TITLE: Variations: The Dinner Party
AUTHOR: Julian Lee, thwarted1066@yahoo.com
CATEGORY: CJ/Leo; Josh/Sam
RATING: R
DISCLAIMER: I don't own 'em. Aaron Sorkin does. He makes money off 'em. I do not.
ARCHIVE: As long as I know where.
SPOILERS: Everything through the end of season 2 is fair game.
SUMMARY: "CJ declared this the most ill-advised event in the history of entertaining, which, she decided immediately afterward, may have been the idea all along."
WARNING: There are both slash and het storylines in here. Everyone’s been warned.
NOTES: Sequel to "Everything but Us" or "The Era of Josh and Sam," depending on which scorecard you’re following. Special thanks to Jane, Cristin, and Brandy, who taught me more than a dyke like myself ever need know about ectopic pregnancy. Anything in here that’s right is thanks to them. Anything that’s wrong stems from the drowning out of my better angels by my need for artistic license. Brandy also betad. She rules.

***********

Variations: Dinner Party by Julian Lee

Josh grunted softly as he dropped his backpack on the floor and flopped onto Sam's couch. Sam glanced over the top of his glasses and smiled gently. "Hard day at the office, dear?"

Josh snorted. "When isn't it?"

"Still having problems with Didion?"

"I swear, that man's sole purpose in life is my torment."

Sam frowned slightly. The last time anyone had to talk seriously about Didion had been Christmas, and had ended with Josh screaming at the President in the Oval Office. Determined not to think about that, Sam flipped through his mail. "Junk...junk...I remember the days I used to get real mail."

"I never got real mail." Josh propped his elbows on the arm of the couch and his chin on his fists. There was no mood of Sam's he didn't love, but Faintly Irritated Sam was particularly appealing, perhaps because Josh could think of ten things - just off the top of his head - that would wipe the frown off Sam's face. Seven of these required complete removal of clothing, and Naked Sam was Josh's favorite Sam of all.

Faintly Irritated Sam was still griping about his mail. "'Occupant.' 'Occupant.' 'Resident.' 'You may already be a winner-'"

"Ooh!" Josh stretched out his hand. "I want that one."

"Hmm." Sam studied a small, light blue envelope addressed in careful calligraphy. "This one's interesting." He tore the envelope and scanned the card inside. "Um, Josh-"

Josh looked up from maybe already being a winner. "Yeah?"

Sam read the card aloud. "Mr Samuel N Seaborn and guest are cordially invited to a dinner at the home of Ms Mallory O'Brien, on Saturday, June 9. Drinks and hors d'oevres beginning at 6; dinner at 7:30. Attire is semi-formal.'"

They stared at each other. "Well, shit," Josh said finally.

"Yeah. Did you get your mail when you stopped by your place?"

"Sure." Josh rifled though his backpack. "I don't see...oh, got it." He pulled out a matching envelope. "Right here. 'Mr Joshua J Lyman and guest.' How the hell does Mallory know my middle initial?"

"Hey," Sam said, as though it had just occurred to him, "your middle name is Joseph."

Josh eyed him suspiciously. "Yeah. So?"

"Anybody ever call you JJ?"

"Uh, no."

"Can I call you JJ?"

"No - Sam, you know we're not going to this dinner, right?"

Indeed Sam had not. "Why not?"

Josh ran a hand through his hair. "'Cuz...I'm not gonna go to a party at your ex-girlfriend's, and I can't say I'm thrilled with the idea of you going without me, so that kind of leaves...not going."

Sam sat next to him on the couch and took his hand. That touch was enough to send a wave of heat through Josh's body, but he forced his attention onto Sam's words and not the fact that those words were coming from Sam's mouth, and that Josh had soooo many better uses for Sam's mouth. "Okay, first of all, she's not my ex-girlfriend. We had two non-dates, and she kissed me once. That's it. Secondly, we are going to her party."

"Why?"

"Because we're adults, Josh. All three of us, and this is how adults behave toward each other. Civilly."

"And because Leo would kick our asses if we didn't go?"

"Well, yeah, there's always that." They grinned at each other, then Sam lightly smacked Josh's thigh and left his hand there. "Come on. Let's go have dinner."

Josh's grin turned seductive, and he stroked Sam's wrist gently, smiling when he felt Sam's pulse race beneath his fingers. "I'd rather just have you."

Sam raised an eyebrow. Josh cursed him silently; of course Sam knew what knots that simple movement tied him into. "Lover, you've got me." He leaned over for a kiss that shot fire through them. "But, really, you should eat."

Josh whimpered and shot an unsubtle glance toward Sam's bedroom. "Why?"

"Because you have to have your strength up for what I intend to do to you tonight."

Josh was off the couch and into the kitchen before Sam realized he'd moved. "Let's eat!" he yelled. Sam grinned madly as he followed Josh into the kitchen. Forget Didion - and Mal, for that matter. He got Josh Lyman; what the hell else mattered?

***********

CJ leaned on Leo's doorframe. "So..." she began, her voice trailing off as she realized she'd spoken before she'd figured out what she wanted to say.

Leo turned his attention away from the file he was reading. "Hiya, CJ." Casually, like she were one of the guys passing through.

She licked her lips nervously, and he tried not to notice that. "So, your daughter's throwing a dinner party."

He nodded and went back to reading. "Showing off her new house. And her new boyfriend. He's a real putz."

The way he stretched out "real" was sexy for no reason at all. She took a few steps into the office. "I'm sure Mallory is thrilled to have such a supportive father, Leo."

He shrugged, then stopped. "Wait - she invited you to this thing?"

For some reason it bothered her that for some reason it bothered Leo that - okay; that sentence was going nowhere fast. "Sure. I think she invited everybody."

"She didn't invite Jenny."

CJ stared at him. Did he say Mallory hadn't invited her mother? "What?"

He sighed and pulled off his glasses. "She didn't invite Jenny."

"Leo, what-"

He shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "I don't know, CJ. They haven't - they had an argument a few weeks ago, and now they're not talking. Mal won't talk about it, and Jenny hasn't answered her phone in three days."

"You've been calling Jenny?" Of all the horrid things wrapped up in Leo's revelation, why must she fixate on the one that made her feel petty?

Leo was surprisingly unruffled by CJ's jealous display. "Well, when your daughter calls you at one in the morning sobbing over a fight she's had with her mother...yeah, I've been calling her."

"Jeez, Leo, I'm sorry. I had no idea it was so bad."

He shifted a bit in his chair. "Yeah, well...what're you gonna do?" He smiled at her. "How are you doing?"

Her eyes dropped. The last time she'd been in his office she's broken down over Oliver Babish's cruelty. "I'm fine."

"Really?" The beautiful eyes that could see straight through her crap with terrifying clarity burned as they stared her down. "'Cuz last time you and I had this talk..."

She forced herself to meet his stare. It felt like impaling herself on a great big pointy stick. "Yeah," she said hoarsely, then tried to laugh. "I went home and g-" she stopped. What she'd done that night was get wasted off cheap wine and pass out on the couch, but that was not a thing one could say to a recovering alcoholic. "-and got some sleep," she finished valiantly.

Of course there was no chance in hell he believed that, but Leo McGarry was nothing if not a gentleman, so he nodded. "That's good. That you're sleeping."

She wanted to tell him she wasn't sleeping. That what she'd had that night was a drug-induced coma, and most nights she spent either staring at her ceiling or traveling to Belgium and back on her exercise bike. That, after that night, she'd poured out all her alcohol, because she liked what it did to her far too much. Instead, she waved her hand dismissively. "Hell, who's gonna lose a night's sleep over Oliver Babish?"

"CJ-" Of course there was so much more than that. Since that night had come Joey Lucas's polling numbers. Had come the revelation that Abbey Bartlet had violated pretty much every law of medical ethics. Had come a drunk driver that hit a brand new blue car carrying the only person they'd been certain would come through this nightmare as strong as she went into it.

There was this other thing, as well; this thing CJ knew. Something she wasn't supposed to have seen, the night of Mrs Landingham's funeral, in a dark corner of a loud bar...it was killing her to know that someone had found a solace she had not, and that they could tell no one - ever. But this was not hers to share with Leo. "I'm fine. Really." She smiled at him. "But it's sweet of you to worry."

A frown flickered across his face. "CJ, you know I worry about you. You know how much I-" Someone coughed behind her. They jumped. "That's it, Margaret," Leo said, slamming the file shut. "We are getting you a bell, and we are getting you a leash."

Completely unfazed by his outburst, Margaret said, "Janie Simons is on the phone for you, Leo. And, CJ, Carol called to remind you that you have a meeting with Danny Concannon at 3."

CJ groaned, and Leo turned his face away so she wouldn't see how that name stabbed him. "Put the call through, Margaret," he said. She nodded once and went back to her desk. His phone started to ring. Without looking away from CJ, he picked it up. "Hey, Janie."

CJ smiled sadly at him, then slipped out of his office and shut the door softly between them.

*******

When CJ said Mallory had invited everyone to this party, she had no idea how right she was. The entire senior staff was there. All the assistants. The President and First Lady, their daughters, and their daughters' various attachments. Ainsley Hayes. Nicki Rhyland.

And, of course, Mal's new boyfriend, Greg.

CJ sat on the couch, amused beyond measure watching everyone in "respectable social mode." Toby sulked on the far edge of the room, glaring at anyone who attempted to attack him with small talk. Abbey, Ellie, and the Surgeon General were having an argument that sounded like it was all in Latin. CJ was unsurprised to see Nicki flirt with Bonnie, and flabbergasted to see Bonnie flirt back. Josh leaned against the mantle, trying unsuccessfully to carry on simultaneous conversations with Donna and Ainsley. When she felt someone sink down beside her on the couch, she looked over to see Sam favoring her with a wide-eyed smile. "Hey, Sam."

"Hey, CJ. How's it going?"

"Not bad." She raised her glass. "There's good punch, good music, good entertainment..."

He smiled. "I know exactly what you mean. President Bartlet has spent the entire evening hiding from Ellie's boyfriend. As near as I can tell, the guy's only crime is being monumentally boring."

"When you're talking to Jed Bartlet, being monumentally boring is a capital offense."

"I guess that's true."

She inclined her head toward the fireplace. She wanted to acknowledge what she knew without, well, acknowledging it. "Josh looks like he could use some help over there."

Watching the increasingly awkward conversation between Josh and his blond tormentors, a tiny smile tugged the corners of Sam's mouth, and he settled deeper into the seat cushions. "Yeah. He kinda does."

She laughed, realizing he intended to abandon Josh to his cruel fate. "Where's Mal?"

"I have no idea." He shuddered. "I've hiding from her all night - and her weird boyfriend. That's not just me, is it? I mean, the guy's pretty creepy?"

"Actually, Sam, I was going to say he reminded me a lot of you."

Sam froze, then turned slowly to where the possibly creepy Greg was deep in conversation with Zoey and Charlie. His eyes grew wide in shock and worry. "Oh my God, CJ. Do you really think so? I mean - I didn't - Mallory and I didn't part on the best of terms-"

"Golly, Sam. Not having any troubles with your sense of self-worth, there, are you?"

He blinked, aware that CJ was about to have some fun at his expense but not sure where she would hit him. "You...you don't think it's because of me? You don't really think he's like me, do you?" he accused.

"Oh, he's like you, but there's something deeper. You and Greg are probably both substitutes for some other..." she waved her hand vaguely, "thing she's working through. The first guy she dated, or the one who got away, or...whatever."

The speechwriter paled. "Oh, God," he said quietly. "She told me once - she said I was just like Leo." In a blinding flash, he had a vision of what life would be if his relationship with Mal had worked out. Fights, accusations, guilt, recriminations - just like Leo and Jenny.

A small shiver ran through CJ as she steered clear of that Freudian quagmire - both the idea that Mal might be choosing men who reminded her of her father and the fact that CJ had slept with the father in question. She tried to laugh it off. "Well, there ya go, Oedipus."

He laughed with her and looked at Josh, thanking whatever god had a hand in it for steering him in the right direction. Josh caught his gaze and flashed an "I'd rather be eaten by rabid poodles than carry on this conversation a minute longer" look, and when he saw Sam had no intention of helping, the look turned to a smile where irritation, affection, and promises of revenge jostled for supremacy.

Leo wandered up to the trio at the fireplace. "Hey, guys."

"Hi, Leo," Donna said. "Nice suit."

Leo's gaze flicked to CJ. She called this his "Mafia undertaker" suit, the suit she "loved to hate." He could admit to himself that he'd worn it mainly to set her off. "Thank you, Donna."

"Hello, Leo," Ainsley said politely. "Could you please, for me, tell your daughter how kind it was of her to invite me to this lovely party?"

Leo took a minute to rearrange this sentence into normal English phrase structure, then asked, "Why don't you tell her yourself, Ainsley? She's right over..." he looked around, but Mallory wasn't immediately apparent. "somewhere."

"I will. I merely wanted to be certain that she was properly thanked. It is the duty of a polite guest."

"Yeah, Leo," Josh said, his dark eyes sparkling, "it's like if you insult someone's shoes, and instead of apologizing yourself, you send someone, because that makes it seem like you were thinking about it."

"Oh, Josh," Leo said jovially, slipping his arm around the younger man's shoulders and drawing him away from the two women, "Josh, my boy, you do realize I can make your life pretty miserable, don't you?"

"Yeah. I had noticed that." And, as they walked away, "Thank you for saving my life just then."

"I’m not entirely sure you deserved it, but, you’re welcome."

Fifteen minutes later, Mallory announced dinner, and it was time for round two.

*********

CJ wasn't sure what the point of this dinner was. Tensions between Leo's daughter and the senior staff had been unbearable the past few months. CJ had begun and ended her ill-fated romance with Leo, and, although Mal never suspected, CJ grew tense and tongue-tied whenever they were in a room together. Mal kept doing weird things to make Sam notice her, to make him jealous, but he clearly couldn't care less, and, sensing what she could not name, she had grown hostile toward him - and toward Josh. The only staffer Mallory was getting along with was Toby, and Mallory had never gotten along with Toby. She didn't know the assistants well, and CJ couldn't recall her ever meeting Ainsley or Nicki. The Bartlets were Mal's godparents, but knowing how the President hated Ellie's boyfriend... Alex... Alan... CJ was almost certain it started with "A"... and what kind of trouble Annie could get into when presented with a captive audience, CJ declared this the most ill-advised event in the history of entertaining, which, she decided immediately afterward, may have been the idea all along.

Mallory believed firmly that formal seating arrangements should alternate between men and women. Reading the place cards resulted in more than one stifled moan and envious glance. Ainsley was between Josh and Sam, and CJ was trapped between Leo and Ellie's boyfriend What's-his-name.

Let the games begin.

Josh was going a little crazy. He and Sam knew they would have to mingle at the party, but, after a quick kiss-and-grab session in the bedroom Mal was using as a coatroom, they agreed to circulate around to each other every five minutes or so. Then the Bobsey Twins From Hell pinned him to the mantle; Sam got sucked into a conversation with CJ, and Leo saved Josh from the succubae only to start quizzing him about...whatever the hell Leo was on about this week. When Sam sat on the couch with CJ, he had been leaning forward, and Josh could see that sensitive spot on his collarbone, and thinking about what kissing that spot did to Sam had started a slow flush spreading over Josh. When Josh begged Sam to come save him from Donna and Ainsley, Sam had instead leaned back into the couch and run his hand slowly through his hair, and every nerve in Josh's body jangled as he thought about pressing Sam deeper into those cushions and touching every inch of him at once.

The only thing that saved him was the thought that, once they sat down for dinner, he would investigate exactly how much he and Sam could accomplish in a roomful of their colleagues and friends with only a table to shield them. But Satanic Emily Post insisted that seating be staggered, and Sam and Josh found themselves separated by a leggy, blond, Republican, fascist...Ainsley, and Josh knew exactly how the residents of East Berlin felt before the wall came down.

He was at least getting some amusement from how grandly Mallory was failing at her secret purpose for hosting this nosh of the damned. She wanted to make Sam jealous. He could see it in the way she hung on every asinine word that dropped from Gary's lips - and was it Josh's imagination that this guy was totally like Sam, only creepy? - the way she turned to Sam occassionally and flashed that "Aren't you sorry you gave this up?" smile, and the way she grew increasingly restless and irritable as she realized Sam had no clue. Josh looked around; everyone seemed tense. Only CJ looked like she was having a remotely interesting time, talking to Ellie Bartlet's boyfriend Adam. Or maybe it was Alan.

CJ couldn't stop talking to What's-his-name. He wasn't a bad guy, just quiet. Which was good, because it meant CJ could keep right on talking. And she had to do that, because her only other option was to talk to Leo. And she could not do that. She couldn't trust herself even to look at him right now.

Damn him for wearing that suit. Of all the clothes he owned, hand-tailored suits that clung to him in all the best places, starched shirts she had reveled in yanking off and crumpling at his feet ('cuz it drove him nuts, and that, in turn...you know...drove him nuts) and expensive silk ties, this vaguely disreputable suit was what got her the most worked up. It made him work like a mob associate. It made him look...aw, hell, why not come out and say it? It made him look naughty. It made him look like the kind of man who would compromise a lady's virtue just 'cuz he could. And if the thought of one of the most powerful, respectable, impeccable men in the world hauling you into a dark corner and debauching you doesn't make you want to strip that shadowy suit off him and beat him to it, then there's just no help for you.

She risked a glance around the table. It was shaping up to be a miserable evening all 'round. Mallory looked positively apopleptic by this point, as she laughed with faked adoration at the words of the Almighty Greg, tossing her head and watching Sam from under coyly dropped lashes. Sam was staring at his plate, not noticing any of it.

How many grains of salt were on his plate? What were the batting averages of every member of the 1962 White Sox? What the hell was Ellie's boyfriend's name? This was the kind of thinking he'd been reduced to by being separated from Josh. He knew he'd just about wrung the poor man's heart dry (and possibly other parts of his body, as well), teasing him from the couch the way he had, but he fully intended to make it up to him the instant they were seated. And now...nothing but Ainsley as far as the eye could see. Not that Sam minded her, or, at least, the concept of her; they'd become almost friends in the months since she'd taken him apart on Capitol Beat. Still, the concept of Ainsley was far different than the actual Ainsley, especially when she was keeping him from the only thing he wanted his hands on. Instead he was stuck fondling his fork, imagining it was Josh, and hoping no one noticed.

He felt eyes on him from across the table. Looking up, he found himself staring at Leo, who looked pointedly at the fork, then arched his eyebrow inquisitively. Sam blushed scarlet, dropped the fork, and spent the next few near-hyperventilating seconds convince himself there was no way Leo knew anything about his relationship with Josh.

Leo bit back a chuckle as Sam flung his fork away as though it had sprouted horns and a pronged tail. He hadn't been watching the kid; the light had caught the tines and Leo had looked over to see what that glint was. At least he gave Leo something to ponder as he went back to not paying attention to CJ – a feat growing more difficult with every second that passed.

The instant they found the placecards that sat them next to each other (good Lord, Mallory could be obtuse when she wanted to be!), CJ had turned to the person on her right, who turned out to be Ellie's boyfriend Adam - no, it was Alan - no, it - oh, who the hell cared? CJ was talking to him, not to Leo, and she was talking the way she did when she was really passionate about the subject; leaning forward, eyes wide, hands flailing almost dangerously to emphasize her point. Anybody who said a smart woman wasn't sexy was a damned fool. But he'd broken her heart several times already; he wasn't getting another chance.

CJ stopped mid-sentence and grabbed her abdomen, doubling over. Leo was beside her instantly. "CJ? CJ, what's wrong?"

Her eyes glazed under a wave of pain, then she relaxed and sat up again. She brushed hair from her eyes. "Wow. That was a moment, wasn't it?"

Her carefree tone didn't fool him. "CJ, what happened?"

She turned innocent eyes on him. "I’m not sure. If it happens again I'm gonna worry a little, you know?" She laughed, but he watched the way she moved her water glass to the side and nudged her handbag forward under her seat.

This has happened before, Leo realized. She's getting ready in case it happens again and she has to bolt. "CJ-"

"I'm fine, Leo, really." There was an edge to her voice that told Leo to back off fast. He nodded and tried to concentrate on dinner.

And after dinner, things only got worse

Desperate to get away from Greg, who was holding the guests hostage with surprisingly tedious tales of his travels in Africa, Josh and Sam wandered into the kitchen, where the hostess was doing dishes. "Hey, Mal," Sam said.

She whirled around, but her radiant, triumphant smile faded when she saw Josh. "Hello, Sam," she replied stiffly. "Josh."

"Hey, Mal."

Sam looked around the kitchen, overflowing with dinner dishes. "You know, Mal, you should be out there with Greg and the rest of the guests. Why don’t you let us take care of some of these dishes."

"No way, Sam. You’re a guest."

"Please? It’d make us feel better about invading your home."

"I invited you." She sounded as though she regretted having done so.

"I know, but still…"

"You really want to do the dishes?"

"We really do," he insisted. Josh wanted to protest this ‘we’ business, but maybe Sam was more attuned to Mallory’s intentions than Josh had given him credit for, and this was a peace offering.

"Well…" she sighed. "Thank you, guys, really. I owe you one."

"Nah. Forget about it." Sam took the dishtowel from Mallory and flicked her arm gently. "Go be with your guy."

She smiled, a bit sadly, perhaps, then left the kitchen. Sam tossed Josh the dishtowel, slipped off his jacket, and rolled up his sleeves. "I wash, you dry?"

Josh snorted as he dropped his jacket over Sam’s and came to the sink. "Don’t think I don’t know what you did there, Sam Seaborn."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, you volunteered me to clean up after twenty-five dinner guests." He dropped a kiss on Sam’s cheek. "And you did a very nice thing for Mallory."

There was that "aw-shucks" grin that drove Josh so far up the wall. Sam shrugged casually and plunged his hands into the soapy water. "God damn it!" he yelped, yanking his arms out again.

"Sam? Shit, Sam, what’s wrong?" Josh dropped the towel and tried to take Sam’s hands, but Sam pushed him off.

"That water is scalding!" He looked up at Josh’s hurt face. "Sweetheart, I’m sorry, but my hands—"

Josh gently took Sam’s wrists and looked at his hands. "Well, that’s gonna hurt like a sonofabitch tomorrow morning, but I don’t think there’s any real damage."

"Thank you, Dr Lyman."

Josh dropped Sam’s arms. "I know a thing or two about burns, Sam."

"Oh, Jesus, Josh, I didn’t mean—"

He shook his head. "'Sokay. I know you didn’t." He looked down at Sam’s arms again, and a smile lit his face. "Oh, Sam?" he said softly.

"What?"

"You’re all wet."

Sam glanced down. When he pulled his hands from the sink, water had splashed onto his shirt, and his arms were still wet. He smiled back. "Well, so I am."

Josh took a step forward. "I don’t think it’s fair for you to be all wet without me, do you?"

The blood rushed from Sam’s head. He knew, in some part of his brain he wasn’t much listening to, that there was a party in the next room, that there was the President, and Leo, and Mallory, but all he could feel was Josh’s hands buried in his hair, Josh’s tongue eagerly exploring his mouth, the sharp edge of the counter as it bit into the small of his back. His own hands were in Josh’s hair, on his face, tugging Josh’s shirt from his waistband.

"We shouldn’t — not here—" But his fingers were working the button of Sam’s pants.

"Oh, Sam, I forgot to mention, if you need any more — oh, my God!"

Josh and Sam froze, turned. It was Mal, of course. She searched the guilty, panicked looks on their faces, then ran from the room. Sam turned to Josh. "Josh, I’ve gotta—"

"Go!" Josh shooed him from the kitchen.

Sam raced into the dining room, but Mal was like Moses, parting the sea of bodies as she stormed through, letting it fall back together in her wake. "Mallory!" he yelled, not heeding the stares of the other guests. "Mallory, wait!" At the door to her bedroom, she fumbled with the knob, and he caught up with her. He grabbed her arm. "Mal—"

"Get your hands off of me, you lying bastard." Her voice was a low growl, and her eyes sent ice through Sam’s heart.

His voice automatically dropped to meet hers. "Not out here."

"Why not?" There was an almost-teasing edge to the question that dropped Sam’s gut into his toes.

"Because they don’t know!"

"Maybe I should tell them."

"God damn it, Mallory—"

"Fine. In the bedroom." She yanked the door open, practically threw him inside, and slammed the door behind them, breathing hard. "You lying, no-good piece of shit!" If looks could kill – well, if looks could kill, he and Josh would be a heap on the kitchen floor.

"Mal—"

"Oh, no, Sam. You do not get to protest. You are going to stand there, and you are going to take this. You lied to me!"

"I didn’t — when did I lie to you? When was I ever anything but absolutely, brutally truthful with you?"

"Gee, Sam, I don’t know. Maybe when you started fucking Josh Lyman and didn’t bother mentioning it to me."

"When would I ha — and what the hell business of yours is it, anyway?"

"What business — Christ, we were dating, and you and Josh were off doing…God only knows what."

"For the last time, Mallory, you and I were never dating! We scheduled two events that would, at best, be considered pre-date — neither of which happened — and you grabbed me once and kissed me. And for the record, Josh and I were not involved when you and I were doing…whatever the hell we were doing. We’ve only been together about a month."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"Frankly, I couldn’t care less how it makes you feel. I don’t quite see what your problem is. You hauled us over here tonight to show off your new boyfriend; my love life should no longer be of interest to you."

"It is when I walk into my kitchen – my own kitchen, Sam – and find you with your tongue down Josh Lyman’s throat!"

"You knew! I told you when we started whatever we had that I’d been with men."

"He isn’t men. He’s Josh!"

Every time she said Josh’s name Sam felt the flick of a whip on his back. "You know, I’m not sure what this argument is about anymore."

"You’re going to ruin the administration when this gets out. And it will get out, Sam; don’t kid yourself on that score. And what that’s going to do to the President – to my father—"

"We’re not going to do anything to hurt them. If we go down, we go down; we’re not taking anyone with us," he insisted, echoing Leo.

"All right, Sam. If you’re convinced your relationship with Josh isn’t going to affect the administration, walk into that room and tell them about it."

He laughed, short and harsh. "I’m not stupid. Our being together is not going to cause problems, but making public declarations and becoming poster children for gay rights would, and you know it. And I would never go there and just make an announcement. I wouldn’t do that without talking to Josh. What we have is ours. It’s no one else’s business."

That’s when Mallory crumpled. "You really love him, don’t you?"

Sam sighed, and the tension fled his body. "I really do."

"Jesus, Sam," she whispered. Their eyes locked.

"Yeah."

**********

The instant Mallory yanked Sam into the bedroom, CJ headed for the kitchen to check on Josh. She vowed to herself, the night she saw them pour each other into that cab, that she would never say a word to either of them, but she was willing to break that vow to make sure her friends were all right. But Leo was too fast. Seeing her move out of the corner of his eye, he leaped up and grabbed her arm – not tightly, but she knew it would be useless to try and shake his grip. "Leo—"

"What the hell just happened here?" he hissed.

"Leave it alone, Leo." She stepped to the side, hoping he’d get the message, but he stepped right with her.

"That’s my daughter, CJ!"

"Leo," she repeated, clipping her words, "leave it alone." She spotted Josh standing in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room, watching Mallory’s shut bedroom door with worry stamped all over his face. CJ’s heart ached for him, and she wanted to wrap her arm around his shoulder and remind him that Sam could more than hold his own against Mallory O’Brien, but with Leo dogging her every move, she didn’t dare. She gave up. Somehow she felt she could better withstand Leo’s interrogation if she sat. Staring at her arm until he let go, muttering something that might’ve been an apology from anyone less bull-headed than Leo McGarry, she turned and headed for the couch.

And fell to her knees as another wave of pain stabbed her gut. Leo may have yelled her name, may even have dropped to the ground next to her, but she didn’t notice that. She just kept on feeling like several people were driving ice picks into her abdomen. She’d been having these pains intermittently for nearly a month, but this was the worst ever. It was like having five appendices and having appendicitis in all of them at once. But that wasn’t right; she’d had her appendix removed when she was 11. So what was…and that was as far as that thought got, because that was the point where CJ passed out.

"Fuck!" Leo dropped to his knees next to her. "CJ? CJ wake up. Somebody call an ambulance!" A dozen hands reached for cell phones. Josh ran across the living room and burst through the door to Mallory’s room.

"Josh—?"

"Josh, what the hell—"

"CJ fainted."

Mal gasped. Sam was already out the door.

Abbey shoved her way through the guests and knelt beside Leo and CJ. "Does this happen often?"

"I…I have no idea. She grabbed her stomach earlier tonight, but she swore it was nothing."

Abbey snorted. "She would do that." Leo didn’t heed Abbey as she switched into doctor mode and started poking and prodding. He cursed his cowardice, cursed it again. Here was CJ, unconscious on the floor, and he couldn’t bring himself to hold her hand, or smooth her hair, or any of the thousand things he wanted to. Even now, when she might be…he shook his head. Thank God for Abbey.

Abbey, who was looking at him strangely. "Leo, could I have a word with you, please? In private?"

Stricken, Leo looked from the First Lady to the still-unconscious press secretary. He knew that look in Abbey’s eyes. "Yeah." He spotted his deputy hovering at the back of the room with Sam and Mal. "Josh!"

Josh pushed through the throng and dropped down next to CJ. Leo burned with jealousy as Josh grabbed CJ’s hand and pushed her hair off her forehead. Abbey tugged his sleeve, and he reluctantly followed her into the kitchen. "Abbey, what’s wrong with her?" he demanded.

She frowned and searched his face. "I’m not entirely certain. I have a theory, but I don’t like it."

"Abbey? Leo? What’s going on?" The President was standing in the doorway.

"Jed, please," Abbey said quietly. "Leo and I need a minute." Jed seemed wounded by the exclusion, but he withdrew. Leo looked at his old friend.

"Spit it out, Abbey."

The First Lady drew a deep breath. "Leo, do you know what an ectopic pregnancy is?"

Holy Mary and all the saints.

CJ, pregnant. Oh, Jesus. Pregnant. That word rolled around Leo’s brain like a twelve-ton boulder rolling right for his soul. Not a pregnancy that could be carried to term, of course – in fact, it could very well kill her, but he couldn’t get the word to leave him alone. Pregnant. His child. Shit.

Abbey was giving him That Look. "Leo? It could be true, couldn’t it? I could be right." He could only nod. "Oh, Leo." She put her hand on his arm, and he forced himself not to lose it.

"Abbey, I don’t know what to—"

"Dr Bartlet?" Donna asked, appearing in the kitchen. "The ambulance is here."

"Thank you, Donna." Abbey waited until the younger woman left, then caught Leo’s gaze. "I’m going to go in the ambulance. Will you be behind us?"

He couldn’t face that searching gaze. "I don’t know if I should."

"Of course you should, Leo. You’re her boss; you’re her friend; no one’s going to think it’s strange." Her voice softened. "You should be with her, Leo."

He shook his head. "It’s not – we’re not together anymore."

"That doesn’t matter," she said firmly. "You got into this together, even if you didn’t mean to get into it at all, and she’s going to need you. Follow us to the hospital."

He nodded. "I’ll be behind you."

The paramedics were coming into the living room as Leo and Abbey returned from the kitchen. Abbey went back into doctor mode, giving vitals and symptoms, but never naming her suspicions. Leo went into the back bedroom and grabbed his jacket from the the pile. He yanked it on and pulled his keys out of his pocket as he came back to the living room. The EMTs had revived CJ; she kept asking what had happened, but Leo noted grimly that she did not ask for him. "I’m driving to the hospital," Leo said roughly. "Toby, ride with me." Toby startled slightly at the request, then stood and followed Leo across the room.

Mallory was right behind him. "Actually, Toby, could you ride with" she paused almost imperceptibly "Sam and Josh? I need to talk to my dad alone."

Toby shrugged, accustomed to being ping-ponged in Mallory’s love-hate relationship with various members of the Barlet administration. He held out his arm. "After you."

When the passenger-side door of his car opened, Leo was not surprised that Mallory, rather than Toby, climbed inside. "Mallie," he greeted her, as neutrally as possible.

"Hi, Dad." He pulled the car out of the parking lot, aware that he had to get to the hospital without killing himself or his passenger (which was why he’d wanted a passenger in the first place; made him less inclined to drive maniacally), but having no intention of losing sight of the ambulance. Mallory held still for a few minutes, but Leo could feel her tensed to spring at any second. "So, Dad, what the hell happened back there?"

"I don’t know," Leo lied easily, his eyes glued to the back of the ambulance. "CJ’s sick."

"Obviously."

"So?"

"So…" Mallory trailed off, and Leo risked a quick glance at her. To his surprise, she had leaned back against the headrest, far more tired and sad than angry.

"Mallie?"

"It’s been…a long day," she said quietly.

"It certainly has."

"Is CJ going to be all right?"

"I hope so." He frowned. "Mal, you know I don’t like prying into your personal life—"

"Dad, you like nothing better than prying into my personal life."

"Mal," he said sternly. "Anyway, I wanted to make sure everything was all right between you and Sam."

She puffed air out lightly and scratched her neck in a nervous gesture he recognized as one of his own. She opened her mouth, then seemed to change her mind about something and closed it again. "It’s nothing. Really."

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

By the time Leo found a place to park where he wouldn’t get towed (he didn’t give a damn about that, but Mallory pointed out that eventually CJ was going to need to leave the hospital, and that it wouldn’t do at that point to have Leo’s car stuck in the impound lot) and raced into the emergency room, CJ was nowhere to be seen. "Damn!" Leo shouted.

"Sir?" A nurse approached tentatively. "Can I help you?"

"CJ Cregg," he snapped. "You couldn’t have missed her. Six feet tall and gorgeous."

He frowned. "And you are…?"

The chief of staff waved his hand. "Oh, just a guy," he said caustically.

"Leo!" Abbey crossed the waiting room rapidly.

"Abbey, tell me it’s good news."

"It’s not good news, Leo, but it could be much worse." Leo sighed, only now realizing he’d been holding his breath. "I was right about…my diagnosis…she’s in surgery right now. There was some rupture, but they got it in time to keep her out of danger."

He nodded, too relieved to trust himself to speak. Finally he managed, "How long will she be in surgery?"

"About three hours."

"I’ll wait."

Abbey smiled. "I figured you would. They're setting up a room for you. I’ve instructed hospital security to keep the press the hell away from you both."

Security. Leo glanced around with a new thought. "Abbey, where’s your detail?"

She smiled. "At Mallory’s place."

"Abbey!"

"You don’t want this getting out, Leo. I know CJ doesn’t want it getting out. And the instant an ambulance pulls up followed by Secret Service agents…"

He was angry that she’d taken the risk, but he appreciated her concern. "Thank you, Abbey."

"You’re welcome." She hugged him. "Now, I have to get back to the party – or what’s left of it — and tell everyone she’ll be all right."

"How will you get back?"

"I didn’t ditch my entire detail. I’ll tell Jim to drive slowly, so I can have plenty of time to come up with a plausible explanation for what happened to CJ."

Leo shook his head. "No way, Abbey. No more lying in this White House. We learned our lesson the first time around."

"Leo McGarry, you never learn." He flinched away from her hard gaze. "All the same, I think I’m going to be vague when people ask."

"Vague I have no problems with."

"You going to be okay?"

"As long as she is."

She smiled slightly and squeezed his hand. "Bye, Leo."

"Good bye, Abbey. And…thank you."

Abbey nodded and walked away. Leo sighed heavily and dropped into a chair. Eventually he would find the room Abbey mentioned, but for the moment he was too exhausted to move.

"Hello, Dad."

Ah. That was the "thought I’d warn you before I ripped your ass to shreds" voice. "Mallory."

"HOW COULD YOU?!?"

"I see you’re over your long day."

"Dad—"

He stood too quickly, waited for the world to stop spinning. "Not here," he hissed. "Come on." They went up to a hospital security guard. "Excuse me," Leo began. "I’m—"

"Mr McGarry. You’d like to go to the room?"

"Yes, please."

She led them down a long hallway, around a corner, down another hall…Leo was lost in a minute and a half. Finally she showed them into a small, windowless room buzzing with fluorescent hospital lighting. "Here you are, sir."

"Thank you. And to get to Ms Cregg…"

"Someone will come find you when she’s out of surgery, sir."

"Thanks." The guard nodded and left. Leo turned to his daughter. "Now, Mallory, you may rip my ass to shreds."

"Your divorce has only been final for five months!"

"And we were separated for over a year before that. Mallory—"

"No, Dad! I’m sick to death of men thinking they can say my name and have me melt or hide like a naughty toddler. The thought of you and that…that…"

"I swear to God, Mallory Catherine O’Brien, if the next word out of your mouth isn’t ‘press secretary’—"

"Did she seduce you?"

That brought him up short. "I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me. Did she seduce you?"

He fought back the urge to laugh. "For God's sake, Mallory, we aren’t daytime TV. We were two more than consenting adults in a mature relationship."

"’Relationship’? As in, dating? You were dating CJ?"

"Would you be happier if it had been a one-night stand?"

"I might. Shit, Dad, I can’t get my mind around it."

"Well, get your mind around this: I won’t say it’s none of your business, because you’re my daughter and I know it is, to some extent. But you have no say in who I date, or sleep with, or f— or anything else with." Fall in love with, Leo thought. My God, I almost said that.

She stared at him. Never, never, never would she have expected her father to get this worked up over a woman other than her mother. She had no idea what she thought about that woman being CJ Cregg, but Leo was obviously crazy about her. She and CJ would have to have a long talk very soon, but Mal thought she could find it within herself to be a comfort for her father now. Abruptly, she asked, "Do Abbey and the President know?"

"Abbey does. The President doesn't."

"What’s wrong with her?"

Leo stared off someplace Mallory couldn’t follow him. "Ectopic pregnancy."

Instantly, Mallory had him in a fierce hug. "Oh, Dad, I’m so sorry."

"Me too."

She had to turn away from the pain in her father’s eyes. "Do you want some coffee or something?"

"No, thanks. I’m just gonna…sit."

She nodded. "OK. Well, I could kill for some caffeine, so I’m going to run to the cafeteria. I’ll be back…if I can find this place again."

He laughed softly. "I’ll be here." He grabbed her hand. "And, Mal?" She looked up at him. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome, Dad. I can’t say I’m not upset, but right now all that matters is that CJ comes through surgery all right." She left the room.

Leo sank into a surprisingly comfortable but hideously ugly orange chair along the back wall. CJ, what am I going to do? What are we going to do? I’ve just realized I don’t want to get by without you. But… Lord. He’d screwed up everything the first time. He held out little hope for getting her back.

Ectopic. The word made him laugh. "Out of place." The embryo had lodged in the wrong place. An embryo in the wrong place could kill a woman with frightening ease. And yet the name they chose was not "terrifying, life-threatening pregnancy;" was not "gut-wrenchingly painful, heart-breaking pregnancy." It was just…out of place.

The door opening ripped him back to himself. He opened his mouth to say something about not having been gone long — though he honestly had no concept of how long she’d been gone — but it wasn’t Mallory; it was Sam, Josh, Toby, and Ainsley. "Hi, guys," he said wearily.

"Hey, Leo," Toby said. "How are you?"

Leo was shocked but grateful for Toby’s concern. "I’ll live."

The communications director nodded. "Any word on CJ?" Leo shook his head. Toby cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Dr Bartlet was, ah, less than forthcoming about her condition…."

Leo fixed him with a rocky glare. "And what makes you think I’m going to tell you anything more?"

Toby was unfazed. "I was hoping. Nicki says she hopes CJ’s feeling better. She thought it might not be the best idea for her to come, but she sends her love."

Leo nodded. "I appreciate that." Despite his immeasurable insecurities about CJ’s ex — especially now that she was working for Bartlet’s re-election campaign — he respected Nicki Rhyland and was grateful for the decorous distance she’d kept between herself and both Leo and the press secretary. "Tell her thanks when you see her again." He noticed the two deputies hanging behind Toby and Ainsley and looking very uncertain. "You two need something?" They looked at each other, eyes wide, and had an entire argument without opening their mouths. "Guys?"

Sam turned slightly toward Leo, but Josh stepped in front of him, trying to protect Sam from the chief of staff. "Leo, we…uh…we want to apologize for…"

"For what?" Mal asked brightly, coming back to the room. The look Sam and Josh gave her would’ve been funny, if so many other things hadn’t gone to hell in such a short span of time. "Ooh, did you do something stupid again, Skipper?" And smiled at him.

Sam almost fainted from relief. She hadn’t told her father. Wasn’t going to.

Josh and Sam sank into the chairs. "Hey," Sam said, startled, "this chair is really comfortable."

"Yeah, but it’s so ugly!" Josh returned.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Joshua."

"Ah, behold this, Seaborn."

Sam chuckled, but he knew he and Josh were walking dangerous ground. They’d been a little reckless lately – all right, a lot reckless; hell, they’d almost had sex in Mallory’s kitchen – and Sam wasn’t ready to share their relationship with the world. He wasn’t ashamed; he was possessive as hell. As soon as the press – or the staff – found out about him and Josh, their privacy would be gone like snow in spring.

Nearly an hour passed, and Leo hardly moved in his chair. Josh stirred and put down the file he hadn't been reading anyway. "I need coffee. Anybody want anything?" Leo didn't bother speaking, just half-waved Josh off. Sam and Toby wanted coffee; Ainsley asked for tea, if he could find any.

Toby started to stand as Josh pushed out of his chair. "Want me to come with you?"

Josh gestured for him to sit back down. "Nah, it's akay. Thanks, though." Josh smiled at Sam and slipped out of the room, taking a minute to decide what hall seemed most likely to lead to the cafeteria. He needed time alone. What the hell had he been thinking, trying to undress Sam in Mallory's kitchen? Was he trying to get caught?

Honestly, he might have been.

Sam, he knew, thought of their relationship as a precious secret that the rest of the world couldn't intrude on, but to Josh, hiding felt like shame. He would never defy Sam's wishes by telling anyone, but he had to admit he'd done reckless things the past few days. Notes and gifts on Sam's desk. Comments in senior staff meetings that made Sam blush crimson. Making out at Mallory's party. He had to hand it to Mal; she hadn't made Sam jealous, but she sure as hell had made Josh insecure. And so he'd claimed Sam, in the middle of the party, to prove to himself that this was still his. Unfortunately, Sam was the one who'd had to clean up after the explosion.

And now CJ. CJ was his best friend — well, best friend he wasn't sleeping with. He hadn't known she was sick. Was this a punishment of some sort? He admonished himself for thinking that way, loaded four overheating cardboard cups onto a flimsy plastic tray, and set out, determined to find his way back to the room unaided.

"I'm back," he said, balancing his tray and shoving his way back into the small room.

"You found your way easily," Ainsley said.

"I have an inherent sense of direction unparalleled in the Western Hemisphere," he boasted.

"Josh," Leo said in disbelief, remembering perhaps a quarter of the times Josh had gotten various members of the Bartlet for America campaign hopelessly lost.

Josh ducked his head. "I asked the security guard. That woman doesn't have an incompetent bone in her body." Leo laughed. "I don't know how you guys take your coffee, so I just brought a bunch of stuff." Josh "randomly" dropped creamer and two sugar packets into Sam's hand. Of course he knew exactly how Sam took his coffee, but there would be no way to explain how he knew such a thing, when he wasn’t even sure how Donna took hers. He handed Sam his cup and was rewarded with the preoccupied smile he adored.

Leo sat in the back of the room, trying to look natural, the stack of files in his hand forgotten as he forced himself not to think.

*******

CJ woke with only the sketchiest idea of where she was. It wasn't a normal sleep she was coming out of; that much she could tell. She felt much farther down, her entire body numb. There was a dull ache in her left arm. As soon as she could open her heavy eyelids, she looked down. An IV. She was in the hospital, then. Why? Then it hit her, like a wave looming ten feet over her head. She passed out at Mallory's. She'd had the pain again and fainted. But why?

Someone bustled around the room, checking monitors and making notes. A tall, gaunt African-American man in surgical scrubs and a tie-dyed bandana stood at the end of the bed. "Claudia?" He asked gently. "Claudia, it's time for you to wake up now."

"CJ," she corrected automatically.

"CJ, I'm Dr Metran. Can you wiggle your toes for me?"

She looked at him like he was a crazy man. "Sure." She did, then gasped as a flame raced up her body.

"That's the anesthesia wearing off."

"Well, it sucks," she said. The screaming agony had gone a long way towards taking the edge off her grogginess.

He smiled. "CJ, do you know why you're here?"

"I passed out at Mal's party."

"Do you know why?"

"I would imagine it had something to do with the enormous amounts of pain I was in."

Dr Metran came around to the side of the bed. "CJ, you had what is known as an ectopic pregnancy. That's a condition that occurs when—"

"When a fetus attaches somewhere other than the uterus," she finished hollowly.

"Yes."

CJ felt her body go numb. Not on the outside; pain was very much present in the wake of the receding anesthesia. But inside, everything was cold and dark. She had been pregnant and hadn't known it. It had been a long time since her last period, but they'd been sporadic since the campaign, and she had given up on keeping track of them. She thought back on the pain that had started about a month ago, mild and intermittent; only in the past few days had it become severe, and she had used her hectic schedule as an excuse to pander to her innate mistrust of doctors. She'd consulted no one, and by this point she was damned good at hiding things from her co-workers.

*******

After what felt like eternity but was probably less than four hours, the door opened. "Is there a Leo McGarry here?"

Leo leapt from his seat and across the room. "I'm Leo McGarry."

The doctor shook his hand. "Mr McGarry, I’m Dr Metran. Dr Bartlet said I should talk to you?"

God bless you, Abbey. Leo nodded, then looked at Mal and his staff. Somewhat guiltily, he said, "Why don't we step into the hall, Doctor." He ignored the hurt on the others' faces as he shut the door behind them.

"CJ's going to be fine, Mr McGarry." Few words had ever sounded as sweet. The doctor said something else Leo didn't pay attention to. CJ was okay. That was all he needed to hear.

"Can I see her?" From Dr Metran's expression, Leo figured he'd just said something about that.

Dr Metran smiled, clearly accustomed to agitated families and friends. "She's in recovery right now. As soon as she wakes up, we'll move her to her room, then you can come on up."

Leo shook his hand again. "Thank you, Dr Metran."

"Just doing our job, Mr McGarry." Leo blessed the man for not asking questions he wouldn't have answered anyway. The doctor walked away, and Leo returned to the room.

"Well?" Toby asked quietly.

Leo grinned. "She's going to be all right."

Relief flooded their faces. Toby cleared his throat and asked, still speaking very quietly, "Leo, now may I ask what happened?"

"Toby, you can ask once an hour until the day you die, and we still won't tell you."

"OK."

An hour later, a nurse showed up to take them to CJ's room.

********

CJ almost smiled; here she lay, late on a Saturday evening, staring at the ceiling again. At least it was a different ceiling; variety was the spice of life, after all.

She knew the number of women who died from ectopic pregnancies was high. She was one of the lucky ones. If you could call it luck, she thought. If you could call it luck to have a flame die, try to rekindle itself, and die again. "Oh, Leo," she whispered.

Like an answered prayer, the door to her room burst open, and Josh and Sam spilled inside like clowns from a tiny car. Toby came in behind them, looking genuinely pleased to see her. Ainsley and Mallory hung uncertainly behind him. Leo stood just inside the door, as always.

Sam and Josh were buffoons for the sake of her amusement. Toby was quietly kind, Ainsley unfailingly solicitous, and Mallory...when the young teacher leaned over and kissed CJ's cheek, the press secretary knew that Mal knew about her affair with Leo. CJ's throat went dry, but Mal smiled. "Get well soon, CJ," she murmured, and CJ believed she meant it. Leo did not move from the doorway.

"Leo!" Josh yelled at his boss, "you haven't said a word to CJ yet!"

He smiled. "I'm waiting for you clowns to get the three-ring circus outta here."

"Oh. Yeah, we can do that." He slung a fraternal arm around Ainsley. "Come on, Kitten. Let's buy CJ something cheap and tacky from the hospital gift shop." Sam, grimacing at Josh calling Ainsley "Kitten," waved at CJ and left. Toby looked like he would hit at least one of the deputies over the head if he spent much more time with them, but he followed them anyway. Mallory touched her father's arm gently on her way out.

There was no one in the room but CJ, Leo, and the thousand things that hung in the air between them like living swords. "CJ," he began, his voice heavy.

She cut him off. "Leo, if we're going to have a heart-to-heart, I'd like your heart a little closer to mine." He crossed the room and took her hand. "Leo, I'm so sorry."

"Claudia Jean! Do not even think of apologizing. For anything. Condoms break; the pill isn't a 100% guarantee."

She shook her head, tears spilling down her cheeks. "I meant, I'm sorry there isn't going to be..."

There were tears in Leo's eyes, as well, as he realized what she was talking about. "Ssh," he said, finally allowing himself to smooth her hair and kiss her forehead. "I know."

For an age, they did not speak. The machines hooked to CJ whirred and beeped, as if to show they meant no harm. But the harm was already done. "You told Mallory," she said finally.

"About us? Yes. And about you. The..." he couldn't bring himself to call it a baby. That word hurt too much.

"I'm amazed she didn't pull the plug out of one of these things." She gestured at her machines.

Leo smiled. "Well, she didn't do the dance of joy and ask to be your maid of honor, but she has, for once, agreed to let me live my own life."

"Maid of honor?" The faintest smile crossed her lips. "Leo?"

He laughed. "Nah. It's not a proposal. Yet." Her eyes widened, but he continued before she could speak. "CJ, you would think I would have learned my lesson at Rosslyn. You would think I would have come to understand how important it is to hold onto what's important to you; to tell the people you love how much you love them. But I guess I'm a stubborn old dog, and I didn't want to learn the new tricks. But today, when I almost lost you, I finally realized how much I couldn't bear — I love you, CJ. Can we try again?"

CJ wiped impatiently at her eyes. "Leo, this is, by far, the sappiest conversation I have ever been party to."

Leo reached over and gently wiped away the tears that lay on her cheeks. "I know. That's not an answer, though."

"I was hoping you wouldn't notice." She took her hand from his and twisted the sheets, staring at the fabric as though searching it for answers. "Can you promise me it'll be different? The sneaking around, the weeks without seeing each other, the paranoia? Can you promise that none of that would be there this time?"

He sighed, and knew he had lost, because this was not a promise he could make. "No, CJ, I can't. I can only promise to try to be better this time. And I know that isn't enough."

And when she looked up at him, she was beaming. "You're wrong, Leo. That's more than enough. That's the only answer that is enough for me." She took his hand back and kissed his palm. "I want us back, too."

Leo leaned down, cupped her cheek in his hand, and kissed her gently.

Abbey Bartlet smiled and drew back from the door, letting it close silently behind her. Awful things happened all the time. But sometimes they went a little bit right, too.

**********

"I think CJ knows." Sam lay sprawled on his stomach across Josh's bed, kicking the headboard absently.

"About us?" Josh called from the closet as he hung his tie on the crazy rotating tie rack that had been a Chanukah gift from his mother three years ago.

"Something she said to me tonight...at the party." Sam stopped, amazed at everything that could happen in one night. "When Ainsley and Donna had you cornered."

"Really gettin' 'em tonight, aren't we? I'll add her to the list."

"We're keeping a list?"

"I am."

"You're keeping a list of people who know about us?"

"In my head, I'm keeping a list. Yes." Josh smiled as he came back into the room, thinking about Sam lounging, taunting him, on Mallory's couch. "And don't think I've forgotten that you abandoned me to those harpies."

"Josh! Those are our friends."

"Not when they pin me to a fireplace and talk at me about — God, I don't even remember what — for half an hour solid. And you sat over on your comfy couch, having a pleasant conversation with CJ..." He faltered.

Sam reached up and grabbed his hand. "Hey, it's all right. She's all right."

Josh nodded rapidly. "I know she is. I just..."

"Just what?"

Josh took his hand back and crossed to the bureau, putting things away as he went. His office and the rest of his apartment were the definition of chaos, but inside his bedroom, nothing was ever out of place. "Nah. It's nothing."

"Josh."

Josh marveled at the countless things Sam could do with his name. Right now his tone indicated that the lie wasn't working. Josh sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. "Sam, tonight I—" No, that wasn't it. "I need you to understand—" That wasn't right, either. Fortunately, Sam turned out to be a man of infinite patience in matters like this; he propped himself up on his elbow and waited calmly. "I can be a fool sometimes. And I can be petty."

Inside, Sam was screaming to contradict him, but he knew he'd better just let him talk.

"And sometimes I think there's only a limited amount of happiness allotted to me, and with you, I'm way over that limit. So...tonight Mallory tried to take you away from me. I was terrified. I spent the entire evening watching for the first sign that you were going to do it, the first sign that I should step back and let you go back to your 'true love.' And when you didn't — I think that's why I grabbed you in the kitchen; I had to prove that you were still with me. And then CJ collapsed, and I..."

"You thought that was the deal that had been made. You get to keep me, but CJ goes down." Josh nodded. Sam threw his arms around him. "Oh, Josh, you are a fool, but not for the reasons you think. Nobody made a 'Sam-for-CJ' trade. As for Mallory...well, she was a fool to try what she did tonight, but she had no way of knowing that. In some ways, I feel bad for her, but mostly I'm angry that she would think little enough of me to believe such a cheap shot would work. You don’t need to worry about me running off with my 'true love,' because I may be looking at him right now."

Shock and something that wanted to be belief rippled across Josh's brown eyes. "Really?" he whispered.

"Of course!" Sam drew back and regarded him almost suspiciously. "Joshua Joseph Lyman, haven't you caught on yet how hopelessly hard I’ve fallen for you?"

He grinned slowly. "I may have missed that memo."

Sam rolled his eyes. "Well then let me hand deliver it to you." He took Josh's face in his hands and kissed him, a fiery kiss that sent Josh's pulse racing and his head spinning. "I love you, Josh."

Josh put his forehead against Sam's, shocked to realize how much he'd needed to hear Sam say that right now. "I love you, too."

Sam grinned. "All right, then. Now that we have that out of the way, I think you had some punishment for me? Something about stranding you with talkative blondes?"

Josh knew he should tell Sam his insecurities about their relationship being a secret. He should mention that he still worried about Mal and probably always would. He should tell him all sorts of things. But Sam's hand was on his ass, and Sam's teeth were nipping at his earlobe, and the thoughts sort of floated on out of him. Tomorrow, he promised himself in his last moment of coherent thought. I'll tell him everything tomorrow.

Sam and Josh slept that night in a tangle of arms and legs and breaths, the covers no more than an afterthought across their drained bodies. Leo slept in the straight-backed guest chair beside CJ's lumpy hospital bed. But you really couldn’t say any of them had gotten a better deal than the others. As long as the one thing they needed was within their reach, what did any of them care about the furniture?

FIN

So, yeah, that's it - for this story. Never fear, though; they all blunder on. Whatdja think? Love it? Hate it? Feedback of both the positive and (constructively) negative kind adored, loved, respected, fed lollipops; thwarted1066@yahoo.com Super-thanks to all who've fed me so far!