Title: Silver Lining
Author: Nomi (gnomi@world.std.com)
Posted: 10/22/01
Archive: Sure, just tell me where
Codes: J/S
Rating: NC-17
Warning: Spoilers possible for everything through "Manchester Part II"
Notes: Thanks to Sonia, Helen, Sarah L., Norma and wild_scribbler for answering early questions. Thanks to Dani for poking me at the appropriate time about this story. Heartfelt gratitude to the Gang of Four - Alethia, Emerald, Jilly Bean, and Julian - for putting up with my periodic crazy questions. Without them, this would still be known as "that story I wanted to write where Sam is sick again."
Previous stories in this series can be found on my website at http://world.std.com/~gnomi/stories.html .

Silver Lining by Nomi

Part 1 - Old Injuries, New Pains

As is true of many incidents in our lives, this one started in the most benign way. OK, so I'm lying. It started when I got a little aggressive while tying Sam to the bedpost one night. But who could blame me? There he was, glorious in his nudity, hard as diamond just for me, lying spread-eagle on the bed. As I lifted his left arm up over his head, Sam winced.

I immediately stopped. "You OK, love?"

"Yeah, J," Sam said. "You just got a bit rough there, and my shoulder..."

"Sorry 'bout that. Let's just..."

But Sam interrupted me. "Nope; it's just the humidity, probably. Changes in air pressure and all."

When Sam swam in college, he developed swimmer's shoulder - tendonitis in his rotator cuff. He's usually OK, but what with the increased hours we've been working - over and above the crazy hours we usually work - and the resulting lack of sleep, Sam had been experiencing increased sensitivity in his shoulder. I tried to be gentle with him, but I wasn't always successful.

Still hesitant, I started stroking Sam's chest - I didn't want to lose the physical contact with him, but I didn't in any way want to hurt him. "You doing anything for the pain?" I asked.

"Nothing more than usual," he said, arching into my touch. "Still just taking the Advil...or whatever its equivalent is." Sam moaned as I teased his nipples. "C'mon, J...don't stop on my account."

"Love..."

"J, you don't have to protect me from myself. I know when to keep going and when to use my safeword." It was something Sam had never done, even though he'd chosen a safeword when we first started exploring the more dangerous sides of sexual play.

"Yeah, but..." It's not that I don't trust Sam to know his limits. It's more that he doesn't like to admit that he has limits. Also, he gets so caught up in the mood that sometimes he doesn't realize he's overdone until he can't walk straight the next day...leading to no end of hilarity on Toby's part. And CJ's. I think CJ sees it as cosmic revenge for my playing with her right after her emergency root canal.

I was caught between a rock and a hard place. Actually, truth to tell, I was caught between my rock-hard cock and Sam's rock-hard head. There wasn't going to be any sort of resolution in the short term, and my body was crying out for _something_ to happen.

And so, thinking more with one head than with the other, I resumed tying Sam to the bed. As I could've predicted, at no time did Sam use his safeword, nor did he in any way indicate that the night's activities were too strenuous for him. I've become very familiar with Sam's reactions to my hands, my lips. I know the little sounds he makes when he's about to come. I usually know Sam is in distress before he is even aware of it himself.

And I got no such vibes from Sam that evening.

In the morning, though, Sam took longer to get out of bed than usual. When I emerged from the shower, I was somewhat surprised that Sam had not yet made it off the edge of the bed.

"Everything OK, love?" It was unusual for Sam to take so long to get ready...provided it wasn't because he and I decided to delay our morning rituals for other purposes. As I came closer to the bed, I noticed that Sam was cradling his left elbow in his right hand, the fingers of his left hand resting on his right shoulder.

"Shoulder's acting up again," he said.

"Love..." I started, but Sam cut me off.

"This is _not_ your fault, J. It's just the change in the weather, as I told you last night. I'll ice it and baby it today, and if it doesn't improve in a couple of days, I'll go back to Janet."

Janet is Sam's physical therapist. Actually, she's my physical therapist, but Sam has adopted her as his own.

"You promise?" I asked. Sam's notorious for avoiding medical appointments until he's too sore - or sick - to function.

"Yes, mom," Sam replied. "For today, though, could you grab me my sling?"

I quickly gathered up not just Sam's sling but his shirt and tie, as well. If past history was anything to go by, if I didn't help Sam dress, it would take him twice as long because of the pain, but he wouldn't actually ask for help. I admire Sam's deep-rooted independence, but sometimes it's more to his detriment.

I walked back to Sam, garments in hand. "Stand up, love," I said.

One great thing about being the recognized dominant in our relationship - Sam immediately got to his feet, without question. As gently as possible, I worked the left sleeve over Sam's wrist and arm, making sure not to jar the shoulder too much. I worked the shirt across Sam's back then threaded his right arm through the right sleeve, buttoned both cuffs, then began to work the buttons down the front.

"This is almost as nice as having you _undress_ me," Sam said. When I finished with the shirt, I started in on Sam's tie. While I'm just fine tying my own tie, it was a challenge to do so from the side opposite where I was used to being. After a few mishaps, I finally got Sam's tie to lie correctly and adjusted his collar.

I stood back a bit to admire my handiwork. "Lookin' good," I said to Sam.

"Yeah, and it only took you four tries and one attempt to strangle me." Sam smiled. "Honestly, J, I really appreciate it." Sam eased his left arm into his sling and sighed as his shoulder settled into a comfortable, supported position.

I was still worried about Sam. "What do you have on tap today?"

"Not a lot. I've got a short meeting with those jokers that Leo brought in." This I took to refer to the campaign strategists - Doug, Connie, and their ring-leader, Bruno. Even though they've been working with us for almost two months now, Sam still can't talk about them kindly. He's felt like they're trying to push him out of his job of crafting the President's message. In truth, they're here to help so that they can deal with the strategies of the campaign so that we can actually run the country, but Sam wasn't ready to hear that logic, and I doubted he'd ever be.

Sam was still speaking, oblivious to my musings. "I also have a brainstorming meeting with Toby. So, I can probably get through most of my day without having to type too much."

"I'll bet that if you ask really nicely, you could get Bonnie or Ginger to type up some short stuff for you." I wasn't positive, though - I can never get Donna to type stuff up for me, but Bonnie and Ginger are more traditional assistants than Donna is.

"Shouldn't need to, but I'll keep that in mind." Sam was still standing in the same spot, clad only in the shirt I'd put on him and his boxers.

I looked at him. "Uh...Sam? You know I love your bare legs, but Leo would probably prefer you put on some pants."

Sam gestured helplessly with his good arm toward his sling. "J, this is sort of a hindrance to the process of putting on my pants. You did such a good job with my shirt; do you think you can help with the pants as well?" The grin on his face told me that he was probably perfectly capable of putting on his own pants, but that he was looking to play the helpless patient.

I decided to indulge him, so I went back to the closet, pulled a navy suit off the clothes bar, and then helped Sam into the pants. OK, so I'll admit that I lingered a bit longer than necessary when closing Sam's fly. But I didn't tease him too much. After securing his belt, I went to help Sam with his suit jacket. After considering the problem of the sling, I ended up just helping him put the right sleeve on and balanced the left along his left shoulder.

"J? Do I look stupid like this?"

"No," I replied. "You look vaguely injured-James-Bond-like."

"I can live with that," Sam said.

We headed into the kitchen and I looked for something that was vaguely breakfast-related. Our schedules are not conducive to normal daily activities such as grocery shopping, so there are times that our shelves are quite bare. This was one of those times. After looking disdainfully at some old Pop-Tarts, I called to Sam, "Let's just punt breakfast here and grab bagels on our way in."

He mumbled back something that sounded like assent but that I couldn't understand, so I turned around. Sam was standing by the refrigerator with a glass of orange juice in one hand and a handful of pills in the other. I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as Sam tossed the whole handful in his mouth, glugged down a mouthful of juice, and swallowed heavily.

Now, I've known for as long as I've known Sam that he's a health nut. He takes almost every vitamin supplement known to man, plus a couple that I'd never heard of. He keeps vitamin C stashed in various places around the West Wing, on the off chance that he feels a cold coming on and needs an immediate remedy. But I'd never seen him take that many pills at once.

"What was all that?" I asked.

"Uh...the usual stuff - ginseng, vitamins, calcium, y'know - and 4 Advil."

"Four? Isn't that a lot?" The bottle says 1-2 every 4-6 hours. I know - when they took me off the _real_ painkillers after Rosslyn, they told me to take Advil "as needed," and believe me, I did.

"It's what I took in college for this...don't worry - it's only 800 milligrams."

Sam seemed to know what he was doing, so I let it drop. But I did wonder why, if the pain was that bad, he wasn't going to see anyone about it.

I let the subject drop, and we left for work.

***

"Josh, what did you do to him _this_ time?"

As has become her habit, Donna was waiting for me in the lobby. When Sam and I came in, the first thing she zeroed in on was Sam's sling. And, of course, she immediately assumed that any injury to Sam was my fault.

"It's nothing like that," Sam said, coming quickly to my defense. "Old swimming injury."

"But what aggravated it?" Donna's tenacious, I'll give her that.

"Change in the weather," Sam said. His facial expression said, "that's my story, and I'm sticking to it."

"Oh...kay," Donna said.

"What did you need, Donna," I said, hoping to head off a flurry of questioning that would quickly go into personal realms I'd rather not explore at work.

"Oh, right," Donna responded. "There's that meeting about the tobacco-case funding? The one you've been yammering about for days?"

I ignored the dig. "What about it?" I gave Sam a quick kiss goodbye and headed off toward my office, Donna following at my heels.

"Cancelled."

I spun around. "Why?!?" I demanded.

"Don't blame me," Donna said. "I'm just the messenger here. Turns out that Senator Rosenberg's daughter had a baby boy last week."

I relaxed. It wasn't that they were backing off again on adding to the funding. "Mazal tov. Let me guess. The bris is today."

"I don't know what a bris is," Donna said, "but the ritual circumcision is this afternoon, and - according to Rosenberg's aide - they'll still be eating at the time the meeting's supposed to start." The end of her statement came out as a question.

"Yeah," I said. "Ritual meal after the bris. Standard." Donna is not yet learned in the ways of my people. "OK, so I'm free for lunch. Can you do me a favor and call Cathy and find out if Sam's free, too?"

"Why am I still making your lunch dates for you?" Donna asked. "You guys are practically married. Can't you call and ask him yourself?"

"_He's_ stuck in meetings this morning," I said, ignoring the "practically married" crack.

"And you're too good to talk to Cathy?" Donna was gearing up for her "the junior staff are just as valuable as the senior staff" speech.

"She scares me." I answered honestly.

"You're scared of _Cathy_?" she asked, incredulous. "Cathy's a sweetheart. If you ask me..."

"I didn't."

"...it's Margaret I'd fear. She controls Leo's schedule. And rumor has it that she can sign the President's name pretty well."

I wasn't going to touch the subject of Margaret and the President's signature. Though it was a useful piece of information to file away for future reference.

"Donna, can we not make a federal case about my fear of Sam's assistant and just forget this conversation? How about this," I said as we reached my office door. "I'll go in here, and you'll sit at your desk and pretend to work. In about a minute, I'll buzz you and ask you to confirm Sam's availability for lunch. You'll call Cathy and find out, then let me know."

"_Pretend_ to work?" Donna asked.

"OK, work. But will you do it?"

"What, the charade or calling Cathy."

"Either...both...I don't care anymore. Play it however you want. But if Sam's available for lunch and I don't find out in time, I'm going to invent evening assignments for you so that you'll never date again." With that, I turned and closed my office door.

I sat at my desk and started reading the contents of the top file folder on my desk. About a minute later, the intercom buzzed.

"Sam's free from 11:30 'til 2. I told Cathy you'd be down there by 11:40." That's my passive-aggressive assistant. I knew she'd find a way to make me lose even as I won.

"Thank you, Donna," I said.

"You owe me," she responded and hung up.

I was very afraid to find out _what_ she thought I owed her, but I let that drop and went back to work.

***

At 11:15, my phone rang.

"Josh Lyman," I said.

"Josh? Cathy. Sam says he wants to eat in." She hung up.

This is part of why I'm afraid of Cathy - 'cause she's not afraid of any of us. Or maybe it's just me she's not afraid of. Either way, it's reason for me to worry.

But her message was the important part. Sam wanted to eat here, which probably meant that he wanted to write while we ate. But he wasn't really able to write today, so I had no idea why he'd want to get sandwiches from the sandwich shop on the corner instead of going to a real sit-down place. But he was having a difficult day - any day that Sam meets with Doug, Bruno and Connie is, by definition, a difficult day - so we'd eat where he wanted.

Knowing I was pressing my luck, I buzzed Donna and asked her to order lunch for Sam and me.

"What, your phone unable to get an outside line today?"

"Donna, please. They like you more than they like me. They always hassle me about wanting Russian dressing on my sandwich."

"So you're afraid of them, too."

"Not afraid. Intimidated. There's a difference."

Finally, Donna agreed to call in our usual sandwich order, making it clear that she expected me to pick up the cost of her lunch as well. I had anticipated this demand, so I acquiesced and hung up.

At exactly 11:30, my phone rang again.

"Josh Lyman."

"J, they're nuts. Absolutely nuts."

"Bruno and company?" I had to ask - we deal with so many people who Sam could be describing as nuts.

"Yeah...Doug's gonna drive me around the bend. When are you coming down here? I really need you."

"How's the shoulder?"

"Painful. I'll take more Advil with lunch."

"Love..."

"J, don't. I'll be fine. I've gone through this so many times by now."

Honestly, that's what worried me. I resolved to do research on long-term use of painkillers. I didn't think that Advil was habit-forming, but you never know.

"Lunch is supposedly on its way," I said, letting the topic of Sam's drug use drop for the moment.

"Good. I need you."

"Love, that's the second time you've said that in under five minutes. Are you OK?"

"Just come soon, OK?"

I didn't like the sound of that at all. I was charging out of my office almost before I had hung up the phone. As I dashed past Donna, she tossed me a bag of sandwiches and my wallet. I didn't ask how she'd gotten my wallet in the first place; I wouldn't put it past her to have picked my pocket as I came in this morning.

"If you need me, I'm with Sam. Don't interrupt unless the building's on fire."

I didn't even turn back when Donna called out, "That was _your_ fault last time."

I don't think I've ever gotten from my office to Sam's so quickly. His office door was open, but his blinds were closed, a mixed signal as to Sam's mood - he wanted to have people come in, but he didn't want to be distracted.

Or maybe he just couldn't muster the energy to get up and close the door.

As soon as I came into his office, I knew the answer.

"Shut and lock the door, J, OK?" Sam asked.

I complied, then walked over to Sam's desk, placing the bag of sandwiches on the corner of the desk as I rounded to Sam's side. "Rough morning, love?"

"More than I could ever tell you." He slowly pushed his chair back and stood up and started pacing. "Ooh, I'm just so pissed at those three. Doug, the idiot, still fighting me on wording that Leo signed off on days ago. Connie, trying to use our 'history' to get me to listen to Doug-the-Idiot. And Bruno...don't even get me _started_ on Bruno."

I could tell from his tone that Sam was just getting warmed up. He'd done versions of this rant over the past couple of weeks. The heat behind the rant was at its worst before the President apologized to all of us in New Hampshire, and after that, I thought our crisis was over, at least for a time. But now the campaign advisors - Sam often referred to them as the Three Stooges - were hammering Sam, and he was losing all the ground he'd regained in regard to his self-esteem and self-confidence since the Daniel Gault disaster.

"Aargh," Sam said. "They make me feel so incompetent. One meeting with the three of them and I'm ready to believe that I wouldn't be able to find my toes without help. I just feel so...so...Aargh!" Sam's aphasia was another sign of his agitation.

"Sh, love," I said, snagging his good arm as he paced in front of me. "I know...they're horrible, and you're a brilliant writer. I don't know anyone as smart or as talented with words as you are."

"They just make me feel..."

"I know, love. I know." I held Sam close for a minute, racking my brain to find a way of showing Sam that he is capable and talented. We stood there for a minute, and then Sam's stomach growled.

"Guess it's lunch time," he said with the smallest hint of a grin. We sat together behind Sam's desk - him in his desk chair and me on one of the guest chairs dragged around back - and unwrapped the sandwiches. Halfway through, Sam reached into the mini-pharmacy that's set up around his desk and grabbed out a bottle of Advil and a bottle of Tums. He downed four Advil and chased them with two Tums, then went back to his lunch.

"You OK, love?" I seem to ask him this a lot.

"Fine, J. I told you the shoulder was bugging me." It was clear from his tone that he wanted me to drop the subject, so I did. We ate in relative silence for a while, the only sounds in the office those of us chewing and swallowing.

After a while, though, the silence got oppressive. Sam must have felt the same way, because we broke the silence simultaneously.

"J..."

"Love..."

We looked at each other. "You first," we said in one voice.

This time, we grinned at each other. Sam nodded to me. "You first."

"I'm sorry, love. I just worry." Sam knows this about me; he's seen me worry about him plenty, just as he worries about me.

"I know, J," Sam said. "I'm just...when you hover like this, especially now, when I'm dealing with the idiots, it makes me feel like you think I can't watch out for myself. I've been through this before. I am very familiar with the workings of my shoulder. I love that you love me so much that you'd hover, but it's really unnecessary."

"OK," I said reluctantly. "I'll try not to hover so much."

"Thank you, J," Sam said.

The subject was dropped and stayed dropped. Sam went through a week of work in a sling and then finally went and saw Janet, who gave him an exercise regimen to strengthen his shoulder. Sam did the exercises faithfully for about a week, but then - as is typical of these things - dropped off. Through aggressive use of Advil, the pain eventually went away, and life seemed to return to normal. We'd survived yet another mini-crisis, and all was well.

Or so we thought.

***

Part 2 - Manifestations

The next couple of weeks were relatively uneventful, at least on the home front. Work continued to be stressful - aside from the usual stresses involved with running the country, we were now dealing with the additional stresses of grand jury inquiries and mounting a re-election campaign. Our tempers were all shorter, our conversations more curt. Sam and I strove to keep work issues from interfering with our home life, but we weren't totally successful. Sam was still feeling..well, impotent from his increasingly negative interactions with the campaign advisors, and I was still trying to find a way to increase Sam's confidence in himself and in his abilities.

Inspiration finally hit at what was probably the least opportune time. I was sitting in a brainstorming meeting with Leo and the President to decide how best to handle the stream of subpoenas that was flowing from the grand jury. My mind had drifted to Sam's problems while the President fielded a phone call from the National Security Advisor, and suddenly I had the answer.

That in and of itself wouldn't have been a problem. The problem stemmed from my shouting "oh, shit, that's brilliant" while Nancy and the President were still conferring on the issues still surrounding our involvement in Haiti.

"Josh, do you have something you wish to contribute?" the President asked.

"Uh...no, sir," I said meekly, striving to keep from blushing and failing miserably.

Leo gave me a look that said that he was glad I'd found a solution to whatever the current issue was that was taking up residence in my brain but that he'd prefer that I deal with personal issues during my personal time. I smiled sheepishly and tried to get my brain back to the work-related issue at hand.

Later that night, however, I was ready to put my plan into motion. I had figured out a task that I knew Sam exceeded at and that I knew he'd be willing to perform.

As we finished dinner - a dinner we'd both managed to get home in time for - I looked over at Sam. He wasn't eating as well as usual, a sure sign of his mental anguish. Something had to be done, and soon.

"Hey, love?" I asked, standing up to clear the table.

"Yeah?" Sam said.

"Let's go to bed."

"Tired?" Sam asked, and now he looked worried about me.

"Horny," I replied, and Sam grinned.

"Thought you'd never ask."

We went into the bedroom and immediately began to undress. We'd been very busy and stressed over the past week or so, and we hadn't really made time for the more sensual aspects of our lives. And now wasn't really the time for us to linger over disrobing. We were both so desperate to feel each other that the minute we were both naked, I pulled Sam into my embrace as he tried to pull me into his. My resolve to let Sam take the lead tonight was weakening as my body immediately reacted to its proximity to Sam's. But I had to be strong. I had to allow Sam to find his strength in our relationship. It was a small sacrifice for me to squelch my desire to drive myself deep into Sam in order to aid his mental health.

But Sam seemed to be waiting for me to do something. His body language was clearly telling me that he wanted to act, but he didn't feel confident. I was going to have to backseat-drive, as it were, if we were going to get anywhere tonight.

I pulled Sam even closer and kissed his neck. I lingered a bit, raising a small bruise, but nothing that would be visible above his collar come morning.

"You are so hot," I whispered to Sam. "The thought of you going down on me makes my head spin. You make me so horny I can't think straight."

Sam snorted. "You haven't thought 'straight' in over a year, J," he said. His hands came around my back and started to caress my ass.

"Ooh, yeah...that's good," I mumbled into Sam's shoulder as he enlarged the area that his hands were exploring. He ran one finger between my ass cheeks, not penetrating my crack, just visiting. As he cupped the curves at the bottom, Sam slowly eased himself onto his knees, kissing his way down my neck, down my chest. He traced the scars just under my breastbone with his tongue, never lingering anywhere for more than a couple of seconds. Lower, lower he went, following the whorls of my navel with just the tip of his tongue. As he finally came to rest on his knees, he buried his nose in the thicket of hair at my pubic bone. He nuzzled my hard cock with his nose, teasing the shaft with the lightest of contact. Sam looked up at me, locked eyes with me, and stuck three fingers of his right hand into his mouth, sucking on them intently.

Sam was kneeling just barely left of center, his left shoulder aligned with my left knee.

"Do you want me..." I started to ask, but Sam shushed me with a heated look. He leaned slightly to his left and sniffed the root of my cock, all the time still sucking on his fingers. With his left hand, Sam reached up and cupped my balls, as if measuring their weight. As he worked my sac with one hand, Sam slowly withdrew his fingers from his mouth.

"I'm gonna make you scream," he whispered to me. I could hear a strength in his voice that I hadn't heard in weeks, if not months.

Slowly, almost agonizingly so, Sam moved into position in front of me, still maintaining his contact with my scrotum. Millimeter by tantalizing millimeter, Sam moved his lips and tongue over my cock head, engulfed the whole head in his warm, moist mouth, and then stopped. I had to again resist the urges of my body, which was begging me to thrust deeply into Sam's throat. I could feel the muscles in my legs quivering from the effort of resisting, and I knew Sam could feel it, too.

He backed off my cock for a sec. "Hang on, J. Be patient." Then, just as slowly as the first time, Sam took me back into his mouth.

If the first time was difficult, the second was torture. My body was already on high alert, and Sam was just getting started. While he teased the underside of my cock head with his tongue, Sam moved his right hand up the length of my left leg. As he reached the sensitive junction between my thigh and my ass, Sam took the top of my shaft into his mouth. I let my head fall back, finally breaking eye contact with Sam. I felt first one slick finger, then two, circle around my asshole, teasing but never actually entering.

Finally, I couldn't hold myself back any longer, and as I thrust my cock deep into Sam's throat, he roughly inserted all three fingers into my ass. I almost fell backwards from the onslaught of sensation, but Sam brought his left hand up from my balls to my hip to help support me. As he continued to suck, I began breathing in shorter and shorter gasps.

"Oh, fuck, oh, fuck, ohfuck, ohfuckohfuckohfuck," I chanted over and over as Sam increased the suction and the rhythm of his fingers.

Then he started humming. Of all the possible musical selections, Sam chose "Hail to the Chief."

"Ohfuckohfuckoh...God...SAM!" I screamed his name as I shot my load into the deep recesses of Sam's throat. Without relinquishing his lingual hold on my cock, and without removing his fingers from inside me, Sam eased me onto the floor next to him. I'm not quite sure how he did it, but suddenly I was lying on my back, Sam's fingers still deep inside me, as he lapped the stray cum off his lips and off my cock head.

"Hey," he said casually. Sam remained kneeling at my side, a shit-eating grin plastered on his face.

"Hey," I responded just as casually. There was still a drop of cum at the corner of Sam's lips, and I used the tiny bit of strength I still possessed to pull Sam's face down to mine so that I could lick it off.

Sam's cock was still hard against my leg.

"Hey," I said again. "Swing around this way, will ya?" My intention was to suck Sam off without having him remove his fingers.

"Uh...J?" Sam looked worried all of a sudden.

"Yeah?"

"Probably not the best for my shoulder." Sam's shoulder was still a little tender, and he was still taking Advil for it - albeit a smaller dose than before.

Now I was caught in a quandary - I wanted Sam to leave his fingers right where they were, but I didn't want Sam to be left with a raging hard-on and nothing to do with it. I had plans for it, and our current position wasn't conducive to any of them.

Sam leaned down and placed light kisses around my navel. "I could stay like this all night," he said, wiggling his fingers a bit and bumping against my prostate. At my gasp, he said, "But it doesn't sound like you'd last that long, old man."

"Old man?" I tried for a stern expression and failed miserably. "I'm what...five years older than you, tops? I'll show you..." I paused as Sam wiggled his fingers again. "...As soon as you're ready...for now, maybe we should just stay like this."

Sam placed his right hand over my scar. "Does it ever bother you...I mean, do you ever think..." There was an unreality about Sam trying to have a serious conversation about the difference in our ages while he was very quickly making me hard again. But I knew that our ages wasn't the real issue. Sam's insecurity often manifests itself in unusual ways. I was going to try to set him straight once and for all.

"Love, look at me," I said as Sam turned to look at my toes. When he turned back toward me, I continued. "I love you. Regardless of your age, regardless of your experience. You're smart, sexy, funny, the best writer I've ever known, the hottest lover I've ever had. If we could, I'd marry you in a minute. Don't let whatever the Three Stooges said get to you."

"They called me naive. Bruno said that when I got older, I'd realize that the world is not a fun, happy place. Ooh, if he just knew what the two of us...what all of us have been through in the past year, he wouldn't say such things. And I know they're idiots, and I know that they're just trying to exert their power, especially Bruno, and show us that they're in charge, but..." Sam tapered off. It seemed to finally dawn on him the position we were in, and he leaned down and pressed a light kiss to the head of my re-awakened cock. After a moment of what looked like deep thought, Sam eased his fingers out of my ass and stood up. He was still hard, and a pang of guilt rocked me as I realized that he had taken such good care of me, whereas physically I hadn't done very much to soothe him.

I'd fix that as soon as he came back from the bathroom.

I amused myself by picturing all that I would do to Sam, and in just a few minutes, he returned.

"J?"

"Yeah?"

"Maybe...could we move this to lying _on_ the bed instead of next to it?" He reached out a hand to help me up, and then we stood for a minute just looking at each other's aroused bodies.

I quickly decided that Sam had been in charge long enough tonight. "OK, Sam. On your back. Now." Recognizing my tone, Sam immediately climbed into bed, positioning himself almost exactly in the middle. I climbed in next to him, kneeling by his right hip. I spent a couple of minutes stroking Sam's chest and arms, a soothing touch that I knew would excite him anyway.

"God, J..." Sam sighed. He was exhausted, both mentally and physically, so while I planned to fuck him senseless, I was going to be gentle about it.

"Open your legs, love," I said, and he immediately complied. From my bedside drawer, I grabbed some lube and a couple of small toys that had never made it back into my duffel. I slowly manipulated Sam's legs so that his knees were bent and he was on display for me. Grabbing a pillow from the collection at the top of the bed, I moved between Sam's legs and eased the pillow under his ass so that I had an even better angle of approach.

"We're gonna take this slow and easy, OK, love? You up for that?"

"Oh, God, J..." he sighed again. I took that as an affirmative and began. After uncapping the lube, I liberally applied it to the butt plug in my hand. It was one of the ones in my collection that vibrates, but I didn't turn it on right away. As I slid it gently into Sam, he gasped.

"Sorry, love," I said, apologizing for not having taken the time to prepare him sufficiently.

"No, J. I'm not in pain. It's just...I need more."

I could accommodate him on that, so I switched the vibrator to its lowest setting.

Sam moaned. "More, J. Please."

His cock was hard and weeping, and I knew this wouldn't be one of our marathon sessions, regardless of how much we both wanted it to be. I once again moved over so that I was by Sam's right hip. I lay down on the bed, perpendicular to Sam, and lay my head on his stomach. I was intent on teasing his shaft with my tongue, but the minute I lay my head down, Sam gasped again. And this time, it wasn't from pleasure.

"You OK, love?" I asked, immediately sitting back up.

Sam didn't answer. He jumped out of bed and ran out the door. Within seconds, I could hear him retching. I immediately followed the sound and found Sam kneeling on the bathroom floor in front of the toilet, bent over the bowl, in paroxysms of dry heaves.

"Sam...love...baby, you OK?" Well, that was a dumb question for me to ask. I could hear my own voice in my head chiding, "Do you really want your one question to be that stupid?"

Eventually, Sam raised his head, but he didn't make a move to stand up again.

"Sorry, J. I was just really nauseated all of a sudden."

"Can you make it back to the bed?" I asked.

"Yeah. It was just momentary." Sam stood up slowly, and it was then that I realized that the butt plug was still embedded inside him, and it was still vibrating.

I reached over, caressed Sam's ass, turned off the vibrator, and slid the plug out of Sam. Even in his distress, he moaned at the loss of the plug.

We walked slowly back to the bedroom, and I helped Sam back into the bed.

"I'm _fine_, J," Sam said. "It was probably...oh, Hell, I don't know. Stress of the day. I've felt vaguely off all day." He looked sheepish. "And, thankfully, everything stayed down."

I got off the bed again and went to the linen closet. I snagged one of the myriad heating pads that were there - before Sam, I kept having to buy a new one each time I needed a heating pad, 'cause I could never find the previous one - and brought it back to Sam. After plugging it in, I turned it on low and laid it on Sam's bare stomach.

"Here," I said. "Maybe this'll make you feel better." He must have begun to feel somewhat better, because he quickly drifted off to sleep. Once I was sure he was asleep, I turned off the heating pad and put it away, then returned to the bed. I lay awake for a while, just listening to Sam breathe, and then I eventually fell asleep as well.

***

I had a doctor's appointment the next morning, so Sam and I went in to work separately. When he came to kiss me goodbye, though, Sam looked as if nothing had been ailing him the previous evening. I went about my business of the morning, and then headed toward work. As I was snagging myself a squagel at Cosi before heading into my office, my phone rang.

In a smooth, much-practiced move, I extracted and opened my phone. "Josh Lyman," I said.

"Where are you? What's wrong with him now?" Toby didn't even bother with the pleasantries of a greeting.

"I'm at Cosi. Grabbing a squagel for breakfast. And yes, I know, I'm betraying the 'brotherhood' by eating non-authentic bagels. The 'brotherhood' will deal. I'll be in my office in under 5 minutes." Then the rest of Toby's question sunk in. "Wha? Huh? Who?"

"Sam, you dolt. Who else's well-being are you responsible for? And are they in as bad shape as Sam is right now?"

"Wait, Toby. Slow down. What's wrong with Sam?"

"At the moment, he's lying on my couch, having doubled over in pain in the middle of a meeting."

"Did he say anything?"

"Bruno was trying to get him to see a point he was ignoring," Toby said. I translated in my head to "Bruno was badgering Sam again," as Toby continued. "And then Sam just groaned and bent double. He refused to do anything other than lie on my couch until you showed up, so he's been lying there for close to an hour."

"And why didn't you try to call me before?" I asked. I know my tone was belligerent, but I was worried.

"I did, Josh. You must've been out of range." Toby sighed. "Josh, don't argue with me. Just get here, OK? I don't like the way Sam looks." Toby and I have had many heated conversations about Sam, Sam's health, and how I don't watch out enough for Sam or his health. For all his gruffness, Toby's really protective of Sam, and he has this feeling that Sam is unable to completely care for himself.

He's not wholly wrong. Sam will ignore his health when he's focused on something else. And this has had serious consequences in the past. But after last night's experience, I didn't want to ignore any symptoms Toby might have seen.

"Toby? I'll come straight to your office. Where's the First Lady?" Sam was gonna kill me if I called in Dr. Bartlet unnecessarily. She'd been scarce around the White House for a while, and it was very tense when she was around - we all knew there was something causing strife between her and the President, and some of us had tried subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways of trying to find out what was wrong. But then things between the President and the First Lady seemed to get better right around the time he apologized to all of us, so we figured all was well. But the First Lady started traveling a lot as soon as the subpoenas started coming out, so I wasn't sure if she was here in DC, in Manchester, or in some other location anywhere in the world.

Thankfully, the fates were on our side this time. "Virginia," Toby said. "I paged her as soon as I had Sam settled, and she's on her way back."

I shoved money at the cashier, thankful that I had pulled out correct change before I had answered my phone, and practically ran out of Cosi. I blasted through the security desk at the entrance to the West Wing. Toby must've told them I was coming, 'cause they just nodded and waved me through instead of the more involved inspections they've been doing recently.

I ran through the Communications bullpen, finally coming to rest, panting slightly, in Toby's doorway. Toby was standing at his desk, and I could see a Sam-shaped lump on Toby's couch, covered with the blanket Sam keeps in his office.

"He asleep?" I whispered.

"I'm awake," Sam said in a weak voice I'd hoped never to hear again.

"Love, what happened?" I walked over to the sofa, dragging a chair behind me, and sat next to Sam. I reached out and grasped his hand, needing the physical connection.

"I was in a meeting...Doug and Connie and Toby and I were arguing..."

"Discussing," Toby interjected.

"...the merits, or lack thereof, of owing the Black Caucus because of their tacit support of the estate tax veto."

"Which still isn't a done deal," Toby interrupted again. I shot him an annoyed look, and he had the decency to look guilty. It was then that I realized that he was just as worried about Sam as I was, and that he just had a different way of showing it.

"And Doug was trying to tell me that it was fine, that they wouldn't come back later with demands that would be detrimental for us to agree to, and I suddenly felt a really sharp pain in my gut. So sharp that I couldn't breathe for a minute. Toby made everyone leave, and I lay down here, and the pain is fading." Sam finished his recap as if Toby hadn't said anything, and for a moment I wondered if he even had noticed Toby's interruptions.

"Love, this isn't good. Food poisoning is nothing to trifle with." I couldn't imagine what we could've eaten that would be causing Sam such trouble.

"You ate the same things I ate last night," Sam said.

He was right...with one notable exception, everything that Sam ingested last night, I had ingested as well.

And it couldn't be...I took a deep breath. There was no way I was going to bring this up with Sam in front of Toby. I'd wait until Dr. Bartlet came in - I knew she wouldn't be long; she never tarried when either Sam or I was having a health issue.

In the interim, I was going to stay with Sam. To Hell with any other meetings I had scheduled; to Hell with the issues of the day. A man has to have his priorities.

As if tuned to my thoughts, my cell rang. "Josh Lyman," I said.

"Josh? It's Margaret. Leo says where are you."

"Toby's office. Sam collapsed, and I'm with him now," I said, over Sam's weak protests that he didn't, in fact, collapse.

Margaret relayed my message to Leo, then came back to the phone. "Leo says he'll meet you in Toby's office in five minutes."

"Fine...whatever," I said, distracted by Sam's groan of discomfort as he shifted slightly on the sofa.

Now we just had to wait for Dr. Bartlet. She'd fix it all, as she always did. I had to convince myself of that in order to continue breathing. And I had to continue breathing so that Sam would.

So I would.

***

Part 3 - Concerns and Complacence

I didn't pay much attention to the passage of time as I sat next to Sam, clenching his right hand in both of mine. Toby tried to distract me by hassling me about my choice of breakfast - Toby's even more of a bagel purist than I am - but I wasn't really up for the banter at that moment.

Eventually, Leo came into Toby's office. I couldn't tell you if it had been 5 minutes or 15 since I'd spoken to Margaret. It didn't really matter, actually. For me, time was only relevant in terms of

how long it would take until Sam felt better. He was my only focus. So when Leo came in, it took me quite a bit of effort to summon the enthusiasm necessary to deal with Leo's questions.

I tried really hard, but I could not track the conversation Leo was trying to have with me. Fortunately - for my sanity and for Leo's - Dr. Bartlet came bustling into Toby's office not two minutes after Leo.

"OK, Toby, what's up?" Dr. Bartlet started speaking the minute she walked into the office.

"It's Sam," Toby answered. "We were in a meeting, and then he howled in pain and doubled over. I quickly called the meeting to an end and called you. He has been lying on my couch since."

"I didn't howl," Sam protested, but it was a weak protest at best.

Dr. Bartlet turned, noticing Sam and me for the first time. "Josh, go away," she said, approaching the couch. She bent over Sam, put her hand on his forehead, then began undoing Sam's tie.

"No," I responded. I don't usually talk back to the First Lady, but she has this annoying habit of chasing me away when she wants to examine Sam. Donna says it's because I hover and get in the way, but she's wrong.

"Josh, I'm not going to look at Sam at all until you leave," Dr. Bartlet responded, pausing in her task of unbuttoning Sam's shirt.

"But..."

"The longer you protest, the longer it will be until I determine what's going on with Sam, OK?" Dr. Bartlet wasn't giving one inch this time. "Go find Donna. She'll keep you busy - she's still looking for documents that the Special Prosecutor's office needs. If I need you, I'll call. But for now, get out of here."

I looked at Sam, who nodded. "I'm OK, J," he said.

Resigned to my banishment, I placed a light kiss on Sam's forehead, finally let go of the hand I'd been holding all this time, and stood up. "I love you, baby," I whispered to Sam, then I left Toby's office.

I was halfway to my office when I ran into Bruno.

"What's wrong with Sam?" he asked brusquely.

"Fuck if I know," I answered just as brusquely. I wasn't in the mood to be polite to the enemy, even if the enemy was technically on our side. All my brain was registering was that it was an encounter with Bruno and Co. that had triggered this...whatever...that Sam was currently suffering, and I was in no mood to be hospitable.

"Is he going to see a doctor?" Bruno asked.

"Dr. Bartlet's in with him now," I said, turning away from Bruno and continuing toward my office.

"Oh, great," Bruno said from behind me. "Her medical license is in question due to her surreptitious prescribing of drugs for the President, and now she's treating members of the Senior Staff? How the Hell am I supposed to spin _that_?"

I stopped in my tracks and whirled around to face Bruno again. "Y'know? I don't really give a fuck. Sam is more than just a staffer. He's more than just another patient of Dr. Bartlet's. We're a family, a unit. And if you are more worried about the way his being sick _looks_ than how he actually _feels_, you're working for the wrong man." I didn't know if Bruno knew about Sam and me, and honestly I didn't care, but I hoped he'd take the "we" in "we're a family" to include the whole West Wing staff. 'Cause in truth, that is what we've become.

Bruno was silent, and I was gearing up for another round when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"Josh..."

I turned around to find Toby standing behind me.

He looked sheepish. "I got thrown out, too. She said I was kibitzing too much. I tried to get her to see reason, but she tossed me anyway. And then I was trying to talk to Bonnie, but I heard you ranting, so I came to see if I could..." At that point he must've noticed Bruno, 'cause he paused, tersely said, "What do _you_ want?" and then walked away before Bruno could answer.

"Well, that was...informative," Bruno said. I wasn't in the mood to have him elaborate on that statement, so I ignored it and resumed walking toward my office.

Bruno tagged behind me, unwilling or unable to give up the subject. "I'm still trying to figure out the dynamic between you, Sam, and Toby."

I snorted for two reasons. First, my immediate reaction to Bruno's statement was hearing Sam's voice in my head saying "among" as a correction for Bruno's "between." Second, the three of us haven't figured out our dynamic, either. Toby still feels protective of Sam; I feel protective of Sam; Sam still harbors some tender feelings toward Toby, even though they broke up during the Transition; I have this intense jealousy of Sam's feelings toward Toby.

But I didn't tell Bruno any of that. "We all have a strong bond, Bruno. I don't know if you can understand what that means." I was in a pissy mood - really, I was scared shitless about Sam's health - and I was taking it out on Bruno. Problem was, I didn't much care.

Finally reaching the safe haven that was my office, I said, "Sorry, Bruno. I've got things to do," and then I closed my office door in his face.

As soon as I was alone, I sat down at my desk and laid my head in my hands. I couldn't do this again. I couldn't go through another crisis...especially not another health crisis...especially not another health crisis with Sam at the center.

I hadn't been at my desk for more than two minutes when my door opened and Donna came in.

"Josh? I need your help." Donna had won the unenviable task of going through boxes and boxes of records from the past three years to determine what was necessary to hand over to the Special Prosecutor's office.

I got up and followed Donna to the storage closet she'd been digging through. Pawing through documents wasn't my favorite way of spending a day, but it would likely keep my mind occupied for a brief time.

And, as it turned out, a brief time was all that was needed. Within ten minutes of my entering the storage closet, Bonnie came by.

"Dr. Bartlet says you should come back to Toby's office," she said, dropping a pile of documents on top of an already-groaning stack.

I probably should eventually apologize to Bonnie for running her over on my way out of the storage closet, but at the time, getting to Sam was my highest priority. I assumed that Toby would explain that to her eventually.

I ran back to Toby's office, dodging various staffers along the way. None of them seemed at all surprised to see me careening through the halls, which made me wonder - briefly - if they'd seen me do this sufficient times that it wasn't an anomaly. When I got to Toby's office, however, other staffers' perspectives of me became irrelevant. My focus was still on Sam.

As I arrived in Toby's doorway, I discovered that Toby's banishment had been lifted as well. Toby was pacing in front of his desk as Dr. Bartlet informed him - from her facial expression, it seemed not for the first time - that Sam's medical status was none of his business unless Sam made it his business.

"...and Sam's asked me not to disclose anything until Josh comes back." Dr. Bartlet was toe-to-toe with Toby now, and she was making her displeasure with Toby perfectly clear.

To get the information soon as much as to get Toby out of the line of fire, I cleared my throat. "I'm back," I said, stating the obvious. I stepped into the office, walked over to where Sam was still lying on the couch, and kissed Sam's forehead. I noticed that he'd closed and re-buttoned his shirt, but that was the only thing that had changed since I had been banished.

"Good," Dr. Bartlet said. "I was going to have to do something painful to Toby if you didn't show up soon." She wasn't kidding - she's done many painful things to me in the course of our association, and only a small subset of those painful things were health-related. You don't want to piss off the wife of the President, especially if you work _for_ the President.

"So," I said. "What's the verdict?" I was trying very hard to stay calm. I was not totally convinced that I was succeeding.

"The verdict is that I don't know for sure. The symptoms Sam told me - the nausea, dry heaves, gastric pain - could be indicative of all sorts of conditions, from food poisoning to something much more serious."

Toby interrupted her. "So you're telling us it's serious?" I could hear the barely-controlled fear in his voice.

"No, Toby," Dr. Bartlet said, "I'm not at all saying that. And calm down. I don't need _you_ overreacting - I already have the Panic Twins here to deal with." She gestured at Sam and me. "Josh, do you know of anything Sam might have eaten that he might be having a reaction to?"

Since I'd thought about this since Sam first got sick last night, I was able to answer quickly. "No," I said. "Though there is..." This wasn't something I was going to be able to ask Dr. Bartlet in front of Toby. "Can I talk to you outside for a second?" I asked.

She nodded and, after kissing Sam again and whispering "I'll be right back," I led Dr. Bartlet into Sam's empty office.

"What's up, Josh?" Dr. Bartlet asked me.

"OK," I said. "I have a question that is absolutely ridiculous. I know it's ridiculous. I know that if this was a real factor, I'd have known...we'd have known about it already. But I need to know."

"Josh, you're blithering," Dr. Bartlet said.

"Yeah...OK...here's my question. Is there any chance whatsoever that this could be an allergic reaction to something Sam swallowed?"

"Any of Sam's symptoms could be indicative of an allergic reaction to something he ate. Are you thinking of anything in particular?"

I know I blushed. I could feel the heat climbing my face before I even opened my mouth. "Is it...could it be..." I took a deep breath. "Could Sam be allergic to...well...my semen?" I came close to almost whispering the end of my question.

Dr. Bartlet laughed. Loudly. And continued to laugh.

I stood there, letting her laugh at me for a few minutes. After all, she _is_ the First Lady. But then it began to get to me.

"So, not an allergic reaction," I ventured.

"Josh, you and Sam have been together _how_ long? I assume - though you know I'd never ask - that he's been...consuming...said substance for a considerable amount of time. So the allergy would've probably manifested itself sooner than now. Anyway, semen allergies are very rare, and have never been known to have gastrointestinal symptoms. Hives from skin contact, yes, but I do not know of anything in the literature that would correlate Sam's symptoms with an allergy to your semen. You are not at fault here, Josh," she said, putting her finger right on the issue that was bothering me. "If his symptoms persist, do let me know, but for now let's chalk it up to something he ate not agreeing with him."

"OK," I said, not thrilled but willing to accept Dr. Bartlet's diagnosis.

"So, can I go back to my patient now?"

"Yeah," I said, and we went back to Toby's office.

As soon as we cleared the threshold, Sam sat up. "J? Is everything OK?" he asked.

"It's nothing to worry about," Dr. Bartlet answered on my behalf.

"I'll fill you in later," I said. "I promise."

"Anyway," Dr. Bartlet said, "I want you to be aware of any changes, any additional symptoms over the next couple of days. If the pain keeps recurring, do let me know. If it goes away, let me know that, too. I want you to eat light foods, things that aren't too harsh on your system, and hopefully whatever this is will clear itself up." She looked at me. "Josh, make sure he eats on a regular schedule, as well."

When Dr. Bartlet mentioned food, Sam's stomach growled. I turned to him. "Love, when was the last time you ate anything significant?"

"Uh...dinner last night? Didn't have time to get breakfast, so I grabbed a cup of coffee and a banana right before my meeting."

"Love, we've _talked_ about this. When you don't eat..."

Sam interrupted me. "J, I'm not really up for a lecture right now. I'll eat, OK?" I nodded, knowing that I could arrange to have lunch with Sam, thereby allowing me to make sure he really did eat.

Toby stuck his head out of the office and bellowed for Ginger, who came running. It must be nice having such well-trained assistants.

"Ginger, run down to the deli and get some chicken soup and toast for Sam, OK?" He looked at me. "You need anything?"

"Uh..." I pulled out my wallet, checked my cash-flow situation, then said, "Could you get me a tuna on rye?" I handed Ginger enough money to cover both my lunch and Sam's, and she left.

Dr. Bartlet was still in Toby's office, and she watched the maneuverings with a slight smile on her face. "Good. Now that you're all set, I can get back to my originally-planned schedule. Lilly's probably going nuts trying to keep the phone calls under control." She left Toby's office and headed off toward her own.

As soon as Dr. Bartlet left, Toby turned to us. "Sam, you gonna be OK 'til Ginger comes back?"

"Yeah," Sam answered, swinging around so that he could sit upright.

"Then get the Hell out of my office. I, for one, have work to do." I knew - and Sam knew - that the gruffness was Toby's way of masking his concern for Sam, but I was still taken aback.

"Uh..." I said.

"It's OK, J," Sam said. "He's right. We'll go to my office and wait for Ginger there." Sam stood up and, grabbing my hand, led me - almost dragged me - into his office.

"What was _that_ all about?" I asked Sam once we had retreated behind the closed door.

"Toby's been dealing with Republican moderates all week. It's beginning to get to him, and the tension between the West Wing staff and Bruno and Co. is just making Toby's life even more difficult. And now...well, you know how he is about me. I keep telling him that I don't need him to hover over me. I reamed him out last spring about hovering, but he still hasn't totally learned."

I could attest to the truth of both those statements - Sam had given Toby Hell regarding Toby's attitude that Sam was unable to care for himself. Toby, however, continues to try to protect Sam from himself.

Sam sat behind his desk and I perched on the corner of the desk, facing Sam.

"Love, now that it's just the two of us, tell me what really happened this morning." I wanted the full picture of what was going on with Sam.

"Really, J. It's what I said earlier. I skipped breakfast and grabbed coffee and a banana on the way in. I started feeling a little out-of-sorts around 10, and then, in the middle of the meeting, there was this sharp pain in my gut. It went away, though. I'm _fine_, really. You're all overreacting."

"Love..."

"Look, I know you worry 'cause you care. But there's such a thing as too much caring. When my shoulder was bothering me, it was the same thing. I appreciate the concern. I know it's done out of love and not out of a belief that I cannot care for myself. But it gets smothering."

"But..."

"J, imagine if it were you," Sam said. He paused, as if remembering that not long ago, in fact, it _was_ me that everyone was hovering over. "Never mind. I know you understand. And that's what makes it even more frustrating sometimes - the knowledge that I did the exact same thing to you."

"Love, relax. Don't worry. I'll try to be better about the hovering. And just haul off and whack anyone else...well, maybe not Leo or the President, but anyone else." I leaned in and kissed Sam's forehead. "Now let's get ready for lunch, 'cause if Ginger doesn't come back soon with the food, I'm gonna have to eat your desk blotter."

Thankfully, Ginger showed up about five minutes later with the food. We ate and talked about minor things - for instance, the fact that Sam still needs to learn the little parliamentary tricks one can play to delay a vote in Congress.

It wasn't too long, however, before our private time was interrupted by Margaret.

"Hey, Josh?" she said as she stuck her head in, having totally ignored the protocol of the closed door.

"Margaret? Doesn't a closed door mean _anything_ around here?" I asked.

"The shades were open, so I could see that you were just eating. If you'd been with real people, I would've knocked," Margaret responded.

I wasn't ready to deal with Margaret and her assessment of who were and were not "real people," so I said, "What's up?"

"Leo says if you're done driving Sam nuts for the time being, do you think that maybe he could get you to focus on what to do about lining up potential HUD Undersecretary candidates? He doesn't like the grumblings he's hearing."

I remembered that being the original topic that I was supposed to talk to Leo about this morning. The meeting I was supposed to have right after my appointment. The meeting that...oh, Hell. I was expected to be back in the trenches already. I looked at Sam for an out.

But he was no help. "Go, J. I've got stuff I need to do, and Leo'll just keep on you unless you do this now." He shuffled piles of paper around his desk, then looked up. "What? You're still here? Go to Leo. I'll still be here when you're done. Come back and find me...I promise you I'll be OK."

It's not that I don't trust Sam, it's just that he tends to underplay any physical problems he has. "OK," I finally said, after taking as intense a visual perusal as I could with Margaret still in the room. "But call me the minute you feel ill. I mean it. Get me out of any meeting. It doesn't matter..."

He cut me off. "Yeah, I know." But he smiled, so I knew he wasn't angry. "The sooner you go, the sooner you'll be back. And then maybe we can pick up where we left off last night."

With those images in my mind I wasn't convinced I'd be any better at concentrating on Leo's meeting as I was when I was worried about Sam, but I resigned myself and followed Margaret.

At the doorway, I turned to Sam one more time. "Love?"

"Yeah?" Sam said, glancing up from his pile of papers.

"D'you think..."

"Not if I can help it. Now go." Sam looked back down, dismissing me.

I went, but I wasn't happy. As predicted, my concentration was not the best, but somehow Leo and I managed to put together a short list of HUD candidates. As I was leaving Leo's office and walking toward my own, Charlie stepped out of the Oval.

"Josh?" he asked, keeping pace as I continued walking.

"Yeah?"

"Donna was by about a minute ago. She said to come back quickly. Didn't say why, though." Charlie shrugged. "Is everything OK?"

"Not sure," I said, picking up my pace. "I'll let you know as soon as I know."

***

Part 4 - Complications

I double-timed it back to my office, but Donna wasn't at her desk, at my desk, or anywhere obvious in the bullpen.

"Donna?" I called, but got no answer. "Donna? Donnatella?" I raised my voice a little more with each iteration of her name. But there was still no response.

I heard a "thump" then a muffled groan, and then Donna poked her head out of the storage closet in my office.

"Josh? Good, you're back."

"What happened? Is Sam OK? Is Dr. Bartlet with him? Did she have to take him to GW?" I was pulling on my coat and gathering up random papers and haphazardly shoving them into my briefcase as I talked. I figured that this hospital experience would be like past ones, during which the hospital staff had very kindly sequestered me in a room and then abandoned me, giving me no information on Sam's health status. If I was going to be worried and stressed, I figured, at least I should bring work so that I could pretend to get something accomplished.

"Hey...whoa...slow down. Calm down." Donna wrested a pile of file folders from my hands and tossed them back on the desk. "Nothing's wrong with Sam. Or, at least, nothing you didn't already know about. I just got a call from the Executive Clerk's office, and they're coming by to drop off something, and they insist that it can only be given to you. They've called four times since you left to go to Leo's office, so I asked Margaret to make sure you were told. I guess Margaret asked Charlie to pass on the message, leaving off the "it's not a medical emergency" part accidentally.

Suddenly, I was finding it much easier to breathe. Nothing was deathly wrong with Sam. It was just Congress flexing their muscles and expecting the White House to ask "how high" when they said "jump."

"Could'ja do me a favor, then, Donna? When there's more than one crisis going on, please specify _which_ crisis I need to immediately respond to? That'll save the little bit of my sanity that's left as well as keep me from accidentally tearing you limb-from-limb when I react to the wrong crisis." I knew I was being harsher than I needed to be, but the adrenaline was still coursing through me.

"Sorry, Josh," Donna said, and she sounded genuinely contrite. "I'm so focused on these damn documents that I completely forgot that Sam was sick this morning."

"S'okay," I said. "I know that my crises can't be foremost in your mind at every minute." I smiled. "How about just every other minute?"

"I can handle that," Donna said. "So," she continued. "About that delivery from the Executive Clerk's office."

"Yeah...it probably has to do with the HUD Undersecretary search. They are being hypervigilant about everything and getting everything in writing, so you're gonna be seeing a lot of people from that office over the next several weeks. There's no need to wig out about each one, OK?"

"I didn't 'wig out,' Josh. They said it was urgent, so I told you it was urgent. It's not my fault that it happened to intersect with a personal issue for you. I'm your assistant, Josh, not your slave. I can't be expected to monitor your emotional health 24 hours a day and make sure to only give you information that won't freak _you_ out. It's been nuts around here since President Bartlet's announcements - first about the MS and then his reelection campaign. You of all people should know how crazy my hours have been. I can't be expected to keep track of everything, Joshua! And think about the past year, will you? First you almost _die_, then Sam is sick, then all this with the President's illness...I keep waiting for the next horrible thing to happen, sure that it couldn't be any worse than what we've already been through. And I live in such fear that something will happen to one of you, that one of you will be maimed or worse, and I won't have been there for you. I wasn't there when you were shot at Rosslyn. I didn't even _know_ you were hurt. I just can't...I can't do this all. I can't handle this any more!" There were tears running down Donna's cheeks by the time she stopped, but I don't think she even noticed.

Any sarcastic comeback I could've made was abandoned. Instead, I pulled Donna into my arms. "I'm so sorry, Donna. I didn't mean to come down so hard on you. I know that I wouldn't be able to function here without you, and I've become so accustomed to you taking care of everything for me that I sometimes forget that it doesn't automatically extend to my private life."

"Though it has more times than I'd like to remember," Donna interjected with a weak smile.

"True," I said. "Don't let me take advantage of you. When I'm at my worst, let me know that I'm overstepping. The fact that I'm out of my mind with worry about Sam shouldn't mean that I can dump on you. D'you forgive me?"

"Of course," Donna answered. She rested her head against my shoulder for a minute, having worn herself out with her tirade, then dashed away the remnants of her tears with the edge of her sleeve. "It's just...you're family, Josh. You all are - you, Sam, CJ, Toby, Leo - you're the elder brothers and sisters to us, the junior staff. When you're fighting or hurting, it affects us, too, and it's unbearable at times. Last winter, when Sam and Toby were fighting, we all hid every time they walked past. Poor Bonnie and Ginger were so stressed. They were finding all sorts of places to hid from their bosses."

"Do me a favor, Donna? Kick me really hard if I start doing that to you."

"Don't worry, Josh. I will." And I knew she would. She's never been afraid to let me know exactly what she feels about how I treat her. She gave me such shit for interfering with her private life, even though I was just trying to protect her from prosecution after she lied to the House committee. Anyway, I think Cliff's a slime, and I know she'll realize that eventually.

Donna went back to looking through my closet for things that should go over to the space she was borrowing at OEOB, and I went back to my desk to contemplate the vast amount of work I had to deal with. I finally settled on a couple of concrete tasks that I could set my mind to without needing vast amounts of concentration. Donna's diary had magically appeared on my desk while I was in talking to Leo, and I slipped it into my desk so that I could keep it secure until I could return it to Donna.

Over the course of the next hour or so, I must've reached for the phone over a hundred times, ready to call Sam, but giving up at the last minute lest he accuse me of hovering too much.

At 5:30, my phone rang.

"Josh Lyman."

"J?"

"Hey, love."

"Can you meet me in the mess? Dr. Bartlet called me and told me to go eat dinner, but I'm in the middle of too many things to leave right now."

"More penny research?" I grinned. Sam can be such a nerd sometimes, and this penny issue has really gotten under his skin.

"And other things. I'm still banging my head against President Bartlet's address to the National Association of Science Writers."

"Do you have any idea when you'll be able to get out of here tonight?" I wanted to have some serious downtime with Sam tonight, considering our aborted activities of last night.

"I'm looking at probably 3 more hours of writing, provided nothing else is tossed at me at the last minute. Toby's been in and out of here all day, and each time he comes in, I think he's gonna give me another task, but he just stands in my doorway, looks at me, and then goes back to his office. I can't figure him out half the time. And he even brought me a banana around 4. What's up with that?"

I knew what Toby was doing - he was checking up on Sam, making sure that Sam was fine. _He_ was doing what I couldn't get away with. Sam doesn't notice Toby's hovering in nearly the way he notices mine.

"Sure," I said, "I can meet you in the mess. Gimme two minutes to clear the last bit of what I'm currently doing off my desk, and then I'll head right down." Already I was formulating a plan to convince Sam to ditch the NASW speech and come home with me when I left.

Sam and I met on the stairs down to the mess. I gave him a quick, discreet kiss on the forehead as we rounded the corner. Not that people don't know we're together, but long ago I promised the President that we'd try to keep our personal lives out of the office. I blew it big time this morning with my panic about Sam, so I was trying to be very careful now. Despite the fact

that all I really wanted to do was inspect his back teeth with my tongue.

"Hey," Sam said.

"Hey," I responded. "I missed you today." Sam often drops by during the day on some random excuse, but today he hadn't.

"I've been holed up in my office since lunch. This speech shouldn't be as hard as it's turning out to be."

"So..." I said as we walked into the mess and started looking at the food being offered.

"Yeah?" Sam asked warily.

"Well," I said, "I just wanted you to know..."

"Yes?" Sam said, even more warily.

"I'm wearing the silks today. The forest green ones." Sam's been randomly giving me gifts of silk boxers, and wearing them does interesting things to me.

OK, so maybe not so interesting. I'm hard all day long while wearing the silks. Which is one of the reasons that Sam so enjoys giving them to me.

"You're evil, J," Sam said.

"Not evil. Determined," I replied.

"But I've got to get this written!" Sam's protest was weak.

"When's the address, love?"

"Next week. But Toby was told that Bruno and Co. wanted to look at it, so I know it has to be done with plenty of time for stupid editorial changes."

"So..." Sam and I headed for a table near the back of the room. "Are you gonna let the silks' effects go to waste?" I knew I was playing dirty, but sometimes Sam is too dedicated for his own good. And I really didn't want him working late after the scare he gave me earlier. I wasn't gonna leave him alone in the office, and I didn't want to miss an opportunity for wild monkey sex, so either he was going to leave early or we were going to have to have wild monkey sex in my office.

Which was not unheard of for us, but which was much less comfortable.

Sam sighed, but I knew it was just a token protest. "OK, J. You win."

"I beg to differ, Sam," I said. "We both win." I took his hand and placed it over my fly, where I knew he couldn't miss the effect the silks were having on me. Holding Sam's hand to my crotch, I arched my hips just slightly. Sam instinctively closed his hand around me, and I had to work hard to suppress my moan.

"Fuck the NASW," Sam whispered.

"I'd rather fuck you," I whispered back.

We scarfed down our food, booked it back to our offices, and were out the door at 6:15. Leo's resigned acceptance of my sudden disappearance made me realize just how lucky Sam and I were to have Leo as a boss.

We walk-ran home, even less able to keep our hands off one another than usual. I knew my ardor was fueled by my earlier concern about Sam's health, and I figured Sam's might be fueled by frustration. Whatever caused it, though, we were both ready to pounce on each other.

And pounce we did, as soon as the apartment door was closed. The message light was flashing on our answering machine, but we chose to ignore it. Sam was loosening my tie and unbuttoning my shirt as I was unzipping his fly. Except for Sam's lingering slightly while removing the silk boxers from my body, clothing was dispatched with great haste. Within seconds of the door closing, we were standing naked in the entryway of our apartment and Sam was rooting around in the endtable drawer for a tube of lube. I knew already that this was going to be another night that would cause the inevitable comments about rugburns come morning.

But I didn't care. Nothing was important other than being deep within Sam, as soon as humanly possible.

"Woo-hoo!" whooped Sam as he triumphantly pulled the lube out of the drawer. "I'm _so_ glad we've finally put tubes of this stuff all over the apartment." The proliferation of lube around the apartment was a result of too many desperate searches for any slick substance that could be used as lube. After a particularly passionate trip to the grocery store - followed by an exploration of alternate uses for mayonnaise - we made the decision to put standard lube in every room.

There was no finesse, no gentleness, as I snatched the lube from Sam and maneuvered him onto his knees on the floor. I quickly slicked my cock and Sam's asshole, then drove myself into him. Only when Sam gasped did I pause in my thrusts.

"You OK?" I asked.

"More. I need more," Sam gasped again. "Do it like you know I want it."

I reached around to caress his balls with one hand as I grasped his cock in the other. Quick strokes, close-but-not-quite-painful pulls on his cock were what Sam wanted. From his litany of my name punctuated with "oh, fuck," I knew I was giving him the same sort of wild treatment that I needed at that moment.

We came almost simultaneously, with the same sort of rapid-fire, intense tempo as we'd had from the get-go.

I slid out of Sam and rolled us both onto our sides on the carpet, leaving me spooned up behind him. Now I could afford to be gentle and tender, I thought, as I began to stroke Sam's chest and hip.

"Was I too rough, love?" I knew I had seen to my needs, but I wasn't sure if Sam had been as content.

"No, J. I needed that." Sam snuggled closer as I placed kisses at the nape of his neck.

"D'you...are you comfortable there?" We've lain like this many times, and I always worry that Sam will be uncomfortable on the hard floor, even with the carpet's padding.

"I'm fine. Too boneless to move." I could relate to that.

Despite the early hour, I felt myself drifting to sleep. I could feel Sam's breathing evening out, as well, so I knew he'd be asleep almost as soon as I was, if not before.

"Sleep tight, love," I mumbled. I tightened my arms around Sam's waist, and we fell asleep.

***

The moaning penetrated my dreams. As I woke more, I realized that they were real and were coming from Sam. And he was still asleep.

Probably a troubling dream, I figured.

"Love? Wake up. It's all right." I didn't open my eyes, and I just shook Sam's shoulder lightly so as not to startle him.

He moaned again. Finally, I opened my eyes. It took me a minute to remember why I was lying on the entryway floor, but as I came more fully awake, I wondered if Sam was moaning because of sleeping on the hard floor.

"Love...c'mon. Let's go to bed." I stole a look at the clock on the endtable. It was 12:35 AM, earlier than we often got to sleep.

"J?" Sam mumbled sleepily.

"Yeah, love?"

"I've got really nasty heartburn."

"From eating too fast, you think?" I asked as I stood up and helped Sam to his feet. We started toward the bedroom.

"Could be, but it feels a little weirder than that."

"D'you want me to call Dr. Bartlet?" I wanted to, but I wouldn't without Sam's permission.

"No. Do we have any Pepto?"

I helped Sam climb into bed, then I went to the bathroom. It took me a couple of minutes of searching, but I found a not-quite-expired bottle of Pepto in the cabinet. I brought it and a spoon to Sam, who quickly swallowed a hefty dose.

"That should do," Sam said, settling back on the bed. He fell asleep again almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, but - as has been true in the past - I lay awake for quite a while longer.

***

Sam said he was fine when he woke up, so the morning was business as usual. We ate breakfast then headed out to the office.

I was caught in random meetings for most of the morning. When I got back to my office right around 11, Donna was gone, most likely to the OEOB.

There were even more files piled on my desk than there had been when I first came in, but I ignored all of them. I was still working on strategies in case it came out that Donna _did_ keep a diary. Not that I expected Cliff to be stupid enough to say anything, but things have a habit of becoming public when they're least wanted. Toby's side comment to a staffer was the most recent example, but there had been many, many others. I had been responsible for a number of them, so I was getting very good at finding elegant - or less than elegant - ways of getting out of tough situations.

At 11:30, Cathy came by.

"I'm going to get lunch for Sam. What sort of sandwich do you want?"

I wasn't used to Cathy offering to bring me lunch, but I wasn't gonna turn down this offer. "Uh...how about tuna on rye?"

"OK. It'll take me a bit longer than usual - I need to get Sam more Pepto," Cathy said as she accepted the cash I handed her and turned to leave.

"More Pepto?" I asked. I hadn't realized that Sam had snagged the bottle from home, and I was bothered that he'd already finished that bottle.

"Yeah - he's been drinking it like water." At my facial expression, Cathy backtracked. "Actually, he's just been taking it according to the instructions on the label, but he's been taking the maximum dose at the smallest interval possible. Is everything OK?" she asked.

"I'm wondering the same thing," I said as I stalked off to find out just how much Sam wasn't telling me.

***

Part 5 - Conundrums

As I strode toward Sam's office, anger and fear were warring within me. Fear for Sam's wellbeing fought with anger over his having hidden the extent of his problems from me. And there was anger, too, from having to hear from Cathy, of all people, that Sam was worse off than he'd let on.

Sam was sitting behind his desk, typing away at his laptop, when I arrived. I stood in his doorway, waiting for him to notice me. The fact that he looked fine and healthy allowed the anger to overcome the fear, so I stood in the doorway, seething.

Finally, he looked up. "Hey, J," he said. He smiled, and for some reason that just made me even angrier.

"Don't 'Hey, J' me, Sam," I said, still lingering in the doorway. "Why is it that I have to hear from others - first from Toby yesterday, then today from Cathy - that you're not nearly as healthy as you're leading me to believe? Why is it that I know you more intimately than anyone else here, and I have to hear things from them and not from you? Can I tell you how much it hurts to hear from Toby that you're sick? From _Toby_ of all people, Sam! I can't...there aren't words to describe how hurt I am!"

"Josh, if you're going to yell at me, can you do it in the semi-privacy of my office rather than in the bullpen?" Sam gave me a pointed look.

Conceding his point, I came into the office and closed the door, but I came no closer to Sam's desk.

"Why...what were you thinking, keeping this from me? Did you think I wouldn't care? Did you think I was that heartless, that I wouldn't want to know?"

"No, Josh," Sam said, standing up but not coming out from behind his desk. "I didn't tell you because I know how you are. If I told you all of my symptoms every minute of the day, you'd freak out. What would you have done if I told you that I've thrown up twice since last night? Would it make your day any easier? You have so many things you have to do in a day, and stressing yourself about my health isn't a burden you need right now. If I'm in the throws of a stomach virus, there's not anything you can do about it. So if I kept information from you, it was not out of malice. I simply wanted to keep you from worrying. I wanted to keep you from hovering over me every minute of the day, monitoring my every move, my every action. You love me, I get that. I love you, too. But you are getting too worked up about everything. I'm _fine_, dammit. I'm an adult, and I can take care of...Oh, God!" Sam stopped speaking and grabbed his stomach. I immediately moved from the doorway and ran to where Sam was standing. But I hesitated from actually touching him, mostly because of his comment about my hovering.

Sam's breath was coming in harsh pants. "J...the pain...please call Dr. Bartlet."

I picked up the phone and buzzed Lilly. "Is she there?" I asked without preamble.

"She's on another call," Lilly said. "What's the problem?"

"It's Sam," I said.

"I'll get her," Lilly replied. There was silence on the line, then Dr. Bartlet said, "Josh? What's going on?"

"It's Sam," I repeated. "We're in his office. He just had another major pain in his gut. And he tells me that he vomited twice since last night."

"I'll be right down." She hung up, and I turned back to Sam, who was now sitting again in his desk chair. He was very pale, and he was trembling slightly.

"Oh, God, love. I'm so sorry. I didn't..." There were no words sufficient to describe how horrible I felt. Whether or not it was true, I was feeling as if I had caused this attack of...whatever this was.

"J?" Sam said weakly.

"Yeah, baby?"

"Please hover...I need you."

And in an instant, our argument was over.

I immediately came over and perched on the corner of Sam's desk. I reached out and took Sam's hands in mine. His hands were cold, most likely from fear.

Within minutes, Dr. Bartlet came into Sam's office, not even bothering to knock before opening the door I'd closed earlier. You've got to admire a woman who ignores closed doors in the White House (of course, I'd given Margaret trouble for the same thing just yesterday, but the situation was very different). Cathy walked into the bullpen right after Dr. Bartlet. She was carrying a bag from the deli and a bag from the pharmacy, and she was heading right for us, but as soon as she saw Dr. Bartlet in Sam's office, she made a detour to her own desk.

"So, Sam...what happened this time?" Dr. Bartlet came over to Sam's desk and immediately started taking his pulse.

"Well, Josh and I were...talking...and suddenly I felt that same pain as I felt yesterday."

Dr. Bartlet nodded and pulled a thermometer from her bag. After shaking it down and inserting it into Sam's mouth, she turned to me. "I'll be right back. Make sure he leaves that in until I return."

"Where are you going," I asked.

"Toby's office - I want to borrow his couch again. I'd ask Leo for his couch - fewer issues that way, right? - but he's in his office with Babish, and the less time I spend in Babish's presence, the happier we all are." Dr. Bartlet and the White House Counsel do not see eye-to-eye on very much (and not just because he is more than a foot taller than she is), and their interactions tend to be heated.

Dr. Bartlet headed out the door, and I kept an eye on Sam.

Sam looked at me dolefully and tried to mumble something around the obstruction in his mouth.

"Sh, love. She'll be right back."

Sam tried again, but still wasn't comprehensible. He reached up to try to take the thermometer out, but I said "stop," and he froze immediately.

In a couple of minutes, Dr. Bartlet came back. She removed the thermometer, glanced at it, then stuck it back into its case and then into her bag.

"Toby says we can use his office," she said, hustling Sam out of his chair and toward the doorway. "I've banished him already. Josh, you can come along, but the minute you get out of hand, I'm banishing you, too."

"I'll behave," I said. Dr. Bartlet looked at me. "Really. I mean it."

"OK," she said grudgingly.

Sam was quickly situated on the couch in Toby's - as advertised - empty office. Without preamble, Dr. Bartlet helped Sam strip down to his boxers then began to probe at Sam's stomach. When she pressed lightly around the left side of his stomach, Sam gasped in pain.

"OK, Sam, you can sit up," Dr. Bartlet said eventually. As Sam did so, Dr. Bartlet said, "I've got a couple of questions, OK?"

"OK," Sam and I said simultaneously.

"Questions for _Sam_," Dr. Bartlet clarified. "So..." she said. "You have been having symptoms for how long now, Sam?"

Sam looked at me quickly, then looked back at Dr. Bartlet. "Well, I've been having heartburn for a number of weeks, but the really bad pains didn't start until a couple of days ago." He looked at me again. "Sorry, J. I probably should've mentioned the heartburn earlier, shouldn't I?"

Dr. Bartlet answered, even though the question was directed to me. "That information would've helped me diagnose you yesterday, yes. Now, I don't know for sure what's wrong with you, but I'd like you to go down to GW and make sure it's not appendicitis. You're not running a fever, but that's not always indicative. And since you've got rebound tenderness, I'd like to rule it out. A simple ultrasound should give us a yes/no answer on the appendicitis. Once that's figured out, I may want to send you for other tests. I know a good gastroenterologist that I'll refer you to. Now, you can get dressed. I'll call over to GW and find out when I can bring you in for the ultrasound. Have Cathy clear your schedule for the rest of the day, because I want you to be able to go as soon as they have a slot for you." She turned to me. "Have Donna clear yours, too, as I know you'll want to be there. But I'm gonna kick you out the minute you try bullying the techs."

"Would I do that?" I asked, attempting to be the picture of innocence.

"Yes," Dr. Bartlet answered, not buying my innocent act for one moment.

I walked over to Sam, who was finishing adjusting his tie. "How are you feeling, love?"

"I'm OK...the pain's gone for now. I'm sorry I yelled at you before," he said.

"It's OK, love. I know you're stressed by this. And I know I'm not helping much."

"Much as I hate to break up this tender little moment," Dr. Bartlet said, reminding us of her presence, "I need you guys to get moving. Sam, try not to eat anything between now and when we go to GW, OK? You haven't eaten lunch yet, right?"

"No, not yet. Cathy was getting us lunch when Sam had the most recent episode," I said.

"I was talking to Sam, Josh, but thanks for the info. I'll do what I can to get you an appointment as soon as possible, and then you will probably be able to eat right after your appointment. Have Cathy hang onto your food, and I'll have someone bring it to you at GW when you're done, OK?" Dr. Bartlet collected her stuff and headed out the door. "I'll call you both as soon as I have an idea of scheduling." And she was off.

I walked Sam back to his office, made sure Cathy was informed of current plans, and then went back to my own office. Donna had returned from the OEOB, so I filled her in on the current goings-on, asked her to rearrange my schedule, and went back to my desk to try to keep busy until I heard from Dr. Bartlet. I was getting a bit hungry, so I ate an apple left over from the snacks provided for my meeting with the junior staffers, but I didn't want to eat lunch until Sam was able to eat.

At around 12:45, the intercom buzzed.

"Josh, Dr. Bartlet called. She says 1:30 at GW, so you'd better get moving," Donna said. "I'm headed back to the OEOB, but call me and let me know what the doctor says, OK?"

"Sure," I said as I gathered up my stuff - including some work to do in case I was banned from the exam room with Sam. Not knowing exactly where to meet Dr. Bartlet, I headed for Sam's office. When I got there, Sam was zipping his coat and Dr. Bartlet was trying to convince him he didn't need to take any work with him.

"She's right, love. I'm gonna be there to distract you until you're called, and then you'll be occupied with the test. If you take work and you don't get any of it done, you'll just feel guilty. If you don't take work, there's nothing to feel guilty about."

"But Toby wants..." Sam said.

"Screw what Toby wants. He'll get over it. Right now, your main focus should be your health." I'd given Sam this speech at least once in the past, but I felt the need to repeat it now.

"He's right," Dr. Bartlet said, ushering us out the door, thus rendering the argument moot. She took us to a waiting limo, which headed down the driveway the minute all the car doors were closed. We were out on K St. headed for Washington Circle before I even had my seatbelt totally secured. I wasn't sure of the reason for the haste, but I didn't question it.

When we arrived at GW, we were quickly ushered up to Gastroenterology and brought to an exam room, where the gastroenterologist - he introduced himself as Dr. Robert Adams - met us. He explained that he would be performing a brief exam on Sam and then a Radiology technician would be doing the actual ultrasound. As he spoke, he took out one of those annoying paper gowns and placed it on the exam table.

"Strip down to your underwear and put this on. I'll back in a minute to do the preliminary exam. Mr. Lyman," he said to me, "you can stay during the exam and the procedure, if you want."

"I would appreciate that," I said. There was no way I was going to let Sam out of my sight if I could avoid it.

"I'll be right outside," Dr. Bartlet said. She and Dr. Adams left, closing the door behind them.

I looked at Sam, who was beginning to undo his tie and shirt. "Want my help, love?"

"I think I can handle undressing myself, Josh," he said, more brusquely than I had expected. At first I wondered what I had done now to piss him off, but as I watched Sam disrobe, I realized that it was nerves, not anger, that was causing his edginess.

I walked over to Sam as he finished folding his pants and putting them aside with the rest of his clothing. I took his right hand in my left and used my right hand to gently turn Sam's head so that I was looking right into his eyes.

"Don't be so scared, love. This procedure is painless. And I'll be right here with you the whole time." I pulled Sam close and kissed him on the top of his head. "Relax, OK? It'll all be OK." I stood there holding Sam for a minute, and I could feel my body reacting the way it always does to Sam's. I immediately felt guilty - what sort of pervert was I, getting hard while keeping my beloved company at the doctor's office? - and I tried to get my body under control. But it was too late.

"J? Here?" I could hear the smile in Sam's voice.

"Love, we could be surrounded by all 435 members of the US Congress and if I felt your naked skin against me I'd be all over you. It has nothing to do with location and everything to do with wild animal magnetism."

Sam snickered. "We'll discuss this wild animal thing later, OK? Right now, I just want to get this over." He slid out of my embrace and donned the paper gown, then sat on the exam table to wait for Dr. Adams to return.

I had a sudden thought. "Love, do you want Dr. Bartlet in here for this? I think she was planning to wait outside in order to give you privacy."

"No," Sam yelped. "I mean...yes. I _definitely_ want her here."

I walked to the door. "She said she'd be right outside. I'll poke my head out and tell her."

"Don't leave me, J."

"How can I...oh, never mind. I'll stay here, and when Dr. Adams comes back, I'll call out to Dr. Bartlet to join us, OK?"

"Much better," Sam said. "Uh..." he said after a moment.

"Yeah?" I said.

"Can you...oh, I'm being stupid."

"What, love?"

"Can you sit up here with me? Just until they come back in. I need..."

I climbed up on the table and sat next to Sam, draping my arm across his shoulders. We sat there like that until there was a knock at the door. I hopped down from the table as the door opened. Dr. Adams stuck his head in.

"You all set here?" he asked.

"Yeah," Sam answered, and Dr. Adams came all the way in to the room. While the door was open, I could see Dr. Bartlet standing in the hallway, and when she looked up, I caught her eye and gestured for her to come in, as well.

"Sam wants you here," I said to her.

She nodded and came in.

The preliminary exam was nothing extraordinary. Dr. Adams began by asking Sam a bizarre mix of questions about his eating habits and other aspects of how he lives his life - he very carefully danced around the issue of Sam's sexual identity, and Sam, true to form, only released the information actually requested. After the interrogation - which, in truth, was minor compared to what we could expect from General Oversight if Donna's experience was at all typical - Dr. Adams asked Sam to lie down on the table. The exam he performed was similar to the one Dr. Bartlet had done in Toby's office, pressing on Sam's stomach and eliciting the same howls of pain when the left side was pressed. I noted that Dr. Adams used that same "hmmm" as was used by all other doctors I've ever encountered.

Finally, Dr. Adams was done abusing Sam, and he told Sam to sit up. I came back to where Sam was sitting and helped him readjust the paper gown while Dr. Adams sat down on his rolling stool. "It could be any number of things," he said, directing his comments to Dr. Bartlet.

"I'm just here as an observer," she said. "Please talk directly to them." She indicated Sam and me with a hand gesture.

Dr. Adams turned back to us. "I'm going to have the Radiology tech come and do the ultrasound, and then I'll get the results from her and let you know what's what, OK?"

Sam nodded. I was concerned by the brevity of Dr. Adams' exam, but I hoped that we'd know much more after the actual ultrasound.

After calling down to Radiology to confirm that the technician was on her way, Dr. Adams said, "I'll see you in a bit," and walked out.

I immediately turned to Dr. Bartlet. "So, what now?" I asked.

"What I told you before, Josh," she said. "The tech will come and do the ultrasound, and then we'll meet with Dr. Adams again. The tech will be able to tell you on the spot if anything looks anomalous, but Dr. Adams will give you the full rundown."

"Now a practical question," I said. "Payment. Did you make sure to do a formal referral so that we won't have to go through the tzuris with the insurance that we went through after I was shot?" Ever since that whole fiasco, I made sure that all referrals were done in hard copy and that I had a record of them.

"Don't worry, Josh. Donna will have the paperwork for you when you get back to your office." I didn't relish the idea of filling out all those forms, but it was better than making Sam do it.

About five minutes later, there was another knock at the door. A young blonde woman stuck her head in. "Hi, I'm Emily," she said. "I'm here to do the ultrasound." She came into the room, propped the door open, then wheeled in the ultrasound machine.

After indicating that Sam should lie back on the exam table, Emily took out a tube of cream and unscrewed the cap. "This might be a bit cold," she said by way of warning before pulling Sam's gown up to expose his belly. As she squeezed some of the cream out of the tube and onto Sam's skin, I saw him shiver slightly. I reached out a hand to Sam, who immediately gripped it.

"Don't worry," Emily said. "This is completely painless." She turned on the machine and took a wand-looking thing from the side of the cart she'd wheeled in. "I'm gonna run the transducer over your belly and see what we can find, OK?"

Sam nodded, but I knew he was scared. I looked at Emily, noticed her back was turned toward us as she adjusted a couple of things, so I risked placing a kiss on Sam's forehead. I had just pulled my lips away when she turned back toward Sam, brandishing the transducer like an epee. I felt Sam tense again and I surreptitiously stroked his wrist to reassure him.

As advertised, the test was non-invasive. Emily moved the transducer around Sam's stomach and an image appeared on the screen. I couldn't tell what I was looking at, but apparently Emily could. After just a few minutes, she turned off the machine and handed Sam some paper towels to clean the gel off his stomach. He quickly handed them to me, and I gently cleaned his stomach, as I have so many times in the past. I could tell when Sam recognized the familiarity of the situation, because he smiled almost imperceptibly.

"You can sit up," Emily said. As I helped Sam up and adjusted his gown again, Emily said, "Everything looks OK with your appendix, but I'll take another look at the film and pass the info to Dr. Adams, who will give you the final reading." She looked at her watch. "It's 2:15...you're probably starving. Why don't you go and get lunch, and by the time you come back, I'll have the results to Dr. Adams."

There were thanks and handshakes all around, then Emily left.

Dr. Bartlet stood up. "I'll leave you alone to get dressed, Sam." I guess my presence in the room still qualified as "alone" in Dr. Bartlet's mind. She left the room and closed the door behind her.

"You OK, love?"

"Yeah, I think so. I'm relieved, sort of," Sam said. "It's good to know it's most likely not appendicitis, but I wish I knew what it _is_, not what it _isn't_." Sam put on his shirt and pants but left the tie off and draped his suit jacket over his arm rather than putting it back on.

"Well, hopefully we'll know soon. You're probably in for a whole battery of tests, but I'll be with you for all of them."

"I know," Sam said.

"C'mon, love," I said. "I'm starving. Let's go get the food that Cathy got us."

We left the exam room and found Dr. Bartlet. "I called Cathy when I came out here. She should be here in just a minute."

Cathy stepped out of the elevator just as Dr. Bartlet finished speaking and seemed confused when we started laughing but couldn't explain why. It wasn't even really that funny; more, the stress was making us loopy. We got our sandwiches and thanked Cathy, who then headed back to the office.

"So...I'll leave you two alone, but I'll meet you back here in about an hour, OK?" Dr. Bartlet said. We nodded, and she headed out.

I looked at Sam. "You wanna eat here, or do you want to sit outside?"

"Uh...J? It's November. It's _cold_ out there."

"Right, California boy. Sorry - it gets below 55 degrees and you bundle up. I forgot." Teasing Sam about his sensitivity to cold seemed appropriate at the moment for some reason.

We sat there, in the Gastroenterology waiting area, and ate our lunches. Other patients in the waiting room looked at us strangely, but I didn't care.

After about 45 minutes, after we'd eaten, Dr. Bartlet returned, and very soon thereafter we were called back in to see Dr. Adams.

"Well," he said, when we were all seated in his office, "as Emily told you, it doesn't look like appendicitis. This is good news and bad news. Good news because we don't have to schedule you for emergency surgery. Bad news because we still don't know what it is."

"What's next?" Sam asked.

"Well, I want to schedule you for a couple more tests. I want to do an upper GI series and an abdominal endoscopy." He handed Sam a piece of paper, which Sam immediately passed to me. It was a list of foods to avoid - the worst for Sam was going to be the restriction on caffeine - until the GI test, which Dr. Adams scheduled for 2 days hence. "We'll do the upper GI first, because it's less invasive, and then, if that doesn't tell me all I need to know, we'll do the endoscopy."

Dr. Adams had a couple more instructions for Sam to prepare for the test, and then he let us go.

By the time we got out, it was almost 4:00. "J?" Sam said as we crossed the parking lot, Dr. Bartlet and her agents leading the way.

"Yeah?"

"D'you think we can cut out a bit early today? I'm feeling really crappy."

"Your stomach bothering you?" I asked.

"Not really. I just wanna go home." He grimaced. "I sound like I'm four again."

"It's OK, love. I'll tell Dr. Bartlet to drop us at home. It won't be a problem." I knew she'd agree, because she'd want to minimize the stress on Sam.

And so we found ourselves back at our apartment at 4:15 PM. Sam went directly into the bedroom and had stripped down to his boxers - again - by the time I finished checking the phone messages.

"There was a call from Leo and a call from Toby. Both basically said that if they caught us in our offices before tomorrow morning, there'd be Hell to pay."

Sam smiled as he climbed into the bed and under the covers. "They're too good to us sometimes."

"True."

"J? Will you hold me?"

I started stripping off my clothes. "Sure, love." I climbed in next to him and pulled him close. He sniggered when I immediately became hard against his leg.

"It borders on the Pavlovian, doesn't it, J?"

I laughed. "That it does, love."

I held him until I felt him fall asleep. It was way too early for me to fall asleep, so I lay there listening to Sam breathe and thinking about what was ahead of us. We still didn't know what was wrong with Sam, and I was getting more worried as time went on. Sam was happy finding out it wasn't appendicitis. I, on the other hand, almost wished it had been. Because there's a quick fix for appendicitis - remove the appendix in a procedure so common it seems almost trivial - but there was no quick fix to whatever was making Sam so miserable.

I hoped that whatever was wrong with Sam would be discovered soon. I didn't know how much more uncertainty I could take, and Sam was probably twice as frustrated.

Sleep eventually overtook me, but the uncertainty made me restless. I woke up a couple of times in the middle of the night, but Sam seemed to sleep like the dead.

Sam seemed much better at work than I was - he was able to focus and be productive, whereas I was scattered and could only focus for short periods of time. I managed to plow through all the medical paperwork that Dr. Bartlet had left for me, but otherwise I was useless. Donna covered for me a lot, for which I owe her a debt of gratitude and probably flowers. Somehow I muddled through my day, and Sam and I had meaningless conversation and frenzied sex that evening.

The day of Sam's tests dawned crisp and clear. I hoped the weather boded well for Sam's prognosis. The appointment was for 10:00 AM, so the plan was to go to the office, meet up with Dr. Bartlet at 9:15, and go over to GW.

I jumped when my phone rang at 9:10. "It's time," said Dr. Bartlet.

And so it was.

***

Part 6 - Born of Oblivion

There was something vaguely familiar about the scenario. The minute I got to Sam's office, Dr. Bartlet appeared and ushered us out to the limo. Not being idiots, at least not most of the time, we followed orders.

As Sam was getting into the car, he winced.

"What's wrong, love?"

"My shoulder's killing me. I've been off the Advil since Dr. Adams told me not to swallow any medicine, and now I'm paying the price."

I patted his right shoulder, the uninjured one. "Let me know if there's anything I can do."

"Maybe I'll send Cathy out to the pharmacy later to get some Aspercreme for it. It doesn't work nearly as well, but at least it's something."

I nodded, and we sat in silence for the rest of the trip to GW. This time, we were directed right to Radiology, where the test would be performed. When we got there, Sam was handed a sheaf of papers larger than some of the GAO reports we've gotten in the past. He sat down to fill them out, and I started to pace around the waiting room. Periodically, Sam would ask me a question - some I could answer, others, like ones about Sam's childhood diseases, I had no clue about - but I primarily felt extraneous. There was no way I'd leave Sam alone to go through the test without support, but at the same time, I didn't know how to occupy myself while we waited. I couldn't even use my cell phone to bug Donna about random issues, as cell phone use was restricted in the hospital. After pacing for a while, I just sat in one of the uncomfortable chairs and read out-of-date sports magazines. One had an interview with an old friend of mine, and that just reminded me that I hadn't been in touch with him in ages. I considered asking Sam about scheduling a weekend away in New York so I could look Casey up again.

Finally, they called Sam's name. After handing me the still-remaining forms that needed to be filled out, he went over to the nurse, but as I got up to accompany him, Dr. Bartlet grabbed my arm.

"They're not going to let you be in there while they're using the fluoroscope," she said. "They may let you keep him company for the span of time between when they do the films and when they know whether they have to do a second set. It's essentially an X-ray, Josh. They don't want to subject anyone to exposure unnecessarily. I'll ask if they'll let you sit with Sam while they're developing the films. If not, though, you'll have to wait until Dr. Adams calls us in to give us the results."

I didn't like that answer, but I knew there was very little I could do about it. And I knew that if I made too much of a stink about it, they wouldn't even let me see Sam at all until they were done with him. So I sat back down and went back to reading old magazines.

After about 45 minutes - I was watching the clock, so I knew that was all it was, though it felt much longer - a nurse called my name. "Mr. Seaborn's asking for you. He's been asking for you since we took him into the changing room, but this is the first time we could actually fetch you for him." She looked apologetic.

"It's OK. As long as I can see him now. How's he doing?" I meant both physically and mentally, but I'd take whatever info I could get.

"He's slightly panicked, but that's to be expected. He'll be better once I bring you to him. As for his physical health, we won't know for sure until we read the films. Let me go find out whether enough was gleaned from this set we've already done, and I'll let you both know."

The nurse led me to one of the Radiology suites. She knocked on the door, then opened it. "Mr. Seaborn? There's someone here to see you." She held the door open for me, but she didn't follow me in. "I'll be back in a bit, OK?"

I wasn't sure which one of us was being addressed, and apparently neither did Sam, 'cause we both nodded. The nurse let the door fall shut, and the minute I heard the "click", my arms were full of barely-clad Sam.

"J...oh, God, J..." Sam was shivering slightly, and I could only attribute part of it to the chilliness of the room.

"Sh..." I said, rubbing Sam's back in an effort to comfort him. "It's OK...I'm here now."

Sam's shivering slowed. "It was awful, J. Really awful."

"Tell me, love. You'll feel better." I wasn't sure about this, but I knew I'd feel better knowing what Sam had been through - it would keep me from accidentally triggering bad memories later.

Sam looked up from where his head was resting on my shoulder. "Can we sit down?" I looked around the room. Our choices were one rolling stool or the diagnostic table.

"Sure," I said, "if you don't mind us sitting back up on the table."

"This table and I have become friends by now," Sam said sardonically. "I've lain closer to it than I have to anyone other than you for a very long time." He paused. "That made no sense...never mind."

We climbed up onto the table - it felt weird to me, sitting there fully dressed, but Sam was clad more appropriately in just his boxers and another one of those foolish paper gowns. Sam snuggled as close as he could, and I draped my arm around him.

"So," I said once we were settled, "tell me what happened."

"It all started out innocuously, but it was horrible at the end. First all they did was take baseline films of my innards, without any contrast. Then this very nice tech - I pity him for the amount of abuse he must get - gave me this concoction of sodium bicarbonate - I asked what it was before I was willing to drink it - the purpose of which seemed to be to give me gas. It did its job quite well, but I wasn't allowed to do anything to relieve the gas pressure. The tech kept admonishing me that if I belched, we'd have to start again from the beginning."

"And?"

"I somehow managed to suppress my urge to belch, so then we moved on to the next fun and exciting part of the test. The tech had me lie me on my stomach, and he gave me a gigantic glass of pink stuff. He claimed it was strawberry flavored, but in truth it just tasted like liquefied chalk."

"Uh...love? Hate to ask this, but how do you know what liquefied chalk tastes like?" Y'know, there are just some questions that you don't really want the answers to.

"When I was in my senior year at Princeton, I TAed for a professor. I was a giant ball of stress, 'cause I was waiting to hear from various law schools, so I had heartburn almost all the time. When I couldn't find any antacids in my pocket, I'd just grab a piece of white chalk and chew it." Sam looked embarrassed. "That's why I have so many bottles of Tums around my office - I don't want to be reduced to eating chalk again."

"Sorry I asked. Anyway, continue your story," I said.

"So I'm drinking this stuff and the tech steps out of the room and leaves me totally alone. Next thing I hear is his voice over the speakers telling me to relax. Like I could relax alone in that room...this room." Sam looked around. "It's not nearly as bad with you here."

I took Sam's left hand in my right. "I wanted to come be with you, but Dr. Bartlet wouldn't let me."

"They wouldn't have let you in here during the test, anyway. I asked. About four times."

"Yeah," I said. "The nurse told me you were adamant about being able to see me."

"J, I was just so alone...I knew that you were out there, but it didn't help."

"Well, I'm here now, and unless they need to do more films, you're stuck with me for the rest of the day."

We sat on the table for a while, and we didn't talk much about the test or about what might come next. I distracted Sam with a discussion of possibly scheduling a non-work trip to New York, the trip I'd been considering while sitting in the waiting room earlier. Sam sounded interested but apprehensive - he's always wary of meeting friends of mine from before we were a couple. For some reason, he seems to be afraid that seeing old friends will remind me of what life was like before him and that I'll be tempted to leave him for someone else. What he doesn't seem to understand is that yes, seeing old friends reminds me of what life was like before Sam, but it just reinforces my love for him and my desire to be with him for the rest of my life.

I will admit that Casey and I once had an uninhibited weekend, and he's probably the sexiest guy I know other than Sam. But last thing I heard, Casey had finally worked through his horrible divorce and had found a steady partner. I wondered briefly if, when we went to New York, we'd meet him or her.

But anyway...

Sam and I managed to while away the time until there was a knock at the door. A man - whom Sam later identified as the tech who had done his test - poked his head in. "You're free to go, Mr. Seaborn," the guy said. "The films came out fine. We'll interpret them and send them down to your doctor - Adams, right? - and he'll let you know the results." The tech closed the door again.

"OK, now what?" I asked.

"Now, I go claim my clothes from the locker room, and then you and I go find food. I'm starving." I looked at my watch. It was 11:45, and Sam hadn't eaten since dinner the previous evening. No wonder he was starved.

"Where do you want me to wait?" I asked.

"There are benches right outside the locker room. Can you sit there? We'll catch up with Dr. Bartlet on our way out, if that's OK."

"Fine with me, love." I hopped down off the table and then helped Sam down. I walked with him to the locker room, then waited while he dressed again. It was no more than five minutes before he reemerged, straightening his tie but carrying his suit jacket.

"Why do you even bother with the jacket, love? This is the second time in three days that you've been here, and you never leave the jacket on after we leave the office?"

"Makes me feel more like a person and less like a patient, OK? Dictating what I wear and when I wear it is very important to me." There was something else there, underlying this actual issue, but now wasn't the time to explore it. I'd have to file the information away for a later discussion.

We ran into Dr. Bartlet in the outer waiting room and told her of our plans to find sustenance. She said that Dr. Adams' nurse had been out to tell her that we should meet with the doctor at 1:30 PM. We said that wouldn't be a problem, then headed out to find food.

We ended up at Lindy's Red Lion, just a couple of blocks from the hospital. We've eaten there many times before, and Sam likes their food, so I figured it would be a good place for him to get something comforting but not too harsh on his stomach. And since we were on our own budget, not on the taxpayers' money, lunch for under $5 each was a good plan.

After lunch, we wandered around the neighborhood, mostly as an excuse not to go back into the hospital. Our conversation centered around this still-mythical trip to New York, but it sounded more and more as if Sam were warming to the idea. Getting away, getting out of DC, would be good for both of us. And, if Sam needed some real mothering, from New York it was a very short trip to my mom's place.

We got back to the hospital around 1:15, and Dr. Bartlet was waiting for us in the lobby. "You guys all set?" she asked. "Fed, satisfied, ready to have this meeting without becoming belligerent?" That last comment, I knew, was directed at me. I've been called belligerent before, and I've deserved it. This time, though, I had no call to be.

We headed up to Dr. Adams' office, where we were met by his secretary. "Dr. Adams will be right with you. He's just finishing up on a phone call." The three of us settled in Dr. Adams' outer office, and in just a few minutes, the door to the inner office opened.

"Come on in," he said to Sam. Dr. Bartlet and I hung back just a bit, until Sam gestured frantically for us to follow. We all trooped into Dr. Adams' office and took seats facing the doctor's desk.

"Well," he said, "I have some preliminary information for you."

I reached out and clasped Sam's hand in mine. We both looked at Dr. Bartlet, who nodded at us.

"What information is that?" I asked, knowing Sam wouldn't ask unless prodded.

"Well, it appears as if you have an ulcer, Mr. Seaborn. That would explain the symptoms you've been reporting." He looked down at Sam's chart momentarily, then looked back at the three of us. "You've indicated on your intake form that you've been using Pepto Bismol to treat some of your symptoms, and that is unfortunate, as there's an easy, non-invasive test for the bacterium that is most common in ulcer cases. We can, however, do a very simple blood test for the presence of that same bacterium. If you have time now, I've tentatively scheduled you for an appointment in our phlebotomy lab."

We looked at Dr. Bartlet. "Blood lab. They'll take some blood from Sam and test it for H. pylori on the spot," she said.

Dr. Adams looked slightly peeved that we turned to Dr. Bartlet for an explanation, but he didn't comment. "Right. So after they take the blood, the test can be performed in-house and I'll have results for you within half an hour. Is that within your schedule?"

Sam nodded and I said, "That should be fine."

"Good," said Dr. Adams, picking up his phone. He hit an extension number and then said, "Mr. Seaborn will be right down. Please don't make him wait too long." After he hung up the phone, he said, "They'll meet you right in the entryway to the blood lab, and you'll be taken right away." He pushed back his chair, which I took as a signal that we were dismissed. Sam and I stood and walked to the door, and Dr. Bartlet followed us.

"Will you two be OK if I don't come with you to the blood lab? I promise to be here when Dr. Adams gives you the results."

I looked at Sam for guidance. Sam surprised me by saying, "Sure, we'll be fine. Go off and do whatever you need, and we'll meet you back here as soon as the vampires are done with me."

We parted ways with Dr. Bartlet and headed down to the hospital's basement, where the blood lab was housed. True to their word, the technicians were waiting for us.

They quickly took Sam into one of the curtained-off areas, while I found myself standing alone in an almost-deserted waiting area. I sat in one of the standard-issue uncomfortable chairs and waited. I tried to read, but I couldn't concentrate on anything.

After about ten minutes, Sam came back out. He was rolling down his left sleeve as he walked, and I could tell when he hit the edge of the bandage from the way he winced slightly.

"All set?" I asked.

"Yup," Sam responded. "They say they'll have the results within 20 minutes, so if we head back upstairs slowly, we won't have to wait too long in the waiting room.

So that's what we did. We took our time strolling back up to Gastroenterology, arriving in time to cross the threshold with Dr. Bartlet. About five minutes later, we were called back into Dr. Adams' office.

Without preamble, Dr. Adams said, "Well, there's no indication of H. pylori, the bacterium most commonly linked with ulcers, in your blood workup. This is both good news and bad news."

"How?" Sam asked.

"It's good in that you don't have to be treated with antibiotics. However, it means that pinning down the cause of the ulcer might be more difficult. Whatever its origin, however, I would like to do an endoscopy tomorrow to determine the extent of the damage to your stomach." Dr. Adams handed Sam a piece of paper. "Here's an instruction sheet to help you prepare for the test. Since you won't be allowed to eat for 12 hours prior to the test, why don't we schedule you for first thing in the morning. How early is too early?"

I looked at Sam, who smiled back at me. "Uh...we work at the White House. We're in the office by 6:00 AM most mornings. There's no time that's too early."

"Great," said Dr. Adams. "Let's schedule your test for 8:00 AM, then."

Sam reached into his pocket for his Palm Pilot and winced.

"What's up, love?"

"Damn shoulder again. I tell you, I go one day without the Advil and my shoulder won't forgive me."

Dr. Bartlet looked at Sam. "How long have you been taking Advil, and at what dose?" she asked sharply.

"Uh..." Sam paused. "I usually take 200 milligrams every 4-6 hours, depending on the level of pain. While I was doing my most recent round of PT, I started with 800 mg every 4-6 hours, then slowly tapered back down to the 200 mg."

"Are you always taking anti-inflammatories?"

"Depends...probably 2 weeks out of four," Sam said.

"And how do you take them?" Dr. Bartlet asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Do you take them with food? When you take them, what do you use to wash them down?"

"Uh...As you know, my eating habits are a bit weird. I have Advil at my desk, and I take it when I need to. I take them with whatever's handy."

Dr. Bartlet turned to Dr. Adams. "Do you think," she said in a tone I recognized as one of warning but that might have been too subtle for those who don't know her as well, "that perhaps extended NSAID use might have caused the ulcer?"

"That's very likely," he said, totally unaware of the undercurrents in Dr. Bartlet's voice.

"Can I see Sam's chart for a sec?" Dr. Bartlet asked. When Dr. Adams handed it over, Dr. Bartlet scanned the top page - I could see over her shoulder that it was Sam's intake form, the one he'd filled out that covered childhood diseases, current medications, etc. She looked at it for another moment and then handed the chart back to Dr. Adams.

"Did it ever occur to you," Dr. Bartlet said, and there was no mistaking her tone this time, "that the ulcer might have been because of the - reported, mind you - abuse of NSAIDs? Do you think we might've been able to avoid taking blood from this poor man, who has already been subjected to a number of unpleasant tests and who is now scheduled for even more?"

I was mildly amused by the way that Dr. Adams was shrinking away from Dr. Bartlet's wrath. She is quite a formidable foe at any time, and when she's defending one of us, she's even more so. Even without actually moving, Dr. Adams made it clear that Dr. Bartlet was the authority in the room.

"Can I ask a question?" Sam said softly.

"Yes?" both doctors replied simultaneously.

"Do I still have to have the test tomorrow? If we now know the reason for my problems, can't we just skip the test?" Sam sounded very hopeful.

"Sorry, Sam," Dr. Bartlet said. "On this I agree with Dr. Adams. It's best for us to see the extent of the damage caused by the ulcer so that we can get an idea of the best course of treatment."

Dr. Adams nodded. "Exactly," he said.

In the end, we scheduled the test as planned, for 8 AM. As we left Dr. Adams'office, Dr. Bartlet was still steaming.

"I thought he was the best, Sam. I'm so sorry. I'm never going to refer people to Robert Adams again," she said as we walked toward the limo.

"Don't blame yourself," Sam said. "I didn't know that the Advil would be a problem. I've always taken it frequently, well, since college."

"Have you ever had problems from it before?"

"It's been a while since I was taking it in such high doses - not since college, and never under the kind of stress I'm under now."

"Here's a hint, Sam," Dr. Bartlet said. "Switch to Tylenol."

We got in the limo and went back to the office. With Sam's test early in the morning, I felt - and Sam felt - that we should at least get a couple of hours of productive time in this evening, because tomorrow Sam wouldn't be in any sort of shape to work. Before the test, he'd be too nervous to concentrate. After the test, according to the preparation sheet Sam had been given, he'd be coming off some medications that might interfere with his ability to be very productive. So we both set ourselves to getting our desks sufficiently cleared that the business of the country could continue without us.

At around 6:00, my phone buzzed. It was Dr. Bartlet.

"Go take Sam to the mess," she said.

"Yes, Ma'am," I responded, never thinking to question the order I had just been given.

"Josh, don't sass me. If Sam doesn't eat dinner now, he'll have to rush it later to get it in before 8."

"Ma'am, I wasn't 'sassing' you. I will go fetch Sam right now and make sure he eats. I will not do anything to compromise his health any further. Trust me on this."

"OK," she said, then hung up.

I immediately buzzed Sam.

"Love? Dinner time."

"But I..." Sam said.

"Sam? Food. Now." I said in my most "dom" voice.

"OK," he said. "Five minutes in the mess?"

"Make it less, if possible. I'm headed down there now."

Four minutes, thirty seconds later, Sam joined me in line at the mess.

I grinned. "Now why can't you be that submissive all the time?" I asked, leering for Sam's benefit.

"'Cause you like to have excuses to punish me, J," Sam responded.

I thought a minute. "You're right, you know," I said.

"Of course I am."

We got food and settled at a table. I had intended for us to have a relatively peaceful meal, but within a few minutes of us sitting down, CJ strolled into the mess.

"Can I join you guys?" she asked.

"Sure, CJ," Sam said, and I wasn't going to contradict him. If Sam wanted lots of people around tonight, that's what would happen.

As CJ headed over to get food, I noticed Toby strolling in with Leo right behind him. They, too, approached our table and asked if they could join us. Again, Sam answered in the affirmative. When Donna, Ginger, and Bonnie came in, I decided it was smarter to just drag over another table than to go through the formalities of them asking permission and us saying yes. It's not common for the junior staff to join the senior staff for meals, but something in the air today made it seem OK. I think there was a general sense that Sam needed all of his friends around him, so the barriers were lowered to provide as strong a support structure for Sam as was possible. Not that either Sam or I had told anyone of the details of Sam's appointment today. But the West Wing is more like a family every day, and there are very few secrets among the members of the family.

After quite a prolonged meal - much longer than I had anticipated, actually - Sam and I went back to our respective offices. We remained there even after most everyone else had left for the night. I think Sam was trying to avoid the apartment, lest he spend the night lying awake thinking and worrying about the procedure he would face come morning.

At 11:45, however, I was falling asleep at my desk. I buzzed Sam.

"Sam Seaborn."

"Love...it's been a really long day. We've got another really long day tomorrow. Let's go home."

"But I've almost got the wording right on this..."

"Love, it'll still be there in the morning. I can make it really worth your while if we go home now."

"I'm listening," Sam said.

"Let's go home, and I'll draw us a nice hot bath. We'll soak until we're so relaxed that we never want to move again, and then..."

"Yeah?"

"Well, that part's a surprise until we get home." If I told all my secrets, there would be no incentive for him to leave quickly.

I heard a click as Sam quickly hung up the phone, and within minutes, he appeared in my office doorway.

"OK, let's go," he said.

I laughed and finished filling my briefcase. We headed home hand-in-hand, not really caring who saw us.

When we got home, I sent Sam to the bedroom to get ready while I ran the promised bath. Our bathtub is small for the two of us, but we've learned how to position ourselves to our greatest advantage.

I had just turned off the tap when Sam walked into the bathroom, totally naked. I stared for a minute and Sam blushed. It amazes me that, after all we've done together, I still have the ability to make him blush.

"You're overdressed, J. Unless you like getting your suit soaked..."

I knew from past experience that Sam wasn't bluffing. He would pull me, fully clothed, into the bath if he felt like it. I quickly ducked out to the bedroom, shucked my clothing, and ran back to the bathroom. By the time I got back, Sam had settled himself in the bathroom and was lying with his eyes closed and his head thrown back. I approached quietly and kissed Sam at the sensitive spot at the very base of his neck, jumping backwards not quite fast enough to miss being sprayed as the result of Sam jolting into an upright position. He opened his eyes and looked at me.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey," I responded.

"It's lonely in here. I thought _we_ were supposed to become spineless masses together."

I climbed in and settled myself in the space between Sam's legs. It was a cozy fit, but it felt wonderful. I leaned my head back and rested it on Sam's shoulder, tilting my head so that I could kiss Sam's neck some more.

Meanwhile, Sam had grabbed the soap and was working up a decent lather. He started soaping my chest, less for cleanliness and more for effect, if the patterns he was drawing were any indication. He circled my nipples and my navel with his soapy finger, teasing me but never landing anywhere for too long. When he put the soap down, I picked it up and lathered up my own hands, then began a tactile assault on Sam's thighs.

Eventually, Sam must've grown bored with the soap designs, because he started splashing water against my chest.

"What'cha doin', love?" I asked.

"Rinsing," he said.

"Yeah...right. You trying to start something?" I waggled my eyebrows...well, one eyebrow, because the other one was still pressed against Sam's shoulder.

"Start something? Me?" If I didn't know better, I would've bought Sam's innocent look.

I wiggled my hips, bringing my ass even more into contact with Sam's cock. He moaned softly.

"My, my, Mr. Seaborn," I said, striving for an equally innocent tone. "I do believe I have discovered the source of your discontent." I pulled myself to my feet and turned to face Sam.

"Oh?" he said. I held a hand out and helped Sam to his feet.

We stepped out of the bathtub and wrapped ourselves in the robes hanging on the back of the bathroom door.

"Yes," I said. "You've been handled today, but you haven't been properly manhandled." This time, I knew, Sam's groan was at my horrible wordplay. I took Sam's hand, led him to the bedroom, and guided him onto the bed. "What you need is some special attention."

Sam lay on his back on the bed and I undid the sash of his robe. As I spread the robe open, Sam untied the belt on my robe. I slid the robe off my shoulders and onto the floor, and Sam sat up enough that we could free his arms. He then lay back on the bed, the robe still trapped beneath him.

I moved so that I was straddling his hips but kept all my weight on my knees on the bed. "Tell me what you want, love, and I'll do it," I whispered. Tonight's activities were supposed to soothe Sam, so I'd decided to let him drive.

"Kiss me," he said. I leaned in and pressed my lips to Sam's, using my tongue to outline the border of Sam's mouth.

"Deeper," he said against my skin, and I plunged my tongue into his mouth. We stayed like that, kissing but not touching anywhere else, until Sam was gasping for air.

"J?" he said tentatively.

"Yeah?" I asked.

"Don't hate me...but I'm exhausted. Whatever you were planning tonight, can I get a raincheck?" He yawned wide enough for me to count his freakishly perfect teeth.

"Sure, love," I said, moving off Sam and snuggling up behind him.

"Sorry," he mumbled.

I kissed his hair. "We'll pick up from here tomorrow night, OK?" I said, knowing he was mostly dead to the world and probably didn't even hear me. He mumbled and rolled over, snuggling even closer to me.

I put my arms around him, determined not to let him go until they forcibly took him from me tomorrow to prepare him for the next medical indignity.

***

Part 7 - Confirmations and Considerations

This time, we all met up at GW. Sam and I, having woken up early but not being able to eat breakfast, had the opportunity to actually catch up with reading sections of the Post that had nothing to do with work. At around 7:15, we headed out to GW, knowing we'd be early but preferring that to being late.

So there we were at 7:40, sitting in the Gastroenterology waiting area. Again. The place was almost deserted due to the early hour, but people were still around - the night clerks were finishing up their paperwork, the morning shift was beginning to straggle in. We were checked in and Sam was handed yet another handful of paper, this one specific to the day's test. He signed one form and gave it back, then handed the rest to me for safe keeping.

At 7:50, Dr. Bartlet and her entourage bustled in. I barely notice her protection anymore, but on this morning they seemed out of place in the stillness of the waiting room. She was carrying the largest cup of coffee I'd ever seen - and in my line of work, that's saying a lot. In an instinctual move - I now had ammunition against his "Pavlovian" crack of a couple of days ago - Sam moved toward the smell of the coffee. Dr. Bartlet halted him with a raised hand.

"Sam, no food. Also, especially while you're healing and for a good long while after that, you're going to be off coffee. In a healthy person, coffee does a number on the stomach lining. With an ulcer, you're just asking for trouble. And, no," she said, anticipating his next question, "decaf is just as bad. If Dr. Adams doesn't give you a list, I'll compile a list of foods for you to avoid."

Sam looked crushed. Coffee is our lifeblood during long, late-night meetings.

There was no time to debate Sam's decaffeination, however, as - much to my surprise - at 7:55 they called Sam's name. Both he and I stood up, but the nurse came over and explained that they'd have to take Sam in alone to prep him, but that they'd come get me as soon as they could. News of Sam's reaction to having to go through the upper GI alone had been, I have no doubt, passed among the hospital staff. Keeping me close by, I knew, would mitigate Sam's reactions to the test, and I firmly believe that the staff figured out that it was in their best interest to get me into the room with Sam as soon as humanly possible.

As it was, about 25 minutes passed between when they came for Sam and when they called for me.

"Would you like me to come with you?" Dr. Bartlet asked.

"This one, I think, would be best if it were just us, but thanks," I responded. Sam was going to be so miserable for this test, I doubted he wanted any more onlookers than were necessary.

 

The nurse called my name again, and I was ushered into a treatment room, where Sam was lying on a gurney, his head elevated.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey," I responded. I came further into the room, moving closer to the gurney.

"Shosh?"

"Yeah?" The prep sheet for the test had mentioned that before the test was administered, Sam would be given Novocaine sprayed into his mouth. I could hear that it had already deadened his tongue. I had a brief flashback to the aftermath of CJ's emergency root canal and tried not to shudder.

"Feelth weird."

"What feels weird, love?"

"Tongue. My mouf iv num."

"Good. It's supposed to be." I noticed the IV that Sam was hooked up to. I knew it had some sort of sedative in it so that Sam's gag reflex would be diminished.

"'Ay?" Sam had apparently given up on trying to pronounce the letter "j."

"Yeah?"

"'uv you."

"I love you, too."

Before I could say anything else, the door opened and a woman I'd never seen before walked in.

"Hi, Mr. Seaborn, Mr. Lyman. I'm Dr. Hopkins. Dr. Adams had to perform emergency surgery, so I'm covering for him. How are you doing today?"

"Nervous," I said, and Sam nodded his head vigorously.

"Don't worry," Dr. Hopkins said to Sam. "This should be relatively painless, now that we've got you all doped up." She turned to me. "_You'll_ just have to suffer in silence," she said with a smile.

"Uh...I'm not so good at that," I said. "My suffering has a way of becoming quite vocal."

Sam nodded again, and I shot him a quelling look.

The doctor began to organize what she'd need for the test. She wheeled cart with a computer screen on it towards the head of Sam's gurney and picked up a hard black ring.

"Open your mouth, Mr. Seaborn," she said. When Sam complied, she stuck the ring into his mouth then instructed him to close again. "This is a mouth guard. It'll keep Mr. Seaborn from biting down or closing his mouth around the camera."

I'd seen similar pieces of equipment in other, less mainstream, situations, but I'd never dreamed of one being used on Sam. From the frightened look in his eyes, I quickly came to the conclusion that Sam had never anticipated such a scenario either.

"Don't worry, Sam. I'm right here," I said, taking Sam's hand yet trying to stay as much out of Dr. Hopkins' way as I could.

"OK, Mr. Seaborn," she started.

Sam squeezed my hand. "I think he'd prefer you call him "Sam," I said.

"OK...Sam," Dr. Hopkins said. "I'm going to move you onto your left side now, OK?" She looked at me. "Mr. Lyman?"

"Josh, please," I said.

"Josh, could you please help me move Mr. ... Sam onto his side? Then you can stand on his right side and you won't be in my way at all."

I went around the gurney to Sam's right side and helped Dr. Hopkins roll Sam onto his left. I rested my hand on his right shoulder so that he'd know where I was at all times. Sam squirmed a bit as he tried to find the most comfortable position he could, but he eventually gave up. Once he settled down, Dr. Hopkins picked up a long black instrument that looked vaguely snakelike.

"This is the endoscope," she said. "I'll lower this slowly down your throat and into your esophagus and your stomach, we'll take a good look around, and then I'll take it out, OK?"

Sam nodded, but I could feel him trembling under my hand. I tried to soothe him by caressing his shoulder, but he didn't stop trembling. Dr. Hopkins turned back toward the monitor to make some final adjustments and then turned toward Sam.

"OK, I'm going to go as slow as I can to give you time to adjust as it goes in. Just remember to breathe through your nose." She started to feed the head of the camera through the mouth guard, and I leaned down to whisper soothingly to Sam. He seemed to relax as I spoke, but then the camera hit the back of his throat and, despite all the analgesics and the Novocaine, Sam's gag reflex kicked in.

"Sh, love," I whispered. "Just pretend it's me...you're taking me deep, just like you know I love it..." I hoped the doctor couldn't hear or wasn't paying attention to what I said; there was no change in her facial expression as Sam relaxed his throat as much as he could and the camera slid down further.

Dr. Hopkins pushed a button and I heard a hissing noise. "We're injecting some air in, that's all - it helps me see things better in there, OK?" she said. Not that Sam could answer, but I guess I felt better knowing what exactly was going on.

Over the next while - I didn't really keep track of time, 'cause I was busy keeping Sam relaxed - the doctor did all sorts of things involving moving things around and occasionally making that "hmm" noise that I thought was restricted to doctors but which, I have since discovered, is taught to all members of the medical profession. Finally, though, Dr. Hopkins pulled the whole camera-wand-thing back out and removed the mouth guard from between Sam's lips.

"OK, Sam, we're all done. Just lie back and relax for a minute," she said.

"How...what..." I wasn't quite sure how to phrase the question I wanted to ask.

"He does have an ulcer, as we suspected, but it doesn't look like it's too bad," Dr. Hopkins said. "I'll give my report to Dr. Adams when he is back in the office, and he will be able to let you both know what comes next." She turned to Sam. "Sam? Can you try to cough for me?"

Sam tried valiantly, but he did nothing more than expel a bit of air.

"OK, we'll try again in a bit. I'll let you lie here for a little while," she said, removing the IV from Sam's arm. "You're gonna need some time before you can stand up again - the sedative does quite a number on most people." She started packing away all her equipment. "You can get more comfortable if you want," she said to Sam.

I looked at Sam, who was still lying on his left side. "Love? Y'wanna roll onto your back? You might be more comfortable."

Sam didn't speak, but he made some effort to move. I helped guide him back onto his back, then I went back around the gurney to his left side. I grasped his left hand and squeezed, and he squeezed back, a bit weakly.

"Sam? Before I go, I want you to try to cough for me again." Dr. Hopkins looked at Sam, who had closed his eyes. This time, Sam was able to cough, though it was weak.

"Usually Sam would be brought up to the recovery room at this point, but Dr. Bartlet specifically requested that - for security reasons - Sam be put in a private room. We're going to let you keep this room for as long as you need it, so don't worry about that. Someone will drop by in a little while to check on you, and then you'll be sprung. Dr. Adams will want to follow up with you soon, though."

Dr. Hopkins left the room, leaving Sam and me alone.

"Love? You doin' OK?"

"Firsty."

"Yeah, I know. As soon as we're told it's OK, I'll make sure you get some water. But they don't want you to drink anything until your gag reflex is back to normal."

"Te amo," Sam said.

"I love you, too, Sam." I could tell he was drifting because he was switching languages. Sam's Spanish makes an appearance when he's overly tired or when his emotions are running especially high. I'd never seen Sam doped up on drugs before, but it didn't surprise me at all that it caused him to have trouble keeping his languages straight. I studied some Spanish in college, but since beginning my relationship with Sam, I'd learned phrases that never would've been taught in the classroom.

"Quiero partirte los labios con un beso," Sam said, his eyes still closed.

"So...you're using Spanish to tell me you want to French me. Cute." I leaned down and kissed Sam on his nose.

"Me vuelves loco," was Sam's response.

"You make me crazy, too." I didn't bother to elaborate on how he makes me crazy. Anyway, I doubted he'd remember this conversation after the drugs had left his system.

"Shosh?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm really woothy," Sam said. His speech was improving, so I figured some of the sensation was returning to his tongue.

"Just lie there and relax, love. If you fall asleep, it's fine. I'll stay right here with you."

In not very long, I heard Sam's breathing even out. I sat there, watching him sleep, for I don't even know how long, until the exam room door opened.

Dr. Bartlet stuck her head in. "Everything OK in here?" She looked toward Sam and frowned, but then her expression softened.

"He's asleep," I whispered. "They've been very nice to let us have this room uninterrupted." I kissed Sam's forehead then walked over to the door as Dr. Bartlet entered the room and closed the door behind herself.

Dr. Bartlet smiled. "Power has its privileges. I made them believe that I'd bring the wrath of the US Army down on them if they didn't leave you two alone."

I grinned. Crossing Dr. Bartlet is not something anyone smart does more than once. Well, except for the president. He crosses her on a regular basis. But it seems to work for them.

"So...what did you think of Dr. Hopkins?" Dr. Bartlet asked me.

"Well," I said, "I didn't really get to know much about her during the test, but she seemed to be trying to be as gentle as possible with Sam. That's a point in her favor. Why?"

"I was thinking of requesting a transfer of Sam's care to her and away from Dr. Adams. I just didn't like the way Robert was handling Sam's case."

"I don't understand," I said. "I thought that Dr. Adams was the senior gastroenterologist here."

"Maybe I'm just being too overprotective of you guys, but it bothered me that Dr. Adams went straight to a blood test to determine the cause of Sam's ulcer, rather than looking at his past NSAID use as a probable cause. Yeah, if I were in his shoes, I probably would've done the same..." She paused, then said, "I guess I'm being a little harsh. I just hate seeing Sam being put through so much unnecessary mental and physical pain."

"I appreciate your concern, as does Sam. If you think that switching to Dr. Hopkins is the right thing to do, I can convince Sam."

"I know you can," she said with a smile. "You can convince him to do just about anything." Dr. Bartlet looked toward where Sam was sleeping. "He looks so peaceful. I don't think I've ever seen him that relaxed."

"It's the sedative," I said. "Sam doesn't usually let himself relax like this. It probably contributed to the ulcer."

"You've got to try to get him to slow down, Josh. He can't continue to live the way he did in college."

I looked at her, incredulous. "With the life I lead, I'm supposed to be the one to tell Sam to slow down?"

"You have a point," she said. "I'll have Stephanie - Dr. Hopkins - make it a direct order."

Sam shifted slightly in his sleep and moaned.

"Now go back to him," Dr. Bartlet said. "Even in sleep he knows when you're not there. I've arranged a follow-up appointment for Sam with Dr. Adams and Dr. Hopkins together for tomorrow afternoon. Just an informational meeting," she said, reacting to my facial expression. "Don't worry - all the tests are over, at least for now. They'll just go over what Sam should and shouldn't eat between now and when the ulcer heals, plus all the things he should consider completely removing from his diet." She looked back toward Sam again. "Not that he'll listen, but it's worth him being told."

Sam whimpered again and I looked toward him. "I should get back..." I said.

"Go ahead. When he wakes up, buzz the nurse's desk, and someone will come in and do a final check on him, and then you can go home. I don't think anyone will miss you at the office today - I told both Jed and Leo not to expect you, and Toby said he'd kick Sam's ass if he showed up today." She looked thoughtful for a second. "I believe he just would. Anyway, tell Sam that I will want to see him first thing tomorrow morning, before his appointment here."

"Will do," I said.

"So, I'll see you tomorrow. I'll call this evening to find out how Sam's doing. Take care of both of you, OK?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said. She gave us both one final look then left us alone.

I went back and sat next to Sam. He slept for another hour or so, which I attributed not just to the drugs but also to his general level of exhaustion. Finally, he began to stir.

"J?" His tongue was back to normal, it seemed.

"Yes, love?"

"My head's spinning."

"Side effect of the drugs, most likely. Hang on a sec." I eased the head of the gurney up slowly so that Sam was sitting up almost straight. "How's that?"

"It's OK, I think," he said. "So...what happened?"

"What do you mean?"

He looked at me strangely. "What was the test like?"

"Don't you remember?"

"Honestly? No."

"What's the last thing you do remember?" I was concerned by Sam's memory loss.

"Uh...a nurse sprayed some horrible-tasting stuff in my mouth and put an IV in my arm. I was alone in here for a couple of minutes...and now you're here."

Oh...kay. Whatever had been in that IV must've been really powerful stuff.

"The test went fine. Dr. Bartlet wants you to meet a different specialist. I met her earlier, and she seemed nice."

"If you liked her, I'll like her. I trust your taste."

"Love, don't make any decisions until you've actually met her. Choosing a doctor shouldn't be done for you. But I think you'll like her."

"Is she cute?" Sam asked with a grin.

"If you weren't still so strung out on painkillers, I'd punish you for that," I said.

"Promise?" Sam responded.

"Anyway, Dr. Bartlet came by while you were asleep. She said to buzz the nurse once you were awake. Are you up to that, or should I wait a little longer?" I wanted to take Sam home as soon as possible, but if he wasn't ready, I wasn't going to rush him.

"I'm feeling OK, but I could use some water. And I wouldn't turn down food, either."

"I think we can get you something as soon as we leave here." I looked at my watch. It was 11:30; no wonder Sam was starving. Now that I thought about it, I was feeling hungry, too.

I buzzed the nurse's desk, and in just a few minutes, Dr. Hopkins came back into the room.

"How're you doing, Sam?" she asked.

"Fine...uh...who are you?" Sam looked distinctly confused.

"Sorry - the Versed sometimes causes retrograde amnesia - just a bit of memory loss. Not a big deal. I'm Dr. Hopkins, Dr. Adams' associate. I performed your procedure this morning."

"Nice to meet you - again," Sam said with a sheepish smile.

"You're sounding like the medication has all worn off. Can you try to cough for me?" Dr. Hopkins said.

Sam emitted a sound that was somewhere between a cough and a choke. "Sorry. I'm really parched. That's the best I can do."

"Could you try just one more time? As soon as I get a good cough out of you, I'll be able to let you go."

Sam tried again and this time managed to produce something actually resembling a cough, though it sounded quite dry.

"Great. I'll just sign your release papers and you can get out of here." She smiled. "I'm sure you're looking forward to seeing something other than the inside of this hospital."

After confirming that she'd see Sam the following afternoon for his follow-up appointment, Dr. Hopkins signed the discharge papers and left the room.

Sam turned to me. "Is it over, J?"

"What?"

"The torture...are they gonna leave me alone now?"

I didn't really have a good answer to that. For all I knew, Sam would be in for additional tests as his ulcer healed. But for now, I wanted to comfort him.

"I think so, love." I helped Sam up off the gurney. "C'mon, Sam. Let's get you dressed again, and then we'll go get lunch."

Sam started to dress as I collected the rest of our assorted belongings. "J?" Sam said.

"Yeah?"

"I'm hungry but not in the mood to really eat. Is that weird?"

"Nah," I responded. "I'd imagine your throat's a bit raw. Let's go home and I'll make you something simple for lunch."

We walked to the Foggy Bottom Metro station and headed back toward home. It didn't take us very long, and by noon we were home.

Sam followed me into the kitchen. "Wouldn't you be more comfortable in the living room?" I asked.

"I need to be near you, J. I..."

"It's fine. I just wanted what's best for you." I filled the kettle and put it on the stove. "I'll make you some tea while I'm cooking, OK?"

"Mmfrh," Sam said. Actually, he probably said something more meaningful, but since he had his head in the fridge, I couldn't discern what it was.

"Huh?" I asked when Sam emerged with a bottle of water in his hand.

"Tea's fine, but I need this first." Sam opened the bottle of water and drank about a third of it. Then he settled into one of the kitchen chairs to drink his tea and wait for lunch to be ready.

I made a simple lunch of chicken soup - leftovers pulled from the freezer - and pasta salad, striving for a meal that wouldn't aggravate Sam's ulcer.

We ate mostly in silence, which is not uncommon for us. We spend so much of our days talking that the silence is often comforting.

As I was clearing the table, I remembered the conversation I had earlier with Dr. Bartlet.

"Uh...love?"

"Yeah?"

"While you were sleeping earlier, Dr. Bartlet dropped by. She wants to see us first thing in the morning tomorrow."

"Did she say why?"

"Nope...not really."

Sam looked at me. "J? Will you come with me?"

"To see Dr. Bartlet? Sure. But in all likelihood, she's just gonna kick me out."

"Maybe she won't. Please come?"

"OK," I said. I wasn't sure what to expect from that meeting, but I didn't anticipate it being particularly enjoyable for Sam.

"I'm gonna go take a shower and then nap a bit, OK?" Sam said.

"Sure, love," I responded. "I've got some stuff to deal with for Leo - he told me not to worry about it and to just make sure you were all right, but since I have the time..."

"No problem, J," Sam said. "I'm not going to be such great company for at least an hour or so."

After giving me a quick but firm hug, Sam headed off to bed and I headed into the living room to do some research. I found myself getting deeply into my reading about various extradition hearings from around the world, and I didn't notice the passage of time. When I next looked up, though, it was beginning to get dark. Concerned because I hadn't heard a peep from Sam, I got up to check on him.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the bedroom was the low lighting. The next thing I noticed was Sam. Nude. Stretched out on our bed. Cat-that-ate-the-canary look on his face.

"Took ya long enough, J."

"I was...there was..." There was not enough blood to power my brain.

"Well, at least you finally decided to put in an appearance." Sam smiled at me.

"Uh...yeah," I said, still frozen in the bedroom doorway.

"Move, J. Put one foot in front of the other and come over here and...well, I'm not gonna back-seat drive. You'll have to do some of the thinking for yourself here."

I finally got my brain in order enough to walk over to the bed, take off my shoes, and lie down next to Sam.

"Uh...J? Works better if you're wearing less clothing," Sam said.

"Right..." I said. I got up, took off my clothes, then lay back down to Sam's left.

We lay there in silence for a minute. I hadn't been anticipating this turn of events, and much as I was eager to bury myself in Sam, I didn't want to harm him in any way.

"J? Is something wrong?" Suddenly, the cocky grin was gone, replaced by a look of confusion and a little fear.

I realized that by trying to protect Sam, I was giving him the impression that I was rejecting him. That hadn't been my intention at all.

Instead of answering Sam's question, I rolled over and trapped his legs between mine. "Tell me what you want, Sam."

"I want...I want to forget about doctors and tests and everything that's gone on the past couple of days."

I shifted my weight and then looked down at Sam from my new perch straddling his hips. "I think I can accommodate that," I said. I cupped Sam's chin in my left hand and turned it slightly, exposing the left side of Sam's neck. After placing some light kisses along the side of his neck, I homed in on my real target - his ear. I nibbled his earlobe and used the tip of my tongue to trace the shell of Sam's ear. As he began to moan, I turned Sam's head the other way and gave the same treatment to the right ear.

"J, don't tease me," Sam said.

I moved down slightly, running my tongue along Sam's left collarbone. I paused momentarily to give him a small hickey just to the right of where his collar would cover if he loosened his tie - I knew I was marking him where anyone could see, and I didn't care. Continuing on, I worked my way down Sam's chest, touching and licking where I wanted, avoiding other locations as suited my mood.

"J..."

When I reached Sam's left hipbone, I stopped.

"What do you want, Sam?"

"Continue...please, J."

That didn't really answer the question, but I was willing to go free-form for a bit. I kissed my way from Sam's left hip to his right, being very careful not to put too much pressure on Sam's stomach and completely avoiding Sam's groin. I climbed over Sam's legs and knelt on his right side.

"Love?"

"Yeah?" Sam whispered.

"Bend your knees."

As Sam got into position, I pulled a tube of lube out of his bedside table, then moved to kneel between Sam's bent knees.

"What do you want, Sam?" I asked again. While I waited for an answer, I applied lube to the fingers of my right hand and to my cock.

"You. Now."

Sam spread his legs further and pulled his knees back toward his chest, exposing himself totally to me. Not one to miss so blatant a hint, I quickly worked three fingers into Sam. With my fingers deeply embedded in him, I leaned down and lapped at the pre-cum that was glistening on Sam's cock head.

"J, don't tease me," Sam repeated.

"Not teasing," I said between licks. "Just getting warmed up."

"Any warmer and I'm gonna explode," Sam countered.

"Isn't that the eventual goal here?" I asked.

"Shut up and fuck me," Sam said.

Well, now. That was new. I kissed Sam's cock head then eased my fingers out of Sam, immediately replacing them with the tip of my cock.

"_Now_, J!"

The minute I drove myself into Sam's ass, he locked his legs around my waist, his heels resting on my ass cheeks.

"Move, J," Sam said, and I began a slow, rocking rhythm.

"Not enough. Move faster."

I picked up the pace a bit.

"More."

I started thrusting even harder.

"Ohh...yeah. That's it. Just like that."

I braced my hands on Sam's hips, eager to find out whether, at this pace, I could make Sam come without touching his cock. I continued to thrust, using Sam's vocalizations as my indication of his endurance.

As has become typical for him, the closer he got to coming, the more vocal and less coherent he became.

"God, J...oh, God...oh, fuck. Fuck, J...oh, yeah...oh..."

I knew I wasn't going to last much longer, but I was determined to bring Sam off first. I increased the pace just a tiny bit more, and with a final "Fuck...JOSH!" Sam exploded.

I followed him right over the edge, then collapsed on top of him, his legs still locked around my waist.

He gasped and I quickly rolled us to get the pressure off his belly.

"Hell, J..." Sam panted.

"Yeah," I agreed, just as short of breath.

"Wow."

"Yeah." I paused. "Uh...Sam? 'Shut up and fuck me?'"

"I thought you'd never ask," he said, grinning ferally.

"Not now, you sex maniac." Honestly, I was thrilled to see him feeling well enough to consider going another round. "You've got to save your strength."

"Why?" Sam asked, stroking my back as he spoke.

"Tomorrow...meeting...First Lady...gonna tear you a new one. Any of this ringing any bells?"

Sam grimaced. "You had to remind me, didn't you. D'you really think she's gonna come down on me?"

"You didn't see her face, love. When she told me to have you report to her first thing, there was this look on her face...like she didn't know whether to hit you or hug you."

"Well, maybe you're wrong."

I doubted it, but we let the conversation drop.

We spent the rest of the evening in bed, except for the five minutes it took me to zap dinner in the microwave and the three minutes it took for me to convince Dr. Bartlet that yes, Sam was fine but no, I wasn't going to let her talk to him. Whatever she had to say to Sam could wait for morning, and I was going to be strict about that. I think I actually surprised her a bit with my resolve.

By morning, I was convinced that Sam was well on his way back to health, as long as he paid attention to his body.

And if he didn't, I would.

Donna met us, as usual, in the lobby. But this time, she wasn't carrying any files.

"Lilly Mays called me. I'm instructed to bring you directly to the First Lady's office. No detours, no excuses." She looked at us. "What did you two set on fire this time?"

I assumed it was a rhetorical question and didn't bother answering. As soon as we reached Lilly's office, Donna fled, leaving Sam - and by extension, me - to our fates.

The door to the inner office opened and Lilly stepped out. She, too, quickly made herself scarce.

We stood in the outer office, waiting to be invited in. She motioned to us, and we entered her office.

"Good morning, Ma'am," I said.

Instead of returning my greeting, Dr. Bartlet addressed Sam.

"So, do Princeton and Duke know just how much of a colossal idiot you are?"

And that was just the beginning.

***

Part 8 - Conclusions

Sam and I froze in Dr. Bartlet's doorway.

"Uh...excuse me, ma'am?" I said.

"Sam, for an intelligent man - and I know you have the booksmarts, 'cause otherwise Jed would never put up with you - you show the intellect of a slug sometimes." She gestured to her guest chairs. "Come on. Don't just stand there with your mouths hanging open. Sit down. There's a lot I have to talk to you about. Both of you." Her last comment prevented me from turning tail and bolting the way I wanted to.

We sat, and Sam immediately reached for my hand. I grasped his hand for comfort and protection from whatever the coming onslaught would bring.

"Sam, when did you become a medical professional?" Dr. Bartlet asked.

"Huh?" Sam responded.

"Which medical school did you attend? And you're so young to have completed both law school and medical school already."

"Excuse me, ma'am?" Sam was getting more confused as Dr. Bartlet got warmed up.

"Well, you've been self-diagnosing for a while, I assume, and then determining your own prescriptions and course of treatment, so I figured you must be a medical professional."

Sam - wisely, in my opinion - didn't answer that charge. I also kept my mouth shut, afraid that I would lash out with comments about Dr. Bartlet's history of diagnosis without consultation.

And Dr. Bartlet wasn't nearly finished with her rant. "I trust you - a well-educated, highly informed individual - to be upfront with me. I'm your first line of defense when it comes to your health. I need to know everything that is happening with your body. I cannot make informed decisions about your health unless you tell me the whole truth. I expect you to keep me informed in all cases, large or small."

"I had a hangnail this morning," I said sarcastically, unable to restrain myself any longer.

Dr. Bartlet immediately turned to me. "I'll get to you later, Joshua." She turned back to Sam. "If you're not going to let me help you stay healthy, I will no longer agree to be your physician. I just can't function in a vacuum."

She stopped, and silence reigned for a minute. Then Sam spoke up.

"I'm sorry," he said, almost in a whisper. I gripped his hand tightly. "I didn't realize..."

"That's the problem," Dr. Bartlet said. "You _don't_ realize just how much you abuse your body on a daily basis. You live a very stressful life. I do what I can to keep you healthy so that you can accomplish what you have to. But you have to buy into your own well-being. You have to manage your own care."

I couldn't stand to have Dr. Bartlet berating Sam this way. "Excuse me, ma'am..." I began.

She turned to face me. "You're almost as much to blame," she said. "You're supposed to be watching out for him."

"All due respect, ma'am, but Sam's an adult. He has the right to decide whether or not to seek medical attention," I said.

"You're right," Dr. Bartlet said. "Problem is, he waits until it's a crisis he can't ignore. You once said that Sam wouldn't complain if his hair were on fire, and I think you're correct." She turned back to Sam. "I understand your desire not to be seen as an alarmist. Believe me - Jed's the same way. But there's a line, and that line is _before_ you start overmedicating yourself. If you hadn't alerted me to your symptoms, you could've done even more damage to your stomach. Not only that, excessive NSAID use can lead to kidney and liver damage. You could have problems with your blood clotting slower than usual. You could have eye problems. Advil's a great drug, yes, but like all drugs, it has to be taken in moderation. Who told you to take so much, anyway?"

"My orthopedist back in college. Dr. McKean. He prescribed 800 mg tablets when I first injured my shoulder," Sam answered.

"And for the acute injury, that was the correct course of treatment," Dr. Bartlet said. "But each recurrence has to be judged individually. If you'd come to me when you first hurt your shoulder, I could've referred you to a good orthopod, and your pain would probably have been treated quickly. And with Janet's help..."

"Look," I said forcefully, cutting Dr. Bartlet off mid-stream. "Sitting here and handing out blame isn't what needs to be done right now. What needs to be done is Sam needs to get better. That's what has to happen, so that is what will happen."

Dr. Bartlet looked at me as if I'd grown a second head. Sam also looked surprised at the vehemence with which I spoke to the First Lady.

"I'm sorry, love." I made no apology to Dr. Bartlet. I was pissed at her attitude, and I wasn't going to let her sit here and badger Sam. "You're just trying to make all of us happy. I know that. But getting you well is top priority, as I've said all along. We'll go to the appointment with Dr. Adams, find out what we need to do, and do it. End of story."

I stood up, hoping Sam would follow my lead. When he did, I turned to Dr. Bartlet. "Will you be accompanying us to Sam's appointment this afternoon?" I asked.

"Yes," Dr. Bartlet said.

"Then we'll see you around 2; Sam's appointment's at 2:30, and I want to get there early." Dr. Bartlet knew what time the appointment was - Hell, she'd set it up - but I wanted her to know that, from here on out, Sam and I were in charge of Sam's care. She was a very valuable resource, and we appreciated all she does for us, but she'd said it herself. Sam had to manage his own care.

We left the First Lady's office and headed back toward mine.

"Wow, J...I didn't know you had all that in you," Sam said as we entered my office and closed the door. "Where'd all that anger come from so quickly? Yesterday, you were singing her praises as our doctor."

"It bothered me, love. The way she talked to you, like you were not competent to care for yourself. It was..." I was having trouble putting it into words, even for Sam, who understands me even when the words fail me.

"You saw me under attack and you stepped up to protect me like you always do," Sam summarized, and something in his voice warned me to be cautious with my answer.

"Yes and no," I said. I didn't want to get into a fight with Sam about my being overprotective - we'd had that fight a couple of times in the past - but I needed to explain. "Of course, I never want anything to hurt you. And you've been hurting now for weeks, between your shoulder and your stomach. So I want that to end and end soon. But more than that, it's about drawing boundaries. I want her to know where the line is and how far she can push."

Sam nodded. "OK, J. I think I can live with that." He pulled me into an easy embrace. "Don't get me wrong - I admire the fact that you'd go up against the First Lady to protect me. But I don't need you to always stand in the way of the bullet for me."

I must've flinched. Even after more than a year I have adverse reactions to even metaphoric references to guns and being shot.

"I'm sorry, J. Bad word choice. What I mean is, I'm able to take the heat when it's justified. Don't feel that I'm too weak - physically or emotionally - to protect myself. You don't have to fight all my battles for me." He kissed my cheek. "But you're sweet for trying."

"'Sweet' he calls me," I said. "Not sexy, not hot, not the greatest lover he's ever had...'sweet.'"

"You're all those, too," Sam said, grinning. "But if I concentrate on that, I'm gonna miss my 8:30 with Bruno." He gave me one final kiss, unwrapped his arms from around my waist, and walked to the door. As he opened it, he said, "So, lunch?"

"Sure," I said. That way, I figured, I could make sure he ate.

Sam read my look. "Maybe, just to spite you, I'll miss lunch." He thought a minute. "But punishing myself just to get revenge on you...nah. See you later, J." He turned and left, and I sat down at my desk to get down to work.

I was having a quiet morning - Donna, as usual, was over at the OEOB, digging through boxes of papers. So I had the office to myself and I got a lot accomplished. It really calmed me down from the morning's tension-filled beginning.

So I was more than a little dismayed when the intercom buzzed at 11:15. It was Lilly Mays.

"Mrs. Bartlet would like to know if you have a minute to come down and talk to her," Lilly said. "If not, she'd like to schedule a moment before you head over to GW this afternoon."

This was a change. Usually, when the First Lady wanted me, I was summoned. No option - not even the illusion of an option - was ever given. But now was just as good as any other time, and that's what I told Lilly.

"Thank you, Josh," Lilly said. "I'll let Mrs. Bartlet know you'll be on your way.

I wondered how far I could push this new-found power. "Actually, Lilly, can you tell her I'll be down in 10 minutes? I'm just finishing up with something." Actually, I had just been rearranging the files on my desk, but I wanted to see what the reaction would be to my delaying tactics.

"Sure...no problem," Lilly answered. "Whenever's most convenient for you."

OK, now _that_ was unexpected. I wondered what Dr. Bartlet wanted that she was being so deferential to my schedule.

"See you soon, then," I said, and we hung up.

I played three hands of solitaire against my computer and then headed over to the East Wing and the First Lady's office. Lilly waved me right through, and Dr. Bartlet greeted me at the door to her inner sanctum.

"Thanks for making time for me, Josh," Dr. Bartlet said. I don't think I had ever heard a more out-of-character comment from the First Lady since I met her.

"Uh...you're welcome, ma'am," I replied, feeling more disconcerted by her politeness than I had this morning in the face of her anger.

"Come on in. I wanted to talk to you."

I wondered what I could've done between this morning's encounter and now to make her need to have a conference with me, but I couldn't come up with anything.

Unless Dr. Bartlet had become telepathic in the last few hours...but that seemed quite unlikely. Although not impossible - I firmly believe that she has powers unlike those of mortal men.

Which led me to the thought that maybe she'd been possessed, which made me realize that between worry about Sam and other issues, I hadn't gotten _nearly_ enough sleep in much longer than I'd like to admit.

Which brought me full circle to the issue at hand.

"Dr. Bartlet, all due respect, but what did you want to talk to me about?"

"Have a seat, Josh," she said. I sat, still waiting to hear what this was all about.

"I wanted to...no, I need to apologize for my tone from this morning," Dr. Bartlet said.

"Excuse me, ma'am?" Between Sam and me, that phrase must've been said at least ten times already in the course of this one morning.

"Josh, I overreacted. It's just..." Something unidentifiable crossed Dr. Bartlet's face, then she continued. "It's just that I see you - both you and Sam - as an extension of our family. I know Jed sees you that way, too. After Delores' funeral..." She paused, as if she wasn't sure how to continue. Then she shook her head and said, "Jed thinks of you as our son, and so, by extension, Sam is our son-in-law." She smiled. "I like that. So, anyway, I reacted not like the medical professional that I am, not like the concerned friend that I try to be, but like the parent who has just made it through a crisis and who is now venting her frustration at the injustices that allowed her child to be hurt."

I didn't have an appropriate response. Thankfully, she continued speaking.

"So now you have something to commiserate with Zoey about - how her mother is overprotective."

I grinned. "More Sam than me - he accuses me of being overprotective all the time."

"So I'm forgiven?"

"Yes. But I think you will need to apologize to Sam, as well. He's more likely to interpret your lecture this morning as a rebuke for some failure. He's been very sensitive to even the perception of parental rebuke since his father's..." I didn't want to betray Sam's confidence. Dr. Bartlet didn't need to know about an argument between Sam and me that had gotten terribly out of hand and could've ended our relationship had we not realized we were each misunderstanding what was being said. I couldn't tell Dr. Bartlet about the horrible phone conversation Sam had with his mother immediately after his father's affair came to light, in which Sam was blamed for not knowing about the affair. Sam and his mother had both apologized and they were civil again, but it's not something that Sam likes to be reminded of.

"I'll make sure to talk to him before his appointment," Dr. Bartlet said, pulling me off the track my thoughts had headed down.

"Thanks," I said. I looked at my watch; it was almost 11:45. I wanted to meet Sam for lunch at noon. But I didn't know if I was now free to go. I looked expectantly at Dr. Bartlet, hoping she'd say something else.

She didn't disappoint. "Now be gone - you've got stuff to do, I've got stuff to do, and we've got to be at GW before 2:30...provided I'm still invited to join you."

"Of course," I said without hesitation. "Sam...we both need you there."

"Good," she said, standing up and waiting for me to stand before she headed for her office door. "So I'll meet you around 2?"

"Sounds about right," I said. I turned to leave, then paused. "Dr. Bartlet?" I said, "thanks for everything. I'm sorry I was so harsh earlier."

"I'm sorry, too. I overstepped, and I should know better. Hell, Oliver Babish has been drilling it into my head over and over that I have to learn the boundaries of my responsibilities..." She let that statement hang, and I refrained from taking the bait.

"So we'll see you later," I said, then hightailed it back to my office before the conversation got even more awkward.

I worked for another ten minutes then buzzed Sam.

"Sam Seaborn," he said into the phone.

"You alone?" I asked, hoping I wasn't on speakerphone, in case someone was there with him.

"Yeah," Sam said.

"What'cha doin'?"

"Drafting a speech to be given in front of the National Council on Predatory Birds."

"Oh...kay," I said. "You want a distraction?"

"How much of a distraction?" Sam asked, his voice suddenly huskier than before.

"Get your mind out of the gutter, love. Just lunch." Not that I didn't want to be more of a distraction, but the timing would be dicey.

"Oh," he said, sounding somewhat disappointed. "I could handle lunch right about now."

"Great. I'll meet you at your office in five minutes," I said. I figured that if we went out for lunch, I would be less likely to jump Sam the way I really wanted to.

In the end, we got sandwiches from Cosi, 'cause we took too long necking in Sam's office before we headed out to get food. But that was OK - we got sandwiches and walked along the mall while we ate, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.

Lilly was waiting for Sam in the lobby when we got back, so I left him with her and headed back to my office. About 20 minutes later, Sam appeared in my office doorway.

"Hey," he said, leaning against the doorjamb.

"Hey," I said. "C'mon in. I was just figuring out what to drop on Donna's desk before we headed over to GW." I finished piling a bunch of folders, scribbled a note to Donna to let her know what to do with the info, and stood up. I met Sam at the doorway and we walked over to Donna's desk.

"I just had the weirdest..." He got an odd look on his face, shook his head quickly, then said, "The First Lady hasn't been replaced by one of the pod people, has she?"

"Are those anything like the funnel people?" I teased, reminding him of a conversation of a couple of weeks before.

"No, y'know, the pod people...they replace real people and make them act differently from how they usually act."

"Right...no, I don't think so, but I'm open to the possibility," I said. "I was wondering about her telepathic abilities, myself."

"Huh?" Sam said.

"When she called me in to apologize to me, I at first wondered what I had done that warranted my being summoned. I hadn't done anything, but I had thought some rather nasty things about her, and I had wondered if she read my mind and was gonna punish me for my thoughts."

"Ah," Sam said, as if my speculation about the First Lady's telepathic abilities was an everyday occurrence.

"Anyway," I said. "Are you ready to head over to GW and get this over with?"

"More than you'll ever know," Sam said.

"So let's go get Dr. Bartlet and do this thing." I turned and headed out of the bullpen, Sam following right behind me.

Dr. Bartlet met us in the lobby and we headed to the limo. In short order, we were pulling up in front of GW. Sam and I headed up to Gastroenterology while Dr. Bartlet and her entourage dealt with some administrative issues regarding her medical license in light of the current congressional inquiries.

We waved to the desk clerks as we walked into the waiting room. They greeted us by name; this bothered me on some elemental level. To me, it was a sign that we'd spent way too much time in this hospital and on this floor in particular. I hoped that this would be our last visit for a good long time.

Dr. Bartlet and all joined us just as the nurse came out and called Sam's name. We all followed her to Dr. Adams' office, where Dr. Hopkins joined our merry little band.

"Dr. Adams was again called away for an emergency, so I'll be going over the results and your future care," Dr. Hopkins said to Sam. I wondered if, indeed, Dr. Adams was dealing with emergencies or, as I suspected, he was avoiding Dr. Bartlet. Either way, I didn't care - I liked Dr. Hopkins more than I liked Dr. Adams. Not that it was my call as to who treated Sam.

Dr. Hopkins ushered us into Dr. Adams' office and we all sat - or, at least, Dr. Bartlet, Sam and I sat. The agents tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as they stood against the wall, flanking the door.

"The good news, Sam, is that the ulcer isn't too severe. You should heal completely in a relatively short period. However, I would like you to alter your diet to be more gentle to your stomach. In part, that means no caffeine, no coffee - even decaf - and little to no chocolate."

She handed Sam a list of diet dos and don'ts that he then handed to me.

"I'm also going to write you a prescription for what we call a proton-pump inhibitor," she said, scribbling on her prescription pad. "This'll help heal your ulcer and - hopefully - prevent future problems." Again she handed the paper to Sam who immediately handed it to me.

Dr. Hopkins went over a couple of other things and then stood up. "Please feel free to contact me if you ever have any questions or concerns," she said, extending her hand for Sam to shake. Sam stood, as did Dr. Bartlet and I.

As we walked to the door, Dr. Bartlet turned to Dr. Hopkins. "Thanks for everything, Stephanie," Dr. Bartlet said. "I'll be in touch about dinner, OK?"

"Sure," Dr. Hopkins said. "I hope to see you soon, Abbey."

We headed back out to the limo.

"So..." Sam said to Dr. Bartlet, "that's it?"

"As long as you pay attention to your diet and all, yes," she responded.

"Good." He turned to me. "Let's go. I've seen way too much of this place."

I turned to Dr. Bartlet. "If it's all the same with you, ma'am, we're gonna walk back to the office."

"No problem," she said. "I'll see you back there."

We took our time walking back to the office. Neither of us really seemed to want to return to work, but since we'd both missed so much time for Sam's appointments, we felt compelled to go back.

"J?" Sam said to me as we walked.

"Yeah?"

"What now?"

"What do you mean, 'what now'?"

"What happens now? I've...it's been so long that I have been handling my own care, my own pain. Now I have to watch everything I eat, everything I take for pain..."

"You'll have to do something about that pharmacy you've got on your desk," I said.

"Nah," Sam said. "I'm not gonna remove that - everyone knows its there, and they've come to depend on it. Why they can't just go down to the pharmacy and get their own supplies of whatever, I don't know."

"Same reason you come to my office for bananas. It's more convenient."

"No," Sam said with a grin, "I filch bananas from your office so I can taunt you by eating it in front of you. You think I don't notice the fact that, the minute I walk into your meeting with the deputies, you strategically place whatever file is in your hand in front of your crotch?" He laughed. "At this point, I think _everyone_ notices."

"Uh..." I was flummoxed.

"Don't worry, J. They think it's adorable. I think you're adorable." He stopped walking, pulled me in for a deep, extended kiss, then started walking again as I attempted to regain my higher brain function and my dignity simultaneously.

The teasing didn't cease until we arrived back at the office. I can't recall any time I'd been happier to see Margaret with an armful of folders for me to dig through.

Sam and I parted ways and got back down to business.

***

Epilogue - And So It Goes

The crisis of Sam's ulcer ended over a month ago, and still I find myself hovering. I try to be casual about it, but I think he notices more of it than I give him credit for. Occasionally he'll comment, but for the most part he just tolerates it. I try not to inspect every morsel he eats. After a rather nasty, too-early-in-the-morning blowup, I've stopped commenting when he cheats and has a cup of coffee. If his stomach rebels, he's got to live with the pain. I'll give him sympathy, but I won't give him excuses. His shoulder has been OK recently, so that, too, seems to be under control.

Our relationship with the First Lady is back on its old track. She gets bossy occasionally, we get defensive, she reminds us our place in the pecking order...as I said, business as usual.

I know, somehow, that this is not going to be Sam's final health crisis. It is my fervent hope that the next one will be a long time from now, but I have to be realistic.

My mother says, "There's always something." Right now, the something is that we're trying to arrange a non-work trip to New York around the schedules of three overly busy people, the fact that my mom is now in Florida but will be back in Connecticut for a very brief time and will want to see us, and the random day-to-day crises that pop up when you work for the most powerful man in America.

And so it goes.

---END---

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