Author: Jae Gecko
Rating: PG-13 with a few arguably R moments (language and innuendo).
Spoilers: Extensive spoilers for "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail". Vaguer and somewhat less extensive spoilers for "Noel". Mild spoilers for one flashback scene in "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen", for "The Drop-In", and for "The War at Home". One brief, fleeting spoiler for "The Portland Trip".
Disclaimer: The characters belong to Aaron Sorkin, who is a far more talented writer than I am. I'm not confused; I'm just borrowing them. He can have them back when I'm done!
Archive: Yes to list archive; all others please ask.
Summary: Lisa, and Seth Gillette, in the aftermath of the disclosure of Sam's father's infidelity. First-person, from Josh's point of view.
Feedback: Send to email@example.com
Notes: This is a sequel to "Speechless" and another installment in the series that began with "Turning Myself Into You" (the rest of which can be found on my website). This story is self contained, as always, so you may of course read it without reading any of the others, but it would help to have a look at "The Real Thing", "Dancing With Shadows", and "Speechless" first to get the most out of this one.
Thank yous: To Kate, for unknowingly giving me the title (which, given the direction this story ended up taking, turned out to be an incredibly fitting gesture!). To Kathie, for helping me get a handle on how to (I hope) get it right this time, and to Christie, for believing I already had. To Shana, for a well-timed political suggestion. And, of course, an extra special thanks to Anna-Maria Jennings, without whom I would have stopped after "Turning". So many little things about this one are hers, so if you like it, thank her too.
Useless bit of trivia: Pieces of this story were written in four different countries.
Tripartisan by Jae Gecko
"This is a strange one."
I moved the pile of paperwork from my lap to the arm of Sam's couch and turned toward him, trying to refocus my eyes after ten minutes of watching one column of data merge into another until it made no sense. Senator Seth Gillette's threat to launch a presidential campaign as an independent candidate had Leo pretty spooked, and I was trying to figure out what repercussions his run might have on our early support if it did come to pass. It was still pretty pointless for me to even try to concentrate on anything as detail-oriented as voting behavior statistics after about 8:00, but when Sam had suggested we spend a working evening together at his place, I hadn't been about to tell him that I would rather go home and sleep. My brain wasn't quite functioning up to par at the moment, but I hadn't suddenly, like, lost a hundred IQ points.
"Strange how?" I scooted a little closer to him on the couch and lay my left arm along the back of the couch just behind his shoulders. His top shirt button was undone, and the next one was loose. I reached over to brush the hollow of his throat with my other hand and then moved it lower, freeing the second button as well.
Sam shifted the file to his left hand and reached across to stroke the back of my hand with his right, his eyes still focused on the papers in front of him. "The guy was supposedly at the center of an international drug smuggling ring, but based on all the information we've got on him, it looks like he's so dumb he can probably barely tie his shoes without help."
"Are you saying you've never known a stupid person to commit a crime?"
"Not *this* crime, Josh -- this one would have taken a certain degree of inventiveness. They got him on not just the drug charges, but conspiracy, and he got the maximum sentence because there were two murders they couldn't manage to pin on him. Besides, he was tried in Spain. In 1979. Do you have any idea what Spain was like in 1979? Franco had just died and the whole government was in the middle of this thinly veiled chaos during a pretty rocky transition to democracy. This poor guy's been sitting in one of our prisons ever since."
"Sounds like a good candidate for a pardon," I said, fingering the top edge of Sam's white T-shirt where it lay against his neck. "Who recommended him?"
Sam half-closed the file to look at the front of it. "Uh, Tribbey's office, this one."
Brushing a stray hair from his forehead, I studied his face. From this angle, his eyes looked an almost translucent blue.
"Isn't it incredible that we can do this?"
"What do you mean?" I thought it was pretty incredible that I could sit here on Sam's couch, running my fingers through his hair and contemplating the color of his eyes, but I was pretty sure that wasn't what he meant.
"This one thing that we can do has a real, tangible, direct effect on the lives of individual people. It's really such a little thing, but the effects are instantaneous," he said with a little amazed grin. I mean, this poor idiot's rotting away in his jail cell right now, living out his sorry life, and next week he's going to hear from the President of the United States that he's getting to go home after all. And there's no one else in the country that has the power to do this in the same way. It's amazing."
He sounded almost awe-struck, and I smiled. To me it seemed perfectly normal that the President would pardon falsely-convicted criminals, but thinking about it, he was right -- it was a pretty awesome power to have. That was Sam; he could always get me to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. "You're pretty amazing, yourself."
He turned to me, his brow furrowed. "I'm serious, Josh."
"So am I."
His expression changed and he smiled, squeezed my fingers, and looked back at his paperwork.
Looking past Sam's chin at my wrist, I sneaked a glance at my watch. 11:30. If I didn't manage to distract him soon, he'd throw me out before we even made it to the bedroom. Sam forced us to adhere to his "no overnights" rule to a ridiculous degree, citing a fear that we'd be found out if a lucky reporter happened to catch one of us coming out of the other's apartment in the morning. We'd spent only one night together since we'd resumed our relationship in November, and we'd both been aware the exception had only been made to reassure both of us that we'd make it through the crisis of the GDC speech with that relationship still intact. After that, though, it had been back to being shown the door no later than midnight most nights. I didn't push him about it anymore, but somehow the sight of my empty bed every night never got any easier.
Evenings like this did help, however -- evenings where we could both take some time to be alone. It made it easier to sleep at night when I could look back and remember those moments where I had been so incredibly happy, the kind of happy that only feeling my body tense, skin-on-skin, against the most remarkable man in the world could make me. Sometimes it even managed to keep the dreams at bay; the dreams I was still having several times a week, even now, almost two months after Christmas. My shrink said I was making progress, whatever that meant, and usually I could tell he was right -- I was pretty sure that I was steady enough in the office at this point that even Donna now thought things were completely back to normal. But whenever I woke in the morning after one of those dreams, drenched in sweat and wishing Sam was there, I found it hard to believe that things would ever be anything close to normal again.
Sam was still looking over the same file, his eyes now frowning a little through his glasses. My own eyes began fixating on the side of his neck, at the tiny mole there, visible only from a vantage point like this one. Moving closer to him, I leaned over and kissed it, half purposefully and half involuntarily. Sam had this quality that could only be described as somewhere between philosopher and rock star, and it was almost overpoweringly sexy sometimes. Better to let myself be overpowered by it now than during a staff meeting -- though that had happened more than once, too.
I felt the muscles in Sam's neck tense under my lips. "What do you think you're doing?" he said, trying to sound stern, but I could hear the smile in his voice.
"You have a great neck," I whispered, raising my chin a little.
"So you tell me." Grinning, he turned his head and planted a quick, light kiss on my lips before looking back at his file.
Encouraged, I stretched out partway on the couch, my knees bent, and put my head in Sam's lap. Now, this was a fine view as well. I reached up and untucked the front of his shirt and slid one hand up underneath, fiddling with his belt buckle with the other. "And you have a great ... stomach." Craning my neck to kiss the bare skin on his abdomen, I stretched my legs all the way out and put one foot on the armrest on the opposite side of the couch.
"Hey, careful, you're going to knock those all over the floor." Sam reached across me and grabbed the stack of paperwork I'd left sitting on that same armrest, setting it on the coffee table.
"Wouldn't be the first time," I smirked.
That got him. Sam turned back to me, his eyes twinkling, and I knew he was thinking of the same incident: my first day back at work after- after Rosslyn, a spilled briefcase, the floor of my bedroom, and the best mistake I'd ever made, since it had brought us back together. He reached down and cupped my chin with his hand, obviously remembering, and I sat up, repositioning myself so that I could more easily wrap my arms around him. I felt an almost embarrassing sense of accomplishment as I felt him reach down to put the file on Franco's Last American Victim on the floor and move in closer to return the sentiment.
He reached up to the back of my neck and fingered the hair there, releasing tingles down my neck and into my shoulders, and as he moved in closer for a kiss he took his glasses off. His lips were soft on mine, then suddenly harder as the kiss intensified. Sam's kisses were just like Sam -- they could be gentle one moment and dizzyingly strong the next. "No more work tonight," he said huskily, drawing back just enough to look me in the eyes.
"Okay," I agreed, as if it hadn't been my idea in the first place.
As Sam pulled me closer to him again, I was staggered by a sudden wave of arousal, and I began kissing him with a barely-controlled rush of energy. My thoughts were almost muddled enough that I didn't hear the sudden, obnoxious ringing sound from a few feet away -- almost, but not quite.
I groaned as he pushed me away and reached for the cordless phone on the coffee table. "Don't pick that up," I said, almost whimpering.
"I've got to," he breathed, grasping the phone as it rang again. "It could be Toby. Anybody who'd call at-" he glanced at his watch. "Shit. 11:45? You've got to get home." He pushed the talk button. "Hello?"
I collapsed, face-first, across Sam's lap and against the couch pillow on the other side of him. It wasn't quite hard enough a surface to bang my head against, really, but it would do for now. All I could think was that if it was Lisa, I'd personally drive up to New York to wring her neck.
"Oh, hi, Mom."
I closed my eyes and muttered obscenities against the pillow. I'd never met Mrs. Seaborn, and wasn't ever likely to, but sometimes I wanted to kill her anyway. How long had Sam lived on the east coast, at this point? How long was it going to take her to remember that there were three goddamn hours' time difference between California and Washington? I imagined them finishing up a nice, late dinner and deciding that this would be a perfect time to call their wayward son for a chat, and I scowled into the fabric, gritting my teeth.
I felt Sam sit up a little straighter on the couch, and all the muscles in his legs tensed. "Mom? Mom. Calm down. I can't- shh. I can't understand what you're saying."
The tension in his voice reflected what I could sense in his body, and I turned over on my back to look up at him, alarmed. Sam's jaw was set in a square line, his face flushed.
"Are you- did the two of you have a fight?" His voice shook just a little, and my fear increased. I pushed myself up into a half-sitting position, and suddenly I could make out his mother's voice as well, high-pitched and hysterical. My heart beat faster, but at least I knew that if he was talking about people having a fight, it wasn't likely that anyone was dead. The look on Sam's face scared me, though. Like he'd aged ten years in two minutes.
"You must have misunderstood that." Sam's voice was calm, but it was the sort of dull and distant calm of stunned shock. Sitting up the rest of the way, I reached for him, but he pushed me away and stood, carrying the phone into the hallway.
At least five minutes went by before I heard anything more -- I know, because I checked my watch pretty obsessively throughout -- and the silence felt strangely deafening. I was beginning to think Sam had gone into the bedroom and closed the door, completely out of earshot, but then I heard his voice making low noises that sounded like they were meant to be comforting, but which instead came out sounding mechanical, like the repetitive chug of a steam engine. I stood at that point, feeling the panic spread through my limbs, caught between wanting to go to him and giving him the space he obviously wanted if he'd felt the need to push me away and go in the other room.
"Yeah- yeah, of course I'm surprised." His voice had the high, almost squeaky pitch of a child's, and I took three steps toward the hallway before forcing myself to plant my feet firmly on the ground and stay put. "No. I had no idea."
What the hell was going on?
"Get some sleep, Mom. Yeah, go ahead and take something if you need to. You're going to be okay. Yeah." His voice was his own again, but expressionless, dead. "I'll call you tomorrow. I love you, too. Get some sleep. Good night."
Hearing the phone beep as he turned it off, I stood, frozen in place, while I waited for Sam to come back into the room. I looked at my watch. I would give him two more minutes to come back before going in there myself. No, wait, five.
Staring at my wrist without even looking away for a moment, at this point, I counted down the seconds. Four more minutes. Three. One minute and forty-five seconds. Twenty seconds. Okay, now.
Sam was sitting on the hallway floor in something close to darkness, the only light coming from the lamp he'd turned on earlier in the living room. His arms were wrapped around his legs, and he was pressing them close to his torso, his face pale and his eyes looking like sunken holes in his face. He was still clutching the telephone and staring intently at a spot on the wall, or -- more likely -- at something no one could see but Sam himself. It was one of the most terrifying things I'd ever witnessed.
Crouching down next to him, I put my arm on his shoulder. "Sam." *Come on, Sam. Don't scare me like this.*
He looked up at me and blinked, as if he was tearing himself away from another time and place, but didn't say anything. He didn't even look upset, really, just completely vacant.
"Sam. Did something happen to your mom?"
"No. I mean- I mean, yes." It sounded like he was trying out his voice for the first time after years of not using it.
I stroked his arm awkwardly and waited -- waited either for him to continue or for me to think of something better to do than just fucking sit there.
"My parents- they're prob- I think they're going to get a divorce?" The statement came out as a question, as if there was something more to follow that he couldn't say yet.
I nodded, and continued moving my fingers clumsily along his arm.
Sam shook his head slowly. "Of course they're going to get a divorce."
"It was just an accident, really. That she found out." He closed his eyes for a moment, and then sluggishly opened them again. "She- she might never have found out ..."
"Who? Your mom? What did she find out?" I knew I sounded frantic, but he was drawing inward again, and I couldn't stand to let him do that.
"It was- it was a credit card company. A credit card company called. Talked to my mom. Wanted to know ..." His voice trailed off.
"What?" He was inarticulate, almost incoherent. That was what was so scary about this, I realized. His words were gone. Sam's words were gone.
"... whether the Santa Monica address was right, or the one in- whether they had moved."
"Sam." I didn't know what he was saying, but I was pretty sure he wasn't making sense. I wrapped my fingers around his arm, now, gripping him tightly.
"And she said, no, they've lived in the same house for thirty years. Thirty ..."
"Sam! What happened?"
"They gave her the other phone number, and ... she called. My dad answered."
"What?" I shook my head, not understanding.
He finally looked up at me. "My dad- he's lived in Santa Monica. For twenty-eight years. With some woman."
I drew in a breath and held it, feeling my eyes grow wide. Oh, God, Sam.
"Twenty-eight ... oh. They weren't- the business trips." His eyes clouded over further, and he put his forehead down on his knees.
I pulled my hand away from Sam's arm as I felt my fist clench, realizing that I suddenly wanted to kill the guy -- Sam's father. I wanted to fly to California, show up on his doorstep, and punch him in the jaw. The jerk wouldn't know what had hit him. I stood, unable to continue sitting there, and steadied myself against the wall. Asshole. Twenty-eight years. Sam would have been, what, all of eight or nine years old? That complete and utter asshole.
We both jumped when the phone rang again, and Sam dropped the receiver onto the floor with a thud.
"Are you going to answer that?" I asked him.
He stared at the phone as if he didn't dare touch it. "I can't talk to her again tonight," he said, his voice cracking.
In my first stroke of intelligence since this whole mess had begun, I ran out into the living room and looked at the caller-id box on the table by the phone cradle. I blinked in amazement at the display. *Un-fucking-believable. As if on cue.*
"California?" Sam asked from the hall, looking up at me.
For a split second I actually thought about lying to him -- the word 'yes' was on the tip of my tongue, but I just couldn't force it past my lips. "It's New York," I said truthfully. We both knew what that meant. Lisa.
Sam's eyes lit up immediately -- I could even see that from all the way across the living room -- and it felt as if he had punched me in the gut. He picked up the phone, put his thumb on the talk button, and then froze. Looking even more distressed than a moment ago, he held his hand there, but didn't press the button. He let it ring until it went to the answering machine, and he let the receiver drop to the floor again, putting his head back down on his knees. The answering machine whirred, but she didn't leave a message.
I walked quietly back over to him. Sam had been with Lisa for ten years, and they'd even been engaged for a short time before he'd left New York to join the Bartlet campaign with me. Before that, though, she'd worked for me on Mike Silverstein's ill-fated Senate campaign years ago. Where I'd met Sam. Where Lisa had met Sam. Where it had all started.
It had been such a long time ago, but somehow that part of our lives just never seemed to be over. Even now she seemed to have these creepy powers that she'd always use on him, appearing out of nowhere whenever anything went wrong in Sam's life, never failing to make him feel like everything was just fine and dandy as long as she was there. He thought of her as the perfect friend, but I knew better -- I'd seen her at her worst, and it wasn't pretty. She really seemed a little *too* perfect, to me, and her "magic powers" pretty damn manipulative. First chance she got, I knew she'd try to get him back in her bed. I didn't talk to Sam about it, but I was scared to death that someday she'd succeed.
Sitting down next to him, I couldn't help but stare at the unanswered phone. I wondered if he had done that on my account. I wasn't really sure whether I hoped that he had or that he hadn't.
Sam shook his head without lifting it from his knees. "I just can't talk to her ... right now. I mean- she wouldn't want ..." His voice trailed off, and all at once I knew exactly why Sam hadn't picked it up. I was hazy on the details -- Sam wasn't terribly forthcoming with me about the ins and outs of his weird relationship with his ex -- but I knew there had been some sort of conflict between them back while I'd been in the hospital, and she'd asked him to stop relying on her so much. It was the only thing Lisa and I had ever agreed on.
Sam snapped his head up. "I'm going to call her back."
I felt a lump begin to grow in the back of my throat. I knew it should have been me comforting Sam this time. He shouldn't have been forced to rely on Lisa -- not now, not ever -- but I just couldn't manage to be of any use to him. I scowled, hating the way she always made me feel like the only reason Sam wasn't with her was because he had some sort of masochistic streak, like I had nothing at all to offer him but another broken heart.
"Hi. Yeah, sorry, I didn't make it to the phone in time. No, of course not -- can you imagine me sleeping at this hour? It's practically still daylight to a White House staffer."
I looked away, cringing at Sam's obviously forced attempt at light banter through a pinched voice.
"No, I'm fine. I'm just- I think I'm coming down with something. Yeah. Probably just a cold."
I turned back to him, reaching over to awkwardly put my hand on top of his where it rested on the floor. He didn't react.
"Oh. Jeez. Wow, that's- that's really bad timing." Sam rubbed his forehead wearily. "I'm really, uh- I'm up to my ears in judicial pardon nominations. Yeah, you know, that law degree is still good for something sometimes." He tried to laugh, but it came out sounding like a wheeze.
"No, I can't even really take a whole evening. Maybe I could pick you up at the airport? Right, yeah, I should have known. Next time, then. Okay, I'll let you go. I love you, too. Night."
I tried to suppress the urge to throw something that always overtook me whenever I heard Sam tell Lisa he loved her. "She's coming to town?" I asked, carefully keeping my voice steady.
"Yeah. She's appearing as a character reference for a judicial nomination on Friday, and driving down on Thursday. She was going to stay the weekend, but I told her I was busy." His voice shook on the last few words, and I felt my heart clench. He knew, just as I did, that talking to Lisa would have been just what he needed right now, but whatever had gone on between them while I'd been in the hospital prevented it. And I just sat there, completely unable to do a damn thing.
I couldn't stand Lisa -- could barely even stand to think about her too much -- but right now I wanted nothing more than to be her.
Sam stared at the phone when it rang again, and I automatically got up and ran into the living room to check the caller-id. "It's California," I called out to him.
Sam shook his head violently. "I can't talk to her again ... I- I've never heard her sound like that."
He let it ring long enough to go through to the answering machine, but it stopped for a moment and then instantly rang again. "California again," I said, looking down at the caller-id box.
Sam put his finger on the talk button, and I ran over to his side. "Hey, you don't have to answer that."
"No, she obviously needs me," he protested, pressing the button and putting the phone to his ear. "Mom?"
Sam's forehead wrinkled, and he pressed his lips together in that cold anger that only came out at the worst of times. His eyes, though, held an anguish that I knew wouldn't go away for a long time. It was a terrifying combination. Gripping the phone like he was trying to crush it with one hand, he hung it up with the other.
"That was my dad."
The phone rang again, and we both stared at it this time, as if together we could will it to stop ringing. When it went dead before going through to the answering machine, it immediately rang again, and Sam clenched his teeth and threw it across the living room before crumpling against his legs in an exhausted heap.
I reached over tentatively and touched his cheek. He closed his eyes, but I knew the pain behind them was still there, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.
I worried about Sam for the rest of the week as he walked around the office in a haze of shock and betrayal. By Wednesday night he had started sleeping at the office, on Toby's couch, to avoid having to hear from his dad, and although it made him look even more haggard, I didn't argue with him. Not that it really stopped his dad, since the jerk was shameless enough to try to reach Sam at work, but at least in the office Sam had the communications staff between him and the phone. Once and only once did I hint that he was, of course, welcome at my place, but it didn't even register. Maybe he didn't want it to.
Sam immersed himself in the pardon decisions to an even greater extent than before he'd found out, but he didn't talk to anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. He shut everyone out, including me, and eventually it even got to the point that I had to tell Leo and Toby what was going on. I knew how awful it was to walk around the office on hot coals, hoping no one else could tell how much it hurt, and it killed me to see him like that, but anything I tried to do to help ended up being completely useless.
At least his job didn't seem to suffer for it, though, which is more than I could say for mine. Somehow Sam's constant pain made it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything. It took me at least a day longer than I should have needed to lay the groundwork for my meeting with Leo about Gillette, since every screenful of data I tried to work with had images of the scared kid Sam had turned into on Tuesday night superimposed on it. My temporary incompetence forced us to postpone the meeting until Thursday morning, although I didn't find out until I showed up in Leo's office exactly why he hadn't had any objections to putting it off.
As I stepped through the door, I unexpectedly found Toby and C.J. sitting there, and my forehead wrinkled in confusion. "Ah, is this- am I interrupting something?" I looked at my watch, anxious for a moment that I'd gotten the time wrong.
"Sit down, Josh," Leo commanded. "I asked Toby and C.J. to be here too."
"We're still talking about Gillette?"
"Yeah. Things may be more complicated than we expected."
I set myself down in a chair next to Toby and rubbed my eyes, feeling tired all of a sudden. "Doesn't it ever make you wonder that nothing ever ends up *simpler* than we expected? I mean, is there, like, some curse on this place that we don't know about?"
"Gillette's raised the stakes," Leo began. "He's done a couple of phone interviews on radio stations in the Northeast."
"Radio is a good strategy," Toby said, nodding. "It's a lot of potential grassroots-style publicity without spending any money or even having to declare that he's running. Somebody on Gillette's team knows what they're doing, though it's probably not the man himself."
"The interviews have dealt mainly with social security," Leo continued, "but he's starting to bring up things that go beyond his pet issues. He's starting to sound like a candidate."
"I say let him," I shrugged. "We have bigger problems right now than Seth Gillette. We don't have the time and energy to spend swatting flies."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Leo warned. "We found out yesterday that he's planning to do the circuit in Europe, and from the itinerary it sure doesn't look like he's going as a tourist."
"Come on, Leo, he'll be pretty much completely ignored by heads of state there. A junior senator from North Dakota? A guy with a name nobody knows, from a state Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder probably couldn't even find on a map? He's just wasting his time. As far as I'm concerned, he can do what he wants. This just gets him out of our hair," I said, running my fingers through mine.
"The issue is that *our* press might notice, not what damage he could do to us abroad," C.J. protested. "And they'd know what all this meant. They're not stupid, Joshua."
Leo nodded. "What happened at the leadership breakfast was bad enough. Gillette could be the trigger to publicly put this country into election mode months early, and we're not ready for a full-on defensive campaign at this point."
There was something behind Leo's eyes that let me know that he was more than just idly concerned about the idea of having to begin the campaign early, and although I knew better than to ask why, I also knew I had to take him seriously. I shifted in my seat, stretching my legs.
"There's something else." Leo's tone sounded ominous, like a storm brewing, and I sat up straighter. "C.J. tells me there's a rumor afloat that Gillette is considering making an offer to one of the senior White House staff to play a pivotal role in running his campaign."
"Wait, wait." I held out a hand to slow things down. "How do we know this?"
"A reporter asked me just as I was leaving the six pm briefing last night," C.J. responded.
I surveyed the room as it dawned on me that all but one of the senior staff were sitting in Leo's office. Everyone except Sam. Suddenly Gillette seemed a lot more threatening, and from the worried looks on the faces of the others, I could tell wasn't the only one who thought so. Though I *was* pretty sure I was the only one of us who knew Sam had come within an inch of resigning after the GDC speech, and that he had, in fact, in a fit of anger, even toyed with the idea of going to work for Gillette.
I felt a hot flush begin in my neck and slowly spread to my face. Gillette couldn't possibly have known that, could he? "What exactly did the reporter ask?"
"What our reaction was to the potential for a third-party bid from Senator Seth Gillette of North Dakota. And whether there was any truth to the rumor that he's going to try to take one of the senior staff with him."
"Does your guy know who it is?" Toby asked.
C.J. shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Do you think there's any chance Sam would leave?" Leo asked Toby.
"I think there's a part of him that wants a change of scenery," he answered quietly.
"Because of the thing." We all knew Leo meant the drop-in; there was no need to say it aloud again.
Toby nodded, and I heard Leo curse, almost inaudibly, under his breath.
I swallowed hard. Bad as that had been, I knew that wasn't the whole problem. Gillette could offer Sam something we could no longer give him -- the excitement of running a campaign with a non-incumbent candidate who was promising to make major changes in the way the country worked. Though Sam was fiercely loyal to President Bartlet, there was no denying that many of his core views were actually more aligned with Gillette's. I was more than aware that running for re-election wasn't going to hold the same sort of fascination for Sam that the first Bartlet campaign had. I hoped Sam himself wasn't.
"What is Gillette after?" C.J. asked. "He can't seriously be thinking he has a chance of winning."
"I met with him just after the State of the Union," Toby volunteered. "He was furious about the Blue Ribbon campaign, and he still holds a grudge that we didn't support him on his idiotic excuse for a social security bill."
The press secretary raised an eyebrow. "So it's about revenge."
Toby nodded, glaring. "He's a self-important bastard who's pissed off that we don't single him out and notify him in advance about our every move. Oh, he's probably got some lofty ideals in there, too, like wanting to halt the alleged rightward movement of the party, inject so-called progressive perspectives into the pre-campaign discussion-"
"So what you're really getting at is that he wants to take the reins," I interrupted. "It sounds like he wants to steer us toward his own pet projects, and right now he's able to do that without even declaring candidacy. He's blowing smoke out of his ass, and every time he does, we have to jump."
"Right," Toby nodded.
I turned toward Leo. "We can't let him rule us."
"Exactly why we have to do something now, before it goes that far."
I folded my hands in my lap. I was convinced.
"Okay. The first thing we need to do is find out how serious Gillette is about this. And second, we need to find out how much it will hurt us if he *is* serious."
"I assume you had a look at the numbers-"
"That's not going to be enough at this point. Someone needs to meet with him again," Leo said, looking at me.
He wouldn't send Toby this time, not after what had happened before, and I drew in a breath, suddenly realizing I would have to pull myself together. If the circumstances had been any different, I would have suggested Sam do this -- it seemed more likely that Gillette would respond better to his charms than to mine anyway -- but that was pretty unthinkable this time.
"Josh, I want you to arrange something. Appeal to his sense of fairness, assuming he's got one. Feel him out about Sam. Tread lightly if you can, try to smooth things over after what happened with Toby, but don't let him push you around."
"Okay," I nodded.
"Toby, I need you to start mapping out an offensive strategy, in case this fails. And C.J., just try to keep this out of the press for now. I know they're going to start wondering, after the question you got last night, but if you can play it down, that will buy us some time."
"Should we talk to Sam?" C.J. asked. "He'll want to know we're doing this."
Leo shook his head. "I really don't want to get him thinking along these lines."
"It does involve him," I said, staring at Leo in a weak challenge.
He stared right back. "Not yet, it doesn't."
I slouched involuntarily down in my chair in what I knew probably looked like a retreat, and hated myself.
"Sam's got enough on his plate," Leo insisted. "If we can get Gillette to lay off, he won't have to get involved in this at all."
I cleared my throat, feeling incredibly uneasy about leaving Sam out of this discussion, especially after what had happened last time. At the same time, though, I couldn't help but remember how upset he had looked early this morning when I'd arrived at the office to find him still there, his suit wrinkled and his eyes bloodshot, stooped by the crick in his back from sleeping on the stiff couch. I understood where Leo was going with this -- if Sam was upset enough, he might do something drastic.
At least that was how I convinced myself.
By Friday Donna had called Gillette's office three times, and each time she'd gotten the runaround from his administrative staff. At first they'd told her he was in a meeting, the second time they'd said he was away from his desk again and hadn't had a free moment yet to return calls, and by the third time, when she'd said she'd gotten more of the same, my irritation turned to incredulity. I couldn't believe the arrogance of a junior senator essentially refusing to speak with the White House, but Seth Gillette seemed to be a breed unto himself. Finally forced to change tactics, I set up a meeting with the Vice President, knowing Gillette and Hoynes had worked on the Senate Finance Committee together. The part of this job I hated the most was figuring out when to suck it up and admit you couldn't do it without that one little piece of information you could only get from someone else, and I knew now was one of those times.
As for Sam, he'd now spent two consecutive nights sleeping in Toby's office. His father was growing even more persistent in trying to reach him at work, and the wear on him really showed. He must have managed to shower at the gym, but he still looked haggard. I felt desperate to do something to cheer him up, but I had no idea how to get through to him.
As if that hadn't already overloaded a Friday, it turned out that was also the day Donna's friend Stephanie showed up and tried to get her grandfather -- a White House staffer in the forties who'd been accused of espionage and had died in prison -- added to the pardon list posthumously. Stephanie's father was dying, and his last wish was to see his own father's name cleared. At first I had actually thought -- given the charge Sam always got out of making the lives of the downtrodden just a little bit better -- that a pardon case like this one would have been just the thing to cheer him up.
Donna, on the other hand, had really wanted to do her friend a favor by bringing the possibility to Sam's attention, but she'd still been worried about how he would take it. "I'm just not sure he can deal with anything else this week," she'd said, gazing across my desk at me with those big puppy dog eyes that were compelling and irritating at the same time. "I mean, look at him. Have you ever seen him this upset?"
I had, in fact, seen Sam far worse off even than this -- once in a tiny apartment in Manhattan and once more under the shade of a tent in Tampa, both times he'd broken off our relationship -- but I hadn't been about to explain those particular circumstances to my assistant. So I'd shrugged and told her that Sam was upset, not incapacitated, and he wouldn't break if she gently asked him for a favor. I knew only too well how ineffectual it made you feel when everyone tiptoed around you and wouldn't trust you to get anything accomplished because your pain was engraved on your face. Later, though, after seeing the way Sam looked as the three of them passed me in the hall on their way to go discuss the issue, I panicked a little, reconsidering, and followed them downstairs to the mess to check on him before my meeting with Hoynes.
Picking up a cup of coffee, I sat down at a table behind them and tried to look like I would have been there anyway. I tried not to overhear their conversation, but catching snippets was inevitable. Sam was going to pursue the pardon recommendation; he was going to talk to someone at the FBI to let them know what was going on. He sounded exhausted. I followed when Sam finally stood, and as I passed the table where the three of them had been sitting, I glanced over at Stephanie. "Hey, Steph."
"You're across the street in five minutes," Donna said, and I shot her a look. She always knew when I needed reminding, but I *had* remembered, that time.
"Yeah." I walked over to the door and held it open for Sam to pass through it. "I'm walking out with you."
"Sam," Stephanie called back to him.
I turned around, my hand still on the door, and watched Sam stare at them blankly. The girl looked at Sam like he was her knight in shining armor, and I knew he must have been inwardly cringing. "Thank you," she said adoringly.
"Yeah." Sam gave her a weak nod and turned to walk out of the mess. As we passed through the door, he put his hand on my arm to steady himself and sighed.
"You're on the Gault thing?" I asked.
Of course he was; Sam wouldn't have said no. "That's nice of you. I appreciate that."
"Yeah. I'll give the Bureau a heads-up."
That, of course, could be the major kink in the thing. Convincing the President would be a challenge, but nothing like the battle Sam would face with the FBI if he wanted to put this through. "They're not gonna be happy about it."
He started up the stairs, moving as if somehow he'd already spent all of the day's energy, and I groped for something to say that might possibly make him smile through the exhaustion. "Do you know Lincoln signed a pardon on the day he was assassinated?"
"You know the guy's name?" I asked as we reached the top of the stairs, knowing I sounded like some kid running along behind a puppy and taunting it. But I was on a roll and just couldn't stop, despite the weary expression on Sam's face.
"Patrick Murphy," he answered, walking a few steps ahead of me.
"You know what he was pardoned for?"
"Y- a deserter."
"Am I annoying you?"
"A little bit, yeah," he said sharply.
I walked around to face him from the right. "I was trying to make you laugh."
"I appreciate that," Sam said dully, and it couldn't have been more obvious that it hadn't worked. He put his hand on my arm. "Could I see your friend at the FBI?"
I just looked at him for a moment. I knew he was trying to cope by throwing himself into his work, but it was pretty clear that it wasn't serving as the distraction he'd hoped it would be. Unfortunately, I couldn't seem to come up with anything better. "Yeah. Can I tell him why?"
Sam nodded. "Yeah," he said, looking resigned, and turning to go in through the swinging glass doors that led back into the White House.
I started heading out the other door to my appointment with Hoynes, but my eyes felt fixed on Sam walking away from me. His back, normally straight and confident, was hunched and tense in a way that looked almost painful, and the back of his shirt was wrinkled.
Sam turned around.
"You wanna have a lot of fun?" I raised my hand in a gesture I hoped would convey excitement. "Seriously. Go sit in on C.J.'s meeting with the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality."
"Where is the social inequality in cartography?" Sam responded, sounding like he was struggling to care.
"I don't know. That's why I'm going."
"You'll call the guy."
Sam began turning to leave, but I couldn't let him go like this. I reached for something, anything at all, to say. "That a new shirt?" *Lame, Lyman, lame.*
"Yeah." His expression was blank.
He looked right through me, and I kicked myself for sounding so ridiculous. How was it that I could say just the thing to convince a Congressman to vote the way we needed him to, but I couldn't make Sam crack a smile? As I watched him turn and walk back to his office, his back just as hunched and cramped as a moment ago, it felt as if Sam was the only thing in my life I always managed to get completely wrong.
I headed across the street, and Hoynes' secretary nodded me in wordlessly when I arrived in his office.
"Josh." Hoynes stood and reached across the desk to shake my hand.
"Mr. Vice President," I responded, taking it.
"I've really only got a couple of minutes, unfortunately." He didn't look as sorry as he was apparently trying to sound. He never had managed to get the humble, apologetic look quite right.
"That's okay -- it shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes."
"So this is about Seth Gillette?" He motioned to me to sit down.
"Yeah," I said, pouring myself into the chair by his desk. "After the GDC speech, he threatened to run against Bartlet in 2002 as an independent candidate. At first it looked like he was just blowing smoke, but now it looks like that's actually going to happen, and I'm gonna see if I can smooth things over. There was already some trouble with Toby once, though, and we just want to make sure it's different this time."
"Hmm." He looked thoughtful. "Gillette could definitely make a reelection campaign more difficult."
Hoynes always did have a talent for understatement. "Yeah."
"Tell me. Is this coming from the President, or from Leo?"
He nodded, and a little smile crossed his face before he managed to wipe it away. "Just curious."
I stared at him. Something was up, but I knew Hoynes well enough to be aware that anything short of a threat of bodily harm, and possibly not even that, would get him to tell me. "So what do I need to know about Gillette?" I asked, trying to keep things on track.
"He's got an ego the size of several football fields."
I leaned back in the chair. "I thought you were going to tell me something I didn't already know, sir."
"I'm doing that." He rolled his chair closer to his desk and met my gaze head-on. "The thing with Seth is that you've always got to throw him a bone. You can't run roughshod over him like Toby tried to -- that's bound to fail because he'll always come back at you twice as hard the next time. If you want to tell him to back off, first you've got to tell him how valuable he is to you."
I was preoccupied enough with trying not to roll my eyes that I couldn't manage to keep the sarcasm from my voice. "Terrific."
"When I headed up the subcommittee on health care, he was a bigger thorn in my side than any of the Republicans. He knew he'd gotten into office by being a shit-stirrer and being adored for it. It was his first term, and he thought he owned the world." Hoynes raised an eyebrow at me. "He was even cockier then than he is now."
"I'm finding that especially hard to imagine at the moment, sir."
"He'd gotten it into his head that we had to investigate the insurance companies for racial discrimination. I thought he was being paranoid, so I told him no time and time again, and it just made him livid. He not only dug in his heels on that, but made a whole series of unrelated things more difficult for me as well."
Hoynes nodded. "But then there was an incident -- you might remember it; it sure got enough press -- where a poor black kid in Maryland died because he couldn't pay the high premiums they required from those who led 'high risk' lives. So the investigation happened, and I put Seth in charge. It turned out to be the best move I could have made, because suddenly he was the easiest person in the world to work with."
"Well, maybe he *should* run for President, if that's all it takes," I said with a snort.
"No, really. He can be your greatest ally. He's stubborn, and he's a fighter, and he's smart as a tack. The trick is not to get on his bad side."
I exhaled deeply and rubbed the corners of my eyes. "I think it's too late for that."
"The thing is," he said, digging in the candy bowl on his desk and popping a peppermint into his mouth, "he ended up being right about the insurance companies."
"I hate it when that happens," I said, and Hoynes smirked.
I sat up straighter again and shifted until my feet were flat on the floor. "So if we were already planning to, say, investigate the consequences of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, Gillette might be a good person to involve."
"I'd think that would be a good idea on several fronts."
"Okay. Anything else?"
Hoynes shrugged. "He plays golf."
"Somehow I don't think I'm going to win Gillette over by regaling him with nostalgic tales of trips to central Connecticut."
"No, probably not," he said, reaching into his desk and pulling out a file folder. "But it is the reason I'm going to have to cut this short."
I blinked. "You're asking me to leave because Gillette plays golf?"
"No, I'm asking you to leave because *I* play golf, and I've got two more meetings and forty pages of text to read before I head down to South Carolina for the weekend."
"The whole weekend?" No wonder people thought the office of the Vice President was purely ceremonial.
Hoynes raised an eyebrow at me. "You should think about it yourself, Josh. You look tired."
"I'd need a job like yours first, sir." I tried to bite back the words as they escaped, unbidden, from my mouth, but he smiled.
"Something to aspire to, then," he said with a chuckle, and I smiled back.
"You been feeling all right?" he asked, suddenly serious. "Back in the swing of things at the office?"
I stood. God, the last thing I needed was sympathy from John Hoynes. "I'm fine."
"Glad to hear it."
I reached out a hand. "Thanks for your help."
"No problem," he said, shaking it. "Let me know what happens."
Hoynes' advice about getting away for the weekend wouldn't leave my brain as I walked back across the street to the White House. I knew what he probably had in mind for me was a golf trip to somewhere warm, but I kept thinking that what I really needed was to get Sam away from the office and out of the city for once. The weight of the pardon decisions would be gone, he'd be away from his apartment and the constantly ringing phone, and he'd be with me. The thought rattled around and around in my head, and I knew that was what had to happen. Somehow, I would have to make it happen.
I went in through the north entrance and headed straight over to the communications bullpen, catching Toby as he was walking into his office. "Hey, I just met with Hoynes about Gillette."
"How'd it go?"
"He says it's a matter of showing the good Senator how valuable he is to us, and then he'll be our best friend."
Toby raised an eyebrow. "He said that?"
"Well, something like that. I thought we might, like, get him in on the welfare investigation. We need someone for that anyway, and if it helps smooth things over-"
"Yeah, that might work," he said, exhaling slowly. "You know, the timing on this couldn't have been a whole lot worse." He glanced out his open door, and I followed his eyes over to where Sam was walking into his own office. I felt a flare of guilt that all this was going on behind his back.
"I'll take care of it," I insisted.
Remembering what Hoynes had said about the insurance companies, I pressed my lips together and rubbed the back of my neck. "You know, much as I hate to admit it, the man does have some legitimate issues. That social security bill was pretty outrageous, but he did try to do something about it, which is more than we can say for a lot of 'em."
"Maybe, but we can't work with him until he stops taking everything so personally," Toby said quietly.
I nodded. "I'm gonna meet with him, run the welfare investigation idea by him."
"Let me know how it goes."
"Okay," I said, heading back out into the hall. Waving as I walked past Ginger, I walked into Sam's office and closed the door behind me. "Hey."
Sam didn't look up from the file open on his desk. "So what's the matter now?"
"What? Nothing's the matter."
"It's just that nothing good ever comes out of a meeting that begins when you come in and close my office door behind you," he said, still not looking up.
I grinned at him. "I can think of at least one very good thing that came out of a meeting like that."
Sam looked up at me wearily, but didn't smile. "What do you want, Josh?"
"Uh," I began, realizing I didn't quite know how to spin this. "I was just thinking."
"I was thinking that we should get you out of town for the weekend."
Sam blinked, like that was the last thing he'd been expecting me to say. "Out of town?"
"Yeah. When was the last time you went anywhere that wasn't within a six mile radius of the White House?"
"There's no way I'll be finished with all this by tonight," he said, shaking his head.
I shrugged, unfazed. "So we'll leave tomorrow. We'll still get one night away. I was thinking we might go to Virginia Beach," I said, as if I hadn't just now thought of that. "It's only something like a four-hour drive. It's on the beach. There are good places to eat. You could, uh, go water skiing." *I could watch.*
"Josh, it's February. Virginia Beach isn't *that* far south."
"Okay, so we could walk down to the beach and you could *think* about water skiing." *And maybe we could both think about a certain evening on another beach in Connecticut.*
"Come on, you're gonna, like, rot away in here. If we leave by noon we'll be there within a few hours, so we'll have all of Saturday evening and all day Sunday."
He set a hand on the stack of files still in front of him. "I won't be finished by tomorrow, either."
"So take some work with you. I'll drive -- you can read stuff in the car."
"You know we can't just run off on a romantic weekend together. It doesn't work that way for us." His voice sounded pinched, and I wavered a bit. He was right. He always was, about that. Even when I forgot.
I shuffled my feet a little and tried not to let on that I was rethinking things. "So, uh- we'll get separate rooms. Maybe we can, you know, take some of the others with us. We'll bring Donna."
He raised his eyebrow skeptically, and I rolled my eyes. "Come on, Sam, you can't sleep in the office all weekend."
"Would we have to bring Donna?"
I grinned, realizing I'd won. "Nah."
"Okay what?" I had to hear it come out of his mouth.
He shot me a look of exasperation. "Okay, I'll go to Virginia Beach with you, Josh."
I felt my grin grow wider as I stepped back toward the door. "Cool."
Sam's mouth didn't smile, but his eyes did, and I wanted to dance. "Is that Stephanie's grandfather?" I asked, gesturing at the file in his hand.
He nodded. "He's the last one."
"Well, I'll leave you to him, and maybe he won't have to come along with us."
Sam sniffed. "Don't count on it."
"I won't," I said, still grinning, as I walked out of Sam's office.
"And wasn't I funny when I told the bartender about the thing with Mrs. Landingham and the French ambassador?" Sam sloshed the half-full glass of his fifth beer to his mouth, spilling a bit on the table in the process.
Donna smiled and leaned back in the booth. "Funny as in strange, or funny as in ha-ha?"
"He thought it was funny," Sam insisted. "It was a funny story. It made him laugh."
I looked over at the bar, trying to catch the waiter's attention so he could bring us the check. "Fine, Sam, you're a funny drunk."
"Wait, no." A look of confusion crossed his face. "You're supposed to say I'm a *fun* drunk, not a funny drunk."
"Okay, you're that, too."
"Now you're just being agreeable for the sake of being agreeable," Sam said crossly.
"You definitely can't do that," Toby said, putting out his cigar against the ashtray in the middle of the table. "It'll do serious damage to your reputation."
"It's just that I think I know how to have a good time," Sam explained, sounding whiny and more than a little bit pitiful. "I mean, don't you guys always have a good time with me?" I looked at my watch, realizing I had to get him home. Taking him out drinking had seemed like a good idea earlier in the evening, but now I wasn't so sure.
"But of course," Donna said, taking a sip of water. She'd switched from beer half an hour ago, but Sam had persevered.
"You're always good for some sort of amusement, anyway," Toby added.
"As opposed to Josh, who's a wet blanket at least two thirds of the time." Sam set his glass down on the table, and I snorted.
"Oh, I always have a good time with Josh, too," Donna insisted, putting her head on my shoulder. I swallowed hard.
Sam looked pointedly at Donna. "I thought you were here to cheer me up. Disagreeing with me like that isn't going to cheer me up."
"I've got to tell the truth," she giggled. "What good is a politician who doesn't tell the truth?"
"I guess I should have told Stephanie the truth, then," Sam responded darkly, and Donna's face fell. Flustered, she sat up straight and fiddled with her napkin.
I looked at my watch again. Where the hell was that waiter? The beer had been intended as a distraction, but Sam had been absolutely devastated that Stephanie's grandfather had turned out to actually have been a spy, and it was looking now like the evening had done anything but distract him. If we had to run through the events of that awful day again, I thought my head would explode.
Sam wasn't done. "And anyway, last I checked, an administrative assistant working for a politician didn't quite qualify as a politician herself."
Donna flushed crimson, and I sighed. "Sam, quit picking on Donna."
He turned and looked at me innocently. "What? I like Donna. The only thing I have against Donna is the fact that she's got this friend whose father betrayed his President, not to mention his entire country, and I came this close to putting him in line for a fucking pardon." He jutted his jaw forward angrily and took another gulp of his beer.
Toby and I exchanged a glance across the table as we all fell into an uncomfortable silence. Donna looked like she was about to cry. "It was her grandfather," she said finally, struggling to keep her voice low. "And Stephanie can't help that, Sam."
"Okay, you're right. We can't be held responsible for who we're related to."
I sighed. *Enough.* "Sam."
"You're definitely not being a fun drunk."
"Or even a funny drunk," Toby added.
Donna shook her head. "No, you're definitely being a sad drunk now."
"But would that be sad as in upset, or sad as in pathetic?" Sam asked.
"Arguably both, at this point," Donna shot back, still sounding injured.
"It does make a difference," Sam insisted. "My dad was pretty pathetic. On the phone, tonight. Pretty damn pathetic." He drained the rest of his beer in one gulp.
The silence returned, and we all tried not to look at each other. I couldn't help but remember what Sam had looked like as I'd watched him through the window to his office, dialing his father's number. I'd never seen such a mix of anger and pain on his face, but I'd just stood there again, not knowing what to do, until I'd finally left.
"And you see, I wouldn't want anyone to think I was anything like him," Sam continued.
My heart lurched, and I looked over at the bar again. Where was that fucking waiter?
"Josh, if you had some secret lover, you'd tell me, right?" Sam whimpered.
I struggled not to blush. *God, Sam, don't do this.* "Ah ..."
"What makes you think Josh has a secret lover?" Donna asked, intrigued.
"Don't you ever wonder why he-"
I coughed loudly, cutting him off. I didn't know for sure what he'd been about to say, but I didn't particularly want to know, either. "Sam, you're babbling."
"Ooh, Josh, *do* you have a secret lover?" Donna chortled, scooting closer to me again.
"Donna, didn't you say you had to be up early tomorrow morning?" I asked, trying to make my embarrassment come out as annoyance.
Her forehead wrinkled in irritation. "Oh, you're no fun."
"It's just that if you miss your appointment because of *this*-"
"All right, all right." Donna nodded. "Just when it was getting good."
"See what I mean?" Sam slurred. "Two thirds of the time. At least."
"And as for this funny drunk," I said, propping Sam up and helping him put his arm into the sleeve of his coat, "it's about time to get him home. Where the hell is that waiter?" I finally said aloud.
"I already paid the check," Toby said.
"Oh." I rubbed my hand along the length of my face -- the hand that wasn't already preoccupied with keeping Sam from falling over. "Thanks."
"What time do *we* have to be up tomorrow?" Sam asked.
Donna shot first Sam, then me a quizzical look, and this time, I think I *did* blush. "Ah ..."
"Josh and I are going to Virginia Beach tomorrow," he explained to Donna. "He says I need to see something outside of a sis- six-mile radius of the White House. He wanted to invite you to come with us, but-"
"Sam, you're not making sense," I interrupted, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
"What? Of course I'm making sense." He swiveled his head around to look at Toby. "Toby, have I stopped making sense?"
"Come on," I said, pushing Sam to his feet and putting my arm around him to guide him toward the door. "Time to get you home to bed."
"You're just hoping to have your way with me in my weakened state," Sam countered, and I looked away sharply. Sam's body leaning against mine suddenly made me feel as if I'd been caught with my hand in the cookie jar, and I couldn't look at any of them. At that point the only thing keeping me from turning and walking briskly in the other direction was the fact that I knew Sam would topple to the ground if I let go of him.
Donna laughed and grabbed the other side of Sam, helping him out the door. "Okay, *now* you're being a fun drunk."
Sam stopped cold on the front porch and looked sadly at Donna. "To be honest, I don't feel like a fun drunk."
"Oh, Sam." Donna suddenly threw her arms around him, drawing him away from me, and I stepped back from both of them. I hadn't had a sip of alcohol all night, but I still felt dazed. The air was icy, and I shoved my hands into the pockets of my coat.
He leaned against her and put his chin on her shoulder. "I'm sorry I said you weren't a real politician."
"*I'm* sorry," Donna said, just on the edge of tears. "I'm so sorry about today."
"I think you're a great politician," Sam whimpered into her hair.
"Oh, Sam." She wiped her eyes with her index finger and squeezed him more tightly.
"Lisa!" he gasped suddenly, and for a moment I thought he was drunk enough to mistake the blond hair against his cheek for that of his ex. But when I followed his widening eyes over to the front of the restaurant next door, I knew I could only have wished for things to be that simple.
I hadn't seen Lisa in over fifteen years, but I still recognized her instantly. The corners of her mouth still crinkled when she smiled, and from ten feet away it looked as if the years had hardly painted any additional lines on that face. Her hair was piled on top of her head, and she looked sophisticated, like some chiseled patrician beauty. While I had just grown older, Lisa seemed to have grown up.
I watched her wrap her gray coat around her body and toss her head back in laughter as she grabbed the elbow of the man she was standing with, and when she turned away from him in what looked like teasing or mock annoyance, she finally noticed us. Or, I should say she noticed *Sam*, because the expression of exhilaration on her face betrayed the fact that she could no longer see anything else in her surroundings apart from him. I wanted to stand in front of Sam, to block his view, just so as not to have to witness the way he was looking back at her, to prevent it from happening at all. No -- I wanted to have left the bar just five minutes earlier. We could have been in the car by now. We could have been long gone, far away from here.
Sam stumbled over to her, and I watched the expression on Lisa's face turned from one of joy to something more like distress. His delight at seeing her had covered up most of the pain from a moment ago, but like some sort of homing pigeon, she managed to find it anyway. He reached down to her in a hug, and from over his shoulder I could see her forehead wrinkle in worry.
"Hey!" she said, squeezing him tight. "Where did you come from all of a sudden? I thought you said you were knee-deep in pardon nominations."
Sam took a step back from Lisa, still holding onto her arms, and tripped over the loose cement in the edge of the sidewalk. "I- I got the preliminary list finished tonight, actually. We just stopped by here for a drink."
She looked him over, taking in his rumpled appearance. "More than one, I think." She smiled at Sam, but turned her head to face the rest of us for the first time and narrowed her eyes coldly at me. It was as if she knew he would only get this drunk if he was upset about something, and if he was upset, it would naturally have to be my fault. Like getting Sam upset was my purpose in his life. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her.
Sam motioned at us to come bridge the gap between us on the sidewalk. "Toby, this is- this is Lisa Seppala. Lisa, Toby Ziegler. Lisa and I- uh-" he hesitated, stammering. "We used to- uh ... Lisa was my ..." His voice trailed off, and he looked at Lisa helplessly. *Girlfriend,* my mind finished involuntarily. *Fiancee.* Sam might have been reluctant to describe their relationship, but there were plenty of names for it. At least there were names for it.
"Sam's my best friend," Lisa completed, with a smile that was a little too wide for her face.
Sam smiled gratefully, like she'd rescued him. "She's in town giving a recommendation for Palmer."
"It's great to finally meet you -- Sam speaks so highly of you," Lisa said, grasping Toby's hand in a firm and confident shake. She looked tough, yet somehow still tiny and sweet and charming. I felt gangly and enormous.
Toby nodded. "Good to meet you, too."
"And this is Donnatella Moss, Josh's assistant," Sam continued.
"Hi," Donna smiled, shaking Lisa's hand.
"And of course you know Josh."
Lisa nodded frostily in my direction, and I turned my head away from her, toward Donna, who just looked confused. Sam, on the other hand, began to hunch over in that stance I knew he only adopted when he felt truly beaten. I rubbed my face and turned further away for a moment, and when I looked back, Lisa had grabbed hold of his arm again, the worried look on her face suddenly more intense. She could apparently recognize the defeat in Sam's posture as well. I felt nauseated.
Lisa's dinner companion coughed uncomfortably, and the gaze she had focused on Sam faltered. She turned reluctantly away from him, as if she had suddenly remembered that she'd arrived that evening with someone else. "Oh, Will, I'm sorry. You might know Sam Seaborn as the White House Deputy Communications Director. He's an old friend of mine. Sam, this is William Amrine, an attorney here in town. I think I've mentioned him? Will spoke on Palmer's behalf today as well."
"Pleased to meet you," the man said graciously, shaking Sam's hand. "Lisa has more friends in high places than I was aware of." Sam shook his hand, trying to smile.
Lisa shifted her weight to her other leg and looked awkwardly around at everyone. "Well. What a coincidence!"
"Exactly!" Donna chimed in. "What are the chances that we'd all end up in the same part of town at the same time?"
Lisa looked intently at Sam, then back again at her lawyer friend, obviously torn between spending time with the person she'd come there with and worry over her ex. I looked down at the ground.
"We should get Sam home." Toby's words cut through the unpleasantness of the silence, and I thought maybe I'd never been more grateful to hear him speak.
"I could take him," Lisa suggested. "I mean- I've got my car, and it would be no trouble."
*Over my dead body.* "I've got it taken care of, thanks," I said, unable to keep the icy tone from creeping into my voice. "Do you need me to drop you off, Donna?"
"No, no, I'll take the Metro. It's right here, and my place isn't really on your way."
Lisa clutched her purse to her side and turned hesitantly back to her lawyer friend. "Well, then."
"I'll call you," Sam said warmly, reaching for her.
She took him in her arms and kissed him on the cheek, pressing up against him just a little too long. A gust of wind tore through the street, and I wanted it to blow me away. "I'd like that," I heard her say, her tone quiet and intimate.
"See you on Monday, guys," Donna waved, heading for the Metro station.
"Good to meet you all," Lisa called out, and as we walked away, I watched her out of the corner of my eye, watching us go.
I let Toby take Sam's arm and guide him the three blocks to my car, and I walked a few steps behind them. At the corner of 19th and M we passed two pierced, tattooed young boys with their tongues shamelessly down each other's throats, and I averted my eyes. The air was cold, my fingers were iced through, and I scrambled to find just the right caustic remark to ease the tension as I pressed the button on my key ring to unlock the car doors, but nothing would come. I just felt completely numb. Toby helped Sam into the back seat, claiming the front for himself, and I climbed behind the wheel. I just sat there for a moment, flexing my stiff fingers, staring at the steering wheel in an attempt to focus on something solid.
"Why does it have to be like this between the two of you?" Sam's voice sounded plaintive.
My face burning, I glanced in the rear view mirror. His head was resting against the back of the seat, his chin pointed up toward the ceiling. His eyes were closed, but there was no mistaking the hurt on his face. "Sam-"
"You didn't even try. You didn't even *try* to be friendly."
I moved one hand to my lap and clenched a fist. *Lisa wasn't exactly Miss Congeniality to me either,* I wanted to snap, but Toby's presence kept me silent. I wasn't going to look over at him. I *wasn't*. I stared at the road in front of me and pulled out of the parking space, trying to keep my hands steady on the wheel.
"She's a good person. You don't even give her a chance."
I wondered if Sam had ever told *Lisa* that *I* was a good person. God knew I had to listen to him sing her praises three or four times a day, sometimes, but somehow I couldn't imagine it happening in reverse. I clenched my teeth and tried to focus on the road as a red sports car whizzed past.
"I'm not gonna sleep with Lisa, okay?" he said sleepily, and I tried to remember to stop for the red light. It felt as if my legs had turned to mush, and the muscles in my thigh shook as I depressed the brake. I stole a glance at Toby, who began staring nonchalantly out the window. I gripped the steering wheel harder. Sam and I both suspected that Toby already knew, but that was no reason for this.
"It just hurts that you won't even try." Sam was mumbling now, and I prayed he would drift off soon, that unconsciousness would finally shut him up. "I love both of you."
"Sam, can we talk about this *later*?" I hissed. I glanced at Toby again and found him still focused intently on something outside the car.
"You'll want to make a right on New Hampshire," he said matter-of-factly.
"Yeah." My voice came out hoarse, and I cleared my throat, wishing I could be somewhere, *anywhere* but in my own car, creeping down the road at a snail's pace, driving Toby back to his apartment in a tense silence. And remembering Sam's joy at unexpectedly seeing the woman he had once wanted to marry standing by the curb in front of him.
Sam insisted on undressing himself, sitting on the edge of his bed and fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. It took about five minutes longer than it would have if he'd just given in and let me do it, but I just sat down next to him and decided not to argue. I mean, I knew he was angry, and despite the fact that a part of me wanted him to grab me and tell me he'd been waiting all evening to get me alone, the glares I was still getting weren't exactly the biggest turn-on in the world.
I moved up to maintain at least some physical closeness between us as he climbed under the covers, bending my knee so that my left thigh rested against Sam's side. His eyes fluttered closed, and he sighed deeply. "It's not like I expect you two to be friends," he said, speaking aloud what he'd obviously been thinking to himself for the past half hour of silence.
I nodded, though I could hear the between-the-lines request, and I didn't know at all whether I could actually fulfill it.
He opened his eyes and stared up at me. "I'm not gonna sleep with Lisa," he said impatiently.
"You- I know." He kept repeating that, as if it should make everything okay. I wanted it to. It suddenly struck me that Sam always said that he wasn't *going* to sleep with Lisa, never that he didn't *want* to sleep with her. I swallowed hard and shifted to lie down next to him, pressing my forehead to his.
"You've got to get home."
I jerked back from him, stunned. "Gimme a break, Sam. You're not gonna make me go home tonight."
"Sam ..." I rubbed my face. God, I was sick of hearing him say that. "Someone's got to, like, be here when you wake up in the morning. Come on, you're gonna feel awful."
"Someone could see you. You've got to go home." He spoke in a monotone, like he was reciting endlessly-rehearsed lines. "We've talked about-"
"No one's gonna see me, Sam! Jesus. And what about tomorrow?"
"What *about* tomorrow?"
"The trip." I stroked his arm, trying to get him to relax. "How will I know when we can leave if I'm not around tomorrow morning?"
"I'll give you a call."
"Look," I said, sitting up, "if you really want me to go, I'll go. I just don't see why-"
"I really want you to go."
Sam's eyes were locked on mine. I wondered when the playfulness had gone out of them, wondered at what point in all this he'd decided he could never give an inch on anything.
"Yeah." I stood, walking toward the door, watching him turn further onto his stomach. "See you tomorrow."
There was no response, and I knew Sam was already drifting. Pausing in the doorway, I turned to look at him. The covers were pulled up around him nearly to his ears so that only the top of his head was visible. The soft rhythm of his breathing drew me back, and I walked silently over to stand on the opposite side of his bed, his back to me. Just standing there, watching him, it occurred to me that he wouldn't even realize it if I did stay.
The ringing of the telephone on the nightstand crashed into my thoughts, and I jumped, my heart suddenly racing. Grabbing clumsily at the receiver, I knocked it off the hook, and then quickly flicked the switch to turn the phone off altogether. Sam shifted position, but didn't wake up, and I crouched down to lean against the bed, suddenly out of breath and almost dizzy. The phone in the living room distantly emitted three more rings before falling silent. God, that had startled me. I glared at my watch. Fifteen minutes past midnight. Whoever it was could damn well go screw himself tonight; nothing was that important.
Once my breathing had slowed, I stood and shakily walked into the living room, flicking on the lamp by the couch and heading straight for the caller-id box by the phone on the end table. NEW YORK CELLULAR, it read. *Just leave us alone, dammit,* I thought, and unplugged the phone.
Standing by the door, I fought with a desire to go back into the bedroom and lie down next to Sam. I squeezed my eyes shut. He said he didn't want me to stay, but I knew if I did, he'd be glad in the morning that I had. I'd pack for him; I'd do all the things he wouldn't be able to do with a hangover. I rested my head on the wall for a moment, and then jerked it back up suddenly. No, I'd told him I would leave, and I would. Retrieving my trenchcoat from the back of the armchair, I tossed it over my arm and headed back toward the door.
I had my hand on the doorknob when the speaker for the intercom emitted the strange crackling buzz that signaled that someone downstairs had rung the bell. I picked up the receiver to the phone attached to the system and held it up to my ear. "Yeah?"
No one spoke, but I could hear a car from the street outside, and I knew someone was there. "Hello?" I said, a little more loudly, though not loudly enough to wake Sam.
"Hi." The voice was female and familiar and abrupt.
I bit the sides of my cheeks in anger. "It's after midnight."
"I'd like to see Sam."
"Go away, Lisa," I said, replacing the receiver in its cradle.
It didn't surprise me when the intercom buzzed again immediately. "What?!" I yelled into the speaker.
"Josh, if you don't let me in, I'll keep ringing the bell until you do."
I clenched a fist around the intercom phone, feeling trapped. "Fine," I said, and pressed the button to buzz her in. Swinging open the door, I tossed my coat onto the back of the armchair again and planted myself in the doorway to prevent her from getting by. She could get into the building, but I sure as hell wasn't going to let her into Sam's apartment, much less his bedroom.
The woman who came storming up the stairs a moment later bore almost no resemblance to the poised professional we'd all met in front of the restaurant. Her hair was loose and messy, and there were dark stains on her cheek from where tears had apparently melted away her eye makeup. She was out of breath, and the look in her eyes was worried and determined.
"What do you think you're doing here?" I hissed, trying to keep my voice down. "You had your touching moment with him on the street corner."
Lisa let out a breath. "Just let me in, Josh."
"He's asleep. You really going to wake him up? Oh, such a great friend, coming over in the middle of the night, dragging him out of bed-"
"I just want to make sure he's okay."
I put my hand against the doorframe to block her entry. "All right, you've made sure. I'm telling you, he's okay. You can go home now."
"Excuse me if I don't believe that, coming from you," she sneered, and tried to push past me. I moved to place my body directly in front of hers.
"You're really going to make me stand in the hall like this?!" she screamed, and I winced, faltering and lowering my arm a bit. The walls in this building were far too thin.
"He's asleep, Lisa," I said in a loud whisper, my eyes darting around to make sure there was no one else watching. "I'm not going to let you in at a quarter to one in the morning."
She smiled, a barely detectable, knowing smile. "Aren't you afraid one of the neighbors is going to wake up and see you standing here in the doorway to his apartment in the middle of the night?!" she yelled, her voice mocking. "Won't that offend your sense of secrecy?!"
Stunned and painfully embarrassed, I removed my hand almost involuntarily from the doorframe and took two steps backward into Sam's apartment. Lisa bolted past me and flew straight down the hall for the bedroom, re-emerging a moment later, looking as furious as I felt.
"What the hell did you do to him tonight, Josh?" She ran straight at me until we were barely two feet from each other in the middle of the room, near the kitchen table.
"What?!" This chick was unreal. "I didn't do anything to him!"
Her hand flew out as she gestured violently toward the bedroom. "Then what's going on? Why is he three sheets to the wind and passed out on his bed?"
"We just went for a couple of drinks, Lisa."
"A couple of drinks?" She shook her head incredulously. "I've *never* seen him this drunk, Josh. What were you thinking? You think drinking that much is going to help him when he's obviously upset?"
I hesitated, realizing I'd stopped just short of wondering that myself. "I think-"
"What are you doing here, anyway?"
"What do you mean, what am *I* doing here?" I said defensively. "What are *you* doing here?"
"Oh, I don't know, Josh," she said with a sniff, momentarily retrieving some of her poise, "maybe it has something to do with the fact that I found my best friend standing in front of a bar, drunk and miserable, with this man who's broken his heart again and again, and am feeling just a little bit worried about him. So what about you?"
"I- I had to take him home and help him to bed." Shit, how had I let her disarm me like this? *I* wasn't the one without a clear role in Sam's life.
"Okay, but what are you doing *still* here?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I know you're not supposed to sleep here," she taunted. "So why are you still here at a quarter to one in the morning?"
I wanted to forget I'd ever learned the rule every little boy figures out by the time he's started school -- that you never hit a girl. "That- that is so far outside of the realm of your business-"
"No," Lisa insisted, jutting her jaw forward angrily. "Sam tells me things. He makes it my business. And if he doesn't want you to spend the night-"
I took a shaking, frustrated step toward her. "Just- just go away, Lisa, okay?" I said, my voice cracking. "Stay the hell out of our lives."
"You think *I* should stay out of Sam's life?" Lisa's face was turning bright red, and she took a step toward me. "Why should I? *You* didn't. You not only kept calling him constantly the whole time he was with me, you actually had the nerve to show up and talk him into running off with you. And now you're asking *me* to stay out of Sam's life? I've known for years that you thought you were God's great gift to the universe, but this time you're scaling new heights of arrogance."
"You think I talked him into coming with me?" I spat. "Well, I've got news for you, baby, it didn't take much convincing."
The look of anger on Lisa's face was momentarily crowded out by uncertainty, and I looked at her in mock surprise. "You mean he's never told you about that?" She flinched, and I smirked. She wasn't the only one who could aim for the jugular. "I didn't talk him into it. All I had to do was show up. I never said a word. He just had to see my face."
She turned away from me, but not before I saw the wounded look in her eyes. Feeling the momentum, I pressed on. "And look where it got him. He's got a great job, he's-"
"Completely miserable, that's what he is!" she said, spinning around to face me again. "Are you so focused on yourself that you can't even see that?"
I felt my footing slip again. "Just because he's upset about something right now doesn't mean he's just- just generally miserable."
"What, you think he's *happy* with the way things are?"
"Yeah." It came out sounding less confident than I'd wanted it to, and I reached down to the kitchen table to steady myself. "He's happy," I forced out, a little too loudly.
"If you think Sam could ever be happy in a relationship with someone who's ashamed of him, you don't know him nearly as well as you should, after fifteen years."
I wanted to smack her. Hard. "I'm not ash- look." I drew in a deep breath. "He's- something happened." She glared at me, and I held out a hand to stop that train of thought. "*Not* something with me. He was upset. He's doing better." Lisa's eyes blazed with anger. I could see that it was making her crazy that I knew what was wrong when she didn't, and nothing could have pleased me more. "I'm taking care of him."
She snorted. "You? You wouldn't even know how."
"Oh, really? He seemed satisfied enough with my efforts that he didn't feel the need to talk to you about it while you were in town," I jeered. "That doesn't exactly leave much room for you, does it?"
Lisa recoiled momentarily, turning away and biting her lip. "Okay, tell me what's going on, then," she said, her voice quavering. "I could tell there was something he wanted to say on the phone, but something was holding him back."
"I thought you didn't want him to cry on your shoulder anymore! Make up your goddamn mind!"
"*I'm* supposed to make up my mind?" She threw her arms out to her sides. "What about you? You can't even decide whether you want him around or not!"
"I have *never* said I didn't want Sam."
"No, you just push him away until he has no choice but to grab what's left of his dignity and get the hell out." She took a step forward, and suddenly she was so close that she had to tilt her head up to look at me. I could see the bloodshot veins in the whites of her eyes.
"You don't know a fucking thing about that." My words came out pressed, low and tense, through gritted teeth.
"See, that's where you're wrong," Lisa said, wearing a gloat that made her look a little like Seth Gillette. "I know *everything* about that. Everything. Because it's me he comes to when things fall apart. It's me who's always been there whenever you've done your damndest to ruin him. I know *everything* about how you've treated him, and I know you don't deserve to darn the *socks* of a man like Sam Seaborn. And I also know that the only reason he's with you now is that he felt sorry for you after you got shot."
She was standing close -- too close -- and with every word she seemed to be getting closer. It felt as if she was going to step right *into* me, into my shoes, into my self, taking my place. Before I realized what was happening, my hands had shot out and I had reached down to grab her, wrapping my fingers hard around her wrists and shoving her backward. Her eyes grew wide, her face flushed, and she pushed back against me. She jerked her arms away with a start, looking away, rubbing her wrists.
I stepped back, shocked, looking down at my hands as if they'd done that completely on their own. Here Sam was practically begging me to be friendlier to Lisa, and I'd gone and done this. "Hey, uh- I'm, uh- I'm sorry."
She jerked her head up at me. There were angry tears in her eyes. "You're *sorry*?"
"Yeah. I'm- that I grabbed you. I shouldn't have done that."
"You're damn right you shouldn't have done that." She stepped closer to me again, and I took an involuntary step backward toward the wall.
"I just- I think it would be better- you should go. Let Sam sleep. Come by in the morning."
"You think you can intimidate me, Josh?" Her voice was shrill, and she took another step toward me. I shuffled backward, nearly up against the wall near the kitchen now, but I couldn't bear to have her so close.
"No. I never- I said I was sorry for that."
"You think you can intimidate me! You don't think I'm- you don't see me as an equal, do you?" A noise almost too spiteful to be a laugh emerged from her throat. "You're not my boss anymore, Josh. Do you have any idea how many prosecutors are scared to death every time they hear they have to argue their cases with me on the other side?"
"I never- you- you're going to wake Sam up. Come by in the morning." I stepped away from her once more and felt the wall pressing into the small of my back. "You should go."
"The hell I'm going to go, now!"
I held out a hand, trying to push her away without touching her. "Just let him sleep, for God's sake!"
"You can't intimidate me!"
"Just get *out* of here, okay?" I raised my voice, trying to match hers in volume if not in pitch. "Go back to your hotel or wherever it is you're staying!"
"Are you throwing Lisa out of my apartment?"
It took us a split second to realize that the words had been spoken by Sam, and Lisa and I both looked over at him at the same time. He was wearing a blue robe that he'd clumsily tied at the waist, and was leaning against the wall for support. Lisa spun around, turning her back to both of us, and folded her arms around herself.
"Josh. Are you throwing Lisa out of my apartment?"
"Uh ..." I let my voice trail off, unsure of what to say. I looked over at Lisa, but she still had her back turned. She was trembling.
"You don't live here, okay?" His voice was quiet, but somehow hearing him say that still hurt more than anything Lisa had said all evening. "You have no right to do that."
"I was just-"
"I think you should leave, Josh."
He crossed in front of me and walked over to stand next to Lisa. "I think you should leave," he repeated, putting a hand on her back.
My hands flew to my stomach as if I'd been punched, and I knew I had to leave if only so as not to have to look at either of them anymore. "Fine," I said, grabbing my coat and getting out of there, thinking the ends of the earth wouldn't be far enough away.
This time, the dream was different. The distinction wasn't immediately noticeable because it all began the exact same way it always did: I walked out of the museum alone, behind the others, seeing the crowds ahead of me, everything so silent I could hear my own footsteps. I grew more apprehensive with every step, but I couldn't make myself turn around and run back inside; it was as if the only direction it was possible to move was forward. This time, though, when I looked up at the building across the street in the crazy belief that if I could only see the gunmen I could prevent it all from happening the way it always did, I could actually make out more than just the terror of shadows. They were masked or otherwise hidden in partial darkness, but somehow I could still see them clearly. One was tall, with sandy, graying hair and the same eyes that I knew had stared across the table from Toby in the meeting that now had us in over our heads. The other form was tiny and blonde, and as I looked closer I could see that it wasn't a man at all and that the menacing look on her face was unmistakably familiar.
I woke up with a strangled scream in my throat, the entire surface of my skin sensitized to the point of pain, and hid my face in the pillow. I had to get up, I knew I had to get myself right out of bed and into the shower, or else I'd lie there cowering under the covers all morning, unable to move. It felt the same all over again, the same every single time; that was the craziest thing about all of this. I'd thought I'd eventually have become sensitized to it, but instead it was always as if each time was brand new, like it had never happened before. It could get less frequent, but it never got any less horrible. I forced myself to sit up, cold as ice and my hands still shaking. *I'm sitting at the edge of my bed, not in a hospital room,* I told myself, taking deep breaths. *That's sweat, not blood, on my chest. That all happened a long time ago. It was over a long time ago.*
*Sam threw me out.*
The memory exploded in my brain like the firing of a gun, and all at once I wanted to give in to the temptation to hide under the blanket again. He had woken up just in time to ... I brought my hands to my face, closing my eyes and rubbing my cheeks. I didn't want to remember it again. Hell, right now I wanted nothing more than to disable the entire memory portion of my brain and lapse into blissful forgetfulness.
I looked over at the clock. 6:20. 6:20 Saturday morning. Sam had said he'd need to go into the office in the morning before we left, and I'd told him it would be good to be on the road by noon. But now ... now we'd have to talk first. We couldn't go away together with this hanging over our heads. I made myself stand and staggered across the hall to the bathroom, splashing cold water on my face. Looking in the mirror, I watched the droplets of water weave their way between the stubbled hairs on my face and onto the sink. The dark circles under my eyes seemed to have turned into permanent fixtures, and I looked terribly, miserably old.
Reheated pizza from two nights before made me feel human again, and the second cup of coffee worked enough of a miracle with my energy level to propel me out the door. On the way in to the office I stopped to fill my car with enough gas to get Sam and me to Virginia Beach. It occurred to me as I pulled the handle on the pump that his place was only a short drive from here in this traffic. I looked at my watch, realizing he wouldn't be awake yet -- but I had a key, and could let myself in. Which, regardless of what had happened last night, was still more than could be said for Lisa.
Five minutes later, I pulled up next to an empty spot on the street right in front of Sam's building, between a Mercedes and a Toyota Camry. It occurred to me that if he didn't object to me arriving at this hour, in daylight, where anyone could see me, that it would prove once and for all that he was just being legalistic about the whole "no overnights" rule. Sam insisted it was that way so the press wouldn't find out about us, but he'd never cared so much about that in the past, and I just wanted to prove that he was only so insistent about it because he didn't want to give in.
I pulled into the spot, and as I tugged the key out of the ignition, I looked up through the window and got a good look at the car in front of me. It was a dark blue Mercedes. With New York plates.
I put my head down on the steering wheel and shoved my fist into the dashboard. *Fuck him, then. Fuck the both of them.*
It took half an hour of grinding pencil leads into a granite paperweight on my desk to work myself up to calling Gillette. I progressed through three separate pencils, sharpening and resharpening, piles of smudged graphite accumulating on the sheet of paper I'd spread out on the desk. It struck me that this sort of thing made for excellent therapy. The hell with standing with my back against the wall -- at least this way I got to imagine the paperweight was Lisa's face.
It was a quarter to nine when I finally picked up the phone and dialed. "Seth Gillette's office," a familiar voice answered.
Well, if he was answering his own phone, at least there was no way they'd be able to try and tell me he wasn't there, although it did seem to be taking the "workers' rights" thing a bit far. "Senator, this is Josh Lyman."
"Well. I see I'm not the only one without administrative staff on a Saturday morning."
"Yeah. Uh, my assistant had an appointment." Why was I telling him this? I rubbed the back of my neck. "I'm calling because I'd like to meet with you to discuss the possibility of an investigation on welfare reform, and how you might be able to play a role."
"Oh?" He sounded intrigued, and I smiled slightly. "I'm leaving for Europe on Wednesday, so it will have to be before then."
"Yeah," I said, flexing my fingers, "I'd like to talk about that as well."
"You want to meet with me about my trip? Last I checked, I didn't need the President's permission to go abroad."
*Asshole.* "If you-" At the familiar stab of anger, I bit back the words that had immediately popped into my head, wishing -- not for the first time -- that I'd been born with Leo's gift for diplomacy. "Of course not," I said, calmer, "but there are some details I'd like to discuss with you before you go. Do you have an hour or so later this morning?"
"Let me check my schedule."
I heard rustling, and then he was back. "It seems my absent secretary's got me booked until two. Would a late lunch work for you? There's a little locally-owned cafe that's open late Saturday afternoons, and they've got great homemade bread. Near 17th and K?"
"Actually, I ..." I hesitated. Furious as I was at Sam, we did still have a trip planned, even if the drive down was liable to be a bit rocky at this point. "I'm supposed to head out of town around noon. Do you have anything for Monday morning?"
"I could squeeze you in at nine, but only if you come to the Hill -- I've got something else right afterward."
*Only if you come to the Hill.* I was fairly certain Gillette could have had plenty of time to come over to the White House, but I couldn't prove it, and protesting would have sounded as petty as all this really was. I kicked my desk, wondering when this had turned into a turf war. I couldn't really wait any longer than Monday, and Gillette knew it. "I can do that."
"Good." I could almost hear his slimy smile through the phone line, and I knew he was aware he'd won the battle. Well, he sure as hell wasn't going to win the war.
"I'll see you Monday, then."
"Looking forward to it," he said, and there was a click as he hung up the phone.
I scooted my chair back and put my feet up on the desk, exhaling deeply. Well, that was one difficult conversation of the day behind me. I closed my eyes and leaned back for a moment, collecting my thoughts, and heard someone step into my office. "Hey."
My eyes flew open, and I jerked my legs off the desk to sit up straight. Sam was standing just inside my office, in jeans and a Duke sweatshirt, maneuvering his body toward my desk with the stiff motions of the morning after. A stab of concern almost had me asking how he was feeling, but then it occurred to me that Lisa had probably taken plenty good care of him. "Hey," I responded coldly.
His expression was completely blank. "I'm pretty sure I left four of the pardon files in your car last night."
I nodded. "Actually, you gave them to me to hang onto on the way to the bar, so you wouldn't forget them there."
"Oh." He looked away, embarrassed, and took a deep breath. "Could I have them?"
"Yeah." I kept my eyes focused on him as I bent down to pull them out of my briefcase, and he grabbed them from me.
"Thanks," he said, turning to go.
He stopped walking, but didn't turn around. "What."
How was it that he could ramble on about everything from the stock market to the Constitution, but getting him to talk about anything difficult was like bathing a cat? "Would you- would you close the door?"
I ran a hand through my hair. "Just close the goddamn door already, okay?"
Sam jerked out his hand and closed the door, leaning into it a little, keeping his hand on the knob. He looked like he was going to swing the thing back open and bolt through it, and it pissed me off like nothing else he could have done. I wanted to run over and pry the knob from his fingers and force him to look at me. "We're gonna have to talk about last night."
"I don't think that's such a good idea."
"What?" I asked, incredulous. "Why not?"
He spun around, his eyes flashing. "Because I'm angry enough right now that I'm not sure I can discuss it rationally."
"Wait, wait. *You* are angry? With *me*?" I saw Sam wince when I raised my voice, but I couldn't stop myself. "You're angry with me, after-"
"After you humiliated a friend of mine in front of her dinner date and the rest of my friends, and then tried to throw her out of my apartment? Yes, Josh, I think it's reasonable to expect myself to need at least a little bit of time to cool down after that."
I splayed my palms flat on the desk and narrowed my eyes at him. "That's not how *I* remember last night, and excuse me if I think my memory might be just a *tiny* bit more reliable than yours, under the circumstances. You don't even remember giving me those files!"
"Well, I sure haven't forgotten how upset Lisa was last night."
"How upset Lisa was?" I sputtered in disbelief. "Sam- what-" *what about how upset *I* was?* "What did she tell you?"
"She didn't have to tell me anything, Josh, I saw her."
I stood abruptly, propelled by a surge of energy in my feet that left me unable to remain sitting, and my chair rolled backward of its own accord.
"Lisa is- Lisa's been there for me." I rolled my eyes, and Sam glared back at me. "You know it hasn't always been easy between the two of us, and she's about as crazy about you as you are about her, but even through all that, she's still been there for me. She tries so hard. And you- you don't even bother. I mean, you couldn't even manage to say hello to her last night at the bar."
"She didn't say hello to me, either!" I walked around my desk toward him.
"But she didn't throw you out of my apartment, did she?"
"No, *you* did that."
"It's *my* apartment, Josh. You had *no* right to-"
"Jesus Christ, Sam!" I threw my hands up in the air. "Who do you think let her in there in the first place? It sure as hell wasn't you -- you were passed out on the bed! You didn't even see what happened!"
He turned toward the door and put his hand back on the knob. "I'm not talking to you about this at the office."
"The hell you're not!" I yelled, maneuvering myself around so I could look him in the eyes again. "We're already talking about it now, and we're not gonna drop it in the middle!"
His eyes were fixed on the door, his voice a low monotone. "I have to finish up the write-up on the pardon recommendations, and Lisa and I are supposed to go to lunch at two, and I have to at least get started on the speech for the dinner next week, and we can talk about this some other time."
"Wait." I took a step back. "You're going to lunch. With Lisa."
Sam turned his head toward me and pressed his lips together. "Yes."
Sam nodded almost imperceptibly. His face was still unreadable.
I walked over toward the window behind my desk, leaning my hand against it. It was snowing, like it had been that day in November, in New Hampshire, when we'd won the election and lost everything else. If only it hadn't been snowing. "Well. I guess maybe there really is nothing more to say, then."
I listened to him walk out of the room, leaving behind only a pathetic middle-aged guy and a terrible, empty silence. I spread out my fingers, pressing my palm firmly against the cold, sheer surface. I thought of glass breaking, of the feel of it against my hand, of the kind of cutting that makes people forget. Then, for five long minutes, I tried hard to breathe deeply and think of nothing at all. Finally pushing myself away, I stepped back to my desk and pressed the redial button on my phone.
"Senator Seth Gillette's office," a woman's voice answered. Apparently the absent secretary had returned.
"This is Josh Lyman from the White House."
"I'll put you right through, Mr. Lyman."
"This is Seth Gillette."
"Josh Lyman again. It turns out-" At the squeak in my voice I grabbed the corner of my desk, cleared my throat, and started over. "As it turns out, I won't be going out of town later today after all, so I could meet you for lunch at about 2:30."
I certainly never thought I'd ever have any reason to be grateful to Seth Gillette, but there were times that day that I almost was. There's nothing quite like gearing up for a so-called battle between good and evil -- or, in this case, at least one between the sublime and the ridiculous. Somehow this battle meant more, even, than the ones I'd waged against legislation cutting health care spending or the ban on gay marriage, because this was about defending the President and the choices we'd made, in ways that cut to the very core of why we were all here in the first place. And because it was about Sam. Because I really needed a second chance to win that one.
So I immersed myself in Gillette's voting record, in position papers he'd written or at least signed his name to, in the schedule for his trip to Europe, in reports on his every move over the past four weeks. For three hours I read, jotted notes, stockpiled ammunition. It had obviously been the GDC speech that had triggered this -- both Toby and the President had received angry phone calls from him that night, and it had only taken a day after that for the rumors of his candidacy to begin with full strength. Sam, though, hadn't received a phone call, which was strange, given that he'd been the primary architect of that speech. Instead, as I still vaguely remembered, Sam had received a letter.
Gillette had sent Sam a letter.
I rifled through the collection of papers on my desk gathered by Bonnie and Ginger and Donna, even by Margaret, papers that were supposed to represent the sum total of everything I needed to know about Gillette, but the letter wasn't there. Whether it had slipped Leo's mind, or whether Sam had neglected to mention it to them in the first place, I didn't know, but it wasn't in the stack. I sighed. Well, at least I knew where to find a copy.
I walked down the hall and tapped lightly on the door to Sam's office. He looked up at me blankly, and I bit the sides of my cheeks. "You got a letter from Seth Gillette."
Sam blinked, not understanding.
"After the GDC speech, he sent you a letter."
"Can I see it again?"
"Sure." He reached down into the file drawer inside his desk and rifled through folders for about thirty seconds before retrieving one and handing it to me. "Mind if I ask why?"
"Oh, it's just- I have a meeting with him, and ..." I waved my hand around dismissively. Even if Leo hadn't specifically asked us not to mention to Sam what might be coming, I was hardly in the frame of mind to tell him about it at the moment.
I stared at him as he shrugged. His stony expression still didn't hold a clue as to what he was feeling now, much less what he thought would happen next. I wondered if this was some sort of cosmic revenge for all of the times Sam had opened himself up to me and ended up regretting it.
There was a knock on the door, and we both looked up to see it swing open wider, revealing Lisa standing in the doorway. She was dressed in black cotton pants and a green sweater, her hair pulled back in an informal ponytail. "Hi," she said, looking first at Sam, then briefly at me, and then, ultimately, down at the floor. "Are you-"
Sam shot a fleeting glance at his watch. "Sure. I mean- I didn't realize it had gotten so late. Let me just get my coat." He stood and walked over to the chair where he'd carefully laid it.
I tried to suck in a breath, but it ended up a sputtery cough, as if there wasn't quite enough room in Sam's office for both me and Lisa, as if she was already breathing all of the air. "I- uh. There's a meeting- I've got a meeting," I excused myself, sliding my way toward the door.
"Wait. Don't leave just yet." Lisa took two steps into the room, and I backed up involuntarily. "Maybe you- I'm going to take it as a sign that you were standing here when I got here, and just say this now."
She turned to Sam. Her face was like the pages of a book, telling the story of every nuance of her feelings for him, and I had to look away. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come over last night -- woken you up like that -- I was just worried and feeling a little crazy-"
"No, Sam, it's not."
"I didn't mind." His voice was quiet, calm, reassuring.
Lisa shook her head, clearly not interested in reassurance. "Well, if you didn't mind, I think maybe you should have, because I came over more for my own sake than for yours."
"Wait, let me finish." She exhaled slowly. "To say that Josh was throwing me out of your apartment -- that's not really- it's at least an exaggeration. He let me in when he probably shouldn't have, and ... he was just trying to make sure I didn't wake you up, to get me to come back in the morning. I'm sorry I- I'm sorry I didn't say that last night. I was just- I'm not sure *why* I didn't say that last night."
Taken aback, Sam looked over at me, and then back to Lisa.
"I'm sorry, Sam."
Sam looked over at me again, this time with an expression of stunned shock, and Lisa's green eyes followed his, locking on mine. She grabbed her forearms in a clear effort to steel herself. "And I know I owe you an apology, too," she said stiffly, the muscles in her neck tensing as she spoke.
I had no idea how to respond. An apology from Lisa was so far outside the boundaries of anything I'd been prepared for that it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.
"You said some things that were pretty hard to take, and maybe I needed to hear some of them, but I felt cornered, and-" she hesitated, shaking her head and sighing. "And I'm realizing as I'm saying all this that it probably sounds like I'm trying to make excuses, and I don't mean it that way, so maybe I should just shut up."
I resisted the urge to agree, and just swallowed instead.
"It's just- this has always been hard. For me. And I forget -- I guess because I don't completely understand -- that it's hard for you, too, just maybe in different ways."
I felt an unpleasant hot feeling on the back of my neck, and I rubbed the place where it burned. Her words sounded liked they'd been lifted straight out of a sappy movie. Or maybe a Freud inspired self-help book. The last thing I wanted was to be reminded that Lisa was aware of *any* of the ways that this was hard for me.
"So, anyway, I'm sorry. For forgetting that. And for saying-" I flinched, not wanting to relive any of that conversation, and she nodded. "Well, for saying some of the things I said. Especially because- especially because a lot of it wasn't even true."
Now I knew I had to get out of there. "I- uh- I really do have a meeting."
She shrugged. "Okay."
I tried to remember any of the skills I'd accumulated over the years on how to remove myself from awkward situations. Somehow none of them seemed applicable here. "Uh- I'll probably, like, see you again. Sometime."
"I'm sure." She looked down at her hand, as if willing it to do something it didn't want to do, and then offered it to shake. I stifled a laugh again, and she withdrew it. She looked relieved.
"Right," I said, backing toward the door.
"So ... see you."
I nodded, and left, clutching the folder with Gillette's letter in it with both hands.
I fled back to my office, looking at my watch and realizing I had about three minutes to read and digest the letter. There was no time to think about the fact that Lisa had now managed to manipulate the situation so that she could have a guilt-free conscience and still get to go to lunch and God-knew-what-else with Sam. Or the fact that I was about to go to a meeting where I would have to tell someone Sam couldn't be lured away, when I wasn't at all sure that was really true. Or the fact that I still had no idea how Sam felt, about any of this, from Gillette to Lisa or even me. I sat down at my desk and opened the file folder and found a single sheet of recycled paper. Thank God the thing was short.
January 18, 2001
Dear Mr. Seaborn,
I am writing to express my concern regarding the White House communications team's choice to use the recent Global Defense Council conference as a forum in which to censure the Council for its silence on acts of terrorism.
As a supporter of the GDC, I was taken aback that the White House would choose to publicly connect the actions of two extremely disparate organizations. While the announcement of the CARE proposal is to be commended, it is my fear that the censure is symptomatic of a reluctance on the part of the Bartlet administration to fully support important environmental legislation with the full weight of the White House.
I would like to meet with you regarding this matter at your earliest convenience.
Yours sincerely, Seth Gillette, United States Senator
The letter's tone was serious, but not threatening. To Toby and the President, Gillette had been openly hostile, but not to Sam. *Had* Sam met with him? I couldn't remember. I slammed the folder shut and left it on my desk as I grabbed my coat and headed out the door.
The cafe ended up being a little hole in the wall, but thankfully out of the way and not exactly the sort of place we'd end up running into other folks in our line of work. A pair of women wearing clothes that could easily have placed them in the era of disco music and four-inch afros peered interestedly as I walked over to the table where the Senator already sat, but they didn't exactly look like the types to be speculating about why the White House would need to speak with Seth Gillette.
"Josh." Gillette offered his hand as I sat down, and I reached across the table to shake it.
"Good afternoon, Senator." For an instant I saw the man's face as it had appeared in my dream, in the window of the office building across the street from the Newseum. I suppressed a shudder and glanced down at my menu, choosing the only sandwich on the menu without sprouts.
"So what's this about a possible investigation into welfare reform?"
"Right," I nodded, stretching out my legs under the table. "Well, I know you're familiar with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which took effect in 1996."
"Intimately. I had just joined the Senate Finance Committee when the final version of it passed."
"And you opposed it."
"I did," he said, as if it should have been a given.
"As you're probably already aware, it included a five-year total recipient plan that was intended to reduce costs by getting people off welfare. The first long-term recipients will be kicked off this September, and no one seems to really know what's going to happen to them."
"And the White House is thinking about investigating this?"
I nodded. "If we can show how flawed the legislation was, we can drum up support for new social security legislation that's both effective and realistic." I emphasized the last word a little. Maybe a little too much.
"Effective and realistic." He raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"That's what we aim for, Senator."
A compact young kid with a pierced nose and faded jeans appeared behind Gillette and cocked his head at me. "Are you two ready to order?"
"I think we're ready to order," Gillette answered, looking at me for confirmation, and I nodded. "I'll have the vegetarian chili."
I looked up to meet the kid's eyes. "The Santa Fe wrap sandwich for me."
"And to drink?" he continued, jotting down our orders in a tiny spiral notebook.
"Just water," Gillette responded, waving a hand in front of his face.
"Same here," I said, closing my menu.
I watched the kid walk off, and when I looked back at Gillette, I found him giving me a long, pondering look. He seemed to be wearing a bad hairpiece and a permanent scowl. "Josh, can we cut through the crap here?"
"Are you really thinking about investigating the fates of long-term welfare recipients? Because if you're not, you should be. But that's not really what this meeting is about, is it?"
I took a long drink from my water glass and set it back on the table, locking my eyes onto Gillette's, and decided to go for broke. "You're campaigning."
He shook his head. "I haven't made any decisions about-"
"Oh bull-" I inhaled sharply, cutting myself off. "Senator, you're doing the radio thing," I insisted. "You're planning a tour of Europe. You're seeking out the attention of the press. You've spoken openly about the possibility of running to everyone from the chairman of the GDC to Toby Ziegler. Did you really think all that would go unnoticed?"
Gillette's forehead wrinkled in irritation. "I think that when we've got a President the people think of as a liberal Democrat, and even he doesn't back the only real effort in years to end the social security crisis, then it makes sense to think seriously about providing an honest alternative, yes."
"Is that what this is all about? Your social security bill? This seems like a lot of effort to expend just for payback on that."
"Social security is just the icing on the cake, Josh, and you know it. You've gone lukewarm on the environment, you took the weasel's way out on the Marriage Recognition Act, you've been talking about bipartisanship like you might really mean it. This isn't the President the American people thought they were electing when they voted for Bartlet, and I'm sick of it. More importantly, so are they."
I inhaled deeply. "Much as we'd all sometimes like to forget that politics is the art of compromise, Senator-"
"And here I thought it was the art of the possible?"
"I don't know whether you're quoting Otto von Bismarck or Tim Rice, but either way-"
"You don't get to play both sides of the fence without any repercussions, Josh," he said, narrowing his eyes at me. "You've got to decide what part of the field you're going to occupy, and then be up front about it. No more of this hiding behind a label that doesn't suit your behavior just because it's more convenient that way."
"What?" My throat felt tight.
"If you're going to call yourselves Democrats and continue to court the right like this, there are going to be consequences. And one of those consequences is going to be me."
I ran a hand along the length of my face and closed my eyes. Although in principle I hated the necessity of moving to the center at least as much as Gillette did, I had to almost physically restrain myself from arguing with him about it. Worse, I wasn't sure what I would say if I *did* argue. A strange discomfort flooded my entire body, as if my skin were suddenly the wrong size. I wondered if maybe I wasn't the right person to be holding this meeting after all. Confusion was a new sensation for me, but lately I seemed to be experiencing it all the time, like a constant, low grade headache.
"There are certain standards of fairness in every campaign," I finally said, opening my eyes and thankfully sounding less hesitant than I felt. "If you're going to do this, you've got to *do* it. A little bit of running for President is like- like a little bit pregnant."
"Everybody tests the waters, Josh."
"You're doing more than testing the waters. You're tiptoeing around in the shallow end of the pool, and you've been doing it for four weeks. If you're going to run for President, you have to be willing to get more than just your ankles wet. Either declare openly that you're running, set up a campaign staff, or just let it go. And hands off of Sam Seaborn." My voice broke on the last sentence.
"What?" He tried to cover up his surprise, but it was obvious he knew exactly what I was talking about.
"You heard me. Sam has a job -- he's the White House Deputy Communications Director." My tone was carefully, tenuously controlled, but the fury I was feeling was escaping around the edges. I knew I sounded way over the top, but at the moment I just couldn't bring myself to care. "He isn't looking for other work."
Gillette leaned back in his chair and tilted his chin toward the ceiling, looking defiant. *That's not what I heard,* his eyes taunted, and I wanted to kill him. "Shouldn't that be up to him?" he said finally. I knew that was the closest I was going to get to hearing him admit that our assumptions had been right.
I leaned over the table at him. "Don't make this an unfair fight straight out of the gate, Senator, because you'll regret that decision for the rest of your life. You can't win this, but you can decide right now how big your loss is going to be. Are you going to lose an election, or a career? It's up to you. Sam Seaborn is the line in the sand. Don't cross it."
I stared at him, and he stared back, like a game of who would blink first. And then he did. "All right. I hear what you're saying about making a concrete decision before taking the next step, and I'm willing to go along with that. But I'm telling you, Josh. The gloves come off if this administration gives me one more reason to take them off."
"That's all we ask," I nodded, managing to hold back a satisfied smile.
"So with that out of the way," Gillette said quietly, picking up his water glass, "why don't you tell me more about the investigation you're proposing."
It was only a little after four when I got back to my office, but the cloudy skies had increased the winter's power to make everything darker, and I had to flip on the light when I got inside. I'd barely made it to my chair when Sam appeared in the doorway, hesitating, his forehead wrinkling with uncertainty, and a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Back already?" I lashed out. "That was a quick lunch, given that you and Lisa seem to always find so much to talk about."
Uncertainty gave way to determination, and Sam stepped inside my office, closing the door behind him.
"So what's the matter?"
"What's the matter?" The bitterness on my tongue spawned words, and I spat them at him. "After all, nothing good has ever come of you coming into my office and closing the door behind you."
Sam sighed. "Do you want me to leave it open? I just thought-"
"You thought I'd be afraid someone might hear us." I *did* want the door closed, but I sure wasn't going to admit that to him just then. "Well, this isn't the first time you've read me totally wrong."
A stab of pain darted across Sam's face. "Josh-"
"Where is she?"
He reopened the door about halfway. For a moment I thought he was going to leave again rather than answer my question, but then he immediately turned back around. "Okay?"
"Whatever. Where is she?"
He stepped closer, up to my desk, stumbling over the chair to the side of it, but he didn't sit down. "On her way back to New York."
I looked up at him. I felt a surge of hope, rusty, like I'd almost forgotten what it felt like. "You- you sent her home?"
"Actually, once I told her how worried I was about what had happened with you, she said she thought it would be best if she left."
I scowled, looking away. No, he wouldn't have sent her home -- he reserved that for me.
"She's a good person, Josh."
My scowl intensified, and I scooted my chair back to put some distance between us, but Sam leaned over the desk. "If you're going to be mad at somebody, it should be me, okay? I'm the one who screwed up, here."
I jerked my head back up at him. "Oh, don't worry, I've got plenty left over for you."
"It's my turn to apologize."
"You're sorry," I said with a snort.
"I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions when I saw you and Lisa fighting."
I shook my head and put my elbow on the desk, rubbing my face with my right hand. Apologizing was one thing, but that didn't erase what had happened, and it certainly didn't erase why.
"I shouldn't have made you leave just then." He put both hands on my desk, only inches away from me, and leaned his weight against them. His sweatshirt was pushed up to his elbows.
I looked over at him through the fingers of my hand, resisting the urge to reach out and smooth the fine dark hairs on his forearms, irritated that I wanted to do something like that at all, when things were ... like this. "Did you think at all about what that might look like?"
"What *what* might look like?"
"The fact that you just automatically took her side when you didn't know what was going on?" I put my arm back down on the desk and narrowed my eyes at him. "That it didn't even occur to you for a minute that I might not be the asshole this time? Did you think at all about what that says about how you must feel about me?"
He looked shocked. "That's not true. You *know* how I feel about you."
"I dunno, I've been getting some pretty mixed signals lately. Especially with her around."
"Josh, you-" He stood back up straight, moving his hands to his waist. "Don't you remember what happened when you came to New York?"
"I got you to leave a shitty job," I shrugged.
Sam smirked. "It was a pretty *good* job, Josh. I was making more than four times what I'm making now."
"You were miserable."
"Yes, I was," he nodded. "There were a lot of reasons for that, though, and only some of them had to do with the job."
I felt the tension in my face begin to melt, and my eyes questioned him.
"You really don't know, do you? I left Lisa, Josh. I left Lisa because you came to get me."
I snorted. "Sam, let's not revise history here, okay? You quit your job, and then Lisa broke up with you that evening. I remember -- I was there."
"That's what I told myself at the time." Sam smiled at me, a little wistfully, and I my heart began to pound. "Did I ever tell you I had dreamed about you that night? The night before you showed up in my office?"
I felt my eyes widen. "Really?"
He nodded. "It used to kill Lisa, when I would dream about you," he said, a twinge of guilt flashing across his face. "She'd always know, and she'd try to pretend it didn't matter -- and then *I'd* try to pretend it didn't matter, and there we'd be, both acting like we were happy when really we were anything but."
Sam had dreamed about me, in his bed, in New York, lying next to Lisa. Multiple times, from what it sounded like. And it had killed her. I tried not to smile.
"You think *I* was miserable in New York -- well, I made her even more miserable. Because she always knew, Josh. She always knew I was still in love with you."
I tried to imagine what that must have been like. Somehow I couldn't wrap my brain around the idea that getting to live with Sam for ten years could possibly have made her miserable, but the idea that she'd been constantly worried about the day I'd show up and reclaim him -- yeah, that did make it feel a little better.
"I'm sorry I asked you to leave last night. I shouldn't have done that, not with Lisa there. That wasn't fair, and I'm sorry."
I shook my head and sighed. Sam was being so conciliatory that I couldn't even maintain a decent level of righteous indignation.
"What can I do- I mean, I want to make this up to you."
"You could let me stay the night," I blurted.
"Josh, come on, I'm serious."
"I am, too."
Sam pressed his lips together, stubborn. "We can't do that. We can't take that kind of risk."
"It would make things so much easier," I countered, trying not to sound whiny. We'd been over this ground on countless occasions, but I had to try again, one more time.
"Josh, there's only one thing staying overnight together would make *easier*, and it would have the potential to make everything else a lot more difficult."
"Not- no. Not, uh- not like that." I sighed and looked down at my desk. The sheet of paper covered in piles of crushed pencil leads was still resting on its surface. "I mean easier ... for me. At night. To have you there."
I looked back over at Sam and watched his expression change as what I meant sank in. "Are you still having the dreams?"
I nodded weakly.
"Josh." Sam's voice quavered, and I looked away again. "Why didn't you tell me?"
I swallowed hard.
"Do you ever remember any of them?"
"Sometimes. It's- it's better when I can't." I gritted my teeth, suddenly feeling like I was talking to my shrink.
"Oh, God." Sam sank into the chair. "I really haven't- I'm sorry I haven't been around more."
"You've had a lot to deal with," I shrugged, anxious to minimize it, to make the concern on his face go away again. "Your dad, the pardon thing, the- ah, you know, what happened with Toby. The GDC speech." I couldn't look him in the eyes. That hadn't just been about Toby -- it had been *my* betrayal that had pushed him over the edge, there. God. I pressed my fingers to either side of my nose. I was one colossal fuckup.
Suddenly it felt as if our whole future together, both at the office and outside of it, was riding on me telling him about the situation with Gillette, and his reaction to that. The hell with Leo's request that we not mention it to Sam yet -- this was too damn important.
"Ah. I've got to- um- tell you something." Okay. Now I had to say it. I sneaked a glance at Sam and found him looking at me with an expectant, tender look that propelled me the rest of the way there. "Your name came up at my meeting with Gillette tonight."
"What?" He sounded confused, like I'd just spouted nonsense syllables at him.
"Why was Gillette talking to you about me?"
"Um, actually, I- I brought it up. Leo-" I took a deep breath and glued my eyes to the desk. "Leo was worried that Gillette would try to get you to come work for him. I guess there have been rumors."
Sam didn't respond, and I pressed on, afraid to look at him. "I- ah- I told him if he wanted to try to hire you away, there would be a fight."
I paused for a moment, but he didn't speak, and I clenched a fist.
"I thought I- it seemed important to tell you about that. I- I didn't want you to be left out of the loop again." I tried to swallow, but my throat was too dry.
I closed my eyes. His voice was still gentle. He wasn't angry.
"Thank you. For telling me."
My eyelids were heavy, like the accumulated weight of everything that had ever gone wrong between us was resting on them. I felt the smoothness of my breath moving in and out of my lungs, proving I was alive. Proving I was sitting here with Sam.
"Hey. I don't want to work for Gillette. I think I've got a pretty decent job already." His tone lightened. "Besides, I hear the guy who got me that job can be pretty ferocious if anybody crosses him."
I nodded and tried to smile. Tried, and failed. I put my elbow on the desk and lay my forehead down on my hand, feeling anything but ferocious.
I felt Sam reach out and touch my cheek. His thumb stroked the line of my jaw, and I felt a lump form in my throat. "Josh." His voice came out raspy, in a whisper. "I'm so sorry I haven't been around more."
I pulled back, partly because we were in the office, but mostly because it felt as if the sympathy might just make me curl up and collapse at Sam's feet in a murmuring heap of need. Opening my eyes and looking over at him, I saw that his own eyes were rimmed with red. I couldn't see him cry, not tonight. "I just wish it wasn't so hard for you to trust me," I said, a little too loudly.
"I want to trust you."
"You're always going to believe the worst about me." I was hitting each word sharply, as if it were a punching bag, and the sudden surge of anger was a salve on open wounds. "And you're always going to believe the best about *her*."
"Would I be here right now if I believed the worst about you?"
"Sam, what am I supposed to think when you see me having a conversation with your ex, and you immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion and throw me out of your apartment? I mean, I'm the one who's supposed to be your- your- whatever the hell I am, and she's supposed to be nothing more than a friend, and you make me sleep alone and you let her stay the night! What the hell am I supposed to think?"
"She slept on the c- look." He sat up straight. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I threw you out without understanding what was going on. But I'm declaring a moratorium on talking to you about Lisa, okay? Because I'm sick of fighting with you, and she never fails to set you off."
"She slept on the couch?"
Sam smiled. "She slept on the couch."
I felt my own lips turn up at the edges, and suddenly we were just two ordinary guys, grinning at each other, our eyes communicating all the little things we weren't quite sure how to voice aloud. Well, maybe two guys who loved each other, which was a little different. Because I knew, looking at Sam just then, that he did love me. Despite everything. Which was pretty remarkable, to say the least.
He placed his right hand on the desk and raised a cautioning index finger at me. "I'm going to bring something up, but this is purely hypothetical at this point, okay? Note the careful use of the subjunctive."
My grin widened, and I suppressed a chuckle. "Okay."
"Let's just suppose we decided to start spending the night together again. I need to know what would happen if we got caught."
*Not this again.* I rolled my eyes up at the ceiling. "We wouldn't get caught, Sam."
"Josh, please," he begged. "Think about this, okay? What would it be like if we woke up tomorrow and found ourselves outed in the Advocate? That still happens!"
"They wouldn't- spending the night's not that different from me leaving your apartment in the middle of the night, and no one's exactly bothered to follow us for the last three months. We can be discreet."
"But what if they *did* find out?"
I shrugged. "We'd deal with it."
"Would you? Would *you* deal with it?" The worry in his voice was only too apparent, and I couldn't respond. I knew that if Sam'd had it his way from the start, we'd probably be living out some idyllic fantasy life right now with a house, and a dog in place of a kid, and yearly donations to the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal. Sam would have worked for a newspaper or a magazine, and I'd have ... I shook off the thought. That was where the fantasy ended, where it had always ended. There wasn't a place for me in a fantasy like that, and by now Sam knew that even better than I did.
"It would change your life, Josh. Probably in ways you can't even anticipate, even if you did manage to keep this job. Could you still seem ruthless if Joe Normal sitting on his couch in front of the television -- not to mention everyone on the Hill -- knew you were sleeping with a man? Would you be able to do your job effectively at all? And what would it do to you if you couldn't? In the office you're always the one with the long-term plan in mind, but when it comes to this relationship, I don't think you ever think these things through. I don't think you worry about them until it's too late, and then you panic."
He looked so earnest, and I felt like a shit. I wanted so much to tell him what he wanted to hear, but I knew that whatever I said would end up being a promise I couldn't keep. This was one of the times I couldn't help but wonder what the young, wonderfully naive kid I'd fallen in love with way back then would have thought if he'd known that he'd someday turn into a guy who'd willingly hide a relationship from the world to keep a career afloat. Sam had compromised so much to be with me -- I had changed his world so completely, and not for the better. But Sam had always made mine a couple of shades brighter. And right now, he was the only thing making it anywhere near bearable.
"Sam, I'd love to look at all this the way you do, but I just don't, okay? I'm- I'm not you. If you're asking me to promise you not to be upset if the press ever finds out about what we're doing here, I can't do that. For me that wouldn't be a little problem to solve that would be okay with just a bit of advance planning -- it would be a huge, career-shattering deal. So no, I can't promise you that. All I can say for sure is that I do want to be with you."
Sam looked so torn that I couldn't bear to see his face, and I glanced back down at the desk. "I really hope that's good enough. I- right now I can't promise anybody much of anything. I can't tell you that I won't freak out about this stuff tomorrow any more than I can promise that I won't go off the deep end again. I'm- I'm-"
My voice was shaking as violently as my hands were, and all of the ways it occurred to me to finish that seemed equally impossible to say. *I'm scared,* I heard myself say in my mind. *I'm scared, all the time. I'm scared you're finally going to realize Lisa's way better for you than I could ever be. I'm scared to go to sleep at night, scared that I'll be even more scared when I wake up two hours later in a cold sweat. I'm scared of music, for God's sake. I'm scared that it'll never get any better than this, that I'll always be this scared.*
"I'm a mess, Sam," I finally finished, rubbing my eyes and finding them damp. "There's not a whole lot I know for sure right now. But I- I am sure I want to be with you, and I won't stop wanting that if we're found out." Shit. That sounded like nothing.
"I just- I really want that to be good enough," I repeated, staring at my desk.
I felt Sam's hand brush mine, and for once I didn't pull back. Interlacing our fingers, he pressed his bare forearm against mine, hard enough to stop the shaking of my hand, and stood our arms up at the elbows. The structure it formed was sturdy, strong, and I leaned against it. "It's always been good enough," he whispered.
There were dark circles under his eyes from the short night of drunken sleep, and his chin was still quivering a bit, but I thought maybe I'd never seen him look so beautiful. I'd known this man more than fifteen years, and he just kept getting more beautiful. I couldn't even imagine what he'd look like in another twenty, if I was lucky enough to still have him around then.
"So, I sure blew our plans for the weekend, didn't I?" he said apologetically.
I shrugged. I couldn't be mad at him, not with so many compromises behind us. Not when he'd been the one to make nearly every one of them. "I'm way too bogged down with this Gillette thing to go away this weekend, anyway."
"Do you have any plans for the rest of the night, then?"
I thought I caught a glint in his eyes, and I cocked my head a little. "I've got to write up a report for Leo on the meeting from this afternoon."
"Hypothetically speaking, though, once you did end up going home, you'd probably want to go to bed, right?"
"Right. I'm pretty tired," I said, smiling.
"And hypothetically speaking, if you were going to go to bed anyway, you might as well go to bed with me, right?" He leaned in toward me against the desk.
My smile turned into a wide grin. "Oh, I don't know, Sam -- my place is a lot closer, and by the time I get this done, I'll be really exhaust-"
He cut me off with the gentlest of kisses, barely touching my lips, and completely by instinct, I closed my eyes and kissed him back. I was so caught up in the tenderness of it that I didn't even think about the fact that this was the first time we'd ever kissed in the office. "Screw Gillette," I whispered as he pulled away.
"I'd much rather do that to you than to him," he grinned.
My breath caught in my throat, and I felt dizzy. "Okay." The pressure on my hand increased, and it was like a current of energy running between us, circling up my arm and into his, then back down again, exiting through his elbow and back into mine in an endless spiral.
An unexpected noise made me jump, and I automatically tried to jerk my hand away at the sudden sight of Toby outside in the hall. But Sam held on tight, wouldn't let me go. It was late on a Saturday afternoon with hardly anyone in the office, but my door was open, and it was Toby, and I couldn't prevent myself from at least ducking my head in embarrassment. But I didn't let go, either -- I couldn't do that, not now. Jutting my chin back upward, I drew in a breath and finally squeezed back. My gaze was focused on Sam, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Toby wave at us as he continued on down the hall. Sam waved back, smiling.
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