proper smile, one that reached his eyes. I hadn't seen too many of those recently.

"Well, where is he? Why didn't he come in with you?"

"Look, you need to understand that this is really difficult for him. There are all sorts of reasons why he hasn't been to see you - he might want to talk about them. Are you up to it?"

Josh pushed himself up into a sitting position.

"This afternoon I've just gone five rounds with a physical therapist called Gill who specializes in hurting unsuspecting males. Man, after that I can take *anything*."

"Josh, you know I don't mean whether you can take it physically."

"I know what you mean. I'll be all right, don't worry. I'd like to bet this is worse for Charlie than for me."

"Well, he asked me to check that you want to see him. He's got it into his head that you might not want to."

"Sam, go get him ... *now*!" Josh said vehemently.

I stepped out into the corridor and beckoned to Charlie. As he walked towards me, I gestured for him to go into the room.

"Don't leave," he whispered.

I stood in the doorway. Josh held out his hand.

"Charlie ... "

Charlie walked over to him. As he grasped Josh's hand I heard him give a stifled sob. Josh reached out with his other arm, managing to pull Charlie towards him in a hug. Looking over Charlie's shoulder he jerked his head at me, indicating that he wanted me to leave them alone. I backed out, shutting the door behind me. I stood there, debating what to do to kill time until I judged it was safe to return to Josh's room. I had brought some work with me in case this situation arose, however my brief dialogue with Josh had left me feeling somewhat dispirited. At this point work was the last thing I could concentrate on, so I made my way to the hospital coffee shop, figuring that some caffeine and a little breathing space would help.

It was crowded when I walked in. Medical staff and patients alike were eating and drinking there. I took my coffee and searched the room for an empty table, so that I could be on my own. I spotted one near the window and managed to move quickly enough to snag it for myself. I sat down, sliding my briefcase under the table and placing my feet on either side of it to keep it secure. I looked moodily at the cup in front of me. I'd chosen a cappuccino, which I hadn't drunk for years. I normally take my coffee black, but had decided I wanted the caffeine equivalent of comfort food. I lifted up my spoon, dragging it across the foam and capturing some of the chocolate sprinkled on the top. The creamy bubbles melted on my tongue - soft, warm, ephemeral. A bit like the way my relationship with Josh has turned out, I thought fancifully. I drank some of the coffee, wincing slightly as I swallowed a too-big mouthful of the scalding liquid. But it tasted good - well, good for a hospital facility. I started to unwind a little. Until, that is, I started to check I had my pager in my jacket pocket, and my fingers touched the sunglasses I had worn in the car.

I had forgotten I'd put them there when I walked into the hospital with Charlie. I pulled them out of my pocket, turning them over in my hands, stroking the smooth ... what? Plastic? Acrylic? Some synthetic material, I supposed. Josh's sunglasses. Josh's sunglasses that he had worn, that had touched his skin. That was the nearest I could get to him in a physical sense. I thought of Charlie taking Josh's hand, Josh putting his arm around Charlie. Guiltily I realized I was feeling resentful of the fact that Charlie could get that near to *my* lover, *my* guy. And not just resentful. It was ridiculous - I was jealous. I leaned my elbow on the table, rubbing my forehead, as if to ease some of the negative thoughts from my head. I drank my coffee slowly, then to kill more time I bought myself another. Much more caffeine today and I'd be bouncing of the ceiling.

Making an effort to shake off my mood of introspection, I idly looked at the scene in front of me. At the next table a man sat with his arm around the shoulder of a woman who was using a wheelchair. Her condition was more severe than Josh's, as she seemed to have restricted movement in her arms. I could see how much effort it entailed for her just to eat a sandwich and drink a Coke.

"Come on, sweetheart, it doesn't matter how long it takes. We've got all day," I heard him say.

"That's easy for you to say, but I'm hungry!" It sounded like she hadn't lost her sense of humor.

I knew it was bad manners, but I couldn't help but watch them. The care he showed her was obvious. I'd been doing a lot of reading on the Internet about the effect that disability could have on personal relationships, not always for the better. Some didn't survive. But these two people looked like they had something good going on between them. I wished there could be a time when Josh and I could come down here and let everyone see the true nature of *our* relationship.

I suddenly realized the woman was smiling at me.

"Hi," she said.

I felt myself blush slightly as it became clear she had seen me looking at her.

"I'm sorry - I didn't mean to stare. I'm a little distracted today."

"Are you visiting someone?" she asked. She wasn't intrusive, more concerned.

"Yes ... just taking a break."

"I know - it becomes a bit of a strain after a while, doesn't it?" Her husband joined in the conversation. "Especially when you have to fit visiting in with work." I guessed my business clothes were a giveaway. "It would be great if I could visit Sally whenever I wanted. Still, we manage, don't we?"

"Yeah - we have our moments." she said, laughing. "Sometimes, though, I think it's a good thing we have some time apart. How long has your ... "

I realised she was unsure just who it was that I was visiting.

"Oh - my friend. He was transferred here a week ago."

"Must still feel a little strange, huh?" Sally asked. "I found the first couple of weeks difficult. You come out of a trauma unit where you felt safe, and sometimes you even convinced yourself that everything is just the same as it's ever been. Then you come to a place like this and bam - reality bites. You start to realise what you're dealing with."

I was impressed by her candour. "You sound like you're doing okay now," I said.

"Yes ... yes, I am. It gets better you know. It will - for both of you."

I finished my coffee and stood up to leave.

"I'll tell my friend what you said. I hope everything goes well for you."

"Thanks. And good luck," she said.

As I walked out the door I turned to look back at the couple. Sally raised her arm slightly. I waved back and walked out into the hospital lobby.

I looked at my watch, deciding to give Josh and Charlie another half hour or so together. I took my briefcase outside, found a bench and settled down to do some work. I pulled out a speech I'd been working on that the President was to give to the American Bar Association. Toby had been through it with a fine tooth comb, so it was now covered in his numerous annotations. Since I first began working for Toby, I'd become fluent in Toby's own particular brand of shorthand. For the next half hour I read his comments, some of which I agreed with, some I decided to debate with him. I made a note of these points on a legal pad, which kept me so fully occupied that I was surprised to see how quickly the time had gone. Time to go get Charlie. We couldn't take any more advantage of Leo's goodwill in giving us time off.

I walked quickly back into the hospital, deciding to take the stairs up to Josh's floor rather than the elevator. As I went into his room I heard laughter.

"Sam ... Sam ... You didn't tell me that you'd been asked to look at the legality of Jedi Knights being officially recognised as a religion if people entered that as their faith on the census form."

"I would have told you that," I said feebly. I knew what was coming next.

"Yeah, and would you have told me that CJ then sent out a memo saying that a group had been set up to get voting rights for the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy?" Josh was obviously enjoying himself.

"I *knew* that was a joke, okay?" I protested. The Jedi Knight issue *had* been genuine, but CJ hadn't been able to let it go.

"Yeah, right, Sam, whatever," said Josh, raising an eyebrow and glancing at Charlie. But I didn't care how much he mocked me - Josh was laughing, he was really, really laughing, and if me being the butt of the joke caused that, I didn't give a fuck.

"Well, I hate to break up the party, but Toby's probably yelling for me, and the President is *undoubtedly* unable to function without you there, Charlie," I said.

Charlie stood up and turned to Josh.

"It's been great seeing you, Josh. I'll come back again soon if that's all right?"

"You'd better. Don't forget, I want more stories about Sam and the rest of them. It's better than the Marx Brothers." Josh took Charlie's hand and shook it firmly. "Would you mind of I asked Sam to stay back for a couple of minutes?"

"No problem - I'll meet you in the lobby, Sam. See you later, Josh."

And with that he was gone. I walked to the bottom of the bed, not wanting to be too close to the wildly attractive man who lay there. I can resist everything except temptation, as one of my favourite playwrights once said. I waited to hear what Josh had to say.

"Good job, Sam," he said, borrowing the phrase the President uses when he's particularly pleased with his staff.

"I didn't do much," I replied.

"Oh, but you did. You found out what troubled Charlie. You persuaded him to come here. You gave him the confidence to really talk to me. And you've made me very happy. Charlie and I were miserable for similar reasons - he was feeling guilty for me being here, and I was feeling guilty because I suspected he was hurting because I was in here." He stopped, frowning slightly. "Did you follow that?"

"I think so, but maybe you could draw me a flowchart and go over it again tomorrow just so I'm clear," I said.

We were both smiling at one another at this point. For the first time in ages I felt we were really connecting, really engaging with one another.

"Maybe some day soon I can show you just how grateful I am." Josh lowered his voice so that it took on an almost sensual tone. But it wasn't just the thought of the possible physical pleasure to come that gladdened my heart, but the fact that Josh was thinking about the future. No matter how vague the proposition, he was focusing on something positive.

"I can't wait," I said softly, always mindful we were in a public place. "Just tell me where, and when - I'll be there."

"You should go now," he said.

As I began to leave the room, he spoke again.

"Sam."

I turned round. I was standing in such a position that my body blocked anyone being able to see into the room. Josh obviously knew this, because he raised his hand to his lips, kissed it, turned it palm outwards towards me, mouthing, "I love you." The first time in two months he had said it.

I repeated the gesture, mouthing, "Me too." Thereafter, whenever we could while Josh was in hospital, we repeated this small gesture as a symbol of what we couldn't demonstrate more tangibly. But that first time was so meaningful. As I left the hospital that day the sun seemed to shine properly for the first time in months.

***

MORNING 20 NOVEMBER 2000

"Sam ... Sam. Earth calling Sam."

I realised with a start that Leo was waving a hand in front of my face. I pulled myself back to the present.

"Are you okay? You want to go get a drink of water or something?" Leo glared at me in an exasperated way, whilst Josh and Charlie sniggered at my discomfort.

"No, I'm fine. I was just thinking."

"Well, I hope you don't get to thinking like that when you're driving or something - you'll be positively dangerous," Leo said. "Anyway, what I came out to say was Charlie - the President needs you right now."

Charlie took his cue, pushed open the door and disappeared into the Oval Office. I caught a quick glimpse of the opulent room, where the President was sitting behind his desk, evidently engrossed in the contents of a file. Leo sat down in the chair that Charlie had vacated.

"You're ready for this?" he asked.

"God, Leo, we just want to get it over with." For the first time that morning Josh's voice betrayed some of the tension I now realised he was feeling. "How is he today?"

"Oh, you know ... " Leo lifted a hand from the desk then let it fall. "He had a good trip to Europe. I think we made headway with some of the apparatchiks from the European Union on trade tariffs. London was good, we got the PM on board with the proposals for the Middle East. And he's brought back enough trivia on the British parliamentary system to fill the Library of Congress."

"He's not going to test us on it, is he?" I asked.

"What do you think?" chuckled Leo.

"Leo, when I asked how he is, I meant how is he about this meeting?"

"Josh, you know what he's like. There are times when he plays his cards close to his chest. He hasn't told me anything - I don't know what he's going to say or how he's going to play it. And I'm not going to tell *you* how to play it, either. Now, I have a meeting with the Foreign Affairs sub-committee. When your meeting's over, I want you to go to my ffice and take a few minutes to draw breath. What I *don't* want is for you to rush out there and face people - whatever the outcome - without taking some time to gather your thoughts. I know how impetuous you can be Josh." Josh opened his mouth to protest, as Leo continued," Yes, I do, and I don't want you to do anything hasty. So you'll do as I ask." He walked over to the door to his own office. "And good luck."

The door shut behind him. I moved over to stand alongside Josh but a little in front of him, my hands down by my side. Suddenly I felt the lightest of touches as Josh gently stroked my palm. I curled my hand around his fingers. I looked at him, put my other hand to my lips, and we completed the ritual that had become our custom for the last four months. The minutes dragged by ... one ... two ... three ... as we waited. Then the door opened and Charlie stood in front of us. I don't know if he saw that our hands still touched.

"The President will see you now," he said.

I let go of Josh's hand, and we moved forward to meet with the President.

MORNING 20 NOVEMBER 2000

"Sam, Josh - did you know that in the debating chamber of the House of Commons, members may not smoke, but *can* take snuff and the Doorkeeper keeps a snuffbox for this purpose?" President Bartlet stood behind his desk, beckoning us into the Oval Office.

"No, sir," we said in unison.

"And did you know that Members of Parliament may not have their hands in their pockets while in the chamber? Or that swords may not be worn, but that all MPs have a loop of ribbon in the coatroom for their weapons?"

"That's very interesting, sir," said Josh.

The President was really hitting his stride now. "But the best is that members mustn't die on the premises. Do you know why?"

The President quizzing us like this was *way* too normal. Josh and I just shook our heads dumbly, knowing that he would tell us anyway.

"Because the Palace of Westminster is a royal palace where commoners may not die," he said triumphantly. "What do you think of that?"

"Well, I've watched some of those debates on cable, and sometimes it's difficult to tell whether they've died or they're just asleep," said Josh.

"Remind me to give the Prime Minister the opportunity to debate this with you next time he visits - I'm sure he'll value your opinion," the President said with a slight smile as he bent down to put the finishing touches to a document. He handed it to Charlie.

"Thanks, Charlie, you can go now."

He waited until his assistant had exited, then came around his desk and gestured towards the sofa.

"Let's make ourselves comfortable," he said, taking the armchair opposite. I waited until he sat down, then placed myself at one end of the sofa, with Josh positioning his wheelchair at the other end. We created a significant physical space between us, as if we didn't want to presume too much about appearing as a couple. Both of us knew it wasn't appropriate to speak first, so we waited expectantly for the President to speak. He smiled in a friendly sort of way. That seemed like a good start, I thought.

"It's good to see you back, Josh. Leo's explained how we're going to ease you back into work, and I know we can rely on Sam to support you." He paused, which added a double meaning to his words. I stole a sideways glance at Josh, but he kept looking straight ahead at the President.

"Thank you, sir. I'm looking forward to getting back into the thick of things," Josh said.

"Good." Another pause. "Now, I believe you two have another matter to discuss." The President leaned back in his chair, raising his eyebrows to give one of us permission to initiate the conversation. I didn't know how to begin - there was so much I wanted to say. For the past two days I had tried out various ways of broaching the subject, the best phrases to use. I even ended up composing a couple of speeches in my mind. But none of it satisfied me. If I couldn't get the words right, I'd rather not say anything at all. Josh had no such reservations. As is often the case, he just launched right into the heart of the matter.

"Mr. President, I know Leo has told you the way things stand. I don't know exactly *how* he's explained our relationship, but this is how it is. Sam and I love each other; we have for two years now. To be blunt, it's more than platonic. I guess in my case I've loved him for longer than that. So you can see it took us quite a few years to do anything about it. We haven't rushed into anything - in fact, it took a lot of soul searching before either of us made a first move. Even then, we hesitated, knowing what a vulnerable position we were in - what a vulnerable position we were putting *you* in. But me getting shot, being affected permanently - well, it just seemed that by keeping it a secret we were depriving ourselves. Life's fragile - you've got to take a chance. And we didn't want to continue being dishonest to our friends and colleagues, to ourselves - and to you, sir. Don't misunderstand me - it's been the ultimate privilege to work for you as a candidate and as the President of the United States. I've given my life to it. But in the final analysis - if I have to choose - it'll be Sam."

I looked at Josh. I was reeling from his honesty, from the rawness of his emotion. He turned his head, and right there, in front of the President, he gave me a smile so loving that it would leave no-one in any doubt as to his feelings. The President was watching us intently, and somewhere a clock ticked. I turned to face him.

"Sir, I'm sitting here with the man I'm going to spend the rest of my life with. I'm willing to make any concessions, any compromises, give up anything to make him happy. But with respect, we need to know what you think - we need to know what we can and can't do. We know that might mean we don't work for you or for this administration. If that's the case, so be it. There are some things we *can't* compromise on."

These were none of the words I'd rehearsed. I figured that this is where Josh and I go for broke. The President contemplated us for a second or two before responding.

"You know, when you both came to work for the campaign, I remember saying to Leo, 'They're so young'. I trusted him, that he was bringing the right people into the fight, but even so ... Then I got to know you - I even managed to remember your names after a little while." We all smiled at the memory of the then-Governor constantly asking 'What's this one called?'

The President continued with his reminiscing. "And I got to recognize your passion, Josh. Your willingness to *always* give an opinion. Hell, I never knew anyone who *had* so many opinions about everything. I remember the strategies that you formulated. And Sam - always so idealistic, writing speeches that could bring a whole room to its feet." I felt myself flushing slightly at the unexpected words of praise. "Over these years, you've all become more than a team. In many ways we're more like a family. And like all families, there are going to be secrets. And I find myself asking, 'Why didn't they feel able to tell me about this? Am I *so* intimidating?'" The expression on his face was sad rather than angry.

"We knew you wouldn't disapprove of gay relationships per se. This is the most liberal administration for years ..." I was interrupted by the President.

"Sam, I'm not talking about the values that the press and much of the general public ascribe to me as a politician. Give me a real answer."

"Then can I be really honest, sir?" I asked.

He nodded. I drew a deep breath.

"Suppose Josh had come to you and said 'Mr. President, Donna and I are in love and we want to be married.' What would your reaction have been? You'd have thought 'Don't they make a lovely couple, I'll give them my blessing, and of course they can both work in the White House, but maybe not as boss and assistant. Am I right?"

The President just gave me a noncommittal stare, so I pressed on.

But suppose I had come to you and said 'Mr. President, Josh and I are lovers, we want to remain lovers and we want to keep our jobs.' I would hazard a guess you wouldn't have had the same reaction. And on a personal level I would have hated the idea that a same sex relationship had a different value to a more conventional one, but professionally and politically I would have accepted it. Because that's what we did - we accepted the political reality that we couldn't come out as two openly gay senior staff members involved with one another. There was so much we wanted to achieve working for you - there is *still* so much to achieve - so we kept it a secret. But people change, the world changes, and circumstances change. Things happen that shake you up, and you make decisions that once seemed impossible. That's why we're sitting here having a conversation you would never have dreamt of two weeks ago."

I finally ran out of steam. Jesus, I thought, why don't you just fire me now. Josh was just sitting there with his mouth slightly open in a dazed sort of way. I suddenly realized that my fist was clenched, and I dimly remembered banging the arm of the sofa with it as I talked. I unclenched it, and folded my hands across my lap, hoping I looked calmer than I felt.

"So it's taken a tragedy to make you re-evaluate what's important to you both?" the President asked.

"With respect, sir, I'd rather you didn't call my getting shot a tragedy. I'm still having days when I go into "Why me?" mode, so I try to avoid words like that." Josh spoke quietly and unemotionally. He'd once said to me that this wasn't the movies, where Hollywood-style life-changing experiences make the principal character "become a better person". He didn't accept his disability uncomplainingly, but by the same token he was working hard not to be bitter about it.

"Point taken," the President replied. "But if you'll allow it, from where I'm sitting, you've both been to hell and back, and it *has* made you reprioritize. Do you agree?"

We both nodded, guessing that we were approaching the crux of the matter.

"Well, I take it you want to know what I think?" he asked. "I've already said we're more like a family. I want the members of that family to be happy, personally and professionally. I can see you're committed to one another." He suddenly sat forward, leaning his elbows on his knees, hands clenched beneath his chin. "That pleases me. But what touches me is your commitment to your jobs and to me - that must have exacted a price. The administration can't afford to lose two such talented people. Or such loyalty." He paused, and as he did so, Josh and I both began talking at once.

"Mr. President ... "

"Sir, I don't know what to say ... "

The relief was immense. The President raised a hand.

"Wait. What I *don't* want is for this to be a distraction or a gift to our enemies. I'm still a politician, and that's the way I'm going to talk to you now. I won't pretend it wasn't a shock when Leo told me your news. I don't know how you kept it quiet for so long, although I do know one member of the staff figured it out." We all smiled at that. "Sometimes I'd swear CJ has powers verging on the paranormal," he continued. His face became serious again. "Here's what I propose - this is the deal. No big announcement, but no sneaking around either. Would I be correct in assuming that neither of you want to be used in any way by the administration to show our stance on gay rights?"

"Absolutely," said Josh, "the same way that I don't want to be automatically associated with the disability rights lobby - I just want to do my job."

"Okay. It's going to be tough enough for you as it is. This is what I want you to do - tell the key members of your staff and any other personnel you feel it's important should know. There's no question of keeping the situation secret, but we don't want it to be the subject of salacious gossip. Let it emerge naturally - you're two members of the staff who happen to be an item - that *is* the latest turn of phrase, isn't it?"

"Well, it's been around maybe ten years." Josh couldn't resist poking fun at the President, a sure sign that he was feeling confident.

"Hm. We all know that some people won't view it as you two just being a couple. In an ideal world, they would, but we're not in an ideal world. But at least we can work towards the ideal, and set some sort of an example."

I felt that ache you get behind your eyes when you're about to cry. God, please don't let me break down, I thought. I fought back the urge to turn towards Josh - if he looked anything like I felt I would totally fall apart. I swallowed hard, fighting back the tears.

"So no press announcements or releases," the President went on. "But if the question's asked, we'll answer it honestly. I know how loyal you both are to me, as well as to your friends and colleagues. In return you'll get our total support."

I couldn't find my voice, as if I'd used up all the words I had at my disposal. I was thinking Josh, please say something, because I can't. Please let this man know what a fine thing he's done. I should have known better - Josh can pick up on my thoughts in an uncanny way.

"Thank you, sir. Giving us the opportunity to be together and continue to serve at your pleasure ... well, it's ... overwhelming. We won't let you down."

The President stood, which was my cue to stand up. He came over and shook hands with us.

"Thank you, Mr. President," I said, deciding to keep it simple. Josh had been eloquent enough for both of us.

"Go into Leo's office and give yourselves some breathing space. But not for too long - like you said, there's still a lot to do. And Josh - come back soon, there are a lot of people who need stirring up on the Hill. Now go."

He moved back behind his desk. As we made our way out of the door, he spoke again.

"By the way - the First Lady sends her congratulations."

***

I liked Leo's office. The furnishings and artifacts reflected his personality. The surroundings made me feel more settled. I perched on the arm of a chair, watching Josh where he remained sitting near the door. I couldn't read his expression. I stretched my arm out towards him.

"Come here," I said.

He pushed himself over, and once he got within arm's length, I put my hands out to him. He stopped, grasped them, letting me pull him the rest of the way so he was directly in front of me. I leaned over, kissing him, a kiss that was as long and deep as any we had ever shared. His lips parted and I gently pushed my tongue into his mouth, slowly exploring, tasting, luxuriating in the sensations. Eventually we came up for air.

"Wow," Josh said.

"In more ways than one. I think we did okay in there." I placed my hand against his face. He was smiling, and I ran my thumb along the dimples that framed his mouth. "Josh, you don't know what you do to me," I breathed.

"Tell me."

"You captivate me. It happens again and again, and I'm still surprised by it. I look at you, and I can hardly breathe."

Josh placed his hands on the back of my neck, pulling my head down towards him. I laid my forehead on his shoulder.

"Sam, you're so tense," he said as his fingers stroked and soothed me. "God, I'm sorry - I've been so selfish. You must be exhausted, working, worrying about all of this, worrying about me. Oh, Sam, Sam ... " His voice broke, and he sniffed as if trying not to cry. For all his strength, his emotions were still never far from the surface, as if there was a thin veneer of control that would crack if it received too hard a knock.

"Babe, getting a little uncomfortable in this position," I said. I wanted to shift the mood of the moment, so I tried to speak in a lighter tone. I lifted my head, and straightened up to allow me to slide off the arm of the chair and onto its seat. Josh took hold of my hands, kissing each of my fingertips in turn.

"I just want to take care of you," he said. I noticed his eyes were bright with unshed tears. One escaped, and slowly ran down his face. I used the back of my fingers to wipe it away. I suddenly wished that the heightened emotion would subside. God, we had cried so much recently.

"Josh, not now, please, no more tears."

"What? What do you mean?" he asked in a small voice. His face held an expression of hurt as if I had just slapped him. I realized my voice must have betrayed the sudden irritation I felt, irritation at myself as well as Josh.

"Josh, we must be all cried out. Damn, I'm not explaining this very well. I admit it, I almost cried in there with the President, but I controlled it ..."

"You're saying I'm not controlling myself - that I'm hysterical?"

"No, babe, I just want us to try to get a little equilibrium in our lives. This last week has been all peaks and valleys. Now we've got to start thinking ahead - how we're going to handle telling people, when we're going to do it. I want us to just sit here for a while, just like the President suggested, enjoy this quiet time together, so we can calm down a little. Then we can discuss what we do next. How does that sound?" I stroked Josh's hair back, running my hand behind his ear, tangling my fingers in his curls. He nodded, so I continued with this for a few minutes until his breathing slowed a little and he looked less overwrought.

"Do you want some water?" I asked.

"Please."

I stood up and got a bottle of water from the fridge in the corner of Leo's office, unscrewing the top as I walked back to the chair. I sat down and handed it to Josh.

"Thanks." He drank a little, then pulled a face. "See - you're doing it again. You're looking after me. And I'm letting you."

"If I'd brought you a drink of water a year ago, you would have taken it without question. But hey, there's going to be plenty of opportunity for you to take care of me. Enjoy this while you can - you're still convalescing." I was becoming more aware that I was going to have to tread very carefully when doing anything for Josh. "When you get back to work, you're on your own."

"Speaking of which - when do you want to tell people about us? Can we start today?"

"Why not?"

Josh took a deep breath. "In that case - can I tell Donna first? I really think I owe it to her."

"I guessed that's what you would want to do. You do that, let me know how she takes it, then I'll take Ginger, Bonnie and Cathy to one side and tell them. That should do for starters. We can decide who else we need to tell after that." I gave him a quick kiss. "Ready to go now?"

"Nearly." This time he kissed me - harder, longer. "Now I'm ready."

***

AFTERNOON 20 NOVEMBER 2000

Back in Josh's bullpen we got a few curious looks as we entered. We'd been away for more than an hour, which was a long time for the President to devote to a private meeting with two staffers - even senior staffers - when he had just arrived back in the country. However, since we gave no indication that anything untoward had happened, after that initial reaction people just resumed what they were doing.

"Donna," Josh said, "can I see you in my office now, please?"

That *did* raise a few eyebrows. Not because of *what* Josh said, but because of the way he'd said it. Instead of his usual impatient yell, his voice was very restrained, as if he was aiming for subtlety. But it was so different to his usual approach that it only succeeded in attracting attention. Donna came round her desk, wearing a worried expression. Several pairs of eyes followed her as she walked behind Josh into his office and the door closed behind them.

"Is there anything anybody needs?" I asked pointedly. A couple of people hurriedly reassured me that everything was fine. Satisified that my question nipped any immediate speculation in the bud, I walked out of the bullpen and headed back to my own office.

"Sam." The familiar voice, quiet, serious in tone, stopped me in my tracks. "A few minutes of your time, please."

AFTERNOON 20 NOVEMBER 2000

Suppressing a sigh, I turned around to where Toby stood in the doorway to his office. I had hoped I could have gotten to my own office without being intercepted. I craved some space, mentally and physically, to reflect on the last hour or so, and to mull over what the President had said. I was starting to revisit the words he had used and the tone of his voice, and wanted to analyze and interpret them for any shades of meaning I may have missed.

"I hope I'm not encroaching too much on your valuable time," Toby said, a touch sardonically. He'd obviously picked up on my reluctance to engage in conversation with him, or with anybody else, for that matter.

We went into his office. Suddenly my jacket felt too constricting, my tie too tight.

"Do you mind?" I said, removing the jacket, loosening the tie, unfastening my shirt cuffs and rolling them back.

"Not at all - kick off your shoes if it'll make you feel more at home," Toby said dryly.

I sat down, stretching my arms across the back of the sofa, propping my feet up on the low table in front of me. Toby looked at me from under his brows.

"Want some coffee?" he asked.

"Yeah, thanks," I said warily. Toby *never* brought me coffee. Why was he being so solicitous? Solicitous for him, that is - in his case, it's a relative concept.

He left the room, so I took the opportunity to lay my head against the back of the sofa, closing my eyes for a few seconds. I wondered how things were going with Donna. I hoped it didn't get too emotional, for both their sakes. Quit worrying, I thought, you can't be there to hold his hand all the time, you've got to let go. Then I started wondering what Toby wanted. I presumed he wanted an update on our conversation with the President. Seeing as Leo hadn't known what the President's intentions were, there was little reason to suppose Toby would have been any the wiser. The sound of a mug being put on the table roused me from my thoughts.

"Thanks," I said.

Toby sat down behind his desk.

"How did your meeting go?" He asked the question casually, but his manner didn't deceive me. He had been as anxious as I had been. The way he'd stopped me on the way to my office told me that he'd been watching for my return. It wouldn't do him any harm to sweat a little, I thought, so I didn't answer immediately. I sat up slowly, picked the mug up and took a deep drink of the steaming liquid. I placed the mug carefully on the table.

"Don't worry, you still have a Deputy Director of Communications."

"I'm glad to hear it. However, as I'm the *Director* of Communications, the President did pay me the courtesy of letting me know that particular piece of information. But he didn't mention anything else you'd discussed." Toby found it difficult to refer to my relationship with Josh in direct terms. I began to feel a little sorry for him.

"The President is happy for Josh and me to tell people that we're a couple. As a matter of fact, he's telling Donna as we speak."

"Who is - the President?" asked Toby, being deliberately obtuse.

"Toby - why ever did you give up your stand-up routine? You know who I'm talking about. When Josh has told her, I'll tell Ginger, Bonnie and Cathy. The President also said we could tell any other key personnel we felt should know immediately. He'd prefer that word get around without any big announcements, but if the question is asked, it'll be answered."

"I take it by that he means the media?" asked Toby.

"That was my understanding, yes. He's given us the full support of himself and the administration." I stopped there, surmising that I had given Toby a reasonable summary of what had transpired. I continued drinking my coffee, waiting for Toby's reaction.

"Good." He looked down at his desk, picking up a ballpoint pen, and clicking its mechanism distractedly. For a man who had crafted words for all of his political career, he seemed to be having some difficulty in finding the right ones at this moment. "Sam, you know I ... the administration ... depends on you ... depends on your knowledge, your skills. Excuse me ... I'm finding this a little difficult ..."

"I know," I said. I was no longer enjoying seeing him discomfited, as I had been a few minutes earlier. My boss was profoundly uncomfortable, and I wanted to make it as easy for him as possible. "Toby, after the conversation I've just had, there's little else that will embarrass me. But I know you feel awkward. If you can be a little clearer in what you're asking, maybe I can make it easier for you."

Toby rubbed his forehead. His next words came out in a rush. "I need to know that working closely with your ... what the hell phrase do you use?"

Despite my good intentions, I started to get impatient. "Whatever - partner, boyfriend, lover - take your pick. Maybe you should just say Josh - that's my lover's name." My voice had an abrasive edge to it as I deliberately used the word that I figured would give Toby the most discomfort.

Toby finally made eye contact with me. "Don't fuck with me, Sam. I need your help here. It sounds like you've pretty much got what you wanted, so cut me a little slack already."

I suddenly felt ashamed for playing games with Toby. After all, he *had* come through for us when Josh and I finally told him and Leo about everything. I knew that in that private place inside him where it really mattered, Toby had no problems with accepting two of his friends and colleagues being gay. Intellectually he could talk up a storm about gay, civil and human rights. But what he found difficult was articulating the political into the personal. And here was I making him suffer for it.

"Christ, Toby, I'm sorry. I must have sounded like a smug little prick. You're worried that me working with my partner will cause problems?"

"Yes," he said, letting out a sigh, whether of exasperation or relief I couldn't tell.

"But we haven't let it affect our work so far," I said.

"Well as far as I'm aware, you've kept those two sides of your life totally separate. But give it a little time, and maybe you'll feel you won't need to be so careful."

I couldn't help but laugh out loud. "Toby, we aren't a couple of teenagers. We won't be making out in the Communications bullpen, we won't hold hands in the Oval, and you won't catch us whispering sweet nothings in the mess. Sure, we'll feel more relaxed in each other's company when we're here, but you won't find it affecting our work. We certainly won't do anything to embarrass anybody. Just like any other couple who happen to work together."

"You understand why I have to ask this?" Toby enquired. "I hate to do it, but ... " He lifted his hands helplessly. "We work for an extraordinary man in an extraordinary environment - the rules are different here."

"Yeah - sometimes I feel we make them up as we go along. It's okay, I know Leo will have the same conversation with Josh. But I'll ask you what I asked the President - would we be having this discussion if I were involved with a woman?"

Toby took a few long seconds before answering. "You really have to ask me that? In all honesty - yes, yes we would, because no matter what the nature of the relationship, if two co-workers are ... ahhh ... romantically involved, I'm concerned. I've seen that sort of thing cause real tension in the workplace."

Now some people could have responded in that way and I would have known they were taking the easy option, giving me the answer they thought I wanted to hear, or, in these politically correct times, the answer they thought they *should* give. But not Toby. He has the most integrity of anyone I have ever known. I knew that because I'd seen those times when the effect of acting with that integrity made life hard for him. Given the choice, he would always take the road less travelled.

"Well, you can be sure Josh and I will do all we can to prevent that happening. It hasn't been easy. We can't risk losing everything now." I picked up my mug of now cold coffee, and grimaced as I tasted it.

"Sam, I'm glad we've had this conversation," Toby said. "Let's keep the channels of communication open from now on. If anything - and I mean anything - on a personal basis becomes an issue again, I want to know about it." I knew he was referring to Josh and I keeping our big secret for over two years. Suddenly I realized how lucky we had been that things hadn't come crashing down around us.

"Sure," I replied.

As if to dispel the serious mood that had developed, Toby suddenly stood up.

"Come on, I want to see CJ's briefing - let's go outside and watch it."

"Okay." I was somewhat surprised - what was so important about it, and why did he want to watch it out in the Communications bullpen? I was even more surprised when I followed him outside and he walked to the bullpen outside Josh's office. There were quite a few people gathered round, including several key Communications staff, watching the TV showing CJ conducting the early afternoon briefing, which mainly concerned the President's visit to Europe.

"Yes, I can confirm that the President does intend to meet with the leaders of Jordan, Syria and Egypt, and that the British Prime Minister will come to Camp David in two weeks to discuss the US and UK joint initiative in the Middle East."

As she continued, Josh and Donna came out of his office and joined the gathering. Donna looked thoughtful but calm, while Josh appeared to be in control of his own emotions. Relieved, I turned my attention back to the television. I was curious as to why so many staff members were present to hear what was a fairly routine briefing without any big surprises. As CJ wound up giving information on the President's activities, she said she had one last announcement to make.

"I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear that Josh Lyman will be resuming his duties as Deputy Chief of Staff in three weeks. I hope you'll join with me and the administration in wishing him best wishes on his return to work."

As she finished the statement, the members of the press lobby began clapping, which was picked up by the staff who were present in Josh's bullpen. Now I understood why we were all here - Leo or Toby or both had wanted Josh to hear this information made public. I looked over at Josh, who for once looked slightly bashful at the attention. CJ concluded her statement.

"And I'm sure you'll all be relieved to hear that if I again have root canal work I will ensure that Mr. Lyman doesn't get anywhere near the briefing room. Thank you, everybody, and I'll see you at six o'clock."

There was quite a lot of laughter at her final remarks, which lightened the mood a little. Everyone then looked expectantly at Josh, as if expecting him to say something.

"What - do you want a speech?" he asked.

"Why break the habit of a lifetime?" someone shouted - it could have been Ed, it could have been Larry, I'm not sure which.

"Okay - but as they say, be careful of what you wish for - it's a long time since I had the floor." He stopped, as if weighing his words carefully. "Seriously, it's good to be here knowing that I have the support of all my friends and colleagues. I don't mind admitting that a few months ago, I couldn't imagine this day happening." Josh said this last with a slight smile. There was some nervous laughter as some people picked up on the fact it was okay to join in with his wry humor. He continued.

"I can't wait to get back. Things are going to be a little different in some respects, but I don't want people to be uncomfortable with the fact that I'm sitting in a wheelchair - you don't have to treat me with kid gloves, watch what you say or avoid talking about the past." He paused, looking carefully at the people who were listening to him so intently. "I can see various expressions on your faces, so I'm going to be very honest. To those of you who look grim - lighten up. To those of you who look sympathetic - I appreciate that you mean well, but get over it. To those of you who look like you couldn't give a damn - keep up the good work. To all of you - I'll let you know what I need, and if you need to check out what my expectations of you are - well, just ask. Okay?"

A few people replied in the affirmative, some called out phrases like "Good luck".

Josh turned to look at me. As he did so, I knew the expression on my face was now totally stripped of any artifice. I didn't bother carefully arranging a bland, friendly smile on my face. I looked at him as a lover would. And I saw the same look from him - naked, unadulterated love. Anyone with an ounce of perception would almost see the electricity crackling between us. That's when I realized it had gone very quiet. I didn't say anything, I just thought to myself 'Let's do it now, Josh, let's tell them.' I prayed that he would pick up on my thoughts, as so often happened. He did - because Josh Lyman can read Sam Seaborn like a book. Or I should say like a particularly complicated set of polling data, which is Josh's preferred reading material.

I walked across the room to stand next to him. I could tell the truth was starting to dawn on some people, while others simply looked puzzled. What we were about to say probably came so far out of left field for them that they couldn't even guess what they were going to hear. I decided to let Josh continue. I bent down to whisper in his ear.

"You tell them," I said.

"There's something else I'd ... we'd ... Sam and I would like to say. But it's of a more personal nature. Confirming my return to work isn't the only thing that's been agreed this morning. As some of you know - hell, *all* of you, knowing the intelligence network in this place - Sam and I had a meeting with the President this morning. With his agreement, and with the support of the rest of the senior staff, we're now free to tell you that for the last two years, Sam and I have been in a relationship which goes beyond being - how can I say it - 'just good friends'." Josh let this phrase sink in before continuing.

"Or, as the President put it, 'an item.'" That prompted a few smiles, which I guessed was Josh's intention. "We hadn't intended making a formal announcement like this, but it just seemed the right moment to bring into the open something which we've hated having to keep a secret. I'm sure you can understand why we felt the need to do that." I saw people nod, heard some murmuring in assent. "But a lot has happened to make us reprioritize what is important to us, and one of the factors is that there is nothing worse than keeping secrets from your friends. Particularly when it's something ... "

Suddenly Josh appeared to find it difficult to go on. He cleared his throat. "Sorry ... I ... Sam?"

I didn't feel the need to add much more - Josh had pretty much said it all.

"Josh and I are really glad we can share this with you. Like he said, before he became uncharacteristically lost for words, it's something we're very happy about, and when you've gotten over the shock, we hope you'll be happy for us."

Silence. It seemed to go on forever. I was starting to wish we hadn't done something so rash. Then Donna - sweet, generous Donna - came over, kissed Josh, kissed me, and said, "It's great news - I wish you all the luck in the world."

That was the icebreaker. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose. There was talking, more kisses (from the women), even some of the guys managed to wish us luck a little awkwardly. CJ called from the doorway "It's about time!", and Toby mumbled and asked what had come over us, but it was done now anyway, so what the hell? A lot of the attention was being paid to Josh, and as I stood to one side, Donna came up to me again. She put her arms around me and hugged me tight.

"You will take good care of him, won't you?" she asked softly.

"Always. I promise," I replied.

She drew back and gave me her sweetest smile. "Because if you don't, I swear that I will hunt you down."

I smiled back, then realized she was only half joking. Donnatella Moss was *not* a person to make threats lightly, not where Joshua Lyman was concerned.

"Okay, people, show's over. The last time I looked I was under the illusion we were running the country from this building."

The unmistakable timbre of Leo's voice cut through the noise in the bullpen. However, the half smile on his face belied the sternness of his words. But he wasn't a man to be trifled with, and the throng quickly dispersed as people returned to their work, CJ blowing us both a kiss, while Toby pointed to his watch, then held up his hands to indicate he wanted to see me in ten minutes. I saw Donna walk back to her desk after casting a wistful look at Josh. Some of the other female staff followed her, obviously asking questions, but all she did was shake her head as she sat behind her desk. I felt a tug of sympathy for her. After all, it had long been a subject for speculation that she and Josh would eventually get together. Some had even wondered why it hadn't already happened. Now they knew.

"Josh, I need you in my office - I have a report from the FTC I want you to take away with you." Leo began to walk out into the corridor, then stopped and turned round. "So you told them?"

We nodded.

"No big announcements, that's what the President said. You just couldn't resist it, could you, Josh?"

"Leo, I resent that - are you implying I can't keep my mouth shut? Sam wanted to tell everyone just as much as I did."

Thanks, Josh, I thought. But he was right.

Suddenly, Leo smiled properly. "Well, they had to be told sometime, I guess."

"You're really okay with the way we did it?" Josh asked anxiously.

"Oh, I think I'll get over it," Leo replied, mock seriously. "Josh, my office."

Without thinking, I began following the two of them down the corridor.

"Sam, don't you have a speech to write, or something?" asked Leo without breaking stride. Josh stopped and moved towards me.

"Josh," Leo said, knowing what was going behind his back without even turning round. "You'll have plenty of time see Sam later."

Josh shrugged, mouthed "I love you" and, catching up with Leo, accompanied him to his office.

I stood alone in the corridor watching the two of them depart. The shock announcement that two male senior staffers were having hot sex was nothing compared to a report from the FTC.

***

"Sam?"

I had left my door ajar so that Josh would come straight in when his meeting with Leo had finished. He came over and positioned himself at the side of my desk, presumably so that he could be as close to me as possible as I worked.

"Shhh." I raised a hand. "Just let me finish this paragraph."

I typed as quickly as I could, aware that Josh was picking things up on my desk - a pen, the glass paperweight, a stapler. Picking them up, examining them, putting them down. Even sitting he couldn't be at rest, always full of nervous energy.

"Right - I'm all yours."

"What - now?" he said, raising an eyebrow provocatively.

"Josh, close the door if you're going to carry on like that. I know we're out but I promised Toby we wouldn't do anything too overt."

"Toby really should learn to loosen up a bit." But he did as I asked, although when he returned to my desk he contrived to sit even closer.

"He's trying his best." I felt the need to defend my boss against Josh who was sometimes impatient with Toby. "What do you need to talk about?" I asked, sensing that Josh seemed to have something on his mind.

"How do you know I need to talk to you about something?"

"You live in the twenty-first century - I assume you're familiar with the contents of the average desk, so your rigorous examination of them indicate to me that you've got something on your mind. You *always* fidget when you've got something on your mind."

"All right, Sherlock, you win," Josh conceded. He became more serious. "Today's been fabulous, I'm even happier than I was this morning, if that's possible. And you know I love you and I'd spend every minute of the day with you if I could."

He reached over and stroked my hand. I shivered. I loved the look and feel of Josh's hands - they were masculine but extremely well-shaped. Some people have a foot fetish; I have a hand fetish when they happen to be attached to Josh. They were one of the things I noticed about him as we chatted in some coffee shop in DC the first time we met. I was mesmerized by the way his long, slim fingers looked as they held a glass of soda. I remember wishing I was that glass. That was when he was floor manager to the House minority whip, and at that time he was the most powerful person I'd ever met. He was also the most virile, sexy and drop-dead gorgeous man I'd come across. And always will be.

I suddenly became aware that Josh was still talking.

"... so I don't want you to take this the wrong way," he was saying.

"Josh, you're babbling. Just tell me what's on your mind."

His fingers stroked my hand some more. God, I wished he'd stop doing that. Well, actually I wished he wouldn't stop, but it was making me feel way too hot and bothered.

"Would you mind if you didn't come to see me this evening?"

For the past week I'd been able to visit him every night safe in the knowledge that our three closest colleagues knew about us. Those visits were pretty uneventful by most people's standards, but just being able to sit and talk, knowing we could share the occasional small physical intimacy as long as we were discreet, had made them sweetly memorable. Josh must have a very good reason for not seeing me.

"Well, I can't pretend I'm not disappointed," I said, unable to resist having a little fun with him.

"No, Sam, no. Please, if you'll just let me explain ... " Josh started gripping my hand, and looked at me with those expressive brown eyes. I couldn't let him suffer anymore.

"Hey, I'm kidding," I said, raising his hand to my lips. "What's happening tonight? It must be important."

"My mother's coming to see me."

"Josh - that's great. Is everything sorted out between you now?" I had been worried about the fact that Josh had recently made his mother go back to Connecticut when he felt she was being too protective. They normally had such a good relationship.

"We're getting there. But now that so many people know about us, I need to tell her before she finds out by accident. So I'm going to tell her tonight." He laughed nervously. "I'm a bit scared, actually."

"Your mother loves you too much not to understand. She'll back you one hundred percent whatever you do in your life because you share the same values. You got your belief system from your parents." Which is more than I can say, I thought. No way would I be telling my parents - let *them* find out by accident. "I just hope she approves of your choice of partner."

"I'm not even going to answer that," said Josh softly. He leaned forward and we kissed, gently playing with one another's lips. God, the freedom of being able to do this, even if it was still within the privacy of my office. At least we wouldn't have to leap apart if someone walked in.

Josh placed his hand on my chest, over my heart, leaving it there while we kissed.

And then he was gone. I sat in the silence of my office, remembering the sensation of Josh's lips on mine, the touch of his hand. It left me feeling warm and safe, like being bathed in warm, mellow sunshine.

EVENING 20 NOVEMBER 2000

I stood in the kitchen of my apartment, and removed the cork from the bottle of Chardonnay that I had placed in the fridge to chill while I showered and changed. I poured a small amount into a glass, sniffed the bouquet, swirled the wine around, and put my nose to the glass again. I smiled to myself as I thought of Josh's reaction to this small ritual. "If I may say so, that's pretentious crap" were his exact words the first time he had seen me taste the wine in a restaurant. But this area of dissent also amused us - I would call Josh a Philistine, and he would refer to me as a Californian dilettante.

I carried my glass into the living room, pausing to put some jazz in the CD player. Another of my preferences that Josh couldn't stand. But since I couldn't see him tonight, I decided indulging myself a little was the next best thing. I'd managed to leave the West Wing at a reasonable hour, so I took the opportunity to unwind a little.

I sat down and picked up a file I had brought from work. Strictly speaking, it wasn't something I had been busy with. Its contents were really outside my job description, but the issues involved interested me. Caused me concern, even. It was a set of reports from Reuters and AP about a couple of US citizens who were living with a tribe on the fringes of the rain forest in Brazil. They'd originally gone there as archaeologists, but had since gotten involved in the tribe's fight to save the area where they lived from being exploited by a mining company. The Brazilian government had proposed moving the tribe to another area, but the people's own self-determination as the de facto owners of the land had led to them putting up resistance to the government. With the support of the two Americans a campaign of civil disobedience had begun. Up to now, the Brazilian government had taken a delicate approach, but now they were beginning to lose patience.

The file also contained requests to the our government from the relatives of the two US citizens involved. Unfortunately, American financial interests in the mining company had prevented this from being a clear-cut case of the government defending the interests of two of its own. As I read on, it became clear that the Brazilian government, not noted for its liberalism, was threatening to take a hard line with any protestors. Prison sentences were being mentioned, but a more immediate threat was the force that may be used to move the tribe and its two supporters from the land the company coveted.

Over the last couple of days I'd been trying to persuade Toby to let me meet with a representative from the Brazilian embassy. At first he refused point blank. However, either my powers of persuasion were improving or he had become tired of my badgering him, because late this afternoon he had said that if I could come up with some facts on the matter and present a case to him, he would consider whether it was appropriate for me to become involved.

So for the next hour I read on, making some notes as I went. Eventually I was satisfied that I could do no more tonight. I poured myself another glass of wine, and opened a new novel that I'd been promising myself to read.

The buzzer on my intercom sounded.

I laid my head against the back of the chair, closed my eyes and sighed. After the day I'd had, I was starting to enjoy this time to myself.

I dragged myself to my feet, and pressed the button on the intercom.

"Hello?"

"Sam? It's Donna - can I come in?"

That got my attention. What did she want? It was highly unusual for Donna to come to my place. She often used to go to Josh's townhouse for work related matters, and she was currently visiting it on a regular basis to make sure nothing was amiss in his absence, but I could count the times she'd been to my apartment on the fingers of one hand.

"Sure - come on up."

A minute or so later Donna stood hesitantly in the doorway. I gestured for her to enter, took her coat and led her over to the couch. She didn't say anything to give me any indication of why she was there, so I offered her a drink to fill the silence.

"Please - whatever you're having."

"I have a bottle of Chardonnay open," I called from the kitchen.

"Great - thanks."

I handed Donna the glass. I sat back down and we just sat looking at one another. Donna took a sip of wine.

"That's nice."

"Yeah - it's a little young, but it'll do."

Donna burst out laughing. "I wish Josh could hear you."

I smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. He told you he hates that kind of stuff?"

"Yes. He told me how much you know about wine, and how you liked to show off a little. But he never, ever laughed about it - he always said it in an affectionate way. Now I understand where that came from." She leaned forward to sit on the edge of the couch, her glass gripped between her hands.

"I really am happy for you both," she said.

I wanted to let her know how important it was to hear her say that, without sounding patronizing.

"Donna, of all the people who could say that, I think it means the most coming from you. I know how fond you are of Josh."

"Well, if I'm honest, maybe I hoped that one of these days ... " She looked up at the ceiling and smiled ruefully. "Anyway, I can see you make Josh really happy, and that's what counts. So ... all the best." She raised her glass. The next time she spoke the real reason for her visit became clear.

"Sam, how do you do it? How do you manage to be so natural and easy with Josh?"

I was slightly nonplussed. "We're together, Donna - that's how people are when they're together, you know that."

She shook her head. "That's not what I mean. How do you manage to forget the fact that Josh ... "

"Can't walk? Uses a wheelchair? Has a disability?"

She closed her eyes and nodded her head.

"Donna, have you even used any of those words yet?"

Again, just the shake of her head.

"I can't - it feels weird. It hurts me just to think about him being ... in that situation. I try, I really, really try, but when I talk with him, work with him, it just doesn't feel the same. I just feel so sorry for him, I want to help him and protect him. The thing is, I know how he would hate that."

I stood up and sat beside her. She'd bowed her head so that her blonde hair hung like a curtain in front of her face. I pulled a strand back and saw that her eyes were bright with tears.

"No change there, then - you've always been like a mother hen to him," I said.

"It's different now. He really does need people to do things for him."

"Yes, sometimes. Practical things. But not as much as you might think. I can understand some of what you're saying. At first, I was unsure how much he needed from me. But what he wants most of all is that people get over any feelings of pity or sympathy. I can tell you that a lot of the time now I forget he's sitting in a wheelchair. Trust me - give it some time and it will start to become invisible. And then you've just got Josh."

I put my arm round Donna and felt her relax a little.

"So how *do* you know how to behave around him?" she asked.

"You've got to understand that my relationship with Josh is different from yours." I winced slightly to myself as I said this. I suspected Donna would still feel a little raw on this subject. But it needed to be said, so I pressed on. "When it comes down to it, it's just good, old-fashioned honesty. Josh has shared a lot of how he feels and thinks, and I've done the same. He also lets me know what practical help I can give him. If I'm not sure, I ask - I don't do anything for him without checking first."

We sat quietly for a few seconds as she reflected on what I'd said.

"I don't know if I've been much help," I said. "How do you want to handle it when Josh gets back to work?" In the final analysis, she was the only one who could resolve this with Josh.

She picked up her purse from where she had dropped it on the floor and removed a handkerchief from it. I waited while she dabbed at her eyes.

"I'm going to have to talk to him, sort out my feelings and try to get back to where we used to be. There - simple, isn't it?" she said with an ironic little laugh.

"No, Donna, I know it's not simple. One thing you have to face is that you'll never get back to exactly where you used to be. Some things are the same, but some things are different. None of us are the same people since that day when Josh was shot. You've always been important to Josh. He needs you even more now. You just have to be clear on the ground rules."

"Thanks, Sam. You've really helped me."

"You would have figured it out for yourself."

"I haven't worked with anyone who uses a wheelchair. I have no experience to draw on."

I grinned. "Neither have I. But by the same token I'd also never worked for the President of the United Sates before, and I don't think anyone or anything could have prepared me for that either." I needed to say something else, without hurting or offending her. "Donna, I don't want to patronize you, but can I offer you some advice?"

"Please, Sam. I need all the help I can get."

"Try not to let him see you feel sorry for him. You hurting is a little different - that's more empathy than sympathy. Believe me, it still hurts me from time to time. But feeling sorry for someone doesn't help them. If you can get over that, everything else will follow."

She finished her wine and began gathering up her things.

"I should get home."

"No, Donna, please - you don't have to go. Have I upset you with what I just said?"

She turned to me, reached up and kissed my cheek.

"You're a good friend, and I'm grateful for the advice, but I need to leave you in peace now. You probably want to call Josh." She began walking towards the door, where I helped her on with her coat.

"I'll walk you down to your car."

We left the building and stood in the late November chill as she unlocked the car door.

"You can tell him about this conversation. I don't like the thought of discussing him behind his back," she said as she got into the car. "Goodnight, Sam. I'll see you tomorrow."

" 'Night, Donna. Drive safely."

***

"Josh? It's me."

I was lying in bed as I phoned Josh. It was an hour since Donna had left.

"Is your mother still there?" I wanted to check that he was free to talk.

"No, she's gone back to her hotel. She left about a half hour ago."

"How is she?"

"In general, or more specifically?" Josh asked.

"Both, I guess."

"She's fine - on both counts, I think."

"How did she react?"

"Well for starters she was relieved that it wasn't anything to do with my health. That's what had worried her most when I first called her and told her I had something I needed to tell her. So she cried a little ... no, actually, she cried a *lot*. Then she hugged me and told me that whatever I decided was fine with her as long as I was happy. She's worried about it being public knowledge, worried that coming back to work and being out will all be too much for me." I could sense him shrugging. "But then, that's mothers for you. Then she asked me if there was anyone special."

"And?" I hardly dared to ask. I knew Josh's mother fairly well, but knowing me as her son's friend was different to knowing me as his lover.

"Do you really want to know what she said, Sam?"

"Josh, just tell me."

"Well that was the part she *wasn't* surprised by. But then she said -" He stopped. "Maybe I shouldn't tell you."

"Josh!"

"You might get big-headed."

"Do you want me to hang up now?" I was starting to get exasperated.

"She said there was no-one else she would rather I was with. She also said you'd be good for me, something about me needing somebody to bring me down a peg or two from time to time. I can't think what she meant."

"She's a very wise woman," I replied.

"Yeah? Well what about this for wisdom - she also asked if we were having safe sex."

"Josh - no!" I was aghast. I didn't know which was worse - imagining her imagining Josh and me having sex, or her asking about it.

"Well, she didn't ask it in so many words. Just said she hoped we were careful."

"God, Josh, she was asking about your sex life."

"Sam," he said patiently, as if explaining something to a child, "she *did* figure out we have a sex life. And she *does* know a bit about what's been going on in the world over the last twenty years. Just because she's a mother doesn't mean she's a total innocent."

"I just feel a little uncomfortable, that's all," I replied. It was more to do with the fact that I could never see myself having a similar conversation with my own mother - and as for my father, I didn't even want to think about it. Josh's next words reassured me.

"Don't worry - she won't mention it to you. She was cool about it when I told her we both have a clean bill of health and that we intend to keep it that way."

I stretched myself out in the bed, enjoying this time with Josh, even if we weren't physically close. "I'm glad you've told her."

"It feels good. How was your evening?"

"I read the file on that couple in Brazil."

"The anthropologists?"

" *Archaeologists*," I corrected him. He could never get it right. "I'll speak to Toby about it tomorrow."

"Don't be too disappointed if you can't do anything. You know how involved you get," he cautioned.

"Thank you, I know what a soul of objectivity you are," I couldn't help retorting. "I just need to try." I decided to change the subject so Josh wouldn't lecture me anymore. I knew he meant well, and he wanted to stop me from becoming too personally involved, but sometimes he just didn't know when to stop.

"Donna came by."

There was a silence at the other end.

"Josh? Did you hear what I said?"

"Yeah - I'm just surprised."

"Next time you see her, she'll need some time and attention from you. She's still a little confused about her feelings about you not being able to walk."

"She seems to be doing okay. At least she doesn't look as if she's going to burst into tears every five minutes." Here we go, I thought, humor as a defence mechanism.

"All I'm advising is, be patient with her. You need to be very clear what you need from her in practical terms. She's afraid she's going to want to smother you too much."

"I'll bear it in mind. The last thing I need is an assistant who can't focus on work because she's worrying about whether I've taken my medication. I'll leave that up to you," he couldn't resist saying.

"Well, someone has to," I said, then yawned.

"You sound tired," Josh said.

"I had a couple of glasses of wine. I'm a bit drowsy."

"Where are you making this call?"

"I'm lying in bed."

"That's nice. What are you wearing?"

I knew where this conversation was going. "Nothing. My apartment is very warm."

"So you're all alone, warm, drowsy and mellow from the wine."

"Mmm-hmmm," I said. Josh was almost purring on the other end of the line. I slid my free hand down my stomach, stopping just short of my genitals.

"Sam - if I were there now - what would I be doing?" he asked. God, his voice alone was making me hard.

"Mmm - you'd be touching me."

"Where?"

"Right here, just where I've got my hand," I said as I curled my fingers around my cock which was rapidly becoming more erect.

"And where's that?" he asked.

I was now finding it difficult to speak. I groaned.

"My cock," I managed to say. I moved my hand up and down, up and down, only just managing to hang onto the phone with my other hand.

"Go on, then, Sam - knock yourself out. Pleasure yourself. But let me hear it. I want to hear you moaning and crying."

So I lay back and did what I was told, all the while imagining it was Josh's beautiful, skilful fingers stroking and caressing me, then finally gripping me, taking me faster and faster towards orgasm. And all the while I moaned and whimpered, crying out my lover's name over and over. I could hear Josh spurring me on, fucking me with his voice until I shot my load as I shouted and thrashed around in the too-empty bed. I was hot, sticky and sated, my heart pounding like it would leap out of my chest. I could hear Josh calling my name, as if from far away. Once I'd collected my thoughts I realized I'd dropped the phone. I leaned over and picked it up from where it had fallen on the floor.

"Sam - speak to me - tell me how it felt," he said urgently.

I was still panting, trying to speak between drawing air into my lungs.

"Christ, babe ... give me a ... chance." I collapsed back onto the bed and laughed weakly. "Your mother would be proud of us - that was the safest sex imaginable."

"You enjoyed it though?"

"Best goddamned phone sex I ever had," I said. "But it just makes me want you all the more."

"Oh, Sam ... I ache for you, really I do."

"You want me to make you feel better?"

"If only - what would you do?" he asked.

"Well, first I'm wrapping my arms around your body, entwining my legs in yours, so that I'm touching every inch of you." I heard Josh give a sighing "Aaaaah".

I cast my mind back to last week, to the afternoon we spent in the hotel, using my recollection of what had aroused him. I lowered my voice, taking my time over the words, drawing them out slowly, as if to match the rhythm of sensual, leisurely love making.

"Now I'm kissing you, running my fingers over that spot behind your ear that makes you weak with need. Stroking, stroking, making you shiver. But now I stop just to tantalize you a little, and that makes you give that little sound in your throat that I know so well. So now I'm using my lips and my tongue and my teeth on your neck, travelling down your shoulder to your collarbone, because I know that drives you insane. And you're squirming around like you can't stand it anymore, but that doesn't stop me kissing and sucking and nipping you, so that now you're gripping me with your arms as tightly as you can, and I know you're nearly there, you're so close, and just to bring you home I move my hand under you and stroke the small of your back, you're shuddering and shaking, and you're there, I've taken you there, that's when I feel you come. You come with your body, and your mind, and your emotions."

I heard Josh's long intake of breath.

"Has that eased the ache, Josh?"

"If you'll promise me you'll do all that to me sometime," he said huskily.

"It'll be my pleasure. And we'll learn some new moves as well." I glanced at the clock. It was getting late. "Josh, you need to get some rest. You've had a long day. Will you close your eyes for me, think about how much I love you and get some sleep?"

"We'll see each other tomorrow?" he asked anxiously.

"Promise."

"Sleep well, Sam. Love you."

"Love you more," I answered as part of our usual ritual. The phone went dead as Josh hung up. I hoped he was going to do as I asked.

I got out of bed and went to the bathroom to clean myself off. I smiled to myself - who would have thought a phone call could have given so much mutual satisfaction?

As I lay down, I turned over and found myself looking at a photograph on the nightstand. It was one I'd taken when we were in LA some months ago attending a fundraiser. CJ, Josh and I had found ourselves with a rare few minutes to ourselves and had taken a stroll around the grounds of the hotel. I'd bought a disposable camera at the gift shop, thinking I'd amuse myself catching some of the staff unawares. A couple of months ago when I was at a pretty low ebb, I'd found the camera, which I'd carelessly tossed to one side when we returned from the trip. Unthinkingly, I had gotten the film developed, and ended up sobbing my heart out as I looked at the photographs I'd taken. They seemed to depict a distant time when we were still in a state of innocence, when nothing could touch us, nothing could harm us. We didn't have a clue what we would soon have to face. But this week had given me renewed hope - Josh and I as a couple, coming out, Josh returning to work. It also made me feel strong enough to begin to move out of my denial of the past by selecting my favorite photograph for display.

It was a picture of Josh standing against a palm tree, hands in his pockets, one foot crossed over the other. He was wearing sunglasses and his head was thrown back as he laughed at something CJ had said. He was oblivious to the fact that I'd taken the photograph. In it Josh presented an image of such careless grace that its bittersweet quality tugged at my heart. For an instant I felt a yearning for what once had been. Then I remembered the week that had just passed, the events of the day, the friends Josh and I have. Finally I thought about our relationship, which was stronger than ever. Josh had told people today not to be afraid to talk about the past. Without it we wouldn't have the present we had now, or the future we hoped for.

I stretched out my arm, touched the picture, and ran my finger down it.

"Goodnight, Josh," I said.

THE END

Back to the Big Block of Cheese Main Page