Title: Four Speeches and a Funeral
Author: Anna-Maria Jennings
Pairing: Josh/Sam
Rating: PGish, PG-13?
Archive: Yes to list archive, anywhere else, just let me know first.
Feedback to snchica@yahoo.com

Notes: This is really, really long and it's STILL not done. Well, right now, it's sort of self-contained, at least. I'm going to post in a bunch of parts (sorry I'm flooding your mailboxes) all at once, because there aren't very good cut places so it's much better (I think) if you read it straight through instead of one piece at a time. If it's easier, you can read it on my Web site (www.geocities.com/snchica). I'll post it up there tonight, I think. Enjoy, let me know what you think!SUPER SUPER THANKS TO MY WONDERFUL, BRILLIANTLY CRITICAL BETA DEB!!! :)
Disclaimer: Not for money, just for fun. Please don't sue me! ~Ann

Four Speeches and a Funeral by Anna-Maria Jennings

The night before, he was a wreck.

"I need to finish this."

"Sam, give it up. It's done."

"No, if I can just get -"

"It's one a.m., Sam. Leave it already," I sighed, standing from the bed and walking to the table. I leaned over him, one hand just below his shoulder blade, my face near his neck. He was still in his dress clothes - white oxford, olive slacks. At least he'd lost the tie. I could feel his muscles jump under the thin cloth. "Come to bed."

"You're drunk."

"I'm - maybe, maybe I'm a little drunk, yes, but you're definitely not. And you're working. Instead of coming to bed with me, right now."

"We're six hours away from the polls opening, Josh. I have to -"

"Six hours. Is that it?" I sat down across from him at the wobbly hotel table. We were stationed in the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Chicago. The governor's suite was just upstairs, already setting up as a war room for that evening. This was Sam's room - though our rooms were adjoining, and the door had rarely been closed.

I'd already changed out of my business attire into black shorts and a Bartlet for America T, because it was comfortable and because CJ spilled wine on my shirt at that evening's bar run. By that night, we'd been running for weeks, barely sleeping, barely eating - it had only taken one bottle of wine to move her, Toby, and I well past anxious into cheerful and annoying. Sam and Leo had stayed behind at the hotel, Leo to make certain the Governor actually rested, Sam to do... whatever it was he was doing. Tallying, rallying, writing. This was the first big city for Sam. Well, it was shaping up to be the first big win for all of us, but Sam had missed the last days of South Carolina. Instead, heÕd been running an advanced polling team here in Illinois. In fact, he'd set Illinois up from the beginning. The speeches had been his throughout. The numbers we were counting on were his. And Sam, unsurprisingly, wasn't willing to give it up for a second. Not even six hours before the polls open.

"Six hours, Josh." He looked across at me grimly, taking off his glasses.

"And like I said, I'm very impressed by that."

"Josh..."

"No, really." This was a little too much sarcasm, probably, but no one said I was a pleasant drunk.

Sam sighed. "Look, I have a lot to do."

"Well, me, too." I gave him a crooked little smile. "I was hoping to start with you."

He put the glasses back on. "Not tonight, okay?"

"Why not tonight? You're here, I'm here, I'm drunk..."

"Josh."

"A-kay," I said, throwing my hands up in the air. I stood, walked toward my room, but turned at the door. "You need to get some rest, Sam." He didn't answer. "It's over. There's nothing we can change now. And it's going to be fine." Sam looked up for a heartbreaking second, and I knew how much he needed to hear that. "Come to bed, when you're done."

He shrugged and turned back to his work.

I stumbled over to my room and fell unhappily into my queen-sized bed. Sam and I had been a thing, I guess, since just after New Hampshire, a first hazy kiss at the end of a long day and a deep pitcher in South Carolina. I was initially wary of the whole thing. My experiences with campaign romance were wide and, generally, unfavorable. See, campaign people tend to burn out quickly - they love the job to the exclusion of everything else, including significant others. I'd found, through observation and experience, that most relationships either boiled down to increasingly unenergetic buddy-fucks or intense, awful romances that included more yelling than intimacy and more stress than caring. Sam was an old friend, and even if he was an old friend I'd been attracted to for years, I wanted to keep the friendship above everything else. Besides all of that, the m/m thing worried me; it would only take one slip for the entire staff to know, and from there, it was a pretty short trip to the press and then to conservative middle America and free tickets home.

Sam, though, had been oddly persistent. He gave some serious contemplation to my concerns, mulling them over for a day or so before bursting into my room. "You know, I don't care about any of that," he said. Then he'd latched on to my mouth and pulled me to the bed, and that was pretty much the end. We'd been crashing into each other ever since. I knew we were probably only barely keeping this secret from the campaign staff, but I couldn't help it. At night, I wanted to be nowhere that Sam wasn't; during the day, it was sometimes hard to look into his tired, often distressed face (Bartlet was, in those days, never happy with the work) and not reach for him. Instead, we shared soft words and looks that would, I thought, soon attract the attention of at least Donna and Dr. Bartlet and probably Leo.

The last week had been horrible, though. We weren't keeping the same schedules or even feeling the same things about Illinois. I'm a hard worker, and of the two of us, I'm most likely to be up until 3 and awake again at seven, but that week Sam had been burning the candle at both ends. He fell into bed next to me each evening with a sigh to wake the dead. In the mornings, he responded to my wake up call before I did. To my own surprise, it wasn't the sex that I missed so much - though I did miss the sex - it was the conversation. I missed laying in bed with him every night and talking about the day, watching his face rise and fall with each new account and then seeing his tension bleed away as I touched him, as I kissed him. He was surprised, at first, to find me a romantic; I was somewhere around shocked myself, as I've been called every name but romantic in the past. I care for Sam, though, maybe more deeply than I let him know, even. It's hard for me, but he's worth it.

Now, though, lying alone in my bed and trying to let the wine ease me into sleep without him, I wondered what it was about him that moved me. Why, at one a.m. on the night of the Illinois primary, I wasn't out in the lobby, eeking the last drops of information from our offices upstate or planning for California instead of laying there, worried that Sam's distance that week hadbeen caused by more than exhaustion or industry.

I sighed and started to roll over, away from his empty side of the bed, when the light changed. Sam was in the doorway, clutching a pillow to his chest and looking uncertain. "Hey." "Hey," he said softly. He had changed into a pair of navy blue sweats and a white T-shirt.

I smiled slowly, leaning on my elbow. "I can't believe you carry that pillow everywhere."

The pillow had been a joke since well before anything even happened between us. Sam could not sleep without his pillow. It came on buses and trains, cowered under car seats and airplane seats, and traveled through every motor inn on the East Coast. What's more was, these days, he didn't even use it.

"Yeah."

"I mean, you don't even use it."

"Yeah." He looked up at me and I sat up.

"C'mere," I said softly, holding out my hand. He stepped into the room, sat on my side of the bed and leaned into me with a sigh. I put my hand on his shoulder. "You've done everything you could."

"You really think so?"

"Sam, you've been killing yourself over this for a week now."

"I know. I know."

"I don't think you do." I pushed him back a little so I could look at him. "He didn't mean it."

"Yeah."

His eyes were still downcast. I shook him, lightly, until he looked up. "Really, Sam."

He couldn't even hold my gaze. "Josh, what if we lose?"

"We're not gonna lose, okay? You know the polling shows we've got a great shot at the undecided vote after the debate, and..."

"No, what if we lose this election?"

"Oh." It was that darkest of unspoken fears; the fear that, come November, all of this work and effort, all of the tremendous primary comebacks, everything would be undone by a voting public that just didn't understand. Sometimes, standing in lecture halls or public parks or little diners, I was clutched by panic. We were a young group. We barely knew what we were doing. Leo was great at making that feeling go away - but Jed Bartlet fed it. And a few days ago, in one of his many rages over wording and presentation, he'd gone after Sam.

"If we lose this election it will be things like this! The little misstatements!"

"Sir, it's not-"

"Don't tell me what it is or is not! You fix this." He'd shoved a speech back at Sam, a speech I recognized because Sam had been agonizing over the precise wording for days. "I don't want to see this kind of thing happen again."

"Yes, sir."

"I mean it. I won't read this."

I hadn't ever seen Sam look that devastated. I don't think he slept at all that night, though he was already in bed when I returned from my one a.m. run-down with Leo.

Now, four days later and after a Leo-inspired apology from the candidate, Sam was still worried. "If we lose, we pick up the pieces and move on, okay? There's life after Bartlet."

"I know, but..."

"But I don't think we're gonna lose. Sam, things are starting here. Things are rolling. We're picking up steam, we're picking up momentum, we're..."

"I think he hates me."

I put my arm around him, pulled him to me. "He doesn't hate you. He doesn't hate anyone."

"I've been working on this acceptance speech forever, Josh. I can't make it sound like him. I can't make it right." He shivered, whether from tension or some kind of fear, I couldn't tell. "I want this to work so much, but I - he had every right to say that, the other day. He shouldn't have to make speeches he doesn't believe in, and I should know well enough what to say not to -"

"Okay, stop. Stop right there." I let my voice raise, but I pressed my face against his head. "He lashed out because he's tired, he's frustrated, he's under incredible strain. It had as much to do with your speechwriting as the blow up in Charleston had to do with Leo ordering fish instead of chicken." I kneaded his shoulders. "You gotta stop beating yourself up about this. Bartlet knows how much he needs you."

"You really think so?"

"Yeah, I really think so."

He nodded. "You make a lot of sense for a drunk guy."

"I've been told that."

"Yeah."

I'd been holding him and feeling protective, which was a long way from sexual for me. So when he looked up, his eyes lingering for a moment on my lips, I smiled and kissed his forehead. "You ready to sleep?" He nodded. I took his pillow and tossed it next to me, then lay back and let him settle with his head resting on my chest. "Josh?"

"Yeah?"

"You smell like wine."

"Yeah."

He looked up at me. "Thank you."

"Yeah," I answered, running my fingers through his hair. "Get some sleep."

"'kay."

I felt his breathing even out long before my own, and stayed awake, holding him and wondering what would happen if we did lose this thing, uncertain whether I meant the campaign or the relationship.

Leo called at five a.m. "Josh, my boy, it's a beautiful day for a run."

"Wha - Leo, it's like five in the morning."

"Which is how I knew you'd be up," he said. "I want you to come downstairs."

"Who is it?" Sam asked, stirring and rubbing his eyes.

"Look, Leo, I just -"

"Is Sam there?"

"Sam?" Sam looked up at me, his alarm matching my own. "I don't know what you're - "

"Excellent. Bring him, too. Just come downstairs. No need to dress."

I just shook my head, used to Leo's abrupt judgements. "A-kay."

"See you in a few, Josh."

I hung up the phone. Sam was lying on his back beside me. "SoÉ Leo knows?"

I shrugged. "Dunno."

"God, Josh, what are we going to do?"

"Get up and go downstairs."

Sam looked over at me. "You don't seem very bothered by this."

"I don't know anything yet." I sat up, cursing when the world swirled a little around me.

"Jesus."

"You okay?" he asked, putting out an arm to steady me.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," I grumbled, holding my pounding head. "Leo wants to see us both. Downstairs."

"Oh." He sat up, too. "Did he say why?"

"Nope." I stood up, tasting my own mouth and groaning. "I'm going to brush my teeth."

"Okay."

When I reemerged from the bathroom, Sam had pulled a sweatshirt on over his T-shirt. It was a big sweatshirt, which made him look more like a kid than I thought possible. I found a short-sleeved flannel crumpled up on my floor and threw it over my own shirt, then toed into my tennis shoes. "That's a nice look for you."

"Shut up."

"No, seriously, it's very impressive."

"Are you going to laugh or we gonna go?"

He mimed confusion. "I can't do both?"

"Come on," I growled, grabbing his elbow and pushing him out the door. We strolled down toLeo's suite and quietly knocked on the door.

"Josh, Sam, come in." He swung open his door, revealing an open living room. Leo was already dressed for the day, I noticed. Well, big surprise. The man had probably been up since... yesterday. Usually, I would have been, too. I winced at the open curtains, leaking in bright lighting. "Coffee?"

"Is this going to take long?" I asked, rubbing my eyes.

"That depends on your level of cooperation and alertness."

"Then I'd better have coffee."

I took a seat on the couch, and Sam chose a chair next to it.

"Guys, I need to talk to you about something." Leo handed over two styrofoam cups and looked hard at us both as he sat across the coffee table from me. I suddenly knew what was coming, and I set the coffee down. He knew. Oh, God. I caught a slight tremor from Sam, too, and started to talk before I could think. "Look, Leo, we'll -"

"Josh, shut up and let me talk. It's about Toby."

I heard Sam give a small sigh, and wondered if I reacted similarly. "Toby?" he asked.

"Yeah. Toby. His drinking hasn't been bad, recently, but he was pretty quick to call Bartlet down on that speech yesterday."

"He skipped, like, three pages," I said, remembering Toby's ire when the governor had completely passed over a painstakingly-rendered position statement on gun control.

"Toby called him a moron, Josh."

"Well, it's kind of moronic to employ a speech writer if you're not going to use the speeches he writes," Sam said, a little bit of personal bias slipping into his voice.

I looked at him sympathetically. "Sam has a point, Leo. He's been giving Toby hell - well, he's been giving everyone a hard time."

"I know, I know. But you gotta understand, he's under a lot of stress. This - this is a big deal. He's running for national office. He's still getting to know youÉ"

I sighed in exasperation, ran my hand through my hair. "He should know us by now. We've been here everyday, Leo. We've been killing ourselves for this guy."

Leo nodded. We'd had this talk before. "It's gonna work against him, is all I'm saying."

"What do you mean, Leo?" Sam asked.

"If we win this state - and I think we will win this state - we're on. We're rolling into California, we're locking up the nomination. And then, a few months later, there will be jobs at the White House to decide. I want Toby Ziegler with us the whole time. Hell, I hired him before I got either of you. But I'm worried that he's fucking himself over with the Governor."

I rolled my eyes. "And what do you want us to do about it, Leo?"

"I need him talked up to the Governor," he said, pointing at me, "and I need someone to talk to Toby," this time he looked at Sam.

"I'm not so sure I'm the guy to help here," I said, leaning back on the couch. "He can't even remember my name."

"But when he does remember, Josh, he likes you. And he needs you, and I need you, and he knows that. You, too, Sam," he said, casting a look to the side.

"I can talk to Toby," Sam volunteered. "On the way to California."

"Okay. That's what I want."

I shrugged. "I'm with ya. Toby's a good guy."

"The best." Leo stood. "Josh, you look like shit. Go - take a shower or something."

"I just woke up, Leo."

"So what were you doin' in bed at this hour?"

I shook my head. "I'm a little confused on that myself. Let me think. Do you need anything from me today?"

"Other than tracking polls and making sure the mobilization people are working and..."

"Do you really need anything from me today before noon?"

He smiled. "It's victory day, huh?"

"I just need some sleep."

"Go on." I stood, and so did Sam. We started to walk out when Leo said, suddenly, "Sam?"

"Yeah?"

"The Governor doesn't hate you."

"Okay."

"He thinks you're pretty cool, in fact."

"He said cool?"

"Well I sure as hell didn't." Leo smiled. "He's an academic. He's used to writing everything himself. He forgets that these aren't term papers."

"Right."

"You're doin' great, kid."

Sam nodded and walked through the door I was holding open. I gave Leo a quick, thin-lipped smile, then followed Sam out.

I never did go back to sleep.

When we reached the room, Sam just kind of looked at me, then disappeared into his own space for a while. I stripped off my T-shirt and fell back into the bed, propped up to watch a little early-morning CNN. I was just starting to doze when Sam came back in, smiling. "You finished?" I asked sleepily.

"Yeah. Just did."

"Cool."

"It's good, Josh."

"It's always good."

He grinned. "Thanks." He sat on the bed, leaned sideways against the headboard next to me.

"How does Leo do that?"

"The thing at the end?"

"Yeah."

"I have no idea."

"Hm."

"He's always been like that, though. Like a mind-reader."

"You've known him a long time?"

"He was a friend of my dad's. They served together, then they went to Washington together." I looked over at Sam. "Leo's a good guy."

"Yeah. Hey, how is your dad?"

I grunted. "He's got chemo today. Doin' better, though."

Sam put his hand on the back of my neck and rubbed. "You okay?"

I shrugged. "I'll see them after California, at least." I smiled at him, ready to change the topic.

"Leo was right, you know. About Bartlet."

"Yeah."

The TV turned to a report on the upcoming election, showing the most recent CNN-Gallup poll, with Bartlet leading by about seven percent. Our estimates were slightly higher, but the poll - details of which we'd heard the night before - was still reassuring, and it was a pleasant thing to see on election day. They showed a clip of Bartlet speaking then, saying words I'd just recently seen Sam writing, words from... "Hey!"

"What?" I asked.

"That was - that was the marina speech?"

"Yeah, from yesterday. Why?"

"He used the first draft!"

"Hm?"

"The - the draft, the draft he sent back. That line was only in the first draft."

I smiled, realizing slowly what this meant. "See?"

"Yeah." His smile was the real answer, though. Nice to see that smile again.

They showed a clip of Hoynes next, and I winced. It was a horrible picture, somewhere windy with Hoynes wearing a ridiculous earth-toned suit in front of a casually dressed crowd. He looked like big business and Washington, D.C. and an insurance salesman, all rolled into one.

Sam started laughing. "Jesus, and I thought we didn't know what we were doing."

His laughter sparked my own, realizing how close I'd come to being there. Soon we were laughing so hard we had to lean on each other to sit up, and then my arm was around him, and he was looking up at me, smiling, drawing me into one kiss and then another until sleep and CNN and the campaign foibles of my former boss were forgotten and there was only Sam, and that moment, and the joy.

CJ called at 6:45.

"Where am I right now, Joshua?"

"I don't know, CJ." Sam stirred next to me, turned on his side and rubbed my arm.

"I'm in the lobby, Josh. I'm in the lobby, waiting for you, so we can go to Springfield."

"Springfield - oh, fuck! I'm - I'll be right down. Okay? Fifteen minutes." I hung up and bolted out of bed, mumbling apologies as I started looking for clothes to throw on.

Sam, leaning on his elbow, looked on with a bemused grin. "Josh?"

"What?"

"You gotta take a shower."

"I don't have time to take a shower, I have to -"

"You smell like wine, JoshÉ" he started.

"ButÉ"

"Éand you smell like sex." I looked over at him, his broad, knowing smile. "Take a shower."

I nodded, realizing he was right. "Yeah," I agreed, shucking my clothes as I headed to the bathroom. I heard his laughter behind me as I started the water.

When I reemerged, Sam was gone. "Sam?" I called, looking briefly into his room. He was nowhere to be found. "Fuck," I sighed quietly. I started to get dressed, rushing into slacks and a blue shirt. As I searched in vain for my shoes, I heard Sam's door open.

"Hey," he said, appearing in the adjoining door.

"Hey," I said, surprised. "Where'd you...?"

"I got you some coffee." He handed over a styrofoam cup and leaned against the door frame.

"Thanks." I shook my head to clear my surprise. "You're kinda amazing, you know that, right?"

He smiled and walked past me to the television. He opened the drawer beneath it and pulled out my shoes. "You'd better hurry up."

I smiled, sitting on the bed to pull the shoes on. He sat down, as well, then lay back, his head on his pillow. I stood as soon as the shoes were on and shouldered my backpack. "I'll call you when I know anything."

He nodded sleepily. I leaned down for a quick kiss, then rushed out the door.

CJ and I hit the road around 7:15 in her Chevy blazer, which was somehow still alive after a raging road trip from California. nd kicking from California. CJ wasn't a morning person at all; I wasn't either, really, so we'd taken to riding out the early assignments together, therefore enjoying a few moments of bitching about the hours before lapsing into the deserved silence of the short-of-sleep. That morning, though, I was staring out the window with an idiotic grin creeping on to my face, making CJ testier. "What is it?" she griped, swinging the car onto a highway. We were heading for the Springfield campaign office to supervise the get out the vote movement and the volunteers running the exit polls, and because it was good politics to see the leadership on election day.

"What is what?"

"You're smiling like a fool."

"I'm just a happy guy, CJ."

"No, you're not." She gave me a sideways glance, holding my eye even as she changed lanes. Sometimes I forgot that CJ used to drive in California.

"I'm not a happy guy?" I shook my head once. "That's funny, I thought I was a happy guy."

"You're not a happy guy, Josh. I'm not saying you're unhappy, but this morning you should be slightly hung over and exhausted, not to mention stressed out and anxious."

"I'm taking things as they come today."

"Did you do something after we parted yesterday?"

"Like what?"

"Drugs? I don't know." She narrowed her eyes, turning away from the road again. "Did you do something with Donna?"

"The road, CJ?"

"Don't change the subject," she growled, swerving back into our lane.

"I can guarantee you, I did nothing with Donna. I did no drugs. I went back to my room. I watched some TV, I talked to Sam, I went to sleep."

"That's no reason to be smiling on a Saturday morning."

"It's Tuesday, CJ."

"Exactly my point."

"CJ?"

"Yeah?"

"Just drive."

She sighed, but turned back to the road. While she drove, I worked the phone - calling our other state offices, checking in with Leo, etc. CJ made record time getting to Springfield, and by 10 a.m. we were in the office, herding volunteers - some young enough that I was sure we were breaking some kind of truancy law - into vans and personal vehicles for the day's excursion. "Don't forget, everyone's invited to Chicago tonight!" I called after them. CJ glared at me.

"You're not a happy guy," she said again.

"Would you rather I'm snide and snippy, CJ? 'Cause I think you're doing that pretty well for both of us."

"I'd rather know what's going on with you," she said, leaning forward as she does when she's making a point. "I'm in PR, Josh. Mood swings make me nervous."

"Look, I'm just -"

"No. In South Carolina, you were angry. You were a ball of anger all day, even after we knew it was sewn up."

"We only took second there," I said with a shrug.

"Something's different. Tell me, don't tell me, fine."

"A-kay."

In the car on the way back, my good mood started to spoil under CJ's silent treatment. I was starting to feel guilty about not telling her. CJ was a good friend, someone I trusted, and probably one of the people on the campaign staff who had a professional right to know about this. But I'd have to talk to Sam before I said anything...

"I think I may be in love," I said when she sighed at me.

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"Josh, that's great."

"Yep."

"Okay."

"Yeah."

"You're in love."

"Think so."

"All right." She turned back to driving, then glanced over. "With whom?"

"What?"

"Who are you in love with, Josh?"

"Ah... that's sort of complicated."

"Josh!"

"What?" I grabbed the armrest, suddenly certain my death was coming in an Illinois highway ditch.

"What aren't you telling me?"

"That I'm afraid of dying in a fiery auto accident?"

"So help me, Josh, if you don't..."

"I can't tell you, CJ. If I could, I would."

"Can I guess?"

"No."

There was silence for a moment. I was regretting saying anything. At least her driving had improved marginally.

"Is it Donna?"

"No, it's not Donna!"

Another swerve. "Why not?"

"Why not?"

"Yeah. She's bright, she likes you, she -"

"She's kind of weird. And besides, she's my assistant. That's just - just wrong."

"Oh." She turned back to the road. I turned the radio on, laying my head back against the headrest, waiting for the next...

"Mandy?"

"What? God, no."

"Susan?"

"No!"

"Jane?"

"No - wait. Who's Jane?"

"You know, Jane. The muffin girl? She's always bringing Toby muffins."

"I think she brings him bagels."

"Whatever. Is it Jane?"

"I'm not in love with Toby's bagel girl."

"Hm." She paused, giving me false hope. "It's not me, right?"

I almost laughed, but caught myself. "No. Sorry, CJ."

"Just asking, you know, 'cause you're acting weird."

"You're not really my type."

"Yeah."

"Kind of tall."

"I get it, Josh."

"We'd kill each other."

"I'm not sure we'd have to date for that to happen."

"Good point."

"Who is it, Josh?"

"CJ, leave it alone, okay? Please?" I turned to look right at her. "I'm asking you as a friend."

"Now we're friends."

"We're always friends."

"Sure. Okay, I'm leaving it." She shrugged. "Not even thinking about it."

"Good." I turned to face out the window, again, starting to think of what the day ahead would mean.

I had almost mentally recounted the counties we expected when she said, "Is it someone I know?"

"You remember a few minutes ago when I asked you to leave it alone?"

"Yeah."

"This is not what I meant."

"Josh, you're making it very hard for me to like you."

"Why would your liking me be a priority?"

"So we're not friends anymore?"

"You know what? I'm calling Sam."

"Fine."

I dialed the number, ignoring CJ's sidelong glances and the jerks of the vehicle. Sam answered on the third ring. "Hey, Josh!" I loved how excited he was to hear from me, but I hated the relief in his voice. I hated Sam having hard days. "What's up?"

"Nothin'. We're on our way back from Springfield."

"Oh. Already?"

"Yeah. Look, I was thinking about Decatur. Has anyone checked in with them today?"

"I think Toby's on it."

"A-kay. Those numbers are big. Cathy's worked really hard on that."

"I know. How's CJ?"

I looked over at the press secretary for a moment. "Oh, we're not friends anymore."

"Really?"

"It's because he's a non-sharing bastard!" CJ yelled.

"It's a little early in the day for her," I explained.

"You suck, Josh."

"Thanks, CJ. Listen, I just wanted to check in. Is Donna around?"

"She stepped out for lunch. Oh, but your mom called."

"Oh, yeah." I paused, rubbed my forehead. "You know what she wanted?"

"Just checking in, I think." I heard the concern in his voice. "Are you on your cell?"

"Yep." That was a code. We were being overly cautious, sure, but we didn't want to risk anyone with a lucky-tuning radio scanner picking up a major campaign story.

"Okay. Well, thanks for your... help... this morning."

I smiled. "You mean with the speech?"

"Sure."

"Sam, you're the best speechwriter I know."

"Thanks." I heard a voice in the background, and he sighed. "I'll talk to you later, okay?"

"A-kay." I hung up and felt the silly grin returning.

CJ was staring - Thank God! - at the road, not asking me anything. I took the opportunity to check in with Leo and Mandy. All was well at the ranch, as it was. Bartlet was in a helluva mood, Mandy reported, but that was to be expected. The man was living on tension, caffeine, and five-hour bull sessions with Leo.

CJ's phone rang as I was about to ask her a question about releases for California, and the next ten minutes were occupied with her arguing into the phone and me contemplating whether it was safer to stay in the blazer or to leap out the door. Whatever the argument was, however, it kept her busy for the remainder of the ride, bitching about The New York Times and the LA-Washington Post syndicate deadlines. When we rolled into the Sheraton parking lot, I thought I was off the hook on the love front - though I knew it wouldn't last.

Then Sam met us at the door, and CJ held up a hand to his pleasant greeting. "No. You know, and you're not telling me."

"I'm sorry?"

"You know about Josh."

"Aw God," I sighed. "CJ..."

"What do I know about Josh?" Sam asked, shooting me a quizzical glance.

"Josh is in love with someone. I think it's someone on this campaign. He won't tell me who."

Sam looked at her blankly for a second, then said, "Well, I think it's Donna."

"Et tu, Brut?" I said, pleasantly surprised at his quick cover. "Can you two maybe forget about this? Please?"

Sam shrugged, and CJ rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, Josh, your secret's safe with us."

Sam diverted CJ's attention with something about a conference that evening, and I managed to stagger away to Leo for a few moments. "Josh, how are you?"

"Apparently not as well as you. What's up?"

"We're doin' well. Doin' very well."

"You got results?"

We pored over results from the three major counties and devoured a few pizzas for an hour.

Then, at three o'clock, it was time to rally the troops again. Bartlet had an afternoon speaking engagement - which I found pointless, but it occupied him, so what the hell - before a convention at a cross-town hotel in the city. I shouldered my bag and walked across the room, chewing on lukewarm pepperoni pizza, to catch CJ, Toby, and Sam as they started downstairs.

"So Josh," Toby began, gathering his briefcase before we headed to the elevators.

"Uh-oh."

"CJ tell us you've gotta thing."

I whirled and pointed my pizza at CJ. She shrugged. "I didn't tell him anything, Josh."

"You didn't - well someone -"

"I didn't tell him anything because you didn't tell me anything," she said. "How could I possibly leak information on something I know nothing about?"

Toby was fighting a grin, I could tell. "Josh, let me tell you something about women and politics."

"Believe me when I say this is not the conversation I'm hoping to have in the car."

"Women and politics," he continued, "don't mix."

"Excuse me," CJ said, standing briefly in front of Toby as we cleared the suite doors. "Are you saying...?"

"Let me rephrase. Romance and politics. It can't be done, Josh, it just can't be done."

"While I appreciate your sage and, we all know, experienced advice, Toby, I'm gonna have to go with the age old defense of it's none of your damn business!"

CJ sighed. "What Toby's trying to say, Josh, is that you should think about this."

We were stopped in front of the elevator. Sam had yet to speak, but he had a grin that let me know I was on my own. "Okay." I held up one hand. "Can we talk about anything else?" I asked as the elevator arrived.

"You should at least mention it to her that -"

"That what? That all of my friends think I'm incapable of having a romantic and a professional life at the same time?" CJ and Toby looked at each other, then back at me with blank, matching nods. I looked at the elevator panel. "Well, that'll sound good over candlelight and flowers."

"Josh, we're just looking out for you."

"It's what friends do," Sam chimed in.

"Did it ever occur to you that this might be a conversation I've already had?"

CJ crossed her arms as we stepped outside. "And how did it go?"

"Obviously not as poorly as you think."

"Well, maybe this woman isn't drawn by reason," Toby offered as we climbed into the car.

"I think it's actually my physical prowess," I replied, sitting up front next to him.

CJ and Sam laughed from the back. "Well, that's what we thought, too," Sam said sarcastically.

"You know, or you paid her."

I turned and glared. "People, can we just pretend, for one minute, that it's primary day in Illinois, that we work for a presidential campaign, and that we have more important things to think about and discuss than my love life or lack thereof?"

There was silence for a moment, then Sam said, "So tell us who she is."

I sighed and let my head fall to the dashboard. It would be a long evening.

The speech was fine - bland, targeted for TV cameras and California voters - but okay. Sam seemed pleased with the delivery, and Toby wasn't too critical of the text, so things were good. I rode back with Leo to review agendas for the California trip and because there was a better chance of Toby sprouting wings than Leo McGarry asking about my love life in the back of a Lincoln on election day in Illinois.

When we got back to the hotel, there were a few minutes of downtime. The Governor needed a nap to appear healthy on TV and also because his wife was around; Leo needed to deal with some big wig from LA; and Toby and CJ were reviewing notes on media for the night's victory - or concession - party. So I ambled toward the sandwich bar, then took my food and a soda outside. There were protected balconies along the back that I had enjoyed the use of all week. I leaned against the rail and stared out at the city, closing my eyes for a second. I realized I didn't know what I'd do, if we didn't win this election. These people had become my life - this job had become my passion. The hours, the weirdness, the constant on-the-go, all of it was everything I wanted.

"Hey."

Sam approached from behind, his hands shoved into his slacks pockets. He was dressed up for the day, I noticed - I hadn't seen it before. "Hey."

He leaned against the rail sideways, facing me as I looked down. "You all right?"

"Yeah."

"Not thinking of jumping?"

I laughed. "Just thinking in general. Big night tonight."

"Yeah."

I looked over at him, suddenly seized with doubt. "What if we do lose, Sam? What if tonight's all there is, and it's just a downhill slide back to nothingness after this? I mean, what if..."

"Josh, we're not gonna lose." His eyes, usually so light, seemed dark with conviction. "This campaign - this is everything you want. It's everything we've ever wanted. Most people never get a chance to put up a full-fledged, gloves-off war for what they believe in. That's what we're doing here. No matter what happens tonight, or tomorrow, or in November, we've got that. And we can't lose it." He smiled. "You know who convinced me of that?"

"Who's that?" I asked quietly, turning away from the railing to face him.

"You."

I smiled and took a step toward him. "I did, huh?"

"Yes," he whispered, looking right into my eyes.

"Josh, Leo needs you in the - " CJ was saying as she stepped on to the balcony. I had managed to take a single step out of Sam's personal space, but probably not enough.

Sam turned, his eyes a little wide. "Hi, CJ!"

Leo just needed me for back up numbers on the gun issue we'd be pressing the next day. He was happy with the results I pulled, taking them with him back to the larger conference room where Darrell Limon (the big wig from LA) was waiting. I stepped outside of the door, surveying the scene in the large room. I saw Sam and Toby nervously camped out in front of a TV and a few volunteers fluttering around. A few feet away, I saw what I was looking for. CJ was waiting for me. "Josh, can I -"

"Yeah."

We stepped back into the conference room. She shut the door, and turned to me carefully, her hands still on the door. "You and Sam."

"Uh-huh." I knew CJ had already talked to Sam, that she already knew what was going on. And yet, I knew, somehow, that my admission, at this point, meant more to her than his. CJ and I were closer than she and Sam. We'd known each other only a little longer, but we'd also worked more closely and talked more deeply. So her lingering shock was, well, less than surprising.

"It's Sam."

"Yeah."

"Sam."

"CJ?"

"Mm?"

"You got this?"

She shook her head, as if to clear it. I wished for something to do with my hands. "Does Leo -"

"No one knows. No one."

"And you're..." She waved her hand vaguely.

"We're what? Sleeping together?" I sighed, frustrated and far beyond nervous. "CJ, this is none of..."

"No. Josh, you know exactly what this is." She stepped forward, crossing her arms. "This is the kind of thing that sends campaigns flying down the tubes. This is exactly what they ask you about when they bring you on board." She stopped, suddenly. "Didn't they ask you whenÉ?"

"I'm not gay, CJ."

"But you're -"

I shrugged. "He's the first guy I've ever - you know."

She shook that off. "Sam?"

"Sam's bisexual. Leo knows that."

"Mm-hm." She was still staring at me, hard.

"I know." I sighed and ran my hand through my sadly thinner-than-yesterday hair, then sat on the edge of the table. "Believe me, CJ, I know."

She looked at me for a second, then sat next to me. Her voice was softer now. "So, Sam, huh?"

I looked over. "Yeah. I take it you had this conversation with him while I was in with Leo?"

"On the balcony, in fact."

I snorted. "Well, thanks for not throwing him off."

"It was touch-and-go," she admitted. Then she met my eyes. "I won't tell anyone. Anyone asks, I won't say anything."

"Thank you."

"You just - you be careful with this, all right?"

"All right." I stood to leave.

She stopped me. "Josh?"

"Yeah, CJ?"

"For lack of a better term of support, congratulations."

I smiled and squeezed her shoulder, then walked out.

Inside, Leo was emerging from the Governor's room. "Okay, people, listen up," Leo said, walking into the main living room. Sam and Toby were sitting to the side, talking intentlyabout something. I took a seat on the back of the couch, within arm's reach of Sam. He looked up but didn't smile. "We need to focus for a few hours. We need to put everything aside and get this done so we can go to California tomorrow. The Governor's reviewing text for California right now, keeping his mind off this." He frowned. "Don't let that be an example. Sam, I want you to monitor the undecided votes; Toby, get me counts from downstate and Springfield. Josh, exit polls. I want twenty-minute updates for the next three hours. CJ, keep an eye on the television. I wanna know everything CNN and the local guys are saying, and I want your response before they say it a second time." He paused in the middle of the room, looked at us all. "Well, what're ya waitin' for? Come on!"

With that, everyone was on their feet. Phones were flying, papers were shuffling, people were scattering everywhere. I turned my attention to a phone on a side table near the couch, started shuffling through management numbers around the state. For those hours, my laptop computer and a bank of phones next to the couch were my best friends. Every twenty minutes, Leo reemerged from the Governor's rooms to round up the facts before diving back in to speech prep. I only saw Sam once, trading a few papers. He gave me a shaky smile, which I returned with a soft, "It's working out, Sam. It's gonna work."

"Okay." He looked down, handed me another sheet. "These returns are really good, on the 72-hour undecideds."

I looked down, read the numbers. They showed a big upswing among the voters who we'd polled as undecided just 72 hours ago. "Wow. Yes! I'm - I'm gonna call my dad."

Sam nodded, and I patted him on the shoulder as I left. "Update the last ones, then give it to Leo to tell the Governor."

I turned to the couch, picked up the phone while I stared at the channel 9 poll results. Things were going better than we'd even expected. It felt like Hoynes was dead already. I couldn't imagine what it would feel like to be in that campaign office right now. Well, maybe I could, but I didn't want to.

Leo appeared then, taking the numbers from Sam. "We're starting to get some good exit polling, at Stark County and Rock Island."

"How good?" I heard Leo ask, listening to my family's answering machine in my other ear. It was weird that no one was home yet. Maybe Dad was asleep, and Mom ran out...?

"We're running at 53 to 58 with the undecideds from 72 hours ago, at the 12th, 14th, and 15th."

Sam yelled about DeWitt and Cumberland, and I yelled an affirmative. "Who are you talking to?" Leo asked, turning from the snack table. There was real concern in his eyes when I mentioned my father. That was the thing that killed me about Leo. The guy could be the biggest hard-ass in politics when he wanted to, but the man cared.

Abby Bartlet walked in then, grouching at Leo about the food being fried. I liked Abby, but I didn't quite know how to take her yet. Hell, I hardly knew how to take her husband yet, and Dr. Bartlet was an enigma all her own. Leo liked her, though, and that said a lot.

"Leo!" The Governor burst onto the scene then, and I saw Sam turn quickly from the television. "What the hell is this?"

He was holding the draft Sam had been up all night working on for that evening. "That's Sam's draft of your victory remarks..." I started, but he wasn't paying attention.

"'I congratulate my opponent on a well-fought campaign in Illinois?'"

"You don't want to congratulate him?" Leo asked, still standing by Abby.

"Yes, I want to congratulate him, but I'd like to call him by his name! Are we back to this old crap again?"

Sam's face was falling with each word. "Governor, we just -" I started, wanting to jump in and defend him.

"Leo, I want to go over this whole thing with you," the Governor snapped. As they walked out of the room, I glanced at Sam, watching his face crumble as Bartlet yelled something about amateur hour.

I guess Abby saw my frustration, because she looked at me with a little knowing smirk. "You can say it, you know. It's not like I haven't heard it before."

Say what? I wondered. Say that your husband just publicly tore down my best friend - my lover - and I'd like to take a bite out of his jugular vein, or at least kick his ass? "Your husband's a real son of a bitch, Mrs. Bartlet."

"He doesn't like being handled," she said calmly.

"Well, I think that if he looked around, he'd see that nobody's handling him," I said with a little laugh, tired of trying to hide my frustration.

"He's not ready yet, Josh. He's terrified."

I looked her in the eye and asked the question I was dying to really know. "Well, is he going to be ready?"

"You bet your ass he will." She smiled again, that all-knowing womanly smile. "In the meantime, you want to kick something, kick me."

As she drifted off, I heard the music coming up on the TV behind me, meaning something important was coming. Sam called Toby, who was poring over papers and a bagel sandwich in front of the nearest TV. "Here it comes!" CJ called, standing near me.

"With 17 percent of the precincts reporting, we are now ready to call the Illinois primary for former New..."

Whatever he said next was lost to me. I was already screaming. "Yes!" I grabbed CJ so tight, I could've broken her. "Yes! Yes!" I could hear Toby and Sam shouting in the background. I turned and saw Sam. The look that passed between us was everything - a tender hug, a victory kiss. God, I love you, I thought at him, pointing with both hands.

"I know," he mouthed, his eyes tender and happy.

I couldn't resist another victorious, "Yes!" And then Leo was there, grabbing me in a big hug.

"Hey, hey, way to go!" he said. "Now let's get to California!"

I was smiling ear-to-ear, idiotically, but these were the moments idiocy was meant for. Sam and CJ were dancing in the background, Toby was laughing around a mouthful of bagel, even Leo was springing around like a kid. I saw Donna coming toward me as I was yelling after Leo,

"We've got to replace this music! We've got to replace it with some Doobie Brothers!"

Donna looked like someone had just stepped on her puppy. "Josh?"

"Donna, you've got to get happy," I said, grabbing her by the arms. "Donna, you just won the Illinois primary! Come dance with me!"

As I started off toward the music, Donna in tow, she stopped me. "No, Josh. No. Josh... your father died."

I wish I could tell you what went through my head as she said that, but there was, literally, nothing. Just - empty. My brain, gone, with those few words. "What?"

"Your father died, Josh," she said quietly.

I staggered toward her, propping myself up on the doorframe. "What - how -"

"Your mother called," she said, sounding almost like she was asking a question. "She - said, um, you should call her." She put her hand on my shoulder warmly. "Josh, I'm so sorry."

I nodded, accepted the embrace she gave me, taking deep breaths. "I booked you a flight, out of O'Hare, the next one into JFK. You'll have a car there, too."

I pulled back, looked at her. My mind was whirling. "Thanks, Donna."

She patted my face. I thought she was going to cry, so I tried to smile, and found myself on the verge of tears.

CJ came up behind us. "Hey, you two look like someone died! Come on, it's party!"

Donna looked hard at CJ, but I didn't even have the energy. "I'm - I'll be in my room." I brushed past them both toward the door to the hallway. Leo was just walking in from the governor's room as I passed. "Hey, Josh!" he started, victory in his voice. I looked up at him, and he said, "Whoa, what's wrong?"

"I, um, just talked to Donna and -" I swallowed, couldn't meet his eye. "My Dad died."

"What?" he asked, his voice a low whisper. "Oh, God, Josh, I'm so -"

"It's okay," I said automatically. But when I looked up at him, the tears had already spilled over.

He took one step and had me in a hug. "What happened?"

"I don't know. I, uh, I gotta call my mom, now. I just - just got the message from Donna." I pulled back.

Leo kept his hands on my shoulders, giving me this grimly father-like look. "You okay?"

"I don't know," I said with a morbid laugh. "He, uhhhhhh, I'm going out there tonight."

"Absolutely. Of course. You should."

"I -"

Sam burst into the foyer then, literally jogging toward the door. He stopped the minute he saw me. "Josh!"

I sniffled. "Hey."

"Donna just - are you okay?"

With Sam there, I suddenly wanted to curl up on the floor and cry. It was instantly awkward with Leo between us, and he seemed to sense this. Leo squeezed my shoulders. "You need anything, you call me, okay? Donna got your tickets?" I nodded. "I'll talk to you before you leave. Okay? Tell your mom - aw, Jesus. Tell her I'm sorry."

I nodded again as he left. Sam took a step closer, not touching me yet. I knew the minute he did, the tears would come again. "I need to pack," I said softly.

He nodded. "Okay. Let's go."

"You don't -" I said, again an automatic response.

"I know. Let's go."

He held open the door, and as I walked through, he put his hand on my back. It stayed there as we rode the elevator, as we walked down the hall. I found myself leaning in to him, trying not to think about my father being... my father not being there. He just patted my back a few times, supportively.

When I unlocked the door, the phone was ringing. I rushed over to grab it, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Joshua..."

"Mom?" I said, my voice cracking.

She was crying, and instantly, so was I. "Oh, Josh."

"Mom, what happened?" I heard her blow her nose. I could barely squeak out the words.

"There was a blood clot, it traveled to his heart. Right in the middle of the chemo. There was - nothing they could -"

She faded out into crying then. "Oh, God, Mom," I sighed. I felt the bed dip behind me, and suddenly Sam's hands were on my shoulders, rubbing. "When - when did it happen?"

"Around 5." That made it 4:00 in Chicago. My father had been dead for over four hours. "I wanted to call you sooner, but I didn't - didn't want to ruin what -"

"Just - just don't worry about it, okay?"

"I don't know what to do, Josh," she mumbled through tears. "I don't - this is - when your sister, then, your father was here, and now..."

I felt like my heart was ripping in two. "Please, Mama, you gotta calm down. I'm coming. I'll be there tonight, okay? I'm on my way."

"I love you, Joshua."

"Love you, too, Mom." When I hung up the phone, I was trembling. Sam managed to pull me around and into his arms before the choking sobs began. He didn't speak, just held me while my world fell apart. When I could speak again, I mumbled, "I need to pack."

"I'll do it," he said, kissing my temple. "Lie back for a minute. Just rest."

I was too stunned or too tired to object. He propped his pillow under my head, then busied himself with packing my clothes into the big duffel bag I was using. It was half-packed, anyway, preparing for California... oh, God, California... "What about California?" I asked weakly.

"You can meet us there," Sam said calmly. "Whenever you feel up to it. You need to go home and do this."

"I know." I sighed. "Sam, he was just... I just talked to him, Sunday morning. He was fine. He was ripping me a new one over the new ads that Hoynes has out, but he was fine. And now..."

Sam looked up. "Josh -"

"Do you know when the last time I saw him was? Dinner. Dinner in New Hampshire. They drove up to see me. It was - it was just before he relapsed." Sam dropped the last shirt into my bag, started to zip it up. "This is so - this sucks."

Sam nodded. "Yeah, it does." He sat on the bed next to me, took my hand into his own. "It's horrible, Josh."

I sat up, resting my head against the back of his neck. "How am I gonna do this?" I wondered aloud.

"You want me to go with you?"

"No."

"Because I can. Say the word, Josh, and I'm there."

"Sam, don't you dare." I sat up and looked him in the eye. "Yeah, I want you there. Yeah. Of course. But if you go, and I go, then California's just that much harder. We've worked too hard..."

"But I -"

"No, listen to me, okay? I'll be fine." I gave him a crooked smile. "Don't lose California for me."

He was frowning. "Josh..."

I stood up, a pleasant numbness settling over me. "I need to call Donna," I said, looking for where I'd dropped my cell phone.

"Josh, I love you."

I turned to look at him, saw that his eyes were sparkling a little. I stood in front of him, touching his hair and drawing his head against my ribs. "Hey, I know."

"I want to help you." He looked up. "Will you be okay?"

"Sam..."

There was a knock on the door. I touched his face gently, then backed away and went to the door. It was Donna. "Hi," she said. "How are you doing?"

"I'm okay," I said. "Listen, thanks for -"

"Don't mention it." She couldn't smile. She handed me a white piece of paper with times on it.

"Your flight leaves in forty-five minutes. There's a cab outside." I nodded. I saw her gaze shift, momentarily, as Sam must have stood up behind me.

"Thank you, Donna."

She looked ready to cry again, so I touched her face, and she leaned forward and sort of kissed my cheek. "Be careful," she whispered, then disappeared down the hall. I turned to get my bag, but saw Sam had already lifted it. "You ready?" he asked.

I nodded. I grabbed my cell phone off the table and my backpack from behind the door. We were just starting down the hall - Sam's hand, again, supportively on my back - when Leo approached. "Josh, you all set?"

"Yeah."

"Okay. Listen, you catch up to us whenever you can." He gave me another one of those fatherly hugs, then nodded at Sam. "You want company on the ride? Sam, you goin' with him to the airport?"

"Yes."

"No," I answered at once. Sam looked stricken. "He should stay here. Everyone should stay here, okay? I'll be fine."

Leo nodded. "You take care of yourself."

"You, too. Don't you lose that state for me."

He gave a half-smile. "Tell your mom hello."

"Will do," I promised, stepping into the elevator.

At the curb, Sam helped load my bag into the cab, then caught me as I was about to step in.

"Let me go," he said softly.

"No way."

His eyes dropped. "At least let me go with you to the airport."

"Sam, there's a ballroom full of people up there, waiting for a speech you wrote. He's gonna want to make changes now, because it's the last minute and that's what he does. I'm just going to get in this car and get on a plane. I'll be fine." I smiled, then leaned forward for a quick hug.

"You take care," he whispered against my neck.

"I'll call you." I kissed his cheek, then stepped into the cab. A minute later, I was rolling.

The first night back was exhausting. There was already family around, when I got there, but pulling my mother into my arms was one of the toughest moments of my life. Really, there wasn't anything I could say to her, or her to me, to make this better. So we held on for a while, then, with me finally there, she was able to sleep.

I wasn't. I spent the night first sitting by my mother's bed, then lying in my old bed, thinking about my father. How much we'd drifted in the last few years. I thought about the governor's words - was my dad proud of me? Sure, he was proud. And he'd kept tabs on me, closer tabs than I probably knew. He certainly wasn't always getting the updates from me. I was terrible about calling, e-mailing, getting back to them. And I'd always thought, he understands. He knows, when this is over, I'll have time. I'll go home, I'll take a break. When the campaign is over, I'd told him when he asked about settling down, when he asked about grandchildren.

"When I'm done with this."

"You'll never be done," he told me once.

"Dad, I'll call you later," I'd answered. I always said that. Now, there were no more laters. I spent the rest of the night thinking of that.

I'd be lying if I said the funeral wasn't hard. It was horrible. It was gut-wrenching and tragic. I gave a short, choking speech at the service, staring at my mother, all in black. I listened to the prayers there and at the gravesite, trying to find some comfort in words I wasnÕt certain I remembered anymore. This had always meant more to my parents than it had to me, but this was about my father, and what he wanted. The hardest was watching the burial, throwing a bit of dirt on his casket. It hurt in ways I'd never imagined.

After the funeral, we went home to our great old house near the Pick Mill creek. I loved that house. It was the second house we'd lived in after my sister died and our old one burnt down. The kitchen window looked right out onto a hill of foliage, and my mother loved it there. It was just bright enough, she'd told my father, to make her feel a little more at home.

The brightness was gone now. The mirrors were covered and the low seats that I barely remembered from my sister's funeral were out. People gathered in the living room after the funeral to talk about Dad. Most of them wanted to talk to me, too, grazing me with concerned hands and glances. To be honest, it drove me nuts. I wanted to lay on the floor and cry every time someone asked about my father and then, in the next breath, mentioned the campaign. I wanted them to go away, just to let me sit on the floor and rest my head in my mother's lap and listen to her murmur that things would be all right, like when my sister died.

Eventually, it was too much. I stayed for a while, wanting to be near for my mother, but her sisters were there. She gave me a look of permission as I stood to "get some air," and I escaped on to the front porch gratefully.

I'd been out there for about ten minutes, brooding over my drink, when an unfamiliar white car - maybe a taxi, but what the hell was a taxi doing out here? - pulled into the driveway. The driver stopped short of the line of mourners' cars, letting someone out.

Sam.

He gave a short wave. I stood, walking across the lawn to meet him with a fast pace. "Sam, what in the -"

"Please don't be mad," he said, holding up one hand. "Please don't be mad. I just - I wanted to see you. Everything is okay in California, they're holding steady, Toby's doing most of the speeches anyway..." He sighed. "I fly back tomorrow morning. I just wanted to see you."

I looked at him sternly for a moment, seeing the need in his blue eyes and realizing it might be reflected in mine. I nodded swiftly. "I'm glad you came."

"Really?"

"Yeah." I shook my head, knowing I couldn't even risk hugging him so near to my family.

"Come on, let's drop off your stuff."

We carried his things back to the house. I led him through the kitchen door, up the back stairs to my room. "Just throw it here."

In the room, which was oddly dark, he turned and embraced me. I let my head fall on to his shoulder, felt him stroke my hair, then kiss my temple. "You okay?" he whispered.

"No," I answered, my voice shaking.

"I didn't think so." He held me tighter, and I let go.

That night, after dinner, when only my aunt Sharon remained with my exhausted mother, Sam and I took a walk. We went out past the hill to the little creek. I sat on a rock near the shore while he hovered above me. "It's beautiful out here," he said.

"Yeah. I used to come here, when I was growing up, and build forts and stuff with my friends. Great place for it, when it snows."

"I'll bet."

I grunted skeptically. "What do you know about snow?"

He shrugged. "I've seen it, you know. I've been to New England."

"Uh-huh." I looked up at him. He was so beautiful, just standing there in the moonlight, looking down. Dark hair against a dark sweater, hands shoved in his pockets, eyes wide and slightly smiling. My chest clenched. "SamÉ"

"Mm?"

"I've been thinking," I said slowly.

"What?"

I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose. "I've been thinking."

"Okay." He sat next to me gingerly, and I remembered again that Sam was hardly an outdoorsman.

His eyes were glittering in the dark. Maybe this wasn't the place to have this conversation.

Though, I reflected, perhaps there was no good place to have this conversation, not with his eyes matching mine, his emotions flowing freely across his face. I took a deep breath. "You know, everything CJ and Toby said was right."

"What do you mean?"

I looked away, toying with a rock by my foot. "I'm completely incapable of doing this job and having a personal life."

"Josh -"

"No, look." I glanced up at him, gestured back at my house. "Look at this place. I hardly knew my own father anymore, Sam." I sighed.

His eyes were so steady, like his voice. "I'm not your father, Josh."

Back to the rock. "He's not the only one. I don't keep up with anyone. I don't have time."

"Jo-"

I looked up sharply, meeting his eyes. "I love this job. I believe in what we're doing so much, Sam, that - " And suddenly, I was lost again. Lost in the bright blue of his eyes and the confused twist of his face. "God, I can't keep doing this," I moaned, letting my head fall into my hands.

"Doing what?"

"This. Us."

I could barely look up; he was visibly taken aback. "What are you saying?"

I stared ahead at the stream. He'd come all this way to be with me, to help me. He'd probably risked his job to do it. It was a beautiful statement, and it was one I wasn't sure I could return. "I - I'm afraid I'm going to hurt you."

"What? Josh, that's -"

"No, listen to me. This job, it's everything. And somewhere down the line, something will happen, and I'll have to choose." I was barely whispering now. "It may not be a big thing, but it will happen. And you'll get hurt."

He looked at me blankly, then started slowly. "I know what this job means to you. But we've made it work so far. Why can't -"

"In the past twenty four hours, at least two people on that campaign have figured out what's going on. CJ knows, Sam, and Leo can't be far from figuring it out. Within a week, everyone will know. Are you ready for that, Sam? Because I'm not sure I am. And I'm not sure I'm ready to give up the White House for it."

"These people are our friends. They won't -"

"They will. Someone will let it slip. They won't mean to, sure, but pretty soon, the whole world's gonna know, 'Barlet's got himself a coupla homos runnin' the campaign,' and then that's it, Sam. Then it's just over for us."

"You're being unreasonable."

"I know, but - look, there's stuff we can't foresee." I risked looking over at him. "I love you maybe more than I've ever loved anyone or anything, and I don't want to mess that up."

"So don't. Don't do this."

His eyes were so wide and clear, I fell like I was falling into them. "I have to," I said quietly. "It's the only way we can - I can still see you, everyday. And we can still be friends, if we end this now..."

He leaned forward, suddenly, and caught me in a kiss. When he pulled back, he said, "Is this what you really want? To be friends?"

I nodded, trying to convince him as much as myself. "If we do this, if we do everything right, we can change history. Right now, that's what I want. That's what I want more than anything."

He hung his head. "So this - all of this - this was just bad timing?"

"The worst."

He looked up. "I still love you."

I touched his face. "I love you, too."

"But not as much as your job." I didn't answer, and he dropped his head again. "I should go."

"No." I reached out. "Stay tonight, go back tomorrow. You won't be able to get a -"

"I should go." He shook me off and stood, swiftly, then walked away.

And just that suddenly, I knew I'd hurt him already.

Later, he told me how he'd paid some guy $1,500 for his ticket to L.A., how he'd almost had to sleep in the airport in St. Louis when the connection couldn't land, how he'd been so drunk getting off the plane at LAX that CJ had had to almost carry him to the car. That night, though, all I knew was that he left angry. I tried calling him 27 times before midnight, be he had caller ID, so it did no good.

The next day, CJ called to check in with me. She wouldn't say much about Sam, just that he looked like "someone beat him up."

"It was me," I admitted.

"Are you going to fix this?" she asked, her voice quiet and serious.

"I can't, CJ."

"No, you just don't want to," she accused.

When I did leave Connecticut, Sam still wasn't returning my calls. I had caught him off guard, somehow, in the middle of the week. When he realized it was me, his voice dropped. "Has anything changed?" he asked.

"Not really, no, butÉ"

"Okay then." He hung up before I could finish my sentence.

Leo, however, was on my ear nonstop, chattering about polls and meetings and which fundraisers when and where. I half expected him to leap from behind the door as I walked into the HQ in L.A. Instead, Toby greeted me, laughing. "Josh, you're just in time to hear the latest."

"The latest what?"

"The latest in our young friend Sam's tales of humiliation and Leo's wrath."

"It's not that funny," Sam growled, not even looking up from his desk. I stared at him for a minute. He looked bad - pale against his black polo, his eyes circled with black.

"I think it is," Toby continued.

"What?" I asked, still watching Sam.

Toby went on, unconcerned. "While you were away, we had a fundraiser."

"Right, the Yost-Dunak party at the Wilshire." I shook my head, decided I'd talk to Sam later, and started toward my own office, Toby in pursuit. "So what happened?"

"What happened is your friend decided to take a chance on my wife," Leo growled from behind my desk.

"Nice to see you, too, Leo," I said, picking up a stack of mail in my Inbox. "So wait - Sam hit on your wife?"

"He fucking asked her out! - propositioned her!" Leo snarled. "Like he didn't even notice the ring!"

"It was dark!" Sam yelled from outside. "And she was wearing gloves!"

I sat on the edge of my desk, trying to smile at all of this. "Well, that's got to be awkward on all sides."

"Awkward my ass," Leo muttered.

Toby, standing in the doorway, smirking, said, "Yes, you see, Leo's been utilizing a method we kindly refer to as 'killing the competition with anger.'"

"I'm familiar with the concept," I said, smirking at Leo. "So what kind of work have you done since I've been gone?"

Soon, I was back in the loop on things. Leo was trying his damnedest to make Sam's life miserable, so as long as I stayed near Leo, I was safe from Sam. I don't know why, suddenly, I felt a need to stay away from Sam, but I knew that was what he wanted, so for the moment, that's how it would be. Which turned out to be okay, because Sam, of all things, had a new girlfriend.

Or maybe a couple of them.

He went out with a different woman every night that week, to a bar or a club or just back to her apartment. And every morning, as he let Cathy or Donna tease the details out of him, I started to realize how much I'd really fucked up.

But we were working together, at least, again. CJ was shooting us both quizzical, sympathetic looks for while, but we were working. We were getting the job done. And we were even laughing again, in groups, after a while. He was careful not to be alone with me, I think, but I started to fool myself that things were okay. That things could survive like this.

Then we got a bad poll back, and Bartlet went ballistic on Leo, who in turn launched at us. It was probably the lowest point of the campaign, right up there with Texas. We all went out together for a drink - which turned into two, then three. I was pretty far gone by the end of the night, and somehow, that made it seem like a good time to talk to Sam.

"Hey," I slurred, sitting next to him at the bar.

"Hey yourself," he said, waiting on an order.

"We should talk."

He glanced over at me. "About what?" he asked guardedly.

"Whaddyou mean, 'bout what? About us!"

"There is no 'us,' Josh," he said in a low voice. "You made that pretty clear."

"What if I was wrong?" I looked over at him, sized up his blurry face. "I was wrong."

"You weren't wrong." He sighed. "Everything you said was right. I want more from you than you can give, with this job. And that's fine." There was pain in his eyes, but it was well-masked.

"You shouldn't have to worry about me, all the time. You deserve someone who - someone who isn't, maybe, as needy."

His drinks were up. At that moment, watching him smile and hand over some cash, I was beyond caring. Beyond caring, even, that we were in a bar, in a public place. "So, what, you just got over it?"

"You ended it, Josh. Not me."

"But you got over it."

He stared at me. "Is that what this is about?" I didn't say anything. "You're a real jerk, Josh."

He started to walk away, but I caught his arm. "I don't - I don't want it to be this way."

He dropped his head a little, focusing on my collar. "I know," he said softly. I studied his face, saw again the pain there. "And it won't be, forever, but for now... this is the best I can do." He looked up. "I need some space."

"A-kay." I took my hand off his arm. "So we're... what? Friends?"

"We've always been friends, Josh," he said quietly.

Then he walked away. After a minute, so did I. I stumbled back over to where Mandy was sitting, talking to Toby. She'd been flirting with me for months; I, admittedly, flirted back, but I'd never acted on it - until now.

"You wanna get outta here?" I asked, leaning in close to her.

"I thought you'd never ask."

That night started a pattern with us. Well, it probably began earlier, when I was away and Sam started hitting on women. We both turned to women for comfort, Sam more - or maybe just more successfully - than I. When Sam got nervous, or unsure of himself or his future, he started hitting on women. Maybe it made him feel better, some kind of reinforcement of his manhood or his attractiveness, I don't know. (Looking back now, it's sort of touching. Once we hit D.C., when he thought I was about to lose my job, he went home with Laurie. Then he got nervous about his own job and - bam - Mallory.) Later, I could tell myself that those weeks in L.A. and the parade of women at fundraisers and functions were simply Sam, brooding over our breakup and my subsequent and rapid pairing with Mandy.

Sooner than I expected, Sam and I were back to normal. He would stop by my office, lean on the doorjamb and listen to me rant about some idiot Congressman or some jerk-off fundraiser, and he'd laugh, and ask my advice on speeches, and it was okay. We started talking about women together - there seemed to be a tacit agreement that neither of us was seeing another man, and neither of us probably would. It was risky for the campaign, for one - and if either of us were going to take that risk, well, why not take it with each other? More than that, though, I simply wasn't interested in men beyond Sam. There were many, many pretty faces in L.A. - faces I questioned when their eyes lingered too long on him, in fiery but fading flares of jealousy - but no one that inspired me. I also had Mandy, a fireball in and of herself. And by the time the election rolled around, it seemed sort of absurd that as recently as six months beforehand, I'd thought of spending that evening with Sam and candles and making love in intimate, earth-shattering ways instead of with beer and real Maine lobster and, eventually, a couch in the New Hampshire governor's mansion.

That was two years ago.

She looked at him for a minute, then shook her head and turned back to me. "Leo needs you in the small conference room, Josh."

"A-kay," I said, and stepped off the balcony without another word.

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