Title: Looking after Em
Author: Jackie Thomas
Date: June 2002
Category: Josh/Sam
Rating: PG
Email: jackiethomas73@hotmail.com
Feedback appreciated.
Archive: All yours
Disclaimer: All theirs
Website: http://www.angelfire.com/realm2/wayfinding
Spoilers: A little of Somebody's going.
Summary: The consequences of a tragedy in Sam's family

Looking after Em Jackie Thomas

When the call came through I was with Sam in his office. He had just gone in to pick up some papers for a breakfast meeting and I was waiting in the doorway. Ginger said it was a personal call from California. The caller said it was urgent.

I wasn't listening to the conversation when I heard Sam gasp as if someone had punched him. He hadn't sat down to take the call and he gripped the desk for support. I got to him in time to take the phone from him before he dropped it and I wrapped my arm around him.

"This is Josh Lyman," I said. "What's going on?"

"My name's Fran." A young woman spoke over the sound of a baby crying. "I'm a friend of Sally Seaborn. Sam's sister. Something awfuls happened. There was a car crash. His sister and his mother are both dead."

"No. Are you sure?"

"I've been to the hospital, I've seen them, I spoke to Sal before she died. I'm sure." Her voice faded as she tried to keep a check on her emotions. "There was a collision involving four cars, they think someone's brakes failed." She stopped speaking again and then gathered herself to continue. "I'm sorry, can you explain to Sam. I'm so sorry."

"I'll take care of it," I said, hardly able to process the information myself.

"Josh, Sal has a baby."

"I know." I did know. Sally had a baby who could only have been about four months old. A little girl called Emma. There was a recent picture of her propped up against Sam's telephone and the last time we had a delay at an airport we had chosen a toy penguin for her.

"The baby's fine," said Fran. "She was in the car but she wasn't hurt."

"Thank God," I said, then whispered to Sam. "Emma's okay, Emma's fine."

He started to try and move away from me but I kept a grip on him.

"I'm at Sal's house now and I'm looking after Emma."

"Right," I said. "But Josh, I need to know what to do. I have my own children and I'm at work tomorrow. I'm really sorry. But do you know the family situation?"

"Yes." I knew that Emma's father was an English man called Rick who had left as soon as he found out Sally was pregnant. I knew there were no other brothers or sisters. "What about their dad?" Of course relations had been strained between Sam's father and the rest of the family but still.

"He doesn't want to know."

"She's his granddaughter." I breathed, incensed.

"He didn't know anything about Emma. Sal hasn't spoken to him since. you know.she never told him about Rick or the baby. He showed up at the hospital and he's dealing with the funeral but he couldn't deal with Emma."

"Does Rick know?"

"I spoke to him, but he doesn't want to deal with this either. Plus, he said he didn't think Sally would want him anywhere near the baby and I know that's true. Josh, Sal asked me to get Sam. Before she died, that's what she wanted."

I thought about what Sam would do if he were in any position to make a decision. "Sam's going to be on the next flight. Can you take care of the baby until he gets there?"

"Of course. I'll wait here."

I took the details and disconnected. Sam was leaning heavily into me now and I needed both my arms to support him.

"Oh God, Sam." I whispered as his body shook. He breathed short urgent breaths and seemed about to collapse. I couldn't support him any longer and we ended up on the floor in the tiny space behind his desk. I held him against me, my arms around him, his head buried in my neck. Sam didn't speak or make a sound, all his strength seemed to be focussed on simply breathing and controlling the shudders that wracked his body. I couldn't say how long we stayed that way but after what seemed a long time, Toby was picking his way through the furniture to get to us. He crouched down to survey the situation.

"What happened to him?" he asked. When I didn't answer he laid his hand on Sam's back and then on his hair. "Come on Sam, let's stand up."

The two of us helped Sam into his chair where he put his head in his hands and didn't move.

Outside the office I quickly explained to Toby and Leo, who arrived soon after, what had happened and that Sam had to get to California. Naturally neither of them had a problem with this and Toby shouted to one of the assistants to book his flight.

"Make that two flights," I called after him and stopped Leo as he headed into the office to talk to Sam. "Leo, I'm going with him." I said.

"Josh," he said. "I can't afford to have you both out. Someone else can go with him." This was a tricky one. Sam and I had been together for almost a year but we were by no means out. In fact we had told no one about our relationship. We had agreed not to lie if anyone asked outright but that didn't mean we invited any questions and so far we hadn't had any. We were fairly off-hand with each other at work and I firmly believed that no one suspected anything at all. No one who hadn't looked behind Sam's desk five minutes earlier that is.

"I'm going with him." I ignored Leo's penetrating stare. "I've got nothing that can't be put off and I swear I'll be back by Monday." It was Thursday, it didn't give me much time but it was all I was going to get.

"I'll just look after the country while you're away then shall I?" Leo growled. "Just don't switch off your phone."

We left soon after, taking nothing with us but the few things we kept in the office for the occasional unplanned overnighter. I was worried about whether Sam would be able to cope with the flight but, as it turned out, his formidable self-control and state of dazed shock carried him through without incident. My hand at his elbow or on his shoulder he let himself get swept in and out of taxis, check- in lines and waiting areas.

On the plane, I told the stewardess Sam wasn't feeling well and she brought him a blanket and pillow. I gripped his hand under the blanket for most of the flight while he stared ahead. He spoke only once, when he turned to me and said, "Maybe Fran made a mistake. It could be a mistake."

I squeezed his hand tighter. "It wasn't a mistake, Sam." He nodded and returned to his thoughts. Eventually he closed his eyes but I don't think he slept.

We flew into Los Angeles and took a long cab ride from the airport to Sally's house in the suburbs. By then I could see that Sam was beginning to come out of shock and register his surroundings.

Fran was there to meet us on the doorstep. She immediately put her arms around Sam and hugged him, sobbing soundlessly. He seemed overwhelmed by the emotion but held her nevertheless.

Finally she brought us inside, leaving us in the living room while she went to get cold drinks. We met Emma there for the first time, she was asleep in a baby chair, tucked in with the penguin Sam and I had bought for her.

Emma seemed very small to me. Though I had no clear idea what size a four month old ought to be I had convinced myself she would be sturdier than this tiny sparrow-like creature appeared to be. She was beautiful though. She had a mass of black hair, Sam's complexion and the beginnings of the Seaborn fine features.

When Fran returned she sat and took some time to explain what had happened. Whether it was true or not she convinced Sam that neither his mother or sister had suffered at all before they died and I will always be grateful to her for that.

Finally she looked at her watch and said that she had to be going to pick up her own children. She looked at me critically and said. "Have you looked after a baby before?" The answer was terrifyingly, no.

And while Sam ran a finger gently through Emma's hair Fran explained to me with small words and visual aids the essentials of formula preparation, diaper changing, which way was up and what day it actually was as it was obvious to her I had no idea. Then clearly convinced she was leaving a helpless infant in the hands of Laurel and Hardy she wrote down three telephone numbers and promised to come back tomorrow. So that didn't scare me at all.

When I came back from seeing her to her car Emma had woken up and was screaming, Sam's father was leaving a long message about the funeral on the answering machine and Sam was in the bathroom throwing up.

I picked Emma up and jiggled her about a bit. It didn't seem to help, in fact it made her scream even louder. She was roaring away and tugging frantically at a handful of my hair when Sam came out of the bathroom. He looked pale and watery eyed.

"Are you all right?" I asked. Dumb question.

"Yeah," he said and rescued Emma from me. She went willingly into his arms and immediately stopped crying.

"You found the off-button." I said admiringly.

"I think she's confused, I must look a bit too much like Sal." The two of them appraised each other with identically sombre expressions until they shared an encouraging smile. It was Sam's first smile that day.

I took Em back from Sam because he was starting to look unsteady again and she immediately protested loudly about this. I got Sam to go and sit down on the couch and took her into the kitchen. Fran had set up a feed for the baby in a.thing. I just had to switch it on. When the bottle was ready, I cradled her, as instructed, and gave it to her. To my surprise she stopped crying and started feeding immediately.

She had Sam's mesmerizing blue eyes and, as she fed, she stared up at me seeming to take in every possible detail. At the same time her tiny fists clenched and unclenched through pure enjoyment.

"Hey Sam," I said, joining him on the couch. "You want to see something cute?" And we both watched her feeding for a while, doing the little thing with her hands. Adorable didn't cover it.

"What's going to happen to her?" Sam asked quietly.

"She's going to be fine." "There's no one now. No one in the family to look after her."

"Don't think about it. There'll be time to make those kinds of decisions."

"It wouldn't be fair for me to take her. I'm never home and she needs a mother."

"Sam, don't worry, you'll do the right thing. And there's not going to be a shortage of people wanting to adopt her."

"There's Fran," he said. "She and Sal were friends since they were kids. She's married and she's got children so Em will have brothers and sisters. I'm going to ask her to." The end of the sentence was lost in a wave of emotion.

"Sam, come on, don't do this." He fell silent, going back to watching Emma and she fixed her intense gaze on him.

When she finished feeding I held her against my shoulder and rubbed her back almost exactly as they do on television and it had the desired affect.

I was hoping that she would go to sleep as I really needed to pay some attention to Sam. She did seem to be starting to get sleepy as well so I gathered my courage and took her into the bathroom to change her. Which really wasn't so bad, and I think I did quite a professional job even though, in my opinion, the diagrams on the packaging don't recognise how complicated the job is when the changee is flaying about like a windmill. When I managed to wrestle her back into the.thing.she was wearing I laid her on her back in the crib in Sally's bedroom. I kissed her goodnight, offered her the penguin which she accepted and dimmed the light. She seemed content so I left her there and went to find Sam.

He was standing at the kitchen table going through a plastic bag which Fran had told us contained his mother and sister's personal effects. There were two purses and he was going through them. He looked up.

"Is she okay?" He asked.

"Yeah, I think she's going to sleep."

"Thanks for doing that. Did you know what to do?"

"She was pretty patient. What are you doing?" "I'm looking for phone numbers. I've got to start calling people."

"Not now, Sam. Leave it until tomorrow. You need to rest, have something to eat."

"I'll do some now, while she's asleep. People need to know, I guess and I know when the funeral is because I listened to dad's message." His tone was flat, I could only imagine how he had felt about the bland message left by his father.

"You should phone him back." Asshole though he was, he had just lost a daughter.

"Not now, I can't talk to him now. But I'll start calling people."

I put my arms around him and he dropped his head onto my shoulder. I held him for a while and talked to the top of his head. "You have to eat something, you haven't eaten anything all day." "I don't think I could keep anything down Josh, my stomach's doing cartwheels." "Well, you'll try." I kissed him and let him go. I went through the fridge and then the kitchen cupboards and found a couple of cans of soup. "How about some of this?"

"Josh."

"Just give it a go, okay." He nodded and sat at the kitchen table to wait for the soup to heat. He carried on going through the purses. I saw him looking at a photograph that he had found slipped into the pages of his mother's diary and searching his pockets for his glasses. I found them in my pocket and I gave them to him. He stared at the picture, it was a snapshot of Mrs Seaborn, Sally and Emma, the two women smiling into the camera.

"I hadn't seen them in more than a year you know. I didn't go home when Em was born, I didn't even go home at Christmas."

"They understood."

"I don't know why they should. I could have gone back. For a weekend at least, but I didn't think it was important, everything else was more important."

"Sam, when was the last time you had a whole weekend off? When was the last time your week was less than seventy hours long?"

"Well, I got it wrong. I got the priorities wrong."

"Maybe, but they understood. They were incredibly proud of you. Just take a look round this house." It didn't take more than a cursory glance to prove that. There was a picture of Sam from the inauguration framed in the living room, a row of videos on a shelf where some of Sam's TV appearances had been recorded. Pictures of him cut from newspapers were pinned to the board in the kitchen. "And you did a hell of a lot for Sally and the baby, and for your mom after she and your dad broke up. They knew you loved them, Sam."

"I know.it's just that I think I'd give anything to see them again, just once." He continued to stare at the photograph until I set the food in front of him. I was relieved to see that he did eat and he started to look better and become more focussed almost immediately. After he finished he picked up the diaries and went back into the living room with Sally's cordless phone. He sat on the couch then and began to call the people in his mother's address book.

I checked on Emma and she and her penguin were sleeping peacefully so I went back into the kitchen to make some tea. I brought it into the living room and sat next to Sam. I listened as he explained to one of his mother's friends that something terrible had happened and. I wrapped my arms around him and he soon leaned into me. I held him as he talked on the phone for almost two hours, patiently answering the same questions and murmuring the same sympathetic words. Finally, after one particularly intense call to one of his sister's friends he began to cry with choking sobs and unstoppable tears.

"Okay, that's enough." I took the phone out of his hands and gathered him into my arms. I held him close as he sobbed and I thought that my heart would break along with his.

When, at last, he stopped crying, he lay quietly in my arms. I asked him if he wanted to try and sleep and I took him into Sally's bedroom. I got him ready for bed and lay next to him, stroking his hair, until he fell asleep.

With both Emma and Sam asleep I went round the house locking up and switching lights off. The time difference was catching up with me and I got ready for bed myself, suddenly utterly exhausted. I curled up to Sam and once I fell asleep it was deep and dreamless.

***************

Emma slept until about 4am when she woke up crying. She had been asleep for a lot longer than I could have hoped, she must have been exhausted from her terrible day. I picked her up, quietening her down as miraculously she hadn't woken Sam.

I recognised the `hungry' signal from last time and took her into the kitchen to get the feed started. I hazarded a guess that the other end would need attention as well so I took her into the bathroom while the bottle heated. Frankly, I was a complete natural and Emma was gurgling happily on the changing mat while I changed her diaper.

I didn't think I would ever tire of watching her feed. It was evidently such an intense experience for her. She took the opportunity to study my face again and I wondered if she knew that the face that used to be there was missing. I wondered if she had already forgotten her mother or still searched for her in the new faces. I was grateful though that she was too little to understand the catastrophe that had befallen her and the uncertainty over her future.

She didn't seem interested in going back to sleep after her feed so we had a wander around the house, looking at things for a while and her unblinking gaze took in everything.

I tried to put her to bed after about an hour but she seemed all set to start crying again so I picked her up, wrapped her in a blanket and gave her the penguin. We sat by the French Windows in the living room to watch the day start, and I told her a few things about Sleeping Beauty with a short explanation of the ideological context. She watched me closely as I spoke, quickly coming to the conclusion that I didn't know what I was talking about and smiling indulgently.

Sam came and found us watching the sunrise, not long after. He knelt by the chair and kissed Emma and then he kissed me. He looked tired and subdued but he was more himself.

"You should have woken me," he said, letting Emma grab his finger in both her hands.

"We're fine," I said. "We were just having a chat."

"Oh no, about what?"

"Gender relations in the workplace. She needed her consciousness raising."

"What does she think about the ERA?"

"She's kind of a reactionary, I have to say Sam."

He smiled at me, and it was nice to see that again.

"Josh," he said eventually. "If I live to be a hundred, I'll never forget what you did for me yesterday. How you kept me together."

"Sam, you know, if there's anything I can do for you.anything at all." We kissed once more and Emma laughed as Sam tickled her tummy. "What do you want to do today?" I asked.

"I want to see Sal and mom at the funeral home, if I can. I should talk to dad and maybe see the family lawyer about mom's estate and about getting Emma adopted. I want to talk to Fran. I mean if she could take her that would solve everything."

"Yeah, it would." I said, but there was doubt in my mind about it and I was not quite sure why. Fran having her would clearly be the best solution.

"Josh, I'll take her if you want to get some sleep or whatever."

"I won't sleep now but I'll take a shower, if you're going to be okay."

"Course," he took Emma from me and folded his arms around her, letting me show him how to support her head given that I was such an expert in the field.

I showered and dressed, then played with Em while Sam did the same. She had some really good toys, things that buzzed or rang, spun round or squished.

"Are you improving your cognitive skills, Josh?" Sam asked when he came to find us.

"I think I've got this hand/eye coordination thing down."

He picked Em up from my lap and said confidentially to her. "Now you just tell me if Uncle Josh doesn't share his toys." She looked adoringly at him and settled comfortably in the crook of his arm, reaching up to try and touch his face.

Something occurred to me. "Is the car just outside Sal's?"

We went out front. "Yeah, it is," he said. "They were in mom's car when.I think I saw keys in Sal's purse."

"We okay to drive it?"

"Yeah. Yeah."

"Do you want to go and get some breakfast? It's still early."

"Sure, and we should go to mom's place. I've got some clothes there, jeans and stuff we can use." Sam was all business now. I put my hand on his arm.

"Are you okay Sam?"

"I am. I think I am." He kissed Emma's hand as she reached for him again. *******************

We left soon afterwards, stopping for breakfast and then going on to Sam's mom's house to change out of yesterday's suits into Sam's old stuff. Unlike Sal's house, his mom's place was full of history and memories. Sam recognised that he couldn't really cope with this so while we waited for 9 o'clock to come so we could start making phone calls we went out into the backyard.

It was the first time that I remembered we were in California. It was beginning to be a warm day and not too cold for a baby to be outside, especially one dressed in one of the many sweaters she inexplicably seemed to own. Em lay on a blanket rattling a rattling thing that we had found in the house and waving her legs and arms around and telling us all kinds of things. She really was a most contented baby. Sam sent her into paroxysms of delight by repeatedly burying his head in her tummy and making monster noises. Then when we came inside she slept again with her head on his shoulder while he planted soft kisses on the top of her head.

Later I phoned the funeral home. They said they could arrange for Sam to view the bodies but not until the evening. They also said that, in a typically thoughtful gesture, Sam's dad had suggested they ask Sam to bring in the clothes that the two women should be buried in.

This meant that Sam had to go through his mother's wardrobe to find an outfit and then, in a recurring nightmare, go back to Sal's to do the same thing for her. He became upset because he hadn't seen them in so long he had no idea what they would have chosen themselves, because of the familiar perfume of his mother's bedroom, because Sal had a couple of Sam's old Tshirts in her wardrobe which she must have worn when she was pregnant.

By the end of the process Sam was sitting on the edge of the bed with his hands over his eyes trying to regain his self-control. I convinced him to lie down while I saw to Em and put her in her crib. Then I took the clothes to the undertakers.

When I returned at about 11.30, having stopped to pick up some supplies, they were both asleep and I slipped in next to Sam, wrapped my arms around him and slept too. When I woke an hour later Sam was sitting at the end of the bed watching Em in her crib.

"You want to see something cute?" He asked, without needing to turn round to know I was awake.

I sat next to him and we watched Em going through a long process of waking up with yawns and little noises and her hand making a fist to rub her eyes.

"Emma Seaborn, goes for gold in the cute Olympics." I said, putting my arms around him and my head on his shoulder.

He buried his face in my hair for a moment and then said. "I'm going to phone Fran now."

"Are you sure this is what you want to do Sam?" I asked, without knowing where the question came from.

"No," he said. He picked Em up and let her finish waking up in his arms as he took her into the living room.

*************************

When we saw Fran, at her house, she looked like she had been crying. She told us that she had been too upset to go into work.

She took Em, now awake and noisily exuberant, and examined her, talking to her with a professional confidence. She asked us some penetrating questions about what we had been feeding her and when, what had come out the other end and when. Though she seemed to be satisfied with what she saw and heard she immediately dived into Em's changing bag and took out a soft hairbrush.

"I've never known a baby with so much hair," she said. I hadn't noticed until then that she was looking kind of wild and while Em screwed up her face stoically Fran restored order. Then Em looked around for Sam and made a fuss until she was given back to him, I don't think anyone was more surprised than Sam at that.

Sam came straight out and asked her if she would consider adopting Em. She looked surprised at the question and said immediately. "No, I don't think I can." She checked herself. "Don't get me wrong, I'm overwhelmed that you're asking me but, I think the answers no."

"Can I ask you to think about it? Sal loved you and you'd be able to give Em a family."

"Sal loved you and Emma already has a family." She closed her eyes for a moment. "To be honest with you, things aren't great between me and Mike, we're talking about separating."

"I'm sorry Fran."

"I know, it sucks, but a new baby after we've been through the sleepless nights thing three times would probably finish us off. The other thing is that Mike's mom isn't in the best of health and she's coming to live with us. I just don't think I could cope with another responsibility on top of that. I'm really sorry."

Sam became lost in his thoughts. He had been counting on Fran and now had to face the possibility of handing his niece over to strangers. Em murmured restlessly and he held her and whispered to her.

We spent a little time with Fran and then left to get some lunch while we waited for the appointment with the family lawyer. In the restaurant Sam ignored the food I ordered for him.

"I can't take her," he said suddenly. "I just can't, what am I supposed to do with a baby with my job, by myself?"

"You wouldn't be by yourself." I said quietly. Sam looked at me as if he hadn't thought of me as part of the conversation.

"I love you for saying that, but I have to make the decision and take the responsibility. I couldn't tie you to that decision." Em, secure in her baby chair, was looking for some attention and he made her penguin dance for her until she giggled delightedly. "I have to think about what's best for her. If I put her up for adoption she'll get a proper family, a mother and a father and she'll be happy."

I was desperate to argue that there were different kinds of families and that having Sam as a father would make up for any amount of mothers but I knew this had to be Sam's decision without interference from me.

Our appointment was shortly afterwards and Sam instructed the lawyer to start the sale of Mrs Seaborn's house. She had recently changed her will so that her estate would be divided between Sam and Sal. Sam immediately decided that Sal's share should be put away for Em.

The lawyer also advised he should get some specialist adoption advice but his first thoughts were that, despite Sal's wishes, Rick had every right to take his daughter if he wanted to. And if Sam thought this was a bad idea then he should take steps without delay.

After the meeting we went back to Sal's house to feed Em and get her ready for another sleep. When she was quietly in her crib Sam and me sat outside on a bench on the deck. It was a beautiful day and only the sounds of Em's breathing through the baby monitor caused a ripple in the silence. Sam was deeply preoccupied and didn't speak much. He let me pull him down so that his head was resting in my lap as he stared up into the cloudless sky. I stroked his hair until he closed his eyes.

Later, with Em in her chair, sucking philosophically on her penguin and looking on Sam began going through Sal's things. He decided he would clear her house before starting work on his mother's. His sister had little of any financial value and was Sam-like in her approach to possessions. Her house was clutter-free and full mainly of practical household items. His mother's house was a different matter. It contained a lifetime of possessions and memories and a decision would have to be made about each item.

"You know, I'm going to be out here a couple of weeks," he said. "I mean at least. And if there's the adoption to work out it could be longer."

I had already figured this out and talked to Toby and Leo. They would be expecting Sam to call and hopefully they would have worked out a solution so that he could stay away from work for about a month. The alternative was that he would lose his job. That would be the normal course of events in our line of work but I trusted the two of them.

I played with Em when she got restless and it was now clear that she viewed me as a figure of fun, laughing whenever she saw me. I also took the opportunity to give her a bath while she was in a good mood. Sam stood in the bathroom doorway watching us and it seemed to lighten his mood a little. In fact it went pretty well and bathrooms do dry off eventually.

It was near to the time of our appointment to view the bodies and Sam became more and more withdrawn. I remembered how I had felt not so long ago when I had been waiting to see my father's body in a hospital morgue. I also had a distant memory of my own sister's funeral. I didn't like the symmetry our lives were taking on but at least I could begin to understand how Sam was feeling.

We changed back into our suits before we left and he didn't speak as we drove except to ask me not to come in with him.

"Why, Sam? I don't want you to go through that alone."

"I want you to stay with Em. She's awake and you never know what they're going to remember."

"Sam."

"And I just want some time with them. I know you're there if I need you Josh. I always know you're there."

So Em and me waited for Sam in the foyer of the funeral home. The bath and another feed had made her drowsy and she was sleepy enough to lay still in my arms and I rocked her slowly to soothe her.

When Sam came back a little later he seemed okay, if a little tearful. When he saw Em and me he smiled. He fingered her hair which had gone crazy after her bath and refused to be tamed. I drew him nearer to me with my arm around him and he took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. We were still like that until Sam was ready to leave.

We put Em to bed as soon as we got home and Sam told her a story until she closed her eyes.

Afterwards we had something to eat and then Sam telephoned his dad. And while not exactly making peace with him they at least established a line of communication.

The President called Sam that evening and spoke to him for half an hour. I think that meant a lot to him and I knew the President's way of making things feel better than they actually were.

We went to bed fairly early, it had been a terrible day and somehow I just wanted to fall asleep holding Sam while Em slept close by.

********************

I woke at about 5am and neither Sam nor Em were there and I got up. I found Sam lying on the couch with Em. She was lying across him on her tummy, sucking on a toy and peering over the edge of the Sam- mountain. I knelt beside them and she laughed when she saw me. I kissed her cheek and then kissed Sam's lips.

"How are my two orphans?" I asked.

"She woke up hungry and she didn't want to go back to sleep."

"You okay there? I can take her for a while."

"No I'm fine." He looked at me and half-smiled.

"What is it Sam?" I could see that I had interrupted a deep and complex train of thought.

"I'm going to keep her Josh," he said. "I'm going to apply to adopt her."

"Sam, that's great, that's." I had a hard time controlling the emotion that I suddenly felt.

"You think it's the right thing to do? I thought you did. We're practically the only family we've got. I messed up with mom and Sal and my dad's certifiable. I'm not going to mess up with her. And, Josh I've fallen in love with her in a day, I'm not going to be able to give her up."

"The two of you belong together." I said honestly. "You're going to be such a great father."

"I'm going to try." He lifted her slightly to kiss the top of her head. "But Josh, everything's got to change."

"Yes."

"I mean everything." For one terrible moment I thought he was breaking up with me. Instead he said, "Josh, I can't choose between you. I can't do it."

"I would never ask you to Sam. I wouldn't want you to." My voice caught. "I want to do this with you, if you'll allow me to."

"Are you sure? Because everything's going to change."

I sighed and Em took her toy out of her mouth and looked at me. "Sam we've had a great year, we've never had to make decisions about our relationship, we just got to be in love and fall down in the same place most nights, I couldn't have been happier."

"Me too, Josh."

"But the point is, I've known for a long time that you're the person I want to spend my life with. You know I love you, or you ought to. But I don't think you could possibly know how much. I'm yours Sam, completely and I'll do anything to make us a family for Em." Sam brushed his hand across my cheek. "But what I mean is, you know how we've been a secret, I don't think that could go on. You know what that's going to mean?"

"Sam, I'm not worried. I turned forty, I got shot and my priorities changed. I allowed myself to love you. I was happy with my choices and I knew that I'd never have kids. But now you're telling me I can have you and I can have her. Coming out is such a small thing compared to that."

He caught me in a kiss as Em chuckled between us.

"I'm going to quit my job," he said. "I'll go back to practising law."

"Couldn't you talk to Toby? There could be another way." Though I honestly couldn't think of one.

"Its not the sort of job you can do halfway Josh, you know that, and I wouldn't want to. But if I work 9 to 5, maybe even four days a week, then she's got one of us there regular hours." He glanced at Em as the toy slid out of her hands. The penguin was around there somewhere and she got that instead. "I don't want to leave my job, I love it, but this is more important."

We smiled at each other for a moment. "Hey Josh," Sam said. "We're having a baby. Bet you never saw that coming."

The fifteen different smart replies I could have used evaporated and all I could say was, "I love you Sam."

Part two

We spent the remaining time I was in California starting to do all the things you had to to shut down two lives. With Fran's help we cleared Sal's house in a couple of days. We saved only the things Em might want when she was older and the few mementoes that Sam and Fran wanted to keep. Sam also started to deal with the paperwork and finances and telephone anyone who needed to know and still might not have heard.

By late Sunday, Sal's place was nearly done and we got Sam and Em moved to his mother's house. Then they took me to the airport. I was reluctant to leave him on his own especially with the funeral coming up on Wednesday but Leo was vocally insisting I come back to work so there wasn't much I could do about it. Anyway Sam was doing fine in the circumstances, there was really no time to brood with Em to think about. He also had offers of help from a couple of old friends and, surprisingly, his father so he assured me I shouldn't worry.

When I got back to the office on Monday morning I found that Leo had involved me in a completely bogus assignment. It could just as easily have been completed by a carrier pigeon and entailed me flying to California and back on Wednesday. I think the President had had words with him.

So I was able to attend the funeral with Sam after all. In fact I flew out after work on Tuesday so I could spend that night with him. I brought him a suit to wear at the funeral and Donna, Ginger and Bonnie had bought Em a new white dress which she looked angelic in. I also packed a bag of clothes and things for Sam and brought his laptop so we could email and he could finish up some things he had been working on.

The double funeral, on a bright, warm Wednesday morning, was well- attended. Sam kept Em in his arms throughout and she never made a sound.

Sam's father came with his new wife, much to the unconcealed disgust of his mother's friends. Sam was unfailingly courteous to her, however, and when he found himself walking beside her down to the grave the two women were going to share he gave her is arm.

When the minister said the traditional words Em flung her arms around Sam's neck and pressed her head to his shoulder.

It was only afterwards, when we were alone, that Sam cried while we sat side-by-side watching our girl sleep.

During the rest of the week I spoke to Sam and Em two or three times a day and they seemed to be doing fine. Sam, with some help, managed to get the bulk of the work done on his mom's house and it all progressed quicker than he thought it would. In fact he planned to be in DC by the week after next when we would start the adoption application.

I was at my desk on the Monday after the funeral when Donna stuck her head round the door. "Josh, Ginger put a call through from a woman who says she's Emma's aunt." I must have looked blank as I was sure that Sam had said there weren't any other aunts or uncles. "From the father's side maybe." Donna offered.

"Oh, that can't be good. Okay I'll speak to her. Close the door Donna."

The voice on the other end of the phone was pleasant and soft spoken, she was English and as far as I could tell it was an London accent but not particularly strong. "I'm not sure why I was put through to you," she said. "I was looking for Sam Seaborn. It's a personal call."

"He's out of town at the moment. I'm Josh Lyman, I'm a friend of his. If it's about Emma, I might be able to help."

"Yes it is. I'm her aunt. My name's Karen Gregory. My brother Rick is her father. And, well, he told me what happened and."

"Is he looking to get custody?" I interrupted. That would have been the end of Sam's application there and then.

"Rick? God no. He's running for the hills as fast as his little legs will carry him. No. The reason I'm phoning and perhaps Sam could phone me if he thinks it's a good idea, is that I'd like to apply to adopt her."

My heart sank. Sam would have very little chance against a female applicant who was an equally close relative. I needed to find out exactly this woman's intentions and if possible scare her off.

"Where are you Karen? We need to meet."

"I'm living in New York City, but shouldn't I talk to Sam? I mean I don't want to."

"Sam's still in California and, frankly Karen, he's got enough on at the moment." I ran through my schedule. "There's a coffee shop at Penn, in the forecourt. Can we meet there at seven forty-five tomorrow."

"Seven forty-five? Right. Couldn't we make it any earlier?"

I grabbed my diary. "Yeah sure, how about.wait.that was sarcasm wasn't it? That was your famous English sense of humour."

"Why do Americans get up so early any way? Is it to round up cattle?"

Thoroughly deflated I found myself laughing. "I'm sorry. Can you make it? Its just I have to get back here before lunch."

"Yes, I can make it. You're Josh Lyman, did you say?"

"Yeah."

"I know you don't I, from the telly? You're the one with the secret plan to fight inflation."

"Uh, yes. And for that you're buying."

New York City was cloudy and cold the next morning. My train was late and I arrived a little before eight. I saw a woman in her thirties sitting by the window, almost the only person in the café. She looked up as I came in and smiled to identify herself, raking back her black hair. It instantly became clear from which side of the family Em had got her unruly hair.

"Josh Lyman," I said offering her my hand. I got a coffee for myself and sat down, shouldering off my mac. "Josh, I think I've worked it out," Karen said before I had the chance to speak. "Sam's looking to adopt Emma, isn't he?"

"Yes, he is."

"Oh, okay," she sat back to absorb the idea. "Well, then. That's the end of that."

"Will you go against him?" "No, I promise I won't. I don't want to make any difficulties for Sam. Especially after everything that's happened to him." She paused. "And I'm aware that my family forfeited any rights to Emma after Rick exited stage left." I saw that Karen was beginning to cry.

"I'm sorry Karen," I was fairly sure now that I wasn't going to have to fight her.

"No, its okay," she searched in her bag for a handkerchief. "I'd gotten attached to the idea that's all, I knew I shouldn't have."

"Have you already got kids?" I asked.

"No. I'm just getting divorced and we never got round to having children. I don't want to marry again and I had more or less given up on the idea. Then this happened and I thought that with Sam being single, and having the job he has, he wouldn't be able to take her. I just thought I could really do something good for this little girl and it would be a good thing for me too. But well, it's the way it is."

"Sam's got his heart set on adopting her, Karen. It's going to be hard enough for him being a single man. It would be a lot harder if he was going against a female relative."

"Yes, I should think it would be. But I'm certain Sally would have wanted him to have her. I'm sure that would have been her choice."

"Yes, but that doesn't guarantee he's going to be successful."

"Oh now. Who's going to refuse Sam anything?" She smiled. "I've seen him on the television, with those soulful blue eyes, I'm sure they'll just hand over about fifty children to him."

"I hope you're right."

"Have you met Emma, Josh?"

"Yeah, I was with Sam in California last week."

"She's like him, isn't she?"

"You've met her?"

"Yes, and Sally. Just once unfortunately."

"But I thought Rick left before she was born."

"Rick took off but my mother couldn't cope with the idea of having a granddaughter that she couldn't have anything to do with so she and I visited. Sally was extremely gracious and kind. She had every right to throw us out but she allowed us to baby sit Emma for an evening and told mum she could see her anytime. Mum's been manically knitting ever since."

"That explains the sweaters." I took out my diary and opened it on a blank page. "Put your details on here. I mean you're still her aunt right. You can still see her...I mean I'm sure Sam would want you to see her."

"Thanks Josh, I'd like that."

"How long have you been in the States Karen?"

"A couple of years. I came here to get away from the divorce and all that. Because my dad's American I can work here and obviously I had my dear brother to stay with." She finished her coffee. "Until he realised that I'd pay his debts and he did his increasingly world famous disappearing act and took off for California leaving me with all his back rent."

"He really is Mister Charm, isn't he?"

"He's my brother and I love him but sometimes Josh, I could kill him."

I got to my feet. "It was really nice to meet you Karen and I'm sorry about.and I'm sorry I came on strong on the phone."

"That's okay, I understand. Sam's lucky to have you as a friend."

**********************

Sam was due back in DC on the following Sunday and I went to meet him at the airport. When I saw him he was carrying Em and pushing a trolley piled up with bags and boxes. She was crying steadily and was red in the face as if she had been going a long time. Sam looked exhausted. He handed her to me and she quietened down but put her bottom lip on display.

"What have you done to the poor thing?" I asked.

"What have I done? I don't know, she cried for the entire flight."

"Good girl," I whispered to her. "Making sure the pilot stayed awake." She made a cross noise.

"And everyone else, I had to walk her up and down the aisle for the entire journey because it was the only way she`d turn down the volume and this old woman kept looking at me and asking Em where her mommy was, you know implying something. I mean what's that about?"

"Okay, lets get the pair of you home." I said sweeping him off toward the parking lot. "What's all this on the trolley?"

"This is not even half of her stuff, this is just the essentials. It's like travelling with a small, bad tempered army."

When we got back to Sam's apartment, I showed him the things that I had been busy borrowing or buying for Em and then I sent him off to have a shower while I got Em ready for bed. She cheered up after a feed and I was pleased that she seemed to remember me, laughing whenever she saw me. We had a chat while I changed her and even in the couple of weeks away from her she had developed some new sounds to practise and was reacting more to the things going on around her. I put Em down to sleep in her new crib in the living room and Sam, by then looking less ragged, came to kiss her good night. When she was settled we darkened the room and went into the bedroom. Sam lay down on the bed.

"I can't tell you how much I missed you," I said, kissing him. "Both of you."

"I missed you too," he said giving me a look that I recognised. " Josh?"

"Sam?"

"Do you think there's any possibility at all that we could have sex?"

"I thought you'd never ask."

Afterwards we brought Em's crib into the bedroom with us and fell asleep with her at the end of the bed, which now seemed very natural.

Sam and I woke a couple of hours later, it was early but we lay still, my arms encircling Sam. We talked quietly, catching up on the last couple of weeks. I told him about Karen.

Sam turned round so he was facing me. "Josh, you're kidding me, you're telling me this now?"

"I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to do this when you were over there. It isn't a thing. I'm sure of it."

"Someone wants to adopt my niece. How is it not a thing?"

"Because Sam, I talked to her. She's not going to pursue it."

"You believe her?"

"I really do."

"You're sure?"

"Yes. Phone her, talk to her."

"Yeah, I will." He dropped his head. "Sorry. I'm psycho-uncle."

"No problem." I pulled him back down into my arms and he relaxed a bit. "You went to New York."

"Its no problem. She's a nice person, she doesn't like her brother much either and she went to see Sal and Em in California the other month."

"That's more than I did."

"Well, whatever, I'm just saying, she wants what Sal would have wanted."

"Maybe she would be better for Em, I mean better than me." Sam said after a while.

"Sam, is everything okay? Are you having second thoughts about adopting Em?"

He paused before answering. "No, I'm not," he caught my expression. "No, don't worry Josh, I still want to very much. I'm just wandering if I'm the right person to do it. I mean I'm forcing us to come out, with all the consequences that will have, when all along she might be better off with a mother. I just couldn't do anything with her today, not a thing, nothing worked. I have no experience of this, I have no idea what I'm doing."

"Sam, Sam, come on, take it easy. You had a bad day, after two pretty crappy weeks, think of everything you've had to do as well as learn to take care of a baby more or less by yourself. And you did it. And how many aeroplanes have you been on where there hasn't been a baby crying its head off and driving everyone demented? Just think of it as revenge."

Sam smiled then. "You want to quit being the voice of reason Josh, it's freaking me out."

"Its childbirth dear, it's made you irrational." "Oh, right, we're doing that joke are we?"

"Apparently."

******************

The next day Sam brought Em into work. CJ and me came out of a meeting to find my section completely devoid of female staff and we were told that Sam was in with Toby. We went round to Communications and we found Em in Bonnie's arms surrounded by some of the others.

I knew CJ had a pathological fear of babies but she edged fairly close and said "Hello gorgeous." She turned to me and added. "She looks okay, how many times has Sam dropped her?"

"CJ!"

"Don't give me righteous indignation I've seen him carrying two cups of coffee."

I saw Sam in Toby's office so I wandered in and stood in the doorway, Toby was speaking.

"Are you sure about this? Are you really sure? There's plenty of time for you to have children."

"But they wouldn't be Em."

"She's just a baby, Sam."

"I know, but she's my sister's only child, she's my responsibility and Toby, she is who she is. Do you know she's got a different kind of cry, almost a different word for how she's feeling? Do you hear her now? That's `I'm all right, but I kind of want to see someone familiar pretty soon.'"

I personally thought it was a bit more serious than that so I went back to let her see my face. She laughed when she saw me and held out her arms. You couldn't beat that feeling. Bonnie handed her to me and everyone went `aww'. I brought her into the office.

"So what was that little noise?" asked Toby.

Sam hadn't turned round, just replied. "That's, `here's Josh'."

Toby looked at him steadily. "Well just don't hand in your notice until you're sure you can keep her. In the meantime, you can work from home when you need to and we can work around you."

"I appreciate that Toby, and you know if I could have my job and Em I would but I just don't think that's possible."

Toby nodded and then got up to inspect Em. "So Sam," he said. " How many times have you dropped her?"

"Why do people keep.I haven't Toby, I swear."

Toby peered at her and she blinked at him, possibly awed. "Emma Seaborn," he said in just the same tone he used with Congressmen. "You seem to have fallen into the hands of Sam and Josh, two of the biggest klutzes on the planet." She reflected his frown. "And yet, you still have one, two, three, four limbs," he tugged at each one causing her to giggle shyly. "One intact, though somewhat chewed penguin, and no visible dents. I find this very surprising." She reached out and pulled his beard. "Good work, Em," I said proudly.

"Sam, did you tell her to pull my beard?"

"Actually yes."

Leo and the President came by then on their way through Communications. The President swept Em into his arms. "Sam."

"Yes sir."

"She's mighty cute."

"Yes she is."

"How many times have you dropped her?"

************

That afternoon Sam found a child minder through a friend. She would look after Em from 8.30 . 5.30 to enable Sam to work 9-5 and at least have the rest of the day with her.

The childminder quit after two days as Sam was late home on both evenings and she didn't have time to wait around. That was a predictable outcome, a lesson in why Sam would have to find another job. Toby, displaying previously unseen forbearance, immediately sent Sam on leave until he had sorted out his arrangements.

Through all of this we found ourselves in a domestic rhythm which I wouldn't have thought possible. Sam taking the major responsibility for Em and me taking over on the rare occasions I got home in time to be of any use. She didn't often wake up in the night but she did wake up early and that became our time. On Thursday Sam had an appointment with an attorney. We figured that we should get the adoption process moving as quickly as possible because Rick was an unknown quantity, despite what Karen had said about him, and at the moment he still had the right to take Em.

The appointment was at 4pm. I came home early to look after Em so Sam could have an undisturbed meeting. I brought the new tax bill with me. I really needed to work on it but naturally Em had other ideas. She was full of beans and wanted to play, so that's what we did for a while until I thought she was bound to go to sleep or at least sit quietly in her chair. Not a chance. So we played some more until I was practically dead from a marathon of toy piano playing but I didn't think I'd ever tire of hearing her laugh.

I prepared a feed for her and then took her to look out of the window at the front of Sam's apartment. The view out onto the street seemed to fascinate her and she liked to watch the cars and people going by. There was a window seat that I could sit comfortably in and have her cradled in my arms while she watched and had her bottle. She did finally begin to calm down so by the time I started reading sections from the tax bill to her she was about ready to go to sleep. It was now 6.30 and I began to feel uneasy at the length of time Sam had been out without calling. It left me with the sense that perhaps the meeting hadn't gone well. I found I didn't want to let go of Em and I kept her with me until he returned.

Sam didn't get back till gone seven and I knew as soon as I saw him that something was wrong. His hands were still plunged into the pockets of his black coat when he came to us. "Sorry I'm so late back," he said.

"That's all right, I figured you'd stopped off somewhere."

"I've been walking," he ran his finger lightly along Em's cheek. "Are you raising her consciousness again?" he asked.

"I'm actually boring her to sleep." "I think you could do that." He took her from me and rested her against his shoulder, with both his arms around her. She was more asleep than awake now but she lifted her head enough to see that it was Sam and then rested back comfortably against him closing her eyes.

"You want to see something cute." I said, but mostly to myself. He closed his eyes too and inhaled the baby-smell of her hair. "Is something wrong, Sam?"

"Yeah," he said. "Something's wrong. I'm going to put her to bed." I gave him her penguin and he took her into the bedroom. When he returned he faced me on the window seat. He cupped my face in his hand and kissed me. "I can't adopt Emma."

"Sam?"

"The District of Columbia will do anything rather than give a baby to a man or a homosexual."

"No Sam, the law says."

"The law says one thing, it does another."

"They can't discriminate against you because you're gay."

"Its not the reason they'll give, the reason will be that they don't think I can provide a permanent and stable home for her. They'll say that my job is not secure, my relationships and my home life are neither permanent nor stable, they'll say that I can't meet the specific needs of the individual child because she's a baby girl and she won't have a mother. If I challenge this they'll point out that not so long ago I was in the newspaper with a call girl and if I say that you've changed my life, they'll want to know why, if that's the case, we haven't told anyone we're together. To protect our careers would be the wrong answer."

"But you're her closest relative, that gives you preference."

"Her father is her closest relative, I get extra bonus points for being her uncle but that's it."

"Sam, you can't give up before you've even started. Decisions can be appealed, we can fight."

"And in the meantime Em's six months or a year with a foster family before she can have anything permanent and you've possibly thrown away your career."

"I don't care about that."

"Well I do. I won't have you doing that when there's very little chance of success."

"Sam, please."

"Josh. I got some very clear advice from the attorney and I'm not surprised. I probably would have worked it out for myself if I hadn't been so desperate to have her."

"Well what if you don't tell them you're in a homosexual relationship. We can maybe come out when it's all over."

"You know better than that Josh. We're in the public eye, we're forever in front of this enquiry or that hearing. If we're found to have lied or withheld information they could take her into care just to make a point. Not to mention, there would be God knows what other kinds of consequences. I can't risk that, not for any of us." He shook his head. "And anyway, I'd still be failing to be a woman, it might not make any difference."

I breathed. "Sam, are you absolutely sure about this? Are you really, truly going to be able to give her up?"

"I don't have a choice. I know how much you love her Josh, but I don't see what else I can do."

"But, we could."

"No, Josh, we can't, we just can't." His strength suddenly deserted him and he seemed close to tears. I pulled him into my arms.

"Its okay Sam. Its okay." I closed my eyes, remembered that I had decided a lifetime ago that I would support Sam in whatever he thought was best, remembered that I trusted his judgement in most things much more than I trusted my own. "So what do we do now?"

His head rested on my shoulder for a moment longer, then he lifted his head and swallowed. "You liked Karen, didn't you?"

"Karen Gregory? Yeah, she's great."

"Then, now, we talk to Karen."

Part three

Sam telephoned Karen that night. He talked to her for a long time, his pain flattened under a level tonelessness. Without telling her why, he questioned her closely about the detail of her life, her history, her views on certain subjects, her intentions and ambitions. That she allowed the intrusion told me she had guessed the purpose of the questions.

He finally told her that he had decided not to adopt Em because he wouldn't be able to combine caring for her with his work and asked her if she was still interested in making an application.

Evidently she said `yes' as he invited her to DC on Sunday to discuss the process and meet Em again.

I must have been in my own thoughts because I didn't notice Sam come to me when he had finished the call and wrap his arms around me. We held each other until a tiny cry from the bedroom told us that Em was awake again.

Over the next two days Sam became quiet and stoic, doing all the things he did when he was pain. He pulled the shutters down and no one got in. No one but Em. When she was awake he lit up, spending all of his time playing games with her, making her laugh, talking to her. Then he was gone again, sometimes spending hours watching her sleep.

To be honest, I wasn't handling it much better. It was hard being at work knowing I was missing out on our last few days with our girl but it was almost worse being at home when it hurt just to look at her.

On Sunday I went to meet Karen's train. When she arrived she was glowing with excitement and impatient to see Em. She told me she had found an attorney who advised that the best thing she could do was take Em as soon as possible and start the application from a position of advantage. Sam had got similar advice from his lawyer and had talked it through with social services.

Em was almost asleep when we reached Sam's apartment. They were waiting for us in Em's favourite place by the window, she dozing in Sam's arms. Sam stood to meet us, and if Karen had missed my sombre mood, there was no way she could mistake his.

He shook her hand and introduced himself. "I tried to wait until you got here before I fed her, but she was getting pretty hungry so I didn't think I should.and now she's just about asleep."

I knew Karen was desperate to hold Em, because she had told me so in the car, but she was stopped by Sam's tone. She looked at him for a moment and then said lightly. "Well, you couldn't leave her hungry, poor thing." "She'll be up again soon, she doesn't sleep much during the day." I offered because Sam didn't seem able to answer her. "Can I get you a drink, or some coffee?"

"Thanks, Josh. Anything. Coffee." I went into the kitchen and for a moment neither of them spoke, then Karen said. "I was so sorry to hear about Sally and Mrs Seaborn. I only met Sally and she was a lovely person. She was very kind to me and my mother." Sam thanked her and they drifted into silence again until Karen said. "I forgot how beautiful Emma is, all I have are a few photos from our trip."

"She keeps growing all this hair," said Sam, making an effort. "Josh says she's a throwback."

"That's my side I'm afraid. We're a hairy family and it only gets worse. All our home movies are called the Planet of the Apes." The quiet descended again. "Don't keep her up for me Sam, she looks about ready to go to bed."

"Yeah, she is," Sam replied. "I'll just take her into the.her cribs in the bedroom."

Karen came into the kitchen. Her happy mood had evaporated. "Josh, he's changed his mind. Has he changed his mind?"

"No he hasn't, he really hasn't."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, he's just a bit.you know.this is hard."

"Josh, I feel like Cruella de Ville and he doesn't actually seem like a person who gives a toss about his long working hours. I think he'd give up his life for that baby never mind his job."

I paused before saying. "Well you're right about that. But he can't adopt her."

"Why not? Is this something I need to know about?"

"No. I mean it's not about Em."

"Then is it because of your relationship? The two of you."

"What!" I squeaked.

"Well, you know what I mean, because you're together or."

"Karen, who told you that?"

"No one, but I'm not blind."

I put my hand on her arm. "No one knows."

"Seriously? You're joking."

"No one knows. You know. Fuck."

"That's why he can't adopt, because you guys aren't out?"

"No," I said. "That's not it. We were planning to come out, move in together, so we could be a proper family for Em. But apparently that would make it worse."

"But I thought."

"In practise gay men get to adopt confused teenage boys, not baby girls." I had looked into it myself by then and there was really no doubt.

"Oh Josh. Then no wonder Sam hates me."

"He doesn't, its just she gets under your skin and you find you can't..."

"And you love her too, don't you?"

"Karen, I'm keeping it together here, but only just." "Sorry." She gathered her hair and pushed it to one side. "Sorry."

"Sure. It's the way it is."

"Look, you guys take your time. Bring her to me when you're ready."

But there wasn't ever going to be a good time to give Em up and we arranged that Sam and I would bring her to New York with all her things the following Saturday.

We hired a van and made an early start. Em was wide-awake for most of the drive. Sitting in her car-seat between us she entertained herself watching the colours of the world go by and singing her Em- songs. But as we neared the city she started crying for no reason, which just wasn't like her. Nothing will persuade me that she didn't know something big was happening. Karen lived in an apartment block in Brooklyn and she was waiting for us on the steps of her building. Sam put Em, still crying, into her arms. "One baby, no waiting," he said, determinedly cheerful. "They said at the warehouse, you wanted one extra-hairy."

"Hello little one, no need to cry." Karen hugged Em and whispered to her and she eventually stopped crying. "I hope they sent the instruction booklet," she said nervously.

Sam and I brought Em's things up to the apartment. While I set up her crib, Karen and Em listened attentively while Sam showed Karen how to care for Em, explaining her little quirks and preferences as he went along. We had decided to stay for the day, to give Em a chance to get used to the new face and so, while she slept, we talked.

"Guess who this is from?" Karen held up a teddy bear. "Rick. He also signed the forms relinquishing parental rights, all by return of post."

"So no unnecessary soul-searching there," I said.

"Truthfully I think he'd let her be raised by a kindly she-wolf if he thought she wouldn't ask him for any money."

Sam dug about in one of Em's boxes and came out with a toy rabbit.

"Guess who this is from?" He asked. "The President of the United States."

"All right, you win," she said, giggling infectiously. There was something familiar about her smile and I suddenly got a picture of what Em would look like when she was older.

"Are you going to stay in this place?" I asked, it was nice enough but tiny, even by New York City standards, and not really suitable for a child once it had got mobile. "I'll make a decision when the adoptions finished with," she said. "I'm thinking that I might go home. Back to England, I mean. Because I've got my sisters there and my friends. Out here it might be a bit lonely with a baby when I don't know that many people." She looked at us and changed track. "But I haven't made up my mind. I'll just take it as it comes."

I didn't know how much contact we would have with Em as she grew up but I couldn't contemplate having her on the other side of an ocean. It didn't bear thinking about. I knew from Sam's expression he was thinking the same thing.

When Em woke, we went out to get some lunch and afterwards as the day was mild to the local park and zoo. Then as it neared Em's bedtime the only thing we could do was leave her and Karen to start their life together. It was almost the hardest thing I had ever had to do especially as Em started crying again with the same nameless unhappiness as we kissed her goodbye.

********************

Sam's apartment seemed empty without Em. Without the chaos that seemed to accumulate around her it was back to being Sam's spare and ordered space which at that moment was profoundly depressing.

I remembered the hotel room I had stayed in with my parents after a fire had burned down our house and killed my sister. It was almost the only thing I could remember about that day. I could still see my parents sitting on the edge of the bed in that soulless room, my mother with her hands folded in her lap. They had stayed that way forever, or so it seemed to my child's eyes, but only now did I begin to understand how they felt. Sam and me, sitting side by side on the couch, were just the same, unable to make a decision about what to do next. I couldn't remember what it was we used to do before Em came along and for hours we did nothing. Until it became very late and Sam took my hand and said, "we should probably get some sleep."

The next day was Sunday and we went into work. Sam beginning to catch up on everything he had missed and me just working because if I was working I wasn't thinking.

It was a predictably difficult day. I kept finding Sam staring into space with a briefing note or a cold cup of coffee in his hand. And I kept getting on the wrong side of Donna until we yelled at each other and she went home.

I looked at my watch at one point and it was 10pm. I hadn't noticed the time passing and when I looked at my screen I saw that the email I was writing hadn't changed in almost an hour.

I shut down the computer, picked up my coat and bag and went round to Communications. Sam was in Toby's office with CJ and Toby. The other two were fighting about something but it was going over Sam's head.

"Want to get a drink, Sam?" I asked, which was one of our codes for, `lets go home'.

He got his coat and we said goodnight to Toby and CJ who stopped speaking to watch us leave.

At Sam's place when we had poured ourselves a drink Sam said. "Toby knows about us. He's guessed."

Four weeks ago I would have cared about that. "Did he say something?"

"Not to me, to CJ. I overheard because I was outside his office looking for a paper in the thing. She said; `Josh is just taking care of Sam, they've been friends forever.' And Toby said; `Do you think that's all there is to it?' and then I think they realised I was there. But when I came back from California I told him I was quitting my job and now I'm going round telling everyone I'm not adopting Em because of my job. He'd work it out, you know what he's like, he's a dog with a bone."

"Do you want to talk to him? You can talk to him."

"I don't want to decide anything when I feel like this."

"Okay."

"Why? Do you want to tell people?"

I thought about it. "I want to live with you, Sam. You know, properly. I'm fed up of talking in code and flirting with Donna. I can't even remember why we were keeping it a secret. I mean, whose really going to care even if they take any notice." Sam blinked and didn't say anything. "I just proposed to you. Say something."

"Stop flirting with Donna."

"Sam!"

He took my hand and smiled. "Let's just be for a while. I want to be with you too, never doubt that. And maybe someday soon we can take out a half-page ad in the Washington Post or have a parade. But now I don't want to be stared at and talked about I just want to go to work and be with you, mourn for my family and think about our girl some times."

So we got through the days like that. It did get easier though it never got easy and when you're working the type of jobs we worked there was plenty of scope for blocking out the more painful emotions. But that didn't mean I didn't find Sam staring at Em's photograph in the early hours of the morning and it didn't mean I didn't do the same sometimes.

Over the next few months we heard from Karen regularly. She emailed as she reached each stage in the adoption process and gave us little updates on Em's progress. Em had cried for hours the first night without us but since then, she had become her normal happy self, growing like a triffid and free of any concerns about the latest disappearances from her life. Karen also sent photographs. One of them was of me, Sam and Em at the zoo. We hadn't realised that Karen had taken it and it was of Sam and me laughing as Em came face to face with her first horse in the petting zoo. It was the one picture of the three of us together and I kept it at work, assuming that no one would notice it in the chaos that was my desk. But one day I found it in a small frame next to my phone. When Donna patently knew nothing about it the only thing I could think of was that Toby had waited for me in my office the previous evening when I was late for a meeting.

It was good to get these updates from Karen but every email and envelope brought the possibility that she would announce she was planning to leave the country and they were all opened with a certain amount of trepidation. This wasn't helped by the impression that we were beginning to get that Karen was deliberately keeping a physical distance between Em and ourselves. When we had invited her up to visit she hadn't been able to make it and on the one occasion we were able to get to New York she was busy. It was confusing as she seemed to be well-disposed to us apart from that.

Two days after the court issued the final decree granting the adoption we received a letter purporting to be from Em, and including a photograph of her smiling widely and showing off her now comprehensive collection of teeth.

Dear Uncle Sam and Uncle Josh

I saw Uncle Sam on the TV last night and must take issue with your policy on bilateral trade relations. You can keep your bananas. On the other hand - nice tie.

On Sunday I will be visiting you. I'm owed several cuddles and I am coming to claim them. I will be on the 11 o'clock train and will be bringing that strange person you left me with, the one who talks funny and drinks all the tea. Tell her if another day is better.

Love, little Em

PS be careful I now bite.

We stared at the letter. It was different from the others. Not only was Karen offering to bring Em to see us, she was saying that she was definitely going to. This was a letter with an objective.

"She's going home," I said. "She's coming to tell us, she's going back to England."

"Yes. And she might as well," said Sam bitterly. "If she's not going to let us see her, she might as well take her to the moon."

"So England's not far, we'll be able to keep up with her? Right?"

"Right," he said doubtfully.

"Sam, this just gets worse." And Sam got up and stuck the photograph next to another on the fridge and looked at it for a while.

$ By Sunday morning we were hopelessly stressed and as we waited for Karen's train we argued pointlessly about a minute clause in the tax bill. But Karen and Em were all matching smiles when we met them and Em gave a little shout when she saw us.

"She remembers you, that's amazing, they're not supposed to at this age," Karen said, cheerfully handing Em to me and giving Sam a hug. "Please say you guys a hungry, I'm starving."

She had a way of making me feel that things were actually all right despite all the evidence to the contrary. I fussed over Em who seemed to have doubled in size since I'd last seen her. When we talked she joyfully strung together lots of new sounds I'd never heard before and I think an actual word or two. I gave her to Sam and put my arms around Karen. "What'll it be then? Shepherds Pie with internal organs of some kind?"

"Well, we're in America now, it ought to be a whole entire cow."

We compromised with eggs and found somewhere for brunch. Em was now eating real food of sorts and it was my job to feed it to her as this apparently would be funniest. There were predictable consequences for my white T-shirt.

Em was obviously happy, she was interested in everything and all set to talk. She could pull herself up on to her feet and would soon be walking. She was thriving and it occurred to me that while things hadn't worked out great for Sam and me they had worked out fine for Em. She and Karen got on famously and Karen was gentle and practical with her in a way that would stand her in good stead as she got older.

Later Karen gave Em to Sam and she reacquainted herself with him as she drank from her bottle, holding it with her own hands. She studied him with eyes sad and solemn in reflection of his. "I've actually got something to talk to you about," Karen said then. Sam and I glanced at each other and she laughed. "Well, don't look like that, you look like the last puppies in the pound." It was extraordinarily hard to take yourself seriously when Karen was around. Even Sam laughed when I knew he was preparing to have his heart stamped on once again.

"I'm not sure how this is going to sound, so I'll just say it." She paused for a moment. "The first night that I had Emma with me, she cried for hours. I don't think she could have understood that she was missing you but she was. When she stopped, in the early hours of the morning, it was probably more out of exhaustion than anything. But I held her and we saw the day in together and I suddenly realised that this was actually happening, that I had been given this incredible gift.

"I couldn't forget, though, that the reason I had her was because of poor Sally, which was an accident but also because she had been taken away from the two of you through a terrible injustice."

We both started to speak, to reassure her but she stopped us. "No, its okay, I just want to say this. The other injustice was that Em was going to be deprived of having you two as fathers. Which I'd say is almost a crime." I couldn't get where this was going but it suddenly didn't seem like England.

"Anyway, so I started to feel that I should do something about it, for Em's sake as well as yours. I couldn't do anything before because I didn't want Social Services to be thinking anything funny was going on, they were already asking me loads of questions about Sam as it was. But now I've got the all clear what I thought was this and obviously you'll need to think about it. I want you to be Em's fathers." She looked at us for our reaction. "What I mean is, you'll always be the uncles, whatever happens; you'll see her if you want to and all of those things. That's not the question. But if you agreed to be her fathers, I'll move to DC. I've looked into it and my job can transfer without any problem. You'll see her as much as you can, as much as your work allows and when she can say words, she'll call you dad." Sam and I were both just staring at her by this point.

"I don't want anything from you as far as money goes, I'm perfectly capable of supporting her and there would be two rules. First, she's my responsibility, I have the final say on anything to do with her. Second, we all have to agree to stay in the same city as she's growing up. I know stuff happens but I don't want her to get attached to you and then you take off to work for the President of Uruguay. Or if you do, then we go with you. That's the only thing I'm asking from you, and I'll stick to it too, I won't go home. The rest we can work out as we go along." She stopped talking and looked at us for a reaction and when neither of us spoke she said. "Anyway, that's my cunning plan. Think about it and let me know."

Sam and I looked at each other. I was waiting for him to speak and he was reading my mind. He said, still looking at me. "We can move you up next Saturday."

"Yeah," I said, taking out my phone. "The other apartment in my house is empty. I'll call the.place, we could probably go and view it now."

"Its unfurnished isn't it Josh? Karen, do you have your own furniture? Because we could go and order anything you need now and I've got some stuff in storage."

I was waiting for my phone to answer. "Sam, that guy who did your place, do you think he'd be able to decorate over the week? Because it's nice but it needs a coat of paint."

"Yeah, I bet he could. But if it's not ready you could stay at my apartment and we'll stay at Josh's until it is."

"Sam, we should talk to Jo about day care, for when you're at work Karen. She's not cheap but we can help with the cost, because she's really recommended."

Karen looked from me to Sam and back again and then said to Em. "We'll take that as a yes then."

Epilogue

I closed and locked the front door, dropped my coat and bag in the hallway and pushed open the door of Karen's apartment. It was early Saturday morning and I'd had an endless night of departure lounges and achingly long flight delays.

I went straight into Em's room where she was sleeping soundly in her cot. She had thrown off the covers as she often did and was lying tangled in the sheets and blankets. I untangled her and straightened her out. She made a complaining noise but didn't wake.

I sat and watched her a while. When I was away from her I often thought of her like this with her brow furrowed in concentration as she slept. Her eyelids flickered and I wished I could climb into her dream to make sure it was a happy one.

A half an hour later she was awake, clambering to her feet, holding onto the cot bars, shouting `dad, dad, dad'. Karen maintained that this was simply a string of `da' sounds and not `dad' at all, but Sam and I knew better.

I put my finger to my lips, "Ssh, don't wake mommy." She put her finger to her lips and said "Ssh" before giggling noisily. I picked her up and hugged her. She submitted to the hug for about a nanosecond before struggling to get down. She could walk now and would rush about unsteadily but unstoppably. I let her run into the living room but caught her before she could go into Karen's room.

"Hold it right there," I said and swept her up into the air generating more giggles. I took her into the bathroom and put her in a fresh diaper but left her in her astonishingly garish Tigger pyjamas, which came with feet and a hat with ears. A gift from Donna, obviously. I got her a drink of milk and brought her upstairs to my apartment. On her feet again she rushed straight into the bedroom.

Sam was as tangled up as his daughter had been and looking equally adorable as he slept. Em came to an abrupt halt by the side of the bed and gave me a questioning look. She was beginning to understand that she lived in a house full of adults who took sleep extremely seriously. But I said, "Go on then, wake up daddy."

She tugged at one of the sheets covering Sam. This didn't work so I lifted her onto the bed and she climbed onto Sam's chest. He woke, presumably when he couldn't breathe anymore and the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was Em smiling down at him. He broke into a sleepy smile too clasping his arms around her. His eyes wandered over to where I was standing. "Hey," he said. Then he turned back to Em. "Where's Em?" he asked. "I can see Tigger. But where's Em?"

She laughed wildly as he pretended to look for her all over the bed, tipping her this way and that as he did so. Then eventually, when he found her he tickled her ruthlessly and set her down in the middle of the bed. I gave her the bottle and she drank while sitting and watching.

I peeled off my suit down to shorts and Tshirt before sitting on the edge of the bed. Sam and I kissed. I had been travelling for five days and I wasn't used to being this long away from him.

"Where've you been?" he asked. "You should have been home hours ago."

"Charles de Gaulle mostly." "That sucks. You know, we're supposed to be in by ten for the Agriculture thing."

"Man, I forgot."

Sam brushed his fingers across my cheek. "Skip it, you mustn't have slept at all."

"Nah, I'm okay." But it was all beginning to catch up with me.

"Seriously, you look tired."

Sam pulled me down next to him wrapping an arm around me and I put my head on his shoulder. I reached over and picked up the bottle that Em had discarded, half finished and tried to get her to take it again.

"No," she said. Which was the word she was most able to clearly articulate. I took the bottle away and put it to one side.

Sam reached out his free arm to her and she crept back on top of him. Lying as still as she was able she put out her hand and touched my face and then Sam's. Sam pulled sheets over us, his hand rested in my hair and he kissed my forehead. I closed my eyes while Sam and Em quietly played `Where's Em?" and as I fell, at long last, asleep I heard Em unexpectedly whisper, "daddy."

End

Back to the Big Block of Cheese Main Page