Title: With Respect, to the Gentleman From California
Author: Abigale
Spoilers: none
Disclaimer: All characters are the creation and property of Aaron Sorkin. No copywriter infringement is intended.
Rating: R
S
ummary: Sam's the man. Josh's man, too.
Archive: Lists may take. Others please just let me know where.
Feedback: may find me here: abigalep@yahoo.com
Thanks: To Leila, and her friend. And a special kind of thanks to three special kinds of people:
Pam, for being positive when I felt positive, but staying negative when I need to be there too; Brenda, for feeling negative, but struggling back to positive; and amerella, for being obnoxiously positive always, but allowing me to hang onto negative until her forces of good overpowered my forces of evil.
Notes: The entire thing is neatly housed here: http://subtractions.homestead.com/

With Respect, To the Gentleman From California by Abigale

-Wednesday-

Leo's day was going the way of all Leo's days. At breakneck speed and with sweeping frustration. Throw in one or two minuscule victories; just to tempt him into waking up the next morning and hauling himself back to the office.

Squinting his eyes at the silent television, Leo reached for the remote control. "Leo?"

"C'mon in, Toby." Leo adjusted the volume to a comfortable level and resumed glancing through the correspondence in front of him. "Whatta you need?"

Toby moved further into the room, two files in one hand, a coffee mug in the other.

"There's a problem..." he began tensely. "Sam just got an advance copy of Congressman Swift's speech tomorrow at Temple University."

Leo looked at Toby over his glasses, then removed them and sat back in his chair. "What are they doing giving Sam...?"

"Yeah. Well, Sam's not saying. But I'll get it out of him. The point is," Toby came around to the side of the desk and placed one of the files directly in front of Leo. "Take a look at that."

Opening the file, Leo replaced his glasses and began skimming over the first page of the speech, as Toby restlessly paced over to the television.

The sound of Leo's palm making violent contact with the desk brought Toby back across the room. "How far did you get?" he asked skeptically.

"Far enough to recognize this as the speech you wrote for the President. The one he's giving on *Friday.*" Leo rose out of his chair, causing Toby to back up a few paces. "This is nearly word for word, Toby! The implication - besides the fact that Swift has been pretty vocally opposed to the Transportation Equity Act - the implication that we have a leak somewhere.... That bastard thinks he can embarrass us?!" Leo picked the file up, then threw it back down. "All right, first things first."

__________________________

Toby stood impatiently in front of Josh's desk, waiting for him to hang up the phone. Tapping fingers against the arm of a chair. Sighing in agitation. Rolling his eyes when Donna darted in to drop a message in front of her boss.

"What the hell's going on?" Josh asked when he finally placed the phone in its cradle.

"You couldn't have drawn that out any longer? 'How's the bean soup today?' For the love of god, Josh, we have an actual problem here." Toby's free hand was clicking the end of his pen frantically.

Josh stood up and ran his hand across a slew of papers in front of him. "Better make it quick. I've got to get to the Hill - "

"Oh, you're going to the Hill, all right," Toby scoffed. "You're going to talk to Daniel Swift, and if you're really good, I'll take you off your leash and you can tear his fucking throat out."

Josh was startled to attention by the vitriolic venom in Toby's voice.

"I want his blood to run through the streets," Toby stated plainly.

__________________________

Because Sam was better at organizing his desk than his thoughts, it took awhile for him to eventually stammer out that his source had requested anonymity. It only took Toby three words to break him.

"Tell me. Now."

"This puts me in a very bad position, Toby. In the future - "

"Tell. Me. NOW."

"Kim Carruthers," Sam blurted without further convincing. "His chief of staff. She gave it to me over lunch. But if you're going to ask me how she knew it would be significant to us.... "

Toby very much wanted to know how a conservative Democratic Congressman ended up with a draft of a major address the President was scheduled to give in a few days, a speech Toby himself had written. But Sam had said he didn't know any more, and Toby really had no reason to think Sam would lie about that.

One hand on his hip, the other drumming away on his windowsill, Toby drew in a few steadying breaths before turning back to Sam. The look on his deputy's face would have caused Toby to smile, any other day. A cross between deathly ill and nervous expectation, with a little fear thrown in for good measure.

"What do you want to do?" Sam breathed apprehensively, taking a cautious step closer to his boss.

"Josh is taking care of it. In the meantime," Toby buried his face in his large hands and moaned elaborately. "I guess we need to come up with another version of the speech."

__________________________

The clock above Donna's desk read quarter to five when Josh blew into the Bullpen, cheeks flushed, and eyes ablaze. "Where's Toby?!" he exclaimed to his assistant, who was diligently logging correspondence into her computer.

Looking up for a moment before her fingers continued sweeping across the keyboard. "Why would you ask me that, when you already know the answer?" she asked with studied annoyance. "Where would you imagine he'd be right now?"

"I - tell him I'm coming over. No. Tell him I have returned!" Josh trumpeted. "Tell him I have made a triumphant return, and I bring to him the head of Daniel Swift. On a platter. With... garnishes."

Her eyes leaving the screen for only a second, Donna snorted. "You'll be there before I can get through on the phone. I'll leave the gleeful retelling of this tale to you." And returned once again to her work.

__________________________

Shaking his head, a typewritten page in his hand, Toby looked over at Sam. "It's spelled wrong. Don't you have spell check on that thing?" Looking down at the screen of his laptop, Sam clucked his tongue and flicked at a few keys. "It's spelled correctly. It's just... it's the wrong word."

"Can you spell 'unmitigated disaster?' " Toby asked sarcastically.

And when Sam started to, the usually dour Director of Communications actually chuckled.

Before Toby had a chance to begin ridiculing the writer, Josh's lanky form skidded past the window into the Bullpen, colliding with Toby's closed door. An instant later, he spilled into the room. "Stop writing! You - you don't need to rewrite it," Josh crowed. "Swift is not going to give the speech on Thursday, so stop writing."

The initial look of annoyance on Toby's face softened to awe. "How? How did you do it?" he desperately wanted to know.

"You told me to kill him," Josh stated easily. "I bring you the head of - "

"Josh!" Sam blurted, laughter overtaking him. Josh placed a hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezed gently, then quickly shifted away. Rising from behind his desk, Toby joined Josh in the center of his office. "Don't tell me what you did with the body," Toby instructed. "That would make me culpable. Just - " He tossed the now un-needed speech onto his desk. "Tell me what he looked like when you cut through his jugular."

Sam, still smiling, shaking his head back and forth, stood up and plunged his hands into his pockets. "Politics. Very messy business."

Swinging around to face Sam. "You," Toby commanded, startling the grin right off of Sam's face. "Now that we don't have this thing hanging over our heads, you and I need to have a very serious talk."

"Uh oh," Josh, drifting towards the door. "I'm just gonna... I'm gonna go fill Leo in." Aiming a sympathetic look at Sam, Josh ducked out of the office and disappeared down the hallway.

Looking perplexed, Sam brought both hands out of his pockets and raised them in supplication. "What the hell did *I* do?" he lamented. "I'm just standing here!"

"Sit."

Sam reluctantly lowered himself onto the couch, carefully closing his laptop. "Okaaay," he drawled. "Is this about my spelling? 'Cause to be fair, those two words are often mistaken - "

"Stop talking," Toby ordered, closing the door and returning to his desk. He leaned against it, crossing burly arms in front of himself. "Leo and I are very interested in knowing why you were having lunch with Kim Carruthers," Toby said. "She isn't the friendliest person to this administration, and her boss has been downright hostile to us in the past. And as today confirmed...." Rubbing his thumb over his forehead, Toby continued, "We might even consider him an enemy. And you're having a cozy lunch with his chief of staff, who not only clues you in on a major betrayal, but gives you the proof?" When Sam didn't respond immediately, Toby pinched the bridge of his nose. "Those aren't the sort of playmates you should have, Sam."

Sitting up stiffly, Sam tilted his head and looked carefully at Toby. "Excuse me? It almost sounds like you're questioning my loyalty here, Toby, and I'm sure that wasn't your intention."

"No," Toby conceded. "That wasn't my intention. My intention is to get to the bottom of this, this fiasco. And I'm choosing to start with your involvement."

It was obvious from the hardening of Sam's jaw, the press of his lips, that a storm was brewing there. "I had lunch with Kim. She thought Swift was acting despicably. She knew it would be incredibly embarrassing to *him* when he went through with it. She was protecting him more than she was helping us. And that," Sam stood and went to the door. "Is all there is to it."

"Hold on." Toby pushed off the desk he'd been leaning against and took a deliberate step towards Sam. "I'm still trying to figure out what your relationship with Carruthers is. She's a pretty abrasive person, Sam. Not the sort I'd imagine you having a cozy tête à tête with."

Sam paused with his hand on the doorknob. Taking a deep breath to quell his growing irritation, he turned to face his boss. "You don't really know Kim, Toby. So it would surprise you to learn, she's not the type of person you've characterized her to be." Placing his hands on his hips, Sam lowered his voice to an annoyed hiss. "It would also surprise you to know that she doesn't necessarily think the Congressman is playing with a full deck. That, in fact, she sees her job in terms of keeping him from being even *more* of a destructive lunatic than he already is."

From the unconvinced expression on Toby's face, Sam wasn't sure he wanted to continue this conversation. It certainly didn't seem to be going very well, and it was a little disturbing to him how they had moved from good-natured ribbing about his spelling to this in so short a time.

"Tell me, in case I missed it in all that proselytizing, what exactly is your relationship with Kim Carruthers again?" Toby was obviously not about to relent.

"I have no relationship with Kim Carruthers, Toby." Sam waved a hand dismissively through the air. "Other than, once in awhile she'll give me a call to talk about policy." Sam allowed both arms to flap against his sides in exasperation. "Is that what you wanted to know?"

Toby considered Sam carefully. And he wondered if, four, five, ten years from now, he would still think of Sam as the kid who came out of nowhere, to teach them all a lesson or two about what they were supposed to be there for. Toby had never been that young, he'd confided to CJ very late one night amongst bourbon and cigar smoke and a deep melancholy. It had only just occurred to him that maybe Sam wasn't even that young anymore.

Sensing the building tension, Toby retreated behind his desk, hoping the distance would diffuse the situation a little. "This isn't a personal attack, Sam. I'm sorry if you see it that way. I'm just trying to understand why someone like Kim Carruth - "

"Oh." The word fell from Sam's mouth with a thud. "I see." He carefully removed his glasses, and folded them into his palm. "Now I get it."

Completely confused, Toby stared hard at Sam, waiting for an explanation. When none seemed forthcoming, he shrugged his shoulders rapidly, and cleared his throat. "Have I missed something, Sam?" he finally prompted.

A bitter snort worked its way out of the younger man. "Yeah. I think you've missed a lot, Toby." Head down, eyes blinking rapidly, Sam was clipping his words now, a clear indication that his emotions were on the rise. "You're missing the fact that there are some people who might... there are people who might actually come to *me* first. You don't recognize that there *are* those who value my opinion, Toby. Some even seek out my counsel." Sam raised his eyes to meet Toby's in a clear challenge. "You never do that." "I come to you!"

"If I happen to be in the room, if I'm already in on something! But you never Come. Looking. For. Me. Unless it's for a legal opinion, or a grammar lesson. You should know, Toby. There are some people out there who believe my contributions to this administration go beyond turning a clever phrase, or reciting legal precedent." Pursing his lips together intensely, Sam could feel the muscles in his cheek twitch.

"And you should know, there are people out there who could do your job without needing me to HOLD THEIR HAND," Toby spit back without thinking. The instant he heard his own words, his mouth gaped open and he inhaled violently, as if he could suck the words back in. But Sam was already heading out the door, throwing a wounded look behind him. "I have work to do," Sam said evenly. The next thing Toby heard was Sam's office door slamming shut.

__________________________

Sam's door was closed, but as far as Josh could tell, he wasn't working on anything, or even on the phone. Knocking out of habit, but not waiting for a reply, he eased into the room and closed the door behind him.

"What's up?" When Sam didn't respond right away, Josh waved a hand in the air and tried again. "Hey you. Yeah, the good-looking guy in the blue tie." Beaming a warm smile Sam's way.

"Hi. Sorry," Sam apologized, sitting up a little straighter in his chair. "I was just thinking; I need a couch in here. There's room, don't you think? I could... I could lose the desk. Probably won't be needing it much after today anyway." He chuckled mirthlessly. "Of course, I probably won't be needing the couch, either."

Josh heard the hurt in Sam's voice and was instantly at his side. "What happened?" he wanted to know, hoping he wasn't going to have to drag it out of Sam.

Blue eyes flickered over towards Toby's office, then Sam stood up and put a neatly manicured hand on Josh's arm. Leaning in closely, even though they were alone in a closed room, Sam's whisper was a low rumble that sent vibrations through Josh. "What's the earliest you can get out of here?"

"I - I can leave - " Josh checked his watch. "Maybe eight? Maybe sooner, if I can get Donna to help line up some calls. She's still upset about the whole Kabuki make-up remark." Josh looked closely at Sam. "What happened?" he asked again.

With a wounded sigh, Sam sat back down in his chair. "I don't want to talk about it here. I don't even want to *be* here." A mischievous smile tweaked at the corners of his mouth. "If I were to ask you to ditch the calls and run away with me, would you?"

Knees buckling, clutching at his heart dramatically, Josh groaned. "Oh god, Sam! What are you trying to do to me?"

"I thought that would be pretty obvious," Sam deadpanned.

Once again, Josh looked at his watch, hoping that by staring at it, the hands would magically sweep around to eight o'clock. Seven forty-five, at the least.

Reading Josh's mind, Sam stood up and began sliding some work into his briefcase. "Make the calls from home, Josh," he suggested in a way that left no question of Josh complying.

"Oh god. What are you trying to do to me?" Josh wondered again.

__________________________

It *felt* like running away. Josh kept expecting to feel Donna's killer grip on his arm, dragging him back to his office to deal with whatever loose ends she could find to tie him up with. He told her to go home, thinking that would make it more palatable to her that Josh was skipping out early himself. Instead, she'd looked somehow stunned and hurt, and then insisted, no, no, she'd stay and get more done without him around to get in her way.

"Bonnie and Ginger; you don't know how lucky you are, Sam," Josh said to the man behind the wheel of the car.

"Oh, shut up," he got in return. "Don't forget who you're talking to here. There isn't a minute that you've regretted hiring that woman." Sam risked a glance at his passenger. "Give it up, would you?"

"Yeah, but... don't think I'm telling her that."

Sam snickered. "Like that isn't the single surest thing in her life already."

Sam seemed in a better mood, just being out of the White House. Josh desperately wanted to know what had transpired between him and Toby, but he could read Sam well enough to know he was waiting for the right time.

A not too subtle grumble from Josh's stomach could be heard over the low radio, bringing a small smile to Sam's lips. "Where do you want to eat?" Josh asked, confident he would get no argument.

After a moment's hesitation, Sam slowed the car suddenly and checked his rearview mirror. "Back thataway?" he suggested, a hopeful look on his face. "You are so predictable," was the only answer Sam needed. Gliding the car into a smooth turn, Sam reversed their direction, and began driving towards Georgetown. Not ten minutes later they pulled into a metered spot at the bottom of Wisconsin Avenue, and were out of the car.

Walking up the steep incline of Wisconsin, Josh was momentarily tempted to take Sam's hand in his. It would feel so good to feel anchored to him, attached physically the way he felt emotionally. He was delighted when Sam suddenly reached out to brush his fingers against Josh's. But then the hand was gone without comment, and they continued climbing to the top of the hill. Reaching the corner of M and Wisconsin, they both hesitated outside the entrance to Nathan's. "How much you want to bet Daniel Swift is in there right now licking his wounds?" Sam wondered aloud, not afraid to show a little pride in Josh's handiwork.

"Not possible. I have his head in the trunk," Josh informed him, as they turned the corner and strolled casually until they neared their destination.

Three doors away, the blissfully humid smell of spices and seafood reached the two men. Broadening his strides unconsciously, Sam turned his head to look back at Josh; an unmistakable expression of delight playing across his face.

A bowl of bouillabaisse, Josh mused. If all it took was a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse to put that look on Sam's face, he'd fill the tub with it every night. Whatever it took.

Once inside the dim restaurant, coats shed, orders placed, Josh took a deep swallow of his beer and grazed a foot across Sam's calf. Rewarded with a smile, and a press of Sam's knee, Josh figured it was okay to ask now. "So what's up with you and Toby?"

Sam looked into his own glass for a moment before speaking. "Son of a bitch." Catching Josh's bemused expression, Sam helped himself to a sip of beer. "I'm not sure what his problem is with me sometimes."

"Toby doesn't have a problem with you, Sam. He's just Toby. And you usually don't let him get to you. So what's up?" Josh asked while reaching for a breadstick.

Shaking his head dismissively, Sam looked chagrined. "I'm being overly sensitive, I guess. It was just... the tone of his voice and... it's stupid. It's probably just me. Let's drop it."

So now Josh knew that Sam was smarting from something Toby had said. It was always something Toby said. Unless it was the fact that Toby said nothing at all. Sometimes there was no way for Sam to win.

Sam was looking past the table to their right, eyes scanning the sidewalk on the other side of the large plate glass window. Couples drifted past, arms linked easily, effortlessly connected in a way that made Sam a little wistful. Glancing over at Josh, he was startled to catch him staring intently back.

Both men leaned back when the server arrived with large, deep bowls of soup billowing clouds of steam; glossy black mussels piled on top. A satisfied grin spread across Sam's face immediately, and he simultaneously dropped his napkin in his lap while picking up a fat spoon.

"Oh, man." A mixture of excitement and contentment in his voice, Sam slurped up a mouthful of steamy broth. "The world just got right again."

Idle chat about Josh's adventures with Daniel Swift, and some speculation from Sam that the abandoned second speech was actually better than the first kept them busy between mouthfuls of bouillabaisse and beer. Sam was talkative and loose and, Josh noted for future reference, devastatingly sexy, frequently moaning over his dinner seductively.

With some amusement, Josh eventually handed his nearly empty bowl to Sam, who finished it off with a flourish, then a deep sigh and a gentle burp. "I could eat this every day," Sam declared. "Every single day. I'd be a happy guy."

"You aren't already a happy guy?" Josh wanted to know. Sincerely wanted to know, but was usually too afraid to ask directly.

Sensing something in Josh's tone, Sam offered him a sultry smile and his full attention. "There are certain aspects of my life which make me very, very happy."

"And then there's Toby."

Groaning with annoyance, Sam snapped a breadstick in two and jabbed one end into Josh's mouth. "I'm over it. Don't start."

"Okay, okay," Josh responded quickly, determined not to let the evening turn into anything other than the leisurely seduction he had envisioned. "Let's... I'm full. Do you want anything else?" Hoping the answer was no.

"No." Josh waved over the server and paid the bill while Sam stepped out into the cool evening. The smell that had assaulted them when they'd approached the restaurant earlier still hung in the air around him, and despite his satisfied appetite, Sam's mouth watered slightly. Josh joined him on the sidewalk. "Can we go this way?" Sam asked, pointing in the opposite direction of where they had come. "I'd like to walk a few blocks and then cut down to the canal."

"Sure," Josh agreed readily.

Looking into shop windows with a little less than passing interest, while Sam pointed out a particularly abrasive display of premature holiday fare, Josh realized just how long it had been since he'd stepped out of his insular White House life and felt a part of the city around him. He liked the District of Columbia, and told himself it was in no small part because of everything it had to offer. When he was younger, fresh out of law school and just starting his career in Washington, Josh had embraced the cultural and social aspects of the city. Within a year, though, politics had overshadowed every aspect of his life, and he found little time for indulging his interest in anything but legislative matters. The first time Sam had come to DC, his youthful enthusiasm made Josh anxious to share everything that had excited him about living there that first year. And instead, Sam had ended up showing Josh a city he'd never noticed before. Because of their hours, their excursions were confined to visiting monuments in the dead of night, which gave them an other worldly feel. Between illegal sips of ginger brandy and experimental, breathy kisses, Sam remarked that the glowing marble shapes looked as if they'd been dropped across the Washington landscape by some giant race in a distant past. Josh was so lost in the memory of those long-gone days of exploration and discovery, he missed it when Sam turned down a side street, and laughed when Sam's 'yoo-hoo' caught up to him.

"Who the hell says 'yoo-hoo,' Sam?" he teased affectionately. Deflecting the childish look Sam shot him, Josh reached his side quickly, and they continued walking along the uneven cobblestone sidewalk until they reached a short bridge spanning the C & O Canal.

"I want to go down there." Sam's voice had dropped low, and sounded a little husky, which made Josh's skin prickle. Pointing to the ribbon of dirt running alongside the dark slice of water. "We can walk back on the path." And Sam was moving again. "Wait, Sam," Josh implored, reaching his side. "It's dark. Is it safe?"

"Of course. It's early. There'll be people everywhere," Sam assured him. But there weren't. There was no one around, and the sounds of traffic on M Street were barely reaching down this far. And Sam had that look in his eyes. So while Josh wasn't exactly afraid for his physical welfare, he was still afraid.

It didn't surprise Josh when Sam pulled him against the back of a rough tree trunk and plunged his tongue into his mouth. It did surprise him to feel Sam, already hard against his leg, pressing there with more than a little urgency. And when Sam's hand started rubbing the front of Josh's pants, he gasped audibly.

"This is stupid, Sam." Josh squirmed away and nervously ran his hand through his hair, his eyes looking everywhere at once. "And you're not stupid," he added. Expecting an argument, or at least Sam defending himself, Josh was bewildered when he simply smiled and started walking back to the path. "A guy can try," he tossed over his shoulder playfully.

When Josh caught up, they walked in silence for a few minutes, occasionally encountering another couple, or a lone jogger. Josh still felt a little edgy, but Sam appeared completely at ease. Finally relaxing some, Josh reached out and took Sam's hand in his own across a particularly dark, empty stretch of the path.

"That's all I wanted," Sam's quiet voice came out of the darkness. "Sorry about that back there."

"Never mind, Baby. It was kinda excit-" Josh's words were cut off when Sam's hand inexplicably tore out of his. For a panic stricken second, Josh imagined some unseen attacker had come between them, but he immediately saw that they were completely alone.

Sam.

In the thick shadows, Sam's usually luminous blue eyes were dilated to a dark, unnatural black. It made him look vaguely wild, slightly hysterical. And right now, unimaginably disgusted.

Completely confused about what had just happened, Josh took a step closer to his partner, closer even than they had been just a moment ago. Close enough to smell the faintest scent of bay leaf on Sam's breath. "Sam, what's wrong?" he asked in a high voice, tight with caution.

Sam looked away suddenly, jaw working furiously. Josh could see the fight for control, and instinctively stepped back again, giving Sam some space.

"God. I'm sorry, Josh. That... that came out of nowhere." Sam sounded slightly awe-struck.

"I'm... confused. And... scared," Josh confessed. "What came out of where?"

Sam was nodding his head vigorously. "I know, I know. I'm sorry," he repeated. There was a bench a few yards away, and Sam went to it and sat.

Joining him there, Josh sat too. "Sam?"

Laughing bitterly, Sam leaned his head in his hands for a beat, then sat up straight. "If I tell you what happened just now, are you gonna think I'm...." A sigh expelled from his diaphragm, a slight groan at the end of it. "You called me Baby." He sounded wounded.

"Oh." Josh was amazed it sounded like he knew what that was supposed to mean. "Well, I... I... okay. I did." And Sam was looking at him now as if he expected something more. "I have no idea why you're looking at me. What did I do?"

The laugh was genuine now. "You didn't do anything!" Sam responded. "You really do think I'm crazy, don't you?" He caught his bottom lip between his teeth and sucked on it greedily.

"No, of course - yes. At this particular moment in time, yes. I think you're completely crazy. And you make me crazy when you do that thing with your lip, so. I called you Baby. I... I guess you don't like that." The words spilled from Josh out of nervousness and concern and just a hint of arousal at the sight of Sam still nibbling on his lip. "Well," Sam began slowly. "It's not... I guess we never... You've never done that before. It took me by surprise."

"Oh," was all Josh could come up with.

Sam looked apologetically at Josh. "I... I don't like it."

"Oh...."

"Can you give me a second here?" Sam asked casually, then leaned his back against the hard planks of the bench.

He'd give Sam all the time he needed if it would help him understand this weirdness, Josh decided. Not daring to look at his companion, Josh tried to focus on the surface of the canal in front of him. It was too dark to distinguish much, but he could hear the occasional flicking of water that a breaching fish made.

When Josh finally risked looking over at Sam, he was surprised to find him staring back, bemused. "Fish," Josh said by way of explanation.

"You love me." Sam's statement came out of nowhere. The only thing Josh could think to say was, "Of course I do."

"And you... I don't know how to put this. You think of me as your equal?"

"Of course I do!" Josh, suddenly aware he was repeating himself. So he tried to expand his remarks. "That's a really ridiculous question, Sam." Josh was shocked to realize there was anger in his own voice.

Sam looked uncomfortable. "I'm not questioning that. It was supposed to be a.... Shit. It's just... 'baby.' It's." Sam huffed a little. "It's demeaning."

"It's an endearment!"

"It diminishes me."

"Sam, what in god's name are you talking about?" The anger was still there, but Josh was mostly perplexed. In all his adult years, in all the relationships he'd had, this was the first time he'd ever had a conversation like this. "It's a nickname! You are so out in left field on this. You've never called a lover 'baby' or 'sweetie' before?"

"No."

Well, of course not. Because Sam was not a hypocrite, and everything was unequivocal to him, Josh thought bitterly.

"I find that hard to believe," Josh said defiantly. As soon as he said it, he knew it was actually true, and he was about to be told so.

"I haven't. Have I ever called you anything - anything other than 'Josh?' "

Josh didn't have to think about it. "No. But - "

"Because that's your name," Sam interrupted.

Mouth opening and closing like one of the fish in the water at his feet, Josh turned on the bench, and stared openly at Sam. "This is insane. What the hell's the big deal?"

"This is where you really *will* think I'm unbalanced," Sam retorted. And there was a slight glimmer of humor in his eye which came as a great relief to Josh.

"Oh, I am *so* looking forward to this." Josh sat back and folded his arms in front of himself in anticipation.

Sam looked a little embarrassed, but Josh released one hand and made a beckoning motion with it. "Out with it. And this better make sense."

Sam adjusted himself on the bench. "Yeah. See, I was... the thing is... It wasn't until I was eight years old before I knew my mother's name wasn't Honey." Sam's eyebrows rose in anticipation of Josh's next remark. When none came, he continued cautiously. "It was her birthday, and I got her a little silver box. It cost me $11." Still nothing from Josh. "And Dad said I should get it engraved, 'cause that was free."

"Ah."

"I still think he should have paid more attention, and watched me write out the message. But I have other stuff I can hold against him now," Sam babbled.

"So, I amend my statement. You're not crazy, you're just a freak. But we knew that."

"Josh," Sam cautioned. "So your father called your mother 'honey.' You've kinda taken that to extremes, haven't you?" Josh asked dryly.

Sam brushed his hands against his legs a few times, then resumed speaking. "You don't understand. I never once in my life heard my father call her anything but. She was either 'honey' or 'your mom.' " Sam's pain sounded so fresh, Josh abandoned all pretense of annoyance and scooted closer to put an arm around Sam's shoulders. "How did he refer to her to other people?" he wanted to know.

"That's the really bad part." Sam looked at Josh with soulful eyes. "The Wife."

And they both let out simultaneous groans.

Recovering, Josh saw a small smile playing at Sam's mouth, which he leaned in and kissed before speaking. "That *is* pretty bad. And I can see... all kinds of ugly connotations with the baby thing. But, Sam. That's your dad. Your mom. That's not us." Looking around quickly, he stole another kiss, just because he could. "So... this is kinda like the 'beautiful' thing, huh?"

Sam nodded mutely.

Josh sighed heavily in acknowledgment. Another one of Sam's 'things.' "Anyway... since that really is a fairly disturbing story, I won't call you anything that makes you uncomfortable." Another kiss. And another.

"And Toby."

Sputtering violently, Josh fell away from Sam's mouth. "Toby?!" Not quite knowing what to say to this perplexing, awkward segue, Josh just stared with questioning eyes.

"He made me feel diminished today too," Sam said in a flatly matter-of-fact tone. "He referred to... he called Kim Carruthers my 'playmate.' " Cutting his eyes over to Josh quickly, Sam shrugged loosely. "That's kind of what made me angry earlier. He made it sound incredible that I would - No, he made it sound incredible that *Kim* would have anything to do with, you know, someone like me."

Firmly back on solid ground, Josh placed a hand on Sam's knee. "That's not true, Sam. He was probably just tired and cranky about the damn speech. I'm sure he didn't mean - "

"Now, please don't compound things by trying to justify Toby to me, okay, Josh?" The irritation was clear in Sam's tone. "I know exactly what he meant. He told me he and Leo had been wondering why Kim and I would even be having lunch. Like I'm simply not in her league. Jesus, I'm sick of that kind of shit."

Sam was off the bench now, standing at the canal's edge looking into the ebony water. Speaking to Sam's back. "His remark was uncalled for, Sam," Josh offered. "I hope you gave it right back to him."

"I did." But Sam didn't sound too pleased about that. He turned to face Josh. "That's my boy," Josh declared. They each looked at one another with mild horror. "And I mean that in a completely supportive, non-patronizing way," added Josh quickly. Sam seemed appeased, so Josh relaxed. "I don't ask for much, Josh." Sam returned to Josh's side and sat close. "Look. It's all well and good that you can, you know, charge up to the Hill and decapitate wayward members of the Senate. But we also need to build relationships with people." Sam paused to look up at the black sky, no stars in sight, as dark as the water before them. "And that's... that's something I'm good at." Taking Josh's hand in his own. "I just wish once in awhile...."

"You got a little credit for it."

"Not credit. Just acknowledgement," Sam decided.

"I'd like to acknowledge you into oblivion right now. You are deathly sexy when you turn all vulnerable," Josh growled into Sam's ear, adding a slick flip of his tongue.

__________________________

It was a long, tortuous walk back to the car, then an agonizing drive back to Sam's apartment. By the time they arrived, Sam's reflective mood had evaporated, his earlier good humor restored.

Flipping on lights, tossing aside mail, Sam and Josh went through the usual motions that turned the empty space back into a home. The trash stank, so Josh took it out. And the light on the answering machine flashed madly, so Sam wrote down messages, compulsively checking his pager's power. "I have to make those calls," Josh reminded Sam when he returned.

"Your mom called, too, asking if you got the oranges." Sam tapped the pad by the phone with a finger. "Nothing else important." Walking easily to Josh's side, Sam began working his fingers through the knot in Josh's tie. "It's too late to call people. Call them tomorrow. Or don't call them at all." Sam slipped the tie out from Josh's collar and draped it around his own neck, then began fingering a button. "You should let them come to you. Be... play hard to get."

Bewitched by the dexterity Sam was showing by unfastening each button with one hand, Josh rocked a little on his heels before clearing his head enough to answer. "Gotta make at least two. Sam, I gotta make... I at least have to call Kerns."

Tilting his head, Sam studied Josh carefully, mischievously. "When I suggested you play hard to get, I didn't mean with me." Stepping away from Josh suddenly, nonchalantly heading across the apartment. "But... whatever," he teased, disappearing into the bedroom.

Watching Sam glide out of sight galvanized Josh into action. Digging through his backpack, pulling out an array of files, he continuously shot expectant glances at the bedroom doorway. By the time he'd located the phone number for Jacob Kerns, he heard the television click on in the other room. A cocky smile rose to Josh's lips as he recalled the battle he'd had with Sam about bringing over Josh's tv for the bedroom. As someone who sporadically fought bouts of insomnia, Sam insisted that bedrooms were best used for two things only. But Josh had worn him down eventually, and now Sam frequently fell asleep to the low drone of the set. In fact, he was sleeping much better since Josh had brought the television - and himself - to reside in Sam's bedroom.

Distractedly, Josh rushed through his phone call, scribbling notes, abbreviating his answers, all the while realizing a second call was going to be necessary, as well as a review of his agenda for his morning meeting. After disconnecting from Kerns, Josh rose from his seat and went to the bedroom door.

"Sam, I'm afraid I really am going to have to make - " Josh looked around the room, but saw no Sam. "Sam?"

"Yup?" Sam's head popped up from beside the far side of the bed. Josh stepped into the room, puzzlement on his face. "What are you doing down there?" he wanted to know.

Sam stood up and dusted off his knees. "I can't find the spare battery for my laptop. If you're going to make calls, I have some work I can do...."

Walking purposefully to the windowsill, Josh moved aside the curtain. Pulling his hand back, he opened his palm to reveal the missing battery.

While Sam was shaking his head in wonder, Josh shook his in surrender. "I swear, Sam. I watch you do these things and I always tell myself you must have some reason, but...." And with that he walked back into the living room to complete his calls.

__________________________

As a concession to Sam's soulful looks, Josh decided to finish reading in the bedroom, propped against the headboard.

His laptop abandoned on the bedside table, Sam stared almost spellbound at the television. Without thought, he folded one leg and leaned it against Josh's thigh.

"God, Sam."

"Am I bothering you?" Sam asked, a little concern creeping into his voice.

Josh put down the memo he'd been editing and looked over at Sam. "No, you... electrify me."

Sam blinked a few times, absorbing that bit of information, then rolled on his side and worked himself under Josh's arm, tucking his head under Josh's chin.

"Don't get smug," Josh warned lightly.

"What are you talking about?" Sam snuggled a little closer. "You know damn well. You're smiling."

"You can't know that," Sam challenged.

"I know. 'Cause you do this thing," Josh explained. "Enlighten me." Sam, feigning innocence.

"I've named it."

"Named *what?*"

"The... the thing. I call it... Sam's Self-Satisfied Squirm," Josh announced grandly, planting a chaste kiss at Sam's temple.

"Oh you did not."

"I did. I've named all your trademark moves and characteristics."

Josh tried to keep his expression impassive as Sam drew back enough to look up at him. Once Josh's smile began to crack, though, it spread quickly to Sam's face as well.

"I have moves? No one.... I never had moves before."

"Sam," Josh began, delighted to watch the astonishment crest his lover's face. "You have moves. The thing that makes you so irresistible is that you don't know you have them."

Sam pulled himself out of Josh's arms, the smile wiped away by genuine amazement. "I'm irresistible, too? Have I *always* been irresistible and... movey?"

Groaning dramatically, Josh playfully pushed Sam away and picked his brief back up. "If you want to show me any of your other moves, let me finish this, would you?"

Resting his head back against the pillow, nursing a confident smile again, Sam obediently went back to watching a week old re-broadcast of Booknotes.

It was nearly an hour later when Josh put aside the pad he'd filled with notes and questions for his meeting, and turned to find Sam curled on his side, lips parted slightly, exquisite and peaceful in sleep. Switching off the lamp by his bed, Josh felt around for the remote. Patting the billowy comforter, - another item brought from his own nearly abandoned apartment - the remote magically rose to the surface of the fluffy down ocean. With a click, the room was plunged into darkness.

Adjusting his pillow so he was nearly nose to nose with Sam, Josh waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark, then silently counted the blessings that had come his way in the form of Sam Seaborn.

Reaching out with as much stealth as he could manage, Josh traced a finger along Sam's cheek. Unable to resist, he craned his neck enough to place a tiny kiss on the tip of the classic nose, then breathed one just above thick, dark, luxurious lashes. Which fluttered open.

"Did you get everything done?" Sam croaked groggily, pulling himself into a tight ball under the covers, hands tucked under his chin.

"Sorry it took so long," Josh whispered. "I didn't want to wake you."

"Wake me, wake me," Sam whispered back without inflection, before he brought his lips to meet Josh's. "Wake me," he mumbled into Josh's mouth.

Their lips melted together, hands finding familiar places easily in the dark. When Sam began whimpering into his neck, Josh moaned his encouragement, unable to form words. Feeling Sam gradually unfurl to his full length in his hand, Josh pulled him closer, closer, never close enough, until he absorbed Sam into his own body. The air became humid with their dense breathing, the heat from two men reaching their boiling points. Sam climbed higher and higher, his voice becoming hoarse in the thin atmosphere. "Josh, please!" Holding tightly to Josh, wailing his way down until they landed together, a heap of thudding hearts and raspy breathing.

Dragging his tongue through the sweat on Josh's chest, Sam began a descent of another kind. Slower and more controlled, Sam carefully worked his way down his lover's body, until Josh's mind was overrun with thoughts of Sam's tongue riding the thick ridge that ran along his shaft, and the way Sam's fingers slid in and out, and how he'd fucked over Daniel Swift so magnificently and expertly; and he came again, shrieking something unintelligible about forever and ever, and the price to be paid for crossing Josh Lyman.

Dazed and dazzled, they fell asleep quickly, arms overlapping, their breathing synchronized.

__________________________

-Thursday-

"Morning, Toby. Bonnie."

The older man looked from his deputy to his assistant before speaking. "Good morning, Sam," he answered carefully. Toby watched as Sam first accepted a stack of pink message slips from Bonnie, and then moved on.

Subtly rolling his eyes at his assistant, Toby trailed Sam into his office, pushing the door shut behind him.

"We have a few things we need to clear up, Sam," Toby began quietly. "I don't like leaving it the way we did last night." He came into the room a little more, waiting for Sam's acknowledgement. Placing his briefcase and coffee on the desk with practiced deliberation, Sam finally looked up at Toby's face. The nervous chewing of the lips, the dark eyes skipping around the room. Sam could tell his boss was uncomfortable, and he felt a tug of sympathy.

"I'm not sure how we left things, Toby. And I'm not sure what more I can do to change how you see me." Sam looked back down at his desk and began arranging his day into stacks.

Scratching at an eyebrow, Toby shifted his weight a few times, as he tried to find the words that would move this discussion in a more productive direction. "You don't have to prove anything to me," he declared. "You did that in the first three months I knew you."

That was news to Sam.

"That's number one," Toby continued. "Number two is, what you said last night? That was... I... I do rely on you, Sam. Your opinion? It's one of the most valued in this administration. I know you haven't felt that very much lately." Toby lessened the distance between them, leaned a fist against Sam's desk. "The President, Leo; they recognize your talent and contributions."

"Actually, Toby. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to keep this on topic. You and me. If I want to know what President Bartlet or Leo think of the job I'm doing, I'll ask them." The business-like tone of Sam's voice caught Toby off guard, and he blanched slightly at the rebuff. "All right, Sam. That's fine. So. You and me."

Sam took his seat and motioned with his eyes that Toby was welcome to sit in one of his guest chairs. Still slightly off-balance by the formality in Sam's voice, and the deliberateness of his movements, Toby reluctantly sat across from him.

Allowing a moment to pass, Toby began again. "So... I've given you the impression that *I* think you're not doing a good job - "

"No," Sam cut in emphatically. "That's not what this is about. I *know* I do a good job. I may act a little squirrelly about it occasionally, and stress out at times. A lot of times. But I know I'm a great writer." Sam's expression was not challenging, just sure. "I'm talking about politics, Toby. You don't see me as an equal there. As I said last night; you have faith enough in me to handle anything that Leo throws my way. But you. You never turn to me first. *That's* what this is about."

Toby sat as still as a statue, looking uncomfortably at Sam. Caught momentarily speechless, he struggled to form a reply that might satisfy the younger man. But he was too slow, and Sam was clearly on the offensive.

"Do you know what kinds of things people like Kim Carruthers call me about, Toby?" Sam wanted to know. "They ask me what they need to do to get the President to consider their positions on matters that are important to their constituents. They ask how far he may be willing to go, or in what direction, or why. Sometimes they just want some clarification. And do you know what else they ask me, Toby?" Sam was speaking in a deceptively hushed voice, one that carried more of a threat in it than anyone who hadn't been on the receiving end before could imagine. "They ask me how to best approach *you.* How to take your temperature, or mend a misunderstanding before it becomes a vendetta." The last word was nearly spit at Toby, causing him to flinch visibly. "I've been doing this a lot longer than you have, Sam. I've made my share of friends, and maybe more than my share of enemies," Toby lectured. "And if you see yourself as the Bearer of Light around here, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, you have enemies too - "

"I know who my enemies are." Sam sounded resigned and saddened by this, but he stood his ground. "But my enemies are not your enemies. Most of your enemies are still my 'friends.' And it's a damn good thing, Toby; a goddamn good thing that they still feel there's *someone* in this administration they can have a civil conversation with, and call their ally."

Both men inhaled deep, calming breaths, their eyes refusing to meet.

"Well." Toby rose from his chair and stepped towards the door before returning to stand before Sam's desk. "There is obviously a lot more we need to talk about here." He twisted his watch on his wrist, rubbing a thumb along the ridged metal. "Unfortunately, we have a staff meeting in less than ten minutes - "

"Yeah."

" - and I have a call I really need to make before then."

"Yeah."

"But we are going to... Sam. Sam, could you please... would you look at me, please?"

As Sam drew his eyes up to meet Toby's, all defiance seeped out of him, leaving him feeling weary and muddled.

"We are going to work this out. Because whatever you may think of me, I place an immeasurable value on you *and* your opinion." Toby rapped Sam's desk once with a meaty hand, and went back to his own office, leaving Sam slightly winded.

Josh was in his meeting, unavailable for Staff, or for Sam. And Sam really needed Josh. Slightly apprehensive about the way things were going with Toby, he longed for just five minutes with someone who could help him put his thoughts in order; reassure him he wasn't doing more damage to the relationship than he may already have done. After an abbreviated Staff meeting, Sam was heading out the door behind Toby when Leo called him back in, causing both men to hesitate. Clearly rushed for time, Leo never brought his head up from the binder in front of him, his words curt and to the point. "You're going to get to the bottom of this Swift thing, right?"

Sam raised his eyebrows questioningly, but didn't respond right away.

"Sam?" Leo finally looked up at the young man. "You're gonna get to the bottom of it, right?" he repeated.

Sam impulsively darted his eyes toward Toby, lingering at the door. "If that's what you want me to do...." he began.

"Do whatever you have to. Talk to whoever you need to," Leo commanded. "If your contacts won't help, go at it from the other end. Our end." Leo paused and took careful stock of Sam. "You ready to take 'em to town?"

"Ookay," Sam answered warily. "Well, I really don't know what that means, but I'm willing to give it a shot."

A quick nod of the head dismissed him, and Sam excused himself past Toby.

__________________________

Sitting behind his desk, thoughtfully chewing on a fig danish Ginger had left him, Sam stared vacantly ahead, not registering the perpetual motion outside his office. It wasn't until Ginger poked her head in the door and called his name that he realized he'd been so absorbed in thought he hadn't heard her call to him the first time.

"Line seven, Sam," Ginger informed him. "Kim Carruthers, returning your call."

Washing down the last of his breakfast with a gulp of slick, cold coffee, Sam mentally braced himself and reached for the receiver.

"Good morning, Kim. Thanks for getting back to me." He picked up a pen, enjoying the comforting weight of the cool metal in his hand. A deep, almost sultry voice vibrated in his ear over the phone. "I was expecting to hear from you, Sam. After Josh Lyman's pleasant visit yesterday, I knew you weren't going to let this rest so easily."

"Speaking of resting easily, when's the wake for the Congressman? President Bartlet would like to, you know, send flowers or something," Sam jibed effortlessly.

"Or something," Kim repeated, irony lacing her words. "What can I do for you, Sam?"

Ready to get down to business, Sam set the pen carefully on his desk and looked towards his empty doorway. "I need to see you." It wasn't a request.

There was silence on the other end of the line, and Sam was just about to ask for some assurance that Kim was still there when she spoke quietly into his ear, sounding as if she were right over his shoulder.

"I... I can't see you right now, Sam. Look. We both know what you're looking for here," she continued before he could respond. "But I can't give you what you want."

"Come on, Kim." Sam suddenly felt a flash of irritation. "You gave me the damn speech. Giving me a name can't be that much more difficult."

"No, Sam. You don't understand. I don't have a name for you." There was a slow intake of breath that Sam could almost feel against his ear. "But I'd be willing to dig around for you, if I felt it was worth my while." Kim's voice sounded less sure than it had when Sam had first picked up the phone. "I'm not sure what I can do for the Congressman after what he tried to pull, Kim."

"I don't want anything for Swift, Sam. Do you know what I'm saying here?" she wanted to know.

The realization caught Sam off guard. But for the life of him, he couldn't imagine what he could do for Kim either. "I'm really not.... What kind of...." Feeling a little out of his depth made Sam recall his whole argument with Toby. Refusing to give in to the doubts that teased at him, Sam switched the phone from one ear to the other in a bid to stall for time. "You want some kind of favor that has nothing to do with the Congressman," he speculated. "Something for yourself."

"And you get something for *yourself,*" Kim countered. "You want to know who leaked Toby's speech? You get me into the White House." Sam nearly pulled the phone from his ear to stare at it. "You want...? I'm sorry; You want to meet with the President?" Bewilderment clear in his voice.

"Sam. I want to work for the President," came the curt reply.

__________________________

Josh threaded his way towards his office, pent up energy twisting away inside of him. The idea of sitting at his desk for another ten hours was making him feel antsy and restless. He wondered idly if he could successfully pull Sam down to the Mess for an early lunch. Entering his office, he was momentarily struck motionless to find Donna sitting behind his desk, phone planted to her ear.

"...you don't have to tell me, I don't even think he's capable of doing it himself. I'm sure that's part of the appeal of having Sam around." Looking up at her boss' dumbstruck presence, Donna spoke easily into the phone. "He just got back, hold on." Punching the hold button, she held the phone out to Josh and rose swiftly from the chair. "It's your mother," she informed him before retreating to her own desk.

Unthinking, Josh brought the phone to his mouth. "Uh, hi Mom. I... I got your message last night, but it was a little late. Thanks for the oranges. What the hell were you talking to Donna about?" It wasn't until the last word trailed out of his mouth that Josh realized the hold light was still flashing at him.

Coming around the desk, he sighed heavily and tossed his backpack onto the floor beside a crate of Florida oranges before poking the button reluctantly. "Hi, Mom," he repeated weakly, and sank into his chair.

__________________________

Sam pulled his coat closer around himself, despite the rather moderate temperature. He just needed something to do with his hands. The voice startled him. "Do you know, I have never been here before?"

Turning to face it, Sam then instinctively glanced around at the only other people standing in the clearing; two tourists clambering across the lap of the four ton bronze sculpture of Albert Einstein. "This is wonderful. Why have I never been here?" Kim wondered aloud.

"I couldn't say." Sam reached out one hand to take Kim's, giving it a firm shake. "Thanks for meeting me. Though I gotta tell you, I'm not really big on the cloak and dagger stuff." He scowled at her slightly.

Ignoring him, the tall woman brushed her chin length ash brown hair from her almond eyes and moved gracefully towards the looming figure sitting nestled in a corner of the enclosed clearing. "Marvelous," she breathed. "Yeah. Remind me to take you to the top of the Washington Monument sometime." Sam was unable to keep his impatience at bay. "Look - "

Whipping her head around to glance at Sam, Kim smiled broadly, then watched the man and woman who had been cavorting on Einstein head down a shady path. "Give me a break, Sam. I never get out of the office."

Waiting a moment for the couple to disappear, Kim ran her hand over the jagged sculpture. When she eventually turned back to Sam, she saw him toeing the celestial map embedded in the marble at their feet.

"Okay. Coast is clear, secret agent Sam," she joked.

Taking in a deep breath, Sam swiveled his eyes around to make sure they were indeed alone. "You know, Toby thinks you're a very scary woman."

"Toby Ziegler thinks all women are very scary. But, thanks for the tip. Don't think I won't use that bit of insight against him at some point."

"Please, feel free," Sam mumbled. "So. You said you might have something for me?" Sam lowered himself onto the ledge where Einstein resided, and sat there with his hands in his lap.

Sitting beside him, Kim looked carefully into his blue eyes. "You looked a lot better at lunch yesterday. Are you getting a lot of heat about this?"

Puffing out a breath, Sam hung his head. "Someone we all know and work with everyday stole a copy of President Bartlet's speech, and gave it to someone we all know and do *not* work closely with. Yeah, Kim. We're taking some heat."

Nuzzling her shoulder against Sam's wool-clad coat, Kim nodded her head in understanding. "I'm sorry. Let's talk suspects, shall we?" Opening her purse, she pulled out a small leather spiral bound notebook. "Okay, there are three people who may have given the speech to the Congressman. Who gave it to *them,* I can't help you with."

"Can I just ask you something?" Sam interrupted. Waited for her to nod her acquiescence before he continued. "Why can't you ask Swift? Do you really think he would keep it from you?" Twisting his neck to look at her, Sam was startled to see a familiar expression move across her face. He knew what that look meant. She was visibly uncomfortable with the question, as well as obviously resigned to the answer. He knew what that felt like, too. "I'm sorry." He felt a sympathetic twist in his gut. "So, you see why - with or without your help - I need to move on. I can't keep working for someone who I not only have drifted so far from politically I'm not sure we're from the same party, but who obviously doesn't feel the need to confide in or include me in his decisions any longer."

Sam swallowed hard a few times, brushed his hand across his eyes. "And you want to work for President Bartlet." Without meaning to, it came out sounding like a question, which caused Kim's eyebrows to shoot up.

"Yeah, Sam. In spite of some of the things I've said about him as Swift's CoS, I truly believe my own political philosophy is much more aligned with the President's. Do you doubt that?"

"No," Sam responded. "But a lot of other people will. I have to be honest with you, Kim. Private sector, I can get you in anywhere. But the White House? It's gonna be a pretty hard sell, to some pretty hard people."

They sat in silence for a moment, each mulling over Sam's words. Eventually, Kim spoke. "I'm willing to give it a shot, if you are." Her voice was quiet, soft, not at all the brash and ballsy woman most people would recognize. Sam reached into the breast pocket of his suit and retrieved his own small notebook. "Give me three names." __________________________

Slowly entering the Communications Bullpen, Sam bent a little to his left to scan Toby's office. His boss was nowhere in sight, so he ambled into his own office and took a seat behind his desk. Making some calls, following up on Kim's information, It was a full thirty minutes before anyone even noticed he was there, which was just fine with him. "How did you get in here?" Bonnie wanted to know, spotting Sam through the open door.

"Don't make me have to come up with a really lame, cute answer to that," Sam retorted impishly.

"No," Bonnie agreed. "That would hurt me as much as I would hurt you." She walked into the office and stared hard at him, unapologetically. "So?"

Sam blinked carefully at her. "You really want me to say something lame and - "

"*Sam!* How did it go?"

"Oh." Making hollow motions of tidying up his already immaculate desk, Sam avoided eye contact for as long as he could. But Bonnie's relentless stare was burning holes through his shirt, and he eventually gave up.

"Well. Let's put it this way; I'm not entirely sure. But when I figure it out, you'll be the first to know," he assured her, cocking a charming eyebrow at her.

Shrugging a padded shoulder back, Bonnie turned from him and began to leave the room. "Oh, Josh has been looking for you," she informed him before returning to her desk.

Reaching out for the phone, Sam punched in Josh's extension, waited for Donna's slightly nasal voice to answer. "Hey, Donna it's Sam. Is he there?"

"He's here. He wanted me to let him know when you got back - "

"I'm coming over." Sam disconnected without giving her the opportunity to respond.

Walking briskly through the hallway, crossing the bright lobby, Sam felt the adrenaline begin to slosh through his veins again. The glint of the marble, the drape of the American flag, the seal of the White House on the wall all caused Sam's pulse to race a little as he strode across the lobby. He couldn't blame Kim for wanting to grab just a little of the feeling he had working for the President of the United States. Catching Donna's eye briefly, she nodded Sam into Josh's office, where he found him sitting eagerly. Excitement crinkling the edge of his voice, Josh beckoned Sam to sit. "Toby said you had a meeting about the leak." The words gushed out as Josh came from behind the desk to perch in front of Sam. "What's up?"

A half smile rising to his lips, Sam looked up at Josh from his seat. "Einstein's nipples. It's getting cold out."

"I, uh, don't want to know what you're talking about. Just... tell me what the hell you found out!" Josh insisted, eyes blazing, hands fluttering with anticipation. Taking in the confident posture and smooth, unruffled countenance of his lover. "You know who it is, don't you?" "I know... I know some things I didn't know before. I just need to put it all together." Sam's smile faltered slightly, but he adjusted it quickly. "I may need some more time. And, possibly to sleep with Kim Carruthers."

The infectious enthusiasm Josh had been showing suddenly slipped off his face entirely. "You - that's a joke. That's clearly a.... I mean, it's not funny; but it's a joke." Concern now the overwhelming expression on his face.

A little shocked, a little amused, Sam's smile widened. "You're jealous," he affirmed proudly.

Josh's head was already declaring the negative. "That was a joke," he repeated once again, blowing an incredulous breath through his lips. "No. Of course I wasn't jealous!" And he put that away to examine later.

After quickly moving behind Sam to close his door, Josh turned back and placed both hands on Sam's shoulders, allowing them to drift down his chest. "Mmm. It was cold out, wasn't it?" he asked teasingly, rubbing his fingers briskly over the rising nubs he found.

Sam grunted weakly, then pulled himself out of the chair. "Don't do this to me," he complained, passing Josh and going to the door. "Maybe later...."

"Oh, I have some very definite plans for you later. They involve eating red meat, drinking mead - "

"Why can't you just say 'beer'?"

"I'm staying in character."

"The whole medieval thing is so over, Josh."

"But I thought we could, I don't know, joust at each other with our long, pointy - "

"Stop. I really don't think...." Sam leaned back against the door, bringing a hand up to rub at his eyes.

"Fine. I'll make different plans. I'll tell you about them, if you stick around," Josh said as he dropped into his chair, swung it back and forth indifferently.

At the door, Sam hesitated before opening it. "Surprise me," he said, and left with a teasing smile. __________________________

"Sam, you're late," Ginger chided him as he rounded the corner into the Bullpen.

"I am?"

"Leo. Toby. Eric Elfman and Ricki - "

"Combs! Ah, shit, Ginger. Why didn't anyone remind me?" Sensing a losing argument looming in front of him, Sam waved the assistant off and jogged into his office. Collecting his notebook, he spun around and headed back into the Bullpen. "Find the folders on the National Taxpayers Union, would you please? Bring them when you've got 'em," Sam directed with unusual irritation.

He quickly crossed over to the Roosevelt Room and silently took his place at the table next to a scowling Toby. Repressing his quilt at having had his nipples rubbed while he should have been in a high level meeting with a powerful lobbyist, Sam wisely kept his head down and dove right into the discussion.

"....you can't honestly sit here and tell me you still believe the government fairy is just hovering out there ready to reallocate these increases - "

"Proposed increases," Sam corrected.

" - to reallocate the money to its neediest citizens in any reasonable measure of time," Elfman was insisting loudly. "You're the ones talking about people in need, desperate need right now."

Sam sighed deeply, accepted the files Ginger handed him, and sat up so straight his lower back screamed at him. "Mr. Elfman, if I can direct your attention to page two fifty-two of the second section...." he began in his most diligent lawyer's tone of voice.

__________________________

"If you'll excuse me, I need to get to another meeting," Leo was saying. Getting out of his chair, he cocked his head towards Sam. "Can you walk with me?" Grasping his pen compulsively, Sam followed Leo into the hall. "It's going well," Leo said, moving slowly towards his office.

"Yes," Sam sighed.

"It's going great."

"Yeah." Sam patted down his tie absently. "I'm thinking the numbers sounded a little fuzzy."

"The numbers are fine."

"But I made them sound a little soft, you know. I thought I'd keep them soft at first, so when I came back around to roll over him I'd have some steam left." Leo set his things down on his desk and looked back at Sam's uneasy expression. "You didn't have to come back, he bought it the first time."

"I sounded less than convincing."

"Yet, he was convinced." Leo shook his head in consternation.

"Yes, which left the numbers looking fuzzy," Sam insisted.

"And you looking like a lunatic. Really, it's good." Leo sat at his desk and placed his glasses on his nose. Sensing Sam's continued presence, he reluctantly looked back up.

"Yeah, see...."

"Oh god, Sam."

"I'm just saying - "

"Where have you gotten with the other thing?" Leo interjected, hoping to derail Sam from his self flagellation.

Firing off a puzzled look, Sam relented and rolled his pen between his fingers rapidly. "I have a few things. I have a name. I need to.... Just how much discretion do I have here, Leo?"

Setting aside the brief he had been pretending to read over, Leo sat back in his chair and looked up at Sam, taking careful note of the slightly disheveled hair, the uncharacteristic pallor. "You've always handled these things well for us in the past. Take whatever steps you feel necessary. I trust you to get it done, that's why I came to you."

Sam's pen slid out of his hand. Straightening himself after retrieving it from under a chair, Sam caught a questioning look from Leo.

"I'm.... having issues with that this week," he offered apologetically. "But don't worry, I'll take care of it."

"I'm not worried, Sam. Now go. De-fuzz your numbers, if it'll help you sleep better tonight."

__________________________

Done with his last meeting of the day, Sam wandered back to his office and took a seat behind his desk. His mind was filled with a dozen different things, none of which were particularly pleasant. Except the lingering suggestion that Josh truly did have something special in mind for him when they got home that night. He was far behind on a speech that he'd barely begun; there was a meeting Sam needed to reschedule from earlier in the week; a growing stack of briefing memos were whispering to him from a corner of his desk, which was sprinkled with pink message slips, calls that had been accumulating all day. Fingering through them, trying to prioritize, he couldn't get his mind off of Josh, and the way he'd looked at Sam as he'd left Josh's office earlier. Sitting back in his chair, Sam closed his eyes and, for an indulgent moment, let himself imagine the best possible scenario for their evening.

Something to eat, obviously, though Sam wasn't in the mood to go anywhere. A shower, long and scalding, to ease his muscles and warm him from the inside. Maybe some quality time on the sofa, filling Josh in on what he could, gaining strength to face the next few days from his unwavering support. Maybe some necking, maybe some exploration. Definitely some fucking.

"I am so addicted to him," Sam mumbled to himself, and got out of his chair, in search of something to put him out of his misery.

__________________________

"Ceej, you got a minute for me?" Sam's head poked into her doorway, a shock of dark hair falling across his forehead.

Shutting off one of the two televisions she had on, CJ waved him in with a small leather-bound book. "Many minutos. Have a seat. What can I do for you meu empregado de mesa pequeno encantador?

"CJ? I *think* that was Portuguese, and I *think* you just called me your lovely little waiter. I'm gonna assume you don't have a direct line to my damaged psyche this week, and let you get away with it this one time." Flopping onto her sofa, Sam rested his elbows on his knees and waited for her to remove her glasses.

"I'm going to Portugal, Sam."

"Okay.

"I'm taking a vacation."

"Right."

"I mean it this time. No, I really do," Watching him shake his head slowly. "You don't believe me?"

"I never believed you any of the other times either, and what do you know? You never went." Sam sat back and crossed his arms. "Can we talk about me, now?"

Slapping the book closed with a quick snap, CJ rose from behind her desk to join Sam on the sofa. "I'm here for you, babe."

Dropping his hands into his lap, shoulders slumping. "I think my week has developed a theme," Sam sighed.

"You have a theme? But you don't have a theme song, am I right? Is that your problem?" Sam could see CJ had immediately warmed to that idea.

"No. Well, it could be. Okay, I may have more than one problem. But you can actually help me with the big one." Sam gave into the nervous energy he felt swelling in him, and got to his feet.

"What can you tell me about Francine Mallet, in Protocol?" Pacing over to the television, Sam ran a hand over the screen, then examined his fingers, scowling at the abundant amount of dust he found there.

CJ stopped half-way as she reached for a can of soda on the coffee table and looked at Sam carefully. "Is this about your investigation? The leaked speech?" she asked, sitting back carefully.

Turning to face CJ, Sam shrugged his shoulders and pressed his lips together briefly before speaking. "I wouldn't characterize it as an investigation. That word always seems to get us in deep shit. I'm just checking into a few things for Leo." "Okay, so now I have my answer if anyone in the pressroom get's a whiff of this. Between us, Sam. Is this related to your investigation?" she pressed.

Sam winced. He had a job to do, and felt he was getting close to connecting all the dots. But he wasn't crazy about the idea of dragging out the identities of people who may not have anything more than a passing acquaintance with the names Kim had given him. Coming back to sit beside CJ, Sam looked her squarely in the eyes.

"Francine Mallet went to the Office of Protocol after you passed her over for Deputy, is that right?"

"You don't honestly think - "

"I don't know enough to think, CJ. So I'm just asking questions here," Sam told her honestly. "I have three possible names, and only one of them has a direct connection to the White House."

"Francine?"

Somewhat sadly, Sam nodded. "She got engaged last month."

"Yeah? I didn't know."

"Her fiancé works on the Hill. He makes $27,000 a year, and has been trying like hell to get a job with Swift." Sam dropped his head into his hands. "I'm not making an accusation, you understand. And I'm really, really not comfortable even discussing this with anyone." Sam straightened up and looked over at CJ once more. "But you knew her, and obviously I know I can trust you. I don't want to bring undue attention to this woman if there's any chance I could be going down the wrong road here."

CJ could see this wasn't easy for Sam to ask. There was very little she hated more than having to face the fact that occasionally someone inside their own small community would have their loyalties questioned. The task had fallen to her, once or twice in the past, and she recalled how uneasy the entire affair had made her. She reached out and touched Sam's cuff lightly.

"Francine was always a bit of a social climber," she confided to Sam. "She wanted the house in McLean, the receptions, the mention in Lloyd Grove's column on Monday mornings. She did good work, but I never felt as if her mind was one hundred percent where it should have been." CJ picked up her warm soda and took a deep swallow. "That's all I know, Sam. I hope it helps you."

With a deeper, exhausted sigh, Sam got to his feet, thanked CJ, and went back to his office.

"Can we...?" Toby lingered in the doorway, waiting for an invitation he wasn't even sure would be forthcoming. "I was thinking, it's been a long day."

Sam caught the weariness he felt reflected in Toby's face. "We can do this another time. It can keep another night," he reasoned.

"I was actually thinking we could get a drink, maybe. Or we can do it tomorrow. I just thought, it might be good to get out of here, walk over to the Grill. And we could talk over a drink, or...."

Beginning to feel as if something physical was in the room with them whenever they were together, Sam figured it would be better to get whatever was happening between him and Toby out of the way, once and for all. He felt a small twinge of regret at the idea of sending Josh home without him. The thought of how his own expectations and Josh's plans might coincide caused an unwelcome stir in his groin.

Clearing his throat and his mind, Sam nodded solemnly. "Let's do that," he agreed. "I'll just tell Josh."

"Yeah." Toby sucked his lip into the dense undergrowth around his mouth and walked back into his office to fill his pockets with his cell phone and pager while Sam made his call.

Moments later he was back, just in time to find Sam plucking his cell phone out of its charger, then slipping on his jacket.

__________________________

Dismissing the long, ornate bar, the two men were directed to a table away from the front of the restaurant. Settling wordlessly into club chairs, waving away the menus the host offered, Toby cut his eyes back and forth between Sam and the approaching server.

"Gentlemen," the young blonde woman greeted them cheerfully. "What can I bring you?"

"Jack, rocks," Toby instructed. Turning her attention to Sam, who was rubbing the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "Gin gimlet, please," he requested wearily, hoping the sharp lime drink would clear the gummy, stale taste from his mouth. "And a glass of water, when you get a chance."

Nodding briskly, the server was gone, leaving a bloated silence hanging in place of her presence.

Like bumping noses, they both began to speak at once.

"No, go ahead," Toby demurred, offering a palm up gesture to encourage the younger man to take the floor.

"So. I guess we should.... We should try to figure out... where we go from here." Sam sighed and went back to massaging his nose.

The waitress returned, setting their drinks down in front of them. "Jack for the gentleman. Gimlet for his friend," she said with what Toby could have sworn was a wink. Toby swirled the ice cubes around a few times before speaking. "If you believe nothing else about me Sam, you have to know I am sorry if I've made you feel in any way... in any way unequal. To the task, to me, to anyone."

Sam raised his eyes to Toby for a moment, turning the words over in his mind. Distractedly bringing his drink to his mouth, he swallowed hard, gasping back a cough. "Ugh!" he sputtered. After shooting a vicious glare into his glass, he caught the attention of the server and motioned her over with two fingers.

"This isn't a gimlet." His voice was uncharacteristically tight. "It's a gibson." He handed it up to the startled woman who rapidly darted away.

Catching Toby's confused expression, Sam took a quick sip of water and dabbed at his mouth with the cocktail napkin. "I don't doubt that you're sorry." The fingers of Sam's right hand were vibrating against the table. "Just... do you think it somehow changes the fact that you feel that way in the first place?" he asked pointedly.

Toby fingered the swizzle stick the way he would a cigar, flexing them around it, see-sawing it back and forth. "I don't know where this is all coming from right now, Sam. This business about me not coming to you?" His dry chuckle belying the fact that he saw no humor in this absurd notion. "What is *that?* You're my deputy. I come to you with *everything.* You sound like you've suddenly discovered you're not daddy's favorite child. So, so what the hell is your problem?" The fingers halted their nervous dance, and Sam's eyes visibly drained from blue to gray in the evening light. "We're obviously still not on the same page, here," he countered. "Here you go, sir." Sam sat back abruptly when the server replaced his drink. Prepared to continue his train of thought, Sam looked down and snapped his mouth shut.

"*Excuse* me." Arching a dark eyebrow at the perplexed expression on the blonde's face. "Have you ever been to a farm?" Sam asked curtly.

"I'm sorry...?"

"Farm, community garden, grocery store. Any one would do. I was just curious whether you've ever seen how things are actually grown," Sam persisted. "Do you see these?" he asked, fishing a dripping green cocktail sword out of the clear liquid. "These are onions." Waving them around a little, drops of gin splashing against the table, running down his wrist. "Onions, even of the miniature or, cocktail variety, are vegetables, and they grow in the ground," he continued with exaggerated reasonableness. "Whereas a *lime* is a fruit, and grows on trees."

"Sam." Toby, suddenly seeing what was happening right in front of him.

"The difference in taste is also remarkable. One being tart and fruity, the other being, well, an ONION," Sam's voice taking on a slightly menacing edge Toby had never heard before. "So while the words 'gimlet' and 'gibson' have all of two letters in common, the difference in taste between the two - "

"Sam!"

"The difference in taste - "

Aghast, Toby rose to his feet and snatched the drink from Sam's hand, placed it with studied deliberation into the trembling waitress'. "Please, just, go. Take this, go... bring him a *gimlet* or a tranquilizer, or something. Just, please." Turning back to face Sam, who was staring helplessly at the floor.

"Well. That was...." Sam began, clearly as shaken as the departed server. "I should... excuse me."

On his feet before Toby could respond, he watched as Sam walked purposely to the service bar where he bowed his head and spoke into the ear of the unsuspecting young woman whom he had a moment ago nearly brought to tears. A firm hand on her sleeve drew her around to face him, and although Toby was unable to see Sam's face, he saw the tension in the woman's drain away, eventually replaced by a slender smile and a slow nod of her head.

Returning to the table, Sam was unable to meet Toby's condemning stare. "I owe you an apology too, Toby. I really don't know...." Snorting gently to himself. "That's the second time in two days I've flown off the handle." Finally bringing his eyes up to meet his boss'. "I obviously, I really.... Maybe this isn't the best time for us to be having this conversation," he concluded weakly.

"Oh, I think I've just realized how important it is we *do* have this conversation," Toby disagreed.

After gulping down some water, Sam planted his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. "I blew up at Josh last night, too," he admitted meekly. "I mean, it passed before I even knew it. But for a minute there...." Sam raised his head, sat back in his chair. Offered a weak smile to the server when she placed his drink in front of him.

"You've been working too hard; the questions about the email improprieties.... Maybe Babish is asking too much of you right now," Toby speculated. "We have an entire counsel's office. You've been an invaluable liaison between them and the staff, but.... Maybe it's too much right now." Toby sipped thoughtfully at his drink, keeping an evaluating eye on Sam.

"Hm. Well, that wasn't the problem, actually; feeling overworked. It was... it was personnel, but it was also connected with... us. With what we're talking about here." Sam plucked the lime wedge from his drink and squeezed it gently, anything to avoid eye contact. What they were supposed to be talking about, if Sam could regain control of the conversation.

"I still think I'll speak to Oliver. Ainsley's perfectly capable of assisting - "

"Toby. Um. Some people have expressed.... They're not entirely comfortable going over their testimony with her. They've mentioned it to me," Sam said with surprising timidity. "They just feel - "

"Because she's a Republican?" Toby finished. "That's bullshit! When are they going to get over the fact that we have a REPUBLICAN WORKING FOR US?" His voice rose with indignation. "If anything, this whole fiasco has proved that we can't predict where the next hit is coming from, our side, their side. It's like a game of political dodge ball!"

Sam sat patiently, nodding his head when he felt Toby would expect it. "She *is* doing a great job. My point was, they feel more comfortable hearing this stuff from me. Not because she's a Republican. Because they know me. And I don't mind." Sam sighed deeply and brought his eyes up to meet Toby's at last. "And isn't that what we keep coming back to?"

"Oh, for the love of god, Sam," the older man groused. "So, *everybody* goes to you except me. Is that what we're stuck on? Is that where you want to keep ending up?"

"Well," Sam declared bitterly. "Doesn't that sound... inconvenient for you."

Biting the inside of his lower lip, sucking at it, chewing the flesh, Toby studied Sam intently. CJ had warned him about this. Had been trying to prepare Toby for a year. She'd told him that he'd only be able to ride Sam's moderate case of hero worship so far, before he'd start to chafe at the bit. One day, Sam would come up along side of Toby, if not overtake him completely. He had all the qualities Toby lacked, he just didn't realize yet how far it would get him.

"So why?" Sam was saying, intruding suddenly on Toby's train of thought. "Why is it that you have more respect for my abilities as a speechwriter than you do as a policy advisor?" Sam demanded.

"You have enough to worry about," Toby mumbled without thinking.

"Bullshit."

"*I* have enough to worry about."

Pushing his drink away with barely disguised disgust, Sam leveled his stare on Toby. "I'm sorry to be the source of so much worry and concern for you."

"I worry, yes, I worry, Sam. I don't want to give you more than you can handle, okay? I don't...." Toby twirled the stirrer in his drink violently, wrestling with himself. "Dammit. I'd never want you to think that I was setting you up for failure. You have the potential to be really great at this. Contrary to the first impressions I formed of you, I believe, given time and the right, the right guidance... you could go very far. Doing this. Or, you know, whatever you wanted to do," he finished, agonizingly pulling the words from his own mouth. "But you're so fucking young. You don't even realize it yourself." Resigned to just telling the unvarnished truth. "But I do." "You know, Toby, that may have been true, at one point. In the beginning. I'll give you that." Sam shook his head once, willing to accept the judgment. Once. "But... I'm not the same guy that walked into campaign headquarters in Nashua to meet the 'great Toby Zeigler'. Who, as I recall, wasn't so 'great' and didn't make a tremendous first impression either." Sam lowered his eyes and licked his lips nervously. "You want to talk about first impressions? Sam, you're lucky you made it past the first three impressions. Beyond all reason, I was able to see past all three, and I'm...." Toby cocked his head slightly at the memory, avoiding the young man waiting across the table from him. "That's something I'm not known for doing," Toby finished quietly.

"That bad?" Sam wanted to know. He wasn't fishing, but he thought distantly that if he had some idea what pre-conceptions Toby had started with, he might be able to figure out how to finally banish them for good. Hard work, dedication, sacrifice. These were the things he'd imagined would be asked of him. He'd given all happily. And in return he'd gained so much more than he'd ever hoped he would. Purpose, the opportunity to make a lasting difference, a clear direction. And Josh. Toby sized Sam up carefully. "You want to know what I thought of you?" Not sure he wanted to tell him. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Toby felt an unspecified affection for his deputy, one that had gradually become based on more than the fact that Sam *was* his deputy. He saw qualities in Sam that he'd once hoped to see in a son of his own. And though Toby often found Sam's very presence frustrating, he'd admitted to himself long ago that his job would be immeasurably gloomier without him in the next office. Toby figured the least he could do was keep being honest with him. "Okay, Sam, you want to know? Okay. First impression: you were some inexperienced, young, rich, over-achiever who thought it might be 'fun' to get into politics. Second impression: You were there because you were a friend of Josh's, who's motives I really wasn't sure of back then." He risked a thin smile at Sam, who sat uncharacteristically slumped in the dark leather chair.

"What was the third impression, Toby?"

There was a long uncomfortable silence, a few charged glances. Finally, "You were too goddamn pretty."

Thirty seconds stretched into sixty. Toby noted with apprehension that Sam had yet to take his eyes off the melting ice in his sickly green drink, hadn't yet responded at all to his declaration. Sixty into ninety. Noticed when Sam tilted his head almost invisibly, as if listening to a ghostly conversation going on in his own head. Ninety into -

"Sam?" Eyes snapping up at the sound of his name, Sam looked keenly at Toby. "I... I really don't know what to say to that," he admitted. "I think, I mean, do you...?" Still feeling blindsided. "I guess I'm wondering if you still hold those same opinions of me, is what I'm trying to figure out."

Licking his lips more out of discomfort than any desire to taste the last of his remaining Jack Daniels, Toby had to look away from the question on Sam's face. This wasn't his job. This wasn't his job.

Gesturing to the hesitant server to bring another drink, Toby folded his hands over his stomach and stretched out his legs. "I can see we're in for the long haul, so you might as well get comfortable, Sam." The weak attempt to lighten the mood seemed lost on the other man.

"It's a simple enough question." Sam's lame attempt at bullying his boss.

"So, you think I can give you a simple answer?" Toby scoffed lightly. "It's not as clear-cut as you make it sound, Sam."

"Oh?"

"Well, you're not as young as you were then, that's simple enough. And yet... and yet, Sam. You still possess such childlike qualities sometimes - "

"I trip on things, Toby. How exactly does that disqualify me from earning your respect?"

This made Toby smile, as much as he tried not to. "Your grace and poise never entered into my thinking. I was actually talking about your unique ability to still find the wonder and enthusiasm for what should have by now become crushingly disillusioning to you." Toby stopped smiling abruptly. "And if you tell me one more time that I don't have respect for you, I'll kick your ass into the street and drag you down to the Reflecting Pool where I will strip you to your shorts and set the ducks on you. Are we absolutely, completely clear on at least that one point, Sam?"

Toby's intense, dark eyes blazed at Sam, daring him to object.

Folding his lips inwardly, pressing them together, Sam simply nodded his head in agreement.

Accepting his fresh drink, Toby smiled palely at the woman before she dashed away again. "Good. So. Your inexperience." Getting right down to business now. "What can I say? You're a damn quick study, Sam, and a hell of a bluffer sometimes."

"You're saying I have everyone fooled?"

"Goddamn it." Toby didn't allow the blazing frustration he was feeling to seep into his voice. "Goddamn you, Sam." Taking a noisy slurp of his drink. "You're determined to make this something it isn't. And when it's all over, don't think I'm going to want to talk about *that.*" Seeing a small flicker of amusement drift across Sam's eyes, Toby turned his head to face him fully. "No, I mean it. *Don't* think I'm going to want to talk about that, too. You deal with whatever's fueling this nonsense on your own time."

"And now we're back to you thinking I'm... frivolous somehow." The resignation in Sam's tone obviously battling with his own frustration.

Toby's hand stopped in midair, halfway to his mouth. "Excuse me? Frivolous?" He looked around the room for someone who might rescue him from the absurdity of this conversation. "When did I call you frivolous? When did I *imply* that I thought you were frivolous? And when did you lose your freaking mind, Deputy of mine?" His glass finally found its destination, and he took another deep drink. "This ain't the conversation you said you wanted to have, Sam."

"I don't know what I'm doing." Toby's eyes locked onto Sam's like guided missiles. There was something in his voice, something that wasn't there a minute ago. A doubtfulness, a distance.

"What's going on?" he asked with overdue concern. "Sam, what's really going on here?"

Shaking his head slowly, Sam tipped his drink to his mouth, shuddered involuntarily at the pungent taste of it. "God only knows. All I do know is, I was having a fairly good day yesterday, until the moment you said that Kim Carruthers didn't seem like the kind of person you thought I should be 'playing' with. And something in my head just.... Like ears popping on a plane. Ever since then, Toby, everything anyone says to me seems colored by that one moment. It made me feel so.... yup. Reduced. And last night when Josh called me 'baby' it came rushing back at me again, and to tell you the truth, the hell of it is, I can see how some people might see me in that light sometimes. I mean, I *am* young and came into this job inexperienced. And, for the record, I'm still an obnoxious over-achiever, and pretty well off financially. So, yeah. You didn't call me frivolous, not technically; but you sure made my feelings seem that way. I got pissed off. I'm sorry."

Sam was apologizing to him, Toby realized unexpectedly. He set his glass on the table with a loud clink. "I'm not sure I can process all that on only two drinks, Sam," was all he could manage to say before gesturing wildly to the exasperated server again.

Ducking his head down, Sam appeared to be continuing the inner dialogue he'd started earlier in his head.

"Is there more?" Toby asked, with almost comical uneasiness.

Bringing his eyes up to meet Toby's, Sam smiled ruefully. "No. Really, I think if we just deal with all of that, we should be done."

For the first time in a long time, Toby laughed outright. Rubbing his hands over his face a few times in an effort to clear away the tension that had been building between them, Toby shook his head. "Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam."

"I get that a lot."

Toby laughed again. "Can you please tell me why you couldn't just say all that yesterday? Do you have any idea how worried I was about what was going on with us?"

"Keep worrying, big guy. We still haven't gotten to the good stuff."

Sputtering slightly, Toby leaned forward to get a better look at Sam's unsmiling face. "The good stuff?"

"You're feeling you have to protect me from myself? Don't want to give me more than I can handle? Won't be the one to set me up for failure, la la la."

"Stop that," Toby warned with mock sternness. "The rest I can deal with. Well," Sam took a quick swig of his drink. "I guess I can't; but the coming to me thing? *That's* what I want to get straight. 'Cause that just bugs me, Toby."

Suppressing another snicker, which would so noticeably be at Sam's expense, Toby sighed instead. "And a bugged Sam is a very grumpy Sam. And as we all know, there's only room for one grump in the Communications Office." Poking himself with a pointed finger, Toby nodded his head once, emphatically. "And you're looking at him."

"So I should, what, smile and have a nice day?"

"No room for snappy Sam, either."

Stuck on a high wire, Sam peered down at amusement on one side of him, and overwhelming agitation on the other. He seriously couldn't decide which way he was leaning.

When the waitress brought Toby's third drink, she looked suspiciously at Sam's unfinished first. "I'm fine," he assured her. Then to Toby, "I don't need protecting. And you... sorry, but you don't seem like the type of person who'd be unduly concerned about being anyone's protector."

"I'm not."

"So, again, you single me out because I'm - "

"My Deputy! *MY* Deputy. This concept is completely lost on you, Sam?" Toby bellowed, feeling no regard for the few stares that came their way. "It's what mentors do. They criticize, and throw balls; they demean and abuse. And yes, they protect. I would protect you with my life, Sam. As I know you would me." Now he was really getting annoyed. Feeling these things was one thing. Confessing them to CJ was another. But sharing them with Sam? That was asking more than Toby was willing to do, on any given day. Yet another indication of how this brash, bright, befuddling young man had gotten under his skin, he thought crossly.

"Mentor?" Apparently, Sam had landed on the side of amusement.

"Are we done yet?"

An honest chuckle worked its way out of Sam. "No, I don't think so. There's other stuff."

"So, Josh called you baby?" Toby knew that would put the sputter back in Sam.

"Wha- I- Yuh- Can we stick to - Look. Toby. I... you know, you're telling me all that? I do appreciate that it wasn't easy for you. And, I'm sorry to tell you this, but. I already knew it. All that. What a mentor is, and, you know, that you don't hate me." His diplomatic skills still needed work, Sam realized, but there was time for that later. "And the fact that you thought you were doing something nice for me? I appreciate that too. But. Don't. Okay? I *can* take care of myself. And if I fuck up? God, Toby, do you honestly think it'll make a bigger difference if it's something you asked me to do, than something the President asked? 'C'mon. That's ludicrous!"

"It'll make a difference to me," Toby replied softly. Bowing his head, he studied his hands for a moment before meeting Sam's sympathetic gaze. "See, don't look at me like that. That's exactly the kind of thing you shouldn't be doing. Aw, shit. You had to go and ruin a perfectly good abusive relationship, didn't you? You are so much more trouble than you're worth...."

Sam's smile warmed by the second, relieved that he in fact *hadn't* ruined a perfectly good relationship with his unique ability to bring the overwrought wherever it might be lacking. "Toby." His voice was quietly repentant. "I'm sorry I over-reacted. I'm sorry I reacted at all, in fact."

Squinting his eyes narrowly, Toby cocked his head at Sam in mild confusion. "Of all the things to say." "What does that mean?"

"You." Toby shook his head and went for his drink again. "Apologizing for reacting to something that upset you greatly. Why would you feel the need to do that?" He sipped noisily before shaking his head once more. "Are you human?" he wanted to know.

Sitting back in his seat, Sam eyed his boss - mentor - carefully. "I usually do a better job of ignoring these kinds of things. You know; the repression thing."

Toby responded with a healthy chuckle. "Yeah, I know. So, you won't do that anymore?"

"I really can't promise anything," Sam said with a twinkle. "But I can tell you this: from now on, if you do something to tick me off, I won't over-think it. As much. I'll just, I'll trust you more."

"I thought I was the one who wasn't doing the trusting?"

"And you'll trust me more too. We'll trust each other. Except...."

"Oh god."

"Josh?"

The apartment was dark, no sound came from within the bedroom.

"Josh?"

Sam walked through the familiar landscape without flicking on a switch, guided only by the ambient light slopping in through the wide window. Turning on a lamp by the bed, he discarded his jacket, and slipped off his tie, hanging both in the walk-in closet. The sharp taste of gin, and his conversation with Toby played together on his tongue, so the first thing he did when he entered the bathroom was brush his teeth and rinse with mouthwash. Noticing how low the bottle was, he smiled to himself. He and Josh had been going through the stuff four times as fast as Sam did when he lived alone. It was the only thing that got the smell off their fingers.

He had expected Josh to be here, and was considering calling his cell, but glancing at the beckoning shower, Sam decided to wait until he'd rinsed the day off his body, and see if Josh didn't show up by then.

Deftly tossing the rest of his clothes into the hamper, Sam turned the water on as hot as he knew he could stand it, knowing he'd inevitably work it up a little higher once his skin adjusted. Climbing under the pounding spray, he stood for an extravagantly long moment, each prick to his skin delectable. When he moved his head under the thundering jet, he could feel his face flush with heat, and savored it intensely. Squirting some shampoo into his hands, he worked up a lavish lather before applying it to his hair, raking his fingernails a little too hard against his scalp, relishing that feeling too. The water pouring over his head swept away the soap, leaving his body slippery. He decided the only thing that would have made the whole experience any more sensual, would be if it were Josh's hands ministering to him.

As if in answer to his thought, two strong, nimble hands snaked across his stomach, slipping along his smooth skin. He immediately felt a firm press to the back of his legs, the familiar shape of Josh snuggled in the cleft of his ass, a tongue exploring his ear, as hot as the water crashing over them.

Turning his head just enough to catch the tip of the tongue between his teeth, Sam then followed through with his entire body, coming to rest in the arms of his lover.

He blinked rapidly. Shaking away the water that was trickling into his eyes, Sam licked at Josh's collarbone before raising his head to accept a kiss.

He could feel Josh smiling against his lips. Sam pulled back a little to address him. "If I'd known you were working late, I would have come looking for you," Sam told him.

"If I'd known you were back from Old Ebbitt, I would have come to get *you,*" Josh responded.

"And here I'm supposed to be deputy of 'Communications'."

When Josh opened his mouth again to reply to that, Sam moved his over it, deftly slithering his tongue into place against Josh's. The water now hammering at his back seemed to match his pulse, and the rapturous thunder in his groin made his legs weak. Kisses, spread like icing across his face, his neck, then a quick bite on his shoulder, sent a deep tremor through him.

Moaning with pleasure, from the heat of the water, the heat of Josh, Sam felt himself spiraling out of his own head, leaving behind every wretched part of his day except this. The sound of Josh's voice pulled Sam back through the haze of contentment he'd lost himself to.

"Sam? Are you done in here, man? 'Cause I am so ready to get the hell out of this shower." Josh bent his knees a little to look deeply into Sam's downcast eyes, gauge the alertness of his partner. "Goddamn. You are.... I love you when you're dazed and wet," he sighed, using both hands to wipe away the rivers of water flowing over Sam's face.

Not waiting for an answer, Josh reached around Sam and shut off the stream of liquid heat. The sudden loss of sensations shook the last, lingering dullness from Sam's mind, and he drew back the shower curtain, slightly amazed at the dense wall of steam that faced him.

Reaching for both towels that hung side by side on the bar, he back-handed one to Josh, and wrapped the other around his waist. The moment his feet hit the thick mat as he stepped from the tub, everything went dark, another absorbent towel covering his head. He allowed himself to stand perfectly, obediently still while Josh gently worked the towel over his head, nibbling at his ear every time it appeared.

"Did you eat?" Josh asked, turning Sam around to wipe down his chest.

"Not hungry," Sam mumbled, still aware of a distant, bitter taste of lime in his mouth. "You?"

"Yeah, I grabbed something on the way home. I would have called, but I didn't think you and Toby were finished." There was a mild reproach in Josh's tone, one that Sam easily ignored.

Flipping the towel from his waist, Sam stepped away from Josh and swiped at the large mirror above the sink. He leaned over to crack open the door, watched with fascination as steam rushed for the cooler air in the bedroom, disappearing right before his eyes.

Turning to the mirror, he considered the image reflecting back at him for a moment, before instinctively reaching for his toothbrush for a second time.

Josh, coming up from behind once more, missed the look of mild confusion that passed quickly over Sam's face. "Hey," he murmured into Sam's ear, arms circling him yet again. "What does it feel like, to look like that?"

Looking up, Sam caught Josh's appraising stare in the mirror before him. "What?" He wasn't sure what he had heard, exactly.

Josh bumped Sam's cheek with his own. "I just want to know," he repeated quietly. "What do you see?"

Eyes darting from his own image, to Josh's, Sam took an involuntary step back, nearly treading on Josh's feet.

"What are you doing, Josh?" The furrow between Sam's eyebrows deepened noticeably as he made a weak effort to turn around.

Holding Sam in place, Josh pulled his mouth away from his ear, but kept his eyes on their reflections. "Do you see what I see?" he wanted to know, dropping his hands to Sam's waist. "What do you see?"

His discomfort becoming more and more evident, Sam instinctively brought his towel down over his nakedness. "Stop it. Right now."

"Sam, I just want you to - "

"I know what you're doing," Sam snapped, directing his remarks to the other man who stared back at him in the mirror, a mix of concern and stubbornness battling it out on Josh's face. "All I wanted to do tonight was come home so I could see you. I wanted to talk to you. And you pull this? Now?"

Sam pushed back, dislodging Josh's place behind him, and strode out of the bathroom. Throwing the towel against the open closet door, he went to the dresser and removed a pair of soft, worn flannel pajama bottoms and a fresh t-shirt.

"I'm sorry."

Sam looked up to find Josh standing beside him, the stubbornness nowhere to be found, only concern left on his face. Opening another drawer, Josh took out a pair of sweat pants, a t-shirt of his own. The two men dressed in silence, Josh biding his time until he saw Sam's jaw relax, Sam waiting until he felt the warmth of anger drain from his face.

One hand on his hip, the other scratching absently at his chest, Sam passed his eyes over the informally made bed, imagining how differently he'd wanted the evening to go. Looking back around, ready to accept Josh's apology then offer one of his own, he saw that he was alone.

Sam found Josh at the big window in the front of the apartment, one side of the curtains drawn, the other still in his hands, partway closed. Coming up from his left, Sam hesitated before he reached out to touch Josh's shoulder.

"You really know how to push my buttons, you know that?" he said ruefully. "And have an uncanny ability to say the wrong thing - "

" - at the wrong time. Yeah. I have noticed that." Josh brought the drapes together and turned to Sam. "I honestly did have a reason for bringing that up, if you can believe it."

"I don't doubt it."

Josh shook his head and tried to lure Sam closer, but he turned instead and headed towards the kitchen, Josh eventually following.

"Can I tell you why?" Josh stepped into the kitchen just as Sam was closing the refrigerator, empty handed.

"No thank you," Sam said thoughtfully.

Taken back a little, Josh scratched at his ear. "No *thank you?* I'm trying to tell you - "

"And I'm trying to tell *you,*" Sam shot back, feeling irritation stab at him again. "I'm trying to tell you this is not the time to be bringing that into the mix. Jesus, Josh! I've got enough going on. I *don't* need you bringing age-old lessons in self-image to the table." He brushed past Josh and walked to the middle of the living room. "This is why we need a two bedroom apartment," he mumbled to no one.

"Talk about bringing old issues to the table." Josh stood in the opening to the kitchen, arms crossed over his chest. Seeing the look of complete misery on his lover's face, he dropped his head, chin nearly resting on his collarbone briefly. "I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry. Again."

"You know what, Josh, I'm just... that's your thing, you know? I'm done with it." Sam remained standing, both hands planted low on his hips, but with surprisingly little defiance. "You know the timetable. You'll do whatever you want to do."

Josh also stayed where he was, unwilling to move any further into Sam's space. He could almost see the tension swirling around him, like a dust storm. The last thing he'd wanted was to kick more grit into his face.

"Now's not the time, but I guess.... Sam. I've told my landlord I'm not renewing my lease. June. That's it." He opened his hands to Sam, a sign that he had nothing left on his agenda.

Taking one deep breath, Sam slowly allowed the realization to spread through him. Had he heard right? Josh was really giving up his apartment of nearly fifteen years? To be with Sam? It wasn't as if they hadn't been living together for months. But Josh still paying rent on his apartment was a bone of contention they'd hashed over time and again. And now wasn't the time to bring up the fact that paying months of rent to avoid breaking his lease was something Sam could never buy as reason enough to put off making that decision.

"My... my head is about to explode. Could you fix it, please?" Sam asked weakly.

Hearing all he needed to, Josh went to Sam's side, folding him into his arms protectively. "I was going to tell you. I mean, I really was going to tell you. I was saving it so I could throw it in your face the next time we had an argument that I desperately wanted to win."

Sam pulled his face out of Josh's neck to look at him with startled eyes. "You're kidding, naturally."

"No," Josh assured him, shaking is head to confirm Sam's worst opinion of him. "I'm not. Trust me, I know how sick and manipulative it sounds." Chuckling a little at his own expense. "But it was such a sure fight-stopper. I couldn't see wasting it on, you know, pillow talk, or something."

Sam's smile warmed up his eyes, propelled his mouth towards Josh's for a lasting kiss. "You should be in therapy," he observed before wrapping his arms around Josh's neck. His smile genuine and easy now.

Josh took Sam's hand in his own and pulled him towards the sofa, bending to move a pillow out of the way before directing Sam to sit. "I need a drink. Then you're going to tell me what happened with your meeting with Toby, and how the investigation is coming, and how much you love me."

A skeptical eyebrow shot up above Sam's left eye. "I am?"

"What do you need?" Josh asked as he disappeared into the kitchen.

"You. Nothing. I'm good."

______________________

Sitting back on a kitchen chair, feet planted on another, Sam was examining the hem of his t-shirt closely, while he sucked on a snow pea. Josh stood before the stove, poking the left-over stir fry he'd insisted on heating for Sam. "Leo's joked that you're going to run for office at the end of our term," he said without turning.

Sam spit the snow pea onto the table.

"Tell me you didn't answer him," he snarled. "Josh."

"I didn't say anything. I changed the subject." Josh collected the snow pea with a napkin, as Sam continued to stare at him. "We should talk," he added without looking up.

"Done talking for tonight." The sullenness in Sam's voice unmistakable.

"We should talk," Josh attempted again, this time without any humor.

"I'm thinking we should *never* talk again. Just have sex. Quietly."

"You just don't want to talk about this," Josh mumbled, returning to the stove. "So let's talk about Toby." After Sam succinctly filled Josh in on his evening with his boss, he asked, "Do you feel like you settled things?"

"For now, I guess. What happens in the future is somehow not as important to me. He either will, or won't figure out how much I have to offer. But he talked to me."

"And laughed at you - "

"And listened to me," Sam reminded Josh. "I feel okay. Who knows?" Speaking around a yawn that came more out of an emotional exhaustion than a physical one, Sam lifted his head to catch Josh looking back at him over his shoulder. "What?"

"Nothing." Josh went back to stirring the vegetables slowly. Surreptitiously glancing once or twice at Sam. "Okay," he said eventually. "I just want to ask you one thing. If I can." Not waiting for permission, he turned to stand in front of Sam. "Toby knows that you got upset about him putting you down - "

"Diminishing me."

"Right. And he admitted that he sometimes circumvents you in order to protect you from failing."

"From being the one that I might perceive as having set me up for failure."

"Speak English. So the question is, did he ever admit that you're a big boy - sorry, bad choice of words again - admit that he thinks you can handle yourself just fine without his intervention? I guess what I want to know is, is this really resolved for you? Or will you just bury your feeling for another year?"

"Something's burning, Josh. I feel good. I told you. It's gonna be okay. Whether he changes the way he really sees me, who knows? But I can almost guarantee he won't be going around me as much." Sam accepted the plate Josh was handing him. "That's all I care about, really. I want to do my job. The job I know I can do. Everyone knows I can do. I just want to do it without having to fight for every scrap."

"Sam; was it ever *really* that bad?" Josh wasn't looking for an argument. But Sam seemed to be coming from a slightly different place now than he had the night before. Even though he'd felt annoyed at Toby for being so dismissive of Sam's feelings, Josh had never in fact believed that he was doing it out of a lack of respect for Sam.

"You think I over-reacted?" Sam set his fork down firmly. Peering at Josh pointedly, he scooted his chair away from the table. "And now I have to wonder; I said as much to Toby, apologized to him, in fact. But you saying it, for some reason that just pisses me off." Getting up from the table, Sam scooped up his still full plate and dumped it into the sink before turning back to a stunned Josh. "Why do you suppose that is?"

"Because you're entitled to your own feelings, and I just basically questioned the validity of them, and you're also the only one who can forgive Toby, and I pretty much implied that it wasn't even necessary," Josh recited, swallowing down his words nervously. "I nailed that, didn't I?"

Releasing a deeply help breath, Sam smiled helplessly. "Okay. So, I did it again. I'm having a hissy-fit every hour on the hour these days."

Josh snickered into the back of his hand.

"Laugh. It's funny. Sam's venting. Yeah. *That'll* get Toby to see me as an adult."

"Shit, Sam. Stop it, already! He sees you as an adult! We all see you as an adult!"

"I know." "You're a fully grown, politically savvy, well-hung, sexually powerful force to be reckoned with," Josh observed, coming to his feet, grabbing a wiggling Sam around the waist. "People fear and admire you."

"Well, not really." Sam had thrown his head back and was practically giggling as Josh continued his assault.

"You turn the world on with your smile! You came to Washington a political neophyte, and now you run the galaxy from your cozy little office in the West Wing."

Doubling over to protect himself from Josh's roaming hands and rush of verbal nonsense, Sam brought his head up long enough to squeak "stop!" and caught a kiss on the lips.

"Grrrrr. Come here Baby, give me another kiss!" Josh froze in place. "Oh." Looking down into Sam's face, he didn't bat an eyelash. "Uh." Loosening his grip, he began to slowly straighten up.

Josh wasn't sure if he could save the moment by trying to speak again, or would bury himself even deeper by doing so. All he knew was that Sam's face was completely unreadable, eyes wide, lips parted, cheeks a little flushed.

"See?" Sam finally spoke. "No hissy-fit. All grown up." "Shit. It really just... heat of the moment, Sam. Not using my head. Love you." He thought it couldn't hurt to slip that last declaration in there someplace Sam could find it easily.

Leaning himself back against the counter, Sam's lips turned up into a soft smile. "It's okay. Really. It... it didn't hurt." Rocking forward enough to catch Josh's hands in his. "Can we forget it? The whole thing. Like, forever?"

"Do you mean I can call you whatever I want?" Josh's enthusiasm caught Sam off guard.

"Nooooooo. I just mean, don't worry about slips of the tongue. 'Kay?"

"Okay, Sweetie."

"Good.... Pudding?" Sam looked around the room with embarrassment, his smile twisted into a pain-filled grimace. "Sam." Josh pulled his friend close to his body. "That... that was lame. You need to practice before you go making irreversible decisions like that." Sealing the reprimand with a kiss that lasted longer than the entire incident had.

______________________

Wound together under the covers, quietly discussing the rest of their day, Sam felt sleepy and content. He'd serenely reached over and found Josh's hand, blindly guiding it to his groin. His body was responding lazily to Josh, who gently kneaded the doughy flesh.

"I'll be asleep in another five minutes," Sam assured his lover.

"Go ahead. I'm right behind you."

"I may get up early to start writing. My schedule's a mess."

"Anything I can help with?" Josh asked, his voice already thick and drowsy.

Sam groaned low in his throat, shifted closer to the warm body already molded to his. "Mmm. Can you write a somewhat light-hearted but ultimately caustic diatribe on the state of health care among the lower-middle class for a bunch of self-indulgent, overpaid insurance company executives?"

Josh's mouth turned up at the corners. "No. Can *you?*"

"That's what they pay me for."

Josh sniffed his amusement. "Why the somewhat light-hearted part?" he asked as he buried his face into Sam's shoulder.

"Because that's what President Bartlet asked for," Sam responded simply, right before he yawned deeply. "'Night, Josh."

"'Night, Sam."

_________________________

-Friday-

Damning himself for skipping breakfast, Sam sat behind his desk and sipped at a bottle of tepid water. The beginnings of a dull headache thumped behind his eyes, and he still had the unpleasant aftertaste of his fourth cup of coffee clinging to his tongue. Apart from that, he was making terrific progress on the Nice & Nasty speech, as Josh had called it that morning, toothbrush jammed in his mouth. Sam was still anxiously waiting for Toby to come back from a breakfast meeting he'd had, hoping their discussion the night before successfully dispelled the tension both men had admitted was wearing on their nerves. And then there was Francine Mallet. Sam knew he had to deal with her at some point, and had called the Protocol Office first thing after morning staff to make sure she'd be back in the White House after a meeting at State. He'd spoken abstractedly to Josh about the situation the night before, careful to leave all names out of the conversation. Sam felt nervous about identifying her as a possible traitor, until he was absolutely sure of her involvement. He wouldn't admit it to anyone, but part of him still smarted at the memory of uncovering the woman who had leaked Leo's personnel files to Lillianfield, only to have the Chief of Staff himself hire the bitch right back.

"Good morning there, Sam." Toby's voice held none of the trepidation of the day before.

"Hey, Toby. How'd it go? With Carson?" Sam sat back in his chair and fingered his pen.

"She just bought a dog."

Sam put down his pen and removed his glasses carefully, swinging them between his fingers. "And the punch line is...?"

"There's no punch line." Falling heavily into a chair, Toby rubbed at his forehead, a familiar Ziegler gesture. "Okay. I'm missing something. The Secretary of Agriculture just bought a dog. Um." Sam patiently awaited what was surely going to make his morning that much brighter. Toby looked seriously pissed off.

"She bought a dog, from a highly reputable breeder - "

"Well, that's just wrong. In this day and age; *breeding* animals as pets - Oh. That wasn't where you were going with this, was it?" Sam's leather chair squeaked a little as he leaned back in it.

Aiming a steely glare at Sam's chagrinned face, Toby resumed his explanation. "A reputable breeder, highly recommended, and she goes to Pennsylvania to pick up the dog, and she stumbles into a backroom."

"Uh oh."

"Yeah. So, instead of spending the morning discussing grazing rights and water tables, I'm sitting over a plate of too-hard eggs and soggy toast, hearing about the repeal of 2142 - "

"Oh! I know that one!" Sam beamed, like a fourth grader at a spelling bee.

"Sam."

"Sorry. But it was a necessary law, Toby. I agree it shouldn't have taken the whole morning, but you *know* what Gandhi said. 'You can judge a society by the way it treats its animals'. I think I have that on a t-shirt or something...."

"I'm going to my office now," Toby moaned, shooting to his feet. "I think I liked you better as Grumpy Sam."

Shrugging lightly, Sam replaced his glasses and adjusted himself in his seat. "Poor puppies," he mumbled to himself. Then, eyes flashing towards the door, he caught Toby looking back, the smallest of smiles showing.

"We're okay?" Toby asked quietly.

"Well, we're better than the dogs. Yeah," Sam assured his boss. "We're fine."

_______________________________________

Sam's initial draft of the Nice & Nasty speech met with Toby's grunted approval, and he'd managed to weave together some fairly coherent notes on a drug policy panel that he'd been asked to speak to at the beginning of the next week. All in all, a productive morning; just busy enough to keep him from dwelling on his meeting with Ms. Mallet.

By one o'clock, Sam was restless and edgy, and his headache was now pulsing at his temples. He knew from experience that it would be gone within thirty minutes of downing some pain relievers, so he was sitting quietly in his office, blinds partly closed, rehearsing in his mind how he was going to approach the woman who in all likelihood caused his head to pound in the first place.

"Sam?" Ginger poked her head in the half closed door. "Do you have a minute?"

Head coming up from where it was resting on the back of his chair, Sam sighed. "Sure, what's up?" He really needed to concentrate on his strategy, needed to collect his thoughts before the confrontation to come.

"Ben Cohen is on the phone, Sam. He sounds a little distraught."

Ben Cohen. Assistant Chief of the Office of Protocol. Sam scrubbed his eyes with clenched fists and then looked up at Ginger. "Did he say *why* he's 'distraught'?"

"Something about an interview you were going to conduct. And... about not letting someone leave the premises?" Ginger pointed to the blinking phone. "Well, they're holding her."

Bolting to his feet, Sam's mouth dropped open. "They're *holding* her? What the hell?! I never said - I told them to let me know when she got back, to keep track of her schedule!" He was already to the door when he turned back to the startled assistant. "Get on the phone and tell him to let her out of wherever they're keeping her, not to move an inch himself, and to get the Deputy Chief of Protocol there Right Now."

Tearing thorough the corridors of the West Wing, heading to the East Wing, Sam's mind was racing ten paces ahead of his body. He'd never asked that anyone be detained! Who the hell takes a simple request for a heads up as license to lock someone in a room? Sam's anger was driving him forward; he never saw the wall. Until it hit him.

"Ow!"

"Watch yourself, Mr. Seaborn," came the concerned voice of a park police officer who was passing by.

"I would if I could, Stephen," Sam answered when he recognized the man. "They don't call them blinding headaches for nothing." He shook his head a little to clear his sight. "Hey!" Sam spun around and reached out to the officer. "Do you have a few minutes?" he asked.

"Sure. Are you all right?" The man looked concerned, his eyes searching out Sam's face for signs of injury.

"Yeah, no, I'm fine. But I might be able to use your, um, presence. If you wouldn't mind."

Nodding his agreement, Stephen fell in behind Sam, as he continued on his way down the hall.

A good thirty feet away from the door to the formally decorated Office of Protocol they began to hear the shrieking. A woman's voice, rising above a man's rich baritone.

Rolling through the glass doors, Sam and Officer Stephen Lipton skidded to a stop in the middle of a group of four or five people, all of whom wore varying degrees of red on their cheeks.

"Hey!" Sam shouted above the din. "Cut it out." A hush swept over the gathering, all eyes on the Deputy Director of Communications. Hands on his hips, Sam scanned the startled faces until he found the one that concerned him the most. "Francine?" he asked. "Are you all right? Have you been harmed in any way?"

"No. No, I - they said - what the hell's going on?! They said I was to be held? You asked that I be held?" The woman looked rattled and angry, and more than a little bit fearful. Her dark eyes flashed around the room.

"I'm so sorry. There's been a terrible mistake." Sam moved to Francine's side, and firmly took hold of her elbow, the sincerity in his voice calming her a little. "Are you *sure* you're all right? No one hurt you, you weren't physically restrained in any way?"

She shook her head quickly. "Nothing like that. No, they just said I couldn't leave my office, I couldn't even come into the reception area. Sam, you remember me from when I worked with CJ Cregg, right? You *know* I'm not dangerous!"

"Of course you're not. As I said, this was all a mistake. An overreaction to something I instructed someone to do for me. Believe me, I had intended to go about this much more subtly." Sam threw an annoyed look at the Deputy Chief standing to his right, then leveled his icy blue eyes back on his prey. He had witnesses who heard her say she hadn't been harmed or abused, so he was fairly confident no law suit would be forthcoming. Still with a solid grip on her arm, Sam drew her a few inches closer and lowered his voice.

"But now that we're both here, I think we should go into your office and have a talk. About Daniel Swift." Ignoring the look of complete shock on the woman's face, Sam drew her to an open door. "Is this your office?" he asked, looking into the brightly lit room.

"Uh. No, I'm over - "

No longer holding onto her, Sam began walking to the office she had indicated, beckoning her to follow with an extended arm.

Walking behind him, Francine peered over her shoulder fretfully, looking for some sign of impending rescue from her co-workers.

"Have a seat. You look a little shaky," Sam instructed, voice cool and controlled. Leaning out into the reception area, he addressed the Deputy Chief. "You, wait right there. I'm not done with you." He firmly closed the door behind him.

Sam's careful intentions to win Francine's confidence before attempting to gain the information he badly wanted lay in chunky pieces at his feet. Nothing went according to plan. She caved the moment he mentioned her fiancé's name; so steeped in contempt for his stupidity, she didn't even seem aware of just how much trouble *she* was in.

When Sam opened the door and called in Officer Lipton, her eyes went wide, all the blood drained from her face, and she whimpered quietly.

"Am I under arrest?" Francine looked from the somewhat hesitant face of the officer, to Sam; back stiff, eyes glinting with authority.

"Stephen. Please escort Ms. Mallet from the building. She's only to take her purse and her coat." Sam helped the stunned staffer to her feet and propelled her towards the waiting man. "Any other personal effects will be packed and sent to you after someone has had a chance to look through them. And Stephen? For god's sake; don't stop for *anyone,* do you understand? I mean Any One. Get her out of here."

Following the departing figures, Sam stepped into the reception area, coming face to face with a stunned, but silent Deputy Chief.

"Now for *you,* Sam sighed, and brought a hand to his brow. "Step into my lair."

__________________________

Leo leaned against the corner of his desk, arms crossed over his chest. "She isn't pressing any charges, is she?" he addressed to Sam, who stood in front of him.

"God no. All they did was put her in a room and tell her to stay put. There was no unlawful restraint, or physical contact." Sam's expression turned slightly awkward. "I may have squeezed her arm a little too tightly. But Jesus, my head was pounding."

Toby snickered quietly, ignoring CJ's pointed glare.

"So it's all over?"

"Yeah, I feel fine now. Oh. Yes. She's gone."

"And the fiancé?" Josh wanted to know, legs sprawled open, sitting next to CJ on the sofa. Sam's eyebrows shot up questioningly. "I can't imagine he still thinks he's gonna get a job with Swift out of this. Exposing him will mean exposing Swift. Not that I have a problem with that. But it'll be embarrassing to us."

"We can live with the embarrassment," Toby said.

"Just for a little revenge?" CJ wondered.

"We owe Swift no favors, CJ." Toby stood and strode a few feet away before turning back. "I for one would love to see him and his cock-eyed brand of politics brought down in a fiery heap."

"And I think you're still taking this a little personally, it being your speech he pilfered," Leo added.

"Who the hell cares what my motives are? The man's a menace. We have an opportunity to take him down, if not out. What are we waiting for?"

"Well," Sam spoke up. "He already looks pretty foolish, flip-flopping on the Transportation Equity Act. And for bailing on a high-profile speech he'd been lining up a lot of publicity for." He turned to face Toby. "But I have another reason for wanting to keep quiet. Or...." He turned back to Leo again. "At the very least, holding onto it for a few days."

All eyes were on Sam, hands jammed into his pockets.

"Kim Carruthers," Josh said quietly. "Out of gratitude," Sam added, bobbing his head. Ignoring the skeptical reaction he was getting, Sam pressed on. "Look, this whole thing begins and ends with her. She brought it to us, and she gave us the names that led me to Mallet. We owe *her* something." I owe her, Sam added to himself. And he wasn't about to leave her hanging in the wind on the Hill, a pariah just for having the bad luck of running the office of a demented old coot, long past his prime.

"Leo?" Sam brought his hands out of his pockets and let them hang to his sides. "I need to talk to you about this." Pushing himself off the desk, Leo took his place behind it, and waved a hand through the air. "CJ, keep your ears open, let us know the minute word about this gets out. It can't have escaped the rapt attention of the Press Corps that a woman was escorted from the premises. Toby, start lining up a response; a *measured* response. Josh, stick around for a minute, will ya?"

CJ went to the doorway, Toby reluctantly straggling behind her. He shot a pointed, but unreadable look Sam's way before closing the door behind him.

Once the room had cleared, Leo motioned Sam to take a seat next to Josh. "You had to promise her something, didn't you?" he asked abruptly. Looking more confident than he felt, Sam met Leo's gaze. "I didn't promise, no. I made it very clear that it wasn't in my power to grant her, uh, request. But I told her I'd do what I could."

"What does she want?" Josh wanted to know.

"A job." Sam made it sound simple and clean, a clear-cut request that only required a straightforward answer.

"Not on your fucking life." Josh sounded pretty unambiguous himself.

Turning to his partner with obvious shock, Sam leaned away a little to get a clear look at his face. "That seems a little excessive. "

"Leo!"

"Now, hold on, you two." Leo left his desk and came to sit in an upholstered chair nearer to his staffers. "Considering what this woman has done for us - "

"This week!" Josh groused. "What about for the last three years? She's been a thorn in my side - our side - the entire time we've been in office. I swear half the time it's just out of obstinacy." Josh huffed a little, and sat back against the cushions, rubbing at his eyes. "God, I hate that woman." Sam's shock grew deeper. Josh never said a word to him the night before, when Sam had loosely talked about his earlier meeting with Kim. He wondered if what he was about to say next would send Josh into cardiac arrest.

"She wants to work here. For President Bartlet." There, he'd said it, and Josh was still breathing. Raggedly. In giant gulps.

"There's no way in hell," Josh growled, getting to his feet.

"Josh." Leo's tone sounded like a warning, and Sam felt as though he was being left out of something he should understand.

"No fucking way is she...." Stopping with a hand tangled in his hair, Josh faced Sam. "Sam, I'm.... I know you like this woman. And you think you can handle her."

"Whoa," Sam interrupted, rising to meet Josh. "She's not a personal friend. And I don't 'handle' her. We get along; something no one else around here seems capable of doing."

"Right," Josh scoffed. He stepped over to Leo and bent slightly, an intimate gesture. "Leo, you gotta... you know she can't...." Clearly at a loss for words, Josh fell back against Leo's desk.

"All right, that's enough." Once more taking charge of the disintegrating tone of the meeting, Leo got up from his seat. "This isn't something I need to be a part of," he grumbled. "Take it home with you, Josh, but don't you dare bring this in here." Moving around the younger men, Leo stood behind his desk, a solid barrier between him and the tension in the room. "I'm finishing this discussion with Sam. You can go," he directed Josh.

Sputtering helplessly, Josh seemed to understand there was no point in arguing with his boss, and slinked from the room, tossing one more charged look in Sam's direction.

When the door shut with a resounding and definitive click, Sam faced Leo. Mouth hanging agape in open surprise, he placed both palms on the desk and leaned against it, dropping his head.

"What the hell, Leo?" was all he could think to say. "I don't understand. What - "

"I told you, it's not something for here. You need to talk to him, but I don't want any part of it. Goddamn it."

Sam's head snapped up, his eyes focused out the window. At Leo's epithet, a memory had found him. Not very long ago, but something he'd hoped he would never have to revisit. Over time he'd let it drain away from his consciousness.

"This is personal," Sam ventured, still searching the world out the window for the right combination that would unlock the puzzle. "Leo, what has Josh got against her?" Finally switching his focus back to the Chief of Staff. "I'm sorry if this breaks our... agreement. But you really need to tell me what's going on."

Leo collapsed into his chair with a growl. "Shit."

"I know," Sam offered weakly. He knew now that this was something intensely personal, something Leo was vastly uncomfortable discussing. What Sam still didn't know was if it was something he really wanted to hear.

"Please," Sam said quietly.

"This was *your* request, Sam." Leo sat back in his chair and tented his fingers above his stomach. "You came to me and asked me not to get involved. Not that I was about to argue with you. I can assure you now, as I did then, I have *no* intention of becoming drawn into your domestic situation with Josh."

"I know it can't be easy for you," Sam responded. "And I hope that this is the first, last, and only time. But something's going on here, and if it has to do with Kim Carruthers, I need to be let in. Especially if it concerns Josh and me." Sam turned a chair to face the desk and sank into it. He felt the tug of pain beginning behind his eyes again, and suddenly became aware of the echoing emptiness of his stomach. His day kept getting better and better, he thought miserably.

Expelling a tortured breath, Leo dipped his head down for a moment, clearly wrestling with something. Eventually, he lifted his eyes, and spoke to Sam. "He's jealous, Sam. And from what I know of her, I can't say I blame him."

The word 'jealous' was still bouncing around inside Sam's head, and he nearly missed the rest of what Leo was saying.

"...take some time and talk to him. Get it over with. You and I can talk later about what to do next. But Sam, I swear - "

"You, you'll never hear another word about it, Leo. You have my word." Sam was already out of his chair, heading briskly, if unsteadily towards the door.

"And Sam?" Leo rested his head against the back of his chair with confidence. "Damn good job on this whole mess."

"Thank you, Leo."

__________________________

Donna stood in the open door to Josh's office, a stack of unneeded files clutched to her chest. She'd felt it necessary to have something between her and her stampeding boss, even if it was only seven inches thick and made of paper.

"I ask for one simple thing, one summary, and now I have half the Library of Congress on my desk! And still no summary! Donna! Where's my neatly typed, double-spaced piece of paper with the little bullet things that make it easy for me to read? *That's* what I need. Omph!" Josh bent to rub his foot. "And what is this crate of oranges still doing in here? Has my office been turned into a storage closet when I wasn't looking?"

Courageously entering the den of annoyance, Donna plucked a crinkled sheet of paper from the seat of Josh's chair. "The one place I figured you couldn't miss it," she sniffed, and started to leave. "And you can load your own fruit into the car, you know. Or get your big strapping - "

"Donna!" Josh yelped, eyes narrowing. "I can't think of anything I'd like more than to verbally rip someone wing to wing right now, so if you're volunteering, stick around. Otherwise - "

"I think I'll just go out here and do some filing," Donna said, shuffling out of the way.

Sam's voice drifted into the office from the doorway. "Why don't you try picking on someone your own size?" he directed at Josh, while offering an apologetic smile to Donna.

"You're so sweet," she smiled back, and left, closing the door behind her.

"And you're a bully sometimes," Sam said to his lover. "If you're mad at me, you should be addressing it at me, not Donna." Picking up a book from a stack on the table under Josh's chalkboard, Sam examined the binding pointedly before he looked up again. "Well?"

"I'm not mad at you, Sam." Lowering himself in his seat, Josh wore the look of someone who'd just been told he'd made his mother cry. "I'm pissed off at myself for that truly impressive spectacle I made in front of Leo. He must be... oh, man. Can't think about it; *really* don't want to think about it." Josh tried shaking the image from his mind.

"So. I take it you aren't very fond of Kim Carruthers." Sam leaned back against the wall, slipping his hands into his pockets. He was relieved Josh's anger had dissipated so quickly, even if Sam felt his own creeping up on him. "Why the hell didn't you ever say anything?"

"You know how I feel about her, Sam. Everyone feels that way about her. She's a barracuda, a raving madwoman.... And you two are pretty close."

"Josh. We're not close. At all. In any way. She likes me. She trusts me. We work well together."

"No, see, that's the thing. You haven't actually worked with her. Not really."

"The energy voucher issue. I worked very closely with her on it. And the rider for 501. We spent weeks going around on *that.*"

"And you have lunch with her."

"We talk over lunch once in awhile."

"And she wants to sleep with you."

Sam moved forward. Extracting his hands, he placed them over his chest in a gesture of sincerity. "That really *was* a joke, Josh." "Actually, Sam. I know you meant it as a joke. But she really does want to sleep with you. She has for eleven months. Since you danced with her at the European Nations Aid reception; where she cornered CJ out on the terrace and told her you smelled great and asked why oh why you weren't seeing anyone."

Sam stood dumbfounded in the middle of Josh's office, and dropped his hands. "Why doesn't anyone ever tell me these things when I'm straight?"

Josh's glum expression tugged at Sam's sympathies. Then a thought occurred to him, and his skin tingled.

"Wait. Leo knows about this? Please, tell me you weren't the one to say something." Sam dropped into one of Josh's chairs in anticipation of what he knew the answer to that question was. "Josh...." he groaned.

"I'm sorry!" Josh said. "I just wanted to keep you away from her after 501. And he was actually really happy with the way you guys got along. So I figured, knowing how aggressive she could be, and your, um, history with, you know, um...."

"Yes?"

"Sleeping with women; suddenly. It was better to keep Leo appraised." Josh's voice sounded weaker and more unsure with every word. "And... this was right after us. After we." "For god's sake, finish a sentence, would you please?"

"After you and I got together. And, okay, I thought it couldn't hurt if you weren't sent into her clutches again when we were so new and vulnerable." Josh dropped his eyes. "When I felt so vulnerable."

"Aw, Josh...." Sam didn't finish the thought. He just sat there, a compassionate smile nestled in one corner of his mouth. "Are you gonna tell me how sweet I can be? How irresistible and unexpected you find it?" Josh fished shamelessly. Sam snorted softly. "I was *going* to tell you that you've made Leo very uncomfortable, as well as forcing him to break a promise he made to me about never getting involved in our private matters. And you've also managed to rock my little self-esteem boat slightly, insinuating that I can't handle a woman with a crush - "

"A shark with your scent - "

"All the while keeping something from me that apparently everyone else in the West Wing knows." Sam cocked his head at Josh suddenly and squinted his eyes. "Bonnie knows, doesn't she? Damn. I knew she was acting strange when I came back from my meeting with Kim."

"Sam - "

"You're a piece of work, you know that, Josh?"

"You don't sound mad." The wonder in Josh's voice made Sam want to smile.

"I'm not. My headache is back, I have a speech to work on, I haven't returned a single phone call all day, and I still have to deal with Kim. Frankly, I don't have the time to be mad."

Sam rose out of his chair and went to the door, turning back when his hand reached the knob. "Besides, you really are irresistible when you're jealous."

Josh leaned back in his chair, and let out a deep, relieved breath.

__________________________

Arriving back in his office, Sam stood in front of his desk, taking in the uncharacteristic disarray. He truly couldn't stand to have things pile up, and wondered what he might foster off on the support staff. Bonnie had come to him weeks earlier, and confided that she was growing bored with the secretarial aspects of her job. Sam had made a quiet effort to direct assignments with more substance to her, even asking her to write a position paper once or twice, which passed through Toby and Josh uncommented on.

Sam went to the desk and began shuffling through a few notes, trying to decide what needed his attention first. The insurance speech was coming along well. He'd been in a groove on that, and felt good about picking it back up again. But the policy luncheon was beginning to worry him. Speaking to a camera or a conference room full of people was nothing new to Sam. But full-blown public speaking, in front of crowds that had the option of applauding, or not, tended to make him apprehensive. And the pink phone messages were definitely getting out of hand. Sam sank into his chair and began leafing through them, appalled that some of them were two days old.

Just as he reached for the phone, a young male staffer appeared in the doorway. "Sam?"

"Hey, John. What can I do for you?" Silently, Sam prayed the answer would be a resounding 'nothing.'

"Ginger asked me to keep an eye out when you came back. She's at lunch."

"Okay."

"Which is what I'm supposed to order for you."

"Lunch?" Sam instinctively looked at his watch, and was stunned to see how late it had gotten.

"The, you know, second meal of the day?" John ventured.

Unless you're me, in which case it's the first, Sam thought to himself. "Thanks, John. I think I'll just go down to the Mess later and see what's good. But I appreciate the offer."

The man hesitated in the door a moment longer, until Sam looked up again.

"Yes?"

"Well, I was told I had to do it. Or you might not. So, if you know what you want -"

"Sam?" Another voice added itself to the mix. Toby excused himself past the young man and walked to Sam's desk. "Leo wants to see us. He wants to talk about the...." Toby's eyes cut to John, then back to the questioning face in front of him. "The 'employment' statistics."

"Ah." Sam nodded his head in understanding. So, Josh was out, and Toby was in, when it came to who was most likely to entertain the idea of Kim Carruthers working in the White House. "Let's go."

He rose from his desk, and shrugged his shoulders at John, standing to the side to let the two senior staffers and advisors to the president pass. As a last thought, Sam spun around to John. "If you want to be able to tell Attila that you got me something, you could find some apple juice, and leave it on my desk," Sam suggested.

The look of relief on the young man's face made Sam smile.

__________________________

"Keep our enemies close, Leo." Sam was blowing on a cup of steaming hot coffee, as he'd been doing for almost ten minutes. He couldn't keep his mind from wondering how Margaret kept it so hot, on the tiny little burner she had set up in Leo's anteroom.

Toby seemed to be slurping down his scorching beverage just fine. "Yeah. But the West Wing's just a little *too* close, don't you think, Sam?"

"She knows a lot of people. Her reach extends way beyond ours with the conservatives."

"You said she feels closer to us than to them," Leo reminded Sam.

"Closer to us than to Swift. And what he's become. She can be an asset, Leo. She has eyes in the back of her head."

"And you think she could be loyal?"

"I believe so."

"It's still too close. And I'm not just thinking about the thing with Josh." As he spoke, Leo shifted his weight and shot a quick glance at Toby. "No one else likes her much, either. I don't see her working for the President, Sam."

"Okay." Sam waited a beat. "How about the next best thing?"

"Hoynes?" Toby laughed throatily. "You want to put one enemy into bed with our other enemy?"

"She's *not* our enemy, Toby!" Sam put down his mug and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Look what's she's done for us. Yes, she had her own motives. But she took a risk, with no guarantee that we'd show any gratitude other than a hearty 'thank you.' " Sam sat back in his seat. "I think it would satisfy her, and I think she knows better than to turn on us."

Leo and Toby exchanged loaded looks, an entire conversation passing between them, right over Sam's head.

Finally, Toby spoke. "They're losing Isaac Howard. That's gonna leave a huge hole in Hoynes' energy team."

"And Swift was chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce for three years!" Sam exclaimed, clapping his hands together, unconcerned by the startled looks he was getting. He felt dangerously close to giggling.

"Oh, come on! This is the answer." The pleading in his own voice even took Sam by surprise. He recognized his reasons for being so determined to bring Leo and Toby around. But he was a little dismayed by how much it meant to him to be the one to do this for Kim.

Another thirty minutes passed, the two older men taking turns playing devil's advocate, while Sam continued to sip at his still scalding coffee. He really wanted to know what Margaret did to keep it so hot....

"Sam." Josh was standing directly behind his lover, staring at the back of his neck, right where his hair touched his collar. He felt a physical need to sweep the hair aside and bring his lips to the silky skin he knew waited for him there. One of the most amazing things Josh had discovered while being with Sam was the way his body responded to the simplest non-sexual situations. It could be Sam, looking up at Josh through his full, feathery lashes; bright blue eyes contrasting with the darkness framing them. Or the washed away scent of soap, clinging to his skin. Or the sound of his voice, leaking out of his office as Josh approached.

Any one of those things could cause an adolescent thrill that seemed to build of its own accord into a full-blown erotic longing that would leave Josh light-headed. Right now, the sight of Sam's hair brushing back and forth as he moved his head was bringing the front of Josh's pants to life.

Groaning softly, he leaned over, nearly giving in to his craving, veering off at the last second to whisper in Sam's ear instead.

"Get off the phone."

His head whipping around, Sam's eyes went wide, obviously unaware that Josh had even entered his office.

"Look, I, uh, have a - I have to go right now," he stammered into the phone. "But I'll see you soon, right?" The skeptical look on Josh's face registering briefly. "Yeah. Seven. Okay. Okay."

Reaching across the desk to hang up the phone, Sam came to his feet with one motion. "I didn't hear you. Did you say something?" Sam placed his hands on his hips, searching out Josh's face for some clue as to why there was a definite scowl there.

"Was that who I think it was?"

"Kim?" Sam took off his glasses and placed them on his desk, then reached for the half finished bottle of apple juice he'd found there after his meeting with Leo. "Yeah. I'm meeting her - "

"At seven. Where?" Sam knew that sounded nowhere near as casual as Josh wanted it to, but he wasn't in the mood for a confrontation. "Leo's talking to Hoynes right now. If he's on board, I'm gonna hook her up with him tonight."

"That's all very interesting. And not what I asked." Josh hefted himself onto the corner of Sam's desk, hands limp in his lap.

"American History."

"...closes at five-thirty."

"The north terrace," Sam said testily. "What are you planning? To have me followed?"

Josh hung his head, and wiped at his eyes wearily. "Course not." When he looked up again, Sam was still standing in front of him, but his expression had softened to one of mild reproach.

Sam brushed a hand over Josh's knee, then leaned his own body against the credenza. "Leo expects Hoynes to go for it. So, I'll pitch the idea to Kim, and if she's willing to accept, I'll bring her back for a meeting. Then, it's over."

Josh snorted his skepticism. "Or just beginning. Depends on how you want to look at it."

Sam wiggled his fingers at the bottle that was out of his reach, and Josh handed it over. "Exactly what is it you're afraid of, Josh? That she'll gang up on us with Hoynes? Or that she'll be within sniffing distance of me?" Sam had hoped to confront his lover's discomfort with some humor, but it appeared to only make him more miserable.

Sliding off the desk, Josh hesitated before taking a few backward steps toward the door. "I don't trust her. Professionally, or personally. But I trust you." He stopped walking and shot a conciliatory smile Sam's way. "Listen, I've gotta hang out until the president comes back from the place. So, find me when you're done. Okay?"

"Yeah," Sam agreed, settling back into his chair. "I'll find you."

__________________________

"Okay, I'm asking again," Sam was saying, hip planted firmly against the concrete handrail at the American History Museum. "You've lived here for eleven years, and you've never been to the Smithsonian?"

Kim's laughter was throaty, as she bumped Sam's leg with her knee. "I've been a little busy, counselor. Consider yourself lucky that I didn't suggest we meet at the aquarium. I hear that place is pretty damn dismal."

Sam's expression was impassive.

"Oh, wait!" Kim exclaimed. "Don't tell me you've never been to the aquarium at the Commerce Department?" She shook her head with mock earnestness. "And here I thought you were the poster boy for D.C. tourism."

"Me?" Sam's eyebrows shot up at the statement.

"You just seem like the type to be awed by the majesty of the town. Or... maybe that's worn off over the years?"

The wind picked up a notch, and they both turned their backs to it. When Kim's hair curled into her mouth, Sam absently reached over to pull it away. "It's getting cold, Kim," he said pointedly. "Are you gonna give me a straight answer so we can get the hell out of here, or what?"

Kim sighed deeply. Pressing her bare hands together for warmth, she stared down at Constitution Avenue for a moment before turning to face Sam. "I suppose there's no way you can break through the resistance and get them to consider - "

"Kim," Sam warned, not wanting to go over the same territory they'd been rehashing for the last forty minutes again. "This is as close as I can get you."

"It's not even in the White House, Sam!"

"The hell it isn't," he contradicted. "Bullshit." Kim eyed Sam boldly before allowing her voice to soften. "Hoynes uses his West Wing office less than any other vice president in history. I'll be stuck over in the OEOB for 5 years," she sulked.

Sam bent down a degree to place his face directly in front of hers. "Hoynes has the largest staff of any vice president in history, Kim. He needs to use the Ceremonial Office because it's bigger. And," he added, straightening to his full height. "If we all play our cards well, in a few more years you'll be in the White House all right. You might even be running the place." He shrugged his shoulders slackly. "But if I need to convince you that this is the opportunity of a lifetime...." He fixed a sad smile to his face, and began to turn away.

"Oh, all right, okay!" Kim laughed, pulling on his arm. "God, you really don't like playing this game, do you?" she asked with affection, stepping further into his space. "Even *you* can't expect a woman to just lie down in front of you without some wining and dining, Sam."

He blushed lightly, hoping it looked like the cold was getting to him. "I wouldn't dream of thinking you were that easy, Kim. And just between you and me," he added, leaning closer. "I'd give my right arm to see Toby Ziegler having to deal with you on a daily basis." He chuckled lightly to himself. Though he was content with the way things had worked themselves out between him and his boss, Sam couldn't resist the urge to picture Toby, grousing about having to work so closely with 'that woman' every day.

It was the vivid image of Toby's florid and flustered face that distracted Sam enough that he didn't sense how close Kim was, until her lips were brushing against his cheek.

"Thanks, Sam." Her voice was serious and sincere, a marked difference from her earlier bantering tone. She tipped her head up to look into his eyes. "You came through for me."

The kiss didn't take Sam by surprise. Not really. If he wanted to be honest with himself, he might even admit that he'd known it was coming, and hadn't chosen to get out of the way. But Sam wasn't too eager to be that honest with himself yet. To do that, he'd also have to admit that he may have wanted it to happen.

Her breath was tainted with coffee, like Josh's often was. But there was an underlying sweetness, too, and Sam thought he tasted vanilla. When she kissed him again, and parted his lips gently with the tip of her tongue, he knew it was vanilla, and he knew he was in trouble.

"Mgh - " Sam pulled his mouth away delicately, his eyes flying open at the rush of biting, cold air where a second before there was only warmth and softness. "Kim," he began, stepping away once. "Ooooooh, Kim."

The tiny smile that danced around her lips faded quickly at the look of dejection on Sam's remarkable face. "That bad, huh?" she asked lightly.

Sam shook his head quickly, taking a deep, cleansing breath into his lungs. Blowing it out through pursed lips, he forced himself to look her squarely in the eye. "I, I'm sorry. That wasn't.... I didn't...."

He saw the next kiss coming. And still, he didn't get out of the way.

Kim's hands found their way under the front of Sam's open coat, slipping into place against his chest. She used her grasp of his tie to pull him closer, her hips resting snuggly against his. "No, no, Kim, no." Sam pushed ineffectively at her hands. He looked down and realized that he wasn't actually pushing her away, as much as holding her wrists tightly in his hands. Dropping her from his grip, Sam stepped away a few paces, and raised his hands in front of himself in a warning gesture. "I'm sorry, Kim, but this can't happen." He was dismayed by the plaintive quality he heard in the words as he spoke them. And silently questioned why he hadn't just told her that he didn't *want* it to happen.

Sliding her lips together a few times, Kim looked slightly amused. "Sam, if you think this is some kind of payment for services rendered...."

"God, Kim!" Sam looked around the desolate terrace they stood on, and ran his hand across his mouth once, quickly. "Don't even joke about that. Shit." He turned his back to her and stared off in the direction of the White House, just a few blocks away. Where Josh was waiting for him.

"Look," he said, turning back to her with more determination than he actually felt. "If there was any way, if it was at all possible...."

"We're both adults, Sam. I can't see where there's any conflict here."

Sam felt like he was caught in a swift tide that was taking him further and further from shore. "I have a conflict, Kim. I have a personal conflict, why I can't let this happen. I'm, I'm already involved with someone, and, as attractive as I find you, which I do, even if I'd really rather not think about how long I've thought so, I really can't even entertain the idea of us being anything more than possibly friends, beyond our current, um... current working... um...."

"Take a moment, Sam."

"Working, uh...."

"Relationship?"

"Relationship! We have a very good current working relationship, yes! And I'd like to continue to develop that, and the friend thing. Too. I'd hoped we were beginning to become friends. And I'd like that." Sam blinked hard at the bemused expression on Kim's face. "What? Why are you smiling?"

"You are *fucking* adorable, Seaborn," she answered with trademark bluntness. "You are such a fucking doll, I could eat you up right here." Her laughter caught in the wind and drifted away, taking a little of Sam's anxiety with it. "And if I believed for one second that you were really seeing someone, I'd hunt her down and chew right through her to get to you."

Sam's eyes went wide with alarm. Josh was right, he mused. She was a shark.

"But if you were off the market, I'd have heard about it. Hell, the entire female population of D.C. would know about it." Kim walked directly up to Sam and slid a cold hand across his cheek. "You're sweet to make up a lover to let me down easily, Sam. But I'm used to the harsh realities, remember? If you're not interested, so be it. I don't imagine I'll have any problem maintaining our... what was it you were trying to spit out a minute ago? Current work- "

"Workingrelationshipandapossiblefriendship," Sam finished eagerly. He swallowed hard and tried to bring up a heartfelt smile.

Threading her arm thorough his, Kim began to lead them to the wide staircase leading down to the street. "Riiiiiight. So, what do you say we get started on the working relationship part, and you take me to meet this Vice President of yours?"

Sam took a few gulps of air and felt himself calming. Even if he never really believed it himself, he would forevermore maintain that he'd handled the entire situation very, very well. __________________________

Josh sat slouched indelicately across a chair in the Roosevelt Room, books and papers spread out as widely as his legs. He'd been checking his watch so often, he'd finally removed it from his wrist, and set it on the table in his line of sight, watching the minutes continue to tick by without word from Sam.

It was after ten, and Toby had called to report that the President was staying after his speech to do some glad-handing. Josh could hear CJ in the background, her voice clear and confident as she joked easily with someone, glasses clinking away musically. The work in front of Josh wasn't anything that required his immediate attention. He was really just killing time. He'd sent Donna home, much to her surprise and delight, but grousing that if she'd known she could go home this early again, she would have tried to make plans. Donna's ability to find Josh at fault in just about any situation had been raised to an art form over the years. Josh's own plan had been simple. Make sure everything had gone well with the speech; then get Sam home. The previous night's aborted attempt at sharing some intimate time was weighing on Josh's mind slightly. He knew he'd dashed all hopes of that when he'd made the remarks in the bathroom, even as he felt more than ever it was something Sam had to deal with once and for all, that it cast a shadow over most of his dealings with people. So foremost on his agenda tonight was to keep things on track, and make Sam forget all about the last few days. It took Josh a moment to register the voices down the hallway growing closer. He could make out Leo's, saying something about running behind schedule. Then, the unmistakable voice of his lover, and best friend. "...notes on the luncheon next week."

One minute later, Josh saw Leo enter his office, leaving Sam still standing a little awkwardly near his door.

"Oh, yoo hoo," Josh called teasingly. Sam's eyes found Josh a second later, a look of surprise and relief on his face.

"Hey, what are you doing camping out in here?" Sam wanted to know, pulling out a chair beside Josh. His eyes darted around hastily, as if gauging their level of privacy.

"I want to kiss you, too," Josh said low, his dark eyes flashing mischievously. Sam squirmed slightly, a timid smile gracing his lips. "I want to do so much more than that," he sighed. "President Bartlet's not back?" He picked up Josh's watch and examined it idly. Josh leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, hands clenching and unclenching each other. "Another hour, Toby says. So?"

"So...?"

"Sam." Blowing out a breath, Josh shot back in his seat. "Shark Woman, and the V.P., and everything? Leo said it was a done deal before he headed over to the OEOB. So, tell me. Obviously, she took it. But how did it go?"

Sam nonchalantly spread some of Josh's papers out on the table, then carefully drew them back into neat piles. A pen sat inside a book, and he removed it and replaced its cap with studied movements, then tore a strip of paper and placed it in the book to mark the page. "Hello, my name is Josh. And you are...?"

"Hm? Oh. It went well. Like you said, she took it, and he met her, and they're still over there working out the details." Sam smiled benignly. "There's nothing else to tell, really."

Seemingly satisfied, Josh reached under the table, and gave Sam's thigh a squeeze. "Nice job, Sam. I mean it. You and Toby worked things out, and Toby said the speech was a hit; Swift's little stunt will be common knowledge as soon as Kim's out of there; our Ms. Mallet and her nefarious betrothed are both out of government work, I imagine. And you survived your dealings with the Shark with all your body parts intact." His smile turned slightly predatory. "At least, I'm assuming they're all there. I guess I won't know for sure until I get you home, and out of your clothes...."

"Yeah," Sam said, dislodging Josh's hand, and getting to his feet. "Well, thanks. I, I feel like, yeah; it was a good week." Ignoring Josh's startled expression, Sam headed for the door. "I'm gonna get my laptop and work on my notes for the drug thing while we wait. You're staying in here, right?" Sam was already halfway into the hallway.

Josh nodded his head in the affirmative, but Sam out of sight before he had a chance to say 'yes'.

__________________________

His own project long abandoned, Josh sat with his shoulder nearly touching Sam's, who was typing away on his laptop, embellishing his ideas for the drug policy luncheon. "That's the longest damn sentence I've ever seen, Sam. You write like you talk."

"They're just notes, Josh. Stream of consciousness."

Fidgeting with a pair of paperclips, Josh leaned into Sam firmly. "Wanna make out in my office?"

"No." The keys of Sam's computer continued their clacking sound.

"Wanna - "

Sam stopped typing abruptly. "Do you wanna know what I want?" he asked over the top of his glasses. "I 'wanna' get enough of these thoughts on paper, so I don't have to think about it all weekend. Freeing up time I could be thinking of you. So, if that idea pleases you - "

"I should let you work. Got it." Josh tossed aside the paperclips and picked up a highlighter. His second attempt at twirling it around his fingers like a baton sent it flying across Sam's screen, causing the speechwriter to pause momentarily.

"Grrrr."

Josh's eyes narrowed with curiosity. "Did you just growl at me, or was that your stomach?" he wanted to know.

The right corner of Sam's mouth twitched in amusement, but then dipped into a frown. "You know, it may very well have been my stomach. I think I forgot to eat anything today." He seemed puzzled, but ultimately unconcerned.

"Anything? All day?!" Josh bleated. "No, Baby, that's just wrong." Then, "Uh. Sorry. Again. But wait right here, don't run away or anything. Just...." Josh was on his feet and moving swiftly to the door. "Just stay there."

Josh was long gone before Sam sighed and began typing again. Stumbling back into the Roosevelt Room a few minutes later, Josh sat next to Sam. He held three large oranges, which he placed on the table. "Compliments of my mother," Josh announced, glowing.

"I'm really on a roll, here," Sam said apologetically, dipping his head in the direction of the full screen. "I don't want to step out of the zone right now. But thanks; they look good." He went back to flittering his fingers across the keyboard.

"'Kay. Okay." Josh took one of the heavy pieces of fruit in his hand and dug a fingernail into the thick skin. Once he made a clean dent, he plunged in further, ripping chunks of the outer layer away from the juicy flesh. He sloppily separated a section, and presented it to Sam. "Here."

Sam looked casually at Josh's offering, his eyes crinkled in appreciation. Popping the orange into his mouth, he reset his gaze back on the screen for only a second before whipping his head around to face Josh. "Oh my god; that's delicious!"

Josh beamed back at Sam's expression of delight. He quickly tore away another section and handed it over.

"Mmmm!" Sam smacked his lips contentedly. He accepted one more piece before bringing his attention back to his notes. "You gotta thank your mom for these," he said distractedly. "Why haven't you brought these home yet?"

"I don't like to eat oranges. I hate peeling them."

Sam smiled to himself. "You're doing it now."

"You weren't going to. Here." Josh held a new section to Sam's lips. Eyes never leaving the screen, Sam opened obediently and let Josh slide the fruit into his mouth.

"Ask her to send some more."

"Here."

"Hey, can I bring up the "mean and mandatory" thing, or should I wait for the President to make it part of our official recommendation?"

"Mention that the President is enthusiastically investigating it, but don't commit. Here."

Sam worked on for twenty minutes, while Josh systematically fed him another orange, allowing his fingers to briefly linger against Sam's lips every once in a while. He brought his own mouth close to Sam's ear and whispered, "I bet you taste like oranges."

Sam slid his eyes over his lover's hands and whispered back, "I bet your fingers are sticky."

Leo's voice broke through the charged silence that followed. "What are you two doing here?" he barked, coming into the room.

Josh almost came out of his seat, scattering his untidy pile of orange peels across the floor. "Leo! We're - I'm waiting for President Bartlet and Toby to come back. Sam's working on - "

"Yeah, well, I just spoke to him, and he's planning on going straight to the Residence," Leo said sternly. "And I wasn't just talkin' about what you're doing sitting in here. Now clean this mess up, and get the hell out of here, both of you."

__________________________

After two bowls of cereal apiece, eaten in bed, with an Al Pacino movie droning on in the background, Sam and Josh turned out the lamp and found each other under the covers.

Josh's arms encircled Sam possessively, pulling on him until the younger man blanketed his body. Rocking gently, letting friction take care of what he wanted his hands, or his mouth to be doing, Josh pulled back and looked up into shockingly hypnotic eyes. By the undulating light of the tv, he could see the clear outline of blue circling the wide, dark pupils.

"You *are* beautiful, Sam. God, how I wish you could accept that as a complement, and not a judgment."

Sam's groan climbed out of his chest, and rested against Josh's cheek. "I can't believe you're doing this again.... Just one fucking night, you know? Give me this one goddamn night, Josh." Josh was surprised that he heard resignation, and not fury in Sam's voice. With Sam's head resting dejectedly against Josh's shoulder, he pressed a kiss to his temple.

He considered backing off again, but the sight of Sam's dark hair spilling across his arrestingly handsome face, made him feel compelled to speak his mind. "Half your problem is that you think people can't see who you are past your looks. But I think *you're* the one who's not giving credit where it belongs," Josh said accusingly. "If this is always going to undermine you, you're the only one to blame."

"Which I've heard before, and I'm not in the mood to analyze tonight." Sam sounded drained and wounded suddenly, and Josh once more considered dropping the subject. The same way he had the last half a dozen times he'd tried to bring it up.

"You know, Sam, you can't go your whole life questioning people's motives. That's got to wear you down at some point."

"I know that."

"You've got to trust them to - "

"I know, I know." Sam lifted his head and looked pleadingly at his partner. "Why are you doing this now? Do you really think this is fair?" he asked quietly, rolling away.

Josh stared open-mouthed for a moment, then propped himself on an elbow and stared intently at Sam's profile. "Fair?" he challenged. "Do you think it's fair that I can't tell you - the man I love, my *lover* - that I find you attractive? That I like looking at you? You think it's fair to me, that I have to censor myself *in bed* because you're unable, or unwilling to take my expressions of endearment at face value?" He snorted dismissively before cupping Sam's cheek in his hand. "Put it away, Sam. Just put it away, let it go, and listen to the words I'm saying to you right here. In our bed, while I'm *trying* to make love to you. Jesus."

Sam lay still, his gaze plastered to the ceiling. Without looking away, one hand reached out and took hold of Josh's. Pressing his lips together, he slowly turned to face him.

Josh's voice came to him through the sputtering light from the tv. "I'm not Toby, ya know. Equating your looks with your abilities. And I'm not Kim Carruthers," Josh said, a faint accusation lurking beneath the words. "I don't want to fuck you just so I can put it on my resume."

Sam grunted softly. He swept a hand over his face; let it drop into his lap.

"You're right," he exhaled. "You're absolutely right, and I'm sorry I'm...." Sam wriggled closer, squirming around to line up neatly facing Josh, one arm under his head, the other hand lazily tracing Josh's pelvic bone under his boxers. "Okay; I'm just gonna do that. Put it all away. There it goes. Bye-bye." Sam's hand dove deeper into Josh's shorts, moving over his hardening shaft, twirling his fingers in the profuse thicket of hair. He smiled sweetly at Josh, settled himself into the pillow and gazed back at the man he loved.

Josh focused entirely on Sam's eyes again, admiring each individual, thick lash that framed the blue spheres. "You have purdy eyes, Sam," he whispered, nuzzling his lover's nose with his own, dropping a light kiss on the inviting lips. "Mmmm. Soft." Drawing his tongue across his own tingling lips, Josh let one corner of his mouth twitch against a smile. "Nice nose. Very, um, classic."

Sam's shy smile grew more confident.

While his hand moved down along the curve of Sam's hip, Josh licked at the hollow at the base of his throat. "Good chin; strong chin. Great shoulders."

A surge of desire flooded through Josh, the game becoming too much to concentrate on when Sam's hand gripped him harder, playing along his length. A series of small moans escaped his throat, and his lids fluttered feebly as he began to feel every muscle in his body begin to quake. Josh felt helplessly aroused, insanely in love, frantically alive.

His orgasm ripped through him, tearing a path that led straight to Sam. With quick movements that took them both by surprise, Josh flung Sam on his back, and devoured him whole, barely finding the ability to gulp down air. He watched Sam slide towards his climax, arms thrown to his sides, back pressed into the bed. The sweet, tortured, delicious liberation brought Sam into Josh's arms, breathless, quivering, and weakened to a point near tears.

"God, Baby," Josh murmured softly in Sam's ear. "That was...."

"Beautiful," Sam finished, his eyes closing contentedly as he sank further into Josh's arms. "That was beautiful."

End.

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